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Book review

‘Empire of Cotton’ by Sven Beckert

Harvard historian Sven Beckert traces the growth of the cotton industry across four centuries and six continents.Charlie Mahoney

Globalization is nothing new, Harvard historian Sven Beckert’s stimulating new book points out. Tracing the growth of the cotton industry across four centuries and six continents, Beckert matter-of-factly depicts indigenous populations displaced and enslaved, local economies destroyed, discriminatory laws imposed, all to feed the industry’s insatiable appetite for ever-expanding markets and ever-cheaper raw materials. It’s not a pretty picture.

It’s also, Beckert contends persuasively, “the story of the making and remaking of global capitalism and with it of the modern world.” Cotton was central to the European-dominated trade networks created in the 16th century by a process Beckert bluntly dubs “war capitalism.”


As they colonized the New World and forcibly established trading enclaves in Asia and Africa, Europeans placed small-scale, diverse methods of cotton production and distribution within a single “hierarchical empire” designed to serve their commercial goals.

“Never before,” Beckert writes, “had the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities for European consumers.” The Industrial Revolution could not have occurred without this prior economic reorganization, and from 1770 to 1860 industrial capitalism marched in tandem with its predecessor, transforming Europe quasi-peacefully into a continent of machine-driven factories and wage laborers while war capitalism violently ensured the cost-effective supply of raw materials from overseas.

Cotton, a labor-intensive crop, was difficult to cultivate in the quantities required for mass production. In the American South, enslaved Africans (working on land expropriated from Native Americans) were viciously driven to unprecedented levels of productivity, so that by the 1850s the United States provided as much as 92 percent of the cotton consumed by Europe’s manufacturers. The United States was, in Beckert’s provocative assessment, “the only country in the world divided between war and industrial capitalism”; northern industrial capitalists and southern war capitalists made conflicting demands on their national government, which ultimately could not reconcile them.


The American Civil War provoked a crisis in global capitalism. Could free labor produce enough cotton to keep Europe’s textile mills humming? Manufacturers looked to the Indian subcontinent, cotton’s ancient home, initially bypassed for large-scale production because its peasant farmers declined to grow a single crop for export. To get the supply they needed, Europeans would have to undermine the traditional social structures that sustained subsistence agriculture. Fortunately, they’d had plenty of practice at home, where vagrancy laws, and the enclosure of communal lands had driven much of Europe’s rural population into factory work.

War capitalism’s blatantly brutal tactics were falling from favor, but industrial capitalism still had coercive tools to wield, thanks to the powerful nation-states that grew up alongside it. Colonialism, established by armies, expanded via tariff laws and infrastructure development (which facilitated international trade), turning once self-sufficient regions into dependent producers of raw materials and consumers of manufactured goods. There’s a reason, Beckert demonstrates, why Gandhi urged Indians to wear homespun cotton clothing.

Nonetheless, native industrialists were prominent in the national independence movements that swept away colonialism after World War II. This new group of entrepreneurs came into being after 20th-century European and American workers achieved higher wages, reduced hours, and better working conditions; manufacturing joined agriculture as something that could be done more cheaply in the colonies, and local business elites wanted to keep the fruits of capitalism at home.


Drawing these kinds of global connections is a relatively recent trend among historians, and Beckert’s brilliant case study makes it clear how valuable this broader perspective is. A brief description of his book may make it sound schematic, but his detailed narrative never scants the rich complexity of the cotton trade’s impact on many different societies — including the one in which giant retailers like Walmart influence commodity prices and labor conditions around the world. Beckert is plain-spoken about the ruthless methods that entrenched capitalism as the world’s dominant economic system, yet he also freely acknowledges the resourcefulness and inventiveness with which it has adapted to local conditions and changing circumstances.

No other means of producing and consuming goods has ever rivaled capitalism for creating wealth, and this is as true in the 21st century as it was in the 19th. “The Empire of Cotton’’ reminds us that the difficulty has been and remains distributing that wealth more equitably.

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and
the Daily Beast.