[Marxism] Review of Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 10 06:24:20 MDT 2018


NY Review of Books, SEPTEMBER 27, 2018 ISSUE
Missing the Dark Satanic Mills
Deborah Cohen

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
by Joshua B. Freeman
Norton, 427 pp., $27.95

Practically from the start of industrial manufacturing, gawkers appeared 
to marvel at the sight. The cotton mills of sooty Manchester were an 
obligatory stop for every clued-in visitor to that city. In the summer 
of 1915, Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory in Michigan, the first with 
a continuous assembly line, drew three to four hundred visitors a day. 
So prominent a feature of the industrial landscape were factory tourists 
that Diego Rivera painted them into his mural sequence Detroit Industry 
(1932–1933). In one panel, the throngs at Ford’s River Rouge plant 
(young, old, women, men, Dick Tracy among them) look on, their mouths 
downturned, as the line of chassis—pierced by steering wheels and 
ministered to by bent-over, jumpsuited workers—rolls by. In 1971, 
243,000 people visited River Rouge. Later that decade, the Commerce 
Department’s USA Plant Visits, 1977–78, a compendium of factories that 
offered tours, ran to 153 pages.

Although American manufacturing output today is near a historic high, 
the percentage of manufacturing jobs drifted steadily downward in the 
decades after World War II, and then in 2000 plunged sharply. Factories 
currently employ less than 8 percent of the American workforce, a 
consequence of offshoring as well as automation. Perhaps because there 
is not much romance in watching robots go about their day, the factory 
tour pickings are now more meager. In the Chicago area in the 1960s, you 
could have seen how steel, furniture, newspapers, pottery, automobile 
parts, hosiery, and, yes, sausages were made. Today, the only factory 
tours left in the city are epicurean: craft distilleries, artisanal 
chocolateries, and a popcorn factory. If you want to have a look at 
manufacturing of the Make-America-Great-Again variety in Illinois, you 
will need to drive nearly two and a half hours to Moline, where the John 
Deere company, headquartered there since 1848, still provides free tours 
of the harvester works.

With nostalgia for manufacturing jobs now thoroughly weaponized in 
American politics, Joshua Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory 
and the Making of the Modern World is timely. Freeman, a historian of 
American labor and the author of American Empire, the Penguin history of 
the post–World War II United States, takes as his subject huge 
factories, the behemoths of his title: River Rouge; the Soviet steel 
complex Magnitogorsk, east of the Urals; and China’s Foxconn City, with 
its hundreds of thousands of workers, arguably the largest factory ever 
in operation. Focusing on these giants, Freeman suggests, reveals what 
happens when concentrated production and economies of scale are taken to 
the showiest extreme. It also helps to explain the hold that factories 
have had on the imagination over the past 250 years: the promise 
(largely delivered on) that industrialization would lift billions out of 
poverty, competing with the fears (also realized) that it would wreck 
the environment and sharpen social conflicts.

The scholarly literature on industrialization is vast and thicketed with 
controversy, but Behemoth is not one of those doorstop histories of the 
around-the-world-in-eight-hundred-pages variety. Rather, the book is 
episodic, assessing the turning points that take the reader from 
late-eighteenth-century Britain—where modern factories emerged—to early 
twenty-first-century China, with most of its pages devoted to the United 
States and the Soviet Union.

Freeman’s account is evocative and fair-minded, a humane treatment of 
the subject written with flair. It is also a fresh approach to a 
well-established genre: the biography of an object, which tells a story 
of global transfer and connections. Thus far, commodities such as tea, 
coffee, cod, cotton, porcelain, and gold have soaked up most of the 
attention. Unlike cod or cotton or any of the other objects that have 
been nominated for world-historical significance, factories did 
literally make the modern world. Unless you’re reading this review in an 
old-growth forest, nearly everything you’re looking at now was 
factory-made. But as Freeman charts the rise of the factory across the 
world, his book also poses the question, Is the factory a “thing,” and 
did it have a global history?

