“Mankind progresses like a spiral. It goes upward and on. It only seems to move in a circle.”
“Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang.”
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Sometime just around midnight on April 7, 1947, Henry Ford died. Three days later hundreds of invited guests and dignitaries attended his funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Detroit. The surrounding streets crowded with nearly thirty thousand grieving spectators and curious onlookers, and at 2:30 p.m. when Ford’s funeral commenced, church bells tolled across the Motor City. The day before his funeral, Ford lay in repose at Greenfield Village, where a mile-long line of over one hundred thousand people filed past Ford’s open casket, reportedly processing at a rate of five thousand persons per hour. In the days and weeks to come, obituaries, tributes, sermons, editorials, and Company press releases eulogized the so-called “Sage of Dearborn.”
“We are each of us celebrating some funeral,” Charles Baudelaire observed in his essay “On the Heroism of Modern Life.” Baudelaire described his “suffering age” as signified in the fashions of perpetual mourning—in the intricate black frock-coats and carefully creased and muted cravats that, he said, possessed both political and poetic beauty. If Baudelaire coined the term “modernity” and observed its fashioning, in common parlance there is perhaps no other man, brand, machine, organization, or economy more closely associated with it than Ford. To confront this titan of automotive technology is to encounter a defining brand of modern-making: Fordism.
But why begin with Ford’s corporeal, if not corporate, end? What were all those people celebrating as they filed past the fallen Motor King’s body? And what does this have to do with the study of religion, secularism, and the public sphere—the trinity of terms and concerns that have come to characterize The Immanent Frame over the past ten years? This anniversary forum invites us to think together about epochal entrance, temporal markings, defining frames, and what the forum’s curators initially referred to as a powerful interrogative “engine”: Is this all there is? I turn to Ford in order to consider the engines and engineering of one far-reaching reply. Ford’s practices of mass production and prophecies of Machine Age prosperity promised All There Is, and he set about to engineer the way to it.
“There is no reason why a prophet should not be an engineer instead of a preacher,” Ford told the Reverend William “Big Bill” Stidger during an interview for Good Housekeeping in 1924. “Would Isaiah be writing more Bibles if he were here today?” the entrepreneur prodded the evangelical firebrand. “He would probably be working over a set of blueprints; remaking the world rather than writing about it.” Figuring himself a latter-day Isaiah, Ford insisted that engineering was not only an industrial pursuit. He said it was also, or it could be, prophecy. And like any good prophet, Ford proclaimed the extra of his being, assembling metaphysical surplus in the mechanics of his engineered auto-production. Prophecy, in the words of Max Weber, is always denoted through “an effort to systematize all the manifestations of life.” One way to glean the hubristic fabrication of Ford’s prophetic brand is to consider his endeavors at systematizing every aspect of his laborers’ lives.
“Work is our sanity, our self-respect, our salvation,” Ford insisted. “So far from being a curse, work is the greatest blessing.” Ford’s brand of salvation was premised in and purchased through a focus on (waged) work as redemptive labor. And he blessed those rites of labor with salvific power, a method of converting not only the struggling machinist or shiftless laborer but also a system by which to set society aright. Though Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 and introduced the Model T in 1908, Ford really became a household name in the early 1910s when the Company implemented assembly line production in its plants and manned its quickening conveyors with vast armies of increasingly de-skilled laborers. To compensate for the monotonous work on the line and to reduce high turnover rates, Ford raised wages and reduced shift times. These wage and labor reforms were billed in the press as the Ford Five-Dollar Day. Though undoubtedly serving the economic interests of the Company, the industrialist maintained that the reforms were not merely a component of profiteering capital. They were “blessed,” he said, as part of a social justice project, what the Company promoted as the “Ford idea of welfare.” “Exact social justice flows only out of honest work,” Ford theorized.
The industrialist’s ritual theory of labor insisted upon work as an opportunity and an obligation to right one’s self and one’s relational world. “That the American industrialists, starting with Ford, should have tried to argue that a new form of relations is involved, comes as no surprise,” explained Antonio Gramsci some fifteen years after Ford initiated the Five-Dollar Day, “in addition to the economic effect of high wages, they also tried to obtain certain social effects of spiritual hegemony.” Ford instituted what has since been described as a new relational form, an affiliation through which rightly converted workers, a just society, and sacred authority were wagered through the working relations of the corporation. “There is something sacred about a big business which provides a living for hundreds of thousands of families,” Ford remarked in his first ghostwritten autobiography. The Ford Sunday Evening Hour radio show similarly heralded “the consecration of Business as a social ministry.” Properly waged work and right industrial relations would redeem workers, consecrate capital, and ad/minister society. “And this,” Gramsci reminds, “is normal.”
