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Joshua B. Freeman

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Latest 4 Apr 2021 | Updated Daily

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The History of Megafactories with Joshua B. Freeman

The Prepared

Thomas Lombe’s Derby Silk Mill, built in 1721, is arguably the first factoryOur guest today is Joshua B. Freeman. Joshua is a professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. He’s also the author of Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. We read Behemoth in The Prepared’s (members only) reading group last month, and I wanted to have Joshua on to discuss the book, factories, and the history of labor relations.You can listen and subscribe on iTunes, Overcast, Spotify and Stitcher. An edited transcript is below.Spencer WrightMy guest today is Joshua B. Freeman. Joshua is a professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. He’s also the author of Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. We read Behemoth in The Prepared’s reading group last month, and I wanted to have Joshua on to discuss the book, factories, and the history of labor relations. Joshua, thanks so much for joining me!Joshua B. FreemanOh, it's my pleasure.Spencer WrightI wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your background. How did you come to study megafactories - and why do you find them interesting in the first place?Joshua B. FreemanWell, I'm a labor historian, and I've spent a long time studying workers and unions and working class communities, and you cannot understand these topics without understanding production - understanding their economic roles and how they've changed over time. And of course, you can't understand production without understanding factories, so I've always had something of an interest in factories. But it was not really my central focus until 2010, and what really grabbed my attention were the events in China that year, when there was a series of suicides at the factories run by Foxconn, where workers, very dramatically, jumped off the roofs of these factories. And these were factories that were making electronic equipment, particularly Apple products, and the story completely grabbed me.First of all, I had never heard of Foxconn, to be honest. Second of all, when I started digging into these stories, there were allusions to the fact that these were incredibly large factories. The main production facility where the most suicides took place, which was in Shenzhen, probably had something like 300,000 workers at that time, and I was just bowled over. What's the scale of this? But then I started thinking, "Well, whoa, this is unbelievably big. I wanna understand this." So I just started thinking of this category, the giant factory, and what was its history, and that's what led me into this book.Spencer WrightYou note in the first chapter of Behemoth that as late as 1850, manufacturing establishments on average employed fewer than eight workers. The book goes on to describe the ever-increasing size of the largest factories in the world, from the 1721 Lombe Mill to Foxconn City. So obviously the largest factories have gotten bigger, but I wonder if you have a sense of what the broader story in manufacturing is, and how the modal or the mean manufacturing facility has changed over those same 200 years?Joshua B. FreemanThere have always been varied scales of production in things that we call factories. So you point to 1850, in the United States, for example, you had Cambria, an early iron maker that had a couple of thousand workers at the same time that the average was eight. So modally then - and I'm pretty sure now - the typical factory is small, and we also have had the mid-size (several hundred person) factory, and all these things have coexisted. And what's interesting is they've often co-existed interconnectedly. If you went to Detroit in the absolute heyday of Detroit manufacturing, let's say the '60s, '50s, you would find a zillion backyard machine shops, full of tool and die makers that were making tools to sell to Chrysler or Ford.So those two ecosystems depended upon one another, you know, they're not completely separate universes, and that's still very much true today. If you go down the block from the giant Foxconn factory, you're gonna find some hole in the wall factories that may be doing subcontracting - making specialized tools. So all these things still exist. The giant factory is the exception, and I didn't mean to suggest that it was the typical factory, but it has had outsize importance in the development of the factory system.Spencer WrightA lot of what the book is about, I think, is how life within those large factories has changed over 200 years. I wonder, do you think those changes are representative of the entire manufacturing environment, or have those small tool and die shops evolved in parallel ways as the mega-factories have?Joshua B. FreemanYeah, the taxonomy of factories is pretty complicated, so it's not just size. That's a complicated question to answer. First of all, in some ways, life in the big factory has changed enormously and for the better, and yet in some ways, it hasn't changed that much. One of the things I point out in the book is the eerie parallels between, let's say, the Chinese factory of 2010 and the Lowell Massachusetts factory of 1840, in their use of primarily young women. It's an episode in their life, highly supervised, long hours, pretty oppressive conditions. So there are continuities as well as discontinuities. When you look at the small factory, you have both the very capital intensive, highly sophisticated factory that you may see in parts of the United States making very high-end equipment. And you also have the absolute junk kind of sweatshop, which is technologically primitive and super exploited. And that latter type of factory - almost always the conditions are a lot worse than at the Foxconn or the equivalent. So I think it's a little tricky to generalize about the small factory, but there are plenty of crummy, crummy small factories, where the technology may be somewhat different, they have electric lights and not oil lamps, but still characterized by long hours, difficult, often repetitive work, unhealthy working conditions and low pay. That's been characteristic of many small factories