The rise of the factory was the consequence of three interrelated 
developments: machinery that was so large or expensive that production 
could not be carried out at home, technological expertise that similarly 
exceeded the capacity of the individual household, and entrepreneurs who 
wished to directly supervise their workers. By the time factories 
appeared in Lancashire and the East Midlands, the transition to an 
industrial economy was already underway, and the task of making sense of 
this new system of manufactures fell first to the British. The perils 
were apparent: the exploitation of child labor and the thick forest of 
chimneys pumping out smoke and gasses, the filth of the overcrowded 
cities and the subjugation of workers to new forms of discipline that 
critics likened to slavery.

But just as obvious was the wonder. It was not simply about the goods 
produced—a quantity of textiles measured in miles rather than yards—but 
the factories themselves, of which Joseph Wright’s 1783 painting of 
Richard Arkwright’s cotton mills at night provides a glimpse. Outshining 
the moon in Wright’s picture is the factory, each one of its 
rectangular, symmetrical windows ablaze, a scene of harmonious, heavenly 
creation in the Derwent Valley. To describe what they were seeing, 
writers pressed far-fetched metaphors into service: Robert Southey 
thought the new factories looked like convents, Alexis de Tocqueville 
called them “huge palaces,” while Charles Dickens, describing the steam 
engine, likened its pistons to “the head of an elephant in a state of 
melancholy madness” and the smoke it produced to “monstrous serpents.”

If the British figure in Freeman’s account as ambivalent industrializers 
alarmed by “dark Satanic mills,” the Americans were gung ho. Much of the 
early industrialization of the US was powered by water, not coal, so 
early mill towns, such as the textile capital of Lowell, Massachusetts, 
its streets lined with tidy flower gardens, bore little resemblance to 
Britain’s smog-choked industrial cities. Lowell’s mill girls were by 
legend sturdy, apple-cheeked farmers’ daughters supplementing their 
dowries by superintending looms for a few years. In antebellum America 
it was possible, Freeman observes, to imagine that “industry and 
republican community could coexist.” Over time, working conditions 
deteriorated: Lowell’s women workers were forced to mind more looms and 
speed up production; strikes over longer working hours and low pay idled 
the sprawling Amoskeag cotton mills in New Hampshire. Nevertheless, 
Americans continued to be entranced by the machine, celebrating the 
blast furnaces and foundries of iron and steel as the engines of modern 
life, and the factory as the proving ground for Frederick Winslow 
Taylor’s theories of scientific management.

At the heart of the global history that Freeman tells is Fordism, which 
combined interchangeable parts, a continuous-flow assembly line (adapted 
from the meat-packing industry), and the conveyor belt to turn the 
factory itself into a vast, unified machine. Not only did Ford’s method 
reduce labor time—a car could now be made in ninety-three minutes rather 
than twelve and a half hours—but it promised higher wages (Ford’s Five 
Dollar Day was double what the average auto worker had earned), which 
would allow assembly-line workers to purchase the Model T’s they made. 
At its peak in 1929, River Rouge employed 102,811 workers and was the 
biggest single factory complex in the United States. Mass production fed 
mass consumption. Fordism itself became an American export: Ford’s 
autobiography, My Life and Work, sold more than 200,000 copies in 
Germany and was similarly a best seller in Russia, where it came 
prefaced by the statement: “Fordism is a system the principles of which 
have been known for long, [having been] laid down by Marx.”

