Plant life: how the fac­tory took root and grew and grew

From cot­ton to iPhones, a study eyes the trif­fid-like size of in­dus­trial plants, says Richard J. Wil­liams

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Richard J. Wil­liams is pro­fes­sor of con­tem­po­rary vis­ual cul­tures at the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh. His new book, The Ar­chi­tec­ture of Art His­tory (with Mark Crin­son), will ap­pear later this year.

Be­he­moth: A His­tory of the Fac­tory and the Mak­ing of the Modern World By Joshua B. Free­man

Nor­ton, 448pp, £22.00

ISBN 9780393246315 Pub­lished 27 March 2018

This is a book of epic num­bers: a Soviet trac­tor plant built from scratch in 14 months; a Michigan fac­tory turn­ing out a fin­ished B-24 bomber ev­ery 63 min­utes; a sin­gle build­ing at Ford’s River Rouge plant of

1.5 mil­lion square feet; a fac­tory mak­ing iPhones in Zhengzhou with a head­count of 350,000; Viet­namese fac­to­ries a quar­ter of a mile long mak­ing shoes. It is a book of epic mis­eries too: from child labour and early death in 19th-cen­tury Lan­cashire cot­ton mills, to sui­cides and lethal alu­minium dust at Chi­nese elec­tron­ics gi­ant Fox­conn.

All this makes for an in­dus­trial sub­lime, fa­mil­iar from 19th-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture. Joshua Free­man cov­ers both the novel and eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion from Alexis de Toc­queville to Friedrich En­gels – as well as con­sid­er­ing Das Kap­i­tal as, in ef­fect, an ac­count of the man­u­fac­ture of cot­ton. He is very good at ex­plain­ing the am­biva­lent ap­peal of the fac­tory to a read­ing pub­lic, its fas­ci­na­tion and hor­ror. The fac­tory is present in im­age too, in the emo­tion­ally de­tached cityscapes of Charles Sheeler, the art­ful doc­u­men­tary pho­to­graphs of Mar­garet Bourke-White and the glossy pages of USSR in Con­struc­tion.

The fac­tory, Free­man ar­gues, was a tran­scul­tural form and more­over a po­lit­i­cally pro­mis­cu­ous one. In his splen­did ac­count of the Stal­in­grad trac­tor fac­tory, Trak­torstroi, he shows how Amer­i­can en­gi­neers were in­stru­men­tal in the USSR’s in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion (a fact that Stalin hap­pily recog­nised). And af­ter the Se­cond World War, it was a com­mon­place, he con­tin­ues, in­vok­ing Her­bert Mar­cuse, to imag­ine con­ver­gence be­tween cap­i­tal­ist and com­mu­nist sys­tems around the fac­tory. Amer­i­can fac­to­ries as much as Soviet ones got big, and both evolved into en­vi­ron­ments whose log­ics were de­tached from any over­ar­ch­ing po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Free­man is ex­cel­lent on this tran­scul­tural logic, as well as on the fac­tory as a pub­lic sym­bol of progress in both sys­tems.

His treat­ment of China in the fi­nal chap­ter is less cer­tain, partly be­cause of the na­ture of the sources, mainly (although not ex­clu­sively) Western com­men­taries. This in­evitably tends to a cer­tain ex­oti­ci­sa­tion of the sub­ject, which in this case means see­ing the Chi­nese fac­tory less as an evo­lu­tion of a fac­tory tra­di­tion than as a rup­ture with it. Free­man claims that Fox­conn’s se­crecy, the cal­cu­lated blank­ness of its pub­lic face, is some­thing new. At its best, he ar­gues, the Western fac­tory tra­di­tion was a pub­lic, civic cul­ture in which labour had a cer­tain dig­nity. That tra­di­tion, from New La­nark to Diego Rivera’s Detroit mu­rals, and even to Poland’s Nowa Huta steel­works, has great ap­peal for lib­eral West­ern­ers, as the au­thor read­ily ad­mits.

But this is a tra­di­tion that, as much as it loves his­tor­i­cal fac­to­ries, fears real ones in the present. Hence, its un­easi­ness about China, where 300 mil­lion or so work in its fac­to­ries, one-quar­ter of the adult pop­u­la­tion. It is un­easy too about the West, where (con­trary to se­duc­tive nar­ra­tives of de­cline) ever vaster fac­to­ries are churn­ing out more and big­ger air­craft than ever be­fore. If ever there was an age of the fac­tory, it is the present. Still, Be­he­moth is a tour de force, a pow­er­ful lib­eral retelling of the fac­tory nar­ra­tive at a time of Trump and all he rep­re­sents, when it badly needs to be re­told.

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