TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Fordism and Social Democracy in the Late 1980s

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Johanna Schenner looks at Simon Clarke’s “The Crisis of Fordism or the Crisis of Social Democracy?” from Telos 83 (Spring 1990).

Simon Clarke’s “The Crisis of Fordism or the Crisis of Social Democracy?” deals with the need to develop different economic strategies as the interventionist welfare state underwent many challenges and crises in the 1980s. The crumbling of communism further supported the idea that weak state interventionism often could not reach its stipulated economic goals. In comparison to the socialist critique of the state, the political right put forward measures and tools such as privatization to support its critique of the state by the following means: first, by focusing on the selective redistribution of income; and second, by bringing about a particular kind of Keynesian economic policy featuring military characteristics (73). The economic growth came to an end in 1987 when a global panic about the massive credit boom begun under Reagan and Thatcher broke wide open. Still, the right’s policies reached a new height with the waves of radical liberalization in the former communist countries as well as in the Third World. Clarke, however, expresses severe doubts about this strategy being the solution to neoliberalism’s economic strategy crisis (79).

Clarke further states that the crisis running through social democracy does not follow from problems inherent to the concept, but rather it relates to its implementation “a failure engendered by fundamental economic changes which have rendered a monolithic and bureaucratic socialism inappropriate to the new modes of organization” (72). Social democracy still remains a viable alternative to neo-liberal state theory, given that this particular theory does not respond to the world’s social, economic, and environmental crises.

Tied to the social democratic type of regime is the Fordist model of production, which is a centerpiece of social democracy. The crisis of social democracy also sometimes also counts as a crisis in the Fordist model of production and related regulations (72). The last decade of the twentieth century saw an emerging consensus behind new kinds of regulation in the production sphere, which reflected post-Fordist economic goals as well in newly emerging populist political strategies. In 1990, when Clarke wrote the article, the post-Fordist model of production was neither as clear nor as concrete as it is today. However, a consensus regarding its emergence had taken hold (73).

Clarke qualifies Fordism by the following elements: first, the particular mode of mass production rests on building homogenous products through enforcing a strict work discipline and division of labor based on rigidly centralized technology. Economies of scale contributed to the rise in economic productivity under Fordism, but only with significant repercussions for the human labor force, ranging from workers losing their autonomously acquired skills to the intensification of the production process via the homogenization of labor. In turn, these no longer autonomously skilled workers had to unite in trade unions with the aim of setting wages proportionate to their increase in productivity.

The Fordist model of production is also reflected in the consumption of mass-produced goods and availability of those products more broadly to all income groups; in fact, Clarke claims that this particular production mode advances the homogenization of products in general and mass consumption in specific markets featuring standardized commodities (73). Given that wages are set in relation to the labor’s productivity, the demand in products steadily grows as does the supply. Keynesian macroeconomic policies determined the balance between demand and supply, while collective bargaining under state control would strike a harmony between benefits and wages (73).

The crisis of Fordism triggered social, economic, and political splits leading to a post-Fordist regime featuring new aspects in the mode of production, such as more attention being paid to quality and style as well as more distinctive arrays of products. These new products necessitate a different production style: both more flexible and smaller units of production by focusing on the short term (73). This new mode of production transformed the work force into a so-called “polyvalent” labor force, as the latter has had to adapt itself quickly to changes in demand. With these changes, higher levels of autonomy and responsibility follow. Two other points worth noting are the rise in production control as well as the subverting of corporate bureaucracies. Given that the labor force becomes mainly heterogeneous due to its polyvalent character, Clarke claims that past bureaucratic and monolithic trade unions as existed during the Fordist model of production no longer are viable (73). To adapt to the emerging individualized pay regime focused on skills and initiative, bargaining has had to be decentralized while new consumerist identities see the light of the day. These new identities translate into an idiosyncratic way of consumption, demand for new products and newly emerging culture centering on these products. With this new type of production, related products, new identities, and ways of life, past political identities fall away (74). The fragmentation of the labor force, products, and life styles also is reflected in health/welfare and education. New institutions have to be set up given that former institutions no longer can handle the rising demand in flexibility and individuality.

Although talk about post-Fordism was quite prominent, both its meaning and structure still had to be shaped. Post-Fordism mainly bases itself on the fact that social democracy experiences a crisis, which does not offer any alternatives. Clarke claims that “Post-Fordism is not a reality, nor even a coherent vision of the future, but mainly an expression of hope that future capitalist development will be the salvation of social democracy” (75). The “flexible specialization” characteristic is at the heart of post-Fordism allows new modes of production as the point of intersection between new forms of demand, new technologies as well as new sorts of social organizations regarding productions. This characteristic further paves the way for a new social-democratic politics aimed at bringing together the interests of the working force, see increasing income with fulfillment in the job, with the interests of capital, see maintain productivity at a high level (75).

Regarding the question whether the crisis happened in either the economic way of production, within the prevailing democratic system or in both is answered when Clarke declares that “the crisis was caused by the inflexibility of existing institutional arrangements but, as in previous periods of crisis, this inflexibility was not a feature of production technology but of labour resistance institutionalized in the forms of industrial relations and political representation that had been developed as the provisional resolution of previous labour conflicts. The key to breaking down this inflexibility was, accordingly, not the introduction of new methods of production but the removal of the basis of labour resistance by restructuring the institutional forms of labour representation. It was only on the basis of this restructuring of class relations that there was any possibility of the profitable introduction of new methods of production” (96).

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