Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Behemoth by Joshua Freeman

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.


I like reading about a wide range of stuff - I really do not intend to stop learning, and I find that I am happier when I keep my brain working. This book ended up on my list a couple years ago when it came out, and it seemed a nice contrast to the other stuff I am reading right now. 


The book is about the history of the factory, starting with the first textile mills in England, and ending with Foxconn and other megafactories in China in our present time. It is divided into seven chapters, each of which takes a look at a particular time in history and factory type, focusing on a particular factory that the author feels exemplifies the era. From there, Freeman branches out to look at the social circumstances of the time, the source of labor, the conditions, and the pushback to the social and environmental harms industry causes. Freeman has also written about the labor movement, so the clashes between unions and factory capitalists features prominently in this book as well. 


As Freeman points out in the introduction, modern life is not just impossible but unthinkable without factories. In one sense, the industrial revolution has been a huge boon to humanity. Life expectancies and standard of living have gone up significantly, working hours have declined in many places, and the everyday conveniences we take for granted - even affordable clothing - stem from our ability to make stuff rapidly and reliably. On the other hand, industry has done tremendous damage to the environment. And, as history has shown, Marx was correct that there was an inherent divergence of interest between factory owners and workers (and this holds true in Communist countries as well), and the natural tendency of capital was to seek to endlessly lower wages and increase production - on the backs of workers. The struggle over who reaps the benefits of industry continue today, perhaps even more so as mechanization has replaced many factory workers. Do the benefits of industry go to all of us, or just to those who own the machines? 


The first chapter is about the British textile mills - really the first true factories that went beyond artisanal workshops. These used primarily water power at first, but concentrated workers in a smaller space doing repetitive tasks. In these early halcyon days of industry, factory owners wanted everyone to see how the factories worked. Large windows, public tours, giant spreads in the newspapers - factories were the new big thing. And, they served a positive social function in some ways. With fewer workers needed in agriculture, there were young people looking for employment. Women in particular saw factory work as a way to get out of the house, have experiences, save some money, before returning to get married. This is a pattern that has held true for each iteration of the factory, as the book points out. 


The downside, of course, is that the factory owners eventually squeezed the workers in order to compete with each other. Child labor became common, wages went down, quotas went up. 


And, unfortunately, the first wave of factories - textile mills - depended on an even worse exploitation. Marx and Engels wrote about the textile factories, which formed the basis of their beliefs about capital and labor. Marx noted the unpleasant truth:


“Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry.” 


Perhaps a bit overstated, but true in essence about the textile industry. And in this case, it wasn’t just African Americans in the cotton fields. Factory owners realized they could have domestic slave labor too: workhouses with the poor and orphaned provided workers to the factories - if the poor (including children) wanted to eat, they had better work. (Note here: there is still a strong movement within the Right Wing here in America to require forced labor from the poor. Particularly the “urban” poor - and we know what that means.) 


Another issue that has never gone away is that of regulation of industry. Environmental regulation, of course, but also labor regulation. Freeman puts it well:


While reformers defended the factory system in spite of its faults, others opposed all efforts to regulate mills. In the debate over an 1833 bill to limit the working hours of mill children, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Althrop, feared that new rules would diminish Britain’s competitiveness and reduce international demand for British textiles, hurting those meant to be protected. Some factory defenders opposed regulation on the grounds that property rights were absolute. 


The same arguments continue to be made today, although child labor is less popular now. Somehow, the burden of “competition” always seems to fall on the workers least able to defend themselves. 


The second chapter shifts the scene to New England, and the first American factories. I was not as familiar with this history as I perhaps should have been. The number of “utopian” mill towns was fascinating - the way they were sold as “safe” environments for young women, the attempts at open park space and cultural activities, and so on. At the outset, a lot of factory systems attempted this sort of benevolent approach to labor, and it worked at first. Then, competition led to a race to the bottom, so to speak. 


A particularly interesting fact in this chapter was the attempts of Britain to keep skilled factory workers (and machine builders) from emigrating. The British “hoped to maintain through the force of law a monopoly on advanced technology” - another universal issue with the factory system. Again, we are still having those battles with China today - we wish to keep a monopoly on the most advanced technology, but other countries want them too. “Intellectual Property” doesn’t just mean Disney movies - it means the ideas that allow industrial production, and the US wants to get paid. The issue is more ethically complex than certain demagogues would like you to think. 


Chapter Three is about the US steel industry, and covers topics from the many expositions of the second half of the 19th Century to the first wave of serious labor unrest. I have been reading a bit about the history of labor as part of other books, particularly Part of Our Time by Murray Kempton. As I noted, my history education was seriously whitewashed, and one of the glaring omissions was the history of Labor. The curriculum was vehemently anti-union, so what little was said just mentioned riots. What wasn’t mentioned was the way capitalists like Andrew Carnegie hired his own private army to do violence to striking workers (and in some cases target union leaders), his insistence that workers agree to not join a union or be fired, and the involvement of law enforcement at the National Guard on the side of the capitalists. Carnegie was bad, but also pretty typical of the Robber Barons: they saw no reason they should not have the power to cut wages and increase hours at will. Workers were expendable, and therefore shouldn’t have rights. 


