How Factories Made (and Unmade) Us All

Posted on June 18, 2018 in History – Culture – And why we should forget those dreams of bringing back manufacturing jobs.
14 Jun 2018.   By Crawford Kilian  |   Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Freeman traces the evolution of the giant factory through five phases: British and American textiles, iron and steel, U.S. automobiles, Soviet and Chinese communist industrialization, and today’s huge (but invisible) factories in China and Vietnam.

The first successful modern factory was an English mill for spinning silk yarn. While it attracted attention from its opening in 1721, similar factories appeared slowly for half a century. More sophisticated weaving machinery and steam engines that replaced watermills led to a dramatic growth in both the number and size of factories. Public interest grew also: factories became tourist attractions thanks to their size, their production, and their workforce.

Built where streams or coal deposits provided power, factories needed workers who were scarce in rural areas. Women and children were preferred recruits, because they were obedient and cheap. Men were used to setting their own times for work and rest, and those with skills balked at the mindless, repetitive tasks the factory required. The original Luddites were highly trained weavers who destroyed newfangled factory looms as threats to their livelihoods: any unskilled dolt could run such a loom.

The Industrial Revolution wasn’t televised, but it was closely observed and intensely discussed as a new phenomenon, just as we’ve done since the advent of high tech in the 1980s. And it was a true revolution: factories were redefining both work and workers. Karl Marx and his patron Friedrich Engels (who owned a mill in Manchester) were among the first to recognize that a new working class, the proletariat, had formed in the mills.

In some ways factories are unchanged since the 18th century. In U.S. textile mills, young women were recruited from local villages and farms, lived in dormitories under close supervision, and then went home to marry. It’s much the same in modern China, where companies like Foxconn recruit young people from the countryside to assemble iPhones.

In other ways, the factory has changed a great deal. The size and structure of a Ford factory were part of the company’s marketing; factories were designed with lots of windows so outsiders could see and marvel at the workers and machines inside. Visitors toured factories as if they were theme parks. But today’s Asian factories are windowless and anonymous, and unwelcoming to visitors. Foxconn, after all, sells to Apple, not to individual consumers, and prefers not to expose the conditions workers must deal with.

The Bolsheviks’ love of “Amerikanizm”

When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Freeman says, they were already big fans of “Amerikanizm” — the industrial system whose enormous productivity, coupled with “scientific management,” easily outstripped the European powers. The Communists were naively sure that the same system that exploited American workers could be adopted without exploiting Soviet workers.

So when Stalin launched a crash program to industrialize in the late 1920s, he actually hired American talent: hundreds of engineers, who would oversee the construction of factories designed by Albert Kahn, the architect who’d built factories for Ford and other automotive giants.

Soviet industrialization was a mess, but Freeman shows that it actually helped save the U.S. auto industry, which suffered badly in the Depression. With the Reds hiring foreign experts and buying countless Model Ts, Detroit survived.

But by the late 1930s, American and Soviet factory systems were diverging in important ways. American autoworkers, concentrated in huge plants, formed powerful unions that won major concessions from management. Soviet factory workers already got benefits just by showing up: better housing, better food, higher pay. They were seen as a new kind of human, one created by the factory itself. The factory worker became a heroic figure in Soviet propaganda, though not as heroic as the machinery itself; the Soviet magazine USSR in Construction featured avant-garde photography in which humans were scarcely noticeable among the blast furnaces.

The golden age that wasn’t

After the Second World War, Freeman argues, giant factories declined in the U.S. while continuing to be built in the Soviet bloc. A wave of postwar strikes in 1945-46 taught American managers that thousands of workers in one big factory had too much clout. Newer, smaller factories began to spring up in the south and other regions with anti-union feelings. While the 25 postwar years are often seen as a golden age of prosperous workers and social equality, American unions lost members and power throughout that period.

In the Soviet bloc, workers in giant factories became the drivers of revolt, especially in Poland in the 1970s and 80s. After the collapse of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe, the U.S.S.R. soon followed.

China had not entirely adopted the Soviet-style giant factory, and Mao Zedong experimented disastrously with other forms of mass production like the backyard blast furnaces of the Great Leap Forward. But when Deng Xiaoping took over and adopted “special economic zones,” factory giantism entered its greatest period.

Ford and other captains of industry, as well as the Soviets, had seen their factories as part of their sales pitch: bigger, better, more modern, the pathway to the future. Chinese factories make stuff designed elsewhere, whether iPhones or Christmas ornaments or neckties. They get the work because they have cheap labour costs.

And when cheaper labour turns up elsewhere, Freeman says, the Chinese factories move there. Ivanka Trump’s line of shoes used to be produced by Huajian, a Chinese corporation which is now making shoes in Ethiopia, where workers are paid $35 a month to work long hours under unsafe conditions. (Ivanka’s company says it no longer does business with Huajian.)

And this becomes a key aspect of the factory. Its purpose is not just to make things cheap, but to make them ever cheaper. When unionized factory workers got too expensive, the companies moved to the south, and then to Mexico, and then to China. They left behind gutted cities like Detroit and Flint, not to mention Rust Belt towns across the South and Middle West, living on memories of a few good years — and opioids.

Donald Trump says he can make America great again by somehow bringing back a fantasy golden age of big factories (powered by coal) with well-paid workers cranking out “Made in USA” goods. It’s not going to happen; the “industrial” nations have moved on to finance and other forms of the information economy. Companies have become mere brands, outsourcing the actual production to poor countries with an endless supply of young men and women.

The day will surely come when Chinese brands outsource their designs to factories in Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Sierra Leone. And if they ever outsource them to the U.S. or Canada, it will be only when we can offer cheaper labour than the Ethiopians.

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