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Taylorism and other forms of scientific management were implemented in many industries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to control the labor process. Control over the labor process was accelerated when Henry Ford and his engineers applied the principles of scientific management to the assembly line. Whereas Taylorism developed work rules to standardize the production of parts, Fordism brought these standardized parts to the worker and specified how the assembly of parts was to be done.
By creating more precise control over the labor process and the pace of work, Ford was able to extract more labor from workers. Some of the high profits that Ford’s system generated were passed onto workers in the form of higher wages, which allowed him to be more selective when hiring workers and impose stricter work standards without generating labor unrest. Ford also created internal labor markets by establishing job classifications and hierarchies that allowed workers to be upwardly mobile within the company. These internal labor markets created competition among workers, which divided workers and undermined worker solidarity.
Fordism is also associated with other social changes. Most notably, the mass production of inexpensive commodities established the foundation for the culture of mass consumption. Fordism also entails a mode of state regulation that attempts to institutionalize economic growth and stability, create a welfare state, and limit workers’ rights.
The limitations of Fordism became apparent in the mid-1970s when the energy crisis and the economic downturn resulted in an abrupt halt to economic growth and stability. This transition to post-Fordism represented a new phase of capitalist development characterized by an acceleration of global competition, the increased role of the state in balancing production with consumption, restructuring the production process, and the emergence of giant global financial and manufacturing corporations.
Despite agreement that a transition occurred, there is considerable debate over how to characterize post-Fordism. Whereas some scholars characterize post-Fordism as global corporate dominance, others view it as a flexible form of economic organization that increases opportunities for individualism and pluralistic lifestyles. Still others challenge the broad generalizations in post-Fordist theory for denying the complex and heterogeneous causal processes that operate in different places in the global economy.
One dimension of post-Fordism that has been the subject of considerable debate is the use of information. Post-Fordism suggests that access to more information creates the organizational capability for instant data analysis that is essential to flexible manufacturing, the manufacture of specialized products, and the coordination of diverse corporate interests. Whereas some research suggests that information fosters decentralization and autonomy at lower levels of the organizational hierarchy, others maintain that access to information contributes to centralization.
Despite agreement in some areas, there are many unsettled debates in the post-Fordist literature. Resolution of these debates will require more precise theorizing and empirical research focusing on the organizational and political-legal arrangements in which economic activity is embedded.
- Amin, A. (ed.) (1994) Post-Fordism. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Dohse, K., Jurgens, U., & Malsch, T. (1985) From ”Fordism” to “Toyotism”? The social organization of the labor process in the Japanese automobile industry. Politics and Society, 14: 115—46.
- Harvey, D. (1991). The Condition of Postmodernity. Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, MA.
- Prechel, H. (2000) Big Business and the State: Historical Transitions and Corporate Transformations, 1880s-1990s. SUNY Press, Albany, NY.