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The Meaning of American Factories

After decades of plant closures and anti-union politics, why does heavy industry symbolize prosperity?

Luis Acosta / AFP / Getty Images

Four decades after the first predictions of “post-industrial society,” industrial factories have once again returned to Americans’ collective consciousness. Where they once symbolized power, pride, and progress, they are now icons of decline: jobs lost, communities decimated, a period of prosperity that turned out to be all too brief. In the American Midwest and in pockets across Europe, voters who once supported left-leaning parties have increasingly turned to candidates who promise industrial revival wrapped in ethnonationalism.

W. W. Norton & Company, 448 pp., $27.95

It’s hard to imagine that these voters are longing for the conditions that most factory workers today are subjected to. In the new centers of industrial production—Mexico, China, and Vietnam among others—factory work utterly lacks the aura it had in mid-century America, and workers endure authoritarian conditions that recall a much earlier period. Meanwhile, many sectors in the United States now subject their employees to industrial-style discipline. The warehouses of companies like Lidl and Amazon combine hyper-regulated, mentally and physically exhausting work with ruthless metrics and pitiable pay. Jobs in “knowledge work”—hailed by many social theorists in the middle of the twentieth century as a bright future—have largely proved a disappointment, since knowledge workers, too, are tightly controlled, with none of industrial work’s dignified pay and union protection.

The new romance of the factory is more likely based on the sense of dignity and purpose that unionized workers gained in factory jobs. It is unsurprising that some Americans would be nostalgic for a period when they could more easily place themselves in a history of progress as the heirs to a heroic struggle for an improved working-class lot. As Amy Goldstein has poignantly illustrated in her book Janesville: An American Story, when factories close, an entire world collapses—a source of self-worth, a basis of solidarity and trust. Many of the laid-off General Motors workers in Janesville, Wisconsin hated the work they spent most of their days performing. But the factory—and the whole network of factories it sustained—contained memories of personal independence, friendships, political solidarity, company game days and picnics, connection to previous generations, and a strong economic basis for participation in family and community life.

In Behemoth: The History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, labor historian Joshua B. Freeman sets out to explore the complex economic and cultural story of how factories became entangled with the idea of progress, “how and why giant factories became carriers of dreams and nightmares associated with industrialization and social change.” An effortless and engaging guide, Freeman embarks on a tour of the last three centuries, in which the factory played a defining role in world history. By combining economic, labor, and cultural history, he aims to explain the intellectual and emotional power that industrialism exerted over a whole historical epoch, in which giant buildings full of giant machines came, for millions, to embody radical hopes of a completely transformed world.

Born in eighteenth-century Great Britain, the modern factory was immediately understood to herald a revolution. Its emergence generated what would become a familiar cycle of techno-economic hype answered by horrified social criticism and worker protest. The first factory opened in 1721 in Derby, England, where it wove silk on the River Derwent. It took nearly a century for the “factory system” to dominate the British economy, helped along by egregious abuses of labor: Its growth depended both on enslaved people in the Americas, who by the early nineteenth century produced 90 percent of the cotton that Britain’s factories processed, and on the exploitation of England’s rural, poor, orphan, and criminal populations, forced into the mills by the collective power of private industry and the state. Children worked daily shifts of at least twelve hours, and were beaten so that they would stay awake. With few political rights, workers resorted to what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called “collective bargaining by riot,” and “Luddites” broke machines they operated, in order to demand a say in their working conditions and payment (a tactic that would make them erroneously synonymous with technophobia).

American industry initially appeared to have escaped the drama and social upheaval that marked Britain’s industrial revolution. Freeman explains: “What was wrong with Old World manufacturing, American political and intellectual leaders came to believe, was not manufacturing but the Old World.” The textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts drew attention from all over the world for their staff of smartly-dressed young women, their neat, scenic housing quarters, their after-work education, and their in-house literary journal. They pioneered the integration of different aspects of production under one roof, paternalistic management-employee relations, the joint-stock company as form of corporate expansion, and “branding” in the sense of associating products with the particular factories where they were made. But even the celebrated “Lowell girls,” many of whom were glad for the opportunity to escape rural farm life and establish themselves independently, found factory work tiring and dull, and began to organize to defend their wages and other rights.

In the late nineteenth century, the United States, far from being an exception in the industrial world, rivaled the dysfunctional Russian Empire in labor militancy. As railroads crisscrossed the country and steel production spiked, militant unions faced off against America’s “robber barons” in, as Freeman puts it, “what can only be called class war.” American class war was as literal as can be imagined—guns, deaths, and all. Massive corporations like the Carnegie Steel Company used professional thugs to beat workers into submission, often with the backup of the police and state guard forces. Workers were no match for this state-endorsed violence, and when their unions were crushed, they were doomed to live in towns designed and controlled by their employers, extending factory discipline to daily life. In the year after Carnegie crushed an 1888 strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, 30 out of 64 steel mills in the state were able to rid themselves of Amalgamated Steel, the most powerful steelworkers’ union.

