Post-Fordism is the dominant system of economic production, consumption, and associated socio-economic phenomena in most industrialized countries since the late 20th century. It is contrasted with Fordism, the system formulated in Henry Ford’s automotive factories, in which workers work on a production line, performing specialized tasks repetitively, and organized through Taylorist scientific management. Definitions of the nature and scope of post-Fordism vary considerably and are a matter of debate among scholars. Changes in the nature of the workforce include the growth of labor processes and workflows relying on information and communication technologies and digital labor.
Post-Fordism is characterized by the following attributes:
- Small-batch production
- Economies of scope
- Specialized products and jobs
- New information technologies
- Emphasis on types of consumers in contrast to previous emphasis on social class
- The rise of the service and the white-collar worker
- The feminisation of the work force
Post-Fordism has been applied to multiple social processes. As the theory continues to evolve, it is commonly divided into three schools of thought: the Regulation School, Flexible Specialization, and Neo-Schumpeterianism.
The Regulation approach (also called the neo-Marxist or French Regulation School), was designed to address the paradox of how capitalism has both a tendency towards crisis, change and instability as well as an ability to stabilize institutions, rules and norms. The theory is based on two key concepts. “Regimes of Accumulation” refer to systems of production and consumption, such as Fordism and post-Fordism. “Modes of Regulation” refer to the written and unwritten laws of society which control the Regime of Accumulation and determine its form.
According to Regulation theory, every Regime of Accumulation will reach a crisis point at which the Mode of Regulation will no longer support it, and society will be forced to find new rules and norms, forming a new Mode of Regulation. This will begin a new Regime of Accumulation, which will eventually reach a crisis, and so forth. Proponents of Regulation theory include Michel Aglietta, Robert Boyer, Bob Jessop, and Alain Lipietz.
Proponents of the flexible Specialization approach (also known as the neo-Smithian approach) to post-Fordism believe that fundamental changes in the international economy, especially in the early 1970s, forced firms to switch from mass production to a new tactic known as Flexible Specialization. Factors such as the oil shocks of 1973, increased competition from foreign markets (especially Southeast Asia) due to globalization, the end of the post-World War II boom, and increasing privatization made the old system of mass-producing identical, cheap goods through division of labor uncompetitive.
Instead of producing generic goods, firms now found it more profitable to produce diverse product lines targeted at different groups of consumers, appealing to their sense of taste and fashion. Instead of investing huge amounts of money on the mass production of a single product, firms now needed to build intelligent systems of labor and machines that were flexible and could quickly respond to the whims of the market. The technology originally associated with flexible production was the numerical control technology, which was developed in the United States in the 1950s; however, the CNC, developed in Japan, later replaced it. The development of the computer was very important to the technology of flexible specialization. Not only could the computer change characteristics of the goods being produced, but it could also analyze data to order supplies and produce goods in accordance with current demand. These types of technology made adjustments simple and inexpensive, making smaller specialized production runs economically feasible. Flexibility and skill in the labor was also important. The workforce was now divided into a skill-flexible core and a time-flexible periphery. Flexibility and variety in the skills and knowledge of the core workers and the machines used for production allowed for the specialized production of goods. Modern just in time manufacturing is one example of a flexible approach to production.
Likewise, the production structure began to change on the sector level. Instead of a single firm manning the assembly line from raw materials to finished product, the production process became fragmented as individual firms specialized on their areas of expertise. As evidence for this theory of specialization, proponents claim that Marshallian “industrial districts,” or clusters of integrated firms, have developed in places like Silicon Valley, Jutland, Småland, and several parts of Italy.
The Neo-Schumpeterian approach to post-Fordism is based upon the theory of Kondratiev waves (also known as long waves). The theory holds that a “techno-economic paradigm” (Perez) characterizes each long wave. Fordism was the techno-economic paradigm of the fourth Kondratiev wave, and post-Fordism is thus the techno-economic paradigm of the fifth, which is dominated by information and communication technology.
Notable Neo-Schumpeterian thinkers comprise Carlota Perez and Christopher Freeman, as well as Michael Storper and Richard Walker.
Post-Fordist theory in Italy
In Italy, post-Fordism has been theorised by the long wave of workerism or autonomia. Major thinkers of this tendency include the Swiss-Italian economist Christian Marazzi [fr], Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Carlo Vercellone, Maurizio Lazzarato. Marazzi’s Capital and Language takes as its starting point the fact that the extreme volatility of financial markets is generally attributed to the discrepancy between the “real economy” (that of material goods produced and sold) and the more speculative monetary-financial economy. But this distinction has long ceased to apply in the post-Fordist New Economy, in which both spheres are structurally affected by language and communication. In Capital and Language Marazzi argues that the changes in financial markets and the transformation of labor into immaterial labor (that is, its reliance on abstract knowledge, general intellect, and social cooperation) are two sides of a new development paradigm: financialization through and thanks to the rise of the new economy.
In terms of the development of the ‘technical and political class-composition’, in the post-Fordist era the crisis explains at the same time ‘high points of the capitalist development’ and how new technological tools develop and work altogether (money form, linguistic conventions, capital and language). [Zanini, A. 2010, ‘On the Philosophical Foundations of Italian Workerism: A Conceptual Approach’, Historical Materialism, 18, 4: 39-63.]
