The Flivver King (1937)


Flivver is 1930s slang for “cheap car.” Above is a Flivver.

My father, who restored classic automobiles in his spare time, was a Ford guy. To buy a Chrysler, Dodge, or Pontiac was to waste your money. To buy a Japanese car was treason. To buy a German or Swedish car, well I don’t think that ever even entered his head, and if you asked him about Italian cars, I’m pretty sure he would have said something like “I didn’t know the guineas made cars. I thought they only made pizza.”

Abner Shutt, the “hero” of Upton Sinclair’s The Flivver King reminds me a bit of my father. Schutt is not only a patriotic 100% White Anglo Saxon Protestant American, he’s a true believer in American capitalism. It never occurs to him to doubt the essential benevolence of the Ford Motor Company, for which he has worked ever since its inception, even when its founder when Henry Ford becomes an and out of the closet Nazi.  Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s was not a democracy, or even a modern capitalist republic. It was a feudal domain ruled by King Henry Ford. When George W. Bush proclaimed that Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and that Saddam Hussein was an existential threat to the American way of life, men like my father never questioned him. That would have made him “French” just like John Kerry. Similarly, when Henry Ford reveals himself in the 1920s to be a vicious antisemite, Abner Schutt simply joins the Ku Klux Klan and starts bashing Jews and foreigners like everybody else. What King Henry believed is what the people of Detroit believed. Even during the Great Depression, when Ford cut hours and fired workers en masse, Schutt never really questions the essential goodness of the King.

The ironic thing is that it’s men like Abner Schutt and my father who “make America great.” They may be apolitical suckers who refuse to confront reality, even when the rich grow ever richer at the expense of the poor and it costs them personally, but they remain good soldiers dedicated to American power and thus, to the American ruling class. Americans, like Germans, are a hardy, disciplined people, unlikely to break and run from the war for oligarchic capitalism simply because of a Great Depression or two. The worst things get the more they deny reality, dig in their heels and fight. At some point you do have to ask “how is America great.” We have the biggest, most powerful military the world has ever seen. We can destroy whole economies with a few “crippling sanctions.” When the American government gives an order,  nations like the British click their heels and do as they’re told. Do you actually think the British government is going to refuse to extradite Julian Assange? If you do, I can get you a good price on a bridge in Brooklyn. For all our wealth and power, it remains in the hands of the Henry Fords and rarely trickles down to the Abner Schutts. Finland has a better system of education. Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate. The French and Canadians have far better health care systems. The Danes are happier. But the Abner Schutts of the world don’t care. They will remain loyal to the king until the end.

Needless to say, the Abner Schutts of America didn’t become good, corporate peasants on their own. They had to be carefully taught, and, as Sinclair makes clear in The Flivver King, Henry Ford was as much the inventor of American corporate feudalism as he was the inventor of mass produced automobiles. There’s a reason Italian communist Antonio Gramsci titled his book “American and Fordism” and not “Americanism and Rockefellerism” or “Americanism and JP Morganism.” Henry Ford was not only a powerful member of the American ruling class. He designed the American way of life in the 20th Century. As Sinclair makes clear, it didn’t come cheap. At its height, the Ford Motor Company had an army of industrial spies, anti-union muscle, and company propagandists that rivaled many small countries, or even large countries. To get a job at Henry Ford’s auto company in the 1920s was to sign onto a whole way of life, and to believe a whole set of very familiar lies. Work hard and you’ll advance. Watch out for reds, subversives, and other threats to good, clean, sober White Anglo Saxon Protestant values. Police your fellow workers. “If you see something, say something.” Eventually of course, you will catch on to the fact that you’re being hustled, but in the end it won’t matter. You’ll work harder because the boss controls whether or not you’re going to eat the next day, and he knows it.

In the end, Abner Schutt never admits to himself the reality of his life, but his son Tom, a University of Michigan football star, does. Stung by the Great Depression, Tom becomes an organizer with the United Auto Workers of America, a fact that his brothers and sisters have to conceal from their father, lest Tom be disowned for, I don’t know, “talking about politics and religion.” The ending of The Flivver King is both masterful and derivative of the fugue like narrative pioneered by American cinema earlier in the century. Upton Sinclair flips the script on the fascist American filmmaker D.W. Griffith. As Henry Ford and his wife settle down to a lavish dinner party, Tom is kidnapped by Ford Motor Company detectives and beaten to death while his wife looks on. With every kick and every punch, one of Ford’s guests gives another speech praising the great man. With each step Tom takes closer to death, the great man sings the praises of the American way of life. Finally, Ford’s guests get into the cars and drive home, right past Tom’s now lifeless corpse, ignoring the screams of his young wife to stop and help. Unlike the Klan in Birth of a Nation, Henry Ford’s guests do not ride to the rescue in their Ford built Flivvers. They simply drive on by. A more vivid depiction of the indifference of the American ruling class to the poverty of their fellow Americans during the Great Depression cannot be imagined.

It must also have been sweet revenge for the way Hollywood helped destroy Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California earlier in the 1930s.

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