WINNER OF THE BANCROFT PRIZE
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The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism.
Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to an empire, and how this force transformed the world.
The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.
A History of Capital and the Industrial Revolution for the 21st Century 3 Jan. 2015
By Jonathan M. Soffer - Published on Amazon.com
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Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton continues on a global scale his project in his first book, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896, in demonstrating that the US is not an exceptional Arcadia emancipated from the repressive political, economic, & ideological forces of global capitalism. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the evolution of our global system of political economy, indeed for anyone seriously interested in the development of the 19th and twentieth century world. Beckert, a professor of history at Harvard University, creates a history of capitalism for the 21st century, decisively demonstrating that older Marxist scholars notably Eugene Genovese, were wrong to argue that slavery was a pre-capitalist mode of production, with the implication that Southern US slaveowners were somehow more benevolent "paternalist" employers than Northern industrialists. He also definitively challenges classical liberal lines of scholarship that argue that superior western institutions (other than the military) and free markets led to the economic expansion of the West. Unfreedom had far more to do with the rise of capitalism than freedom, liberty, or democracy. Even after the post-emancipation shift to industrial capitalism, capitalist enterprise remained tied closely to, and probably could not continue to expand without strong exercises of state, particularly military power. In line with recent scholarship by Walter Johnson, and Edward Baptiste, Beckert demonstrates that slave labor and state action on behalf of private interests were integral to the establishment of capitalism and to the industrial revolution.
Conducting research in the archives of every major country that produced cotton or finished cotton goods, and consulting local scholars where he doesn't have the languages, this book is also a model of transnational scholarship. Beckert traces the global evolution of cotton production and consumption, noting that in the early modern period, Western Europe was notable as a non-cotton producing region, making it even more remarkable that in the 19th century that it should become the center of the cotton trade.
He divides capitalism into two periods--war capitalism, which lasts until the US Civil War, was the first system. "Slavery, the expropriation of indigenous peoples, imperial expansion, armed trade, and the assertion of sovereignty over people and land by entrepreneurs were at its core." He then demonstrates the close ties of supply, transport, communication, and credit with plantation forced labor. The knowledge and wealth that war capitalism expropriated, he argues, were "crucial preconditions for Europe's extraordinary economic development."
But expropriation and slavery, along with the deindustrialzation of the original producers of finished cotton goods in Asia and South America were not stable bases for bourgeois property and production. The revolution in St. Domingue in 1793 disrupted the English cotton industry and shifted production the American South, until the US Civil War ended the southern states' near monopoly of world cotton exports. This second American revolution, fought over the issue of free labor, shifted much of the cotton business back to Asia, Egypt, and Central America. Britain and other cotton-military- industrial complexes expanded their penetrations of colonies, such as India, where peasant labor had resisted the complete replacement of subsistence crops by cotton that Manchester demanded.
The new system, industrial capitalism, based on wage labor, both created political openings for workers in the West. "The dependence of capitalists on the state, and of the state on its people, empowered the workers who produced that capital. . . By the second half of the nineteenth century, workers organized collectively, both in unions and political parties, and slowly, over multiple decades, improved their wages and working conditions." The increased production costs eventually made the reindustrialization of the global South possible, and the center of the cotton industry has shifted there.
Empire of Cotton is surely one of the most significant works of history published this year. It is not impossible that in ten years that historians will consider it one of the most significant works of the decade.