Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Control Freaks

I have just finished reading Fordlandia by Greg Grandin, and I am appalled by the human desire to dominate and control the world around us. It’s well known that Henry Ford invented the assembly line, dividing up the act of building a car into 7,882 separate actions. But he had much grander schemes than that.

He paid his workers well, but he didn’t want them to waste their money so he set up a Sociological Department and dispatched inspectors to probe into the most personal corners of his employees’ lives. “By 1919, the Sociological Department employed hundreds of agents who spread out over Dearborn and Detroit asking questions, taking notes, and writing up personnel reports. . . . Sociological men came around not just once but two, three, or four times interviewing family members, friends, and landlords to make sure previous reports of probity were accurate. They of course discouraged drinking, smoking, and gambling and encouraged saving, clean living habits, keeping flies off food, maintaining an orderly house, backyard, and front porch, and sleeping in beds.” Later, he would employ a gang of thugs to make sure that workers didn’t attempt to form a union or stir up any kind of trouble.

Once Ford’s factories were up and running, he set about creating model communities that combined industry and agriculture. When Ford came across a pretty site in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he ordered his men to dig a lake and build a lumber mill. The dozen or so workers were expected to divide their time between lumbering, milling, and farming. Ford townships were spotlessly clean; alcohol and tobacco were prohibited; and it was compulsory to stand up perfectly straight on two feet at all times.

Ford dreamed of developing model communities in the Tennessee River Valley. When that proved impossible (during the Depression the federal government would institute many of his ideas), he looked south and bought a huge tract of land in the Amazon. He spent millions and millions of dollars trying to not only tame the jungle but to tame the natives. He built rows of Cape Cod bungalows, a golf course and taught the locals to square dance. The steam whistle blew four times a day; the workers were expected to punch a time clock; and the family homes were inspected for such things as making sure they knew how to use and dispose of company-provided toilet paper. With a complete disdain for expertise, he tried to develop a rubber plantation. The whole experiment was disastrous.

Henry Ford wasn’t unique. He simply had more money to help him implement his ideas. The Amazon continues to be manipulated in order to provide cheap labour, cheap beef, and cheap consumer products. We continue to consume energy and resources far faster than they can ever be replaced.

Will we ever learn humility? Will we ever try to live in harmony with the world around us?


Stephanie V said...

Is it the implementation of the notion that we can control the lives of others - to their betterment - that causes the problems? I would submit that most people are reformers at heart. That is: it works for me and so you should do it, too. Why would we want to change this natural human drive to make the world a better place? I believe it's what keeps us all moving forward. Would you really want to turn back time?
Because we're imperfect beings we will not always get it right. Does that mean that no one should try? Or that all the attempts at Utopian living are failures which should have been left on the drawing board? We must have failures in order to learn.

Penny said...

I agree that we should try and "do good." The problems arise when we think that we know best and start telling other people what to do. What gives me the right or the knowledge to judge other people? Secondly, humans tend to assume "dominion" over the earth and all other living beings. And we mess up big time in that department. The challenge is to live in harmony with all other living creatures and the earth itself so that all may live and thrive. Work with me - don't try and reform me.

Stephanie V said...

That would be a great thing in a perfect world. And if the world were perfect there'd be no need for reformers. Have I come around the circle yet?

John B. said...

Once again I am impelled to comment. I have had to develop a classification of tyranny.

There are two sorts of controllers.

1. The first is those whose objective is not the welfare of their subjects. They come in two sizes:

!.1 Stalin and Saddam Husain, anxious only to hold power and enjoy dominating grovelling subjects and even their torture.

1.2 Hitler who had a maniacal vision of a Greater Germany dominating all the lesser people of the world and exterminating the Jews. Likewise Muslim religious leaders who kill other Muslims and Christians because they deserve it not for the beenfit of their souls.

2. Then there are people who seek control for the good of the people they control.

2.1 The good of their souls. The Inquisition burnt people alive for their own good to save their souls. Some sect prohibits even reproductive sex - no long-term future for that sect.

2.2 Then there are those who seek the prosperity and happiness of these they control. There is a long history of this before Henry Ford. Often people's souls are included in the package. Prosperity yes and morality too.

So we are on about 2.2.

Democratic governments do it all the time - the tyranny of the majority. Must not drink alcohol after hours, must have anti-influenza injection, must not do your own electric wiring, may not buy more than 24 pain killers at once etc. I know about social cost too.

The history of the ideal settlement follows the undustrial revolution with its obvious evils. The development of engineering skills allowed mass-production.

I might write about all these historical matters but another time. That is enough for one comment

However I consider all attempts to force people to be good to un-Christian. The message of Jesus Christ is that people must want to be good before they can benefit by being good and that good is not defined by conforming a set of regulations.