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Empire of Cotton: A Global History Paperback – November 10, 2015
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“Masterly. . . . Deeply researched and eminently readable, Empire of Cotton gives new insight into the relentless expansion of global capitalism. With graceful prose and a clear and compelling argument, Beckert not only charts the expansion of cotton capitalism . . . he addresses the conditions of enslaved workers in the fields and wage workers in the factories. An astonishing achievement.”—Thomas Bender, New York Times
“Important . . .a major work of scholarship that will not be soon surpassed as the definitive account of the product that was, as Beckert puts it, the Industrial Revolution’s ‘launching pad.’” —Adam Hochschild, New York Times Book Review
“Breathtakingly comprehensive, informative and provocative.” —Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World
“Persuasive . . . brilliant . . . Beckert’s detailed narrative never scants the rich complexity of the cotton trade’s impact on many different societies.” —Wendy Smith, Boston Globe
“Empire of Cotton proves Sven Beckert one of the new elite of genuinely global historians. Too little present-day academic history is written for the general public. ‘Empire of Cotton’ transcends this barrier and should be devoured eagerly, not only by scholars and students but also by the intelligent reading public. The book is rich and diverse in the treatment of its subject. The writing is elegant, and the use of both primary and secondary sources is impressive and varied. Overviews on international trends alternate with illuminating, memorable anecdotes. . . . Beckert’s book made me wish for a sequel.” —Daniel Walker Howe, The Washington Post
“Momentous and brilliant . . . Empire of Cotton is among the best nonfiction books of this year.” —Karen R. Long, Newsday
“Compelling . . . Beckert demonstrates persuasively how the ravenous cotton textile trade in Europe was instrumental in the emergence of capitalism and draws a direct line from the practices that nourished this empire to similar elements in the production of goods for today’s massive international retailers. Those who long to know more about how and why slavery took hold in Europe, Africa and the Americas will find this book to be immensely enlightening. Better still, those who live out the troubled legacy of the exploitation and enslavement of workers in the service of the cotton empire will find in it added inspiration for their continuing efforts to realize a just and more equitable society.” —Ruth Simmons, President Emeritus of Brown University
“Intellectually ambitious . . . a masterpiece of the historian’s craft.” —Timothy Shenk, The Nation
“A highly detailed, provocative work.” —Booklist
“Hefty, informative, and engaging . . . Beckert’s narrative skills keep the story of capitalism fresh and interesting for all readers.” —Publishers Weekly
“[Beckert’s] close-up study of the cotton economy is a valuable model for the study of capitalism generally, an economic system in which slavery and colonialism were not outliers but instead integral to the whole . . . a valuable contribution.” —Kirkus
“Fascinating and profound. . . . Global history as it should be written.” —Eric Foner
About the Author
Sven Beckert is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. Holding a PhD from Columbia University, he has written widely on the economic, social, and political history of capitalism. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including from Harvard Business School, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. He was also a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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The principal idea of the book is that the cotton industry, which represented the first step in the development of the modern industrial economy, was created by slavery and brutal and ever-more-efficient state coercion in cooperation with private capital. Global in scale, this convergence of factors would re-fashion the everyday lives of a majority of people on the planet - subordinating their working days to the rhythms of machines that replaced human muscle labor, opening the way to unprecedented prosperity for many, and enabling decisionmakers far from their homes to control the lives of people they will never meet.
Beckert sees several steps in these developments. In the beginning, there was the development of "war capitalism". In a nutshell, this was the forcible appropriation of land and labor, with the cooperation of a primitive form of the state. While cotton had been in use for millenia, it was limited to small, very local, networks at this time. As demand grew and new forms of mechanized manufacture began to appear, war capitalism vastly increased the scale of cotton cultivation, employing slaves to undertake the backbreaking work of clearing the land and then the thankless task of harvesting the cotton - their utility was cheap labor that could be forced to work by any means necessary. Meanwhile, the state aided in the acquisition of land - because it exhausted the soil quickly, cotton cultivation required continual land appropriation - and the displacement or elimination of whomever was unfortunate enough to occupy that land, in most cases Amer-Indians. For their part, capitalist traders emerged in Manchester, a mercantile capital that gained tremendous market influence and political power to bring the state into alignment with their interests.
