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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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