December 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Man and War in Brazil

When Euclides da Cunha wrote Rebellion in the Backlands in 1902 he was thinking big. Borrowing freely from geography, anthropology, geology, even journalism, he hoped to capture the essence of one of the most violent rebellions in Brazilian history, the War of Canudos. He divided the story into into three parts: Land, Man, and War; the message being that first came the land, then man, and inevitably, the conflict. The land in this case is the interior of Bahia in northern Brazil, generally barren, arid, and poor. After some fifty pages that describe and map Bahia, da Cunha writes an extensive ethnographic report of the region and its “races.” All of this works as background to the book’s central conflict of the book. Antônio Conselheiro was a social leader, a mystic, and, quite possibly, a maniac, whose magnetic personality quickly upset delicate power balances in the young republic. Something like Kurtz but in Bahia, Conselheiro quickly drew an impressive following that he brought to settle with him in the small town of Canudos. However a disagreement with a new neighbor led to a heavy-handed intervention from the local government, perhaps looking for an excuse to axe the rabble rouser. The soldiers were quickly cut down by Conselheiro’s followers. Word spread to the capital about Conselheiro and his sect. Feeling threatened the new government sent more troops to handle Conselheiro (who among other things supported the return of the King of Portugal to Brazil). There were a few more invasions and likewise defeats until finally the magnanimous Conselheiro fell to dysentery. After his death, the final wave of government troops sent in 1897 were greeted with white flags, but rather than accept the peace offer, they executed them.

Da Cunha who was covering the war as a journalist, decided that he had to go beyond journalism’s limited devices in order to depict what he had witnessed in Canudos. The result was Rebellion in the Backlands. The book has inspired writers like Mario Vargas Llosa (who based War at the End of the World on it) and Hungarian author Sandor Marai (who wrote Veredicto em Canudos, to date only translated into Portuguese). Not only is da Cunha’s book a heady and fascinating masterpiece but his interdisciplinary approach was decades ahead of authors like Peruvian Jose Arguedas who would similarly fuse anthropology and fiction, or even contemporary authors like Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig.

(I cannot comment on the qualities of the new or old translation; here I refer to the original. I see however that U.S.- Mexican intellectual Ilan Stavans has done the forward to the new Penguin translation and am suspiciously fascinated by his limitless erudition. Will he also be writing the forwards for the classics of Suriname?)

Land: Amazon. Man: Henry Ford. War? Well, let’s call it an intervention. This is Fordlandia by Greg Grandin. Grandin makes it clear from the get go: Fordlandia’s history -- that of Henry Ford’s attempt to create a self-sustaining community in the Amazons to produce rubber -- is meant to serve as a parable; if not, a parallel; if not, a warning; if not, an omen. Ford, the creator of the Model T and interchangeable parts, is much more than just that. His insistence that an American model of peaceful coexistence, work ethic, even dress code and pastimes were exportable is strikingly similar to the idea that one can transport modern democracy by toppling a statue. In fact, Grandin views Ford’s audacity and optimism as an extension of the “touching belief that the world is like ourselves.” The prologue ends with a 1920s news article from the Washington Post in the 1920s. A journalist speaking of Henry Ford writes, “if Detroit, then why not Baghdad.” Indeed.

The story of Fordlandia begins with the Amazon River, that massive body of water, host to floating islands, sudden storms and the thousands of bugs that call that tropical jungle their home. This is the body of water that had to be painstakingly navigated to reach the land that Ford had been allowed to build on, near what is now Santarem. But that was just the prelude to a list of difficult conditions that the men Ford would face in building Fordlandia. There was the extremely nuanced ecosystem that hindered their cultivation of rubber, the stifling heat, not to mention Ford’s backwards and inefficient management system, basically a fiefdom based on personal preferences. But more importantly all of the men Ford so blindly trusted hardly knew anything about the environment or even the country where they would find themselves.

After some initial push back from the Brazilian government -- the memory of the stolen rubber seeds, that lead to the end of the Brazilian rubber boom fresh in their minds -- Ford had a stroke of luck. After the Depression a wave of leftist sentiment engulfed South America, which ironically ended in Ford’s benefit. Despite Ford’s abhorrence of all unions and labor laws, from the Brazilian point of view he was a step up from the slaver-trader families like that of Alberto Franco, implicated in the Cabanagem Revolt -- even deadlier than the Canudos incident that da Cunha wrote about -- in which the military once again committed mass homicide to put down a popular rebellion. Some 30,000 people died during the revolt.  

