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Behemoth by Joshua B. Freeman

Behemoth by Joshua B. Freeman
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For Thomas Carlyle, they were emblems of “progress”; for William Blake, they were “dark satanic mills”. As Joshua B. Freeman reminds us in Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, factories have always inspired mixed feelings, prompting wonder and excitement, as well as anger and foreboding. Freeman opens his account in 1721, when the Lombe brothers established what was probably the world’s first factory – a silk mill in Derby. From there, he moves to 19th century America and Soviet Russia, before finishing in contemporary China. Overall, this is a “superb account”, said Ian Jack in The Guardian. “Almost every page contains a memorable fact or an intriguing thought.” Freeman’s global perspective enables him to avoid the “clichés of the purely national narrative” – which in Britain often means a disproportionate focus on the spinning jenny.

Our fascination with factories reflects the fact that they genuinely transformed the world, said Alex Colville in The Spectator. By cramming “unprecedented multitudes” into towns and cities, they created a new class – the proletariat – whose struggles would “dominate politics”. They revolutionised work, acted as engines of national advancement and enabled “exclusive luxuries to be made widely available”. Today, we tell ourselves we live in a “post-industrial” age, but the truth is we’re as dependent on factories as ever, said Jonathan Rose in The Wall Street Journal. With the possible exception of artisanal cheese, nearly everything we consume is made in one, and the proportion of the world’s workforce in manufacturing jobs – roughly 30% – is “as high as it has ever been”. What has happened is simply what always occurs when “labour costs rise and transportation costs fall”: the factories have relocated to “low-wage regions”.

And unlike the publicly celebrated “behemoths” of 20th century America, the mega-factories of China and Vietnam keep their work well hidden, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. Foxconn City, in Shenzhen, China, might well be the largest factory ever – employing an estimated 400,000 workers – but its operations are kept away from prying eyes. At the end of this “rich and ambitious” book, Freeman laments the contrast between today’s boring, “grimly functional” factories, and the more flamboyant styles of the past. They no longer represent – as they often did, for all their faults – an “enlargement of the human spirit”. Instead, he writes, they “symbolise its diminishment”.