Review: Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton

beckert-empire-of-cotton

One Thing after Another finds the ten-sentence limit for Very Short Reviews too constricting and has surrendered to the lures of a much longer format. Today’s review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is our first of what promises to be reviews of normal (or abnormal) length.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History is about the “rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton” (xi). Beckert is particularly interested in this story because no other industry erected such a large, ubiquitous “global production complex.” By tracing the fortunes of this large and ever-changing empire, Beckert claims that he has provided a useful—perhaps even the best—example of “capitalism in action” (xv). Along the way, Beckert emphasizes several themes: states were absolutely integral to creating the empire of cotton; this empire relied on large doses of armed force and other illiberal types of coercion; cotton was global like no other product (which explains why a study of the empire must look not just at Manchester or Britain, but at the entire world); and production of the fiber constantly adapted to changing circumstances by engaging in revolutionary transformations.

Before the empire of cotton was created, cotton was largely consumed where it was produced—in a band that encircled the globe between 32 to 35 degrees south latitude and 37 degrees north. This band included Central America, West Africa, the Nile River valley, the Near East, Central Asia, and China. That Europe would come to dominate the production, financing, and processing of cotton when it was incapable of growing the plant is one of the central marvels of Beckert’s story.

This story proceeds by stages. In the late-medieval period, Europeans (particularly in northern Italy—and then later in Germany) began buying cotton from Mediterranean sources such as Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. But European textiles were not particularly competitive on the world market (such as it was) because the quality of there products was inferior to what was woven in India. What eventually made Europe a player in the market for cotton was its success in forging a “complex commercial web” that linked India, West Africa, North America, and Europe. As Beckert puts it, “the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities for European consumers” (36). Europeans (primarily the British at this point) inserted themselves into existing networks and created ever more extensive ones through the use of force. Although the state would come to play a major role in the empire of cotton, at this point, most of the force involved in this process was in private hands—“heavily armed privateering capitalists” as Beckert describes them. The exercise of coercion became the first step in the creation of “war capitalism” (Beckert’s term). Becket never really defines what “war capitalism” was so much as he describes what it did, supported, or allowed: “imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples theft of their resources, enslavement, and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states” (38).

As time went on, the British increasingly aimed at creating an overseas market for their own textiles—instead of merely peddling superior Indian products. The main problem for Britain, however, was that wages were much higher there than in India; for that reason, British textiles could not compete on the basis of price. This problem inspired a concerted effort to increase the productivity of British labor. The answer consisted of making advances in spinning and weaving technology—which we associate with the Industrial Revolution. It also required the mass mobilization of labor in the metropole—usually drawn from vulnerable groups like children and women. War capitalism, Beckert argues, created propitious circumstances for the industrialization of Europe by providing access to markets, technology, labor, and raw materials. It also created a great deal of capital and fostered the development of various financial instruments. These important changes allowed the British to sell their goods in overseas markets. None of these achievements would have been possible without the activities of a strong, interventionist state. The state, according to Beckert, “was capable of forging and protecting global markets, policing its borders, regulating industry, creating and then enforcing private property rights in land, enforcing contracts over large geographical distances, forging fiscal tools to tax populations, and building a social, economic, and legal environment that made the mobilization of labor through wage payments possible” (76). This array of capacities was associated with “industrial capitalism” which was initially fostered and sustained by war capitalism.

A major way in which war capitalism assisted industrial capitalism was in securing huge territories and enormous pools of labor to supply the raw materials necessary to keep up with Britain’s enhanced industrial productivity. Beckert views the emergence of the American South as perhaps the most significant accomplishment of late war capitalism. In this part of the world, the empire of cotton did not have to compromise with existing socio-economic relations as it did in, say, India. Instead, indigenous inhabitants were removed wholesale, and a completely new labor regime (slavery), ideally suited to the cultivation of cotton, was implemented. It is no coincidence, as Beckert points out, that Baring Brothers & Co., which later became the most important British merchant bank involved in the cotton business, underwrote the Louisiana Purchase which allowed the United States take hold of an enormous territory on which cotton could be grown.

Although industrial capitalism required war capitalism to get started, Beckert points out that significant tensions persisted between the two. While war capitalism was particularly useful in securing the means for growing enormous volumes of cotton, it was totally ill-suited for the processing of the fiber or the manufacturing of textiles. Frictions between war and industrial capitalism were not impossible to reconcile so long as, say, war capitalism remained something that took place overseas (or “outside” as Beckert puts it) while industrial capitalism was something that happened at home (“inside”). However, in the United States, the two systems existed side by side, their interests were incompatible, and the American Civil War occurred as a result.

The Civil War was a major turning point in the history of the empire of cotton, and perhaps the greatest crisis it ever surmounted. Southern planters, who were the last politically powerful group of cotton growers in the world, were utterly destroyed as a force. The war capitalism with which they were intimately associated also came to an end. Most important of all, the war and the Federal blockade completely disrupted the flow of cotton to Europe. Manufacturers now had a huge incentive to reduce their dependence on American cotton and diversify their sources of the fiber—especially as it became clear to them that even the American South could not meet the enormous future demand for cheap, raw cotton. Looking to alternate sources also meant recasting the socio-economic relations of various regions and changing the way that cotton was produced, financed, and transported. The empire of cotton was compelled to penetrate the interiors of India, Egypt, Brazil, Africa, Central Asia, and American South. The empire built railroads to facilitate the transportation of cotton from remote parts of the world. It also took over the financing of cotton production, shouldering aside local traditional lenders. It employed scientific agricultural reform to enhance productivity. And it imposed new labor arrangements, mainly sharecropping, that eventually led to wage labor. In parts of India, for example, the countryside was deindustrialized as weavers were reduced to peasant status. Moreover, these peasants were no longer the traditional subsistence farmers who grew cotton on the side; they now exclusively produced cotton for the market. This kind of monoculture led to food insecurity and eventually periodic famines. The intensification of imperialism in the latter part of the 19th century (what most textbooks refer to as “New Imperialism”) only provided the empire of cotton with additional political tools to pursue the same ends.

