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Book Review: Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History

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Scenes on a Cotton Plantation: Hoeing, engraving from Harper’s Weekly, February 2, 1867

Sven Beckert’s Bancroft Prize-winning book is a brilliant as advertised. He explores the history of cotton production to demonstrate how Europeans took control of a crop that grew widely around the world but not in Europe and used it to promote global expansion through state-sponsored violence and control over labor. In doing so, Beckert weaves together the experiences of peoples around the world and builds connections between the past and present.

For Beckert, the entire process of cotton expansion, industrialization, and the cotton fields and apparel industry to the present is backed with horrifying violence. Cotton grows in many forms around the world’s tropics. From Mexico to India, it has served as the basis of household economies for thousands of years, through weaving and spinning. But what he calls “war capitalism” changed this. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, European nations and the United States went to war to violently open lands for cotton production. Within the United States, this was the wars on Native Americans in the South that led to the Trail of Tears. The trans-Atlantic slave trade violently provided the labor for these cotton agriculture. Conquest in India and Egypt was influenced by the insatiable desire for cotton.

The growing power of the state allowed this expansion to happen. As we can see throughout the history of capitalism, talk of “free enterprise” covered up the central hand of the state in shaping markets, ensuring compliant labor, passing tariffs to protect domestic industry, and going to war to find new cotton lands or bring the world’s labor within a cotton regime. War capitalism became industrial capitalism after the conquest of land and people. The state grew to facilitate this industrial capitalism, with state power backing capitalist expansion throughout the globe.

As an Americanist, Beckert naturally enough sees the Civil War as a transitional point in the history of cotton, but in a very different way than a U.S.-centric book. With Europe largely reliant upon U.S. cotton by 1861, the Civil War placed those nations in a real crisis. The U.S. was producing so much cotton that there was a large surplus, delaying the crisis. But mills across France, Germany and especially Britain closed by 1863. By early 1862, cotton imports to Britain were down 50 percent in total, 96 percent from the United States. The state was there to help solve these problems. Britain especially sought to produce more cotton in India and Egypt. India had long produced much cotton, but largely persisted in its pre-colonial household production traditions, largely for domestic production, which consistently frustrated the British. Egypt began ramping up its cotton production, while nations such as Mexico added to the global cotton supply as well. American diplomats sought to promote cotton production around the globe as well, for they knew that if cotton supplies grew, the agitation in Britain to recognize the Confederacy would decline, as it did once the crisis passed.

Reconstruction forced American cotton farmers to figure out new ways of controlling labor to grow cotton, but this was not strictly an American process either. Rather, in his chapter titled “Global Reconstruction,” Beckert demonstrates how the process to rethink cotton labor was global and necessary for the Euro-American industrial societies reliant upon cotton production to feed their own working classes. Various forms of labor replaced chattel slavery. Sharecropping in the American South and Brazil became common. In Egypt, both sharecroppers and small owners provided family based labor. But the independence of these local economies was large gone. Instead, these farmers were now enmeshed in a system of global capitalism that often kept them in debt through sharecropping, crop liens, and merchants. This eventually led to a flood of cotton pouring into European nations. While Beckert doesn’t explicitly address this, it’s long been my contention that while the British were happy to continue using slave-made cotton from the South, it would have expanded production in the colonies even without the Civil War in order to lower the cost. Were that to have happened, the independent Confederacy may well have seen the price of its economic staple collapse and become unsustainable as an independent nation. Of course, this is conjecture and has little place in a history book, except to note that the British had long wanted to get more cotton out of India but found itself frustrated by local resistance.

By the late 19th century, the rise of imperialism became closely connected to cotton production, with European states binding the world together in an ever more intensive attempt to acquire cheap cotton. Perhaps most notorious was the Germans bringing experts from the Tuskegee Institute, some of whom were ex-slaves themselves, to its colony in Togo in order to find ways to force peoples there to grow for the German market, as Europeans states were doing throughout Africa and south Asia. The French forced peasants to grow cotton under state supervision in Côte d’Ivoire, as did the Belgians in the Congo.

Conditions in the apparel factories of Europe and the United States were hardly better than the fields of Togo or Alabama. Like today, cotton manufacturers loved to exploit young girls and the state went to great lengths to provide that labor. Beckert tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Mary Hootton, working in a Manchester factory, who we only know of because she was chosen to testify before a British investigative commission in 1833. Her life was brutal, with beatings at home and two years in the factories already, where she would be punished for being late to work by having a 20 pound weight put around her little neck and being forced to walk around the mill while the other children made fun of her. States created legal frameworks for wage labor that could include imprisonment for leaving work without permission in Prussia or for breaking a labor contract in England. Less directly, the increased inability to make a living through household manufacturing, often due to states forcing open markets for cotton exports, forced workers into the brutal factory world of Mary Hootton. Whether in Manchester, South Carolina, Mexico, Japan, Switzerland, or Bangladesh, household workers have found their ability to maintain household production overturned by global capitalism in the last 200 years and their states have ensured access to cheap and pliable labor, with force to back up industry if necessary.

