Review of: Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert

It is both fitting and pleasantly ironic that Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert, was not only the final book I read in 2015 but arguably the empire of cottonmost consequential. Every now and again, I encounter a work of a magnitude such as this which offers a truly fresh perspective that compels a reevaluation of core concepts. This was the case, for example, with Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, Maps of Time, by David Christian, and 1491, by Charles C. Mann. Books like these transcend historical scholarship and move in a greater intellectual arena that not only challenges accepted wisdom but literally annihilates it and thereby forces the construction of an entirely new narrative. Empire of Cotton, an epic in the genre “Big History,” does all of that and does it with penetrating insight.

In some four hundred fifty pages of tightly compressed and often dense but readable text, Harvard Professor of History Sven Beckert demolishes the myth of capitalism as it has been traditionally understood. In that model, which Beckert in nearly a single stroke brilliantly renders obsolete, we have long been taught that the industrial revolution, a European triumph, was the product of technology fueled by free markets, liberal democracy and the Protestant work ethic to create the economic miracle of capitalist growth and progress that has literally defined the modern west. But Beckert, a social, political and economic historian, peels back cherished notions to reveal that in fact neither the industrial revolution nor capitalism as we know it could have evolved without state coercion – nor could it have existed without the central staple crop that made it all possible: cotton, the central element that weaves (pun fully intended!) it all together.

Of course, the myth of European exceptionalism has long been dented and bruised by more recent historiography. Only a couple of centuries prior to its ascent to global dominance, Europe was kind of a backwater to the Arab Middle East and China, until the Columbian Experience brought vast wealth and exotic new products that literally shifted the global epicenter from the Mediterranean and the east to the Atlantic trade and the west. Yet, one of those new exotic products was decidedly not cotton, which apparently had been cultivated, spun and woven for thousands of years in geographies as disparate as Egypt, the Indus valley and Peru. Europe was one of the places highly-prized textiles made from cotton were not at all common. As Beckert argues in his complex but persuasive thesis, cotton proved to be the key ingredient that was to change everything, and from the very beginning it was cooked into a stock vigorously stirred by violence and often brutal state coercion that he calls “war capitalism,” amply seasoned by healthy doses of state investment and protectionism. Set aside steel and other more familiar totems of the industrial revolution for the moment: none of it would have been possible without cotton.

Before there was an industrial revolution, there was of course industry, or rather the technology that made mills possible to create great volumes of textiles made from cotton. But cotton does not grow in temperate European climes. Prior to this, the finest cotton textiles originated in the east and especially in India, the very center of global cotton dominance. The first stop for war capitalism, Beckert tells us, was British imperialism and the roots of colonialism that aggressively sought the raw material for its mills at the lowest possible cost. British economic interests propped up by British military might began to transform centuries of Indian cotton cultivation and production, spinning and weaving, and the marketing of the finished product through middlemen and merchants. Britain forcefully remade India as a supplier of raw materials to its mills in a heavy-handed process that over decades transformed it from a powerful vendor to world markets to an almost helpless customer of the British who relied upon state investment and protectionism to dominate cotton textile production. As Beckert notes: “India’s cotton industry was decimated … In the wake of the Industrial Revolution … India lost its once central position in the global cotton industry and, in a great historical irony, eventually became the world’s largest market for British cotton exports.” [p172] So much for free markets and free enterprise …

The central tenet to European textile production was cheap cotton, which meant cheap labor to cultivate the cotton crop. For cheap labor, you cannot beat slave labor, which is why slavery became absolutely central to cotton production and the industrial revolution. The windfall of the Columbian Experience had gifted European overlords with vast territories in the Americas favored with the kind of warm climates conducive to cotton cultivation, but the near annihilation of its pre-contact population due to old world pandemics created a dearth of labor. African slavery had already proved a successful if brutally inhumane solution for sugar and tobacco plantations in the New World. Now that the Industrial Revolution had turned cotton into “white gold,” the availability of high quality cotton textiles proved in a cruel irony to be valuable tender for slave traders as payment for the human chattel who would cultivate new raw materials later turned into the finished products that were the very price of their purchase.