for centuries now.Spencer WrightYou bring up a kind of interesting point: This sense of misery in factories, small or large, that are dimly lit, and you're stooped over and so on and so forth. And however miserable that might be, you hint in the book that the truth of the matter is that that work is still better than the alternative if the alternative is subsistence farming that verges on starvation. I wonder, how do you assess the quality of industrial labor overall? And how should we, as well-informed and ethical observers, think about industrialization as a force for quality of life?Joshua B. FreemanThat’s a really interesting and provocative way you put the question, and let me give you a provocative answer. Do you want your kids to have the same job? That's one way of assessing the quality of the job. If you think about growing up in Flint, Michigan in 1950, lots of parents thought, "Go to high school and get a job in the GM plant, and yeah, the day-to-day work is hard and dirty, but you could live a good life off of that salary. And it's got security and you can be able to retire at not such a terrible age." So that's one example when I think people are saying, "Yeah, these are pretty good jobs." But now, I think very typically people say, "I work in the factory so my kid doesn't have to do it." So there's a kind of implied progression. As you've pointed out - and this has been true for a couple of centuries now - many factories across the globe have been able to recruit workforces for what you and I might not think of as very good jobs because they can draw on rural hinterlands, where there are people living in quite poor and often oppressive conditions. These rural people are not just economically poor, but also suffer either political or familial oppression, and going to the factory provides something of a step up in terms of material conditions and escape from a repressive environment. And I think that continues to be true in large parts of the world today. No one would say that a job in a Bangladesh clothing factory is terrific - they're dangerous, they're tough, but there are workers who'll still take those jobs. I mean you could say they're voluntary, but they're voluntary in the sense that there aren't that many alternatives out there, and this is better than where they're starting from. This, by the way, was not always the case in the very early days of factories. Sometimes these jobs would seem so negative that you really almost have to coerce workers to take these jobs. This was true in early 19th century England, it was true in the Soviet Union, it was true in a lot of different parts of the world at different moments. So it's a complicated story, but for many people, the factory is a step upward. But most times when they make that step, they have much higher aspirations - if not for themselves, then at least for their children.Spencer WrightYeah, in the last section of the book you write explicitly about how the Chinese Communist Party sees industrialization as a means to a higher end state. It's kind of the same thing you're describing here, but one or two layers of organization up. Is that an inevitability, do you think? And maybe the more important question is, what happens when the entire world has gone through industrialization? Someone has to get stuck with these factory jobs, right? Joshua B. FreemanYeah, that's a really interesting question. The dynamics are somewhat different over, let's say, the last 50 years than they were earlier, because of the increased ability to produce goods at a great physical distance from where their marketplace is. As the radical decrease in shipping costs and improvements in communication make it possible to get a product made literally halfway around the globe and get delivery in not too long a time, this dynamic has been sped up. So it used to be the case that you would have more sustained production of a particular good in a particular place that might go on for a century or more, and we still have occasional examples of that: For instance, the River Rouge has been making Ford cars for over 100 years now on the outskirts of Detroit.But today, I think, particularly for low wage, low skill manufacturing, it is increasingly the case that these plants don't last all that long, that they're drawn by inducements and the availability of, to put it bluntly, an exploitable labor pool. But as economic conditions improve, land prices go up, workers organize, wages go up, the economic calculus changes, and they sometimes move on. So we do see that kind of cycle going on and on. Now there's been some suggestions that the pandemic may lead to some longer term changes because of the problems of extended supply chains that have been revealed over the last year, but nonetheless, I think there's plenty reason to think that we haven't seen the end of this.I use the example in the book, for example, of Chinese companies that are beginning to develop production facilities in Africa and other parts of Asia, because wages are lower, labor is pliable and available, and land costs and labor costs are going up in China. It's not as if Chinese national policies are against manufacturing. They want to move up the manufacturing chain! They don't want to assemble the electronic goods. They want to make the high-end chip, which is where the high value is. So if they're gonna do manufacturing, they see the future in that type of manufacturing and not being the sock capital of the world.Spencer WrightOne of the things that the book chronicles is the development and deployment of labor unions and strikes really as bargaining chips in labor relations. Typically it's a very direct competition where workers want better pay and less strenuous working conditions, and management largely wants the opposite. But I wonder, to what extent have unions also been forces for broader societal changes in the past, arguing for employers ceasing business with customers they find unappealing for some reason? For context, I'm thinking about a more recent trend of large tech employees arguing for their employers to cease doing business with the CIA or something like that. Is there a history of that beyond the past couple of years? Joshua B. FreemanThere is a history. Now, I think this looks very different in different parts of the world, so I think you see more of a