Book of the week
Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
Factories just might represent “the world’s greatest Faustian bargain,” said Scott Berg in The Washington Post. Yes, they pollute the earth and subject workers to dehumanizing routine, but during the 400 years since a textile mill in Derby, England, launched the manufacturing age, factories have been engines of prosperity and opportunity that have lifted the quality of life of entire societies. Joshua Freeman’s “fascinating” new book is on one level a history of the different forms factories have taken since that silk mill opened its doors in 1721. “But inside that story is another one,” a story that reminds us how factories have changed us, including where we live, how we think about time, and the futures we dream about.
Freeman does “a superb job” of reminding us how disruptive the advent of manufacturing was, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. Farmworkers who had made their own schedules were suddenly filing into plants that belched smoke and soot, working without a break all day and for up to 70 hours a week. Men rebelled so frequently that factory owners preferred hiring women and children, and subjected them to horrendous living and working conditions. Only later, during the age of steel, did factory work become a manly occupation carried out amid massive machinery that proved a source of national pride in countries as different as the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, that spirit has gone missing in China and Vietnam, where the biggest factories in history now crank out iPhones and other small goods. Instead of flaunting their might, those plants keep their work largely hidden.
Freeman never can decide if factories have been primarily agents of progress or of dystopia, and “that ambivalence reflects his clear eyes and fair-mindedness,” said Jonathan Rose in The Wall Street Journal. To his credit, he often lets workers themselves speak: One woman who went to work in an early-20th-century New England mill at age 11 describes the experience as having been “paradise,” because she earned money to spend as she wished. A worker in China who was one of several to commit suicide in 2010 at Foxconn’s iPhone-producing plant left behind a poem that began, “They’ve trained me to become docile.” At a time when a greater share of the world’s population is working in manufacturing than ever before, it’s worth remembering both that the factory has enabled “an exponential leap in the human experience” and that “the killing monotony of the shop floor” is a problem that “no economic system has ever solved.”