Is the ‘industrialization of the Third World’ the spectre which now haunts old Europe? Certainly in the apologetic discourse of governments, as well as in the obsessional thinking of trade-union leaders, the resulting ‘unfair competition’ is at the root of the jobs crisis in the old industries. But there is also a quite different point of view. For the dynamic managers of multinational or export-oriented corporations, for philanthropic economists and various Third World leaders, the industrial development of the periphery brings a more equal balance to North–South relations, both offering a way out of the crisis and heralding the end of unequal development. Beyond such unwarranted outbursts of praise or indignation, we must adopt a critical approach to the concept of Third World industrialization through a new international division of labour. It cannot even be accepted, for example, that ‘the Third World’ or ‘the periphery’ actually designates a unitary reality. For while national per capita income varies from 1 to 3 in the oecd ‘centre’, the corresponding spread is 1 to 27 in the rest of the world outside the eastern bloc. Moreover, the crisis in the centre has so dramatically sharpened differences among peripheral countries that it seems questionable to bracket together Kuwait, Mali and Brazil.

Still, in three ‘glorious’ post-war decades, a crucial change was introduced by the system of capitalist accumulation that various French economists, following Gramsci, have baptized ‘Fordism’. A ‘centre’, displaying a cohesive internal logic at the level of blocs (North America, the eec) if not individual countries, came to stand against a ‘periphery’ which, whatever the internal dynamic of its component parts, was ever more disconnected from this ‘autocentred’ logic. The onset of crisis, however, affected the centre much more sharply than the periphery as a whole: whereas the annual growth-rate by volume of oecd industrial production fell from 6.4 per cent before 1967 to 4.6 per cent and then to 1.6 per cent between 1973 and 1978, the rate in the ‘developing countries’ rose, without a break in 1973, from 5 per cent to an average of 7.1 per cent since 1967.footnote1

Can we, then, really speak of a ‘world-wide extension of Fordism’? Is it true that, although the rise of Fordism in at least some parts of the Third World stimulated the present capitalist crisis, it is now an element in the solution to that crisis? Which countries would gain, and which would lose, from such a development? In this article, we shall try to answer these questions by building upon the existing analysis of Fordism.

Fordism is intrinsically bound up with the socio-economic formations of the old industrial heartlands, where the problem was to adjust the long-stabilized relation between capital and wage-labour.footnote2 This should never be forgotten when we speak of the extension of Fordism to countries where the problem is the creation or establishment of the wage-relation.

The concept of Fordism denotes two relatively distinct, though historically and theoretically interlinked, phenomena. First, it refers to a mode of capital accumulation: one based upon radical and constant change in the labour process, such that the workers’ ‘know-how’ is incorporated in the form of machinery. This ‘system of intensive accumulation’, combining a rise in apparent labour productivity with an increase in the per capita volume of fixed capital (the ‘technical composition of capital’), presupposes that the body movements of the old craft-worker have been systematized through the methods of Scientific Work Organization. This ‘Taylorist’ stage widens the gap at the heart of the work collective between conception and performance, technical and unskilled labour. Most characteristically in the case of metal-processing, however, the new production line does require the presence of skilled workers—above all, in such key areas of ‘incorporation’ as the manufacture of equipment goods and machine-tools. Besides, although Fordism and Taylorism appear to reduce ‘know-how’ to norms issued by the Methods Department to a completely unskilled workforce, they actually require a great deal more than the theoretically necessary, and socially recognized, level of involvement and skill. In fact, the aim is to systematize the ever-new content of workers’ skills, and to ensure capitalist control over it by hunting down the ‘free space’ left in the labour process.

This contradiction between ‘dispossession’ and ‘involvement’ is a major source of the ‘work crisis’ in industrialized countries. It impels the systematic quest for manpower supplies which, though skilled in reality, have been downgraded through employment in labour-intensive industries: for example, women uprooted from dress-making activity in the West of France, or the redundant workforce of declining industries in the North of France.footnote3 It also lies behind ‘neo-Fordist’ attempts to temper direct control with a little ‘responsible autonomy’.footnote4 Generally speaking, however, it is still true that Fordism propels industrial skills towards two poles. Thus in French industry in 1975, engineers and technicians accounted for 8 per cent of the workforce, skilled workers for 36 per cent, and unskilled workers for 33 percent. In the typically Fordist ‘equipment industries’, the two extremes rose to 13 and 36 per cent respectively, while the proportion of skilled workers fell to 33 per cent.footnote5

Secondly, Fordism refers to the continual adjustment of mass consumption to the historically unprecedented rise in productivity generated by intensive accumulation. The realization problem, associated with the flooding of commodities onto the market, had caused the great crisis of the thirties. But after the war, ‘monopolistic’ forms of wage-regulation linked the nominal wage to both the cost-of-living and productivity, thereby ensuring that final demand would keep pace with supply. As a result of this ‘normalization’, the life-style of wage-earners underwent a dramatic change, and was even integrated into capitalist accumulation itself.