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Factory Made

A history of modernity as a history of factories struggles to see beyond their walls.
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Moreover, the word “factory” itself was connected in its etymology to the slave trade. In the early modern era, distant commercial outposts were known as “factories,” after the “factor,” the presiding merchant. The most notorious “factories” were the castles and prisons operated by Europeans on the coast of West Africa, where the African slave trade met the transatlantic slave trade, and whence many millions of enslaved people began the Middle Passage to the Americas. In Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, Joshua B. Freeman doesn’t dwell on the bleak fantasies of slaveholders or the connections between early-modern colonial slavery and the rise of industry. And yet, when he argues that the history of factories can make concrete the inchoate “ties between coercion and freedom, exploitation and material advance” inherent in industrialization, he is tapping into something essential about the relationship between forced labor and free labor. The “Future of the South” displayed many of the features of what Freeman calls “industrial gigantism,” a pattern of industrialization through massive, capital-intensive factories with workforces many times larger than the average. Moreover, industrial giants—like the idea of the “Manchester of the world” to slave owners—were symbols of the future. They seemed in their time to represent new models of production, and to employ a new kind of worker.

The book begins in the silk and cotton mills of England, moves to the American cotton and iron industries, hops to the Soviet Union’s massive investment in heavy industry from the 1920s to the 1940s and back to the deindustrializing United States after World War II. The book ends in Vietnamese garment sweatshops and Chinese electronics factories. These industries, Freeman admits, and the people who worked in them, were only rarely representative of the overall shape of industrialization or of the employment and composition of the working class. However, the industrial giants seduced politicians, artists and writers, who visited and documented the portentous, unsettling newness of vast buildings and new kinds of workers. The workers themselves, organized into ever larger units, doing ever more specialized and interdependent tasks, found new sources of solidarity within the walls of giant factories. Workers in the cotton industry in England, “factory girls” in New England, or sweat-soaked steelworkers in the United States became, Freeman argues, symbols of the “future shape of society,” for better or worse.