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Serious musings


Here are some highlights from a book I recently read. I found these parts interesting while reading, though they may not make the most sense in isolation. These are put here to aide my recall of the book and to give you the barest of encouragements to read it too.

Behemoth: A history of the factory and the making of the modern world by Joshua Freeman, 2019.

page 3 1732 the British government, to promote industrial development, gave [Thomas] Lombe a large cash payment in return for making public a model of his machinery.


The boost in productivity were startling: the earliest [spinning] jennies increased output per worker sixfold or more, while [Richard] Arkwright's equipment, once perfected, proved several hundredfold more efficient.


In the early days of the factory, the economics of water power may have made large-sized plants attractive, given the relative scarcity of sites and the capital investment needed to construct dams and channels to deliver a steady flow to waterwheels.


...sometimes there was not enough water, leading some mill owners to experiment with using steam engines - recently perfected to drain mines - to lift water into reservoirs, which could steadily supply water to a water wheel.


Many local men proved reluctant to take mill jobs, unwilling to submit to the unaccustomed close supervision and iscipline that came with them. In any case, mill owners did not want adult men for most positions, preferring women and children whom they could pay less and who did not have the sense of pride and craft that came from apprenticeship training.


The novelty of the factory system drew attention to the exploitation of its workforce, while the long-standing exploitation of agricultural workers, domestic producers, servants, and others went largely unnoted by politicians, journalists, and writers, who generally had little interest in the lower classes.


The framework knitters, who made stockings, lace, and other woven goods on looms they sometimes owned but often rented from merchant-hosiers, were the first group of Luddites to go into action. To cut labor costs, merchants increased the rent and introduced wide looms, on which, instead of making a single item, large pieces of knitted material could be produced and then cut and sewed to make cheap goods, including stockings. Faced with declining income and what they saw as the debasement of their trade, the frameworkers rallied under the banner of the mythical General Ludd, targeting wide frames and merchants who were cutting wages. Over the course of a year, an estimated thousand knitting frames in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire were destroyed. It took the passage of a law making frame-breaking a capital crime to halt the attacks.


A wealthy Boston merchant, [Francis Cabot] Lowell, during an extended sojourn in Britain, decided that big profits could be made through the large-scale integrated production of textiles, using powered equipment for all phases of the operation within a single factory. At the time, few British firms spun and wove in the same plant and no power loom had ever been used in the United States, because of Britain's technology embargo. On returning home, Lowell hired a skilled mechanic, Paul Moody, to help him build machinery modeled after what he had seen in England. By 1814, they had a power loom successfully operating and a dressing machine to prepare the warp.

Lowell formed a joint-stock company, the Boston Manufacturing Company, with other Boston merchants to build and operate a mill. The investors realized that with the full-scale resumption of British trade after the War of 1812, their opportunities for profits in international commerce would be reduced. Manufacturing promised to be a rewarding alternative... Creating the company was a radical innovation. .. Generally they were only used for enterprises considered public utilities, like building a canal. The corporate form had great advantages; it allowed aggregation of capital on a scale few individuals could afford and shared risk among multiple parties, a pracitce well known to merchants, who often formed partnerships to finance ship journeys. Joint stock corporations also facilitated enterprise continuity when investors chose to withdraw their funds and eased the process of inheritance, important for the rich, largely passive stockholders who would be drawn to the textile industry. (Corporations gained an additional advantage when they were granted limited liability in most New England stages during the 1830s and 1840s.)


For the mills "To obtain their constant importation of female hands from the country," wrote the Burlington [Vermont] Free Press in 1845, "it is necessary to secure the moral protection of their characters while they are resident in Lowell". To that end, the companies established what the paper termed a system of "moral police." (emphasis original)


Writer Edmund Flagg declared "There are few objects more truly grand — I almost said sublime — than a powerful steamer struggling with the rapids of the western waters." For Flagg and others, the contrast between the steamboat, the creation of mankind, and the wild, natural setting of the Mississippi contributed to making the scene so memorable, bordering on the sublime, which for the nineteenth-century observer meant not just awesome or beautiful but frightening, unsettling, and overwhelming, too.