War capitalism – through colonialism, expropriation of territory and slavery – created the empire of cotton and thereby bred its next critical phase, “industrial capitalism,” which created wage laborers: an entirely new phenomenon for vast numbers of people that for a variety of factors were forced to abandon a traditional agricultural lifestyle and become workers in the mills, for long hours, little compensation and often in grueling conditions. But here too state coercion continued to play a significant role, as the power of the state generally aligned with the moneyed interests against the ill-treated factory proletariat, enforcing one-sided contracts, instituting compulsory work laws, and blocking any attempts at reform.

Interestingly, as Beckert points out in his study of the United States, while war capitalism was essential for the foundation of industrial capitalism, the two typically remained mutually exclusive. For instance, the plantation south of the antebellum years hosted very few mills, while textile production flourished in the north. “A society dominated by slavery was not conducive to cotton industrialization,” Beckert insists. “Slave states were notoriously late and feeble in supporting the political and economic interests of domestic industrializers. This was also the case in the slave territories within the United States, the only country in the world divided between war and industrial capitalism, a unique characteristic that would eventually spark an unprecedentedly destructive civil war.” [p171]

Students of the American Civil War are well-familiar with the Confederacy’s unshakeable confidence that Europe could not endure without their cotton, so much so that the CSA withheld cotton shipments early on. Panic and economic depression did indeed ensue in Britain and elsewhere, but rather than the recognition and aid Richmond had anticipated, the shortage of cotton prompted a renewal of war capitalism to seek alternate sources of supply. This persisted long after Appomattox and the result was an even greater commitment to colonialism. Parts of India, for instance, were completely refashioned to force a monopoly for cotton cultivation over all other kinds of agriculture. Railroads and telegraphs, later products of the industrial revolution, permitted the British to penetrate deeper into the interior for such purposes. When cotton prices fell and food grain prices rose in the 1870s, some six to ten million Indians died of famine in the Berar province alone, although there was plenty of food available but economically out of reach to the affected population. This was repeated in the 1890s, when another nineteen million people perished of famine in that same geography in similar circumstances.

Empire of Cotton contains many horrific episodes such as this to reveal the grim realities of both industrialization and capitalism, elements of which persist to this day – something that will no doubt provoke chagrin and loud cries of revisionism by outraged “heritage” historians who hurl the invective of “political correctness” against any new historiography that challenges their more rosy enshrined narrative. And we can expect similar fury to be sparked in the camps of contemporary free market ideologues, as Beckert reminds us that even now: “Violence and coercion, in turn, are as adaptive as the capitalism they enable, and they continue to play an important role in the empire of cot­ton to this day. Cotton growers are still forced to grow the crop; workers are still held as virtual prisoners in factories. Moreover, the fruits of their activities continue to be distributed in radically unequal way – with cot­ton growers in Benin, for example, making a dollar a day or less, while the owners of [otherwise unprofitable] cotton growing businesses in the United States have collectively received government subsidies of more than $35 billion between 1995 and 2010. Workers in Bangladesh stitch together clothing under absurdly dangerous conditions for very low wages, while consumers in the United States and Europe can purchase those pieces with abandon, at prices that often seem impossibly low.” [p442]

Empire of Cotton is a remarkable and extremely thought-provocative book, although it can be a difficult read, since Beckert the careful historian includes many details and much statistical information that occasionally bogs down the text – in addition to some 135 pages of endnotes. Yet, Beckert’s thesis remains convincing, aptly demonstrating throughout this long, complicated work that cotton industrialization is vitally dependent in all phases upon extremely cheap labor, and concluding with a chilling reminder that: “For the past several decades, Walmart and other retail giants have continually moved their production from one poor country to a slightly poorer one, lured by the promise of workers even more eager and even more inexpensive. Even Chinese production is now threatened by lower-wage producers. The empire of cotton has continued to facilitate a giant race to the bottom …” [p440] This is a very important book, in my estimation, and despite the difficulty I highly recommend it.

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

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