By Robin Blackburn

New Left Review 95, September-October 2015

Sven Beckert has produced a fascinating and wide-ranging history of cotton, from its early appearance in household production in Asia thousands of years ago, via its modest debut in local exchanges, to its eventual role as a key ingredient in the Industrial Revolution and its continuing importance for today’s consumers, poor or rich. [1] Importantly, this is an account of both stages of cotton’s production, in the fields as well as the factories, agriculture as well as manufacture. A German historian now based in the United States, Beckert is the author of The Monied Metropolis (2001), a study of the consolidation of New York’s bourgeoisie in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His new book, Empire of Cotton, is enriched by research into documents and archives from two dozen countries. This is by no means untrodden territory. Giorgio Riello in his—also prizewinning—Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World (2013) has recently provided a fascinating account of how and why Asia’s manufacturers (for him, India’s in particular) were displaced by Europe’s. Both are works of much greater ambition than the general run of commodity histories—anecdotal narratives of cod, coal or tobacco, for instance. For its part, Empire of Cotton is closer in explanatory reach to Sidney Mintz’s path-breaking story of sugar, Sweetness and Power (1985), though through the lens of economic history, not cultural anthropology. Beckert aims to recast our understanding of ‘the making and remaking of global capitalism’, and with it the modern world.

Archaeological evidence suggests that cotton production emerged almost simultaneously in the Indian subcontinent and the Americas around 3000 bc; flax and wool—and, in China, silk and ramie—had been spun and woven for at least four millennia before that. Versatile, hard-wearing, washable and easily dyed, cotton rapidly became an important item in the household economies of India, China, West Africa, Anatolia and Pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru; planted alongside food crops and processed in the gaps between other agricultural tasks, often in the evenings, with women spinning while men wove. By the fourth century bc, Gujarati cotton textiles were traded along the Indian Ocean rim as far as East Africa; they would reach China and Southeast Asia by 200 bc. By around ad 1400, large-scale cotton workshops were established in Dhaka and Baghdad, while ‘urban loom houses’ in Ming China employed thousands of workers.

Europe was the exception: it did not grow cotton, which requires a frost-free growing season, and for long did not import it in quantity either, though European merchants and consumers were gradually educated to appreciate the finer Indian muslins and calicoes. The turning point, in Beckert’s account, came with European entry into Subcontinental commercial networks, gathering momentum in the seventeenth century as Britain prevailed in the Anglo–Dutch wars and established a semi-monopoly over India’s external textile trade; by the mid-eighteenth century, he notes, cotton cloth constituted over 75 per cent of East India Company exports. It was shipped both to Europe, to satisfy increasing domestic consumption, and to Africa, where rulers and merchants often demanded Indian cotton cloth in exchange for slaves. The fabric ‘became entangled in a three-continent-spanning system’, in which ‘the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities (sugar and tobacco) for European consumers.’ In Beckert’s summary: ‘Europeans had invented a new way of organizing economic activity.’

Modest domestic cotton industries in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and France operated on the putting-out system, importing the raw material from the Ottoman Empire; but the cost of transportation was too high and, compared with silk, the price it fetched too low, for it to be profitable. Raw cotton only really entered global commerce in the late eighteenth century, with the industrial take-off in Lancashire. Beckert posits international competition in cotton textiles as the key driver for the Industrial Revolution: English manufacturers—often already linked into New World plantation networks and well-acquainted with the buoyancy of global markets—faced the problem of competing with high-quality yet cheap Indian cloth; the putting-out system was resistant to drives for higher productivity, while Lancashire wages in 1770 were some six times higher than those in India. This spurred the search for innovations to raise productivity: the flying shuttle (1733), spinning jenny (around 1763–64), water frame (1769), Crompton’s mule (1779). Watt’s steam engine (patented 1769) would give an enormous impetus to these developments, which were brought together in the factory system. As Beckert notes, hundreds of thousands of labourers were also looking for waged employment because they owned no land. Canals, turnpikes and refurbished ports helped British manufacturers bring their wares to market at home and overseas.