...public exhibitions were built around the processes, symbols, and products of mechanical manufacturing, equating them with modernity. In 1839, for example, the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association held its second exhibition at Boston's Quincy Market. Over the course of twelve days, seventy-thousand people attended. Among the exhibits were an operating miniature railroad, a small steam engine that powered other machinery, planning machines, a "cassimere shearing machine," printing presses, and knitting machines. Displayed goods included textiles from Lowell, looking glasses, cabinets, coaches, saddles, hoisery, hats, caps, furs, confectionery, soaps, perfumes, boots, cannons, rifles, swords, hardware, cutlery, locks, pumps, fire engines, and musical instruments. Defending against the believe that manufacturing was undermining repulican virtue, James Trecothick Austin, in an address at the exhibition, tried to dismiss "the supposed conflicting interests of the various classes in American society." "Our splendid manufacturies of silver are worse than useless, if it is a sin against democracy to use a silver fork."


Bessemer furnace workers and many others typically toiled for thirteen consecutive twelve-hour day or night shifts and then, after a day off, worked a "long turn" of twenty-four hours, which put them on the opposite shift for the next two weeks. The schedule wreaked havoc on their lives, making normal family life impossible and wearing men out at an early age.


At Ford, progressive placement of machinery went hand in hand with an ever-greater division of labor. Each workstation was manned by a worker who did only one or a few tasks, usually simplified by the creation of equipment designed to do just those operations, over and over again. The gains in productivity were enormous. In 1905, with three hundred workers, Ford produced twenty-five cars a day; three years later, with some five hundred workers, it rolled out one hundred.


Assembly-line work proved physiologically and psychologically draining in ways other types of labor were not. More than ever before, workers were extensions of machinery, at the mercy of its demands and its pace. .. Another said, "If I keep putting on Nut No. 86 for about 86 more days, I will be Nut No. 86 in the Pontiac bughouse." Ford workers complained that assembly-line work left them in a nervous condition they dubbed "Forditis."


Among the most important visitors to Highland Park was Giovanni Agnelli, the chairman of the Italian automaker FIAT, who came away determined to adapt Ford methods to the European auto industry, which still largely made cars through handcrafting. To accommodate the Ford system, he commissioned a new factory in the Lingotto district of Turin, which opened in 1923. The plant — one of the great landmarks of modernist architecture — was Highland Park turned on its head. Like the New Shop, it had two long, linked, parallel buildings for assembly operations, each five stories high and over a quarter mile long. In the huge courtyard between the buildings, two spiral ramps connected al lof the floors to the roof. In an opposite procedure from Highland Park, raw materials were delivered on the ground floor and production proceeded upward until finished cars were driven onto a test track on the roof, with banked curves that allowed high speeds. Then cars were driven down a ramp for delivery.


Ironically, while the [River] Rouge was being built out to produce everything needed to make a Model T, the car itself was becoming obsolete. By the mid-1920s, other car companies, including General Motors and Chrysler, had introduced more technically advanced and varied models than Ford, whish still only sold the Model T. By 1927, as sales diminished, it became evident that something had to be done. Abruptly, Ford stopped making the Model T, even before finalizing the design of its replacement, the Model A. For six months, Ford factories sat idle, while the company replaced 15,000 machine tools and rebuilt 25,000 more. Meanwhile, the layoff of 60,000 Detroit-area Ford workers created a social crisis, as relief agencies, free clinics, and child-placement agencies struggled to meet the huge demand for their services. The underbelly of the Ford system had been exposed.


With the Model A, though, the Rouge moved ahead. It peaked at 102,811 workers in 1929, a level of employment entirely unprecedented at a single factory complex. To this day, at least in terms of the size of its workforce, it remains unmatched in the United States. It was, simply, the largest and most complicated factory every built, an extraordinary testament to ingenuity, engineering, and human labor.