“Man” here is unquestionably Ford and what a man, the epitome of demagogue, while remaining idiosyncratic. Granadin treats him justly; he doesn’t villanize or sympathize but masterfully characterizes him within the context of his time. Within fifty pages of the book, I was fascinated by Ford. After a hundred, it became clear that Ford was an extremely important figure, who embodied so much of contemporary America. He seems more American today than even his contemporaries, like the Roosevelts -- one rough and rugged, the other progressive and cerebral. Henry Ford captures efficiency brought to absurdly Pythagorean proportions: cows are a waste because of all the land they take up, trees should only be cut in such a way as not to damage an ecosystem, eat whole wheat bread, oh and tofu -- Ford was obsessed with soy as a sort of all-in-one food -- he was also a pragmatic pacifist, who collaborated with the government in war efforts despite his beliefs. But perhaps this isn’t unique to Ford. As Grandin writes:

Henry Ford’s philosophy all had antecedents in 18th and 19th century American political and literary concepts; that mechanization marked not the conquest but the realization of nature’s secret and thus the attainment of the pastoral idea; that history is best understood as the progress of this realizing, of the liberation of humans from soul-crushing toil.

At the same time Ford is nuanced, obsessive, and odious; he mocks the medical condition that eventually kills his son; he hires and fires at will, often purposely adding insult to injury. Grandin’s portrait of Ford, based mostly from first person sources, is flawless. One finishes with a deep understanding of Henry Ford but more importantly what Ford means to Grandin: the great modernizer, the utilitarian par excellence (sometimes even reminiscent of early Stalinist thinking), and simultaneously the square-dancing teetotaler, who dreams of the country not the town, even as he builds the town. Now more than half of the world now lives in cities, and a billion of them in slums, according to the author.

Finally, as Euclides da Cunha would have it, there is war. When the fish and rice the workers are served for lunch doesn’t come out fast enough, tensions run high. One worker confronts a Ford representative, but as Grandin says, “Often Ford men had just enough Portuguese to get by on which could be a dangerous thing, creating situations where both parties might easily mistake obtuseness for hostility.” The angry foreman resigns on the spot, handing in his Ford badge. Unfortunately the Ford man doesn’t have enough common sense not to laugh. His inappropriate reaction sets the hungry workers into a frenzy that sends Ford’s men running back to the American section of the compound. After the workers loot some booze -- that Ford so stubbornly tried to prohibit -- they began to chant : “Brazil for the Brazilians. Kill all the Americans.” The American staff had to abscond in the jungle, until a boat could save them from being pulled apart by the upset workers. The uprising ends when Pan Am lends one of Ford’s men a plane to take some Brazilian soldiers and go back to Fordlandia before it is destroyed. Workers are paid out then fired. And Fordlandia must once again start from scratch.

The real war however for Ford lies elsewhere: more efficient forms of management and production and the Depression; the rise of unions and FDR; his public image is attacked as a result of his anti-Semitism. For Ford it was a losing battle, on all fronts. His loathing of experts, as well as the complete misunderstanding of plants -- particularly in the Amazon -- rendered his rubber endeavor useless. Hevea, what rubber is derived from, is a climax plant which means in botanical terms that it is best adapted to particularly nuanced growth with the jungle, very different from the “relatively new pioneer crops like wheat corn and rice.” Any aggressive cultivation or bio-engineering of rubber leads to leaf blight, the reason why neighboring nations stopped trying to cultivate rubber decades earlier. Nearly every effort to grow rubber is thwarted. It cost the company millions of dollars. But only after Ford died did Fordlandia officially close, ending the personal utopia he never once visited. Fordlandia was sold to Brazil in 1945 for a fraction of the money Ford had invested in it.

It is however the last chapter of Fordlandia that makes one's hair stand on end. If Ford's silly enterprise is an example of capitalism run amok, so is Manaus today. The biggest city in the Amazons has swelled from the 200,000 mid twentieth century to 3,000,000 inhabitants and suffers from the problems one might expect in any Latin American city. Thanks to free trade incentives created in 1960s, the city is now host to factories from international brands like Samsung and Honda. As Grandin puts it, “When a consumer in Latin America purchases a DVD player, cell phone, TV bicycle, or motorcycle, there is a good chance it was assembled in the middle of the world’s largest tropical forest.” If that isn’t disheartening I don’t know what is.

But it gets worse. One of Granadin’s final points is that instead of driving wages and thereby prices up, as Ford imagined, the economy has done just the opposite: “The result is a race to the bottom, a system of the perpetual deindustrialization whereby corporation -- including most dramatically, the Ford Motor Company itself -- bow before a global economy that once master, moving manufacturing abroad in order to reduce labor costs just to survive.”

France Braudel, probably the most famous historian of the 20th century, wanted to examine exactly how capitalism began. The result was his three volume book that he had written partly as a POW in a Nazi camp, relying only on memory. Hardly an individual appears in the thousands of pages of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Instead there are numbers, records, maps of land. For Braudel we were just small part of a larger structure. Although Fordlandia would not have existed without Ford, its demise was perhaps already foretold in the conditions in which it occurred, both the wild jungle and the wild economy.

Fordlandia confirms what I think so many of us feel: we are witnessing the long term consequences of unfettered capitalism. As writers like Slavjo Zizek, Alan Badiou, Paolo Virno have argued, there is no political logic that does not incorporate the very principles that seem to be driving the world towards its own demise. Frighteningly the world can’t sustain this “race to the bottom”; not even one of its founding fathers could put ¨the genie back in the bottle." The book of the future might as well forgo the Land chapters and stick with what’s left: Man and War.