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King Cotton

Mary Jones

Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, by Sven Beckert, Penguin, 640 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0375713965

In Empire of Cotton Sven Beckert reaps the dividends of formidable intellectual labour within archives and across continents. The tenacity of his enterprise has won him significant awards ‑ including the Philip Taft Prize for the Best Book in Labour History – earning him a place as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Now Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard, he has given shape – a weft and a warp ‑ to a new history of global capitalism, emerging from the raw material of an ancient plant, ichcatl, that is cotton.

In charting a course to unpack complexity he has earned his place as a global historian, mapping a critical history of the longue durée. This analysis of the confluence of factors born of “capturing the biological bounty of an ancient plant” combines, in an accessible analysis of sources, the story of an empire of cotton where merchants and entrepreneurs, statesmen and the machinery of state combined “imperial expansion and slave labour with new machines and wage workers”. In so doing, they “exploded the disparate worlds of cotton that had existed for millennia” and created a new economic order.

Before 1780, the foundations of this disparate world were largely household-based across the Indian continent and in China, at the close of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), where agricultural labour produced an estimated twenty million bales of cotton cloth each year; after 1780, all had changed as the empires of Europe crossed the globe to stake a lucrative claim. Beckert unpacks the complexity that “united the power of capital and the power of the state to forge, often violently, a global production complex”. Defining the first “great innovation” of his analysis as War Capitalism, he considers in disquieting detail the process whereby the last became first in this Empire of Cotton, citing the documented record of “slavery, the expropriation of indigenous peoples, imperial expansion, armed trade and the asserting of sovereignty over people and land by entrepreneurs”.

Cotton is a plant that biologists suggest has grown on the earth for ten to twenty million years, a “soft ball” with morphological plasticity that adapts to many different environments and which, across time, and with human intervention, was shaped into a fibre for the production of textiles. The evidence suggests that spinning flax and grasses emerged thirty thousand years ago and expanded twelve thousand years ago as humans began to settle. In contrast to claims residing in patents and copyrights, Beckert suggests that a range of methods for labour and technology combining to transform plant fibres into forms of clothing “were invented independently in various parts of the world”. Starting out in Europe in the neolithic era, joined by wool from animals in the Bronze Age, a course is charted covering the Middle East and North Africa from around 700 BC; in the same period Chinese peasants and artisans manufactured ramie and silk. Beckert pinpoints the references to cotton in foundation myths and texts, expressed in the characteristics of a range of deities.

The genesis of spinning and weaving can be traced to the Indus valley, and cloth fragments have been found in Pakistan that date from between 3250 and 2750 BC. People from the territories of what are now India, Paakistan and Bangladesh are identified as the leading cotton manufacturers, with Herodotus (484-425 BC) cited as having remarked on the quality of such cloth. These producers were not alone – long before the European empires landed in the “New World”, cotton was ubiquitous in the Americas, the Caribbean, Peru and elsewhere. Native Americans, in what became the land mass of the United States, were cotton producers as early as 300BC.

Cotton was important for clothing but also as a medium of exchange, for payment of taxes and for peasant farmers in liege to a lord, with “an estimated 116 million pounds of cotton … produced annually in pre-Columbian Mexico, equaling the cotton crop of the United States in 1816”. This “industry”, however, remained household-based, with cotton planted “in a delicate equilibrium with other crops”. Subsistence farming combined the growing of the “soft ball” alongside food crops such as beans, maize, sorghum, rice, wheat and millet. Coupled with this interspersing of crops for food with the cultivation of cotton, a division of labour emerged that overwhelmingly placed women as weavers, and often spinners. In some cultures, women were buried with their spinning tools – indicative of woman’s role in production and reminiscent of the value placed, under early Irish law, on the embroidery needle which a woman “on behalf of another”, could use as a pledge.

The soft ball of cotton was cleaned, seeds removed, combed and spun using a “wooden spindle and a primitive loom”. The loom consisted of “two sticks attached by the warp thread, one stick hanging from the tree and the other stretched using the weaver’s own body. The weft was then woven between the warps to produce cloth.” The cloth might be dyed – using indigo and cochineal – part used as homespun, with the remainder dispatched to a ruler by the Aztecs, the Nubians, and by legions of others. Beckert places the plant, and later the commodity, as being “present at the birth of political economy”. It was, he argues, this cultivated raw material that was the trigger for the demand for land expansion and for the mass mobilisation of human labour.