In perhaps the most powerful argument ever made in defense of the Fordist factory, at least from a point of view other than that of those who profited from it, [Leon] Trotsky answered a question he had been asked, "What about the monotony of labor, depersonalized and despiritualized by the conveyor?" "The fundamental, main, and most important task", he replied, "is to abolish poverty. It is necessary that human labor shall produce the maximum possible quantity of goods....A high productivity of labor cannot be achieved without mechanization and automation, the finished expression of which is the conveyor." Just like Edward Filene, Trotsky claimed "The monotony of labor is compensated for by its reduced duration and its increased easiness. There will always be branches of industry in society that demand personal creativity, and those who find their calling in production will make their way to them." Then came the final flourish: "A voyage in a boat propelled by oars demands great personal creativity. A voyage in a steamboat is more 'monotonous' but more comfortable and more certain. Moreover, you can't cross the ocean in a rowboat. And we have to cross an ocean of human need."


The tractor held an almost mythical importance in the Soviet Union... Tractors were almost never sold to individual peasants but rather used as inducements and support for collective cultivation.


But the bigger problem was the utter unfamiliarity of the vast bulk of workers and Russian supervisors with basic industrial processes, let alone advanced mass production. When Margaret Bourke-White visited the [Stalingrad Tractorstroi] factory during its first summer of operation, she reported, "the Russians have no more idea how to use the conveyor than a group of school children." In the plant, "the production line usually stands perfectly still. Half-way down the factory is a partly completed tractor. One Russian is screwing in a tiny bolt and twenty other Russians are standing around him watching, talking it over, smoking cigarettes, arguing."


Top factory managers, state officials, and party functionaries toppled into the abyss as real and perceived failures were attributed to treachery and counterrevolution, until finally even the leaders of the Magnitogorsk NKVD, who led the terror, themselves fell to it. Though no exact count is available, according to Scott, in 1937 the purge led to "thousands" of arrests in Magnitogorsk. And it was similar elsewhere; at the Gorky auto plant, during the first six months of 1938, 407 specialists were arrested, including almost all the Soviet engineers who had spent time in Detroit and some of the few Americans who still remained at the factory.


John Scott, who attended night school most of the time he lived in Magnitogorsk, reported that virtually everyone in the city between ages sixteen and twenty-six was studying in some sort of formal program, which took up almost all of their spare time. "Every night, from six until twelve the street cars and buses of Magnitogorsk were crowded with adult students hurrying to and from schools with books and notebooks under their arms, discussing Leibnitz, Hegel, or Lenin, doing problems on their knees, and acting like high-school children during examination week in a New York subway." For worker-students, the tremendous dedication needed to get to class, stay awake, and then do homework after a hard day's work opened a path of upward mobility. For Soviet leaders, the education push, especially in technical fields, liberated the country from dependence on foreign and old-regime expertise.


The creation of the metallurgy, automotive, and tractor industries, especially the plants located deep in the Soviet interior, proved critical to Soviet survival and ultimate victory during World War II.


In an October 1994 strike at the Goodyear factory, just four striking workers idled five thousand others.


Setting up an "Automation Department," the company began shifting work out of the Rouge, which had one onf the most militant UAW locals in the country and where wildcat strikes and slowdowns remained common. The labor savings proved considerable. In the mid-1950s, the company transferred production of Ford and Mercury engines from the Rouge to a newly automated plant in Cleveland. It also built a plant in Dearborn to make Lincoln engines. At the Rouge, it had take 950 workers to make piston connecting rods, but at the Cleveland and Lincoln plants it required only a combined workforce of 292. During the 1950s, Ford transferred many other operation sout of the Rouge to more automated plants, including stamping, machine casting, forging, steel production, and glassmaking. As a result, employment at the Rouge shrank from 85,000 in 1945 to 54,000 in 1954 to 30,000 in 1960, making it still one of the largest factories in the United States though only a shadow of what it had been in its heyday.


Between 1978 and 1982, employment in the automobile industry fell by a third, with more than three dozen factories shuttered in the Detroit area alone. During those same years, the steel indusry shed more than 150,000 jobs. .. U.S. Steel eliminated twenty thousand jobs in Gary, devastating the city, and in 1986 shut down the historic Homestead mill. The worker in the giant factory, once a heroic figure, mastering volcanic forces and massive machines, at least in the United States came to be seen as an atavism, a problem, a sad relic of a passing age.


