The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The human cost of an iPhone

Scott W. Berg’s books include “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.” He teaches nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University.

In 2010, 14 workers committed suicide at factories in China operated by Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known as Foxconn. These are the giant facilities that produce consumer electronic devices for Hewlett-Packard, Dell and, most famously, Apple. In response to the news, Steve Jobs called the suicides “troubling” and promised that the company was “all over this.” At the same time, he noted that at Foxconn, with more than 1 million employees, the suicide rate was far below that of China — or the United States — as a whole.

This was true. But these were copycat suicides, designed to bring attention to a substandard wage structure and work environment at Hon Hai; 13 of the 14 deaths (and four more attempts) involved young migrant workers plunging from atop company dormitories. Two years later, 150 employees lined up on another roof and threatened to jump en masse unless their demands for better working conditions were met. Management acquiesced. The workers came down, unharmed. And iPhones continued to emerge from Foxconn, uninterrupted.

Joshua B. Freeman’s fascinating “Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World” argues that factories may be the world’s greatest Faustian bargain. Out of their history of dehumanization and environmental destruction rises a parallel tale of opportunity and prosperity, one that defines not only the way we’ve lived but, more important, the way we’ve yearned to live for the past four centuries. A prolific scholar and writer on the history of labor (“Who Built America?,” “Audacious Democracy” and “Working-Class New York”), Freeman acknowledges the enormous human cost of industrialization without reducing all factories to William Blake’s “satanic mills.”

On its surface, “Behemoth” is a chronological tour of five distinct phases in the development of factories, delivered through a sequence of case studies: textiles in England, steel and then automobiles in America, tractors and other machinery in Russia, and sneakers and electronic devices in China. But inside that story is another one, much less academic, and crowded with ideological imperatives, aesthetic rapture and bare-knuckle class warfare.

Buck up! We are riding along the Enlightenment’s long path of progress

Freeman shows how factories have had an overwhelming influence on the way we work, think, move, play and fight. Capitalists, communists, democrats, socialists, philosophers, photographers, painters, engineers, accountants: All have caught the factory bug since the 1720s, when the Derby Silk Mill on the River Derwent in England produced its first crop of textiles. Henry Ford sought to use the principles of scientific management to build “one huge, integrated machine” dedicated to making money as fast as possible, while Soviet leaders embraced giant factories as “instruments of culturalization, which would create men and women capable of operating these behemoths and building socialism.” The painter Diego Rivera’s masterwork mural “Detroit Industry” celebrated “the strength of man and machine, the power seized from nature by mankind and harnessed in the giant factory,” while for trailblazing modernist photographer Margaret Bourke-White “it was not the worker who held [her] interest, nor the products being made, but the abstract forms of industry.”

Given the vastness of the subject matter, Freeman’s determination to isolate smaller slices in the factory’s history, rather than drop an all-encompassing tome at our feet, is appreciated. Still, his time- and space-skimming approach does leave gaps. Factories have been the darling of fascists as well, and Germany’s gigantic wartime industrial machine and its peacetime descendants receive little attention. The book touches only lightly on the culture of mass consumption, that evergreen mania for new and cheaper and more numerous things without which no factory culture can survive. It’s an enticing and important chicken-and-egg question: Did great big factories create our insatiable material desires, or vice versa? Readers might have benefited from a fuller attempt at an answer.

But back to those Foxconn suicides. One way to read “Behemoth” is to view its analysis of factory development as preparation and context for the final chapter on Foxconn and the other modern mega-factories in China and Vietnam that churn out our tablets, smartphones and athletic shoes. (A reader might profitably start the book on Page 270, read the first half of the Foxconn chapter, then jump back to the beginning.) These newfangled factories, bigger than anything Detroit or Stalingrad ever built, may borrow methods, processes and organizational structures from their predecessors, but they also represent a startling break with the past.

The value and limits of economic models

They are not company-owned showcases, for one thing; they are run by contractors, laboring for corporate entities — Nike and Apple most notably — that have largely left behind the business of making things themselves and replaced it with the art of branding. Unlike most of their predecessors, these mega-factories are secretive and uncelebrated, often set away from urban areas and shielded from view, many of them imposing a North Korean level of security on journalists and other visitors who wish to see what’s really going on — if outsiders are allowed in at all.

Whereas the products of giant factories were once giant things used to make the giant items that worked to bring people together physically — bridges, skyscrapers, trains, automobiles — they now operate in a world increasingly focused on the miniature, the micro, the interior. The early-20th-century iconography of a brawny steelworker commanding a river of molten metal, shoulders heaving, has been replaced in the public imagination with the image of a meticulous figure seated at a desk covered with tiny silver parts, fingers flying. For the author, this is not progress: “If the coming of the great factory was associated with visions of utopia (along with dystopian fears),” he writes, “its passing has been associated with social malaise and shriveled imagination.”

In the book’s final pages, Freeman notes that the mutual fund company that holds his own accounts is the second-largest holder of stock in Hon Hai: “We are all in this,” he concludes. “All implicated.”

By Joshua B. Freeman

Norton. 427 pp. $27.95