Until the nineteenth century, the use of cotton remained local and its production domestic. It became a proto-currency in tandem with its role as an item of trade. Beckert evokes the quiet growth of trade along the Ganges and the Yangtze as cotton was shipped to other centres, where rulers demanded tribute, or where local networks of markets and agents ensured local knowledge remained paramount in securing its transformation, and distribution, from cotton plant to cloth. With India at the centre – trading with the Roman empire, southeast Asia, China, the Arab world and North and East Africa – “Indian cottons criss-crossed South Asia on the backs of people and bullocks … crossed the seas in Arab dhows, traversed the great Arabian Desert to Aleppo on the backs of camels, moved down the Nile to the great cotton mart of Cairo, and filled the bottoms of junks on their way to Java.” By the nineteenth century cotton had, in effect, gone global.

As trade and demand grew, two factors are noteworthy. First, there was reluctance across the bulk of these lands, and amongst subsistence farmers and peasant households, to move towards monoculture – security of food crops was paramount; cotton was for domestic use and where a surplus was generated, for trade or for tribute. As “commodity” demand grew, however, Beckert notes, “cotton took its first tentative steps out of the home”, laying the foundation for a second critical development. Cotton workshops emerged, professional weavers became directly linked to agents, and an element of coercion was absorbed into supervision as subsistence weavers, now more often men than women, moved away from the cultivation of their own crop and into collective enterprises such as the “urban loom houses” in China. This development, and its timeline, was uneven. In Timbuktu in the 1590s, “twenty-six cotton-producing workshops plied their trade, each with fifty or more workers”. Beckert offers an extensive tapestry of such developments. Production for subsistence and production for sale were, henceforth, distinguished both by changes in the place of production – from home to workshop – and by the use of labour exclusively for production of a commodity for sale. Such change was met, and was fostered by, a new feature of global commerce – “putting-out networks held together by merchant capital”.

Cotton had two “labour-intensive” stages – the first in the field, where it flourished; the other in the factory, where, in time, it foundered. Unlike sugar, which Beckert claims failed to produce an industrial proletariat, and tobacco, which did not result in the rise of massive factories, cotton, he suggests, did both. The tobacco industry in Ireland moved from proto-industry largely using rural-based labour towards a fully factory-based industry deploying an industrial proletariat, and perhaps a more significant research commitment to Irish labour history might expand on the place of such Irish industries within the global imperial context. Beckert’s claims to the primacy of cotton as a commodity, using its “biography” as an analytical tool, rests on the part it played as it “wove continents together”. He suggests, with impressive authority, that cotton is the “key to understanding the modern world, the great inequalities that characterize it, the long history of globalization and the ever-changing political economy of capitalism”.

Until the late twelfth century, cotton remained exotic in a Europe that continued to favour linen and wool, while advances in technology, irrigation, seeds and agronomy flourished elsewhere. Venice served as the first European entrepôt and was crucial in the few hundred years of the existence of the North Italian industry, itself serving as “a harbinger of the wedge that European states and capitalists would later drive into the heart of the ancient cotton centres”. But the world moved slowly, and appropriation of technology from the Islamic world, in turn appropriated from China and India as originators of the basic tools of this trade, fostered few innovations, although productivity increased. The spinning wheel displaced the hand spindles used by Europeans, Americans and Africans, “tripling productivity”. Changes in looms based on the primitive yet effective technology used in subsistence production in India, China et al, saw the emergence of the “horizontal treadle loom”, leading to the production, at greater speed, of fine textiles. The evidence is clear – all the technology of this production process, from spinning on small wooden wheels to the construction of the basic wooden frame loom, “came to Europe from India or China or the Islamic world”. World production continued to be centred in India, and “no significant technological or organizational departures characterized the European industry” at this time.

As with Italy in the twelfth century, Germany in the fifteenth century imported raw cotton or cotton cloth from the eastern Mediterranean, but the nature of development differed. The Northern Italian merchants faced city states that demanded taxes, the claims of organised urban weavers skilled in the production of wool and linen, and restrictions imposed by guilds. Germany had access to cheap, largely rural labour and by the fifteenth century had captured markets in Spain, the Netherlands, the Baltic, England and eastern and northern Europe. Two factors of deep import to the merchant classes were clearly coming into play in the European context: the role of the state and the availability of labour.

