In the early 1960s, the American political economy was in the midst of a long, sustained boom that had begun shortly after World War II. The techniques of mass production pioneered in the U.S. were accompanied by rising wages and mass consumption. This system of mass production and mass consumption was first labeled “Fordism” by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Henry Ford had introduced a combination of authoritarian control over the workplace with higher wages to stimulate consumption, but it wasn’t until after the war that this approach was fully instituted as a strategy for sidestepping crises of overproduction.  Fordism was born in Detroit, and no city prospered more as a result of its successes. 

By the 1960s, however, the contradictions and limitations of Fordism were starting to become apparent. Detroit was about to explode in the cataclysmic uprising of 1967. In the meantime, Motown had grown into the most successful record company for producing hit singles and propelling black music into mainstream popular culture, and the label’s success was fueled by the same methods of assembly-line production that originated in Detroit. Motown would continue to release a succession of top-selling singles into the 1970s, but by 1967 it was also evident that the label had begun to unravel, largely as the result of its own internal dynamics.   

Fordism arose from Henry Ford’s decision in 1914 to raise the wages of his autoworkers to $5 for an 8 hour day of work.  Ford’s assembly line had already extended many of the methods for increasing productivity formulated by F.W. Taylor and others in the preceding years.  These organizational and technical changes involved a greater degree of discipline and control over the labor process. For Gramsci, these techniques amounted to nothing less than a struggle against the “animality” of workers:  “an uninterrupted, often painful and bloody process of subjugating natural…instincts to new, more complex and rigid norms and habits of order.” However, the truly innovative step taken by Ford was to raise wages and shorten working hours beyond the industry standard. This helped ensure the discipline and loyalty of his workforce, but it also provided them with the money and leisure time to purchase the fruits of their labor.  With this step Ford acknowledged that stimulating mass consumption was a necessary counterpart to mass production in the effort to stabilize capitalism. In Gramsci’s words, Fordism entailed “higher renumeration such as to permit a particular living standard which can maintain and restore the strength that has been worn down by the new forms of toil.” Ford’s efforts to exert control extended beyond the workplace, as he sent members of his staff to investigate the homes and private lives of his workers to assess their levels of self-discipline and sobriety. Workers needed to consume, but he wanted them to do so rationally and prudently, in ways that did not interfere with their productivity or reliability on the job.  Above all, Ford valued the “family man.”  Fordism conceived of the disciplinary, patriarchal family as an ideal unit of mass consumption as well as mass production.

Ford’s ideas about the need to stimulate consumption were implemented on a larger scale in response to the crisis of capitalism in the 1930s, via Keynesian economics and the New Deal. But it was World War II that finally established Fordism as the dominant means of forestalling crises of overproduction.  Following a major wave of strikes in the year after the war’s end, the capitalist system stabilized and began to prosper, with increasing productivity matched by increasing wages. In continuing to bargain for higher wages for its workers, organized labor tended to cede more control over the workplace to management. The imperative of enabling mass consumption was further extended through the state, whose subsidies for home ownership, highway construction, and increased funding of higher education were instrumental in creating the suburban middle class during the post-war years.  “Postwar Fordism,” as David Harvey argued, “has to be seen…less as a mere system of mass production and more as a total way of life.” Unabated military spending throughout the Cold War also played a crucial role in sustaining the long boom. The Marshall Plan spread the tenets of Fordism to Western Europe and Japan, securing capitalist societies against communism while subsidizing the consumption of American exports. Indeed, prolonged prosperity in the United States was predicated on its monetary and financial power, established in the Bretton Woods agreement, and upheld by military domination in the Cold War. 

The increasing standard of living for working people subdued most of the class conflict that afflicted capital in the years before and immediately after World War II. However, class conflict could be quelled only by exploiting the inequalities of gender and race, through the exclusion of women and nonwhite workers.  The most direct form of exclusion came when millions of women were fired from the manufacturing jobs they held during the war. The postwar ideology of the patriarchal family supported the removal of women from the workforce at the same time that it glorified the unpaid domestic work essential to the reproduction of labor.  Likewise, the growing affluence under postwar Fordism was largely restricted to white workers. Black workers often encountered discrimination from employers and exclusion from labor unions, and jobs mainly held by people of color, like domestics and farmworkers, were ineligible for the benefits and protections of the Wagner Act or the Social Security Act. Federal subsidies for housing were also unavailable to urban, “redlined” neighborhoods that were largely populated by people of color. The construction of highways often involved “urban renewal” projects that demolished these neighborhoods and resettled the displaced people into housing projects; this led James Baldwin and others to say that urban renewal  was actually “Negro removal.” In sum, the benefits of postwar Fordism were restricted to a privileged workforce of white men, and these inequalities of race and gender that dampened class conflict after World War II were on the verge of erupting in the 1960s. 