history of that, for example, in Europe, than you see in the United States. It takes two forms. One form is getting involved in politics to pursue broad social changes that may not in a narrow sense deal with the production issue. Most Americans don't realize this, but unions were an extremely important political force in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Now that had some impact on factories and so forth, but that wasn't the main reason they're supporting it. They have a vision of a different kind of society that they share with a lot of other people. They're not in the lead, but they are in that civil rights coalition.Much less common, but not unknown, is the use of direct influence. Longshoremen were famous for this, refusing to ship arms, for example, to Fascist countries in the build-up to World War II. More recently, there were times when longshoremen, particularly on the West Coast, refused to ship strategic goods to the apartheid regime in South Africa. So, yeah, you've occasionally seen that, but it has not been a major focus for the American union movement. At the work site, generally, action is restricted to work-related issues.Spencer WrightAnother broad social thing that the book talks about is industrialization as the vanguard of at least some degree of gender and maybe ethnic progress. Maybe the best early example is the Lowell girls, and this idea that Women getting manufacturing jobs established them as independent entities - as individuals. However, it's a little bit unclear how lasting those effects have been. To what extent has industrialization actually leveled the socio-economic playing field across gender and race? And are any factors that you think could be leveraged to improve outcomes for previously marginalized groups?Joshua B. FreemanI think I would primarily agree with you. By creating opportunities for people who are utterly dependent on others... Whether it's a woman within her family structure or a kind of social caste system or rigid rural hierarchies... This can be a kind of liberating force, to be able to get a job in a factory, where you're working on your own, you may be outside of the physical surveillance of the family, or the local big people of the community, or whatever it might be. And I think, although it's impossible I think to quantify, that it has a cumulative effect, even if each episode may be time-limited, in making society more egalitarian not in the sense of income, but across gender and racial and ethnic lines. And I think that has been something of a tendency of capitalist, and maybe even communist, production systems.That said, you could come up with some counterexamples if you step back and broaden your vision. For example, it could be argued that early factory production helped lead to the spread and endurance of slavery, because the massive scale of cotton production, when the British perfected mechanized production of spinning of thread and then of weaving, created this huge demand for cheap cotton and the world’s solution was to spread slavery. In the United States, that took the form of moving into Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia, and the more western parts of what became the slave empire. So there's a huge amount of human immiseration. But it could go the other way too. If you skip forward 100 years to the World War I era, migration of African Americans out of the South to take factory jobs in the North was associated with economic improvement and political advancement. If you leave being a share-cropper in Mississippi to take a job in a foundry at the Ford Company, not only is your economic status changing, now you could vote, now you could get a better education, have access to a different range of social services. So I think the factory can often have that effect of creating a pathway out of extreme dependence and subordination.Spencer WrightIn the section on the Soviet Union, you talked a lot about the peasant class and these masses of people who are illiterate and have no rights and have no land. And obviously, industrialization of the Soviet Union was happening at a time of critical broader social upheaval, but I wonder if some of the status shifts there might have been more lasting, and it would just be because the historical discrimination within the country was not based explicitly on the color of your skin. Is there anything to that or were there [chuckle] other negative aspects to Soviet leadership that might have undermined that?Joshua B. FreemanYeah, that's a complicated question. Some has to do with the peculiar ideology of the Soviet Union, which in theory if not necessarily in practice, workers were considered the vanguard of the whole society. So to be a worker had a kind of resonance culturally that being a peasant certainly didn't, or that being a worker in a lot of other places didn't. I think that you could argue that some of those changes, for example, in the United States, the availability of industrial jobs to African-Americans in the 20th century, had very lasting effects. But you suggested something in your original question, which I think is an important thing. It's not an automatic process, and sometimes the impact was greater when there was an active effort to open up these opportunities to other people.So when you're talking about gender and race, of course there's a huge history of discriminatory practices in hiring in the United States, and many other places, including in factories, and there were often active struggles to eliminate those discriminatory bars, and the greatest advancements came sometimes from a combination of market forces, labor market forces, and political struggles that used the law or other means to force companies to lessen their discriminatory bars. The great example here would be World War II, when as a result of a threatened march on Washington by marginally African-American groups, the federal government made it a rule that it was illegal to discriminate in hiring in the defense industries. Now of course in World War II, the defense industry was massive.Lots of companies did not follow that, and at first it was extremely difficult, but it set a standard, which I think you could argue was one of the steps that led to the modern Civil Rights Movement. It was both the result of earlier struggles, but it set a new notion