Antonio Gramsci Reader: IX Americanism and Fordism
1 Rationalization of the Demographic Composition of Europe
SPN, 280-7 (Q22§2), 1934
In Europe the various attempts which have been made to introduce certain aspects of Americanism and Fordism have been due to the old plutocratic stratum which would like to reconcile what, until proved to the contrary, appear to be irreconcilables: on the one hand the old, anachronistic, demographic social structure of Europe, and on the other hand an ultra-modern form of production and of working methods – such as is offered by the most advanced American variety, the industry of Henry Ford.
For this reason, the introduction of Fordism encounters so much ‘intellectual’ and ‘moral’ resistance, and takes place in particularly brutal and insidious forms, and by means of the most extreme coercion. Europe wants to have its cake and eat it, to have all the benefits which Fordism brings to its competitive power while retaining its army of parasites who, by consuming vast sums of surplus value, aggravate initial costs and reduce competitive power on the international market. The reaction of Europe to Americanism merits, therefore, close examination. From its analysis can be derived more than one element necessary for the understanding of the present situation of a number of states in the old world and the political events of the post-war period.
Americanism, in its most developed form, requires a preliminary condition which has not attracted the attention of the American writers who have treated the problems arising from it, since in America it exists quite ‘naturally’. This condition could be called ‘a rational demographic composition’ and consists in the fact that there do not exist numerous classes with no essential function in the world of production, in other words classes which are purely parasitic. European ‘tradition’, European ‘civilization’, is, conversely, characterized precisely by the existence of such classes, created by the ‘richness’ and ‘complexity’ of past history. This past history has left behind a heap of passive sedimentations produced by the phenomenon of the saturation and fossilization of civil service personnel and intellectuals, of clergy and landowners, piratical commerce and the professional (and later conscript, but for the officers always professional) army. One could even say that the more historic a nation the more numerous and burdensome are these sedimentations of idle and useless masses living on ‘their ancestral patrimony’, pensioners of economic history. [...]
This situation is not unique to Italy; to a greater or lesser extent it exists also in all countries of Old Europe and it exists in an even worse form in India and China, which explains the historical stagnation of those countries and their politico-military impotence. (In the examination of this problem, what is immediately in question is not the form of economico-social organization, but the rationality of the proportional relationships between the various sectors of the population in the existing social system. Every system has its own law of fixed proportions in its demographic composition, its own ‘optimum’ equilibrium and forms of disequilibrium which, if not redressed, by appropriate legislation, can be catastrophic in themselves in that, apart from any other disintegrative element, they dry up the sources of economic life.)
America does not have ‘great historical and cultural traditions’; but neither does it have this leaden burden to support. This is one of the main reasons (and certainly more important than its so-called natural wealth) for its formidable accumulation of capital which has taken place in spite of the superior living standard enjoyed by the popular classes compared with Europe. The non-existence of viscous parasitic sedimentations left behind by past phases of history has allowed industry, and commerce in particular, to develop on a sound basis. It also allows a continual reduction of the economic function of transport and trade to the level of a genuinely subaltern activity of production. Indeed, it has led to the attempt to absorb these activities into productive activity itself. Recall here the experiments conducted by Ford and the economies made by his firm through direct management of transport and distribution of the product. These economies affected production costs and permitted higher wages and lower selling prices. Since these preliminary conditions existed, already rendered rational by historical evolution, it was relatively easy to rationalize production and labour by a skilful combination of force (destruction of working-class trade-unionism on a territorial basis) and persuasion, (high wages, various social benefits, extremely subtle ideological and political propaganda) and thus succeed in making the whole life of the nation revolve around production. Hegemony here is born in the factory and requires for its exercise only a minute quantity of professional political and ideological intermediaries. The phenomenon of the ‘masses’ which so struck [Lucien] Romier is nothing but the form taken by this ‘rationalized’ society in which the ‘structure’ dominates the superstructures more immediately and in which the latter are also ,rationalized’ (simplified and reduced in number).
In America rationalization has determined the need to elaborate a new type of man suited to the new type of work and productive process. This elaboration is still only in its initial phase and therefore (apparently) still idyllic. It is still at the stage of psycho-physical adaptation to the new industrial structure, aimed for through high wages. Up to the present (until the 1929 crash) there has not been, except perhaps sporadically, any flowering of the ‘superstructure’. In other words, the fundamental question of hegemony has not yet been posed. The struggle is conducted with arms taken from the old European arsenal, bastardized and therefore anachronistic compared with the development of ‘things.’ The struggle taking place in America, as described by [Andre] Philip, is still in defence of craft rights against ‘industrial liberty’. In other words, it is similar to the struggle that took place in Europe in the eighteenth century, although in different conditions. American workers’ unions are, more than anything else, the corporate expression of the rights of qualified crafts and therefore the industrialists’ attempts to curb them have a certain ‘progressive’ aspect. The absence of the European historical phase, marked also in the economic field by the French Revolution, has left the American popular masses in a backward state. To this should be added the absence of national homogeneity, the mixture of race-cultures, the negro question.
In Italy there have been the beginnings of a Fordist fanfare: exaltation of big cities, overall planning for the Milan conurbation, etc.; the affirmation that capitalism is only at its beginnings and that it is necessary to prepare for it grandiose patterns of development (on this see some articles by [Alessandro] Schiavi in La Riforma Sociale). But afterwards came a conversion to ruralism, the disparagement of the cities typical of the Enlightenment, exaltation of the artisan and of idyllic patriarchalism, reference to craft rights and a struggle against industrial liberty. All the same, even though the development is slow and full of understandable caution, one cannot say that the conservative side, the side that represents old European culture with all its train of parasites, has not encountered opposition.