Labor militancy never slackened, but only positive intervention from the American state permanently changed the balance of power. The two world wars and the Great Depression transformed American labor relations, simultaneously depriving big business of its political legitimacy and spurring the U.S. government to drag capital to the bargaining table. Motivated by war production during World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s administration established a legal framework to ensure labor rights, and union membership increased 70 percent between 1917 and 1920. The National Labor Relations Act, which created the current National Labor Relations Board, passed in 1935. Despite these gradual gains, the largest strike wave in U.S. history was still to come, with two million Americans walking off the job in 1946. Their action produced a significant 8.5 percent wage increase, and, as Freeman puts it, “for the only time, the United States effectively had a national wage settlement.”

In response, corporations began introducing automation, hyping the possibility of future automation, and moving factories to the anti-union South. But the first half of the twentieth century produced a situation that would transform the lives of many American workers, create a comfortable middle class for several decades to come, and a national mythos that endures to this day.

Behemoth shows that the idealism of the factory was not limited to the capitalist West. The process of industrialization in the Soviet Union differed from the capitalist sort in that it openly avowed its desire to change every aspect of social life, and in that it took place in a society where profit had been abolished. The USSR went much farther than the capitalist West in tying industrialization to projects of social and cultural improvement, including an unprecedented eradication of illiteracy. But for the most part, Freeman—in a welcome bit of subversive revisionism for a book aimed at the general public—emphasizes the similarities between Western and Soviet industrialization.

Even before Joseph Stalin’s “revolution from above”—the crash-industrialization implemented through the late 1920s and early 1930s—early Bolshevik leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky agreed that American industrial technology would be a central component of building socialism, and dismissed critics who argued that American capitalist forms would inherently corrupt Soviet socialist content. American corporations—Ford, Du Pont, Newport News Shipbuilding—were surprisingly eager to participate in Soviet industrialization, sending their best technicians and experts to work in the almost unimaginably difficult conditions of under-developed Russia between the two world wars. Working with an eye toward profit and no small degree of goodwill, the same hands and minds that designed the Fordist U.S.A. designed the Stalinist U.S.S.R.

Soviet industrialization was the zenith of the twentieth-century religion of industry, involving projects that dwarfed even the mind-boggling, record-breaking Ford plants at River Rouge and Highland Park in Michigan. Soviet projects not only combined multiple kinds of production in massive factories, but they were also integrated into giant, centrally-planned networks of mines and other production sites. Magnitogorsk, a colossal factory-city in the Ural mountains, was known as the “Mighty City of the Five-Year Plan,” referring to the document that outlined the superhuman effort Soviet society was to throw behind industrialization between 1928 and 1932.

Magnitogorsk was built with radically insufficient resources and manpower in a location that suffered long, cold winters sometimes averaging below zero degrees Fahrenheit. The project was also plagued by poor planning, untrained managers, and politicized recriminations when it failed to advance according to the Plan’s impossible timeline. It was fueled by the forced labor of prisoners and “kulaks,” wealthier peasants who had been expropriated and labeled class traitors, who like all workers in the Soviet Union, were pressured to meet exaggerated quotas.

Freeman points out that nearly every brutal aspect of Soviet industrialization, particularly the use of slave labor, had a precedent in Western European and American industrialization. It is a mark of the deep hold of ideology that it seems controversial to admit that Soviet industrialization was an astonishing achievement, and that its high price in human suffering and unfreedom was different in pace and degree, rather than kind, from the “industrial revolutions” of European and American history. Under both capitalism and socialism, industrialism was celebrated as bringing modernity and progress, worth the decades of struggle, upheaval, and violence. It inspired artists, writers, architects, and photographers, and drew tourists to factories and industrial demonstrations at events like the World’s Fair.

“I worship factories,” the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White said, just as Soviet avant-garde artists worshipped factories in their publication, U.S.S.R. in Construction, pioneering design techniques on the way to showing off industrialization to a Russian public still learning to read. Factories were a symbol of both American middle-class opportunity and of the revolutionary communist future.

Today’s factories are the largest in world history, though for the most part they operate out the view of those who consume their products, and—unlike the celebrated factories of the past—largely out of the view of any outsider at all. Freeman’s final chapter explores the factory landscape in China and Vietnam and traces the massive shift of the world’s industrial centers to the global South since the 1980s. Longshua Science and Technology Park, or “Foxconn City,” in Shenzhen, China, is the largest factory in human history, with as many as 450,000 estimated employees. Between 1980 and 2000, Shenzhen’s population increased from 321,000 to seven million.