Now Huta [in what was then USSR Poland] was designed without any church, forcing residents to worship in nearby villages. Requests from the Krakow diocese to build a church in the city were repeatedly turned down until the fall of 1956, when, in response to widespread protests [...the OK was given]. A year later a site was chosen and a cross erected there. Then authorities began stalling, and in 1960 reassigned the site to a school, ordering the cross removed. .. The day ended with a full-scale battle between four thousand residents and militia troops, who used water cannons, tear gas, and bullets, while the crowd threw stones, vandalized stores, and torched a building. Nearly five hundred people were arrested, some given substantial prison terms. The authorities, belatedly realizing the explosive symbolism, let the cross remain. Within a few years, Catholic leaders resumed their campaign for a church, with the backing of the new archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II. In 1965 the government gave approval for a church near a new housing development. It took an extended campaign to raise money for the building and erect it, culminating in the consecration of what was called the Lord's Ark by the then-cardinal Wojtyla in May 1977, with seventy thousand people in attendance. The defense of the cross and building the church helped forge a culture of resistance and networks of mobilization...


As Goodyear, GM, Ford, GE, and other American corporations had learned decades earlier, large assemblages of workers who work together, live together, pray together, drink together, and die together can turn the largest, most important factories from models of efficiency into weapons of labor power.


Micro-industry [in China's Great Leap Forward] was meant to take advantage of underutilized rural labor and materials, serve agriculture, and provide inputs to large-scale industrial concerns. Most famous were the several hundred thousand very small "backyard" blast furnaces built across the country, which, along with small mines to feed them, at one point employed sixty million workers.


"The more sophisticated companies work on wealth creation and demand creation. And they let somebody else do everything in between." Apple initially manufactured its own products, some in factories near its Silicon Valley headquarters. But in the mid-1990s it began selling and shutting down plants, contracting out almost all of its physical production. In 2016 Apple made only one major product, a high-end desktop computer, in the United States.


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 problems could be blamed on a contractor down the supply chain, the damage would be less costly and more easily contained.


In 2007, just weeks before the scheduled unveiling of the first iPhone, Jobs decided to switch from a plastic to a glass screen. When the first shipment of glass screens arrived at the Foxconn Longhua plant at midnight, eight thousand workers were awoken in the dormitories, given a biscuit and a cup of tea, and sent off to begin a twelve-hour shift fitting the screens into their frames. Working around the clock, the plant was soon pouring out ten thousand iPhones a day. On occasion, to fulfill an order, Foxconn moved large groups of workers from one factory to another in an entirely different part of the country. Meeting surges of demand requires not only a vast army of labor but also a large corps of junior officers, thousands of industrial engieers to set up assembly lines and oversee them, something that China, with its massive program of technical education, can provide. It is this ability to quickly scale up (and, when the rush is over, quickly scale down) production that Apple and other customers prize in the giant contract manufacturing plants...


Foxconn puts particular stress on following detailed rules and work instructions — a kind of hyper-Taylorism — enforced by a mulitlayered management hierarchy.


The giant factory in China and Vietnam has not received the kind of notice it did in its earlier incarnations in England, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. Considerable attention has been paid to the plight of migrant Chinese workers, particularly in film, but much less to the factories they work in. Part of the reason is the secretiveness of factory owners, who for the most part see only a downside in allowing their facilities to be visited or documented. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, companies saw their factories as good advertising, symbols of their position at the cutting edge of industry and a way to get their products better known among customers. Soviet and Eastern European authorities viewed their giant factories as showcases for socialism, also appealing, in a different way, to a broad public. By contrast, the owners of Chinese and Vietnamese manufacturing enterprises do not want anything to do with the public. For the most part, their customers are not end users but other companies. And as far as those companies go, by and large the less known about the manufacturing process the better.


Basic manufacturing, for better or worse, seems like yesterday in much of the advanced world, especially the United States, an attitude [that has been] picked up in less developed countries. Modernity does not mean the assembly line for Chinese policy makers and elites. Rather, they see mass manufacturing as a stage to got through and leave behind in achieving modernity.