History is Horseshit

History is Horseshit, Or, Fetishizing Fordism and the Illusion of Craftsmanship

Henry Ford is famous for being a Nazi sympathizer, his virulent antisemitism, the brutal treatment of his workforce (including a famous massacre called the Battle of River Rouge), and so on, but he will mainly be remembered for revolutionizing the automobile industry – and the fundamental nature of work in industrial societies. Ford ushered in the era of assembly line production whereby complex tasks are broken down into smaller, simpler operations – the “detailed division of labor” in other words (i.e., mind-numbing over-specialization, repetitive motion injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.). The upshot, if one can call it that, is that skilled labor can be eliminated or reduced in favor of cheaper, less-skilled or unskilled workers. Productivity rises and prices fall. To soak up the new ocean of manufactured products a consumerist society had to be cultivated that necessitated rising wages that, from World War One to about 1970, tended to rise steadily for American workers. These factors, among others, all form a complex we now call “Fordism.” Great for manufacturers and a mixed bag for workers/consumers. There’s a great debate as to whether or not “Fordism” is dead but that need not concern us here and now. Important for us are the consequences of “Fordism” on guitar manufacturing.

Yes, the same logic at work making cars was applied to guitars. Leo Fender has rightly been called the Henry Ford of the guitar world in that he introduced Fordist production methods to guitar-building more than 60 years ago: cheap slab bodies, bolt on necks, stamped and interchangeable metal parts, churned out at, now, break-neck pace. Once all the machinery and technical rationalizations were in place, luthiers could be replaced by low-paid and semi-skilled workers. And almost instantly Fender’s extension of this “innovation” spread like wildfire throughout the guitar industry. Actually, Fordism had penetrated the guitar industry prior to Fender but we won’t quibble over the fine-grained details.

And so the race to the bottom (lower and lower prices, cheaper and faster production, cheaper materials, etc.) continued on until it could presumably go no lower – the mid 70s represents the high or low point, depending upon your perspective. Europe and Japan had, by the late 60s and early 70s, recovered from the disaster of World War Two and, more importantly, Japan begun to flood the American market with all sorts of consumer goods including electronics, automobiles, etc. This was also the point when Japan started to penetrate the American guitar market – ironically, with many high-quality replicas of “classic” American guitars, i.e., replicas of mass manufactured (Fordist-era) guitars. When I was younger if you wanted a good Les Paul you bought a used one from the 60s or a new Tokai. That market penetration messed up Fender even into the 80s. I had a 1988 Fender American Standard that, as it turned out, was made of plywood. Its pretty alder body (in sunburst) was really a wood sausage body with a alder veneer on the front and back. Pretty sad. I'd stay the hell away from 80s MIA Fenders.

Anyway, to make a long story short, we now find ourselves in a multi-tiered market with many segments and price-points. At the upper end of the spectrum you have tons of 'boutique' manufacturers building 'craftsman' guitars (most, ironically enough, are making quasi-replicas of assembly line guitars from the (Fordist) 50s and 60s. And on the bottom of the mountain you have assembly line junk (McAxe) dressed up as something supposedly hand-crafted.

What’s really interesting is that the one-time boutique shops (Paul Reed Smith and Parker for example) and the old line firms (Fender and Gibson) have intersected: the once-boutique are now featuring low-priced offshore models (aw, they’re all grown up now!) and the industrial giants now have “custom shops” to recapture the glory days when they used to really make really 'great' mass manufactured, assembly line guitars.

All the above, just about, can be illustrated in one photo that has become an internet classic: guitar number one is a Gibson Les Paul Standard (about $2000) with what appears to be a top contender for “World’s Sloppiest Neck Joint” and guitar number two is a Gibson Les Paul “Historic” – oh, the History! Price? From $3500 to $5000.

Ironically, this photograph was used by none other than Gibson to show off the 'craftsmanship' of the Historic line of guitars (I guess the logic was: “look how great our Historic guitars are compared to the other crap we make!” Could it get any crazier?). So, now, why spend $5000 on the bottom guitar? So you can have a guitar “the way they used to build them!” All under the assumption that the 50s and the 60s were the heyday of craftsmanship – when in fact, the 50s and 60s were the heyday of not only “Fordism” but “late Fordism”, i.e., the era of “really crappy junk” churned out on assembly lines.

The top photo is not the “bad” guitar and the bottom one being the “good” one. That’s where nearly everybody makes the big mistake. What’s really funny is how people have convinced themselves (or simply believe the bullshit fed to them) that guitars from the 50s and 60s are somehow holy grails of craftsmanship when it is simply not the case and reflects a total ignorance of manufacturing history and the history of craft and artisan labor. Actual “craftsmanship” (using long-term historical criteria) was virtually extinct on production floors in the musical instrument industry by the 1950s and the war against artisans making the original boutique guitars (for actual ‘boutiques’) began slowly in Europe after the end of the French Revolution.

What is “craftsmanship” anyway? Most people confuse "craftsmanship" with "skilled labor." Craftsmanship is at the most general level the unity of conceptualization and execution. Fordism, of the kind practiced by Fender, Gibson, and every other guitar maker during the “golden years”, is, by definition and design, a war against craftsmanship. The whole point of Fordism was to destroy craft and artisan labor. The pinnacle of this destruction of the unity of conceptualization and labor has manifested itself to the highest degree in the fast food industry but it works itself out in virtually all realms of the economy. You don’t even have to take my word for it – consult a couple of standards in the field: The Fall of the House of Labor by Montgomery or Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital for all you’d care to know. Or, if you're intellectually challenged you can get one of Ritzer's books on the McDonaldization of society. The electric guitar is, at its heart, a Fordist-era, anti-craft monstrosity. It still is. It definitely takes a craftsman to invent and prototype an instrument but it does not take a craftsman to perform the routines involved in the mass manufacture of a guitar. Even though many of the workers in shops are skilled that does not make them "craftsmen." The same holds in any guitar firm that is cranking them out by the truck-load.

Whether it was made in the 60s or today, if it’s mass-manufactured, it is, by definition, not an object of craft labor. And, oddly enough, there are would-be craftsman out there making replicas of mass manufactured stuff and the appeal of their instruments lies in “the way it used to be” as if electric guitars were ever both manufactured in mass and products of craft labor. And if you are out to replicate a mass manufactured guitar then you have taken out the moment of conceptualization rendering your work the activities of a skilled parrot.

Making two pieces of wood fit together reasonably well is not really that big of a trick. Humans have been doing it for centuries and occasionally even I, no craftsman, manage to get two pieces of wood to fit together. Now, I’ll admit, in today’s world of junk and assembly line work, just making the two pieces of wood (if it even is wood) more or less fit might seem like quite the feat. In the 50s and 60s nobody had the delusional thought that their guitars were the pinnacles of craftsmanship – they were making commodities as fast as they could to compete in the market. It’s only with the further extension of the Fordist logic to its (neo or post-Fordist) contemporary point (ultra cheap materials, no-skill labor, disposability, etc.) that we retroactively reconstruct the past as “golden.” We’re always doing that in politics, culture, religion, etc. “If we could just go back....” “Those were the days...”

But when a for-profit manufacturing firm is selling you “History” you’re more than likely buying Horseshit.