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Fordism, named after Henry Ford, is a notion of a modern economic and social system based on an industrialized and standardized form of mass production. The concept is used in various social theories and management studies about production and related socio-economic phenomena.[1] It is also related to the idea of mass consumption and changes of working condition of workers over time. Nowadays different theoretical positions assume that Fordism has either been replaced or continues to exist in various forms.


Fordism is "the eponymous manufacturing system designed to spew out standardized, low-cost goods and afford its workers decent enough wages to buy them".[2] It has also been described as "a model of economic expansion and technological progress based on mass production: the manufacture of standardized products in huge volumes using special purpose machinery and unskilled labor".[3] Although Fordism was a method used to improve productivity in the automotive industry, this principle could be applied to any kind of manufacturing process. Major success stemmed from three major principles:

  1. The standardization of the product (nothing hand-made: everything is made through machines, molds and not by skilled craftsmanship)

  2. The use of special-purpose tools and/or equipment designed to make assembly lines possible: tools are designed to permit workers with low skill levels to operate "assembly lines"—where each worker does one task over and over and over again—like on a doll assembly line, where one worker might spend all day every day screwing on doll heads.

  3. Workers are paid higher "living" wages, so they can afford to purchase the products they make. (modified from [3])

These principles coupled with a technological revolution during Henry Ford's time allowed for his revolutionary form of labour to flourish. It is true that his assembly line was revolutionary, but it was in no way original. His most original contribution to the modern world was his breaking down of complex tasks into simpler ones with the help of specialised tools.[4] Simpler tasks would consist of making interchangeable parts that would be the same every time.[5] This allowed for a very adaptable flexibility allowing the assembly line to change its components whenever the product being assembled, changed enough to warrant a change in tools.[4] In reality, the assembly line had already been around before Ford, but not in quite the same effectiveness as Ford would create. His real accomplishment was recognizing the potential, breaking it all down into its components only to build it back up again in a more effective and productive combination, therefore to produce an optimum method for the real world.[4] The major advantages of such a change was that it cut down on the man power necessary for the factory to operate, not to mention that it deskilled the labour itself, cutting down on costs of production.[4] There are four levels of Fordism as described by Bob Jessop.[6]


Ford cars (Model A shown), became a symbol of effective mass production. Efficiency both decreased the price of the cars and allowed Henry Ford to increase the workers' wages. Hence, common workers could buy their own cars.

The Ford Motor Company was one of several hundred small automobile manufacturers that emerged between 1890 and 1910. After five years of producing automobiles, Ford introduced the Model T, which was simple and light, yet sturdy enough to drive on the country's primitive roads.[7] The mass production of this automobile lowered its unit price, making it affordable for the average consumer. Furthermore, Ford substantially increased its workers' wages,[8] in order to combat rampant absenteeism and employee turnover which approached 400% annually, which had the byproduct of giving them the means to become customers. These factors led to massive consumption. In fact, the Model T surpassed all expectations, because it attained a peak of 60% of the automobile output within the United States.[9]

The production system that Ford exemplified involved synchronization, precision, and specialization within a company.[10]


The term gained prominence when was used by Antonio Gramsci in 1934 in his essay "Americanism and Fordism", in his Prison Notebooks. Since then it has been used by a number of writers on economics and society, mainly but not exclusively in the Marxist tradition.

According to historian Charles Maier, Fordism proper was preceded in Europe by Taylorism, a technique of labor discipline and workplace organization, based upon supposedly scientific studies of human efficiency and incentive systems. It attracted European intellectuals — especially in Germany and Italy — at the fin de siècle and up until World War I.[11]

After 1918, however, the goal of Taylorist labor efficiency thought in Europe moved to "Fordism", that is, reorganization of the entire productive process by means of the moving assembly line, standardization, and the mass market. The grand appeal of Fordism in Europe was that it promised to sweep away all the archaic residues of pre-capitalist society by subordinating the economy, society and even human personality to the strict criteria of technical rationality.[4] The Great Depression blurred the utopian vision of American technocracy, but World War II and its aftermath have revived the ideal.

The principles of Taylorism were quickly picked up by Vladimir Lenin and applied to the industrialization of the Soviet Union.

Later under the inspiration of Antonio Gramsci, Marxists picked up the Fordism concept in the 1930s and in the 1970s developed "Post-Fordism." Antonio and Bonanno (2000) trace the development of Fordism and subsequent economic stages, from globalization through neoliberal globalization, during the 20th century, emphasizing America's role in globalization. "Fordism" for Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci meant routinized and intensified labor to promote production. Antonio and Bonanno argue that Fordism peaked in the post-World War II decades of American dominance and mass consumerism but collapsed due to political and cultural attacks on the people in the 1970s. Advances in technology and the end of the Cold War ushered in a new "neoliberal" phase of globalization in the 1990s. Antonio and Bonanno further suggest that negative elements of Fordism, such as economic inequality, remained, allowing related cultural and environmental troubles that inhibited America's pursuit of democracy to surface.[12]

Historian Thomas Hughes has detailed the way in which the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s enthusiastically embraced Fordism and Taylorism, importing American experts in both fields as well as American engineering firms to build parts of its new industrial infrastructure. The concepts of the Five Year Plan and the centrally planned economy can be traced directly to the influence of Taylorism on Soviet thinking. Hughes quotes Joseph Stalin:[13]

"American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognizes obstacles; which continues on a task once started until it is finished, even if it is a minor task; and without which serious constructive work is inconceivable.... The combination of the Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism." [13]:251

Hughes describes how, as the Soviet Union developed and grew in power, both sides, the Soviets and the Americans, chose to ignore or deny the contribution of American ideas and expertise. The Soviets did this because they wished to portray themselves as creators of their own destiny and not indebted to their rivals. Americans did so because they did not wish to acknowledge their part in creating a powerful rival in the Soviet Union.[13]
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