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Corporate Empire: Fordism and the Making of Immigrant Detroit

  • Author(s): Akhtar, Saima
  • Advisor(s): AlSayyad, Nezar
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the imperial reach of a major American corporate power in the first third of the twentieth century. With the Ford Motor Company (FMC) and its social programs at the center of the study, I trace the paths of commercial images and forms of spatial organization that were essential to the workings of Fordism. As a lesser-known aspect of the company’s global dealings, I focus on the company’s transnational exchanges with the people and regions of the greater Middle East and examine the formulation of Fordist strategies as immigrant groups from these regions traveled to and settled into the city of Detroit.

The first half of the study begins with Henry Ford’s view of the world, as his company produced some of the earliest commercial images of American automotive enterprise in emerging markets, as early as the First War. These visual devices advocated for the use of Ford products by equating American technology with modernity, civility, and Americanism, forging the cornerstones of the Ford promise. The messages were distributed worldwide, including the regions that the FMC collectively termed “the markets of the Orient,” (Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and India) as a means to civilize cultures and sell Ford products. As immigrant laborers followed Ford commodities and commercial appeals to their point of origin, Detroit, they found Ford’s promise refashioned as social engineering programs for workers arriving to work in the newly made industrial capital.

By the 1920s, Ford’s Detroit was mapped through lines of racial and ethnic exclusion by the city municipality, alongside the backing of its industrial giants. With the FMC as the principle corporate actor, the second half of the study shows how the factory, worker home, and city became tools of social control for the regulation of labor and enforcement of Fordist principles. Through an archival and visual analysis of the FMC’s social, filmic and domestic programs, I understand space as a vital mode of contestation and subject making for both the corporation and immigrant groups. More broadly, the dissertation contends that Ford’s coupling of social engineering programs with spatial organization allowed his company (and Detroit) to emerge as a major center of national and cultural power, even during moments of intense economic and global uncertainty.

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