The rise of the cotton factory, powered by water or steam, created an explosion in demand for raw cotton, which Levantine and Caribbean producers struggled to meet—opening the way for cotton-growing on the slave plantations in North and South America. Up to this point, long-staple cotton came mainly from the islands and coastal enclaves on the Gulf and in South Carolina. From the mid-1790s, Eli Whitney’s ‘ginning machine’ enabled the short-staple ‘up-country’ cotton, grown inland, to be processed. The perfection of this device over a couple of decades set the stage for a massive increase in cotton cultivation in the Mississippi Valley and South West, itself a response to the major role of cotton textiles in European industrialization. Nearly half of the 12 million slaves shipped from Africa to the New World arrived after 1780; many of those who toiled on the cotton plantations would be supplied by a domestic us slave trade that remained vigorous up to the 1850s. By this time the us cotton crop, only a few thousand pounds in 1800, was soaring above 2 billion lbs, supplying two-thirds of us exports; some 67 per cent of the total crop was grown on land that had not been part of the us in 1800.

Those driven in the cotton fields were mercilessly whipped to keep pace with the industrial demand for raw cotton. Manufacturing productivity was greatly boosted by the harnessing of steam, and cotton proved better adapted to mechanization than wool, linen or other fibres. So long as supplies of raw cotton could be maintained, the flood of new industrial textiles found a market both at home and overseas. Growth thus reflected the strength of consumer demand. From the consumer’s standpoint, cotton had the great advantage that it was moth-proof, washable and comfortable next to the skin. Made into sheets, shirts, blouses, skirts, trousers, socks and underwear it united work and play, eros and hygiene. Farmers, artisans and wage-earners were drawn into ever-greater dependence on the market by their taste for slave-grown items (sugar and coffee as well as cotton). In the us, the so-called ‘market revolution’ of 1815–60 saw homespun cloth almost entirely displaced by the manufactured article, though cheap cotton or fustian shifts, ‘lowells’ or ‘lynsies’, were purchased by planters as ‘Negro clothing’.

The improved quality of the finished product allowed British exporters to find outlets in world markets and to build, as Beckert puts it, a global ‘cotton empire’ by combining the expropriated land of the Americas with the slave labour of the plantations and the waged labour of European workers, to sell cotton textiles to African slave traders and Indian or Chinese farmers—all this made necessary because Europe still did not produce raw cotton. In the first instance, Britain used its maritime and industrial power to penetrate, and for a while monopolize, overseas markets. Fiscal credibility and a ready market for public bonds enabled London to keep its allies (Austria, Prussia, Russia) in the field against Napoleon by paying them massive subsidies, while British industrial prowess helped to deliver results once peace was negotiated. Defeat in the War of American Independence and the ‘War of 1812’ proved only temporary dampeners to British trade, which, after momentary disruption, soon grew even larger than before, thanks to the vigour of English demand for American cotton and American demand for English manufactures. Nevertheless for Britain, the remarkable buoyancy of the cotton market was helped by the fact that domestic and overseas demand often grew in a complementary way. The global markets opened up by the industrial revolutions proved able to absorb much of the new output. But while overseas appetite for English cottons was keen, this trade suffered from two drawbacks: first, merchants and manufacturers had to be very patient with overseas customers as they would not get paid for a year or more, and might have to accept discounts on what they were owed; second, major markets could suddenly be closed by hostilities, blockades and embargoes, as happened during the wars with France and the United States. In these periods the home market became an essential lifeline, with the added advantage that cash from domestic sales was always far more rapidly realized.

With its new industries in the ascendant, Britain’s rulers became convinced exponents of an ‘empire of free trade’. Though still wielding prohibitions against India, Britain used its maritime strength to open markets to its own traders and manufacturers. Beckert unearths a choice specimen of British imperial thinking on the us ‘Louisiana Purchase’ of 1803, when Bonaparte, who had expensive war plans, demanded $15 million to cede this enormous territory to the United States. The Jefferson Administration was at a low financial ebb and had to approach the London banker Thomas Baring for a loan. Anxious to stay on the right side of his government, Baring arranged a meeting with the Prime Minister: ‘Sunday June 19th; saw Mr Addington at Richmond Park . . . He appears to consider Louisiana in the hands of America as an additional means for the vent of our manufactures & Co. in preference to France, besides other motives we did not discuss of a political nature.’ (On the latter, Addington had earlier written to the us Ambassador in London: ‘The interest of [our] two governments is absolutely the same: the destruction of Jacobinism and above all that of the blacks.’) Imperial economic diplomacy was backed by the City of London, with its sophisticated financial instruments and reservoirs of capital. This complex reflected the fact that capitalism had been around for a long time, and that its banks and partnerships knew how to direct capital to where it would get the best return. The global trade in plantation goods underwrote much capitalist activity. Beckert’s discussions of the respective role of factors, brokers, import and export merchants, bankers and ‘bills of lading’ help to clarify this and make it clear that us capitalism and its transportation networks owed a special debt to slave-grown cotton.

