Empire of Cotton: A Global History

For a thing to be a king, it’s got to have clobbering impact, generate scads of money, show durability and credibility. Without those last two, the highest a thing can rise to is a craze: the tulip craze, the cheap-gin craze. Cotton, on the other hand, cotton had it all — power, treasure, durability, and the ability to make its own street cred: pox-on-the-land cred, satanic mill cred, sold-my-soul-to-King-Cotton cred, rumble-the-social-order cred. In Sven Beckert’s sure, spacious, and skillful Empire of Cotton, we learn that cotton was a monarch of the terrible and flexibly unpredictable kind, a ruthless conqueror, a force that changed our world, more than once.

The Age of Aquarius is over; it is the Age of the Miracle Fiber. Still, we remember cotton. From the raw-cotton clothing that marked the counterculture and the preindustrial world to the polished industrial product, gentle cotton was the choice over the scritch of wool, the expense of silk, and the funk of animal skin. It’s not cotton’s fault that it is freighted with associations, but it carries a heavy load of them. Beckert carefully unpacks each, watches it grow or wither, and sets it in its socioeconomic moment, whereupon it becomes evident why words such as empire and king get hitched to a ball of fiber.

Follow cotton, as Beckert does like a bloodhound, and it leads to the origins of modern world industry — the Industrial Revolution, no less — and to the few decades of the late eighteenth century that have become known as the “great divergence,” the vast divide of social inequality that structures the world today, “between those countries that industrialized and those that did not, between colonizers and colonized, between global North and global South.” And divide again, just as surely, within those orders.

“To see capitalism in action,” is a phrase that could sink an armada, but Beckert offers it with ease, as if tossing an apple up and down to test its heft and firmness. For capitalism is the crux here, and its globalization is Beckert’s inquiry, following as it creeps like ink across damp paper. War capitalism in particular, emerging in the sixteenth century, was the rude and raw progenitor to its unctuous industrial progeny, “resting on the violent expropriation of land and labor in Africa and the Americas.” War capitalism brought forth wealth, knowledge, the underpinnings of institutions and states — and big-time slavery. “Europeans invented the world anew by embarking upon plantation agriculture on a massive scale.” Only much later would the institutions of industrial capitalism, such as a powerful state, property rights, and wage labor, allow the global integration of labor, materials, markets, and capital, and the supersession of war capitalism. (Not that capitalism per se isn’t global by nature and nurture, investigating every nook and cranny.) “Cotton manufacturing rested on the ability to persuade or entice or force people to give up the activities that had organized human life for centuries and join the newly emerging industrial proletariat” — each and every a deal with the devil, willingly accepted or not. It was cotton — not rice or tobacco or sugar — that sewed together the global marketplace and birthed the first vast manufacturing enterprises. So writes Beckert, with the facts to back it up and enough genuine footnotes to fill a rowboat.

Beckert has no issue with a tight focus, and he uses it deftly to describe the history and evolution of the cloth-making process from Sulawesi to the Upper Volta, Nubia to the Rio Grande. He uses it to explain why some cultures resisted the miseries of cotton farming, when subsistence was near at hand. He uses it to make understandable the rise and fall of protectionism and tariffs, why Reconstruction held some of the most egregious post-slavery conditions at bay, why the din of the workhouse was worse than a foundry at double time. But when he steps back to gain the big picture, the effect is stunning. Cotton commanded capitalism: On the eve of the U.S. Civil War, raw cotton constituted 61 percent of the value of U.S. exports. Those exports supplied Britain with 77 percent of its needs, France 90 percent, Russia 92 percent. Metropolitan capital was learning the advantages of having a second place in the countryside. Cotton erected the social framework, from its early reliance on slavery through the scorched earth of freemen and -women, servitude, tenantry, sharecropping, to wage labor — to deciding who would have and who would not.

The U.S. Civil War and its aftermath provided a test — could industrial capitalism survive without slavery? It could, and so could cotton. After the Civil War, demand for cotton exploded, and this would require a whole new industrial design — the concentration of production with a concomitant expansion of the relations of production — that prompted great industrial migrations from the North to the South, following the wage curve ultimately abroad, to China and India and Pakistan and Togo.

With their own specific coloration, the words Beckert uses to describe the elemental, seismic quakes of war capitalism could be applied to developing lands today: “Imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples, theft of their resources . . . and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight.” Cotton is King elsewhere now, turning its profit, keeping a weather eye on those miracle fibers.

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