In the 1910s, the American left thrilled to Ford, just as the Soviets 
would in the next decade, deterred neither by the rigid discipline of 
Ford’s plants nor by the mind-numbing nature of assembly-line work. When 
the radical journalist John Reed interviewed Ford in 1916, he delivered 
an encomium that could have come straight from the automaker’s own 
publicity department: “Here is a powerful industrial baron who is 
interested in human beings instead of stocks and bonds.” For their part, 
the Soviets needed to industrialize at breakneck speed, to make up (as 
Stalin famously said) a hundred years of development in ten. During the 
more market-oriented years of the New Economic Policy, the Soviets 
sought, unavailingly, to persuade the Ford Motor Company to build them a 
tractor plant. After it demurred, they instead hired Ford’s architect, 
Albert Kahn, to build the country’s largest factory, Stalingrad’s 
Dzerzhinsky tractor plant. During the Depression, Ford did agree to help 
equip an automotive plant at Nizhny Novgorod, a maneuver that allowed 
the company to sell the Soviets its obsolete tools and dies.

In comparing the gigantic factories of the Soviet Union and the United 
States amid the muscular pushes for greater output from the 1930s 
through the 1950s, Freeman emphasizes their similarities. The factory, 
he writes, “proved remarkably impervious to its surroundings.” In state 
socialism as in capitalism, social relations within the factory were 
hierarchical, often conflict-ridden; in both systems, management sought 
to craft a new sort of person: provident, modern, and well-disciplined. 
It was the similarities between the Moscow textile mill and Amoskeag 
that caught the eye of the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. For 
midcentury theorists ranging from C. Wright Mills to Talcott Parsons to 
Clark Kerr, such a convergence was a result of the process of 
industrialization itself, which was making societies more alike.

Freeman’s most illuminating chapter, though, centers on a difference in 
the lifespan of the giant factory in the US and Soviet Union. Even as 
social scientists and economists speculated about convergence, American 
manufacturers had already begun to decentralize production. By the late 
1940s, the era of the showcase factory was over in the United States. 
The strength of unionization, particularly demonstrated by the 
formidable strike wave of 1945–1946, made clear to industrialists the 
danger of concentrating workers in a few plants.

More than simply a means of controlling costs or rationalizing 
distribution, the drive to open smaller and decentralized plants, 
especially in the low-wage, nonunionized South, was also a strategy to 
ensure that a company’s entire operation couldn’t be hamstrung by a 
strike. At the same time, by contrast, industrial gigantism continued 
apace across the Eastern Bloc. The East Germans built the steel town of 
Stalinstadt (now Eisenhüttenstadt); in Poland, there rose Nowa Huta, 
with a workforce of nearly 30,000 by 1967. Crippling labor unrest wasn’t 
a problem that particularly worried leaders in the Eastern Bloc, who 
could count on a network of spies as well as a cadre of factory workers 
who were fervent believers in socialism.

How to tell this epic story of industrialization around the world? 
Freeman in effect follows the lead of commodity history. That genre has 
become a staple of the new global history, thriving on evidence of 
networks that regionally or nationally bounded studies often neglected. 
The forces of global integration, too, can be illuminated by the history 
of a product, as recent studies of cotton by Giorgio Riello and Sven 
Beckert have demonstrated.1 The rage for calico, for example, drew 
British entrepreneurs into competition with Indian textile makers; 
Lancashire cotton mills helped to propel the slave economies of the 
American South, which were in turn financed by the London money market.

But to track the phenomenon of the factory across borders is to try to 
capture a much broader set of processes—the many variants of 
industrialization—in a thing. By comparison, commodity histories, even 
those that tackle manufacture, have an easier task: telling the story of 
trade, adoption (or adaptation or rejection), and the reorientation of 
sectors of economies, with a tangible object, usually a consumer good, 
at its core. The project Freeman sets himself is more like writing in a 
genre that doesn’t really exist: the global history of the schoolhouse 
or the farm or the insane asylum or even the parliament. The question, 
then, is what telling this history from the vantage point of an 
institution can add to what we already know about the spread of 
literacy, the transfer of agricultural techniques, the management of 
madness, or comparative democratization, respectively. Or in Freeman’s 
case, the coming of industrial society.

