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Friday, July 20, 2018

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (2018) by Josh Freeman


Book Review
Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
 by Josh Freeman
Published February 2018
W.W. Norton

  Any thorough understanding of day-to-day economic news requires a background in the industrial revolution, its causes and effects, the basic dates involved, places, some personalities.  Historians, Economists and (especially) economic historians have all contributed to the body of knowledge surrounding the industrial revolution, although cutting edge dialogue is often focused on the semantics of the terms involved (was there one Industrial Revolution or were there several interrelated phenomenons interacting over time?) and less on developing themes that might interest a more general audience.

  Enter the the writers and artists who are interested in the aesthetics of the industrial revolution.  Examples are varied and numerous, from Russian and Italian futurists of the early 20th century, to the large format factory and industrial site photography of Edward Burtynsky.  Less common are those who have sought to link the economic historic view to the aesthetic impact, which is why Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World is interesting, because Freeman is attempting to link the two.

  Freeman is clearly writing for a general interest audience.  Each chapter is like a summary of a different related subject, often an individual- Henry Ford, Margaret Bourke White and architect Louis Kahn each get their own mini-biography.  These chapters give way to two larger subjects near the end of the books: the industrial revolution in Communist Russia (which was hugely influenced by American industrialists, if you didn't know that already) and a concluding chapter on the modern factory system of China and South Asia.  Since I read this book, I read an article about how the largest factory in the world just opened in India.

  One of the major themes of Behemoth is that the size of factories gives rises to oppositional forces, particularly the organization of labor forces at large sites, that reduce the cost savings and favor dispersal, rather than concentration, of factory operations.  This observation is perhaps obvious to those who either have directly experienced the phenomenon in places like the American mid-west or those who have studied the subject in school, but for the general reader Behemoth is a welcome introduction to the subject.

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