that there should be a legal bar enforced by the federal government that said, "You can't stand outside that factory and say, "I'll take you, you're white, I won't take you, you're black," and of course, that notion eventually got expanded towards sex discrimination, age discrimination, or the discrimination against people with disabilities, and many other kinds of discriminatory practices were banned.Spencer WrightOne of the ways that factory owners have maintained low wages - and maintained power relative to their employees - is by relocating. You describe in the book that relocating factories (and also not sole sourcing, having multiple factories doing the same thing) is one of the main aspects of power that factory owners have retained throughout this whole process. And I gotta say in a lot of cases, the reasoning behind moving the factory is totally understandable. Heavy industry isn't always a good fit for cities. Here in New York, where there's a (poorly enforced) ban on 53-foot trailers within the five boroughs, which limits the amount of goods that you can process here. And it strikes me that there is maybe this natural negative feedback loop, where a factory is started in a place where there is good access to natural resources or good access to electricity, or some other form of power. The factory then creates or helps bootstrap what then becomes an urban environment, a population center. And then as that population center evolves, it then eventually rejects all of the negative externalities of manufacturing. Is this cycle inevitable? Or are there other examples of industries that have somehow managed to co-exist within dense urban environments for a long period of time? Joshua B. FreemanYeah. Well, there's a whole field of economics that deals with location theory and there's endless books written about it. It's a pretty complicated story. I don't think you're wrong to be sympathetic. My gosh, the idea of doing business that involves things in the City of New York, let's say, or the City of San Francisco, it's terrifying. The logistic issues, the tax and bureaucratic issues, the high cost of electricity, a million things like that, that's all completely real. And I think what you called a negative feedback loop is only part of the story. In my view, labor costs are probably even a bigger part. And what you tend to see moving out of cities are sort of standardized production, which can use a lower skilled workforce than was available in the place where the industry first arose.So when you look at the history of the garment industry, what moves out for first from places like New York? It's underwear. What moves out last? High fashion that changes every three months. You look at printing. What moves out first? Books, like magazines that have a print run of 2 million. What moves last? Stock certificates for Wall Street which used to get printed up. So yeah, there certainly can be externalities that make it very difficult to maintain urban manufacturing. But I think there also are counter-examples. I mentioned earlier The Ford, it's not in the center of Detroit, but it's just outside of it, that's been producing for 100 years. Places like New York that never housed many very big factories. They were the centers of mid and small sized manufacturing, and many of those places eventually found it an extremely inhospitable environment and they folded or moved, and that's gotten easier and easier and easier for reasons we discussed.But it also has to do with political will. Will you make an effort to create those externalities? And I think, for example, in the case of New York, you have something like the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, which has been a success story. It really has been trying over the last maybe 20 years to become a place where small, and even some mid-size manufacturers, can rent a space at a not exorbitant price. It has its own power plant. It has its own security. It has its own parking. It has some shared human resource facilities. And that model, which New York City is actually on, that's a quasi-public entity. But for example, the Old Army Terminal also in Brooklyn, which is a strictly private sector effort to do similar things so far seems to be doing pretty well. So some kind of manufacturing, I think, can be sustained in cities, and has been sustained, and I think it's good for those manufacturers and good for those cities. I think you have to be realistic about what you can do and what you can't do, but I don't think there's some magic number beyond which you can't still have manufacturing in the city.Spencer WrightBehemoth has this great section on early 20th century factory architecture, and architect Albert Kahn’s collaborations with early American (and then Soviet) industrialists. Can you talk a little bit about how the physical factory form has evolved over the past ~century and a half?Joshua B. FreemanWell, Yeah, this is a fascinating thing for me, and in writing this book, I learned a lot about it, and many things that surprised me, and I think the first thing that really kind of amazed me was when I looked at pictures of what was often considered the first factory. That's kind of arbitrary but there was a silk factory. It was in Derby, England. It was built in 1721. And many historians point to that as the first real example of this thing that we now call the factory. It had about 300 workers. It was not small. If I showed anyone that picture of that thing, and I said, "What's that thing?" They'll go, "Oh, that's a factory." Somehow a physical form of the multi-storey building with many windows to bring in light... In those early cases, they almost always were water-powered, so there was a water wheel underneath them... And from then to the late 19th century, there weren't that many changes in the physical design of these factories.But they were limited in size. One big limit was they need to bring in light. Remember, there's no artificial light... It's ineffective, artificial light, it's gas lamps... And also the building construction method, you couldn't have big floor plates. You just couldn't support heavy machinery. Eventually steel framing was used and you had some changes, but in the early 20th century, the big breakthrough was the introduction of reinforced concrete. And this was one of the things that Albert