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Empire of Cotton: A Global History

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The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief perio The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to an empire, and how this force transformed the world. The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.


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The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief perio The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to an empire, and how this force transformed the world. The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.

30 review for Empire of Cotton: A Global History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    Cotton: The Fabric of our lives abject human misery In the words of the author: This book is the story of the rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton. But because of the centrality of cotton, its story is also the story of the making and remaking of the global capitalism and with it of the modern world...Following cotton, as we shall see, will lead us to the origins of the modern world, industrialization, rapid and continuous economic growth, enormous productivity increase, and Cotton: The Fabric of our lives abject human misery In the words of the author: This book is the story of the rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton. But because of the centrality of cotton, its story is also the story of the making and remaking of the global capitalism and with it of the modern world...Following cotton, as we shall see, will lead us to the origins of the modern world, industrialization, rapid and continuous economic growth, enormous productivity increase, and staggering social inequality. It is a truly astounding story. One that spans centuries, continents, and world orders. This simple plant turned the wheel of global commerce and kicked off the Industrial Revolution, enhanced the value of slaves, and drove Empires to expand their domain. It is a ubiquitous and oft overlooked plant product ("Cotton is as familiar as it is unknown. We take its perpetual presence for granted. We wear it close to our skin. We sleep under it. We swaddle our newborns in it."). But make no mistake, cotton was THE engine of industrial development and global commerce. "By 1900 about 1.5 percent of the human populations – millions of men, women, and children – were engaged in the industry, either growing, transporting, or manufacturing cotton." Beckert weaves the story of cotton (pun probably subconsciously intended) through many centuries, from its humble beginnings as a domestically used product ("While some growers sold their raw cotton into markets, including long-distance markets, and many rulers forced cultivators to part with some of their crop as tribute, no growers depended on their cotton crops alone; instead they diversified their economic opportunities, hoping to lessen risk to the best of their ability.") to the fulcrum the world turned on to the present day where the sins of cotton's past persist, albeit without the bayonet of Empire to enforce its cruelty. While this book is about the history of cotton, it is just as much about the evolution of the international capitalist order which at its inception revolved around cotton and cotton manufacturing. Take Britain for example, the origin of this revolution: The growth of cotton manufacturing soon made it the center of the British economy. In 1770, cotton manufacturing had made up just 2.6 percent of the value added in the economy as a whole. By 1801 it accounted for 17 percent, and by 1831, 22.4 percent. This compared to the iron industry’s share of 6.7 percent, coal’s 7 percent, and woolen’s 14.1 percent. In Britain as early as 1795, 340,000 people worked in the spinning industry. By 1830, one in six workers in Britain labored in cottons. Cotton was a major driver in wealth generation and employment (and by extension social stability). Hence the government's interest in growing this sector. But such things are easier said than done. As late as 1791, most of the cotton grown for manufacturing purposes around the world was produced by small farmers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and consumed locally. When cotton manufacturing exploded in Great Britain, it was unclear where enough cotton would come from to feed its hungry factories. So where was cotton to feed this ravenous beast to be found? Overseas of course: Rapidly expanding factories consumed cotton so fast that only the exigencies of war capitalism could secure the necessary reallocation of land and labor. As a result, indigenous people and land grabbing settlers, slaves and planters, local artisans and factory owners woke to a new century clouded by a constant, if one sides, state of war…it was coercion that opened fresh lands and mobilized new labor, becoming the essential ingredient of the emerging empire of cotton...Slavery, in other words, was as essential to the new empire of cotton as proper climate and good soil. It was slavery that allowed planters to respond rapidly to rising prices and expanding markets. Slavery allowed not only for the mobilization of very large numbers of workers on very short notice, but also for a regime of violent supervision and virtually ceaseless exploitation that matched the needs of a crop that was, in the cold language of economists, “effort intensive”. This system, to a degree, fed itself in a chain of self sustaining economic relationships: The beating heart of this new system was slavery. The deportation of many millions of Africans to the Americas intensified connections to India because it increased the pressure to secure more cotton clothe. It was that trade that established a more significant European mercantile presence in Africa. And it was that trade that made it possible to give economic value to the vast territory in the Americas, and thus to overcome Europe’s own resource constraints... Powerful states, rulers, and bureaucrats depended on strong national industries, which in turn depended on raw materials and markets - for such industries produced wealth that could be taxed, and provided employment for millions, all of which in turn increased social stability and further strengthened the state. An interesting theme that permeated that book was how this primarily Western system overcame various supply chain bottlenecks, be it on the supply side, processing, manufacturing, or the distribution. Specialized roles developed within this system to ease the flow of goods and information across vast distances. Though probably the most crucial opening of bottlenecks was the cotton gin: Overnight, his machine increased ginning productivity by a factor of fifty. News of the innovation spread quickly; farmers