Behemoth

"Behemoth" A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World" by Joshua B. Freeman

BEHEMOTH: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. By Joshua B. Freeman. Norton. 448 pages. $27.95.

The gradual disappearance of “good” manufacturing jobs that helped a large portion of the American middle class leap into prosperity — the jobs that allowed a single breadwinner to support the nuclear family — has been a source of concern and the subject of political discourse for decades.

In the 1930s and ’40s, industrial laborers fought, and occasionally died, for benefits that all workers came to rely on: a living wage, pension, health and disability insurance, sick leave and the ability to have a voice in how they are treated. The old, unionized blue-collar worker, viewed as a patriot during World War II and the backbone of the nation in the 1950s, is now routinely castigated as a whining relic whose exorbitant demands helped send jobs elsewhere.

Recent generations have hardly set foot in a factory or aspired to a career in manufacturing, so it’s easy to forget that modern life across the developed world could hardly exist without factory-made goods.

In his powerful introductory paragraph to “Behemoth,” author Joshua B. Freeman takes us on a tour of his office, pointing out that almost everything within his touch or view — computer, phone, paper, pen, books, furniture, window frames, air conditioner, lamp and so on — was made by someone toiling in a factory somewhere on the planet.

But some things have changed, as Freeman reminds us. In the heyday of factories, places like Henry Ford's River Rouge and Highland Park auto plants were touted as wonders of technological genius and efficiency and eagerly welcomed outsiders to come in and gawk. Present versions, like the giant Foxconn factories across China, are shrouded in secrecy and far removed from most Americans, allowing brands like Apple and Dell, as well as their customers, to divorce the gadgets they use every day from the conditions under which they are produced. Freeman brings home the point by opening his discussion of Foxconn with the story of 14 of its workers who jumped to their deaths from a factory building as a desperate act of protest against what was occurring within.

Freeman begins his story in 1721 in Derby, England, with what he calls the first successful example of a factory, in this case one that made silk yarn. Crude though it may have been, it fulfilled Freeman's definition of what a factory is: “A large workforce engaged in coordinated production using powered machinery,” a description that remains applicable to today's infinitely more sophisticated institutions.

In time, the power source advanced from water to steam to electricity. The locus of operations expanded from Derby to the famously “satanic” mills of Manchester, to the girls' boarding houses of Lowell, Mass., to the huge steel and auto factories of the American Midwest, to post-revolutionary Russian tractor production, to the electronic factories of Asia and the crowded textile mills of Bangladesh. Now, as in the beginning, some benefit, others suffer.

The author dedicates a long section of his book to the love affair many writers, filmmakers and particularly visual artists, including muralist Diego Rivera and iconic industrial photographer Margaret Bourke White, had with the factory aesthetic. White claimed to “worship” factories, stating that “a foundry represents the beginning and end of all beauty.”

The factory system created “new” men and women, Freeman avers. It changed work life from the kind that, for most, was characterized by agriculture’s alternating periods of the intense labor and relative inactivity to the constant rigor of the assembly line. For much of its existence, the factory represented the idea of progress through technical innovation, even by some who may have feared the power of those who most profited by it.

When Vladimir Lenin said that Russians had to abandon the backwardness of serfdom and “learn to work,” he meant in the style of their highly productive Western counterparts. The Industrial Revolution, Freeman contends, was indeed a revolution, and was central to the development of both capitalism and socialism, not just economically, but also socially, culturally and politically.

Given an almost 300-year time frame and the startling number of technical advances, sprawling geography and philosophical, psychological and moral questions, any history of the factory system ought to have produced a doorstopper of a book, a true “behemoth.” Instead, Freeman has delivered a cogent page-turner, an elegantly written overview of the topic.

He has done us a service: a failure to understand the development of the factory system is to lack a full grasp of how the modern state and urbanized society was created. Perhaps more importantly, no reader will ever again pick up an object without wondering about where and how it was produced, and the lives of the people who made it.