Access to labour was critical – weaving and spinning remained rural occupations, funded by merchants using agents/early entrepreneurs with knowledge of local networks, as had been characteristic of the trade in India. Beckert charts the impact in Europe of the Thirty Years War, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the decline of the Italian and German industries and the rise of the English merchants. What was now evident to all involved in the European trade was that raw cotton and potential markets were across oceans, that skilled labour was acquiring protection as city states entered negotiation with the powerful city guilds and that the role of the state and the rise of state power would be fundamental to the imperative to expand available land and markets, and to facilitate the “subjugation of peoples” – in effect, the securing of a compliant and low cost workforce.

Across the globe, cotton fabrics were prized but there was little evidence of a significant shift in cold countries away from wool and linen. For two hundred years, little changed the dominance of India and China in the story of cotton. But lessons had been learned and the appetite of European states for the use of force to challenge global networks heralded the dawn of a new and very bloody era.

The muscle of armed trade enabled the creation of a complex, Eurocentric maritime trade web; the forging of a military-fiscal state allowed for the projection of power into the far-flung corners of the world; the invention of financial instruments – from maritime insurance to bills of lading – allowed for the transfer of capital and goods over long distances; the development of a legal system gave a modicum of security to global investments …

Europeans stood at the dawn of dominance of an old trade that had outflanked European merchants and had endured for millennia, using subsistence labour and the art of cultivating slowly expanding markets. What was new was the willingness of the rulers of the imperial European states to use force in the expropriation of distant lands, and to invade, enslave and deport the peoples of Africa to sow the seeds of change in the plantations of imperial colonies. They would do so in the service of merchants and the investors of capital. The role of the state and the rolling out of state power marked what Beckert terms the “great divergence” – the point where “the many worlds of cotton became a European-centred empire of cotton”, and where the relationship between the state and capital came into powerful play.

Empires involved the recasting of global rather than just national connections. In the late fifteenth century Columbus’s voyage facilitated the first land grab, the attack on the Aztecs and the expansion of the territorial claims of Spain into the Americas. By the mid-sixteenth century Portugal had claimed Brazil; in the early seventeenth century, France claimed Quebec, Louisiana and islands across the Caribbean, followed closely by the English aiming at North America and the Caribbean. Control by European empires of such vast swathes of land was a pre-condition for imposing, in the “New World” and elsewhere, a monoculture of cotton growing. Global chess play followed the land grabs – outposts and stock companies in pursuit of spices, and of cotton. In time, and with mercantile trade claims advanced with a backdrop of state force, the Indian textile trade would fall into British hands.

The East India Company in the 1620s had “imported an estimated fifty thousand pieces of cotton goods into Britain” and by 1766 these constituted more than seventy-five per cent of the company’s exports from the subcontinent. The power of Empires, in India and elsewhere, was secured in cities and ended in ports. English merchants were dependent upon local traders, the banias, who fostered networks of subsistence farmers and of weavers. The detail of each transaction was recorded in leather-bound books, now an archival source consulted by Beckert, which confirm the dependence of British India upon indigenous traders who addressed – often through dispatches from England – the market demand for specific cloth and who advanced credit, on behalf of English merchants, fulfilling contracts emanating from African and European markets. This ensured that the demand from such markets was met, but the role of the indigenous trader protected the practice of the farmers and weavers, with the rhythms, price and methods of production of cloth rooted in local hands and networks for over two centuries. Notable, by the late eighteenth century, however, was “the insertion of armed European merchants into the Asian trade” and elsewhere.

