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We Are What We Manufacture

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Joshua B. Freeman doesn’t chronicle the aftershocks of the loss of five million factory jobs from the American landscape or show you the impact of disappearing factory jobs on towns across America. And I wish he had addressed the abandoned plants, escalating drug crime and crowded food pantries.

But what this distinguished professor of history at CUNY’s Queens College does is lay out two centuries of factory production all over the world in ways that are accessible, cogent, occasionally riveting and thoroughly new. The history of large factories, as Freeman outlines it, is the history of the modern world and most everything we see, experience and touch.

At a time when the ghost of the American dream hovers over headlines ranging from free trade vs. protectionism to opioid addiction and other so-called diseases of despair, “Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World” should be required reading for all Americans, especially the 8 percent of the American labor force who still work in manufacturing (down from 24 percent in 1960).

If you are reading this review on an iPad or iPhone or another Silicon Valley-designed computer screen, then Freeman’s history will not only explain how and where your device came to be produced but also how the story of modern production parallels the story of your relative level of affluence, from the balance in your retirement funds to the circumstances prompting your ancestors’ migration from an unproductive Irish potato field to a western Pennsylvania steel mill.

There are few items in our homes that didn’t originate as disparate components in faraway supply plants, touched by many hands in multiple countries. But whose hands actually make and order the assembling of the products, from the B-24 builders in Ypsilanti, Mich., whose goods flew into combat during World War II, to the corporate owners who erected three million square meters of yellow netting to prevent overworked Chinese Foxconn workers from jumping to their deaths in 2010?

Freeman tells us who both the makers and the corporate owners are, and, more impressively, he shows us how, over a relatively short period of time, their stories come to be entangled. He wants us to leave his book grappling with the question: How should human beings balance economic good with environmental harm, need with greed?

He is more concerned with the building up of factories than the tearing down, chronicling the pros and cons of factory work with a scholar’s even gaze. When a developing country embraces manufacturing to propel itself away from agrarian subsistence, the work is invariably rote and exploitive and often even life-threatening. But, over all, life expectancy climbs and poverty and disease plummet.

That was as true in the wake of the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe — before which only half of French children, plagued by hunger and disease, lived to see the age of 20 — as it is now in Ethiopia, where the producers of Ivanka Trump’s shoes recently relocated from Dongguan, China, chasing a more desperate work force content to work for a pittance (roughly $30 a month) rather than paying the rising wages of their predecessors in China ($560).

Capitalism, naturally, takes advantage of such increasingly swift and secretive moves. It was the striving capitalists, after all, who pioneered the world’s initial giant factories — first among them a British wigmaker named Richard Arkwright who patented his spinning machine in 1768, then created an empire of steam-powered cotton mills. Arkwright knew he had arrived when he was able to lend the Duchess of Devonshire 5,000 pounds to pay down her gambling debts, even if he and his fellow mill owners used laborers as young as 7 years old.

Freeman dips into a delicious expanse of source material from Charles Dickens to Karl Marx to Tim Cook, from Bloomberg Businessweek to The National Rip-Saw. In roughly chronological order, British silk mill owners give way to the Boston barons who developed the factory town of Lowell, Mass., in 1822, building dorm-style housing for the out-of-town farmers’ daughters they hired and innovating a standardized production process that bested the British and would “morally uplift” via such utopian amenities as company-sponsored libraries and potted plants.

The wealthy Boston merchant Frances Cabot Lowell not only figured out how to churn out white sheeting more efficiently — the fabric used to make slaves’ clothing — but he was also the brains behind the radical innovation of the stockholder corporation. Before Lowell, that model was rare, usually reserved for public works, not the accumulation of private wealth.

Freeman loops around the globe nimbly, drawing parallels between the farmers’ daughters who sent money home from Lowell and the Chinese migrants who do the same from Guangdong almost two centuries later. Though I wish he would have lingered longer on the workers’ lives, he has a sharp eye for the raw, gut-kicking detail. A riveter in the Urals freezes to death on a scaffolding. Middle managers in Michigan have to learn the words for “hurry up” in English, German, Polish and Italian to keep Henry Ford’s assembly line humming along.

As he does with Diego Rivera’s industry-worshiping murals in Detroit, Freeman’s mini-portrait of the photographer Margaret Bourke-White shows how the public came to view manufacturing through her factory-fanatic lens, from Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., to Stalin’s giant tractor factory in a former melon field. With Henry Ford’s top architect, Albert Kahn, as their consultant, the Soviets squeezed wealth out of the countryside on the road to creating a socialist society after an initial epic fail. “The Russians have no more idea how to use the conveyor than a group of schoolchildren,” Freeman quotes Bourke-White saying. “One Russian is screwing in a tiny bolt and 20 other Russians are standing around him watching, talking it over, smoking cigarettes, arguing.”

But the Russians eventually figured out how to make manufacturing advance both their socialist culture and their economy, inspiring the East Europeans, all of whom later inspire Taiwanese and Hong Kong businessmen setting up Chinese government-backed shops in Shenzhen and Guangdong.

Freeman’s final chapter, “Foxconn City,” is the finest and most searing profile of wealth-makers in the bunch, revealing the sheer drudgery of overworked people who make sneakers and iPhones but can’t afford to buy them and the quiet deal-making machinations fueling Silicon Valley’s billionaire class.

Quoting the Apple executive Tim Cook, the mastermind behind offshoring production to Taiwanese-owned contractors in China before his ascent to chief executive, Freeman shows how just-in-time production flourishes on the backs of poorly paid workers who are shifted from one factory to another in an entirely different region practically at the stroke of his keyboard. When it comes to inventory, Cook said, “you kind of want to manage it like you’re in the dairy business. If it gets past its freshness date, you have a problem.”

When wages rise because of retention problems or labor unrest, the Chinese government is happy to help Apple and others by handing out tax breaks and transportation projects to spur new, lower-paying factories in China’s hinterlands. No such help is on tap for a worker, trained with a specialized skill, stuck in a country that no longer supports the industry she works in and living in places like Flint, Mich., which can’t even guarantee the water is safe.

For the displaced, Freeman writes, “the future has already come and gone, perhaps leaving them with sneakers and a smartphone, but with little hope” for forging a post-factory life that is both sustainable and ecologically sound.

Though he never states it outright, Freeman’s inclusion of poetry by a Foxconn worker who committed suicide in 2014 telegraphs where his allegiances lie:

They’ve trained me to become docile

Don’t know how to shout or rebel

How to complain or denounce

Only how to silently suffer exhaustion.

“Behemoth” is contextually thin in places, especially Freeman’s take on deindustrialization. He doesn’t mention that, as life expectancy in East Asia climbed, mortality rates rose in America, or that drug dealers, not farm girls seeking sewing jobs, now flock to Lowell — a distribution hub for heroin.

Freeman only cursorily explores the aftermath of globalization, automation and unfettered free trade, and he doesn’t ask what the government owes the people still living in America’s former mill and mining towns. More robust retraining and access to need-based college financial aid? Incentives to resettle elsewhere? A New Deal for the displaced and drug-addicted?

Perhaps it’s beyond the purview of a historian to wrestle with such questions. Perhaps it is enough that this thoroughly researched history makes us question our own accumulation of the stuff in front of us and our complicity in the truth we dare not see.


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