cover image Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World

Joshua B. Freeman. Norton, $27.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-393-24631-5

Freeman (American Empire), professor of history at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center, recounts the development of the factory, which over the past 300 years has come to symbolize both utopian possibilities and appalling realities. He notes that “we live in a factory-made world,” yet most consumers know little about these places or the experiences of those who work in them. Freeman begins in 18th-century England with the first factories, which were synonymous with filth and misery—William Blake’s “dark satanic mills.” He moves to 19th-century New England, where paternal industrialists hoped that they could both reap large profits and provide their employees with excellent working conditions; their idealism was soon replaced by a drive for ever-greater profits. Freeman is sharply critical of the technocrats and managers who regularly attempt to reduce wages and increase control over labor, yet he also sees the factory as a workplace that holds the possibility of liberation; Ford auto workers’ successful unionizing efforts, for example, “gave mass production a new, more democratic meaning.” Freeman goes on to describe modern Chinese factories, noting that some have become notorious for conditions that have caused workers to commit suicide, while others offer lavish recreational amenities that are irresistible to rural migrants. This wide-ranging book offers readers an excellent foundation for understanding how their possessions are made, as well as how the factory system affects society. (Feb.)