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
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.