The next phase opened with the invention of new means of production, in particular in the harnessing of chemical power in mills of ever-expanding scale and with elaborate forms of administrative innovation. At the same time, the state got involved with the protection and establishment of markets for their goods, both in supply but also for selling, i.e the distribution of goods. Industry was national and nationalistic. The natural culmination of this was the colonial enterprise. This was the second great legacy of the cotton empire: the de-industrialization and control of vast new territories. For example, the skills required for the production of the fine muslin of India were completely and forever destroyed. The native populations were subjugated to this order, fitting integrally into a hierarchy that exploited them while enriching captains of industry and politicians in colonial capitals. Meanwhile, manufacturing facilities became the source of massive employment, drawing people from the countryside to urban agglomerations that grew to then-incredible proportions.
Furthermore, the state remained intimately involved in the development of the economy in the major colonial states, not only in the development of supporting infrastructure, but in the legal subjugation of workers for the protection of the evolving industrial practices. This was the crucial step in the virtuous circle that arose of self-reinforcing economic development, resulting in a far more intricate and complex industrial economy that emerged in the product cycles of related manufactures. It can only be described as a revolution that changed our lives so fundamentally that it is on a par with the neolithic revolution.
Of particular interest is the evolution of the political economy of slavery. It was seen as a necessity for cotton production in the American South - a phenomenally profitable enterprise that created capital for further industrial investment that benefited all free Americans regardless of location - and as a crucial basic resource for all the new manufacturing powers. When the American Civil War began, it severely disrupted the world economy, based as it was on cotton, and the industrialized nations desperately sought to increase the supply of raw cotton. After that war, it was proven that low-wage sharecroppers could be counted on to produce cotton in a profitable way, supported as it was by state and private repression of the newly freed slaves. The colonial powers took note of this. In the US South, this arrangement was to survive for almost a full century, when automated cotton picking was finally perfected in the 1940s.
The most recent phase of the industry is its globalization, a shift of manufacturing to the former colonies. The real power gravitated to transnational corporations - predominantly retailers like Walmart or Gap - that were no longer subject to coherent national legal jurisdictions, hence largely disconnected from nationalistic considerations. While this caused the precipitous decline of once-prosperous cities like Liverpool, it is part of the ebb of flow of 21C capitalism. Organizational innovation extended to the development of massive logistical networks to handle getting cotton to manufacturers and then distributing their low-cost products in developed nations at a hefty profit. As this is so new, it is the least developed portion of the book. I suspect it decisively locks Third World producers and manufacturers into a lower-value added position, where design and brand generate greater profits for transnational corporations and their shareholders that no longer need to worry about employees in their home base of operation.
The implications of the book are of great interest and relevancy. First, it proves that the free classes all benefited directly and lastingly from slavery as an enabler of the first phase of industrialization. Without slaves (and subsequently share croppers or colonial serfs), both investment capital and the self-reinforcing and expanding product base of consumer capitalism would have accumulated far more slowly, perhaps over centuries rather than decades. This is the best argument for reparations that I have yet seen - the line from slavery and colonialism to prosperity for most of us is direct, while the descendants of slaves and serfs remain exploited and oppressed. Second, the state functioned as a crucial support for the development of private enterprise, from protecting nascent industries to enforcing laws that favored the manufacturing class. This flies in the face of neo-liberal ideology, which argues for a "free trade" that locks the developing world into an inferior status.
This book is a wonderful intellectual adventure, its ideas are far more subtle than I could ever express here. It is a bit too academic for my taste, covering developments in exhaustive detail, but on the whole it is a page turner. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
The way Beckert tells the story, it seems to me, is that there have essentially been five major epochs in global cotton production and manufacturing.
First, for most of world history, cotton was a locally produced and consumed commodity. Eastern Africa, South Asia (India, specifically), and Central America were the cradles of the early cotton industry, which Beckert writes developed independently, yet along similar lines as the raw cotton was processed and spun in close proximity to where it was grown, usually in individual households and by women.
Second, over the course of centuries beginning around 1500, Europeans radically transformed the world of cotton through what Beckert calls “war capitalism”: a violent mixture of imperial expansion, slavery, and land expropriation. To start, Europeans captured the international trade network of Indian textiles from the overland Arab traders once sea routes were mapped and key coastal port cities dominated. Control of the transportation network then reinforced the system as African slave traders demanded Indian calicoes for their human chattel that were, in turn, required to work the sugar fields of the West Indies that generated massive wealth for the semi-private companies operating out of London and Continental Europe. The last piece of the cotton process puzzle to elude Europeans was manufacturing, primarily because they had no ready access to raw cotton and the labor costs of European workers were orders of magnitude greater than that of rural Indians.