China’s massive factories are fueled by what Freeman calls “an oceanic movement of population from farms to factories and back” that resembles past migrations of laborers from the countryside to the industrial city. While Foxconn workers do not perform the most physically brutal labor in human history, they are subjected to an unprecedented level of discipline, “a kind of hyper-Taylorism,” and to degrading punishments like beatings and copying the CEO’s quotes by hand. Dozens have thrown themselves to their deaths from the factory’s roof as the only form of protest they feel possible in a country where labor organizing is illegal. Unlike their predecessors, factories in China “no longer represent a vision of a new and different world a-coming, of a utopian future” or even of a “nightmare existence.” It is strictly a phase to be overcome on the way to global power, one to be kept hidden from the world’s gaze as much as possible.

Freeman makes an impressive effort to cover both the history of twentieth-century China and post-1970s globalization, summarizing the shifts in logistics and the shrinking of the globe that has made it possible for Western corporations to produce almost anything anywhere in the world without significant transport costs. But here the weakness of the factory as a historical subject begins to become apparent: The true subject of Freeman’s story is global capitalism itself. Why is it that working conditions have regressed all over the world, that similar forms of brutality and authoritarianism appear both in American warehouses and Chinese iPhone plants? Why do today’s factories, “rather than representing an enlargement of the human spirit … seem to symbolize its diminishment?”

To answer those questions, we have to go beyond the mythology of modernity represented by the factory, and tell a global political story about the assault on labor rights since the 1970s, underwritten by both national governments and international institutions. The economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s provided an opening for market fundamentalists to mount an offensive against labor using both the tools of government policy and corporate practices, and brought a financialization of the global economy that left both local corporations and foreign governments beholden to Wall Street. Corporations were able to dramatically increase productivity and profits by rolling back time-honored labor commitments and re-intensifying work.

With these structural shifts at the center of the story, we find that workers were not mere victims of the “natural life cycle” of factories, that they did not lose the thread of their own progress. As Lane Windham shows in her new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door, new generations of workers in the 1970s, led by women and people of color, pursued their labor rights as vigorously as their predecessors, only to find themselves blocked as the government allowed capital to trample—and finally to undo—the fragile legal infrastructure that had provided some degree of balance to American labor relations since the 1930s.

Today, a desperate working class that is highly diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and economic sector, finds itself hemmed in by decades of anti-union politics and legal precedent. As the recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia illustrated, even relatively more protected public-sector workers now face the lose-lose downward spiral of pay freezes and cuts to their benefits that has become the norm since the 1980s, even as salaries soar at the top and lawmakers pass massive tax breaks for the wealthy. Today’s American workers find themselves living the consequences of the historic error of hitching social welfare to the caprices of private industry and a shaky legal framework rather than building it into the state as most European nations did.

Ecology is only a minor theme of Behemoth, but it is a major reason that mass production will never regain the quasi-religious aura it once had. “Industrial revolution” was necessary to lift humanity out of poverty, but the way it proceeded under both capitalism and socialism may have sealed humanity’s fate on this planet. In the United States in particular, mass production enabled a culture of mass waste in which middle-class affluence was synonymous with the reckless expenditure of natural resources. High union wages funded lifestyles and recreation based on gas-guzzling vehicles and disposable gadgets. Even today, when workers are increasingly less able to consume, the economics of employment and prosperity remain deeply entangled in American political discourse with the ideology of over-consumption. The American “virtuous circle” of production and consumption, part and parcel of the postwar celebration of the factory, undercuts any plausible response to the global climate crisis, polluted oceans and more.

The end of the religion of industry is, ultimately, not something to be lamented. Today’s workers, Freeman writes, have “little hope or belief in their ability to create a new world, a post-factory world that builds on the extraordinary advances of the giant factory to forge a new and different kind of modernity.” It remains a stark reality that factory work and free human beings are, to a large extent, a contradiction in terms. Despite the fact that unionized industrial work—and the prosperity and solidarity it supported—was revolutionary for the millions of men and women who performed it, it remained an unfinished revolution. It left standing, at the center of prosperous and proud communities, a well of monotony, exhaustion, and broken bodies that history has long since given us the tools to drain and fill with stones.

If Freeman to some extent remains nostalgic for the promise of the factory, Behemoth nonetheless proposes that the last two centuries will one day be remembered as a period when industry, as the French philosopher Pierre Musso puts it, “took the place of religion” and became “the dogmatic architecture of the West.” From this perspective, the factory loses its “air of permanence,” and it becomes easier to imagine the world beyond it. The industrial revolution demonstrated that it was “possible to reinvent the world.” And if the world is currently being reinvented from above again—this time by an assortment of old-industry billionaires and new technology titans—there is no reason to doubt that those below can find the gaps in its networks, the bugs in its systems, and turn them into the weapons of history.