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  • Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century
  • Xaq Frohlich (bio)
Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century. By Daniel Sidorick. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 300. $29.95.

Condensed Capitalism tells the history of the Campbell Soup Company's canning plant in Camden, New Jersey, a story that Daniel Sidorick uses to explore the social costs brought by capitalism's dogmatic "pursuit of cheap production" in twentieth-century America. Sidorick focuses on the unusual fact that Campbell Soup stayed so long in its hometown in order to explore the consequences that globalization has on the workers and the community of Camden, which depended so heavily on the company.

The book proceeds chronologically through Campbell Soup's 122-year history in Camden. Sidorick analyzes the acquisition by the "Dorrance dynasty" and company patriarch John T. Dorrance's mission to "[make] soup scientifically" (p. 28); the introduction of the "Bedaux system" of scientific [End Page 523] management in 1927, and counter efforts by labor to organize a plant union; the company's utilization of immigrant laborers and minorities during World War II to keep wages low; and Campbell's anticommunist purges in the postwar years. Sidorick uses these early chapters to illustrate the company's three principal strategies for wresting control of production from laborers: introducing a "continuous revolution" in production through scientific management and automation; fostering labor disunity through racial, gender, class, and eventually regional segmentation of the workforce; and pursuing a strident policy of antiunionism by stoking anticommunist sentiments. He then carries the company history forward to the present, exploring how CEO William Beverly Murphy blended these three techniques together in the 1950s and 1960s to break labor's 1968 "strike for unity." Not until 1991 did Campbell finally resort to closing the Camden plant, thereby utilizing the fourth and, for the people of Camden, most devastating strategy of global capital, the "capital flight" option of moving production to low-cost, rural sites where labor is cheap and disorganized.

Condensed Capitalism is first and foremost a labor history. It is a well-researched work of scholarship, impressive for the way the author nicely illustrates broad political shifts through individual stories collected from personal papers and interviews with former Campbell Soup employees. However, from time to time it dives into the minutiae of inter- and intra-union disputes to a degree that will lose all but the most passionate about labor history. With this caveat aside, there is much of interest for historians with other concerns. Sidorick frames the book with the argument that many of today's allegedly novel management practices—he particularly singles out the (in)famous "Toyota Production System" or "lean production"—in fact have antecedents in those deployed by the company's owner at the start of the twentieth century. The attention is very much on the "push" narrative of business history, focused almost entirely on how production constraints drive the story of the canning plant's labor disputes, rather than "pull" factors like consumption.

In this respect, historians interested in food and agriculture will find Sidorick's subject, the canning plant, fascinating for how it represents a middle space between the industrial factory and the field. The perishability of food ingredients and the seasonality of agricultural production form an importantmaterial backdrop to the Campbell Soup labor disputes and management policies in ways that warrant further research. At numerous moments Sidorick identifies how processing and distribution technologies play a role in labor-management disputes, such as the increasing utilization of the mechanical tomato harvester and the impact of interstate highways and deregulated trucking on the shipment of raw ingredients. From the 1950s forward, these changes undermined the regional importance of New Jersey tomato growers to the Camden plant, setting the stage for its ultimate closure. Yet the analysis generally stops short of looking at the machines themselves, [End Page 524] and historians of technology might lament that Sidorick does not go into greater depth on how the process of technological adoption or innovation was directly shaped by longstanding labor-management disputes.

Above all Sidorick seeks to emphasize the...