Chapter Four shifts to Henry Ford and the Michigan automobile industry. Particularly fascinating to me was a section about Diego Rivera’s visits to the Detroit factories, and his murals from the 1930s that still grace buildings in the area. I had no idea. 


[Panel from Detroit Industry]


For Chapter Five, Freeman shifts to the Soviet Union. This chapter held a lot of surprises. In particular, I was struck by the fact that the Soviet leaders concluded that much of the way factories worked was independent of the economic system - it wasn’t really possible to have a truly egalitarian factory. Likewise, the building of factories sure sounded a lot like….capitalism. It was later, with the sharing of the profits, that Communism made a difference. What else sounded familiar? The clash between the factory bosses and the labor unions. The what?? Yes, the Soviet Union had capital/labor clashes too, and it was the labor unions who forced shorter hours and higher wages. Wages? Yep. “Communism” was never quite as communist as we were led to believe. In fact, Stalin’s USSR often seems like an old-fashioned totalitarian dictatorship, not a new economic system. (To be fair, there were parts of the economy that functioned in a more communist manner, and central planning was the hallmark of the USSR economic system, so it wasn’t classic Capitalism. But it still had definite similarities in certain ways. As the book points out in several places, the US and the USSR showed an increasing “convergence” through the 1950s.) 


Chapter Six looks at the different ways industry evolved during the Cold War. The United States started to move away from giant factories, while the Soviet Bloc went the opposite direction. The Cold War was also the high-water mark for unions, which led to my parents’ generation growing up with the highest standard of living - one that has eroded significantly during my lifetime thanks to the Right’s economic policies. I thought that this passage about what unionization brought workers to be particularly on point. 


Before World War II, the newly formed industrial unions had not stressed wage rates, in part because in a deflationary period steady wages meant rising real income. Instead, they fought to check the power of management on the shop floor through union recognition, increasingly detailed contracts, shop stewards, grievance procedures, and the use of seniority in layoffs and job assignments. After the war, unions successfully pressed for wage increases and a growing array of employer-provided benefits, including health insurance, pensions to supplement social security, and supplementary unemployment insurance. 

The cumulative result was a revolution in the daily lives of workers in large-scale industry, and for their families and communities. Steelworkers’ union president Phillip Murray once said that for working people a union meant “pictures on the wall, carpets on the floor and music in the home.” A quarter century after World War II, workers in heavily capitalized, unionized industry had achieved that and much more. Things once unusual or unknown among workers - home ownership, modern appliances, vacations, cars and second cars, children sent to college, retirement while still healthy - became common...Higher income and welfare programs provided by the government and employers, including pensions, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and health insurance, gave workers an unfamiliar sense of security and well-being.


Yes, people of my parents and grandparents’ generation had that. And my children won’t, unless we make major changes. Heck, my wife and I are fairly certain we will have to work well into our 70s, because those pensions that let my dad retire at 55 do not exist for us. And how did that happen? Freeman details the organized, concerted propaganda effort waged by the large companies to change the narrative. 


GE had the most multifaceted response to the upsurge of union power in and around its leading factories. After the 1946 strike, the company named a public relations expert, Lemuel R. Boulware, as vice president of employee and community relations. Boulware took a hard line toward unions, in negotiations presenting the company’s offer as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, while arguing its reasonableness through newspaper advertisements and other media to employees and residents in the towns where GE plants were located. In addition to promoting the virtues of the company, Boulware worked to educate GE workers and the general public about the merits of free-market capitalism, hiring Ronald Reagan to be a spokesperson for the firm in its ideological offensive. GE’s efforts, though unusually extensive, were part of a broad corporate campaign to reshape public thinking about the economy, an extended drive to counter the ideological and political impact of the New Deal. 


What has the impact of this been? Well, starting with the Reagan years, when I was a kid, productivity has risen dramatically - it is two and a half times as high now. So, are wages also two and a half times as high? Hell no! All those gains went to the top one percent. Between rising costs for housing, healthcare, and education, real wages have declined. Gee, I wonder why? 


Meanwhile, in the Soviet Bloc, factories became even larger, which led to a problem for the leadership. Attempts to raise prices and lower wages were met with...unionization. We are used to thinking of Lech Walesa and Solidarity as a primarily political, anti-communist movement, but it actually got its start as a union. Once you realize that the Party was essentially the capitalist in this relationship, what went down makes a lot more sense. 


Speaking of capitalism going by the name of communism, the final chapter, on Foxconn and other Chinese (and to a lesser degree, Vietnamese) factories is full of fascinating stuff as well. 


For example: who owns Foxconn? Any idea?