Kahn was very associated with it and he wasn't the only one. And reinforced concrete, have a lot of advantages. It's very resistant to vibration, you could spam larger spaces, you could have much larger windows. So you had several decades of building these buildings. Probably the most famous example of this is the Highland Park plant for the Ford Company. But they were all over the United States, and they're still all over the United States, although mostly no longer factories. They also tend to be... Turn out to be to be extremely resistant to wear. They're tough buildings.So that for a while was the standard, but then, starting really just around World War I, you began to see a change towards the one-storey factory, and some of it was the increasing use of assembly lines over very large distances that had to get rearranged every time the model changed. And there was greater flexibility, if you could build these very large, high single-storey spaces. You didn't have to move goods up to the upper storeys. You didn't have to have internal beams supporting the upper floors. So you had a kind of flexibility to engineer your production systems and then change those production systems. And again, it was the Ford Company that was kind of the model with this one. They went from Highland Park, which is where the Model T was produced to the New River Rouge factory where the Model A was produced, and this transition is happening in the immediate post-World War I period. They moved to the steel-beamed single-storey factory design, and that primarily is still the case today in many uses.Although for lighter manufacturing like electronics, if you look at a Chinese electronics factory you might think it was the office park down on the suburban ring road, except that it's really big. But that single-storey model... And of course, you had different logistic demands, and as I think your question implied, ill-suited to center cities. They need a lot of space, they need a lot of loading platforms, they need huge parking lots for all the workers that are gonna come work in them. So they tend to be suburban sided or increasingly rural sided. When a Mercedes or a BMW wants to build a factory in the United States now, they go to some rural area in the South or semi-rural area in the South where land is cheap, they have a kind of greenfields to start with, and unions are not common.Spencer WrightIt's funny, I hadn't even really thought about this, that, in addition to this cycle of factories moving out into a rural area for labor cost reasons and just because moving stuff around a city is hard, you also have this trend where, yeah, around... Between the First World War and Second World War or something like that, architects realized that, "Oh, we should be making our buildings way, way lower to the ground and way, way wider, and so we need that much more physical real estate." Which just, again, makes manufacturing in a city, just totally unfeasible, I guess.Joshua B. FreemanYes, and then of course, after World War II, when you begin to get the development of the interstate highway system, that really frees you in terms of locational decisions. Because... You know, you still needed and in some cases you still need to be near railroads, but a lot of transportation increasingly was truck transportation, you know, and that's expensive if it takes a long time. But as you begin to develop interstate highways, then you can get farther and farther from the old manufacturing cities and still could be economically feasible, so that's often the key to locations. By the way, this is equally true of warehouses, you know I mean, now warehouses... We live in a dynamic society, so it's actually going the other way. As Amazon now decides, it's not two-day delivery, it's two-hour delivery that matters, then you have to put the warehouse back in the city. But till about five minutes ago when two days was good enough, why would you put it in the city? You'll put it down the New Jersey Turnpike or you know, or whatever the equivalent for other parts of the country is. On the interstate, but not with the land costs and the hassles of being in the city.Spencer WrightYeah, huh. Yeah, I remember hearing some stuff a couple of years ago about multi-story warehouses in Red Hook or something like that, right?Joshua B. FreemanYes, yes. That is now coming back. There's an amazing building, which is now, of course, the Google headquarters in New York, which was the old Port Authority terminal building. That was a warehouse, it was a multi-story warehouse, right near the water front. It had and I assume it still has elevators in which you can drive a trailer truck onto, and the whole truck goes up to the upper floors [chuckle] then you drive it to the specific spot, where you can unload it. It's ingenious, it's amazing but once the interstate developed and other things, why would you do this? But ironically, as you mentioned, they have now been revisiting this approach because the very high land cost in the place you wanna be, near your customers, where you could get that thing to them, as I said, not in two days, but in two hours.Spencer WrightSo I came into this conversation kind of thinking about the building that my workshop is in. I believe it was built in the 1950s, and it's one of these concrete constructions where it's a column every 20 feet or so and it's six or seven floors tall and it occupies about half of a Bed-Stuy block. And my building is light industrial lofts, but all around it are condos. [chuckle] Unsurprisingly, the upside to developing a five or 10 floor condo building is just way higher than renovating this building and keeping it as industrial lofts.But I love this era of building. For instance, the (Cass Gilbert designed) Brooklyn Army terminal. NYCEDC has spent a lot of effort trying to re-industrialize that building to quite a bit of pushback from the neighborhood due to concerns of gentrification. I wonder, what do you think the best possible case for buildings like this are in the next couple of decades?Joshua B. FreemanSure. Yeah, no, it's a fascinating question. Look, first of all, I think we have to just, again, remember we're talking about a relatively modest proportion of the entire urban workforce that could conceivably be in manufacturing, in an already built up environment like New York. But