everywhere built copies of the gin. Like the jenny and the water frame, Eli’s gin overcame yet another bottleneck in the production of cotton textiles. As a result, in what can only be described as a “cotton rush,” land on which cotton grew allegedly trebled in price after the invention of the gin, and “the annual income of those who plant it is double what it was before the introduction of cotton.” The impact of this development was a monumental increase in demand for land and labor (slaves): In South Carolina, the number of slaves in the upcountry cotton growing districts grew from 21,000 in 1790 to 70,000 twenty years later, including 15,000 slaves newly brought from Africa. As cotton plantation spread, the proportion of slaves in four typical South Carolina upcountry counties increased from 18.4 percent in 1790 to 39.5 percent in 1820 and to 61.1 percent in 1860. All the way to the Civil War, cotton and slavery would expand in lockstep, as Great Britain and the United States had become the twin hubs of the emerging empire of cotton. While Britain was the center of cotton manufacturing, America quickly ascended to the role of world supplier of raw cotton thanks to a confluence of conditions: ready supply of (forced) labor, excellent climate and soil conditions, and governments willing to support the cotton growers. With support of southern politicians, the federal government aggressively secured new territories by acquiring land from foreign powers and from forced cessation by Native Americans...Indeed, by 1850, 67 percent of U.S. cotton grew on land that had not been part of the United States half a century earlier. The fledgling U.S. government had inaugurated the military-cotton complex. Cotton production and manufacturing became increasing linked to the perpetuation of slavery in America. That meant that social stability in Great Britain was maintained through the subjugation of African slaves in America: Cotton manufacturers understood that their prosperity was entirely dependent on the labor of slaves and they “dreaded the severity of the revulsion which must sooner, or later arrive.” By 1850, one British observer estimated that 3.5 million people in the United Kingdom were employed by the country’s cotton industry - all subject to the whims of American planters and their tenuous hold on their nation’s politics... One author boldly estimated that in 1862, fully 20 million people worldwide - one out of every 65 people alive - were involved in the cultivation of cotton or the production of cotton cloth. In England alone...the livelihood of between one-fifth and one-fourth of the population was based on the industry. Southern planters knew this and it was their presumed self-importance on the world economic stage that likely contributed to their rebellion during the American Civil War: Southern planters, convinced of their central role in the global economy, gleefully announced that they had held ‘THE LEVER THAT WIELDS THE DESTINY OF MODERN CIVILIZATION”. As the American Cotton Planter put it in 1853, “The slave-labor if the United States, has hitherto conferred and is still conferring inappreciable blessings on mankind. If these blessings continue, slave-labor must also continue, for it is idle to talk of producing Cotton for the world’s supply with free labor. It has never yet been successfully grown by voluntary labor.” And it wasn't just Southern Planters that benefited from slavery in America. Slavery, driven by cotton production, was a boon to northern manufactures and (most illuminating to me) Northern financial interests."...In Louisiana 88 percent of loans secured by mortgages used slaves as (partial) collateral; in South Carolina it was 82 percent. In total...hundreds of millions of dollars of capital was secured by property in humans. Slavery thus allowed not just for the rapid allocation of labor, but also for a swift allocation of capital." But if there is one thing the history of cotton has shown is how nimble the sector can be. Even before the Civil War cotton manufacturers were looking elsewhere to supply the cotton mills with a stable supply. You may sleep, but capital never does. It is always searching for a less expensive source of raw inputs for its processes. The dominance of Southern Planters never recovered from the Civil War even if they remained a major world supplier I think it is rather telling that the great industrial revolution kicked off by cotton was very much dependent on government involvement. From providing trade protections, to securing new land for exploitation, to enforcing slavery and favorable labor conditions, to investing in infrastructure governments, just as much as private capital, expanded the frontiers of the cotton empire. This is a story we don't often tell about economic history. It was government bureaucrats as much as merchants and industrialists that gave birth to modern industrial capitalism. The link between the state's ability to use coercive forces (both physical and legal) coupled with the wealth and social stability industrialists brought formed a very powerful force that dominated much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I think the most surprising thing I learned from this book was the massive shift in work patterns the advent of the cotton empire brought about. Both on the industrial side and the supply side: The ability to move workers into factories became key to the cotton empire’s triumph...Convincing thousands of people to give up the only way of life they had known was no less complex than installing new machines. Both required...certain legal, social, and political conditions... More often than not, though, workers lost access to land and, faced with the decline of household manufacturing, moved from the countryside into cities. Indeed, cotton industrialization led to huge migrations, often across national borders... The vast majority of workers, however, were not skilled and were not recruited; rather, they were driven into factories by changing conditions within the countryside, and especially by the decline of goods made at home that could no longer compete with those made in factories... Consequently, children were often the first to enter factory employment… Up to half of cotton workers were children, coerced by their parents, who in turn were coerced by the new economic reality. Children were cheap - their wages amounted to between one-third and one-fourth of those paid to adults - relatively obedient, and unlikely to object to extremely repetitive and dull tasks, and if they did they could be more easily punished than adults. Patterns of economic life that had persisted for centuries were rapidly upended by the industrialization that cotton manufacturing had initiated resulting in a massive labor pool available to manufacturers. On the