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After a quarter-century of tightly focused studies, historians are addressing extended periods of time and the global dimensions of history. As Thomas Piketty did in “Capital in the 21st Century,” his excellent recent study of wealth and inequality, Sven Beckert takes the long view in “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.” Mr. Beckert’s book is more broadly framed and more readable, but at its heart, as in Mr. Piketty’s book, is inequality.
Instead of statistical distributions of wealth, Mr. Beckert’s focus is on planters and enslaved workers, manufacturers and wage laborers, the center of the British Empire and colonies and, later, developing nations. What both books bring out are the structural sources of disempowerment and inequality.
Mr. Beckert’s masterly narrative of cotton production within the framework of state power and capitalism shows how much has been missed in studies focused on the vulnerable (slaves, women and the like) without incorporating the structural advantages of the powerful. Deeply researched and eminently readable, “Empire of Cotton” gives new insight into the relentless expansion of global capitalism.
Cotton has been cultivated and valued since ancient times, and Mr. Beckert, a professor of American history at Harvard, begins there. His story, though, effectively commences in the 16th century when, as both Adam Smith and Karl Marx insisted, the voyages of discovery revealed that the oceans, rather than being barriers, were actually highways giving birth to modern capitalism. Smith hailed this development, but he pointed out that while it brought “enjoyments” and “industry” to Europe, it entailed “dreadful misfortunes” in Asia and the Americas.
In Mr. Beckert’s view, the cotton revolution was partly the fortuitous product of a sequence of inventions — flying shuttle (1733), spinning jenny (1764), water frame (1769) and Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule(1779).
In the 1780s, cloth manufacture was powered by nonhuman forms of energy for the first time, and Britain became the first industrial nation. Yet invention was only part of the story. Empire was central; it enabled the accumulation of capital for rapid expansion and controlled markets, and it ensured a supply of cotton. “Slavery and the expropriation of native lands,” Mr. Beckert writes, “fueled by European capital, combined to feed raw materials relentlessly into Europe’s core industry.”
Soil exhaustion from tobacco agriculture in the American South combined with Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin (1793), prompting a shift there to cotton cultivation. The South became the principal source of cotton for British mills.
Until 1865 this production depended on slave labor, and it required a vast increase in the importation of enslaved Africans. One-third of all slaves imported into the United States came between 1793 and 1808, when the further importation was banned by Congress at the earliest date allowed by the Constitution.
But this is not entirely a Southern story. Northerners provided the insurance, brokerage, financing and shipping, making New York the financial capital of the Americas.
By the middle of the 19th century, Manchester, England, became the center of cotton manufacture. At first unable to match the quality of Asian production, Manchester’s machines and the city’s labor force — women and children as well as men — gradually caught up.
But there were human costs in the factories as well as in the fields. To make this point, Mr. Beckert quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, who was shocked on a visit to Manchester: “Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilization works its miracles, and civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.”
Mr. Beckert sees the hand of the state in both the accomplishments and shameful sides of industrial capitalism. He repeatedly attributes the darker side of his story to “war capitalism.” But his usage lacks definition and can seem arbitrary. Empire, another phrase that runs prominently through the book, provides the actual framework for this capitalist enterprise. In some cases it is formal empire, but it is also British command of capital and trade routes, what historians call free trade imperialism. Thus I would put it the other way around: Empire was the foundation of cotton capitalism, with warfare being one of its instruments.
The 19th-century story Mr. Beckert tells is global in scale. The American South was the greatest single source of cotton, yet was just one of many. Egyptian cotton was the finest, but cotton production also soared in India, Brazil, Africa and China. Not all American cotton went to Manchester. Some went North, and young women from New England farms, later replaced by immigrants, tended the spindles and looms in a massive factory complex in Lowell, Mass., and elsewhere. Throughout the century, and around the world, millions of people were turned into proletarians.
Mr. Beckert’s research was done in archives on every continent, and his skill in pulling together the elements of the global world of cotton is an astonishing achievement. With graceful prose and a clear and compelling argument, he not only charts the expansion of cotton capitalism, with its bankers, brokers and manufacturing magnates, but also addresses the conditions of enslaved workers in the fields and wage workers in the factories.
With the American Civil War and the end of slavery, the labor question became urgent. Southern planters turned to sharecropping and tenant farming rather than a wage system. The formerly enslaved agricultural workers, eager for autonomy, preferred this arrangement to one with a former master as boss. This solution to the labor question became the global standard. It shifted considerable risk from capital to labor.
Crop failures, whether caused by weather or insect infestation, were the burden of the tenant farmer, not the planter. Moreover, the financial structure kept agricultural workers chronically in debt. Everywhere the state favored capital at the expense of labor, notably vagrancy laws and crop lien protocols. Large landowners and merchants dominated.
The development of cotton manufacture represented a knowledge transfer from Asia to Europe. Today North Atlantic capital, managed by giant and powerful retailers like Walmart or Carrefour, exploits the workers of Asia and the Global South. It sets the terms of production and price, encouraging brutal exploitation of labor that amounts to a brutal race to the bottom. In global cities bidding on commodity exchanges, trade in derivatives and bets on price movements transform labor and cotton into an abstraction. At a time when many believe in unregulated capitalism, this history may suggest reconsidering that faith.
EMPIRE OF COTTON
A Global History
By Sven Beckert
Illustrated. 615 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.