Sloan's Ranges - Alfred not Henry Ford was the father of consumerist capitalist culture

Alfred P. SloanThe world changed in 1921, as much in Detroit as Kronstadt. In that year the doctrine of the genius of the designer had to cede to the desire of the consumer.

This event happened in a specific place and industry, that of the nascent automobile industry of the USA, centred around Detroit.

The nascent US automobile industry had, like the rest of manufacturing industry, diverted a substantial amount of production from civilian to military ends during the First World War. The post-war boom in demand had seen automotive output grow to its highest levels yet achieved with the number of firms engaged in car production reaching its all time peak of about 75 firms.

However, the post-war boom was quickly followed, in 1920 and 1921 with a severe depression. Although short-lived, the depression of 1920-21 saw a more precipitous fall in prices and employment than the subsequent and much more famous depression of 1929-33. Within the space of a year prices fell between 50 and 60% - the most sudden and severe fall in recorded economic history before or since. Exact unemployment figures were not recorded at the time but the best estimate from available figures is that unemployment surged from 2-3% up to about 12%, before returning back to 2-3% the following year.

This brief but savage slump saw awathes of American automobile manufaturers either go to the wall or be swallowed up in mergers. Within two years a third of the industry had gone and the after-effects left the industry down from 75 to 35 players within a few more years. During this period the sales of nearly all lines of cars declined drastically - all that is, apart from a small number of makes that had closed bodies.

Evolving from horse-drawn carriages, most automobile bodywork had retained a carriage-like configuration of open-bodied "touring cars" with convertible tops such as Ford's Model T sported. The closed body carriagework had been first introduced by Cadillac but it's value was hotly debated by engineers, not least Ford himself. Prior to 1921 a consensus had been reached amongst the engineers and manufacturers that the closed body was a pointless, unnecessarily expensive, flash-in-the-pan fad. The fact that it was those manufacturers who had gone against the consensus to offer closed body cars to the public that were the only ones to see sales grow in the middle of the disastrous slump, fundamentally changed the automobile industry in the first instance and was ultimately to transform the whole of capitalist manufacturing and business. The era of "You can have any colour you want, so long as it's black" was definitively over.

Another effect of the crisis of 1921 was to finally confirm the passing of operational control of General Motors to the man who was to become Henry Ford's nemesis and, in many ways, the true father of our modern era, Alfred Pritchard Sloan.

Unlike Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan was not an engineer or designer of automobiles. Rather he was a true capitalist, a genius innovator in the fields of corporate management and governance and marketing. Sloan had been a director of a bearings manufacturer that had been bought up by William Durant, the flawed but brilliant deal-maker extraordinaire who initially put General Motors together but was, ultimately unable to sustainably run the corporate monster he had created. When the du Ponts bought out Durant to protect their investment, they recognised the business skills of Sloan and quickly pushed him to the fore.

Sloan inherited a car firm that was an aggregation of different sites producing different models of cars, in comparison to Ford's unitary product and production facilities. Sloan's innovations, which were to allow General Motors to overtake Ford in volume of car sales and become the largest automobile manufacture in the world, were in 3 main areas.

1. What Sloan called "the breaking down of the mass market, into a mass class market". Rather than allowing the five different vehicle lines that GM possessed to compete against each other, Sloan segmented the consumer market and assigned each line a different section. One for the starting out, young, single driver with no kids and limited funds, from which the consumer could progress to the sportier market, having gained a higher wage, then progressing to the family car as they married and produced kids, and so on, up to the luxury market with the Cadillac for the well-to-do. In association with this strategy Sloan introduced segment-specific targetted, aspirational marketting, with the first use of road-side billboards alongside other more traditional advertising outlets.

2. In contrast to Ford's violent opposition to credit, Sloan introduced the first provision of consumer credit for consumer durables - credit for the masses had previously been limited to land and built property only. Sloan's consumer credit service allowed buyers to purchase the Chevrolets or Pontiacs they would not have been able to buy outright.

