W.W. Norton, 2018, 427 pp., $27.95
Since 2008, one question has obsessed political elites in many rich capitalistic countries: Has capitalism failed as a form of economic and social order? Has it not produced the goods, or has it produced too many goods, or, more politically relevant, has it produced the sense of a good society? And if it has failed, what might, should, or will come after it?
Any number of abstractions, appearing everywhere in the media, academia, and politics, are now used to describe capitalism as a discredited economic and social order. More in Europe than in the United States, “capitalism” is prominent in the lexicography of ignominy, as are “neoliberalism” and “market fundamentalism.” These abstractions are all difficult, maybe impossible, to define, not least because they all reify a target that is constantly changing. They nevertheless have yielded a debate about the modern world that has morphed into a neo-scholastic exercise of eviscerating exegesis. Hillary Clinton recently speculated that she may have failed because she was a capitalist.
Joshua Freeman’s refreshing book, his fourth, is a good indication that there is another way to approach today’s uncertainties. That involves looking at the past. Think of how lived experience changes, rather than ruminate on recondite terminology. Instead of asking whether capitalism began in the 18th century, or in late medieval Florence, or whether ancient Greece or Rome were in some ways capitalistic (we can probably agree that Stone Age people were not), Freeman knows how to begin: when something dramatically transformative happened. Behemoth starts, as all good history books should, with a date: 1721. “In 1721 […] the first successful example of a factory, as we use the term today, was built on an island in the River Derwent.” It was a silk mill, built by two half-brothers, John and Thomas Lombe of Darby. The factory was quite distinct from other buildings: the church, the palace, the theater, bathhouse, dormitory, lecture hall, courtyard, prison, or city hall. It established the modern world.
Freeman, a professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), and the CUNY Graduate Center, traces the story of the factory as manufacturing techniques and the objects being produced changed: from silk weaving to cotton and other textiles, and then to iron and steel, then to the creation of complex machinery such as the automobile or the aircraft, and then to electronics assembly plants. The geographical focus shifts from England to the young United States, then to the Soviet Union, and ends up in China. The factories appeared in countries that were remaking themselves and dreaming of a new society, of which the factory appeared to be the facilitator. Freeman could easily have also included Germany in his industrial grand tour, where after 1871 the Krupp factory at first seemed to embody the dynamism of the young German Empire.
Each version and incarnation of a factory in the different geographic locations produced an initial utopia. The agglomeration of large numbers of people in large rooms was not just an exercise in increasing economic efficiency; it might make the people involved in production better people. A dream of human liberation became associated with the factory before it ever generated bleak visions of a new bondage for the sake of Mammon and profit. The factory even became an aesthetic object, designed by prominent architects and engineers experimenting with new ways of organizing social space. Companies regularly included an imposing lithograph of their production facilities on their corporate stationery.
It is also clear that the most obvious economic explanation of the rise of the factory—the exploitation of economies of scale—is not a very good account of why the factories were built. In many cases, there were penalties for being too big; especially before the advent of electric power made it possible to distribute energy more widely over a large area, large factories depended on complicated systems of cranks and shafts that linked a central source of power, at the beginning usually water and later on engines usually driven by coal. Sometimes factories were built in order to control workers. More often they were designed to ensure that production secrets were kept and patents not abused. In some cases, factories became merely prestige projects of display for a status-conscious aristocracy.
Initially, factories appeared as objects of admiration, attracting tourism to England. Alexis de Tocqueville thought of the mills of Manchester as akin to “huge palaces;” another observer thought of them as like Egyptian obelisks. Some observers even seem to have been enchanted by child workers, and to have thought that the new forms of physical activity constituted a good. Andrew Ure, a Scottish physician and business theorist (a striking combination of expertise!), commented on how “the work of these lively elves seemed to resemble a sport, in which habit gave them a pleasing dexterity.”
One of the attractive consequences of Freeman’s geographic trajectory is that he can explain how, in each case, the reality of factory life quickly overshadowed the utopian dream. There was soon a dystopia of overworked, brutalized, enslaved workers, often vulnerable children and women in the textile mills that began to overshadow the utopian dream. Government commissions and poets like William Blake and social critics like Marx and Engels graphically depicted the excesses, the abuses, and the human degradation.
Each time the factory was reinvented in a new location, a different story could be told about why this time things were different—how a better world was about to be established. Initially, the New England mills looked like both a strengthening of the commercial sinews of the young republic and liberation for the farm girls who went into the factories. Freeman quotes a mill worker, Harriet Robinson, as she recalls how repressed and depressed girls were transformed by work and money:
After their first pay-day came, and they felt the jingle of silver in their pocket and had begun to feel its mercurial influence, their bowed heads were lifted, their necks seemed braced with steel, they looked you in the face, sang blithely among their looms or frames, and walked with elastic step to and from their work.