Empire-building was founded, and secured for a significant period, with European settlers on plantations purchased or gifted from “crown land” in land-rich climes. From the growing of sugar and tobacco, rice and spices to indigo, the plantations fuelled exports to Europe and addressed, as systematically as expropriation had addressed the ambition for land, the need for and control of labour. In this European expansion, chartered companies such as the East India Company, and private capital “asserted sovereignty over lands and people”. Between 1500 and 1800, “more than 8 million men and women were transported from Africa to the Americas”, manacled as ballast to the holds of merchant ships, to be sold to the highest bidder as slaves. The agreement reached with local African chiefs, rewarding their willingness “to hunt for labour”, involved an exchange rooted in irony as payment – the “trade” of Indian woven textiles in exchange for slaves. This “coercive mercantile presence” fuelled massive plantation agriculture, as armed “privateering capitalists” stood as the symbol for European domination. Armed state forces, occupying forts and with a focus on the securing of ports, did not directly govern the acquisition of land and labour but exercised power through the introduction of legislation to control colonial trade and maritime law, underpinned by the implicit, and often explicit, threat from the British state – controlling the most significant maritime force of the era – of armed coercion should resistance become significant. The European empires “provided private actors with … the leeway to forge new modes of trade and production”. At the heart of the system that combined capital and state power, forming a complex web of commerce across the globe, was slavery.  

It is Sven Beckert’s fully documented claim that, “three moves – imperial expansion, expropriation, and slavery – became central to the forging of a new global economic order and eventually the emergence of capitalism”. At the core of this trinity of interests and outcomes under war capitalism is slavery, with coercion as a direct link to the cultivation by slaves of raw cotton, to the fortunes of slave owners, to the manufacture of cotton textiles across Europe, and. in England, to cotton manufacture and the foundations of the industrial revolution. The lack of access to raw material – the cotton plant ichcatl – had demanded imports of the fibre into Europe from a wide range of sources. From the twelfth century, these had come through the trade routes of the Ottoman Empire, from places such as Macedonia and Thessalonica, in trade that constituted twenty-five per cent of all British imports between 1700 and 1745. With the exception of the West Indies, European merchants were only tangentially involved in the cultivation of cotton, were still dependent upon local agents and networks, and even prosperous merchants lacked the massive resources to advance capital to expand and secure control of such cultivation. As demand grew in Europe, these individual and local elements of control did not sit comfortably with expansionist politics: monopoly of markets was seen by merchants as the key to their future progress. European traders advanced on colonial territories not just as traders but, increasingly, as rulers, as the European imperial states “shared sovereignty over territory and people with private entrepreneurs” such as the East India Company.

The Indian banias were eased out of their critical role by the appointment of Indian “agents” linked to the payroll of the East India Company. Europeans, with the company agents advancing credit on behalf of the company rather than as proxy for individual merchants, entered the local credit market. Company agents advanced credit, set the terms of production and schedules, and by virtue of a creeping monopoly, lowered prices for cloth. New regulations tied weavers to the company and reduced their ability to sell cloth in local and established markets. The company, in seeking to achieve these ends, introduced violent coercion methods into relations with skilled weavers – prompting resistance by weavers. Berkert details the exercise of coercion and resistance, the curtailing, but never the crushing, of imperial dominance. Commerce continued to expand, but grew complicated. The demand for trade in slaves from Africa to work plantation agriculture in the Americas accelerated the demand for Indian cloth, the “currency” acceptable to the African chiefs in plying the trade in their people. New markets for cotton fabrics in Europe combined with this increased demand, adding to the accumulation of mercantile wealth and to “Europe’s appropriation of relevant technologies from Asia”. The case of what Beckert suggests might be considered “one of history’s most dramatic instances of industrial espionage” is unpacked in some detail: the plundering, in the wake of close observation, followed swiftly by a reproducing of the methods, of Indian techniques of, for example, woodblock printing and the production of chintz.

European aspirations to cultivate European cotton increased as the coffers filled. A lucrative industry, fuelled by Indian cotton production, the expropriation of land and the steady enslavement of African men, women and children became instrumental in the building of strong European states with a confluence of the interests of merchant capital and the deployment of state power to further those interests. The joint venture of private capital and robust states “created a new economic order”, a transition from an older world – “discontinuous, multifocal, horizontal” and movement towards an “integrated, centralized and hierarchical empire of cotton”.

