Behemoth; A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World by Joshua Freeman. W.W. Norton, 2018.

Behemoth is a reference to the huge factories that once dominated the industrial landscapes of Europe and America. In the early days of the Behemoth, they were often four to five-storied brick constructions, later cement and steel. These large factory buildings and building complexes gathered around them a population of factory workers. Joshua Freeman considers this phenomenon to be “the making of the modern world.”

Freeman explores the technology of factory production in these early years, the elaborate system of leather belts that delivered the power from its source to the industrial floor. And what was called “scientific management,” i.e. getting the factors of production – raw materials, machines, and labor – to the right work station at the right time.   

This era of the Behemoth and the concentration of manufacturing lasted through World War II. In the more recent decades factories have become smaller, individual manufacturing districts more compact, and those districts dispersed around the country.

We trailed behind Britain in this early nineteenth-century factory production because of the shortage of one essential. We had no underutilized work-force. Eventually that was overcome by the employment of “farm girls,” young women off the farm, who sought work in the mills to fund their dowries. The British behemoths had more potential female and male employees available for work than did the US.

 Made to be a draw for potential factory workers, employers often built dormitories. Providing housing allowed for better supervision over the work force. But this supervision ultimately amalgamated the work force and hence their bargaining power. Labor adopted the factory strike as a means of enhancing their bargaining position. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was an early instance of the growing organization of workers’ power over their work life. British capitalists, on the other hand, could draw workers from the poor house and other pools of underemployment in Britain’s rural areas not available to the early American industrialists

There were no political rights that came with factory employment. No free speech; no free assembly. It must be remembered, however, that women were barred from most of those political rights, and many men were as well, through a restricted franchise.

Children were found to be good industrial workers in a situation where body strength was not essential. They had for decades been working looms and other manufacturing processes in their homes (cottages, hence “cottage industry”). Clearing out industrial machinery from the living space and into factories was an improvement in both the work and living environments.

In these earliest years of the industrial revolution the major constraint on industrial production was the shortage of the materials available on the factory floor. Overcoming that shortage involved considerable coordination.  The raw materials used in the manufacturing process were assembled first by water transport – rivers, lakes, and reservoirs – and then by railroads.

The first few chapters of Joshua Freeman’s book describe this gradual transformation of the factory’s source of power, first by falling water, then steam using wood and hence forests as fuel. Eventually coal, converted into electricity. 

Having described factories in the US in the nineteenth century, Freeman then travels to Russia and includes an account of Soviet industrialization in the 1930s. This was a response to the rapid growth of German militarization and its industrial economy. But even more, the availability of an underutilized rural labor force. The Russians did some borrowing from European and American banks to finance its industrial development, but the major portion of funds were extracted from peasant agriculture. They also did a lot of planning in the inter-war period, borrowing from American and European expertise to explore a more rational path to an industrial economy.

Since WWII, industrial “gigantism” in Russia slowed, and the Soviets have even allowed some entrepreneurs to flourish. Ironically the other victor in WWII, the US, became an enthusiastic promoter of planned industrial development. At least if it were somewhere else. Those Americans who advocated planning were often from the American entrepreneurial class and had in mind a mixed economy – of their design. Their inspiration came from Russia and Eastern Europe. Their model: the behemoths of the twentieth century.

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