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On Contact: History of the Factory with Joshua Freeman

Journalist Chris Hedges talks to Joshua Freeman, Professor History at City University of New York, about his book ‘Behemoth: The History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World’. While the US has deindustrialized its economy with skeletal remains of its manufacturing base, the factory continues to dominate the world economy, employing nearly 30 percent of the global workforce, nearly 43 percent in China. These factories make appliances, cars, laptops, and clothes, and the vast array of consumer products that define the modern age. Some of these factories employ as many as 200,000 or more workers. But what is the future of manufacturing when faced with diminishing resources, its legacy of land and air pollution, and environmental degradation?

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the history of the factory and the making of the modern world with author Joshua Freeman.

JF: Some Chinese shoe manufacturers have now set up satellite plans in Ethiopia which is, you know, it's got--you know, what do you need to have a modern factory?  You need good electricity supply.  You have to be close to a container port, you know, and you've got to have, you know, cheap labor and a government that's going to kind of keep things in line and the Chinese have decided that Ethiopia is a place where you have all that.  And, you know, it--they are--they are setting up overseas branches and shifting production if it's getting too expensive in the home plan. 

CH: The factory defines our world.  While the United States is de-industrialized its economy leaving behind the skeletal remains of its once potent manufacturing base, the factory continues to dominate the global economy.  Employing nearly 30% of the global workforce, in China, this number climbs to 43%.  These factories make appliances, cars, smartphones, laptops, clothes, and a vast array of consumer products that define the modern age.  Some of these factories employ 200,000 or more workers.  But are we reaching the end of the reign of the factory?  As natural resources diminish, and the ecosystem disintegrates, can modernity continue to be equated with increased material production in huge hierarchically organized industrial facilities as well as consumption?  When does the social wreckage of these giant factories begin to outweigh what they produce?  How many more toxic wastelands like Flint, Michigan and the old industrial centers in the American Midwest, Northern England, Northern France, Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, and Northern China can be absorbed into societies beset with unemployment, poverty, contaminated soil, air, and water, and the pathology to despair that manifest themselves in drug, and alcohol addictions, and suicide.  Joining me to discuss the history of the factory and its place in contemporary society is Queens College history professor Joshua Freeman, the author of Behemoth, A History of the Factory and The Making of the Modern World.  I thought that was very smart to portray contemporary industrial society through the history of the factory and you begin with the factories in England, cotton and textile.  And the wider society including writers and artists, it--they almost endow these factories with a kind of utopian quality.

JF: Yes, although utopian and dystopian.  I think unlike today in the United States, there's a great sense of wonder, a sense that we need to come to a reckoning with these places.  So sometimes it was seeing the tremendous potential for a different kind of society, a better society but also the deep fears, you know, particularly associated with labor exploitation, loss of individuality, environmental plagues that develop very early on.  So, you know, these two have gone together and I think they reflected two sides of the factory, you know, a kind of wonderfully efficient and productive place but also one that does that at the cost of exploitation of labor, despoilment of the globe.  So, you know, that was long the case.  I think in the United States, we don't think very much anymore like that.

CH: The Lowell Textile Mills because they were driven by water initially, so you didn't have the cold, the pollution in England.  Boy, they really sold a bill of goods as this being empowering for primarily female workforce and, you know, evoking progress and...

JF: Well, they had a political problem.  You know, the United States in spite of Alexander Hamilton, was mostly hostile to the idea of manufacturing in the early decades.  You know, the idea was an agrarian.

CH: This was Jefferson?

JF: Yeah.  A kind of--but even in the north, this vision of small scale enterprise, rural, and they already looked at England and they saw class divisions and, you know, dark satanic mills.  So, you know, how do you introduce that?  You know, and I think that the New England textile manufacturers by using a workforce of young women who were sort of between leaving their families and starting their adult lives weren't disrupting the society.  It was a kind of rotating temporary workforce.  And they had to create an attractive place to win them, to come to work for them.  So this also, you know, kind of alleviated concerns about the impact.  You know, this was a transitionary moment but I think in that moment, it won over a lot of Americans to the idea that this could be a positive thing and began making this equation of, you know, well-being and success as a society with material goods, you know, in big quantities.

