Empire of Cotton: A Global History
By Sven Beckert
Review by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun
This book is not an alternative history of capitalism. According to Sven Becket, the author, it is capitalism's only authentic history. A history that the author argues has never been fully (or honestly) told.
He thus sets about the task of correcting the myth that capitalism was the sole handiwork of a group of “self-made inventors and entrepreneurs," one that functioned best when governments got out of the way, and when "free" rather than "slave" labor was involved.
As this well-worn legend goes, around the turn of the 18th Century, beginning with the first factory in Manchester England, self-made entrepreneurs and inventors (apparently operating in some sort of "regulation and government free-zone"), and curiously choosing "free labor" over slavery, went about the business of developing an efficient, global free-trade system of market capitalism.
Opposing this oft told legend is the less heroic version offered here. It corrects the record by building a larger global framework, a context, as it were, in which to place already well-known, but facts missing from the mythical version.
Instead of beginning with a group of free wheeling rugged individuals and inventors, operating on their own (without government help, that is), Becket gives us a more nuanced story that has the feel of truth rather than the feel of heroic myth and legend-making.
In his story, the hand of government can be seen behind the scenes doing almost all of the heavy lifting (supplying the guns, building the roads, enacting and collecting the tariffs, underwriting ship-building, and regulating the markets, among many other tasks) and thus was driving the capitalist train every step of the way!
In this more nuanced, and arguably deeper and certainly more believable --if not truer version -- of the birth of capitalism, both slavery and the commodity of cotton play unique and decisive roles.
Common sense dictates that the Age of Exploration had to have played an important role in the development of capitalism and in the industrialization of the Western World. Obviously the privately owned joint-stock companies, like the Dutch East Indies company that underwrote the voyages and settlements of many of the first English colonies -- including those of India and North America -- could only have existed with a royal (that is, with a government) charter.
It is self-evident then that capitalism had to have grown out of this system of royal commissions -- a system that literally gave license to pirates and profiteers, outlaws and criminals who were commissioned to roam the seas robbing and stealing and taking over the lands of and subjugating peoples around the globe, in the name of royal governments.
These royal charters had been in existence at least since the 12th Century, but became central to global trade on the seas only in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries, when Spain's dominance of the seas was being challenged and its power was beginning to wan.
Over the course of two centuries, the system of royal commissions slowly morphed into a brutal imperial system of colonial violence and slave exploitation. It was this morphed system centered on slavery and cotton (as it was grown in America and processed in European textile factories), that eventually went global. The author calls this new morphed system "War Capitalism."
It cannot be forgotten that this "War Capitalism" was responsible for both the explosion of economic development that became the true forerunner of today's capitalism, and was involved in the violence and exploitation that caused so much grief around the world, and thus is also responsible for the underdevelopment of the countries that were exploited -- especially in Africa, where upwards of 12 million human beings were extracted.
The author refers to the system that evolved from Royal commissions as “War Capitalism” because of the forces it mustered together to violently takeover and subjugate large numbers of peoples, mostly from Africa and the Americas, but also from as far away as India and China.
Cotton, as it was grown in America and processed in Europe, with the indispensable and brutal forced labor of slavery, was of course at the center of this violent European-driven economic revolution that we have come to call "self-styled independent entrepreneurship."
Cotton was the only commodity with the proper attributes to cause an explosion in both slavery and wage labor. The concept of a "factory" itself was an invention of the cotton industry. Those attributes unique to cotton like -- having two labor intensive stages (one in the fields and the other in factories); creating both a large industrial proletariat as well as a merchant class; causing an explosion in both slavery and wage labor; causing the development of vast new manufacturing enterprises; and producing huge new European markets that traded goods across the globe -- makes it clear just why cotton was the commodity that wove together continents; and justifiably has been designated the key to understanding the modern world.
On the eve of the Civil War, for instance, on the backs of some four million African slaves, the U.S. supplied Great Britain with 77 percent of its raw cotton, 90 percent of France’s, and 92 percent of Russia’s. At the same time, cotton-manufacturing industries emerged in northern U.S. cities, propelling the U.S.’s own Industrial Revolution. This revolution made not just slave owners in the South very rich, but also many Northern industrialists very wealthy as well.
Although the author sidesteps the issue of why the newly formed United States of America remained a Slavetocracy, while the British government abolished slavery at precisely the moment cotton was fueling its Industrial Revolution, the answer to that question is all but self-evident: The slave revolts across the Caribbean and South America were bankrupting the major European geopolitical players, namely France, Spain and Britain. On the other hand, the newly formed USA was more dependent on slavery than at any time in its history. It could not afford to give up its "cash cow." Five stars
Footnote: As a grandson of a cotton farmer (named Silas Brown, a WW-I vet), who raised thirteen children on a 40-acre (independently owned) farm near Scott, Arkansas, one that had two mules ("Cake" and "Blue"), this book had special significance to me. Growing up in Arkansas, "going to the field" to either "pick" or "chop" cotton for as little as $1.00 per day was considered honorable work. But in the 1950s, this fact it was not true, for it was little more than slave labor even then.
When my grandfather took his cotton to the Gin to be sold, because he was an independent black farmer, rather than a sharecropper, he often got as much as two-cents per pound less than white farmers. How he woke up happy each day and supported a large family for so long, in retrospect, stagger my imagination. The farm was so self-sufficient that the only thing we bought "in town" was a luxury: "Corn Flakes." May Silas and Lula Brown rest in peace. Amen
Editor's note: This review was written by Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.