Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Tsar of Detroit

"The Flivver King – A Story of Ford-America,” by Upton Sinclair, 1937

This is the supposedly fictional story of the rise and fall of Henry Ford, a farm-boy inventor who became imprisoned by his billions and became the worst car-company owner in Detroit.  It is also the story of Abner Shutt, a loyal Ford employee who barely ever saw through his owner – but his son did. 

This novel was specifically written for the union organizing drive of the UAW and the CIO at Ford, and helped win unionization at Ford.  Its dialectical structure is based on the class interplay between owner and workers - an interplay which ends in disaster for one. 

Sinclair knows working class life in detail, and nearly each detail appears in the lives of the Shutt family.  Sometimes poverty and layoffs, physical pain and injuries, foreman harassment, transport issues, company ‘reorganizations,’ inflation, house and car debt, fatigue, economic crashes, mechanization, bargain hunting and endless ‘economizing.’  It’s actually amazing when you read this how little has changed.  Even the near bankruptcy of Detroit in the 1930s jumps out at you like a shock.  Detroit clearly has gotten worse since the 1930s.    

All this the family endures as a natural condition of life.  Father Abner is a loyal and dogged company man since he first worked for Ford on Mack Avenue.  His signature story is of helping push Ford’s original horseless buggy around the streets of Detroit’s Bagley Avenue.  He later works on (and off) at River Rouge, the monster Ford plant in Dearborn that was the heart of the Ford manufacturing empire.  Mother Milly is a weak and careworn woman.  Both are religious.  Son John becomes a Ford engineer and along with his wife Annabelle, a social climber.  Son Hank becomes a gangster, who later works for Ford.  The last son, Tom Jr., becomes a union or ‘Red’ agitator after graduating from college.  He goes on to become a union ‘colonizer’ or ‘salt’ at Ford too. 

Sinclair studied Ford’s autobiography to write this book.  All of their lives revolve around the various stages of Henry Ford’s career, who, as Sinclair says, was a ‘super-mechanic with the mind of a peasant.”  Ford’s triumphs of enlightened capitalism prior to 1916 – the higher wages, the pacifism during WW I and opposition to war profiteering, lack of hostility to unions, the moralistic ‘consideration’ for some workers, gradually turns into its opposite by 1937 - vertical monopolies, the lowest wages in the industry, ownership of right-wing newspapers and politicians, vicious speed-up, layoffs, anti-union gun thugs and support for Fascist groupings in the U.S. and abroad. 

This is not the story recently portrayed on the U.S. ‘Government’ Broadcasting System. (“PBS”).  Liberals who want to love capitalists always cite Ford’s initial practice of paying workers so they can afford to buy what they make.  However, with an international market, capitalists do not have to pay domestic workers enough to buy what they make if there is an international market of middle-class consumers that can take up the slack. With globalization, there is.  Thus ‘Fordism’ is an archaic relic.

Sinclair portrays ‘The Battle of The Overpass,” when police and Ford gun thugs opened fire with machine guns and pistols on 3,000 protesting auto-workers outside River Rouge.  4 were killed and more than 50 wounded, and those ended up handcuffed to their hospital beds.  Abner was in the march, as he had been drawn to it in spite of his conservative politics, but he got away.  Sinclair clearly shows that the failure of the “New Deal’ to significantly lift wages or reduce unemployment was one of the reasons behind the strikes in the auto industry.  Of particular humor is Ford’s hobbies, like his fondness for old American antiques and ‘square dancing’ to archaic fiddle tunes, and opposition to ‘Oriental’ styles like jazz and ‘wild’ dancing.  Sinclair knows his history, and in this fictional study of ‘industrial feudalism’ he shows why history is not actually ‘bunk.’ 

This book is of particular interest to auto workers, historians and almost anyone who wants a readable story of class life.  But more importantly it shows that 'literature' can actually intersect with social movements - that books do not have to be isolated aesthetic products, but can instead intersect with their times. 

Other Sinclair books reviewed below – a play, “Oil/Jungle,” the book, “Oil” and the book, “The Jungle.”  Also the book “War is a Racket,” which talks about profiteering during World War I. Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
December 17, 2014

No comments: