February 9, 2010

Staff Picks: The Rubber Macondo.

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 3:02 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

In the early part of the last century, Henry Ford was one of the most influential and admired men in the world. He was an industrialist-philosopher, building a new, mechanized Eden in America. He hired men of every color, nation and religion and payed them an unheard-of five dollars a day to stand in one place at work and live a clean life at home (Ford had a Sociological Department that sent hundreds of agents into Dearborn and Detroit to investigate employee's lives and write up personnel reports). He had a benevolent supremacy over everything in his factories, from its workers to the natural resources they fished out of forests and mountainsides and fashioned into automobiles.

Rubber was one of the very few components in his cars that Henry Ford did not control. He set out to remedy that in 1928. And this is what Greg Grandin's wonderfully written book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City is all about. Henry Ford decided that he was going to build a Ford company town in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon to produce rubber to his industrial heart's content. But, being Henry Ford, he was going to do much more than that. He would bring the American dream to the jungle and civilize a dark corner of the world. Nix that... he was going to bring about something better than the American dream. As Gradin writes:

Ford's frustrations with domestic politics and culture were legion: war, unions, Wall Street, energy monopolies, Jews, modern dance, cow's milk, the Roosevelts, cigarettes, alcohol, and creeping government intervention ... churning beneath all these annoyances was the fact that the force of industrial capitalism that he helped unleash was undermining the world he hoped to restore.

Fordlandia was going to be Ford's solution to that laundry list of (by turns hilarious and disturbing) annoyances, and his vision of heaven on earth. Not to spoil the ending for you, but... it didn't work out.

There was the predictable grift and corruption to get the city started, an absurd attempt to clear the rain-forest by burning it down during the wet season (which didn't work, prompting the terrifying addition of kerosene to the picture), uncontrollable human disease once people began to arrive and, eventually, uncontrollable blight to the crop that Ford built the city to exploit—the rubber tree. The dream turned into a nightmare, "More Deadwood than Our Town" as Grandin describes it. The workers became dependent on the company and were exploited, were rebellious and were threatened, were subjugated and rioted. Greg Grandin does a meticulous job documenting these events (and Ford's thoughts, theories and life) in Fordlandia. And he brings the book to a satisfying conclusion by pulling back from the history of Ford's company town and taking a contemporary look at the situation in the Amazonian region its ruins inhabit. If you're a fan of biographies and narratives, this should be placed near the top of your reading list.

There is still hope that Detroit can turn itself around—that the auto industry that built the city can find a way out of its current morass. One bad decision by Toyota may end up having the effect that decades of mistakes by the American big three have had and bring about a Detroit Renaissance. Who knows? But Detroit's colony in the Amazon will forever be a ruin of a different era, of an industrial empire—that of Henry Ford.