[Marxism] We Are What We Manufacture

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 12 07:41:29 MDT 2018

NY Times Sunday Book Review, March 11, 2018
We Are What We Manufacture

A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
By Joshua B. Freeman
Illustrated. 427 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.

Joshua B. Freeman doesn’t chronicle the aftershocks of the loss of five 
million factory jobs from the American landscape or show you the impact 
of disappearing factory jobs on towns across America. And I wish he had 
addressed the abandoned plants, escalating drug crime and crowded food 

But what this distinguished professor of history at CUNY’s Queens 
College does is lay out two centuries of factory production all over the 
world in ways that are accessible, cogent, occasionally riveting and 
thoroughly new. The history of large factories, as Freeman outlines it, 
is the history of the modern world and most everything we see, 
experience and touch.

At a time when the ghost of the American dream hovers over headlines 
ranging from free trade vs. protectionism to opioid addiction and other 
so-called diseases of despair, “Behemoth: A History of the Factory and 
the Making of the Modern World” should be required reading for all 
Americans, especially the 8 percent of the American labor force who 
still work in manufacturing (down from 24 percent in 1960).

If you are reading this review on an iPad or iPhone or another Silicon 
Valley-designed computer screen, then Freeman’s history will not only 
explain how and where your device came to be produced but also how the 
story of modern production parallels the story of your relative level of 
affluence, from the balance in your retirement funds to the 
circumstances prompting your ancestors’ migration from an unproductive 
Irish potato field to a western Pennsylvania steel mill.

There are few items in our homes that didn’t originate as disparate 
components in faraway supply plants, touched by many hands in multiple 
countries. But whose hands actually make and order the assembling of the 
products, from the B-24 builders in Ypsilanti, Mich., whose goods flew 
into combat during World War II, to the corporate owners who erected 
three million square meters of yellow netting to prevent overworked 
Chinese Foxconn workers from jumping to their deaths in 2010?

Freeman tells us who both the makers and the corporate owners are, and, 
more impressively, he shows us how, over a relatively short period of 
time, their stories come to be entangled. He wants us to leave his book 
grappling with the question: How should human beings balance economic 
good with environmental harm, need with greed?

He is more concerned with the building up of factories than the tearing 
down, chronicling the pros and cons of factory work with a scholar’s 
even gaze. When a developing country embraces manufacturing to propel 
itself away from agrarian subsistence, the work is invariably rote and 
exploitive and often even life-threatening. But, over all, life 
expectancy climbs and poverty and disease plummet.

That was as true in the wake of the Industrial Revolution in Western 
Europe — before which only half of French children, plagued by hunger 
and disease, lived to see the age of 20 — as it is now in Ethiopia, 
where the producers of Ivanka Trump’s shoes recently relocated from 
Dongguan, China, chasing a more desperate work force content to work for 
a pittance (roughly $30 a month) rather than paying the rising wages of 
their predecessors in China ($560).

Capitalism, naturally, takes advantage of such increasingly swift and 
secretive moves. It was the striving capitalists, after all, who 
pioneered the world’s initial giant factories — first among them a 
British wigmaker named Richard Arkwright who patented his spinning 
machine in 1768, then created an empire of steam-powered cotton mills. 
Arkwright knew he had arrived when he was able to lend the Duchess of 
Devonshire 5,000 pounds to pay down her gambling debts, even if he and 
his fellow mill owners used laborers as young as 7 years old.

Freeman dips into a delicious expanse of source material from Charles 
Dickens to Karl Marx to Tim Cook, from Bloomberg Businessweek to The 
National Rip-Saw. In roughly chronological order, British silk mill 
owners give way to the Boston barons who developed the factory town of 
Lowell, Mass., in 1822, building dorm-style housing for the out-of-town 
farmers’ daughters they hired and innovating a standardized production 
process that bested the British and would “morally uplift” via such 
utopian amenities as company-sponsored libraries and potted plants.

