Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World by Joshua Freeman
W.W. Norton & Co., 448 pp.
Karl Marx’s ideas seem more relevant in our day than they were in his. As jobs jump from country to country, and capital rushes around the world with the click of a computer key, we are truly living in an age of global turbocapitalism. And as the internet dissolves print publications, bricks-and-mortar retailers, and other 20th century powerhouses, we are watching Marx’s celebrated aphorism come to life: a world in which “all that is solid melts into air.”
All of these disruptions make this moment a particularly auspicious one for a history of the factory, and in Behemoth, Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center distinguished professor Joshua Freeman has produced an excellent one. Freeman traces the rise of factories from the first one, in 1721 Derby England, which produced silk, to the ur-factories of our day in 2018 Shenzhen, China, or “Foxxconn City,” where workers for Apple contractors may have produced the device on which you are reading these words.
The story of the factory is not only fast moving and rapidly accelerating -- it is decidedly a mixed one, to put it mildly. Freeman is unstinting in his description of the oppression of factory work – such as the early cotton mills, with their “pale countenances and sickly bodies of the workers” and “the fierce demeanor of the overseers, some of whom carried belts or whips to enforce their discipline.” At the same time, he acknowledges the world of consumer plenty and pleasure they have ushered in. “The giant factory has made dreams reality,” Freeman concludes, “but it has rendered nightmares real, too.”