CH: That didn't last.  I mean, the treatment of the workers became as bad as it did in England and everywhere else.  Talk of--one of the things you talk about in the book is that this model of what you call industrial giant-ism is never--not sustainable in any particular locale but reemerges over and over in different places.  Talk about that process.

JF: Yeah.  Well, in the first big scale factories I talk about were silk mills.  They're 300 years old but, you know, no factories run anything like 300 years and typically they last 60, 80, 90 years, sometimes less.  I think what happens is, you know, these big mills come with a kind of new technological innovation and they go boom.  You know, they disrupt the society.  They have to create all these new conventions.  They have new technology and they often hire people who've been outside the workforce or not even hire.  Use them.  It might be children, it might be young women from the countryside, it might be migrants, it might even be prisoners.  And there are kind of super profits to be made during that period of time.  But then things begin to change.  You know, labor costs go up because workers fight back or reformers come in.  And also, you have all this fixed capital so you tend to get kind of conservative and some person down the road, you know, comes up with a new version of this.

CH: Well, the technology becomes redundant.

JF: Yeah.

CH: And that's an issue you see and they don't want to change it.

JF: They don't want to change it because they're making money doing this and they don't want to--so they becomes almost like kind of rentiers, you know, the--and, you know, 30, 40, 50, 70 years down the line at some point they can't compete anymore, and they close.  And by then there's usually huge environmental damage and communities that have been built around these factories are now left stranded as the sort of forefront has moved on whether it's within one country or in now, you know, increasingly across national boundaries to other countries.  So the cycle keeps repeating but, you know, but this thing, the factory, it looks so big, and permanent, and solid, you know, in any one place actually lasts a couple generations.

CH: Well, so this de-industrialization within the United States fits the pattern you write about?

JF: Absolutely.  Absolutely.  You know, and it's been going on for a long time.  You know, those load mills started to being abandoned as early as World War I.  And by the 1950s they were all gone.  Think of the great steel mill of Andrew Carnegie Homestead, you know, I saw it in its last days of operations in 1970s.  There's nothing left but, you know, a plaque and a shopping mall.  So this is---this is a longstanding story and it's now even repeating in China where you're beginning to see some of the pioneer factories close because of increased labor costs, land costs, and move to cheaper parts of China or even to cheaper parts of the world.

CH: There's a difference though which you note in the book about how the factory is perceived within the wider public that for instance with the mills with Lowell, they were giving tours.  Now you're talking about very secure secretive enterprises as bigger than anything Lowell.  But talk about that change.

JF: Sure.  I mean, for both capitalist factory owners and leaders in communists and socialist countries have big factories, these were sources of pride, you know, and they wanted to show them off.  You know, for a company, it might be almost a form of advertising.  Ford loved to have tours of his factories and he said, you know, buy my car because my factory represents the future.  You know, it's like the factory selling the car or, you know, places like the Soviet Union.  They were enormously proud.  You know, this was the future...

CH: Well, one of the things--I just wanted to interject what you write about in the book is the extent to which American industrialists built the industrial landscape within the Soviet Union.  They were quite involved including Ford.

JF: Ford.  That's a story completely unknown in the United States but in fact, the Soviets turned to the United States and parts of Europe too for assistance in building American style mass production factories.

CH: Well, they brought over American--they signed contracts.  Huge contracts.

JF: Yeah.  The designer of some of the key Soviet plans was the same person who built the River Rouge factory for Henry Ford.  Skilled workers went over there, sometimes for ideological reasons, or just to get a job.  It couldn't happen without the US.  And they were very proud.  This was grabbing the future to them.  You know, Foxconn that makes products for Apple and Samsung, they don't want to advertise their plan to anybody.