The antebellum us South was the land of industrial slavery par excellence, with some 2 million slaves toiling to enable the ‘Lords of the Lash’ to keep the voracious ‘Lords of the Loom’ well supplied with the fluffy white fibre. Greater attention to product quality came with the introduction of standard grades. Planters searched out higher-yielding varieties and shared technical knowledge in the pages of magazines such as De Bow’s. The processed raw cotton sped to market on steamboats and railroads. The whip was still used to enforce an intense and implacable pace, but now mass-produced stop-watches lent an extra precision to the overseer’s calculation of output norms. Slavery became inseparable from the history of cotton partly because factory mechanization created a huge pressure on the supply of labour needed to keep the raw material flowing into the mills. Attempts were made to mechanize the harvest, but it proved extraordinarily difficult for a machine to equal the precision and coordination of the human eye, brain and hand (mechanization had to await the exigencies and raised wages of the Second World War). The slave regime harnessed this creativity through a potent mixture of vicious punishments and petty incentives. Like American planters, English cotton manufacturers preferred a tethered labour force, one that could be beaten when recalcitrant, paid with company tokens and held to lengthy contracts, with docking of pay for the slightest misdemeanor. At a certain point the condition of the enslaved and of the wage worker seemed quite close, as mortality rates in the manufacturing districts of Leeds approached those on a Jamaica plantation.

A central thesis of the book is that the new cotton industrialists both needed and distrusted the state. For if the state alone could gain access to overseas markets, supply essential public services, regulate trading conditions and ensure the proletarianization of labour via laws on vagrancy, property, contract and land enclosure, it also had to secure consent to the necessary taxation; concessions to attract the more respectable working men were therefore advisable. Beckert argues that the reforming wing of the bourgeoisie soon found that it needed this support, and therefore had to accept limits to the length of the working day, or by-laws preventing employers from beating their workers, paying wages in scrip or tokens, or undercutting adult by child labour. But the battles to construct this state also furnished scope for some resistance and struggle. The appearance of working-class anti-slavery movements in the 1780s and 1820s–30s helped to target employers’ abuses. At this point in Beckert’s argument there is an overlap with Edward Thompson’s concerns in The Making of the English Working Class or Customs in Common. The new politics of industrial capitalism would range from the mass trials of Luddites to the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association and the Mule Spinners’ Union of Fall River.

Empire of Cotton argues that the metropolitan bourgeoisie, drawn into political life, espoused a moderate programme of market regulation and state-supported infrastructure. In the us, Northern industrial capitalists forged a coalition with commercial farmers, winning increasing support from the large merchant cotton traders previously allied to Southern planters. This reform current promoted a ‘free labour’ ideology and challenged slaveholder control of the state, provoking fear in their ranks—and, eventually, the South’s failed bid to secede. Beckert explains how the us Civil War and Reconstruction triggered a global shift in cotton production. The high prices of the war years stimulated attempts to foster cotton cultivation for the world market in India, Egypt and Brazil. This required a radical transformation of social life in these territories, ripping countless people out of the familiar routines of subsistence agriculture and setting them to work in the cotton fields. Long-established systems of communal land ownership were uprooted by state intervention. For Beckert, the availability of a pool of cheap labour with few if any rights was one of the essential preconditions for large-scale cotton production: Australia’s climate and geography should have been ideal, but its white settler population could not supply the appropriate labour force.

us planters and their British clients were pessimistic about the future of the business after emancipation, fearing that black labourers would be too assertive for their needs. As Beckert shows, however, us cotton production was successfully reorganized over the next few decades. The most radical phase of Reconstruction gave way to a conservative backlash as African Americans were stripped of voting rights and subjected to the Jim Crow regime. Black sharecroppers were pushed back into dependence on the big Southern landowners, their role in production complemented by that of white yeoman farmers in the upper South and by the extensive use of convict labour; the shadow of the noose continued to hang over this reconfigured system of production. Cotton farming expanded into Texas, where production increased tenfold between 1860 and 1920. The anticipated disaster never materialized: ‘By 1891 sharecroppers, family farmers, and plantation owners in the United States grew twice as much cotton as in 1861 and supplied 81 per cent of the British, 66 per cent of the French, and 61 per cent of the German market.’