Take the issue of factory size, the behemoths on which Freeman focuses. 
He makes a persuasive case that the largest factories served as beacons 
of modernity, conjuring up either the horrors or the delights to come. 
But whether size mattered otherwise—in the productivity of a country’s 
industrial sector, its capacity for innovation, or its working 
conditions—is doubtful. In 1871, when Britain produced one fifth of all 
manufactured products in the world, the average British manufacturer had 
fewer than twenty workers; by the early twentieth century, the number 
had risen only to sixty-four. American factories on average were 
slightly larger, but, notably, most of the increase in the workforce 
took place in the late nineteenth century, well before Fordism. France 
had relatively few big factories, chiefly because a lack of coal 
reserves put a steam economy out of reach, while Germany, with ample 
coal, had substantially larger concerns, including the Krupp factory in 
Essen that employed more than 36,000 workers in 1914, even as 
medium-sized and small plants formed the bedrock of the economy. And 
yet, notwithstanding their differently sized factories, by 1914 per 
capita income and labor productivity were converging in the major 
Western European countries.

Through the 1970s, the history of industrialization was told as a tale 
of modernization, with the British model—a transition to steam and heavy 
industry—celebrated as the standard and nations such as France branded 
as laggards. What has since been demonstrated, contrary to modernization 
theory, is how remarkably divergent industrial transitions have been 
around the world, shaped by the availability of skilled labor, the scale 
of domestic markets for goods, the types of natural resources at hand, 
the strength of unions, and the character of the state. Mass manufacture 
depended upon small firms’ capacity for flexible production, just as 
mass markets (say for the Model T, which was produced in only one color, 
black) coexisted with highly segmented and differentiated markets 
(General Motors’ “car for every purse and purpose”).

 From this sophisticated scholarship have come many surprises. In 
eighteenth-century Britain, Asian imports such as Chinese porcelain and 
Indian calicos, as Maxine Berg has argued, provided stimulus to new 
production processes; the global trade in commodities not only preceded 
mechanization but helped to propel it.2 Analyzing Japan, Tessa 
Morris-Suzuki has demonstrated that small-scale, indigenous 
manufacturing flourished alongside imported Western technologies to 
produce the network of subcontracting firms so characteristic of 
twentieth-century Japanese industry.3

In making the giant factory stand in for industrialization, Freeman 
loses much of this rich diversity, and as is often the case with a 
bird’s-eye view, everything appears much the same. A case in point is 
his treatment of Soviet factories such as Magnitogorsk in the 1930s: 
“Did socialism, or state ownership, change internal relationships within 
the factory? A bit, but not much.” Tyrannical as Ford’s regime was at 
River Rouge, though, this is simply not a plausible argument. Freeman 
himself notes the Soviets’ use of forced labor, the deaths from freezing 
cold in improvised settlements, the purges that removed the upper layer 
of management, as well as the zealous corps of shock workers willing to 
labor twelve-hour days and without pay on Saturdays in pursuit of the 
socialist utopia. Why should similarities be the salient point?4

It is even more puzzling when Freeman depicts the factory as an 
autonomous, globe-trotting agent that determined the course of 
development. “The giant factory shaped the path along which the Soviet 
Union developed,” he contends. But this is surely to get the causal 
argument backwards. The factory didn’t remake socialism in its own 
image. Rather, the form that industrial gigantism took in the Soviet 
Union was due to the judgment of Stalin and his allies that 
industrialization was a preeminent tool of class warfare, ensuring the 
triumph of the oppressed against the old exploiting classes. At times in 
Freeman’s account, the factory seems to come loose from its moorings in 
both the industrial economy and the wider history of globalization—the 
steamships, railroads, telegraph, airplanes, mobility of capital, and 
transnational mass migration—to resurface as a zombie of modernization 
theory reborn.

There is a major point to be made about the importance of the factory 
system in changing the nature of work. But to see the story whole 
requires comparing factory labor to work done in other places. While 
novel techniques of discipline, time management, and rationalization 
began in factories, they didn’t stay there. From 1850 to 1914, as Joel 
Mokyr has suggested, the innovations of the factory spread to the 
service sector, where department stores prevailed over corner shops; 
hospitals, not homes, became the places for treating the sick; and 
commuting turned into a nearly universal experience.5 Taking orders, 
pooling knowledge, the repetition of segmented, rationalized tasks, 
leaving your home to work—by the early twentieth century, what had 
started within the factory’s gates had transformed work outside them.