I think that there are some possibilities, but as you say, it's very tricky. Look, take a neighbor like Red Hook. If you rezone areas that were once manufacturing for housing and more and more wealthy people get there, then the thing that made Red Hook, Red Hook, a port and trucking, everyone's gonna say, "Oh, it's too loud, the trucks start at six in the morning, it smells 'cause they're doing this," and they're gonna use their political pressure, 'cause the people who buy those condos know how to do that, to then have new noise laws or increased police enforcement, and you're gonna squeeze out manufacturing. So it's tricky to have them coexist. I think that's really true.And yet, in a funny way, I think if you can figure it out, to me, that's a real vision of back to the past. And let me tell you a story: I think people who live in the New York area may be familiar with, there was a housing project in Chelsea between 8th and 9th avenue in the '20s. And it was built by the sponsorship of the Ladies Garment Workers Union, and it was a non-profit, modest income housing project that they intended to be for their members. Why did they put it there? Because it was walking distance to the Garment District. And they had a vision... Why do people have to get on the subway, why can't they just walk to work? This extraordinary vision and it's an extraordinary testament to the power of the union, that they could actually pull it off and build this thing smack the middle of Manhattan. Of course the irony is by the time that the thing was done, the garment industry had gone down the toilet or was going down the toilet. And the thing disappeared. It's still a non-profit, modest income housing project, but you can't walk to work, for most of those people, anymore.But in the world we live in today, where we have to think about energy considerations and ecological considerations, the idea that you could have factory workers living in decent housing and able to walk to work, I mean what a notion. So I don't think we should abandon that idea, and I think if there are ways to do it... I think you only can do it, frankly, with government intervention. Look, if it's just gonna be the most profitable land use in an urban environment, it's gonna be extraordinarily rare that manufacturing will win out.Spencer WrightRelated Companies is not gonna start developing factory properties in New York City.Joshua B. FreemanExactly. But it's not a radical notion to say that the government should have some say over this. The idea of zoning is a well-established idea in American life, and New York City's had zoning for over a century and there are other tools that can be used as well. Cities, not so much New York, but a lot of cities own a lot of land that's not developed that can be... You can make social decisions about how you're gonna use it. So there is some play here, I think, for not just throwing up your hands and saying, "Oh well, market forces will do this and oh, that's just nostalgic to think that we can do that." So I don't disagree with your desire to see if there's some way to make this happen. I think it's proven to be a tough lift, but I don't think it's impossible.Spencer WrightYeah. It's a desire that I totally have and I think some of my favorite, vacations is a funny word, but traveling around southern China and being in Dongguan, which is this enormous city and kind of manufacturing Mecca in a way, right? And just realizing how mixed-use really is, and seeing a relatively small factory with a community right up against the entrance and seeing little garage job shops, that are running parts overnight, clearly so that the factory can work the next day. And right next door is a convenience store, and right next door is a food court and right next door is... And it's... To me, it's a very romantic idea. And it's just so appealing to be able to... This idea of the 15-minute city, that everything you do is within a 15-minute radius. It's just such a romantic notion to me. And yet it seems so out of step with the 20th century American experience in manufacturing. Where people in Flint, they have reason to be skeptical [chuckle] of, and I don't know the history that well, but they have reason to be skeptical of industrialization and the negative impacts of it, right? Joshua B. FreemanYes. Although... Yes, they do. But of course they were much harder hit by the costs of de-industrialization than the costs of industrialization. Although both of them had at least negative sides to them. Look, I'm very much on the same page with you. I think it does require social investments. You were talking about the difficulty of moving goods around New York and how that's a disincentive for a manufacturer. Absolutely true. Now, you could actually... Jerry Nadler, Congressman Jerry Nadler, for I think probably literally 30 years has been pushing the idea of building a freight tunnel from New Jersey to New York for freight. I don't think we're gonna see that, but there's something to the underlying notion that if you provided an infrastructure that's appropriate for a particular kind of land use, then you can be able to attract those kinds of people and you can do it in a socially responsible and ecologically environmentally responsible way.But that's a social investment. We make social investments all the time which may be inappropriate. We invest in highways. We invest in other things. It's not like the government isn't spending money to help manufacturers by building infrastructure, but it's making generally unconsidered decisions about what the best way to do this is. Certainly decisions that are not really in public debate or public discourse. So I think it's hard for a single city to do it by itself, but, I think, again, at least in modest ways, we've actually seen a little bit of that and I think we could see more of it.Spencer WrightYou mentioned earlier that since the advent of the shipping container, that factories have increasingly been able to move anywhere that has a combination of low labor costs, good internal supply chain infrastructure, and relative proximity to a modern container terminal. Today, I think of the next frontier in that movement to be some combination of India and Africa. Now, a lot of regions in India and Africa don't have one or two of those things, probably the main one would