cotton cover

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014 (615pp. $35)

These days cotton as a capitalist commodity traded globally reveals itself mostly as a sales channel to WalMart and other massive retailers, branded and organized world-wide by huge “apparel” companies like the American giant Gap (“Get together”), the Chinese Meters/bonwe (“Be different”), and the German Adidas (“Adidas is all in”). Dominating the supply chain from huge agribusiness cotton fields in far-flung territories like the out-back of Brazil and the arid steppes of Uzbekistan where labor is strapped to the land in wage-and-contract schemes not that much different from old-fashioned slavery, and backed by massive state power that runs across borders and includes the financial capitals of London and New York, cotton capitalism still re-capitulates the older patterns: Transform the countryside, dominate labor, buy and sell on future delivery contracts, and keep a wary eye out for the next opportunity. If a grower, factor, or shipper doesn’t like what WalMart offers, well too bad.

As Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard, Sven Beckert has written widely on the economic, social and political history of capitalism, and is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. His new book, “Empire of Cotton” is the epitome of modern historiography—a marvel of meticulous scholarship, continually insightful, detailed but not conflated, and wonderfully entertaining. As a synthesis, “Empire of Cotton” stands with Fernand Braudel’s histories of European finance and capitalism, and Polyani’s “The Great Transformation” as epics, profound roundups of how our modern world was created on the backs of peasants and native people; through the theft or appropriation of aboriginal land; and how the merchants, shippers, traders, factors, colonialists, military cadres and diplomats created, first, the mercantilist war capitalism that enslaved millions, and finally the industrial capitalism that made most of us wage-slaves and turned field slaves into sharecroppers or itinerant laborers.

Evidence of cotton’s essential role in early society is present in foundational myths and sacred texts worldwide. In Hindu scripture, cotton appears prominently. People in West Africa attributed the rise of spinning to a spider God and the Navajo believed that Begochiddy, one of the four sons of Ray of Sunlight and Daylight, had created and planted cotton after making the mountains and insects. Thereafter, the Navajos believed that if you rubbed a spider’s web on a baby girl’s hand and arm, she would become a weaver, and her arms would not tire. In China, Ming dynasty ideology taught that cotton clothing distinguished humans from beasts, and among humans, “distinguished between rulers and the ruled.” The plant itself is twenty million years old, give or take, though a few species, including G.hirsutum cultivars, now make up about 90 percent of the world’s cotton crop. Over five thousand years of human history, our forebears transformed the cotton plant from an undisciplined shrub or small tree with nearly impermeable seeds sparsely covered with seed hairs, into short, compact annualized plants with copious amounts of long, white lint borne on large seeds that germinate readily. Cotton weaving is an ancient art, with archaeological traces at Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus valley dating to between 3250 and 5000 BCE.

For most of that history, cotton was a part of subsistence life on small plots, grown by families, clans or tribes. Peasants in what is today India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, planted cotton between their rows of corn and other foods, cultivated it, and spun it to thread from which they wove cotton clothes for their own use, or for limited barter and trade. They harvested it by hand, employed a roller gin to remove the seeds, removed dirt and knots with a wooden tool, and spun the fiber on a distaff and spindle into thread, then wove the thread into fabric using looms hung between trees.

This ancient and venerable world—mostly free, self-determining, and autonomous, in a few short centuries was overturned by men and machines located mostly in Liverpool, England. The old world—discontinuous, multifocal, and horizontal, became an integrated, centralized and hierarchical empire of cotton, ruled over by twenty or thirty merchant-capitalists who took charge of global trading networks, technology, finance and land. In the period between 1780 or so and 1865, Liverpool came to control 70% of the cotton in the world, owning land, buying crops on contract, enslaving peoples, utilizing state power through war and conquest, and finally re-selling cotton cloth to peoples who had previously made it themselves, while reducing those same people to dependents, slaves or serfs.

Nowhere is this reverse symbiosis more prominent than in the relationship between Liverpool and the American South. In a way, American independence was a blessing for Liverpool, as it allowed southern planters to own human beings as commodities, and to use them to grow cotton, a notoriously labor-intensive enterprise. Borrowing money against human collateral, using British factors to raise capital, make loans on land and slaves, and ultimately to sell and ship cotton to England, American slave-holders made huge profits by delivering massive quantities of long staple cotton that fed the “Satanic mills” of Lancashire. By the early or mid 19th century, Liverpool had reduced Indian peasants to wage-slaves as well, and destroyed their ancient village life, leaving millions subject to famine and insecurity.

“The Empire of Cotton” is crowded with detail, swarming with vision, and broad in scope. It ends around 1963, the year the Beatles were first heard in the United States, the year that Martin Luther King dared dream that “one day even Mississippi…will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” In that year, Liverpool closed down its Cotton Exchange Building on Old Hall Street, sold the furniture and paintings, and auctioned off all the world weather maps that had graced its walls. The empire of cotton was moving back to Asia, headed towards China where it resides today in a new incarnation, as huge, monolithic, heedless and domineering as ever.

Sven Beckert has written a classic of world history. Its maps, charts, diagrams and vintage photographs are both vivid and apposite. Beautiful to hold and behold, it is a book for the ages. If you’re a reader who has the will to learn how it all “got this way” (why huge companies dominate a market, why everything is made in China, why some countries remain poor, why famine can still kill millions, why there are so many billionaires, why WalMart pays such bad wages), “Empire of Cotton” has many of the answers.