‘Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World’
Joshua B. Freeman, Norton, 427 pages, $27.95.

In 2010, 14 workers died by 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.

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” 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, Freeman acknowledges the enormous human cost of industrialization without reducing all factories to William Blake’s “satanic mills.”

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, it does leave gaps. 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.”