In 1784 an experiment conducted on the banks of the Bollin river, in a small factory in the hills around Manchester, pulled together the threads that were under the control of the British merchants. Samuel Greg, motivated by his need for cotton goods to deploy in slave exchange, and to clothe his own complement of slaves on the island of Dominica, sought to replace the imports of Indian-produced cotton goods by English domestic production for these and for wider international markets. He whetted his entrepreneurial skills in experiments, anticipated by Arkwright’s invention of the water frame in 1769, with yarn-spinning looms driven not by human hand but powered by the weight of falling water driving looms born of Asian technology but now adapted to exploit local resources. Such resources included his existing workforce, “from the valleys, hills and orphanages of Cheshire and nearby Lancashire”, the skills embedded in “machines … recently invented … in nearby towns and cities”, and “a sleepy stream”. Production for export ‑ to fuel the slave trade, to clothe his own slaves and the slaves of others, and to “cater to consumers in continental Europe” ‑ was possible, Beckert argues, in large part because British merchants had long dominated such markets. Not all merchants reaped the dividends of the slave trade, nor did all fortunes invested in manufacturing and innovation rest on accumulation emanating from colonial expropriation, but slavery was endemic in both Christian and Muslim Mediterranean communities, with the trading ships of both Ottoman and Christian nations powered by slave labour (see Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire).

By the late eighteenth century Manchester had “filled with mills, country towns turned into cities, and tens of thousands of people moved from farms into factories”, a “legacy of three centuries of recasting of the worlds of cotton”. Production in the “heyday of the Industrial Revolution between 1780-1815” within these noise-filled mills, channelling water power and the skills of early wage workers still failed, however, to match “the volume and the quality of Asian, Latin American, and African spinners and weavers”. The industrial combining of water and machines was followed by the development of steam-driven power, by “relentless innovation, animated wage workers … significant capital accumulation and the … encouragement of a new kind of state …” This world of manufacturing, shaping the future through the innovative adaptation of sources of power to fuel production, emerged, as Beckert demonstrates, from the deploying of profits from plunder harnessed by War Capitalism – “Slavery, colonial domination, militarized trade and land expropriations”. Industrial capitalism, in effect, was the innovative offspring of war capitalism. From a country with no cotton crop, but with a workforce of men, women and children and the innovative technology that capital accumulation fostered, the power of an imperial state was the critical intervention that unpinned the “cotton-fuelled” Industrial Revolution, with the ancient plant ichcatl, plucked from the soil of the Americas by the hands of slaves. The imperial state served merchant capital well – Indian cotton had pioneered the market penetration that this new cotton-fuelled English industrial revolution would now benefit from. Prior to sowing the seeds in colonial lands, however, European states protected their advancing industrial enterprise by legislatively prohibiting the import of cotton goods from British India.

Beckert pulls no punches – war capitalism fuelled industrial capitalism, and the archival sources that he uses authoritatively throughout this book are indicative of empire adventurism and abuse that the official record – such as the eight thousand eight hundred files from thirty-seven former British colonies hidden from public scrutiny at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire – of the final years of the British empire threaten to reveal. Imperial pursuit of power through slavery, and the expropriation of land and of labour, is not the preserve of one empire, and the excavating of imperial archives –even where, as in Britain, selective destruction of the official record has been conceded – may yet change, and will certainly challenge, the sanitised and racist claims that gather under the banners of empires that caught the wind, fanned many flames, and that rest uneasily within facilitating ideologies of “civilising” forces dispatched to empty lands. The confluence of what Beckert fully acknowledges as “the tinkering spirit and technical aptitude” of the English cotton manufacturers with the power of an imperial state reaping the dividends of slavery, acquiescing in the rise of rapacious mercantile adventurism, sowed the seeds of the Industrial Revolution.

War capitalism begat industrial capitalism, and it is Beckert’s claim that the core of the Industrial Revolution was “its dependence on the globe-spanning system of war capitalism”, British imperial outreach and the historic control by British merchant capitalists of global cotton networks. In a publication of over six hundred pages including extensive notes, he couches his analysis with acknowledgements of complexity and diverse factors, prompting, for example, the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century in northern England. He cites what may be the birth of the ideology of “British exceptionalism” – the undoubted genius of British inventors but with the essential caveat that the genesis of the basic tools of the cotton empire emerged elsewhere and that it was the accumulation of colonial fortunes that financed the machinery of manufacture. Nonetheless, in 1733 John Kay invented the flying shuttle; in the 1760s, Hargreave invented the spinning jenny, tripling a spinner’s speed, and by 1786 there were about twenty thousand in use in Britain; in 1779, Samuel Crompton’s mule introduced a machine with two hundred spindles and, over a century, “the number would climb to more than thirteen hundred”.