be internal supply chain infrastructure, I'm guessing, for both of those regions. And yet it seems kind of inevitable that both India and Africa will become industrial hubs in the next century. I wonder like, A, how much of that do you actually believe in? Or how soon do you think that is, if at all? And, B, to what extent the factory model will need to evolve in order to accommodate the idiosyncratic local conditions in those two regions or any others if you think there's a different one that's more likely?Joshua B. FreemanWell, this is not a great area of expertise for me, but let me say a few things. To some extent this is happening. It's not a future story. There is a lot of investment in certain parts of Africa with what you describe, a good port. You usually need a good electricity supply, some infrastructure. And by the way, you also usually wanna have, from the manufacturer's point of view, a stable government that's cooperative with the manufacturers. And that could be everything from simply getting rid of red tape to some cases, suppressing labor unions. And we're seeing a fair amount of investment in Africa, in places where that exists. One example is Addis Ababa, but there are other places as well. But of course, there are also political factors. It's funny you mention India, India of course was once a great industrial center. It was the world's center of textile manufacturing. And it was kind of de-industrialized by the British, out of their mercantilist policy. They wanted the industry to be in Britain, and they wanted India to be a raw materials supplier and an area of consumption. They wanted the manufacturing.And then of course, eventually India itself, once they achieved independence, had a kind of import substitution policy that was not signing on to a free trade regime. Now of course, the Modi government, in some ways has moved in a more opening up way. So India is I think a complicated story and a lot of it's a political story. But will we see more of this? Sure, I think so. Right now there are other places. A lot of Chinese manufacturing's just moving nearby to Vietnam, which is somewhat lower cost. It's not the lowest cost out there, but it's a lower cost. Bangladesh, Cambodia. The most extreme example, of course, is in clothes, and I'm often amazed when I look at the tag in something I buy, a shoe or a piece of clothing: "Oh, it was made there?" Because this is happening very quickly. But nothing is inevitable and a lot of this depends upon political factors, trade agreements, political stability and shipping costs. Energy costs have been pretty low in recent years and oil prices have been quite low. Who knows? Things can change. The economics of shipping are fluctuating. So it's a little bit hard to predict, but I think there are lots of reasons to think that things will go in the direction you suggest.Spencer WrightOne of my favorite parts of the book honestly was the section around the early 20th century. You kinda took a little bit of a tangent in a way, and just went into all the artistic representations of factories, right? And of course, I opened 20 Google tabs trying to find these beautiful Charles Sheeler paintings and Margaret Bourke-White and... Also the USSR under construction. Man, that is an amazing set of images. Really amazing.Joshua B. FreemanI know. Who knew? Who knew? Right?Spencer WrightYeah, who knew? Right. [chuckle] And I really appreciated the way that you contextualized popular perceptions of factories and of industrialization. And one of the things that you talked about a lot was factory tours, and that there was this era in which so many factories opened themselves up to the public. And now that's changed a lot with contract manufacturing, you have these fabulous brands, and there's no incentive structure for Foxconn to allow tours. But I think maybe more broadly, I have mused idly, without any supporting evidence whatsoever, that the public interest in infrastructure and manufacturing has decreased in some way. And I say something like that, and, again, I have no evidence of it, but it seems like an appealing idea, probably for romantic reasons. I wonder, just, if you have thoughts on how popular impressions of factories and industrial processes actually has changed over the past 200 years?Joshua B. FreemanYeah, well, I do, and of course, it is a bit impressionistic. But I think one of the big points I was trying to make in the book was the association of the factory, for much of its history with modernity. With the idea of a new and different kind of a world, that... A future... It's a kind of living embodiment of the future and its promise. And some of it was its sheer productivity and ability to produce goods at low costs, on a huge scale that promises an improved living standard for not just in a little elite, but for a mass population. But it's more than simply that. It's a kind of testament to the ingenuity of man, of the harnessing of nature, of a break with the old ways. New is better. And I think that was a very broadly shared view of the factory, and I think a lot of the excitement and interest of it, both by the people taking that factory tour and the kinds of artists that you were mentioning, is associated with that.I think that has somewhat diminished. First of all, the idea of the future and modernity has become much more of a mixed bag over the last 75 years. The future doesn't always look so great anymore. The future seems to be pandemics and ethnic cleansing and nuclear war. There's a kind of dystopian future that a lot of people think about, and we see that in the movies and general culture. And also I think the factory has been, as you may have suggested, kind of hidden away. So I think there's less... Now I don't think that's completely gone. There are these TV shows like, "How things are made." and they're very, literally narrow-focused. The camera never steps back. You never see the factory as a whole. They just show you the machine making this particular part or that particular part. But I think there's still that fascination with the ingenuity, the technology, the imagination involved in making goods. So I think we still have some of it, but I think it's... I agree with you, I think it's much diminished, at least in the United States, which is where I know the best, compared to earlier generations.

