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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Review of Behemoth: the history of the factory and the making of the modern world

As a kid, I worked in my father’s ice factory. It was not a grandiose enterprise –  it consisted of an outer office, an inner office, a floor on which there were nine regular icemakers and one cube icemaker, and a freezer. Outside, in the pebble and dirt driveway, there were three ice delivery vans. The only employees were family. My mom, in the summer, my two brothers, from the time they were in the fifth grade, me, from the time I was in the seventh grade, and one summer my sister, who was the secretary.

We hired a few of my friends from highschool for the high sales seasons of spring and summer, but this rarely worked out. They had a hard time getting a grip on the process of bagging ice. It was simple, but it needed a certain meditative agility. The ice makers were all gray shiny machines that delivered a load of ice every twenty minutes or so, which piled ice up in the bins. You didn’t want the ice to pile up completely, but sometimes it did. You took your ice scoop and you dug into the bin, and you deposited the ice in a plastic bag hanging from a rack on your cart. My Dad made the cart. It was an ingenious thing, with the rack for the bags and a tape machine for the sealing and a scale. You took the bag off the rack once you had ten pounds in it, or about, you put it on the scale to check – after a while you could eye it and skip this step – and then you twirled the bag around, made a neck, and guided it forcefully through the tape machine, which would wrap the tape closely around the neck. Then you’d toss the bag into another cart, a metal one, and when you had done enough, or you judged that the bags were melting, you wheeled the cart into the freezer, which usually took a run with the cart, since the freezer was mounted a bit up from the floor. The things you did not want to do were: 1, leave too much ice on the floor; 2, fail to put in a full ten pounds; 3., fail to seal the bag completely; and 4, run crookedly at the freezer. Easy, but unfortunately many people failed at 1-3 a lot, and some even at 4.
It was cold work, and you had to wear gloves. Otherwise, you’d begin getting all scratched up and bleeding over the ice. That was no good. Also, though you could be very careful, as this work had to be done speedily in rush times, inevitably you were soon standing in a puddle of cold water. Myself, I got what I called white lung sometimes – bad pneumonia like colds. But mostly, it was a cool job. I’d keep the radio on loud, and I’d think about things for the time it took to bag. Usually, the day started at nine and ended at four. Of course, there were times that that had to be extended.

Also, I have left out of this the fifteen pound cube ice, cause that was a bitch, involving getting the ice to slide from its aluminum containers into a special bag. You would always bang up your fingers on that thing.

Also, there were the twenty pound bags, which were, unfortunately, reinforced paper, and they tended to break.

Sometimes I rode with Dad or Mom when they delivered ice; mostly that was the job of my brothers.

The business finally folded in the seventies when my father finally conceded that he was never going to make any money at it. It was a tough market, since we were competing with Southland, which not only made ice – yucky ice – but also owned all the Seven-Elevens.

That experience has made me that, on some level, I am in solidarity with factory workers in bigger factories, made me feel related, on some deep teen level, to the hands on the assembly lines and the sewing lines and the meat packing plants. I have never worked since the ice baggin’ days in a factory, but I have always been fascinated by factories: by the songs about them (like Adam raised a Cain, or Piss Factory), to movies about factory workers (for instance, Metropolis or – especially - Blue Collar) or the rare literature. Which includes Henry Green’s Living, and Beryl Bainbridge’s Bottle Factory Outing. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But, oddly, nothing outsized, nothing in the War and Peace department, even though the factory is one of the great social facts of modernity. Although I suppose there is Marx’s Capital. Marx understood the scale of the factory as a social form. He understood that it just didn’t make steel or tools or thread – the factory was making world history.
We are all so proud to have a whole geological epoch named after us: the Anthropocene. It isn’t the first time that organic matter has had a planetary aspect. About 2.5 billion years ago, according to scientists (those very important members of the Anthropoids, without whom our epoch would not have been named – in fact, wouldn’t have existed at all!) Cyanobacteria began photosynthesizing and in the process excreted a poison, oxygen, and in such quantities! You can’t imagine. The oxygen mixed with the rest of the gases in the atmosphere, competitor bacteria that couldn’t use oxygen and were in fact poisoned by it died out, the continents were rained on and leaked more of their minerals into the water, and the rest is natural history.