supply side the consequences were arguably devastating. Historically cotton had been a household grown crop to provide some cash or inputs for domestically produced good. It was merely a portion of a sustenance farmer's portfolio. But the empire of cotton cannot thrive on production of those levels. Major changes in cotton production were needed to diversify the world cotton supply: In Egypt, as in India and the United States, the expansion of cotton agriculture was a direct result of the powerful interventions of the state. A redefinition of property rights in the last third of the nineteenth century made possible a massive redistribution of land away from villages and nomadic peoples to the well-connected owners of huge estates. Many peasants across the globe were forced off their land or required to grow some portion of their harvest as a cash crop for monetary taxes. As a result the production levels of cotton rose but at the expense of food security. What wage workers, tenants, and sharecroppers had in common was that they had lost access to subsistence agriculture - basic production and consumption now depended on global markets. While “cotton [was once] a subordinate product” and “the ryot [did] not neglect the raising of food for the sake of cotton, however high its price may be, for in doing so he runs the risk of starvation,” by the late 19th century millions of rural cultivators became primarily dependent on cotton. The consequences of this shift was widespread and deadly. Their [peasant cotton farmers] incomes, and quite literally their survival, were now linked to global price fluctuations over which they had no control. All too often, the only response open to farmers with little control over the land was to grow more cotton to make up for the lost income due to falling prices - which resulted in a glut of cotton... Specializing in cotton could result in disaster, as in the 1870’s famine, which was not caused by a lack of food (indeed, food grains continued to be exported from Berara), but by the inability of the poorest agricultural laborers to buy urgently needed food grains. In India alone, between 6 and 10 million people died in the famines of the late 1870’s...High prices made food unavailable to many peasants and agricultural laborers, and during the 1900 famine another 8.5% of the population of Berara dies, with the greatest numbers of deaths occurring in districts most specialized in cotton production. Landless agricultural workers and former weavers in particular suffered... These escalating focus on cotton growing, as elsewhere, had a grave impact on food security. Like other cotton-growing areas of the world, central Asia now became dependent on food imports, while at the same time peasants’ incomes became “highly vulnerable to fluctuations in” the cotton market. By WWI, the recast class structure, along with a huge deficit in food crops thanks to the reorientation of local agriculture towards cash crops, produced terrible famines, resulting in significant depopulation. In Turkestan, for example, the population fell by 1.3 million people, or 18.5%, between 1914 and 1921. Personally these numbers just boggle my mind. This was by no means a goal of the cotton empire (such as it is) but a consequence of the economic incentives that industrial capitalism can create. It may create greater wealth but it does not equally distribute gains or losses equally, cotton merely being a salient example of these consequences. And we are still seeing the devastating results of this emphasis on cotton as a monocultural crop: Some nations...have policies in place to force farmers to produce cotton, despite its often devastating environmental and financial consequences. Uzbekistan, for instance, one of the globe’s top ten cotton exporters, continues to force its farming population to grow cotton despite the fact that the need to irrigate its dry lands has essentially drained the Aral Sea and turned much of the country into virtual salt flats. The pursuit of cotton and profit has driven empires and expansion, enslaved millions of people, driven indigenous people of their ancestral land, altered historic work patterns of countless people, and bound together the global economy in a way never seen before in human events. It is a story that produces in awe when viewed as a whole, as well as revulsion and, at least in my case, powerlessness. The forces that drove this Empire to its very heights are not unique to cotton, but are an embedded part of a wide global flow of capital and commerce. Cotton was merely the first. Where countries once concerned themselves over securing adequate cotton supplies ("At the same time, the general notion of “raw material independence” became an increasingly important political goal for policy makers and capitalists in Europe and Japan. The idea of securing cotton on lands controlled by imperial states gained traction. As a result, the global cotton “commodity frontier” was pushed into even more numerous areas of the world.") they now concern themselves with oil and energy supplies. Where British workers and industrialists turned a blind eye to American slavery because it was convenient for them (“When the price [of cotton] rises in the English market,” he [John Brown, a fugitive slave] remembered “the poor slaves immediately feel the effects, for they are harder driven, and the whip is kept more constantly going.”) the Western consumer typically turns a blind eye to the conditions of Third World manufacturing environments because it is convenient for us. While cotton may not be the fulcrum the world turns on, its sins can still be found across the world in other industries. Even slavery, which according to our history books was banished in America in 1865 and world-wide in subsequent decades, persists and supplies the developed world with many goods and services that make up our modern consumer experience (to see how many Slaves you indirectly support, visit Slavery Footprint; the results are depressing but probably pretty accurate). To conclude, this was a stupendous and wide ranging book. Beckert does an excellent job of walking the reader through all these interlocking relationships and changes the evolution of the empire of cotton brought about. It was understandable without being oversimplified. He had an expensive bibliography and was always quick to point to a primary source to back up his claims. He was restrained in moral judgement, letting the facts speak for themselves about the misery and subjugation that resulted from the empire of cotton. This was a highly engaging, informative, and enlightening book that made me reexamine my perspective of world history. Its place on my Six Star shelf is well deserved. I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone interested in history or economics.