57mins

25 Feb 2021

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Joshua B. Freeman, "Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World" (W. W. Norton, 2019)

New Books in Sociology

In an accessible and timely work of scholarship, celebrated historian Joshua B. Freeman's Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (W. W. Norton) tells the story of the factory and examines how it has reflected both our dreams and our nightmares of industrialization and social change. He whisks readers from the early textile mills that powered the Industrial Revolution to the factory towns of New England to today’s behemoths making sneakers, toys, and cellphones in China and Vietnam. Behemoth offers a piercing perspective on how factories have shaped our societies and the challenges we face now.Joshua B. Freeman is a Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. His previous books include American Empire and Working-Class New York, among others. He lives in New York City.Mark Molloy is the reviews editor at MAKE: A Literary Magazine. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoicesSupport our show by becoming a premium member! https://newbooksnetwork.supportingcast.fm/sociology

1hr 1min

8 Sep 2020

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Episode artwork

Joshua B. Freeman, "Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World" (W. W. Norton, 2019)

New Books in Economics

In an accessible and timely work of scholarship, celebrated historian Joshua B. Freeman's Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (W. W. Norton) tells the story of the factory and examines how it has reflected both our dreams and our nightmares of industrialization and social change. He whisks readers from the early textile mills that powered the Industrial Revolution to the factory towns of New England to today’s behemoths making sneakers, toys, and cellphones in China and Vietnam. Behemoth offers a piercing perspective on how factories have shaped our societies and the challenges we face now.Joshua B. Freeman is a Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. His previous books include American Empire and Working-Class New York, among others. He lives in New York City.Mark Molloy is the reviews editor at MAKE: A Literary Magazine. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoicesSupport our show by becoming a premium member! https://newbooksnetwork.supportingcast.fm/economics

1hr 1min

8 Sep 2020

Episode artwork

Joshua B. Freeman, "Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World" (W. W. Norton, 2019)

New Books in History

In an accessible and timely work of scholarship, celebrated historian Joshua B. Freeman's Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (W. W. Norton) tells the story of the factory and examines how it has reflected both our dreams and our nightmares of industrialization and social change. He whisks readers from the early textile mills that powered the Industrial Revolution to the factory towns of New England to today’s behemoths making sneakers, toys, and cellphones in China and Vietnam. Behemoth offers a piercing perspective on how factories have shaped our societies and the challenges we face now.Joshua B. Freeman is a Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. His previous books include American Empire and Working-Class New York, among others. He lives in New York City.Mark Molloy is the reviews editor at MAKE: A Literary Magazine. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoicesSupport our show by becoming a premium member! https://newbooksnetwork.supportingcast.fm/history

1hr 1min

8 Sep 2020

Most Popular

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Joshua B. Freeman, "Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World" (W. W. Norton, 2019)

New Books in Intellectual History

In an accessible and timely work of scholarship, celebrated historian Joshua B. Freeman's Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (W. W. Norton) tells the story of the factory and examines how it has reflected both our dreams and our nightmares of industrialization and social change. He whisks readers from the early textile mills that powered the Industrial Revolution to the factory towns of New England to today’s behemoths making sneakers, toys, and cellphones in China and Vietnam. Behemoth offers a piercing perspective on how factories have shaped our societies and the challenges we face now.Joshua B. Freeman is a Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. His previous books include American Empire and Working-Class New York, among others. He lives in New York City.Mark Molloy is the reviews editor at MAKE: A Literary Magazine. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoicesSupport our show by becoming a premium member! https://newbooksnetwork.supportingcast.fm/intellectual-history

1hr 1min

8 Sep 2020

Episode artwork

Joshua B. Freeman, "Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World" (W. W. Norton, 2019)

New Books Network

In an accessible and timely work of scholarship, celebrated historian Joshua B. Freeman's Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (W. W. Norton) tells the story of the factory and examines how it has reflected both our dreams and our nightmares of industrialization and social change. He whisks readers from the early textile mills that powered the Industrial Revolution to the factory towns of New England to today’s behemoths making sneakers, toys, and cellphones in China and Vietnam. Behemoth offers a piercing perspective on how factories have shaped our societies and the challenges we face now.Joshua B. Freeman is a Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. His previous books include American Empire and Working-Class New York, among others. He lives in New York City.Mark Molloy is the reviews editor at MAKE: A Literary Magazine. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices

1hr 1min

8 Sep 2020

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Prof. Joshua B. Freeman on jobs and labor unions

CUNY TV's Bob Herbert's Op-Ed.TV

Joshua B. Freeman, Distinguished Professor of History at the Murphy Institute, Queens College, and the CUNY Graduate Center, discusses the job market and the status of labor unions across the United States on Bob Herbert's Op-Ed.TV.

26mins

22 Sep 2014