Third, and in this reviewer’s opinion the real heart of the story, is Europe’s rapid and shocking domination of textile manufacturing beginning in the 1790s, and the associated role of slavery in the American South in making that happen.
The construction of Samuel Greg’s simple little factory, Quarry Bank Mill, on the Bollin River outside of Manchester, England in 1784 might have seemed unremarkable at the time, but it set in motion “the most important event in world history,” according to the celebrated (Marxist, it must be noted) historian Eric Hobsbwam: the Industrial Revolution. Beckert argues that war capitalism – that aforementioned combination of slavery, colonial domination, militarized trade, and land expropriations – provided the foundation for industrial capitalism, and the manufacturing of cotton would be the driving commodity behind its development. Indeed, Beckert writes, “industrial capitalism was the offspring of war capitalism, the previous centuries’ great innovation.”
War capitalism had given England control over many nodes in the global cotton network, but manufacturing still eluded its grasp. The primary challenge was labor rates. The only way the British could hope to compete with the Indians who had dominated the market for centuries was through massive productivity gains leveraging new technology. British innovations like the flying shuttle (1733), spinning jenny (1760), water frame (1769), and mule (1779) combined to produce breathtaking efficiencies. For example, it took an estimated 50,000 man-hours to produce 100 lbs. of raw cotton in India in the 1750s. By 1790, water-powered British factories around Manchester had cut the time to 1,000 hours, and would drop to 300 hours by 1795.
Beckert writes that cotton manufacturing “was the first major industry in human history that lacked locally produced raw materials.” As British manufacturing skyrocketed, so too did the demand for (and price of) raw cotton. The production methods of the traditional suppliers – India and the Ottomans – simply could not keep up. Manchester traders turned to the West Indies and their large slave plantations to pick up the slack, which were effective but constrained by limited available land for expansion into cotton, fierce competition from sugar farming, slave rebellions (Haiti had provided 24% of England’s cotton before the 1791 revolt), and eventually the war with France.
As a result, cotton farming in the United States exploded in the years just after independence. Indeed, American cotton for export was almost unknown before the mid-1790s. Not only did the revolt in Haiti deprive the Manchester mills of raw material, it also dispersed experienced cotton plantation managers to the low country of the American South. Moreover, when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 it increased productivity with American Upland cotton by a factor of 50 virtually overnight.
The combined results of these events was staggering. From 1.5 million pounds of cotton produced in 1790 (2% of total US export value), output jumped to 36.5 million pounds in 1800 and climbed to 167.5 million pounds (32% of total exports) by 1820. By the start of the Civil War cotton accounted for nearly two-thirds of total US export values. No wonder so many believed “King Cotton” might force England into an open military alliance with the Confederacy. After all, American cotton had fueled the export of British yarn from 350,000 pounds in 1794 to a staggering 200 MILLION pounds in 1860. Unlike other potential competitors, the United States possessed virtually limitless land (much of it expropriated from Native Americans), an abundance of slave labor, and the capital necessary for the development of large-scale agricultural operations. Plantation owners quickly emerged as “the world’s most important growers of the industrial age’s most important commodity”; the Mississippi Delta “a kind of Saudi Arabia of the early 19th century,” in one of Beckert’s many memorable phrases.
Dependence on American cotton was worrying to manufacturers in England. What if the rapidly industrializing, fledgling republic across the Atlantic should decide to invest in cotton manufacturing themselves? Or cut favorable deals with continental competitors? Worst still, how much longer was slave labor politically tenable? In an effort to diversify the sources of supply, the British government attempted to build experimental, southern-style plantations in India, complete with American cotton farmer managers. Every attempt failed. Growing cotton, it seemed, was only viable with slave labor.
It was during the fourth epoch in cotton history that this thesis was dramatically put to the test, a period I’d call “post-bellum cotton colonialism.” At the start of the U.S. Civil War, American cotton accounted for 75% to 90% of all European manufacturing needs. From 3.8 million bales of cotton in 1860, U.S. cotton exports to Europe fell to virtually zero two years later. Prices for raw cotton quadrupled. The world was gripped by a “cotton famine,” what Beckert suggests was “the world’s first truly global raw material crisis.” England turned again to India, this time with no alternative. By 1862, India was supplying 75% of England’s raw cotton, up from just 16% two years before. Brazilian and Egyptian cotton production also jumped. “The crisis of American slavery in effect forced and enabled the reconfiguration of the cotton growing countryside” all around the world is a way that previous attempts failed to produce. But these efforts were aided by highly inflated raw cotton prices. What would a world with cotton but without slavery ultimately look like?
