Sven Beckert, Laird Bell Professor of history at Harvard has a particular focus and contribution that he is attempting to make, which I think particularly shines through in this work, Empire of Cotton. In the book, instead of following the story of a particular nation or people, he takes the perspective of a commodity, Cotton. Which he then traces through many different local stories to create a large global story, which integrates the histories of such disparate lands such as The United States and India or Persia. Beckert believes that much of US history is too inwardly focused and does not have a properly contextualized history within the global story.

The argument of the book can be stated like this, that the confluence of the factors of Western Imperial conquest of strategic trade routes and access to textile markets, of a particular strain of cotton being introduced, of particular industrial innovations being available, and of the Capital gained from mass market textile industry afforded the Industrial Revolution. Each of these among other factors, are contingent factors without which, perhaps the world would be quite different.

  1. The Imperial conquest around the globe enabled the subjugation of labor sufficient to produce the mass surpluses needed in agricultural production, obviously notable with Cotton production in the Southern United States. Important also was the domination of trade routes throughout Asia through naval power, as Asia had been thousands of years the preeminent textile market in terms of size. Beckert calls this phase "War Capitalism" which is his version of Mercantilism that essentially involved a transitioning of control of ancient Asian textile markets by western Imperial States and Corporations. Only with such a network would the surpluses of textiles being produced by the industrial cotton industry be sufficient for producing the kind of globalization that took place to create modern global Capitalism. From the investment of vast railway networks in India, to the very boats and factories themselves, none of it could happen without first Imperial domination and domination of the cotton textile markets.
  2. The previous system of production for thousands of years for textiles was one that was decentralized, mothers spinning textiles while she watches the children, and then various specialists perhaps with standards defined by guilds (in the European context in the Middles Ages) would then contribute their skills to producing the good. With the development of industry, it was potentially possible that you could increase productivity through centralization in mechanistic processes which are repeatable and mass producible. The problem was what agricultural or material product could be aggregated in such surpluses that they would be efficient for such mass production. Wool could be gathered in quite large amounts, but it proved to be difficult to invent mechanistic processes which could easily produce textiles from wool on a mass production scale. Silk it is known that the Swiss had developed some industrial technique for its production, but this information was not widely shared it seems at all. Cotton seemed to have problems too, the Sea Island Cotton when tried to grow inland was far too expensive to produce and inferior in quality unless produced in limited geographies.
  3. Enter the Upland Cotton, which in 1805 first appeared in an American port in Mississippi. This Cotton was durable, excellent for mass production, very cheap to cultivate (if you use the American system of massive plantations and slave labor), and could be grown in many areas which before were unavailable for development for Cotton production. The only seeming problem for Upland Cotton was the hurdle of getting all the seeds out, which of course was sorted out by the invention of the Cotton Gin, another element in which these factors interact with and depend on one another causally. This means that the worst abuses of slavery were to come after the 1804 abolition of slavery in England, who would of course perhaps benefit the most from mass exploitation of coerced labor to produce the vast surpluses which even their own Imperial possessions in India could not match (lots of interesting content on how they tried to replicate the plantation system without slaves in India but it was too Capital intensive).
  4. The Capital gained through this vast Empire of Cotton, can never be calculated fully, but it is clear that this textile market was essential for the development of robust financialized Capitalism. Beckert connects the wealth of cities like London and New York, and the industries of the Northern US and of Manchester were interwoven inextricably to the mass surpluses of Cotton being shipped in from the Southern United States. The trains, the ships, the factories, the cities, all the fruit of industrialization has its heart in the birth of the textile industry. Which then too with the surplus of goods and low prices, flooded global markets, bringing much of the Globe's economy under the control of the West. Indeed, it is during this period of time that the most intense expansions of Empire's take place, with the military of course being another area of major capital investment.
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One of the major take aways from the book is this legacy in which everything we have today, could have only been achieved through the practice of slavery. Without slavery, there is not enough labor to produce the surpluses needed for the factories to produce the goods at such a cheap price that they out-compete all other markets. This monopoly on cheapness, because of this labor exploitation, enabled for the "free-trade" Empire to set up rules which of course utterly favored goods produced in their factories. I don't think we should follow the naturalistic fallacy and say that just because this is the way that it organically happened that it is good, or the utilitarian supposition that I suspect some could raise, that because of what we have today it makes such a sacrifice worth it. I think this should inspire a lot more thinking on the entirety of the history of people of African descent's history in this country, and how that impacts the present situation. There are a wealth of policy implications that I think would be tangential to the thread, but I think that's the direction this analysis goes in, if one is to ethically really consider the facts at hand.

The major contribution I think this book makes, is the utilization as a historian of a particular vantage point, to produce a coherent narrative out of many different local stories. From analyzing the world of a cotton merchant, to that of a chattel slave, to that of a trader in stocks, to that of a mother and child in a factory. There is a coherent story about a developing economic system which was beginning to emerge, that the story of some several million former colonists in the United States is far more complex and interwoven global story. These I think are the kinds of stories we need to begin telling, if we are to escape from the grasps of Nationalism and ethnocentrism. Those are my thoughts at least.

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What are yours?

Source: reddit post


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