CH: But why did we see that shift?  And let me just interject because it's Adam Holman's great biography with Lenin where he talks about this issue and said that in Lenin's kind of version of state capitalism.  But at one point he says Lenin was only really comfortable around other capitalists--around capitalists, you know, it was only the people he really could, you know.

JF: Well, you know, Soviet leaders have bigger dates about this, yeah.  And they admired America in a way for its dynamism, its technological advances, its creativity.

CH: Well, they sent people--as you write in the book, they sent people over there to study American industry.

JF: Yeah.  Now there were opponents in the Soviet Union that said "Look, you know, what's the point of socialism, you know, if we can't develop our own methods that are less exploitive of workers, you know, and to give workers more control in every phase of production.  Isn't that the whole point?"  And then other people including Lenin, and Trotsky, and ultimately Stalin said, "Well, you know, our big problem is poverty.  You know, we are an underdeveloped country.  We're being surrounded by capitalist hostile nations.  We have to develop.  If there's an approach to production that's going to work, it'll be different for us because it's not going to be serving the individual owner.  It's going to be serving the whole society."  So they adopted the technique with a different end and that, you know...

CH: Including Taylorism.

JF: Taylorism which all these guys opposed before the Russian Revolution.

CH: Right, right, right.

JF: But, you know, once they...

CH: If you could explain what Taylorism is.

JF: Yeah, yeah.  For everyone, Taylorism is an American--I guess you call them an industrial engineer who perfected the idea of taking away the skill of the worker to close observation and then instead of having the worker think through how to do things, have management in the most detailed way tell the worker, you know, do this, do this, do this, do this and use all kinds of incentive schemes to force up the pace of production in this highly divided way of work.  And, you know, and, you know, communists and socialists said, you know, this was the most advanced way to sweat labor but, you know, as early as the Civil War after the Russian Revolution, you know, they had a huge problem.  How do you get the railway system going?  How do you feed people?  You know, how do you produce arms?  And suddenly they kind of rethink this with a lot of controversy.  You know, a lot of workers and other communists were not happy about this but in the end, I think that...

CH: Stalin got rid of them, so...

JF: Yeah.  Exactly.  But, you know, it's interesting.  Stalin's greatest opponent Trotsky actually also believed that they should adopt these capitalist methods, so, you know, it's an interesting debate.

CH: Let's talk about--because the--we still have these and you talk about these massive industrial centers in China.

JF: Yeah.  Yeah.

CH: And yet their relationship to the outside world are very different--is very different.

JF: Yeah.  These are the biggest factories in terms of number of workers ever.  And--but...

CH: Throw out some of the factories.

JF: Oh, yeah.  Well, the biggest one and probably the best one is Foxconn which assembles half of their workers for Apple but for many other companies.  And they assemble laptops, and phones, and so forth.  Some of their plants have, you know, 200,000, 300,000 workers in a single complex.  There are actually sneaker companies that have a hundred thousand workers.  You know, these are companies that make every brand of sneaker you've ever heard of, you know, but in the same factory.  And that's probably the difference.  They are--these are factories that work for other companies.  They're not selling their products directly to consumers.  And those...

CH: And there's--and when we come back, we'll talk about why.

JF: Yeah.

CH: But they're also hidden from the outside?

JF: Absolutely.  The companies they work for have no interest in someone wandering around the Foxconn factory because first of all, they're proprietary secret, but also, you know, those workers are often not treated very well and, you know, for a brand like a Nike or an Apple, you know, they want to be associated.

CH: We'll come back.

JF: Yeah, so...

CH: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on industrialization with history professor and author Joshua Freeman.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about industrialization with History Professor and Author, Joshua Freeman.  So before the break, we're talking about the difference in how these large, giant factories, which are still with us, want to be perceived in the outside world.  And in the book, you talk about elaborate security systems.  You just can't even get inside these places. 