In today’s globalized cotton capitalism, how much has changed? Although Beckert covers the recent past and present relatively briefly, the answer for him, as it is for myself, is not as much as you would think. Today, cotton production is still a system of rampant exploitation, where children are forced into the fields in Uzbekistan and where factories collapse and kill over 1100 workers in Bangladesh, with the American companies contracting production there and therefore playing a huge role in creating this system facing no accountability. Meanwhile, the cotton industrial towns of the global north are gone and largely replaced by nothing, as one can see in towns around southern New England like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Fall River. The state still shapes cotton today, whether through forced labor, union-busting, or cotton growing subsidies in the United States. The current system of globalized labor exploitation in the cotton and apparel industry is not some great opportunity for the Bangladeshi and Chinese poor but rather part of the same system of capitalist cotton that in its previous iterations committed genocide against Native Americans, vastly expanded chattel slavery, and oppressed factory workers in Europe and the U.S.

While the writing is more adequate than literary, Empire of Cotton is definitely accessible to the general reader. You all should read it if you want a truly global history that will change the way you look at both the past and the globalized economy of the present.

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  • CP

    As an Americanist, Beckert naturally enough sees the Civil War as a transitional point in the history of cotton, but in a very different way than a U.S.-centric book. With Europe largely reliant upon U.S. cotton by 1861, the Civil War placed those nations in a real crisis. The U.S. was producing so much cotton that there was a large surplus, delaying the crisis. But mills across France, Germany and especially Britain closed by 1863. By early 1862, cotton imports to Britain were down 50 percent in total, 96 percent from the United States. The state was there to help solve these problems. Britain especially sought to produce more cotton in India and Egypt. India had long produced much cotton, but largely persisted in its pre-colonial household production traditions, largely for domestic production, which consistently frustrated the British. Egypt began ramping up its cotton production, while nations such as Mexico added to the global cotton supply as well. American diplomats sought to promote cotton production around the globe as well, for they knew that if cotton supplies grew, the agitation in Britain to recognize the Confederacy would decline, as it did once the crisis passed.

    Fun fact (if the term can be used for this topic): as I recall from my undergrad writing, the Confederacy also shot itself in the foot early in the year by proactively stopping its cotton exports to Britain, hoping that this would force the British to realize how much they depended on the South and thus quickly enter the war on their side. Instead, the British took it as a slap in the face, essentially responded “fine, fuck YOU, too,” and started looking at alternate cotton sources (i.e. Egypt). Meanwhile, Washington was never dumb enough to try the same thing with its grain shipments. So you pretty quickly had a situation where Europe still had significant economic ties with the North, and none to speak of with the South – thus, one less reason to intervene in favor of the Confederacy.

    • he Confederacy also shot itself in the foot early in the year by proactively stopping its cotton exports to Britain, hoping that this would force the British to realize how much they depended on the South and thus quickly enter the war on their side. Instead, the British took it as a slap in the face, essentially responded “fine, fuck YOU, too,” and started looking at alternate cotton sources

      The Confederacy never had a chance, but it certainly helped that their leadership had a seemingly endless capacity to entertain and act upon dumbshit ideas.

      • The Confederacy never had a chance,

        Oh, I don’t think that’s true at all.

        • Murc

          Yes, the Confederacy could very well have won independence. Whether they’d succeed as a going concern beyond that is somewhat in doubt; I personally think they’d have been riven apart by their own internal civil struggles and an economic implosion. But they could certainly have managed to form their own nation-state AND make the north cease open hostilities.

          They could never have conquered the north the way the north conquered them, is as far as I’m willing to concede, tho.

          • They had no desire to conquer the north either.

          • rea

            Oh, yeah, the way they win the war is by Lincoln losing the politics, which could very well have happened as late as the 1864 election.

          • Tyro

            the Confederacy could very well have won independence.

            They could never become independent as long as the North wanted them to stay in the Union. Presumably the South could have broken the political will of the North, but in both manpower and industrial output, the North was the dominant power.

            Even worse for the South, the highlands were a hotbed of pro-Union sentiment, so the secessionists wouldn’t have even have had the benefit of advantageous terrain.

      • Bruce Vail

        Oh, no.

        That the South ‘never had a chance’ is the most persistent remnant of otherwise discredited Lost Cause mythology. They had a chance, but they botched it.

        • They had a chance, but they botched it.

          The botching started long before the war did. I was reading something about Confederate logistics a few years ago (the title escapes me at the moment), but the basic thrust was that the South had immensely worse lines of internal communication, little to no arms industry (or much heavy industry to speak of), and basically no hard currency reserves, and the Southern leadership knew it.

