In 'behemoth,' manufacturing still looms large - the new york times west la college paralegal program

In ‘behemoth,’ manufacturing still looms large – the new york times west la college paralegal program

The current president may be completely uninterested in cultivating a number of traditional political skills — among them a sense of discretion and at least the semblance of self-control — but he has an uncanny feel for political symbolism, especially when it comes to the role of manufacturing in the united states. Factory work provides a diminishing share of working-class jobs: there were 43,000 iron and steelworkers last year, compared with almost 2 million hospital and home health aides. But to hear president trump tell it, the factory workers are the ones who matter most. Just last week, he declared steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, tweeting that “ trade wars are good, and easy to win.”

Joshua B. Freeman’s rich and ambitious “behemoth: A history of the factory and the making of the modern world” depicts a world in retreat that still looms large in the national imagination.Looms large “behemoth” is more than an economic history, or a chronicle of architectural feats and labor movements. Freeman, a professor at queens college and the graduate center of CUNY, traces the rise of the factory and how it became entwined with enlightenment ideas of progress — “the notion that through human effort and rationality the world could be transformed toward greater abundance, well-being and moral order.”

Factories weren’t always imbued with such lofty ideals. They were initially devised “to take advantage of mundane commercial opportunities,” freeman writes. He dates the first factory to 1721: a silk mill, built in derby, england. In the decade after it opened, daniel defoe paid it a visit, declaring it “a curiosity of a very extraordinary nature.”

The proliferation of these curiosities, culminating in the industrial revolution, took some time.United states obtaining machinery and technical know-how often entailed some trade espionage, before the british government took an active hand in promoting industrial development. Continue reading the main story

Now that factory work and stable, blue-collar jobs are such potent sources of nostalgia, it can be hard to recall how truly disruptive the manufacturing age was. Freeman does a superb job of reminding us. For an agrarian society like england, the factory generated a wistfulness for the bucolic agricultural past. The “dark satanic mills” bemoaned by william blake were powered by steam and coal-fired boilers that belched smoke and soot. Seventy-hour work weeks were common. Male workers chafed at the constant supervision on the factory floor, and owners preferred not to employ men, anyway.United states “today, in the united states, factories are associated with masculinity,” freeman writes, “but in their early days they were spaces largely occupied by women and children.”

Some of the details recounted here are familiar, though still appalling. In the 19th century, textile mills in new england — which were supposed to be gentler than the cruel depredations of the old world — employed children as young as 4. Factory workers in britain overwhelmed urban areas, crowding together in squalor. A manchester official described streets “so covered with refuse and excrementitious matter as to be almost impassable from depth of mud, and intolerable from stench.”

As freeman shows, what started inauspiciously became an engine for material abundance and, in the cases of the united states and the soviet union, a source of national pride.Freeman writes factories, especially steel mills, became the behemoths of the book’s title, consolidations of equipment and labor on a massive scale. Freeman suggests the awe that these enormous structures must have inspired, describing how dignitaries attending the opening of a steel mill in 19th-century maryland “rode in decorated gondola cars along the route iron ore would take,” ascending to a height of eight stories. Unlike the textile worker, who brought to mind wan images of a young woman or “a sickly child,” steelworkers were often portrayed “as intensely masculine, often bare-chested, with muscles rippling.”

With size and strength came strife too, as steel mills became sites for a bitter class war. Start-up costs were high, so a few big firms dominated the industry. Unions organized in response.Freeman writes steel magnates like andrew carnegie resented any incursions on their freedom to set wages and working conditions at will; they wanted the right to squeeze labor to maintain profitability. The homestead strike of 1892 turned into a literal conflagration, as steelworkers in pennsylvania set the monongahela river on fire.

Freeman handles all of this material with the seriousness it deserves. If “behemoth” can feel a little slow-going at times, that’s partly because of the knottiness of the history freeman lays out, as well as his honorable refusal to resort to simplistic notions of grand progress or portentous doom.

He shows how henry ford’s assembly-line innovations rendered his company both dominant and vulnerable: switching to a new product in 1927 from the model T required a wholesale overhaul of equipment and processes, costing ford today’s equivalent of a cool $3.5 billion.Freeman writes gigant industrialism in the soviet union and the eastern bloc showed its own seams and contradictions; for all the talk of a workers’ paradise, the soviets eventually criminalized absenteeism, tardiness and “quitting without permission,” controlling labor in ways that would have made the most ruthless capitalist proud.

Toward the end of “behemoth,” freeman finally arrives in china and vietnam, where the factory system is still flourishing. Unlike the 20th-century behemoths of the united states, which were publicly showcased as marvels of ingenuity and industry, these new factories keep much of their work hidden. Freeman says foxconn city in shenzhen, china, might well be the largest factory ever, though the number of employees is hard to pin down: perhaps as many as 400,000 workers, making sleek and expensive gadgets like apple’s iphone.Freeman writes

A spate of worker suicides at foxconn captured the world’s attention in 2010 — at least for a while, though none of foxconn’s major clients stopped using it. Nor did reports of foxconn’s merciless and degrading environment put a dent in demand for apple’s coveted products. Instead of substantively changing its production regime, foxconn surrounded its factory buildings with yellow netting, to catch despairing workers before they hit the ground.

Our brave new world of consumer goods is now fabricated in “bland, boring structures,” freeman writes, designed for grim functionality as opposed to showing off: “rather than representing an enlargement of the human spirit, modern factory giants often seem to symbolize its diminishment.” “behemoth” doesn’t romanticize the earlier incarnations of gigantic factories, but freeman understands why some people did — and still do.United states