JF: No, I tried actually, you know?  And by the time I tried to get into the Chinese factories, you just couldn't do it as an outsider.  Neither the Chinese government or the companies like Apple that use them had any interest in allowing someone in.  They don't want work conditions exposed, you know, that's probably the most important factor.  They don't want a scandal that's going to taint their products.  Of course they're also very concerned about workers themselves.  You know, there's a huge strike wave going on in China in recent years that most people aren't aware of.  These are localized short strikes, no unions are usually involved but workers are quite militant.  And by the way, they often win concessions, you know.  If they go on too long, the government shuts it down.  But, you know, there's a certain toleration for this.  But none of this is really helpful for these companies from their point of view.  They don't want anything to do with this.  I mean, after all, what does Apple sell?  It sells an image above all else, you know?  And so that's something they don't want...

CH: Well, and by subcontracting, it gives them deniability.  Well, it's not us. 

JF: Absolutely.  Absolutely.  And also, by the way, they could scale up and scale down without having the course, yeah. 

CH: Yeah, that's something that was an interesting innovation that earlier factories couldn't do.  But you talk about that how in China they can actually scale up and scale down very quickly. 

JF: That's right.  Whereas, you know, if GM wanted to scale down, it's got to lay off workers.  There's going to be a protest.  It's a political issue, it's a mess.  You know, Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone and they want to have four, five, or ten million pieces available for the first weekend, you know.  They can scale up production enormously.  And when that cycle now grows towards the other end, they just lay off these workers. 

CH: And--yeah. 

JF: You know, no one...

CH: But they also, as you write in the book, they will--they're working, what, 14 hour a day.  I mean they'll bring them in and just drop them. 

CH: Yeah, you know, Chinese actually got pretty good labor laws.  They're mostly provincial, but they're widely ignored.  So, the problem is not the legal framework but the fact that it's ignored.  A lot of these workers live in dormitories.  Right?  on the...

CH: Right.  Well--and, you know, there was--I think there was one book where you said they--well, because of Apple, I think he wanted to change the screen or something. 

JF: It's the first--yeah. 

CH: It woke him up in the middle of the night, gave him a biscuit and tea and...

JF: Yeah.  It was--it was on the very first--very first iPhone. 

CH: Oh, my gosh. 

JF: You know, originally, the iPhone was going to have a plastic screen.  And then at the last minute, Steve Jobs said, "No, it should be glass."  So they were kind of behind when the glass shows up.  But, you know, you could do that because they literally had 70,000 workers living on the site of the factory.  You know, of course there are cafeterias and stores and recreational facilities.  Very common model in these Chinese factories. 

CH: Well, like Lowell. 

JF: Very much like Lowell because, again, they're drawing from the countryside.  They're getting cheap labor because they're getting people who are measuring, you know, their income against a poor rural village from which they have now migrated for four, five, or six years to work in this factory intending--and really require to eventually go back to that village.  So, that's a huge labor migration.  It's beginning to slow down a bit and, you know, more and more seeing--even companies like Foxconn locating the factories near the workforces. 

CH: Well, you find that when that this goes back to the American Industrial movement, when they can't get those rural workers, then conditions--work conditions become very harsh, prisoners.  You had textile mills that were using slaves.  Children, of course. 

JF: Right.  Or you can move to someplace where...

CH: Or the...

JF: Yeah.  So for example, some Chinese shoe manufacturers have now set up satellite plants in Ethiopia.  Which is, you know, it's got--you know, what do you need to have a modern factory?  You need good electricity supply, you have to be close to a container port, you know, and you've got to have, you know, cheap labor and a government that's going to kind of keep things in line.  And the Chinese have decided that Ethiopia is a place where you have all that.  And, you know, it--they are setting up overseas branches and shifting production if it's getting too expensive in the home plant. 