Since then, the locus of textile production has changed: the manufacturing of cotton textiles has moved to the “global South.” Beckert focuses on two major reasons for this change. First, as the global South adopted increasingly advanced manufacturing techniques, its low wages allowed it to produce textiles at much lower prices than the First World. Second, with the advent of decolonization, the global South obtained states that acted according to their perceived national interests and implemented policies (often statist) that sought to protect domestic production. States and manufacturers in these regions, however, do not dominate the contemporary empire of cotton. Instead, according to Beckert, immense corporations are in charge. They no longer have to integrate new regions of the world into the market economy; that work has already been completed by various states. They no longer depend on any particular state; they “can easily shift all forms of production around the globe” (438). They no longer focus on “raw cotton, yarn, and cloth;” their interest is in the “apparel business” (437). From Beckert’s perspective, then, “the empire of cotton has continued to facilitate a giant race to the bottom, limited only by the spatial constraints of the planet” (440).

This reviewer cannot vouch for the economic history that lies at the heart of this work (because he is not an economic historian), but Empire of Cotton is a fascinating, thought-provoking, pioneering book that required great powers of synthesis to produce. Beckert’s decision to conduct a truly global history of cotton is justified by the results. Beckert does a wonderful job of showing the complex web of business links that stretched from Liverpool and Manchester all the way to, say, Bombay and Berar during the heyday of this empire. As the author details the doings of various figures who served this empire, the reader invariably feels as if he has removed the housing from a great machine and obtained a rare opportunity to see all the cogs, levers, and flywheels working in perfect order. Beckert’s model has great explanatory force, and as he describes it, each step taken by the empire of cotton seemed to lead ineluctably to the next.

At times, though, the activities of this empire sometimes seem too inevitable. Beckert’s depiction of the machine is a bit too elegant, smooth, and unproblematic. In his telling, the empire of cotton becomes an irresistible, revolutionary capitalist force that relentlessly adapted to changing circumstances while conforming to unimpeachable economic logic. Although Beckert describes the activities of numerous individuals caught up in this empire, they merely serve it; there is very little room for human agency here either. In other words, everything seems overdetermined. Conflict and ambivalence within the heart of this empire are simply ignored. For example, the abolitionist movement in Britain, which strenuously opposed slavery, receives no mention at all (Beckert merely states that “Britain in 1834 outlawed slavery within its empire”) (122). At the same time, certain facts are shoe-horned to fit Beckert’s interpretation. Beckert argues, for instance, that Britain’s Reform Act of 1832 allowed “many textile entrepreneurs to move into the House of Commons, where they strenuously lobbied for the (global) interests of their industry, from the Corn Laws to British colonial expansion” (77). Most British historians would argue that such a statement paints with an extremely broad (and somewhat inaccurate) brush (i.e. “many” entrepreneurs did not enter the Commons until much later, their efforts did not precipitate repeal of the Corn Laws, and many were ambivalent about colonial expansion).

These problems are probably a function of studying an enormous topic whose every single detail is somewhat beyond the powers of a single historian to master. Yet they are also partly due to the nature of economic history which does not always perceive problems in the round. As we have seen, Beckert depicts the American Civil War as a clash between elements of war capitalism and industrial capitalism—an old-fashioned interpretation that smells a bit like Charles and Mary Beard. It might seem unfair to criticize an economic history for being, well, an economic history. But if Beckert had matched the global scope of his study with a wide-ranging approach that incorporated more subfields of history (for sure, a herculean task), he would have avoided some of the mistakes and blind spots that crop up in his work.

At the same time, for all the details concerning the growing, financing, transportation, processing, and selling of cotton, Beckert is somewhat less precise when it comes to defining his most important terms. He never explains, for example, what the phrase “empire of cotton” actually means. While the reader obtains a fairly good idea of what Beckert signifies, a more explicit description would provide a better analytical tool. The problem here has to do with the use of the word “empire” which is not exactly a self-evident word. The same goes for words like “war capitalism” which is something of a novelty—at least in the way that Beckert uses it.

Finally, Beckert closes his work by referring to the two faces of capitalism that were presented by the empire of cotton: “domination and exploitation” on the one hand, and “liberation and creativity” on the other (442). The balance of the work certainly seems to stress the former at the expense of the latter. This tendency seems a strange foundation for his closing statement that the story of cotton should “give us hope . . .  that our unprecedented domination over nature will allow us the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world’s people.”

Despite these criticisms (and the amount of space they have consumed in this review), Beckert’s book is a terrific and worthwhile read. Present-day entrepreneurs like to pretend that they are the first to have made the world anew, but Empire of Cotton does a valuable service by reminding contemporary readers that visionary entrepreneurs in the past have made the world anew many, many times before.

Hugh Dubrulle

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