The Industrial Revolution was transformational, marked by Beckert’s unpacking of a third “great innovation” that served as a pillar of the cotton empire, and fuelling an “unprecedented acceleration of human productivity”. A route had been opened to global markets; new technologies emerged from old tools and skilled application; a supportive state, with property ownership a key to the exercise of the franchise, was – Whig or Tory – almost a given. To “capitalsze” on such favourable pre-conditions, however, “British cotton capitalists needed … to transform society in Britain itself”. Human labour was, and continues to be, the final disposable pawn in this global game.

When Samuel Greg invested his capital in Quarry Bank Mill in the 1780s, the bulk of his accumulated assets were generated by slave labour at his sugar plantation in the Caribbean. At the mill, “he recruited ninety children between the ages of ten and twelve from nearby poorhouses, attaching them for seven years to his factory as ‘parish apprentices’”. The practice was not new, extended beyond England to Wales and to Ireland and offered precisely the same terms to capital as did slave labour: upkeep to maintain such lives, perhaps involving parish dues of some order, and no wages. By 1800, Greg’s labour force was supplemented by “110 adult workers who received wages”. Markets expanded, and “the new factory … was spectacularly profitable, returning annually 18% on his original investment, four times as much as UK government bonds”. Greg, representative of “the manufacturer”, had access to capital and the organisational skill to meet the potential of developing technologies with the mobilising of a largely quiescent labour force, and to combine these two forces into accelerated machine-driven production. The work of such manufacturers “heralded a new institutional form for organizing economic activity and a world economy in which rapid growth and ceaseless reinvention of production became the norm, not the exception”.

As in India, the initial stages of industrialisation of cotton in England and elsewhere relied on an extensive “putting-out system”, whereby rural workers were organised by agents to produce yarn on domestic looms and spinning wheels as an activity more or less complementary with crop production. What distinguished the industrial capitalism that emerged, still in tandem with, rather than in place of, war capitalism, was the need to mobilise and control a regulated industrial workforce who were neither slaves nor serfs. Capitalists seeking to lead in the manufacture and industrialisation of cotton were facilitated by a British state that did not, for example, restrain the use of the labour of orphans within institutions and factories. Such use was extensive, and the imperative to mobilise a mass workforce also, of necessity, prompted the emergence of resistance from those who shared a common interest and later identity as working people. Public opinion – in the wake of resistance by working class movements such as the Chartists and the rise of mass social movements in the 1830s challenging laissez-faire capitalism, put pressure on parliament to authorise royal commissions and official reports in the early 1840s on the use of child labour in England, Ireland and Wales. In 1833, slavery was abolished in the British empire, with compensation given to slave owners for the loss of this most lucrative trade in 1837. Included among the many individuals and families reaping these dividends were at least forty who were Irish, subjects of the Union of Great Britain & Ireland – and, for future reference, part of what we are.

Cotton industrialisation was “not only a project of capitalists … but equally a project of governments”, with the shifting of the allegiance of the power of the British Imperial state away from landed elites and towards the serving of the interests of cotton industrialists. The role of the state is addressed by Beckert, primarily the role of the imperial state, detailing the “advantage” for the dual interests of that state – to serve the coloniser and control the colonised ‑ to leave unrestrained, and to provide government inducements to, a mercantile class deploying coercion, backed by the threat of deployment of the armed power of the state. In legislative authority, he addresses the role of the state in the imposing of tariffs on competing markets, promoting the ideologically laden concept of “free trade” in negotiating, for example, the 1838 Anglo-Ottoman Tariff Treaty which forced free trade upon Egypt, a strong state but a state that faced “ultimate subjugation to British imperialism”. The push to globalise the empire of cotton rested upon the possession of colonies and semi-colonised states. Stronger states, themselves holding power in and reaping dividends from colonial empires – Portuguese, French, Spanish, German – protected their domestic markets, persuading British capitalists and manufacturers to gravitate towards their own colonial markets, “towards markets that were unable to politically resist the British onslaught”. That onslaught travelled well: India, “facing huge imports of ever cheaper yarns and fabrics from its colonial ruler … was decimated’. A crucial factor in such decimation was the reality facing all colonised people and their governments – that “the service of colonial governments was to serve the imperial power”, thus denying to India the power and the services of its own government. After the 1780s, India began the process of adjusting to the loss of its once central position … and became the world’s largest market for British imports.