The global cotton network responded with remarkable vigor and success. Raw cotton, which traded for $0.11 per pound in 1860 and remained as high as $0.24 by 1870 dropped to $0.07 per pound by 1894, all while global consumption of cotton doubled. So how were such feats of agricultural productivity achieved without slave labor? According to Beckert, it was driven by a new, powerful imperial state in partnership with industry. Between 1876 and 1915, a quarter of the world’s land surface was carved up among the industrial powers. In the wake of slavery, and reaching deep inland across the cotton growing regions of the world, a new system of credit, private land ownership, contract law and industrial infrastructure projects (railroads, canals, telegraphs) bolstered harvest yields to new heights, even across the former Confederacy where sharecroppers clawed their way back so that by 1890 they were producing twice their pre-war records and reclaimed their dominant position supplying the British mills.
“Cotton and colonial expansion went hand in hand,” Beckert writes. England in India and Egypt, Japan in Korea and China, Russia in Central Asia, and the United States in the Native American lands of the West all aggressively pushed cotton production to meet global demand while growing domestic textile industries. Between 1860 and 1920, 55 million acres (roughly the size of Minnesota) across the globe – from the German colony of Togo in West Africa to the vast steppes of Central Asia – were repurposed, often forcefully by the state, for cotton production. Powerful nation states, in league with industrial enterprises, “secured huge swaths of territory on which cotton could be grown and they their accumulated bureaucratic, infrastructural, and military might to mobile cotton growing labor,” often by recasting social arrangements similar to those used to foster the growth of industrial wage labor in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
But what about the processing of all that raw cotton into usable yarn and thread, not to mention the manufacturing of finished products, such as the mass production of inexpensive shirts and dresses? That required an entirely different type of labor: wage labor. “It is difficult to overstate the importance and revolutionary nature of this new organization of human labor,” Beckert writes. Mobilizing large numbers of workers, perhaps thousands, paying them fixed wages and then monitoring their work and effort was an entirely novel concept in the early nineteenth century.
Finally, we are today living in a world of global, post-modern cotton. “The empire of cotton has continued to facilitate a great race to the bottom”… as “capitalism both demands and creates a state of permanent revolution.” A mere century ago, a typical, middle-class American’s cotton dress shirt would have been produced from a cotton boll grown in Mississippi, woven and spun into thread in a Massachusetts mill, and then sewn into the final product in a New York City workshop. Today, we (Americans) wear cotton shirts from fibers likely grown in Uzbekistan or Senegal, spun and woven into thread in China or Pakistan, and manufactured into our hip, “Casual Friday Appropriate”, GAP buttoned-down Oxford in Bangladesh or Vietnam.
Beckert stresses that cotton production has exploded in growth while moving almost effortlessly to the lowest cost producer. In 1860, when the American South ruled with “King Cotton,” the territory of the former Confederacy produced a relatively astounding 5 million bales of cotton, the vast majority of the world’s supply at the time. Yet, by 2012, the heavily federally subsidized United States cotton growing industry (which received $35 billion in subsides between 1995 to 2010), mostly based in Texas and Arizona, produced over three times that amount, some 17 million bales of cotton, or just over 14% of the world’s production. Meanwhile, cotton growing and manufacturing has returned to its roots, such as China, whose factories today account nearly half of the world’s spindles and looms, and whose fields generate nearly a third of the global annual cotton crop (India, another pre-industrial cotton society, has also re-emerged as a leading producer, accounting for a fifth of global raw cotton production today). Cotton has been a globalized industry since at least the late 19th century, but today’s globalization is different in some remarkable ways, according to the author, namely that modern multinational corporations, such as Walmart or the French retailing giant Carrefour, are both enormously influential buyers of finished cotton goods and yet, unlike before, largely independent from any insurmountable coercive pressure from specific nation states.
In sum, “Empire of Cotton” is a brilliant history of an indispensible commodity, easily on par with such classics as Daniel Yergin’s “The Prize” history of petroleum or Peter Bernstein’s “The Power of Gold.”