Saturday, August 10, 2013

Who Invented Modernity?

Have you ever wondered why we work eight hours a day? Why not four, or seven, or one, or eighteen?

If you’re an office worker, chances are you don’t have eight hours of work to do in a typical day. Most likely you just have to sit around for the eight hour “block” no matter what. Adding to this idiocy is the fact that since most people are forced to leave and come to work at the same time, we get things like traffic jams and overcrowded busses that are empty for the rest of the day.

Why this nonsense? Well, it’s all a legacy of factory work. Before factory work, people worked when they had to, whether it was a farmer, a rancher, a soldier, or a general store owner. People also didn’t commute to their jobs; most people lived near work, or didn’t make a sharp distinction between work and life.

Industrialism forced people into factories to work long hours for six days a week. Eventually, the assembly line came along, and transformed the economy into what we know it today. The economy was transformed into what has been called the Fordist economic model – blocks of time given to an employer to produce some sort of product on an assembly line. This became the heart of the economy. Along with this came high wages and benefits (usually prompted by unions).

Today we live in a post-Fordist economy, yet we still live with vestigial remnants of the old economy that make no sense whatsoever – eight hour days, being locked down in one location, commuting. We still structure work as if we’re all in a factory churning out widgets despite the fact that hardly anyone does this anymore in the West. Yet we are unable to move beyond it. We still have Fordist expectations about an eight hour-day, steady biweekly paycheck, two week vacation, and employer-provided benefits. Note, too that problems of post-scarcity and overproduction were never adequately dealt with either (see again the post on forbidden economic thoughts).

It’s another way in which the world is changing but we are unable to cope with the changes. If we live in a Post-Fordist economy, one with theoretically is even wealthier than before (yes, I know that’s subject to debate), then we need to get our heads out of our collective asses, and make such an economy work. One thing is for certain – behaving as if we lived in the old system is living in denial. Yet that’s the assumption all our politicians are making.

All of which is introduction to this article:

It’s Still Henry Ford’s World (Bloomberg)
Late in Ford’s life, Will Rogers dropped his friendly folksiness to say, “It will take a hundred years to tell whether you have helped us or hurt us. But you certainly didn’t leave us where you found us.”

Just where that might have been was articulated by Ford himself to a high school boy who was interviewing him. The carmaker was speaking nostalgically about the virtues of the farm and the one-room schoolhouse, and the boy found this pretty stodgy. “But sir, these are different times, this is the modern age and -- ” Ford cut him off. “Young man,” he snapped, “I invented the modern age.”

You’ll notice he didn’t say, “I built a hell of a lot of cars.” He was claiming authorship of the world he and the boy inhabited, and, despite its grandiosity, his boast is hard to gainsay. Yet the very scope of the changes he worked on American society may make them less obvious to us: They are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and thus as transparent.
And then there's this:
As he said about his goal years later: “There was no demand for the automobile. There never is for a new product.” This defies the bromide about necessity being the mother of invention: Ford thought it was the other way around, and who can say he’s wrong? People didn’t know they needed an iPhone until they got their hands on one. 

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