CH: One of the things that comes through in the book is the viciousness of capitalists.  Which I think in the age of public relations and branding and--is often overlooked, forgotten, or not understood especially in the steel mills.  I mean the descriptions that you have in these steel towns, the way they broke labor organizing, the mercenaries, the, you know, the Pinkertons, the Baldwin-Felts, the gun thugs, networks of spies, I mean, talk a little bit about that. 

JF: Yeah.  You know, I think the steel industry in the 19th century, you know, initially depended on the skills of workers.  And, you know, and as these companies grew, the owners really hated that, you know?  They felt that, you know, it was their company, they were going to run any way they wanted.  And the unions...

CH: And you're talking about Carnegie. 

JF: Carnegie and others.  Well, Andrew Carnegie I think is the, you know, was the leading and the most--biggest and most advanced plants.  And they just had to bust these unions which had once been pretty strong.  And as you say, they literally surrounded these plants with barbed wire.  They hired thugs.  And of course they had...

CH: But you described in the book, at one point, like, it's virtually an invasion of force. 

JF: Oh, it is an invasion.  It is an invasion. 

CH: Like talk about that moment.  It...

JF: Because--this is--this is in the Homestead Strike in 1892 where the workers at the Carnegie plant are locked out in an effort to break the Union.  And this community is solidly pro-union.  The mayor is a unionist, you know.  And so how do you bring in skilled workers, you know?  So the company thinks they're clever they hired these Pinkertons secretly.  They're putting them in barges and they're going to float them down the river.  The Union is one step ahead of them.  They've anticipated this.  They have lookouts up and down the river.  And when they see in the middle like these Pinkertons coming, you know, they all converge and there's a gun battle.  You know, what's interesting is, the workers win the gun battle actually.  The Pinkertons surrendered, you know, about nine people killed.  But this power of the state ultimately is what crushes them. 

CH: Yes, that's--right.  That's right.

JF: And the ability of the company to mobilize the state.  Here, you're talking...

CH: That's--and that's Blair Mountain. 

JF: Well, no, that's a little late, but very similar. 

CH: It's not in your book.  It's not in your book but it's the...

JF: Backflip, exactly. 

CH: It's the ability of the state to bring in--and Mitchell to drop bombs from planes and stuff. 

JF: That--that's the most extreme example.  But, yeah, Homestead, that's right.  You bring in the National Guard, they occupy the towns. 

CH: Right.  Was it 5,000 or something? 

JF: Yeah.  They're there for months and months, you know, and you see that over and over again, Blair Mountain, you see that in Ludlow, in the coal mining strikes.  You know, capitalist factories cannot exist without the state, you know.  This is the extreme example but they need a million other things that our government provides to make them work, you know?

CH: Including the state troopers. 

JF: If need be, the state troopers. 

CH: This was in your book but...

JF: Yeah, absolutely. 

CH: That's why the state troopers because the local police forces, as you said, were--their brother was in the Union.  They couldn't trust them. 

JF: Yeah, absolutely. 

CH: One of the things that you talk about in the book is that there is a natural lifespan of these factories which are, you know, let's say 60 years, sometimes a little longer.  But towards the end, conditions in those factories get really awful. 

JF: Yeah.  Often because they're essentially--the owners made a decision to milk them.  So, they're not going to replace equipment, they're not going to produce...

CH: It's called harvesting at Harvard Business School, right?

JF: Yeah.  Yeah.  And, you know, I have some wonderful quotes directly, you know.  For example, one of them, Lowell mills, this is already in the 20th century, hired as a consultant, tells, "This place is ridiculous, it's old, rip the whole thing down, build a new modern mill."  And the owners go, "No, you know, we're actually still making a profit."  And they actually went for 50 more years, you know, with deteriorating equipment.  And, you know, then--and then...

CH: Well--and I think at one point, there's--a floor collapses or something. 

JF: Well, yeah--well, in one of the mills. 

CH: The workers are killed and...