It is unsurprising that for Ford something so sacred required scrupulous practices of caretaking, or what J. Z. Smith once described as “an exercise in the technology of taking-care.” Accompanying Ford’s wage reforms was a rigid system of rules and codes of conduct for his employees. He hired investigators and educators to perform surprise home visits, carefully scrutinizing and advising workers and their families on the hygiene of their homes, the health of their bank accounts, and the protocols and propriety of American citizenship. These counselors collected and compiled elaborate records of workers’ living conditions, personal habits, and family affairs as part of a company-wide Americanization campaign for Ford’s immigrant workforce. This program was institutionalized most exhaustively in the Ford English School, which foreign-born laborers were compelled to attend. And it echoed in Ford’s notorious anti-Semitic publications about a cabal of “international Jews,” or “men without countries,” against whom Ford positioned his laboring American—“a superior sort of man” in whom Ford posited “a nation of pioneer blood.” Ford Motor Company also led Americanization efforts for both Detroit and the National Americanization Committee, helping establish municipal language courses and pageants of US citizenship.
Ford’s systemic ordering of worker’s lives, language, and labor paralleled the processes of standardization engineered on its factory floors. Ford Motor Company quickly became synonymous with the assembly line. Much of its engineering cred came from images and silent films distributed around the country depicting this new form of “mass production.” In his increasingly vertically integrated plants, Ford implemented systems of production that required ever-greater speeds of work and growing corporate oversight. For those subjected to this new industrial paradigm, Ford’s techno-utopian dream felt dystopic. Workers increasingly described the labor environment as dangerous and tedious to the point of madness—a fact memorably portrayed in popular culture by Charlie Chaplin’s satirical rendering of factory life in the 1936 film Modern Times, and a circumstance that was institutionalized in medical and healthcare services provided by the Company itself in order to treat accidents, counter public claims, and reduce the time taken off of work by injured personnel.
It may seem that I have strayed from concerns about religion or prophetic utterance, but the point is to see how rigorously Ford sought to systematize all of life and labor, and to understand how adamantly Ford argued for a particular mechanics in order to see its metaphysics. Through the precise procedures of disciplined industrial production and the “magic methods” of the assembly line, Ford insisted that right manufacturing was a good that exceeded the physics of machine-making. The mass assemblage of automotive goods became The Good in Ford’s self-proclaimed prophecy. The engineer was to be an expert in physical machinery; the prophet a specialist in religious making. Ford pronounced he was both.
In addition to machines and assembly lines, carefully managed labor and domestic order, the metaphysics of Ford’s mass production were driven through a harnessing together of production method and massive consumption increases, made possible, Ford said, by ever-less-expensive products, supplied at scale. Together mass production and mass consumption would fuel a new form of industrial religion. Modern America’s growth-based regime of accumulation and capital virtue was christened in Ford’s name. Fordism came to frame not only a burgeoning form of political economy but also a new set of forms in a history of religions.
“I believe it is possible for us to experiment in the special field we call religion,” Ford explained to the bestselling New Thought author Ralph Waldo Trine. “Not that I think religion is a field off by itself, separate. No, it includes everything, and everything includes it.” Ford’s own religious experimentation was prolific. He traded in the “potent combinatory trope” of New Thought, but Trine was not his only religious resource. He read Ralph Waldo Emerson and conversed with the Sufi mystic Inayat Khan. He was a lifelong member of the Masonic Brotherhood, and he sent donations and requested silent prayers of affirmation from the Unity School of Christianity. He was a baptized and confirmed member of the Episcopal Church, and he hired Samuel Simpson Marquis, a prominent social gospel preacher and Ford’s own parish minister, to serve as the head of the department overseeing Ford’s sociological investigations. Later in life, Ford publicly proclaimed his belief in reincarnation, explaining that he “adopted the theory” when he was twenty-six based largely on his reading of the social Darwinist text A Short View of Great Questions. Reincarnation, Ford explained, offered a “long view of life,” a kind of progressive process of life accumulation. This “long pilgrimage” extended the temporality of living beyond any single occasion of death, and its experiential economy helped Ford rationalize inequality as personal deficit. Ford’s Social Darwinist-inspired understanding of reincarnation presented life as a perpetual journey of individual acquisition, a kind of assembly line of experience.