But American market dominance was a source of anxiety for emerging cotton-manufacturing powers like Germany and Japan—especially as us mills were now consuming a growing proportion of the crop: 33 per cent in the 1870s, rising to 50 per cent after 1900. Beckert argues that the quest for raw-material independence—the late nineteenth-century ‘cotton rush’—was a key driver of imperial expansion. After 1865, Tsarist Russia’s ‘cotton colonies’ in Central Asia made it the world’s fifth largest producer, after the us, India, China and Egypt. Japanese cotton growers in Korea preceded the 1910 occupation, production there expanding from 37 million to 165 million lbs between 1904 and 1920. In the early 1900s, cotton plantations spread across German East Africa; industrialists spoke of a global Baumwollkulturkampf. Between 1860 and 1920, 55 million acres of land in Africa, Asia and the Americas were newly planted with the crop, the vast majority of it having only just come under the control of the colonial powers. Imperial might was also deployed to kick down the doors to free trade, and to eliminate native cotton manufacturing (an explicit goal of British colonial policy, as Beckert makes clear). The consequences of replacing subsistence farming with cotton production for the Empire could be horrifying for the local population: according to The Lancet, Indian famine deaths in the last decade of the nineteenth century totalled 19 million, heavily concentrated in the areas where cotton growing had been imposed by the British.

For Beckert, the twentieth century marks the rise of the global South at the expense of cotton production in Europe and North America. Worker militancy raised Northern wages and cut working hours; Southern states and capitalists invested heavily in catch-up cotton industrialization. A string of energetic entrepreneurs, industrialists and ideologues had cleared the way by modernizing Asian textile production—men like Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, Ambalal Sakarlal Desai, Narottam Morajee and Tal’at Harb (India), Shikusawa Eiichi and Ito Hirobumi (Japan), or Zhang Jian (China). But the real breakthrough for new suppliers had to await decolonization and the late twentieth century. Beckert presents state intervention as a key variable, along with the supply of cheap labour. Japanese companies could stride forward because they had the firm backing of their own government. Under the Raj, on the other hand, Indian producers found their businesses cramped by the colonial state, which gave priority to the metropolis, and thus became more sympathetic to Congress and its push for statehood. In order to achieve this goal, however, India’s nascent bourgeoisie had to mobilize its labouring masses, rural and urban, and could not press on them as heavily as it would have liked after independence.

The final, decisive boost to global cotton production came from China and the other rising economies of South and East Asia. Today, Chinese factories contain nearly half of the world’s looms and spindles, working up 43 per cent of the global cotton harvest, while Northern cotton mills are refitted as chic loft spaces or heritage museums. Cotton cultivation lingers on in the us and some pockets of Europe, thanks to massive state subsidies, but China and India lead the way in this field, too, respectively producing 29 and 21 per cent of the global crop. The empire of cotton’s ‘globe-spanning network’, connecting growers, manufacturers and consumers, has been reconfigured yet again since the 1970s: in place of merchants or manufacturers, massive retailers like Walmart now dominate commodity chains, focusing on finished apparel rather than raw cotton, yarn or cloth. And though Beckert makes little of it, petroleum-based synthetic fibre has been outpacing cotton since the 1990s; current annual output is double that of ‘white gold’.

Empire of Cotton is a remarkable achievement as a wide-angle account of the vital role of cotton in the history of global capitalism, abundantly documented, vividly illustrated, and animated by a powerful indignation. In all these respects, it deserves the praise it has received in the mainstream and financial press—commended by the Economist, Wall Street Journal and New York Times—and in the academy. There are topics to which Beckert could have given more attention: the workings of race, the mechanization of cotton-picking, and the awesome scope of the clothing revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beckert has little to say about the internal workings of the slave plantation, while Riello’s account of Indian cotton in The Fabric that Made the Modern World is far the richer. But in a work on such a vast topic, some unevenness of coverage was inevitable. A more regrettable omission is the consistent lack of statistical data giving us the absolute size and value of the global cotton crop or world output of textiles, not to speak of their regional distribution, or increases in the productivity of either. Empire of Cotton is embellished with scores of illustrations, large and small, inserted within the text, and a lesser number of visually striking graphs and bar-charts, designed to make it accessible to a broad public. Old-fashioned tables, however, are eschewed throughout. This absence involves more than simply tactical presentation; it undermines the economic argument, wherever this relates to changing magnitudes across time or between regions. Looking at a graph of the cotton harvest shooting up, one can see the dramatic growth, but one has to guess whether it is, say, 2.4 or 2.3 million lbs of cotton in 1860. Since the book will undoubtedly become an essential reference point for anyone interested in the history of cotton—or even just modern economic history—one can only hope that the data behind the graphs will be made available at some future date.