Both of which tied into the third innovation:

3. The annual model change. The idea of the annual model change was to entice the consumers that already had functioning cars to replace them (with the help of consumer credit) with this years new model. The logic of the annual model change - enough new features to make the new model more desirable than the old, but not too much change to threaten the consumer's confidence in the new car's re-sale value - was all laid out by Sloan.

The goal of all of this innovation was to overcome the crisis of over-production that Ford was rapidly running into.

Ford's Model T had opened a new mass market of people who had never had cars before, however by the mid-20s just about everybody in the USA who wanted a Model T had one. What's more they didn't wear out that much and there were plenty of spares and second-hand models available too.

In this sense Ford must be seen as a transitional figure, corresponding to the initial opening up of the new market, and Sloan as the mature capitalist, overcoming the initial limit of the market by selling new cars to people who already had cars. Sloan renegotiated the relation between producer and consumer as regards the design or use value of the car. If the consumers wanted closed body cars then GM (whose Cadillac subsidiary had first introduced the closed body car in its Model Thirty) would provide them, regardless of the prevailing consensus amongst the professional engineers, conviced that they "knew best". Following Massimo De Angelis thesis that capital overcomes limits by operations of new enclosures, we could say that this operation corresponds to the enclosure of some aspects of the subjectivity of the consumers, in their production of desired use values.

Ford was the dominant figure of the transitional phase of the growth of the motor industry from a small luxury market to a mass market. As such, he represents the "heroic" era of the despotism of the engineer over the intended use value of the product. Ford was absolutely assured that he knew best, and this for him naturally extended from the design of cars to the micro-managing of the lifestyles of his workers and the running of society itself. Hence why this profoundly sinister, fascistic and ravingly anti-semitic self-publicist became the hero and idol of all the adherents of social despotism and totalitarianism from Hitler, Mussolini to Stalin, as well as fascinating Lenin, Trotsky and Gramsci.

But the myopic vision of political authoritarians, both of the left and the right, have occluded the extent to which Alfred Sloan, not Henry Ford is the true father of the modern consumer capitalist social order. In so doing they have introduced the misleading periodisation of Fordism and Post-Fordism into left analytical discourse. Look at the tropes of post-modernism - the continual segmenting of the consumer into ever-burgeoning and differentiated ideal types for example - is all this already not present in the innovations of Sloan's breaking the mass market into the "mass class market" and associated advertising? Consider Maurizio Lazzarato's comments in his piece on "Immaterial Labour":

"The postindustrial enterprise and economy are founded on the manipulation of information. Rather than ensuring (as nineteenth-century enterprises did) the surveillance of the inner workings of the production process and the supervision of the markets of raw materials (labor included), business is focused on the terrain outside of the production process: sales and the relationship with the consumer. It always leans more toward commercialization and financing than toward production. Prior to being manufactured, a product must be sold, even in "heavy" industries such as automobile manufacturing; a car is put into production only after the sales network orders it. This strategy is based on the production and consumption of information. It mobilizes important communication and marketing strategies in order to gather information (recognizing the tendencies of the market) and circulate it (constructing a market). In the Taylorist and Fordist systems of production, by introducing the mass consumption of standardized commodities, Ford could still say that the consumer has the choice between one black model T5 and another black model T5. "Today the standard commodity is no longer the recipe to success, and the automobile industry itself, which used to be the champion of the great 'low price' series, would want to boast about having become a neoindustry of singularization"—and quality. For the majority of businesses, survival involves the permanent search for new commercial openings that lead to the identification of always more ample or differentiated product lines. Innovation is no longer sub­ordinated only to the rationalization of labor, but also to
commercial imperatives. It seems, then, that the postindustrial commodity is the result of a creative process that involves both the producer and the consumer."

Is this not simply the description of the development of the regime of strategies that Sloan introduced in the 1920's?


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