But we should not look only to ministers, churches, and other ostensibly “spiritual” subjects to glimpse Ford’s “religious” experimentation. For Ford, experimentation in religion meant experimentation in “everything”—in it all, in the imperially inclusive and prophetically engineered All. “Religion is not limitedly spiritual,” Ford explained. “Matter and spirit are terms we use to make distinctions, which perhaps do not exist. Yet science and philosophy entirely, and religion to a degree, have completely kept aloof from any materialism which has to do with anything so commonplace as bread and butter.” Industrial engineering and religious experimentation meant greater efficiency and increased abundance of one’s “bread and butter.” Ford’s was a populist-intoned prophecy of prosperity premised in private enterprise.
Mass production was not to be just an engineering experiment. It was, Ford said, the beginnings of a new age, a more perfect and ever-perfecting time, which he and his contemporaries frequently called the coming “Machine Age.” Though barely glimpsed in the quickening mechanics of his moment, Ford explained that the Machine was “a new messiah,” a savior which could accomplish “what man has failed to do by preaching, propaganda, or the written word . . . binding the world together in a way no other system can.” This messianic machine system would not only clean up an ugly world of messy inhumanity, it would also, Ford said, guarantee human rights and freedom. If today we tend not to think of the assembly line or the automobile as utopian engines of an improved world or prophetic crafts for rethinking the afterlife of humanity, Ford’s assertions of the coming Machine Age are more often recognizable now from the high-tech titans and venture capital scions of Silicon Valley, in debates about artificial intelligence, anti-aging biotechnology, tributes to the hallowed Creator, or in satire about app-entrepreneurs’ obsessive interests in “making the world a better place.”
Ford’s endeavors to systematize life and reengineer time—on assembly lines, in redemptive work, through reincarnated lives, in a better world to come—reveal his attempt to organize the world in correspondence with his own fashioning of modernity. To glimpse his sociological trials, production practices, and prophetic utterance is to glimpse an historical question about understanding a past branded through and as Fordism. But only glimpse since we know any fleeting moment of convenient clarity is more likely a product of those forms and fortunes of linear assembling immanently framing the very grounds of our critical re-viewing. In those moments of categorical quickening, this re-viewing of Fordism may prompt us to consider anew how Ford connects to our own historically wrought present—how we imagine the order of our days, the power of chronology, and the ability to imagine a future. If Henry Ford’s death celebrated an ending, the metaphysics of Ford persist, urging us to think again about how a businessman becomes a brand, how work requirements and private enterprise are proposed as redemptive components for the supposed betterment of human health and welfare, how white nationalist, nativist, and other racially charged idioms are scripted as ways to put “America first,” how the personal gets caught up in—gets incorporated into—the impersonal, and how the impersonal gets personified, the incorporeal remade into corporate personhood. Not least, it presses us to reckon once again with the never-innocent making of religion as an immanently framed category in and of modernity.
If we have never been modern, Ford sought enduringly to make us so. Modernity, Michel Foucault explained in his own reading of Baudelaire, “is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the ‘heroic’ aspect of the present moment . . . the will to ‘heroize’ the present . . . a desperate eagerness to imagine it, to imagine it otherwise than it is, and to transform it not by destroying it but by grasping it in what it is.” Transfiguring from person to political economy, in automobiles, on factory floors, and in technocratic philosophy and rhetoric of American exceptionalism, we might glimpse if not quite fully grasp the fording of a present in times never-entirely-post-Fordist. My aim has been to use this anniversary forum as a space to reconsider the boomerang of Ford’s systemic engineering and to review his prophetic claims about the role of corporate relations, redemptive labor, and messianic machines. It is also an endeavor to join this forum’s contributors in what I take to be a collaborative interrogation of those discursive engines and powerful engineers whose histories and heroes describe, define, and delimit us, while also beginning again a persistent critique of the present as a way to experiment with and work upon those limits as never entirely so, as never quite all there is.
Thanks to Alexandra Kaloyanides and David Walker for comments on early drafts of this essay.