If some creature evolves that has an interest in writing the history of this planet after the Anthropocene destroys the Anthropoids, they should take a look at certain structures they will find in many different continents: factories. While Pyramids and cathedrals, Eastern Island carved heads and Roman aqueducts have had immense influence on the societies from which they emerged, factories have, arguably, been the most creative and destructive structures ever made. You, sitting there reading this, can look around you and spot, if you are like me and in a nice room, such things as lamps, furniture, cups, chairs, tables, doorknobs and even your clothes – socks, shirts, shoes – that can all be traced back to factories. That tracing back, once upon a time, was not so hard – if you lived in France, you’d trace back the clothes to textile factories in Lyon, and the lightbulbs to, perhaps, a factory in Ivry-sur-Seine, owned and run by the Compagnie générale des lampes. You can even go to the factory – which is now not a factory, but a historic site. As well, there is no CGL any longer. It has long been swallowed up by other companies, and its trace is only found in the portfolios of certain rentiers, or in the memories, bitter or sweet, of its dying employees.

As we all know, the old treadmill of production, which once scattered the peasants of Europe to the wind, built the weapons and the trains, made consumer society possible and created a proletariat that was supposed to seize the means of production in due time – is defunct. This isn’t to say that the factory is defunct. There are factories that are even more gigantic than those of the twentieth century, but they have gone to China, Vietnam, Mexico and other places. In France – as well  as in the U.S. and other countries – the writing was already on the wall for the factory worker in the 70s. The seventies was a curious decade, hated by your true blue conservative even more than the sixties. The reason is that the seventies witnessed a last stand, so to speak, of organized labor power. The story of the Lip watch factory, in Besançon, is typical. Since this isn’t a well known story in the U.S., I think I’d like to start here on my factory journey – a journey which will eventually link up with Joshua Freeman’s book, Behemoth: a history of the factory and the making of the modern world, which I’d like to urge on my readers. Even those who might not want to read about factories, who’d rather not think about factories, who are glad that they don’t work in factories.
You can’t escape them so easily, you know.

But back to the seventies. In 1973, the workers in the Lips watch factory in Besançon heard a rumor that their company, a French firm that at one time was one of the world leaders in watch making, was going to sell out to a Swiss firm. And the Swiss firm intended to fire all the workers and shut down the factory – as is the way of firms that buy other firms, a sort of ritual potlach they perform in order to show the neighborhood how tough and mean they are.  
Besançon is in the Eastern part of France. It was never a communist hotbed, but its factories had been radicalized in the sixties. In 1967 there’d been a famous series of actions at a nylon manufacturer which Chris Marker filmed. He also showed films made in the Soviet Union in the early thirties, which documented working conditions and worker attitudes. Fast forward to 1973.  Half of the workforce at the Lip factory was female. The CGT and the CFDT were the big unions. On June 12, 1973, having a prevision of what was up, the workers sequestered the management and went through the paperwork they had on them, discovering plans for a mass lay-off. It was then that they decided to do something that used to be done quite a bit once upon a time: and occupy the factory. But they went further than a sitdown strike. They decided to expropriate the expropriaters in real time.They declared that they were now going to manufacture and sell the watches and clocks themselves. As Andrew Kopkind, who reported on the takeover for Ramparts Magazine, put it:

“… workers at Lip seized control of their factory, made off with the large inventory of watches and parts, and began running the business themselves. Operating capital came from sale of the expropriated stock. The bosses gave up without much of a fight and the French and European Left began a campaign of support. Thousands of liberated watches were sold on the streets of Paris, in London, Rome, Berlin, and Zurich. The central unions—both Communist, Socialist and Catholic—belatedly tailed along on the tide of popularity for the Lip action, and the Left political parties also threw in their support. Mostly, however,  the energy and imagination of the action came from inside the Lip workers' committee, where "ordinary" employees—that is, not political organizers—took the lead, planned strategy, delineated the risks.”

All good things come to a bloody end in the struggle between labour and capital. President Pompidou’s Prime Minister, Messmer – a name from some expressionist film of the 20s - sent in the police, who stormed the factory and tossed out the workers. 20 to 100 thousand people came to protest. The Lip takeover then made it way into the popular consciousness, where it has had a surprisingly enduring life. A documentary about the Lip uprising was made in 2006, and a graphic novel, with a preface by the French Left’s leader, Jean-Luc Pierre Mélenchon, was issued a few years ago.

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