Empire of Cotton

Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism
Sven Beckert   Allen Lane/Penguin   640pp   £30

Every year enough raw cotton is produced for each person in the world to consume 20 T-shirts. Cotton is one of the most common commodities; even our banknotes are partly made of cotton. Sven Beckert explains that the story of cotton starts not with factories and commodities but with cotton cultivation. The first part of the book highlights the importance that cotton had in Asia – and in India in particular – before the sector was transferred and re-organised in Europe through the use of new machinery in the late 18th century. The global dimension of the book is in its assertion of the centrality of the West in recasting one of the most significant manufacturing sectors in the world. This was possible thanks to imperial expansion, the labour of slaves and wage workers and, indeed, machinery.

Beckert claims that cotton was the ‘launching pad’ of the Industrial Revolution. But this is act two of western capitalism following what he calls ‘war capitalism’. War capitalism was based on violence and coercion by Europeans: the appropriation of land in the Americas, the enslavement of millions of Africans forced to cultivate cotton in the West Indies and later the American South and the power of imperial states, first of which was Britain. Beckert is at his best when considering slavery and cotton plantations, places of violent domination where, even more than in the dark satanic mills of England, the rhythm of ceaseless exploitation was imposed by ruthless plantation owners.

In an engrossing narrative, Beckert discusses the importance of factories, technological innovation and the expansion of imperial markets. Reducing the cost of labour was key for British cotton textile producers to outcompete India, still the major world producer of cotton textiles in the 1820s.

The book concentrates on the raw material and engages only marginally in the production and consumption of cotton textiles and so the cotton story that Beckert presents is one of US global capitalism. In 1800 the US production of raw cotton was still very small, yet by the start of the Civil War in 1861 the US South produced most of the cotton used in British and European continental mills. It was truly King Cotton, accounting for nearly a third of the US exports. Here is the full manifestation of the book’s narrative, not just of land and factories but also of credit, information, cotton brokers and dealers and commodity exchanges. The US developed a double system of southern plantations and northern finance, brokerage and insurance. Before steel, oil and informatics, this was the world of money, trade and financial links spanning across continents.

One might think that this is a narrative of unredeemed Eurocentric triumphalism, if it were not for the fact that Beckert shows the unbalances, weaknesses and utter failures of the cotton empire. The 20th century is also the denouement of a story of capitalist expansion. What once was the backbone of western capitalism is now a sclerotic sector whose survival, at least in the US, relies on state subsidies.

Giorgio Riello is author of Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World (Cambridge, 2013).

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