The early commentators realized how transitory the initial idyll might be, and began to suspect that as manufacturing spread, conditions might deteriorate. They did.
Each new utopia produced the same cycle. First there was enthusiasm about the size and the transformative capacity when a new production technique brought a new aesthetic: when the steel factory came, or when Ford worked with the assembly line. Then came disillusion, radicalization, and the mobilization of organized labor avowedly to tame the monster.
Some taming occurred, to be sure, but the monster then moved geographically to inhabit a world organized quite differently. That is when Freeman transports the reader to Russia, where an American architect, Albert Kahn, brought the most transformative design for rationalized mass-assembly production to Soviet tractor factories, first in Stalingrad and then beyond. Kahn described himself as a doctor dealing with his Russian patient. There was the same foreign tourism, the same over-enthusiastic accounts, complemented now by films and photos. The photographer Margaret Bourke-White explained that she could provide an “exultant picture” for a world waiting to be impressed by the Soviet achievement.
With the shift to China, and the colossal breakneck transformation of the Chinese economy since the 1980s, the story takes on yet another twist. There is first of all the relatively simple matter of scaling up. Production became even larger, more concentrated, and more globalized. And again, Freemen neatly presents both the utopia, of illiterate rural farmers learning and civilizing themselves, and the dystopia of mass disenchantment and worker suicides and labor protest in Foxconn City (Longhua Science and Technology Park in Shenzhen).
But he notes an interesting change. The giant factories are no longer intended to be icons of design, they aren’t objects of touristic pilgrimage, and they do not figure prominently in the advertising and marketing of the companies for which they produce. They are silent and invisible. That is a solution to the problem of industrial espionage, which is ironic in a way since these factories have themselves benefitted from a good deal of industrial espionage.
As at the beginning of the factory revolution, Freeman insists that there is no strictly economic need for the modern version of gigantism. There may even be declining marginal productivities in large factories. But the exercise is fundamentally about control—the control of people, but also the control of processes and ideas.
And so we are back to capitalism. Foxconn produces for Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard. I am probably typing this article on one of its products, but I can’t really know. There is nothing on the laptop to tell me where it was actually made, or assembled, and who made or assembled it. And it isn’t even clear who owns Foxconn either. Behemoth concludes with the observation that the second-largest holder of stock in the majority owner of Foxconn, Hon Hai Precision Industry, is the Vanguard Group (which specializes in the management of retirement funds). In short, I may even partly “own” the company that produces my computer, but I still don’t know anything about its production, and I certainly can’t influence it.
Freeman’s is a work of history, so there is little speculation about such conundrums, and even less speculation about the future. But Behemoth certainly invites and stimulates such thoughts.
First, production is coming back to rich countries, and global supply chains are being cut in the name of rapid response to changing tastes and markets. But much of the onshoring does not involve an extensive hiring of new labor—at least not yet.1 The factory as a location for very large numbers of people may thus be largely an artefact of the past. Instead, the modern factory is a collection of machines—robots, in common parlance. They can be visited too; modern automobile producers in Japan and Germany, for example, like to show off their automatized production facilities as a way of advertising their products.
Second, despite the incipient trend of returning production, service industries are still gaining at the expense of traditional manufacturing. The vast campuses, with giant open-plan offices, are the modern equivalent of 19th– and early 20th-century factories. They are built by the most iconic enterprises, but they are factories that no longer produce anything physical at all. The 430,000-square foot, Frank Gehry-designed headquarters for Facebook in Menlo Park, with 3,000 or so engineers within, is usually thought to be the largest open-plan office in the world. Amazon and Apple are looking for giant new campuses and staging the competition as a race between cities that want to prosper and shine. Capitalism now wants to reinvent the environment—this time, presumably, for the better.
The modern worker halls can be made to seem just as liberating as the old factories, but ultimately they are just as confining, if not wholly monstrous. They produce work-related stress, anomie, and other forms of psychic damage. The mega-offices are supposed to offer what artificial intelligence cannot, at least yet: creative interaction. Modern employers create coffeehouses as niches for that interaction. The water cooler in the corner is just not enough anymore. But everything else, all the routine processing, is left to machines.
The old question—in this year of Karl Marx’s 200th birthday—about the economies of scale continues to apply, very forcefully, to this world. Are giant offices really the best way of assembling and stimulating human creativity? Aren’t some of the other buildings with which Freeman starts his accounts, the pre-modern ones like the university quad, the church, and the city hall—and of course the tavern and the coffeehouse—just as effective if not more so for creative purposes? Is the postmodern world therefore likely to take us back to the social architecture of the premodern? Or is the enduring need for control too strong for that? Freeman doesn’t offer a conjecture, but he does at least stimulate the question.
1Informed speculation that it might do so informs William B. Bonvillian and Peter L. Singer, “What Economists Don’t Know About Manufacturing,” The American Interest (May/June 2018) and their book, Advanced Manufacturing: The New American Innovation Policies.