A more significant limitation is Beckert’s cavalier treatment of the literature on the concept that is his central theme. Not only does he offer no definition of capitalism, but his references to those who have written on its nature or its history are puzzling, to say the least. In the Introduction, the most germane passage dismisses the explanations of ‘all too many observers’ as irrelevant, flawed or plain wrong, with a note at the back of the book listing these observers as Jared Diamond, David Landes, Niall Ferguson, Robert Brenner and Edward Thompson. No attempt is made to differentiate—or substantiate—this conglomeration. Later we are told that Eric Hobsbawm described the whole twentieth century as the ‘age of catastrophe’. Riello’s handling of the broader critical literature is, by comparison, meticulous and open-minded. Good historians often have little interest in theory; but in the case of Empire of Cotton, the handling of concepts comes at a cost to the analytic structure of the book—its aim to supply, in its subtitle’s words, ‘a new history of global capitalism’.

Here Beckert’s central move is to introduce a concept of his own, ‘war capitalism’, as the key that unlocked the emergence of industrial capitalism; Empire of Cotton is built around a contrast between the two, with the first the ‘foundation’ of the second. ‘War capitalism’ is hazily defined as a combination of the colonial expropriation of indigenous lands, plantation slavery, armed trade, imperial expansion and ‘the assertion of sovereignty over people and land by entrepreneurs’, unfolding ‘in a constantly shifting set of places embedded within constantly changing relations’. The result is a systematic confusion, involving three notable errors. First, Beckert inflates the term ‘war’ beyond any defensible meaning by equating it with coercion or violence of any kind. What it most frequently signifies in his account is the use of slavery to grow cotton—a form of coerced labour extracted by the use of violence, but not warfare. That was employed within Africa to capture slaves for sale to European traders and Arab rulers, by societies that could hardly be called capitalist; military force was also used to crush major revolts against slavery in the New World, though unsuccessfully in Haiti. But it did not define slavery itself. The us went to war against Mexico to seize land, but it proved an apple of discord between the sections, eventually helping to provoke a war that turned against slavery. Slaveholders in the Americas generally fared much better in peace than in war. Still less do compulsory cultivation of cotton, as in Egypt, tax pressure to convert peasants to it, as in India, or child labour in textile factories, as in England, warrant description as forms of warfare. In Beckert’s repertoire of violence and exploitation, only colonial conquest and seizure of land involved military use of force.

There were, of course, plenty of wars in the early modern period in Europe. But these were typically inter-feudal conflicts, pitting one absolutist state against another for control of territory. Eventually these spilled over into wars on the high seas over commodities or colonies outside Europe, in which commercial aims loomed larger—including profits from control of the slave trade. But these conflicts became wars of capital only where the states and societies fighting them were already domestically well advanced towards capitalism, on the basis of internal transformations that had little to do with external warfare. Overlooked by Beckert, but genuinely ‘foundational’ for both merchant and industrial capitalism, was agrarian capitalism—led by the two states which waged the first true commercial wars of the seventeenth century, England and Holland.

That violence in one form or another was inseparable from the emergence of capitalism into the modern world is well established: enclosure, slavery, piracy, indentured labour, colonial greed and aggression of every kind, are familiar to anyone with an interest in the history of capitalism. Marx’s account of primitive accumulation, unmentioned by Beckert, supplies their inventory. But to amalgamate all of these into ‘war’, and elevate war into the ‘foundation’ of industry is rhetoric, not historical argument. The history of capitalism is now increasingly taught as a subject, at least in American universities—a reflection of a welcome change in atmosphere since 2008. The risk remains of it becoming a sub-field within cultural studies, overly driven by fashion, in which certain names, themes and concepts are occluded. That of ‘primitive accumulation’ would be a case in point, while even the Wall Street Journal expressed surprise that Friedrich Engels was absent from a world history of cotton. Yet Beckert’s commitments are in plain view when he explores the construction of the notion of the ‘free worker’ through struggles for the eight-hour day and against child labour, for wages and against company cheques, for health and safety against company goons and Pinkerton men. Through his account of such movements—and the cycle of struggle, gains, outsourcing, losses, recovery—Beckert plots a global logic of class formation and struggle. His return to the neglected and unfashionable concerns of labour history invites us to explore the complex interweaving of struggles over labour rights, suffrage, race, gender and slavery, and over decolonization and economic growth.  This leads him to a more optimistic conclusion than one might have expected: ‘within the larger story of domination and exploitation, sits a parallel story of liberation and creativity . . . The human capacity to organize our efforts in ever more productive ways should give us hope.’

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Category : Capitalism / Slavery

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