JF: Oh, and yeah.  And they're basically just withdrawing--and they're often investing their own money in newer mills elsewhere and then--and then eventually these places close.  And, you know, it's devastating for the communities where these places had been located because part of this is often industrial degradation, you know.  I mean Flint is an extreme example but it's not unique, you know?  And recovering is so hard.  I mean look at the place Camden, New Jersey. 

CH: Right, which was...

JF: A huge...

CH: One of--one of the largest industrial centers in the country at one point. 

JF: Absolutely.  IRCA there, you got Campbell's Soup--and, you know, it's a wreck.  And, you know, they're trying and a little bit of progress, but to be honest, you know, they have not been able to recover.  And, you know, that's a social cost that's imposed by an individual owner and we pay the social cost of the consequence. 

CH: Right.  So at the end of the book, you really asked the question.  At what point does this become terminal?  And I think you would argue we're approaching that point. 

JF: Well, yeah, I think in one sense, certainly environmentally, I mean global warming, you know, it's not just factories, but the factory is a key part of the whole way of life, which is contributed to a kind of global suicide going on if we don't do something fast.  So, I think in that sense, it--it's very unsustainable.  And also, you know, can we keep, as you said in your introduction, leaving behind these kinds of social wrecks, you know?  And I really question it.  I mean to be frank, I'm not so sure we're going to see a change because there are still exploitable areas, areas where this--the--where the natural resources and the human resources have not been, you know, sucked dry yet, you know, and the ability of these companies to locate and relocate. 

CH: Oh, we're running out, aren’t we?

JF:  We're running out, but we haven't quite hit the, you know, the wall yet.  And, you know, some people talk about robots are going to take over, it's all going to be 3D printing.  And those are real things but, so far, you know, my sneakers and my cellphone, you know, are made in--by human labor in actually pretty primitive production systems in these vast giant factories. 

CH: Where do you see us going as a deindustrialized country, as somebody who's been left behind?  How do we cope?  And you--and you--and as you correctly point out, the--we're the ones who are left with the mess, both human, environmental, economic, and you could even argue, political. 

JF: Yes.  Well, I have to say one of the few things I agree with our president about is, you know, I think there is some possibility to promote a certain amount of reindustrialization.  And I think, you know, I'm not sure tariffs is necessarily the key to this, but I think investing in infrastructure and human resources.  You know, we are subsidizing new factories, mostly foreign-owned, a huge amounts of money.  I mean, Wisconsin is putting in, you know, $3,000,000,000 to attract Foxconn which has just opened a plant.  Tesla received hundreds of millions of dollars to build a battery plant.  Now, you know, I think that money could be better spent, you know, in education, infrastructure modernization, you know, which will attract production.  You're not going to get the same scale, the same number of people that you did in a different period of time, but, you know, we do have very efficient systems in manufacturing.  Why shouldn't we take advantage of our ability to automate, to be so efficient, to create more social wealth, you know, to work a little less, you know, we don't work ridiculously hard.  To, you know, to live in a somewhat different way.  So I think there are possibilities.  What's so striking to me is this discussion never happens, you know, our imaginations are shriveled, we're kind of fatalistic.  Even on the left, I think there's very little promoting of new ideas, you know.  For better or for the worse, the factory reinvented the world, you know?  It just transformed...

CH: Well, I just want to close with that quote you have at the beginning of the book.  What was it?  Between Jesus and the beginning of the--I'll let you say it, the industrial revolution. 

JF: Oh, yeah.  The--there's basically zero percent economic growth, you know?

CH: That's kind of amazing to think about. 

JF: It's amazing.  And the last 300 years, for factories and other reasons, we've transformed.  Well, we could transform the world again, but we have to at least start talking about it. 

CH: Yeah.  And we better get going. 

JF: Yeah, yeah. 

CH: Thank you.  That was Queens College History Professor Joshua Freeman, author of "Behemoth, A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World."

JF: Hey, thanks a lot. 

CH: Thank you.

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