That would be Yue Yen Industrial Holdings Limited, subsidiary of the Pou Chen Corporation. Which is...wait for it...a Taiwanese megacorporation. Hmm. That sure sounds….capitalist, doesn’t it? And the same goes for most of the “Chinese” factories that make the goods we buy from there. They are owned by foreign capitalists. China has state-owned industry, of course, and portions of its economy remain centrally planned. But China has been capitalist in essence since the 1980s, as the book points out with example after example. (The best description of China is “Authoritarian Capitalism” - a term used by experts on both the left and right.) 


During the 1980s, Chinese leaders came to share the cultlike faith in the power and efficacy of markets associated in the West with Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and their followers. The dream of modernity in China, wrote Hong Kong-based social scientist Pun Ngai, became associated with “the great belief in capital and the market,” a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree shift from the prior belief that socialism represented a more advanced phase of history. 


This chapter is fascinating for the history of Chinese industry, and ties in well with Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which I read last year. Some of the progression of industrialization matched the other chapters: workers from rural areas, particularly women and youth, came to work for the factories, whole towns sprung up around the factories, and so on. 


One thing that was different this time around is the way that manufacturing and branding have become disconnected. It used to be, you bought a Ford, and could see the manufacturing from start to finish at the Ford factory. Now, the brand buys materials - and even finished product - from an anonymous factory, and applies its brand. (That even goes for cars - a Honda Accord is more “American” in origin these days than a Ford Focus.) This has led to some unfortunate social consequences. 


One advantage of contracting out manufacturing was that it distanced brand companies from the work conditions under which their products were made. Seeking lower labor costs usually meant relocating manufacturing to low-wage regions, often with autocratic or corrupt governments; avoiding unions; and paying less attention to worker health, safety, and well-being. If child labor, excessive hours, use of toxic chemicals, repression of unionists, and the like took place within the facilities of a brand company, its image - its most important asset - might well be damaged. But if the problems could be blamed on a contractor down the supply chain, the damage would be less costly and more easily contained. 


I don’t have an easy answer to this. Supply chains are nowhere near transparent, and it seems impossible to find a truly ethical source of anything. What one can hope is that, as we are seeing in China, as the country becomes more wealthy, workers start to press for higher wages and better conditions, just like they did in the First World in the past. 


There is so much more in this book too. What might seem dry and boring is brought to life by Freeman. He puts a human face on industry, showing both the benefits and the costs of industrialization. Unlike the history I was raised with, this book isn’t primarily concerned with praising the wealthy capitalists, but with looking at a broader range of people: workers, consumers, the communities in which factories exist, and the many who bear the costs of industry even as they reap some of the benefits. This book is by no means anti-industry, but it isn’t interested in worshiping the Andrew Carnegies of the world either. It’s a good, well documented read. 




On a related note, I recommend this article by William Davies, on why the Right is glomming on to a phony-baloney “Free Speech Crisis” as a way of blaming young people for the effects of their harmful policies.

"The broader crisis of conservatism is that the free-market revolution of the late 20th-century is rapidly undoing the moral vision that originally fueled it. When Thatcher and Reagan came to power, they promised that the free market would reward individual effort and responsibility, delivering upward mobility and property ownership to those who were willing to work for them. After more than a decade of stagnant real wages and spiraling housing costs, not even conservatives dare suggest that contract survives, especially not for those born after 1980. Family, that other bulwark of conservative ideology, isn’t much of an aspiration to a 30-year-old who is stuck living with their parents.


"Meanwhile, it is not clear that the “freedom” once associated with “the market” has very much to do with enterprise or risk-taking any longer. Increasingly, as the work of inequality scholars such as Danny Dorling and Thomas Piketty has shown, it seems to mean growing autonomy for the very wealthy, and rising indebtedness and stress for everybody else. This poses a problem for the political right: short of acting as the servants of the super-rich, what is the point of conservatism today? When capitalism can no longer make good on the conservative moral vision of hard work and enterprise, where else is there to go?


"In this moral and political crisis, the idea of free speech does what the idea of free markets can no longer plausibly do. A romantic ideal extracted from the past is seized and celebrated as a virtue that needs resuscitating. Meanwhile, the “snowflake” fills an ideological role once occupied by the “lazy welfare scrounger” or “feckless poor”. In 2018, nobody can realistically claim that being poor or unemployed is a pleasant lifestyle choice, or that the distribution of income in society is a fair reflection of effort. Just look at the outcry when Theresa May tried to justify prolonged wage stagnation to a nurse during the 2017 general election campaign. That game is up.


"What conservatives can claim instead is that certain people – primarily the young – need to become better at enduring this hardship. It is no coincidence that this stress on the importance of building “resilience”, being forced to “hear what you don’t want to hear”, has coincided with a decade of economic stagnation, which has been regulated in such a way as to maximize the security of asset holders, while impoverishing the future of everyone under 40.

"The suggestion that young people are uniquely intolerant and self-indulgent is a useful way of avoiding talking about other things. It throws the blame back on to a generation that is now suffering the aftermath of the credit-based economic model that, with a little help from monetary policy-makers, inflated their parents’ house prices and pension pots. At a time when student mental health is deteriorating, the panic surrounding “free speech” reinforces the notion that there is something wrong with young people, and not with their environment."


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