By John Newsinger
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Behemoth: a History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World

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Issue 437

They’ve trained me to become docile/ Don’t know how to shout or rebel/ How to complain or demand/ Only how to silently suffer exhaustion

This poem was written by Xu Lizhi, a Chinese worker employed by Foxconn in Shenzhen, China, shortly before he committed suicide in 2014. The number of suicides and attempted suicides at Foxconn’s various massive factory complexes over recent years has become something of an international scandal with even the likes of the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, describing the situation as “very troubling”, although not troubling enough to take his business elsewhere. Foxconn made every iPad for Apple at this time.

Foxconn serves as a salutary corrective for those who consider the industrial working class finished, of no account in a world that has moved on. As Joshua Freeman points out, while only 8 percent of US workers are employed in manufacturing today, globally “we are in a heyday of manufacturing”. In 2015 “Forty three percent of Chinese workers were employed in manufacturing.”

Indeed, “the biggest factories in history are operating right now, making products like smartphones, laptops and brand-name sneakers”. Foxconn’s Longhua Science and Technology Park complex in Shenzhen was, in 2016, “the largest factory, in number of employees, in history”. It employed over 300,000 workers. Another Foxconn complex, also in Shenzhen, employed over 130,000. Globally, the Taiwanese-owned company employed 1.4 million workers in over 30 countries.

And it is not just high-tech consumer goods that are being produced. In Dongguan, China, the Yue Yuen shoe factory employs 110,000 workers, making it “the largest shoe factory in history”, producing “nearly a million pairs of shoes a month for international brands like Nike”.

Freeman’s Behemoth is an account of how we reached this point in history, starting out from the opening of the first “modern” factory in Derbyshire in 1721. The book’s great strength is that it is a wholly unashamed class struggle history that chronicles the struggles of the workers incarcerated in the factories that transformed the world in succeeding years. Freeman integrates both the oppression and exploitation of the working class and working class struggle into his history of the factory system. In the process, he confronts us with the harsh reality that the British children working 12 or 13 hour shifts, only kept awake by being hit with straps, fists and “even wooden poles”, in the mills at the end of the 18th century have their equivalent today, children of the same age subjected to the same conditions or worse.

Inevitably his focus is limited, starting out with Britain and then shifting to the United States. The weakest part of the book is his account of Stalinist industrialisation, but regardless of that Behemoth is to be wholeheartedly welcomed. There is much more of value here than can be mentioned in a review. Freeman’s discussion of contemporary China, in particular, is essential reading.

One parting thought: as he points out, Chinese manufacturers are starting to shift production overseas to countries where labour is cheaper than in China. Huajian Shoes opened a shoe factory in Ethiopia where the wages were around $30 a month compared with the $560 at its plant in Dongguan. In 2016 the company announced that it was moving “its production of shoes for Ivanka Trump’s line from its factory in Dongguan to Ethiopia”.

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