The wealthy Boston merchant Frances Cabot Lowell not only figured out 
how to churn out white sheeting more efficiently — the fabric used to 
make slaves’ clothing — but he was also the brains behind the radical 
innovation of the stockholder corporation. Before Lowell, that model was 
rare, usually reserved for public works, not the accumulation of private 

Freeman loops around the globe nimbly, drawing parallels between the 
farmers’ daughters who sent money home from Lowell and the Chinese 
migrants who do the same from Guangdong almost two centuries later. 
Though I wish he would have lingered longer on the workers’ lives, he 
has a sharp eye for the raw, gut-kicking detail. A riveter in the Urals 
freezes to death on a scaffolding. Middle managers in Michigan have to 
learn the words for “hurry up” in English, German, Polish and Italian to 
keep Henry Ford’s assembly line humming along.

As he does with Diego Rivera’s industry-worshiping murals in Detroit, 
Freeman’s mini-portrait of the photographer Margaret Bourke-White shows 
how the public came to view manufacturing through her factory-fanatic 
lens, from Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., to Stalin’s 
giant tractor factory in a former melon field. With Henry Ford’s top 
architect, Albert Kahn, as their consultant, the Soviets squeezed wealth 
out of the countryside on the road to creating a socialist society after 
an initial epic fail. “The Russians have no more idea how to use the 
conveyor than a group of schoolchildren,” Freeman quotes Bourke-White 
saying. “One Russian is screwing in a tiny bolt and 20 other Russians 
are standing around him watching, talking it over, smoking cigarettes, 

But the Russians eventually figured out how to make manufacturing 
advance both their socialist culture and their economy, inspiring the 
East Europeans, all of whom later inspire Taiwanese and Hong Kong 
businessmen setting up Chinese government-backed shops in Shenzhen and 

Freeman’s final chapter, “Foxconn City,” is the finest and most searing 
profile of wealth-makers in the bunch, revealing the sheer drudgery of 
overworked people who make sneakers and iPhones but can’t afford to buy 
them and the quiet deal-making machinations fueling Silicon Valley’s 
billionaire class.

Quoting the Apple executive Tim Cook, the mastermind behind offshoring 
production to Taiwanese-owned contractors in China before his ascent to 
chief executive, Freeman shows how just-in-time production flourishes on 
the backs of poorly paid workers who are shifted from one factory to 
another in an entirely different region practically at the stroke of his 
keyboard. When it comes to inventory, Cook said, “you kind of want to 
manage it like you’re in the dairy business. If it gets past its 
freshness date, you have a problem.”

When wages rise because of retention problems or labor unrest, the 
Chinese government is happy to help Apple and others by handing out tax 
breaks and transportation projects to spur new, lower-paying factories 
in China’s hinterlands. No such help is on tap for a worker, trained 
with a specialized skill, stuck in a country that no longer supports the 
industry she works in and living in places like Flint, Mich., which 
can’t even guarantee the water is safe.

For the displaced, Freeman writes, “the future has already come and 
gone, perhaps leaving them with sneakers and a smartphone, but with 
little hope” for forging a post-factory life that is both sustainable 
and ecologically sound.

Though he never states it outright, Freeman’s inclusion of poetry by a 
Foxconn worker who committed suicide in 2014 telegraphs where his 
allegiances lie:

They’ve trained me to become docile
Don’t know how to shout or rebel
How to complain or denounce
Only how to silently suffer exhaustion.

“Behemoth” is contextually thin in places, especially Freeman’s take on 
deindustrialization. He doesn’t mention that, as life expectancy in East 
Asia climbed, mortality rates rose in America, or that drug dealers, not 
farm girls seeking sewing jobs, now flock to Lowell — a distribution hub 
for heroin.

Freeman only cursorily explores the aftermath of globalization, 
automation and unfettered free trade, and he doesn’t ask what the 
government owes the people still living in America’s former mill and 
mining towns. More robust retraining and access to need-based college 
financial aid? Incentives to resettle elsewhere? A New Deal for the 
displaced and drug-addicted?

Perhaps it’s beyond the purview of a historian to wrestle with such 
questions. Perhaps it is enough that this thoroughly researched history 
makes us question our own accumulation of the stuff in front of us and 
our complicity in the truth we dare not see.

Beth Macy is the author of “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled 
Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town” and 
“Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted 
America,” coming in August.

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