          So when I say they had no chance, I’m not talking about battles having gone one way or the other, I’m talking about the fact that they picked a fight that all but the most wildly optimistic assessment said they would lose. And it’s not like they didn’t know a war was coming. The specter of it had been openly discussed and compromised around for basically the entire lifetime of every one of the Southern grandees who made the war happen, and they just blithely assumed they would win. Hitler invading Russia was a Bad Idea, but he at least had the sense to put in a year’s worth of prep work.

          Could calm, cool, and collected leadership have won them the war? Sure, and it’s certainly true that they botched plenty of decisions up and down the line after it started. But the kind of leadership they’d have needed to win the war never would’ve gotten them into the war in the first place (or was ever likely to emerge in a political situation like that anyway).

          TL;DR: If someone is intent on doing something stupid, it makes no sense to think they’ll go about it in a smart way.

          • Bruce Vail

            Yeah, that sounds about right. My only argument is that there was a brief time in the first half of the war when some impressive military successes by the South could have destroyed the North’s political will to fight. Independence would have been grudgingly granted, particularly if Great Britain had intervened forcefully.

            In my version of this ‘what if’ scenario, the Second Civil War breaks out in 1864 or 1865 as the two countries argue over splitting up the western territories.

          • CP

            This kind of comparison has become almost too obvious, but I see a lot of the same mentality of the current Republican Party in the old Confederate leadership and Southern elites, and not simply because of the ideology. It’s the same hubris, the same overestimation of their own importance and abilities, the same belief that the very fabric of the universe will bend itself to accommodate them just because. In modern days, this gives you “unskewed polls,” Rumsfeld flat-out refusing to plan for the aftermath of his pet wars, and the belief in CEOs as all-powerful Galtian geniuses. Back in the day, it gives you the belief that you can go to war thoroughly unprepared because “one Southerner can lick ten Yankees,” and a massively overinflated opinion of how invaluable you are to the world economy.

            (Wow! I just realized – the Southern cotton lords were the original John Galts. They withheld their productivity from their European clients in the belief that this would prove that the world couldn’t live without them. And instead, their clients simply found new suppliers, because guess what? No one‘s irreplaceable).

  • J. Otto Pohl

    The German attempt to make Togoland a major provider of cotton for their textile mills largely failed in comparison to the British success in India and Russian success in Turkestan. The Germans unlike the British and Russians could not create an indigenous class of money lenders using debt to leverage the shift from food crops to cotton. Whereas the British and Russians effectively used these native middlemen to force peasants to grow cotton or starve the Germans had far less effective means of collecting the crop. They essentially had to go periodically and forcibly requisition it from an indigenous population that unlike sharecroppers in the US or indebted poor peasants in Central Asia and India still owned their own land.

    https://books.google.com.gh/books?id=aWU46V-1nB8C&pg=PA52&dq=Lundt+and+Apoh&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Pohl&f=false

    • Yes, Beckert is clear that the Togo experiment was not successful.

  • Enjoyed this book tremendously when I read it last year. What particularly struck me that I hadn’t known before was just how widespread cotton cultivation had been before it got commoditized. Indians, Africans, so many different people had found essentially the same use but with vastly different methods. Reminded me of potatoes and tomoatoes, which we think of today as having a small number of varieties but which were actually thousands of species that slowly became domesticated for maximum productivity.

  • I’m still struggling with it. It is both interesting and quite dull–but maybe that is just me! I am detouring to read The New Jim Crow and a book on Shakespeare.

    • I can definitely see that. As I say, the writing is adequate. Beckert isn’t real concerned about narrative or story.

  • Stephen Frug

    Fabulous book. I think it would make a really good basis for a (very different kind of) world history course — advanced high school or early college. Genuinely delves into a lot of different parts of the world using a real connection, and also talks about some of the most important linking world trends which shape our lives.

  • anon1

    There’s nothing like potable water impacting one’s very survival. That’s going to be the global concern and commodity for this century.

  • Xenos

    “War capitalism”? I thought it was all just “capitalism”, or as I was taught in high school, mercantilism. Cf. Sugar plantations 100 years before the cotton gin. Cf. The petroleum industry today.

  • Ronan

    I decided to skip Beckert for Walter Johnson’s river of dark dreams. It tells More or less the same story afaict (except Johnson gives a more intimate picture of Slave life, I think). Johnson’s also quite a stylistic writer. Some might think him overwrought, but it goes a long way with me

  • J. Otto Pohl

    The socialist cultivation of cotton in Central Asia also relied heavily on forced labor. This was especially true in the 1940s when large numbers of Karachai, Crimean Tatar, Meskhetian Turk, and Russian German special settlers were employed on cotton kolkhozes and sovkhozes in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. So it is more a problem of industrialized production of the crop rather than a specifically capitalist set of economic relations.

    https://www.academia.edu/10326540/A_Caste_of_Helot_Labourers_Special_Settlers_and_the_Cultivation_of_Cotton_in_Soviet_Central_Asia_1944-1956

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