With the rise of the digital economy and automation, the question of 
what work is—or will be—is more unsettled now than it has been for the 
last century. Perhaps, Freeman suggests, we are witness to the end of 
the enormous factory, made obsolete more by robotics than the hectic 
scurry of manufacturing around the world. He ends his book in 
contemporary China, with a look at the Shenzhen megaplant, Foxconn City, 
a contract manufacturer for Apple, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard. At its 
peak in the last decade, Foxconn City employed more than 300,000, 
providing a mammoth on-demand workforce for Apple’s just-in-time 
production schedule. The plant’s workforce has recently shrunk as the 
company has automated and moved factories to cheaper parts of China.

Difficult as it is to find a factory tour in Chicago, it is harder still 
in China. Foxconn is notoriously secretive, a policy that undoubtedly 
satisfies Apple; having largely divested itself of factory workers, it 
is in no hurry to show off the conditions at its contract manufacturers. 
Foxconn City, as Freeman notes, is not a sweatshop: the plants are 
modern and clean, with dormitory-style housing on site and amenities 
such as swimming pools, a stadium, a wedding-dress shop, and pork for 
lunch. Foxconn pays better than the locally owned alternatives, and 
thousands clamor to work there. But a visit to the Shenzhen 
complex—wrapped in yellow netting to prevent suicidal workers from 
jumping off the buildings—would hardly bolster Apple’s promise through 
technology of untethered freedom. The discipline is militaristic, the 
workdays stretch to twelve hours, and the surveillance is constant. 
Robots, by contrast, don’t require sleep or need wedding gowns.

Although the techno-optimists won out the first time around, even those 
at the heart of the revolution ultimately had their regrets. In the 
mid-1920s, Henry Ford bought 260 acres of meadowland a mile away from 
his River Rouge plant. There he recreated the idealized small town of 
his childhood, which he named Greenfield Village, after his wife’s 
birthplace. Ford spent more than $10 million on this endeavor (as much 
as $1 billion in today’s money), purchasing a blacksmith shop, a country 
store, the one-room schoolhouse he’d attended as a boy, a sawmill, a 
weaving shed, an 1890s Detroit lunch wagon, the Wright Brothers’ cycle 
shop, rows upon rows of farming equipment, and a cottage and flock of 
sheep imported from the Cotswolds, in addition to a replica of Thomas 
Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. During Ford’s lifetime, no automobiles 
were permitted in Greenfield; visitors came in horse-drawn carriages or, 
later, on foot. The point was to summon up the preindustrial age that 
Ford, as much as anyone, had destroyed. At nighttime, when the crowds 
had gone home, the old inventor haunted the village to tinker in the 
blacksmith’s shop.

1
Giorgio Riello, Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World (Cambridge 
University Press, 2013); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global 
History (Knopf, 2014). ↩

2
Maxine Berg, “In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer 
Goods in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, No. 182 (February 
2004).  ↩

3
Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the 
Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 
1994). ↩

4
Comparing Americanization and Bolshevization, Stephen Kotkin draws an 
important distinction. Because nearly every Soviet town was a company 
town, Kotkin writes, “there was really nowhere to hide.” See Magnetic 
Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (University of California Press, 
1995), p. 223.  ↩

5
Joel Mokyr, “The Rise and Fall of the Factory System: Technologies, 
Firms, and Households Since the Industrial Revolution,” 
Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy 55 (December 
2001), pp. 1–45. See also Mokyr’s “Economic History and the ‘New 
Economy,’” Business Economics, Vol. 36, No. 2 (April 2001); and The 
Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton 
University Press, 2002), chapter 4, especially p. 125. ↩



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