Sunday 15 March 2020

The Factory

For more than two centuries, the image of the factory has stood as an emblem of manufacturing and mass production. Carefully planned or simply improvised and extended as required, factories were an essential element in the iconography of industry and economic activity. Social historians divide them into two categories - basically pre-Ford and post-Ford. In a pre-Ford factory a single product was processed from raw materials. A post-Ford factory brought together a large number of components, many of which were made off-site, and combined them into something much greater by means of an assembly line where every intervention and activity was calculated to maximise efficiency and boost profitability. In the years of neo-liberal ascendancy, the post-Ford bargain with organised labour that ensured the workforce was sufficiently remunerated to afford to purchase the goods they produced has gradually withered away. Two powerful forces have emerged over the last 30 years to transform the modern factory - the first being automation and the second, the business of global outsourcing to secure the cheapest supply of labour. The image of the sprawling factory, often visualised from above, has completely lost the sense of awe and wonder that it once inspired. And very few remain embedded in urban areas where their presence once served as beacons in the local community as well as product advertising. It’s far more common to see images of the demolition of factory premises than to see the inauguration of new factories with the promise of employment and prosperity. To recapture any sense of that lost wonder we have to look to Asia where mega-factories such as Foxconn in China have borrowed the Victorian idea of the industrial settlement or company town and expanded it on a stupendous city-wide scale. 

Today’s employers rarely concern themselves with the welfare of their workforce - their responsibilities being confined to the simple transaction of remuneration for labour. Coercive control is the preferred model for improving productivity and the favoured tools are intrusive surveillance and real-time monitoring of performance against ever more demanding targets. Victorian paternalists had a sense of their duty to contribute to the health and education of their employees by establishing schools, colleges, libraries and clinics and paying their taxes. Little of that impulse has survived into the present where a reductivist view of human relationships dictates that business must be unimpeded by social concerns. The costs of ensuring a continuity of healthy and educated workers are for the taxpayer while business exercises its moral duty to pay as little tax as possible. Taken to its extreme this requires workers to accept terms that reduce them to anonymised units of labour with unending responsibilities and no rights. Not even assets, they are mere utilities, like water or electricity to be turned on and off as required. 

The story of the rise and fall of the factory, and the battle between capital and organised labour is told in Joshua B Freeman’s book, Behemoth - a detailed account of the birth and development of modern industry that presents a wealth of fascinating material. It was a surprise to discover that when American business began to construct textile mills on the British model they first had to evade the restrictions that Britain imposed on the emigration of skilled workers in an attempt to defend its technical advantages. New England mill owners relied on child labour and payment in vouchers redeemable at company-owned stores, just as in England. Labour shortages followed as the mills expanded in size and located to less populated areas. This lead to the large-scale recruitment of female workers and the provision of hostel accommodation with leisure and educational amenities attached. Perhaps a response to the example set by Robert Owen at New Lanark. In the absence of economically viable supplies of coal for steam power, New England operations continued to depend on water power with the result that the smoke darkened skies and atmospheric pollution of industrial England were several decades late in arriving. The result was that the early American industrialisation was a much more humane and utopian operation than its English counterpart. I had lazily assumed that the ultra-aggressive turbo-capitalism that erupted in the Reagan-Thatcher era was an all-American construction but it seems that its roots lie much closer to home. 

The images of factories displayed here are mostly taken from mid-century American advertising post-1945. This was an atypical period when organised labour briefly held the upper hand as the US economy shifted rapidly to a peacetime footing and chronic labour shortages placed unprecedented power in the hands of unionised workers. The pushback was not long in coming as employers campaigned to equate trade union activities with the new universal enemy - Soviet communism - throughout the Cold War 1950s. 

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