And yet, in a book of more than 600 pages, documenting archival sources across continents, including India, southeast Asia and Europe, the Americas, China and Japan, mapping territory across ancient times to modern times, the unexpected often happens. Beckert tracks the expansion of “a global network of land, labour, transport, manufacture and sale”, and returns to the complexity of unpacking such an ambitious imperial project, and the equally complex task of understanding the routes taken that led to an unanticipated outcome, whereby the British empire, its merchants and its statesmen, became marginalised within that empire.

He begins this book charting the course of the empire of cotton, noting one particular centenary,

... in 1860 millions of mechanical spindles – powered by steam engines and operated by wage workers, many of them children – turned for up to fourteen hours a day, producing millions of pounds of yarn … millions of slaves labored on plantations in the Americas, thousands of miles away from the hungry factories they supplied, factories that in turn were thousands of miles removed from eventual consumers of the cloth ... steamships plied the world’s oceans, loaded with cotton from the American South or with British-made cotton fabric s…

The world moves slowly, but does not, of necessity, move towards predictions of unimpeded progress.

… By 1960, most raw cotton came again from Asia, China, the Soviet Union, and India, as did the bulk of cotton yarn and cloth. In Britain, as well as in the rest of Europe and New England, few cotton factories remained. The former centers of cotton manufacturing – Manchester, Mulhouse, Barmen, and Lowell among them – were littered with abandoned mills and haunted by unemployed workers.

Across that century, Beckert sharpens the analyisis, hones the narrative and presents the evidence which upends most versions of “what happened?” He argues that “for most of capitalism’s history, the process of globalization and the needs of nation states were not conflicting … but instead mutually reinforced each other”. The narrative is compelling and complex, and the notes alone constitute a small book. In our own times, the imperialism, rampant plunder and exploitation that rose in tandem with the historic globalisation that was key to the rise and fall of empires, states and markets across the planet, now rides again. Capitalism seeks to divest itself of the constraints of the nation state ‑ perhaps in entrenching the power of corporate interests in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). “Globalisation” is not an innovative project of capital and capitalists – it is fundamental to that system, facilitates its adaptation and mobility and is intrinsic to the maturing of a system of development that gathered the reins of the nation state and ensured that the role of the state was intimately linked to the demands of capitalist expansion. “Globalisation” is not new, but the question remains – whom does it serve? A crucial outcome of Beckert’s extensive research is his ultimate caution on the modern “reading” of the aftermath of the era of empire and colonies, which reaches for an analysis of the short term, champions the modern mode of “good relations” and fails to address the roots of the challenge to concepts of the “normalcy” of the status quo travelling as “stability”, resistance to the barbarians and the implied threat of‘chaos. Given the evidence from this global history of the empire of Cotton, Beckert places the renewed scrutiny of “de-colonisation” … “at the very centre of the narrative we tell about the twentieth century … to see that global capitalism today is most fundamentally shaped by the struggles for independence”.

This is not a story with a happy ending: the global landmass captured and transformed, “the capitalization of everyday life” rampant, with most of ‘the world’s people … now inextricably tied to both commodity production and consumption”, production moved at will across the globe, the price of investment remaining in situ the role of the armed state, the orderly control of a quiescent workforce, with a range of low cost fiscal options to defray corporate expenses. Beckert charts the rise and the adaptation, rather that any fall, of this global empire, and in so doing may have mapped a route back: readdressing the role of the state, the unpacking of the use and abuse of state power and the serving of vested interests, first, the landed elites, following in their wake the mercantile classes, and in modern times, global financial and corporate interests, haunting lands stalked by oligarchs and plutocrats. His challenge to historians in pursuit of this labyrinth of links is to reassess how in “assuming national perspectives historians have underemphasized connections that transcend state borders”. Such claims are rooted in the global archival sources unpacked in this important book. They also chime with calls within and beyond the academy, where “history has … a claim to be a critical human science: not just a collection of narratives or a source of affirmation for the present, but a tool of reform and a means of shaping alternative futures” (Guildi and Armitage, The History Manifesto, Cambridge University Press, 2014).

1/2/2016

Mary Jones is a documentary maker and director of Arkhive productions. Her book The Other Ireland: Changing Times 1870-1920 will be published this autumn.

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