The city of Detroit embodied both the triumphs of postwar Fordism and the limitations that eventually led to its demise. During World War II, Detroit became known as an “arsenal of democracy” as automakers transformed their factories to manufacture weapons and military hardware.  Employment in Detroit’s manufacturing sector increased by 40 percent between 1940 and 1947. Job opportunities incited a mass migration from rural America to Detroit; the black population of Detroit more than doubled from under 150,000 in 1940 to over 300,000 in 1950. Despite Detroit’s labor shortage, black migrants to the city faced bigotry, hostility, and violence. Some of the city’s automakers hired black workers, but others continued to practice overt discrimination. The United Auto Workers (UAW) and other labor unions undertook major efforts to include black workers, but they often encountered resistance from whites in the rank-and-file. In some instances, large numbers of white workers walked off the job when they were forced to work alongside blacks. Black workers frequently had to settle for the most menial jobs in the auto factories, or for work in services, hotels and restaurants, or domestic care. Mass migration to Detroit during the 1940s also exacerbated the city’s shortage of housing, and here again blacks faced vicious forms of discrimination from banks, real estate agents, homeowners associations, and state policies. Black residents were mainly confined to the city’s lower east side in a neighborhood called Paradise Valley, whose name reflected an initial sense of optimism, but quickly turned into a source of bitterness, as the realities of racism in the urban North set in.  Racial hostility turned into massive violence and disorder during the summer of 1943, when fighting between white and black youths on Belle Isle escalated into a riot that lasted 3 days before it was finally subdued by thousands of federal troops. In the end, nearly 2,000 people had been arrested and 34 were dead, half of whom were blacks killed by police. 

Nevertheless, the 1940s and 1950s were the highpoint of prosperity and optimism in Detroit. The city’s white working class secured a higher standard of living by excluding blacks from the best jobs and neighborhoods, but there was still faith that racial conflicts would ease over time. As historian Thomas Sugrue explained, “Even after Detroit’s violent riot of 1943, many held out hope for peaceful integration in the city…The 1940s and 1950s seemed to many a moment of hope, a time of opportunity to reverse the trends toward racial segregation and discrimination of the previous quarter-century.” However, the Fordist system which fueled prosperity began to show its first signs of unravelling in the second half of the 1950s. Between 1954 and 1963, Detroit lost about one third of its manufacturing jobs, nearly 100,000 in all. The deindustrialization that would decimate the Northeast and Midwest had just begun, not only in Detroit but in industrial cities from Philadelphia to St. Louis. Firms were replacing workers with automated technology and constructing their new facilities outside the cities. These maneuvers were motivated by a desire to limit the power of organized labor—to cut labor costs and lower taxes, but also to wrest control over the labor process away from workers.  The Fordist system based on high wages would finally collapse with the economic crisis of the early 1970s, but the signs of impending breakdown were already evident in the 1950s.  Gramsci, writing much earlier while imprisoned in fascist Italy, had foreseen the inevitable collapse of Fordism with uncanny prescience: “Monopoly wages correspond to monopoly profits. But the monopoly will necessarily be first limited and then destroyed by the further diffusion of the new methods both within the United States and abroad (compare the Japanese phenomenon of low-priced goods), and high wages will disappear along with enormous profits.”

Meanwhile, the black migration to Detroit continued: another 180,000 African-Americans arrived in the city between 1950 and 1960. The process of “white flight” had also begun, however, and so Detroit’s total population actually declined by 180,000 in the same time span. African-Americans, full of hopes for a better life outside the South, were arriving in a city with a shrinking manufacturing sector, leading to rising unemployment and mounting frustration, especially among young people.  The effects of joblessness in Detroit’s inner city were compounded by urban renewal, which demolished predominantly black neighborhoods, including the vital Hastings Street business district, to clear the way for highway construction. Left with few job prospects, shattered communities, and a notoriously racist police force, black Detroit was becoming a tinder box that would incinerate during the summer of 1967.

Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Motown with the same methods of assembly line production that powered Detroit’s auto industry. After the failure of his first business, a record store specializing in jazz, Gordy briefly worked on Ford’s assembly line in 1955. Motown’s mass production of hit singles and pop stars would imitate Ford’s mass production of automobiles: “At the plant cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyer belts until they emerged at the end of the line—brand spanking new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records. I wanted a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist—a star.”  Indeed, the process of standardization did not simply end with Motown’s method of songwriting.  As the label achieved increasing success in the 1960s, Gordy added a division of Artist Development to offer instruction in etiquette, elocution, and proper attire to his most successful artists—many of whom had grown up in Detroit’s housing projects—once they started performing for whiter, wealthier audiences and were expected to do interviews.  The formulaic training of this “charm school” meshed seamlessly with racial assimilation. In terms of sound quality, Motown songs were also produced to complement the sound of car radios, which had become increasingly common in the 1960s. Audio engineers put car speakers in the Motown studios in order to test how the music would sound in automobiles and adjust their production accordingly. The most direct link between Motown and the auto industry appeared in a promotional video featuring Martha and the Vandellas singing “Nowhere to Run” while they went through the assembly line at Ford’s River Rouge Complex. The video promoted Martha and the Vandellas and the new model of Ford Mustangs at the same time, and it was sponsored by the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity to encourage teenagers to seek part-time work during the summer.

Berry Gordy, Jr. was raised in a family that owned a small business and strongly adhered to the early capitalist ideals of hard work, frugality, and self-reliance. Unlike most other African-Americans who migrated to Detroit, the Gordy family fled the South because Berry’s father had made too much money, and therefore was at risk of becoming a target of white resentment and retribution. After settling in Detroit, Berry Gordy, Sr. opened a grocery store named after Booker T. Washington, whose belief in entrepreneurship as a path to racial equality Gordy, Sr. fully embraced. The spirit of capitalism was clearly expressed in two of Motown’s earliest singles, released in 1960: “Money (That’s What I Want)” was an ode to cold hard cash and the worthlessness of everything else, and “Shop Around” portrayed the search for a marriage partner as an act of consumerism.  By the late 1960s, Gordy’s exploitation of his artists, songwriters, and studio musicians had begun to threaten Motown’s stability at the peak of its success.  Gordy wanted his employees to view Motown as a “family,” and they often did, but as the patriarch he exercised dictatorial control over every aspect of the label. As Motown became more successful, Gordy’s lack of fair compensation and limits on creative freedom became bitter sources of resentment, eventually costing him his prized songwriting team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland. By 1967, Gordy had also overworked his most successful act, the Supremes, to the point of exhaustion and illness from three years of non-stop touring and performance—Diana Ross collapsed on stage and had to be hospitalized as her weight dropped to 90 pounds, and Florence Ballard’s worsening alcoholism and depression led her to be kicked out of the group. 

Motown was built with the same methods of standardized production that shaped the auto industry in Detroit, and it succeeded in selling records to a mass audience of young people with substantial amounts of disposable income.   The label’s transformation and decline after 1972, when Gordy moved its operations to Los Angeles, reflected the deterioration of Detroit along with Fordism at large. But insofar as Fordism was a total way of life instead of just a system of mass production, Motown also contributed to its eventual collapse.  Fordism delivered a higher standard of living, but one that depended on alienated labor, conformist consumption, and the patriarchal family. Many young people who were raised to reap the material benefits of postwar Fordism rejected this lifestyle. They were more concerned with finding authenticity, and many of them looked to black music to fill this void.   Although Gordy took great pains to release records that were restrained and inoffensive, Motown’s music was still unmistakably black—driven by the rhythm section and made to be danced to, with emotionally expressive vocals and call-and-response choruses.  Motown brought black music, however diluted and contained, further into the mainstream of popular culture than any other form to date. It achieved unprecedented success with an audience of young whites who were searching for something they believed was more sincere, soulful, and mildly sexual, in contrast to the life of conformity and repression laid out for them.