Changes from Fordism to post-Fordism
Post-Fordism brought on new ways of looking at consumption and production. The saturation of key markets brought on a turn against mass consumption and a pursuit of higher living standards. This shift brought a change in how the market was viewed from a production standpoint. Rather than being viewed as a mass market to be served by mass production, the consumers began to be viewed as different groups pursuing different goals who could be better served with small batches of specialized goods Mass markets became less important while markets for luxury, custom, or positional good became more significant. Production became less homogeneous and standardized and more diverse and differentiated as organizations and economies of scale were replaced with organizations and economies of scope.
The changes in production with the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism were accompanied by changes in the economy, politics, and prominent ideologies. In the economic realm, post-Fordism brought the decline of regulation and production by the nation-state and the rise of global markets and corporations. Mass marketing was replaced by flexible specialization, and organizations began to emphasize communication more than command. The workforce changed with an increase in internal marketing, franchising, and subcontracting and a rise in part-time, temp, self-employed, and home workers. Politically, class-based political parties declined and social movements based on region, gender, or race increased. Mass unions began to vanish and were instead replaced by localized plant-based bargaining. Cultural and ideological changes included the rise in individualist modes of thought and behavior and a culture of entrepreneurialism. Following the shift in production and acknowledging the need for more knowledge-based workers, education became less standardized and more specialized. Prominent ideologies that arose included fragmentation and pluralism in values, post-modern eclecticism, and populist approaches to culture.
One of the primary examples of specialized post-Fordist production took place in a region known as the Third Italy. The First Italy included the areas of large-scale mass production, such as Turin, Milan, and Genoa, and the Second Italy described the undeveloped South. The Third Italy, however, was where clusters of small firms and workshops developed in the 1970s and 1980s in the central and northeast regions of the country. Regions of the Third Italy included Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Friuli, and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. Each region specialized in a range of loosely related products and each workshop usually had five to fifty workers and often less than ten. The range of products in each region reflected the post-Fordist shift to economies of scope. Additionally, these workshops were known for producing high quality products and employing highly skilled, well-paid workers. The workshops were very design-oriented and multidisciplinary, involving collaboration between entrepreneurs, designers, engineers and workers.
There were several post-World War II changes in production in Japan that caused post-Fordist conditions to develop. First, there were changes to company structure, including the replacement of independent trade unions with pro-management, company-based unions; the development of a core of permanent male multi-skilled workers; and the development of a periphery of untrained temporary and part-time employees, who were mostly female. Second, after World War II, Japan was somewhat isolated because of import barriers and foreign investment restrictions, and as a result, Japan began to experiment with production techniques. Third, as imported technologies became more available, Japan began to replicate, absorb, and improve them, with many improvements deriving from modifications for local conditions. Fourth, Japan began to concentrate on the need for small-batch production and quick changeover of product lines to serve the demand for a wide range of products in a relatively small market. Because of informal price-fixing, competition was based not on price but rather on product differentiation. As a result, production became less standardized and more specialized, particularly across different companies. Fifth, Japan began to build long-term supply and subcontracting networks, which contrasted with the vertically integrated, Fordist American corporations. Sixth, because small and medium-size manufacturers produced a wide range of products, there was a need for affordable multipurpose equipment as opposed to the specialized, costly production machinery in Fordist industries in the United States. Technology for flexible production was significant in Japan and particularly necessary for smaller producers. The smaller producers also found it necessary to reduce costs. As a result, Japan became one of the main users of robots and CNC. Over time, these six changes in production in Japan were institutionalized.
The main criticism of post-Fordism asserts that post-Fordism mistakes the nature of the Fordist revolution and that Fordism was not in crisis, but was simply evolving and will continue to evolve. Other critics believe that post-Fordism does exist, but coexists with Fordism. The automobile industry has combined Fordist and post-Fordist strategies, using both mass production and flexible specialization. Ford introduced flexibility into mass production, so that Fordism could continue to evolve. Those who advocate post-Fordism, however, note that criticism that focuses primarily on flexible specialization ignores post-Fordist changes in other areas of life and that flexible specialization cannot be looked at alone when examining post-Fordism. Another criticism is that post-Fordism relies too heavily on the examples of the Third Italy and Japan. Some believe that Japan is neither Fordist nor post-Fordist and that vertical disintegration and mass production go hand in hand. Others argue that the new, smaller firms in Italy didn’t develop autonomously, but are a product of the vertical disintegration of the large Fordist firms who contracted lower value-added work to smaller enterprises. Other criticisms argue that flexible specialization is not happening on any great scale, and smaller firms have always existed alongside mass production. Another main criticism is that we are too much in the midst to judge whether or not there really is a new system of production.
The term “post-Fordism” is gradually giving way in the literature to a series of alternative terms such as the knowledge economy, cognitive capitalism, the cognitive-cultural economy and so on. This change of vocabulary is also associated with a number of important conceptual shifts (see sections above).
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Ofer Abarbanel is a 25 year securities lending broker and expert who has advised many Israeli regulators, among them the Israel Tax Authority, with respect to stock loans, repurchase agreements and credit derivatives. Founder of TBIL.co STATX Fund.