  2. 5 out of 5

    4triplezed

    A fascinating subject and I learnt a lot. The author has backed his sources with a huge 140 pages of footnotes. The text itself is "only" 448 pages. Coming in I could not wait to start but in the end found myself happy to end. In my opinion as informative as this book is the author is not that good a writer. His lack of economy in his words and his ability to repeat himself became annoying. For example "the white gold" was used instead of just "cotton" so often it became a distraction. Very earl A fascinating subject and I learnt a lot. The author has backed his sources with a huge 140 pages of footnotes. The text itself is "only" 448 pages. Coming in I could not wait to start but in the end found myself happy to end. In my opinion as informative as this book is the author is not that good a writer. His lack of economy in his words and his ability to repeat himself became annoying. For example "the white gold" was used instead of just "cotton" so often it became a distraction. Very early I actually thought at times it read as a translation such was the convoluted text and the length of some sentences. To have to reread long tracts just to get the point was disappointing to say the least. After reading the Acknowledgment's I suspect that the author may have done most of his own editing and I think that that was a mistake. I like to think that, even though a lay reader, dense tomes such as this do not bother me but sadly this one just became at times tedious. In the end though this is no doubt a more than a useful book to any that have an interest in the global history of cotton and how it fits into the capitalist world. It is a book that is an indictment of colonialism, forced labour, slavery, child labour, etc. Unfortunately, as the author highlights towards the end of the book, there are still issues in this area in cotton production to this very day. For all my editing complaints I can see me delving into this book periodically to reinforce certain points of view I may have.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sara Salem

    Hands down one of the best books I read this year. He shows how capitalism, slavery, cotton and colonization have all been intricately connected to one another for centuries. A must-read!!!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jerrod

    I chose to read this book based on a glowing review from The Economist. I am unclear why the review was glowing. I have no reason to doubt the facts presented in the book. In fact, it may even be a good introductory source to the history of the cotton market. I had to abandon this book due to the constant historical theorizing that did not seem to hold water. My review is based on reading the first 3 chapters (plus the preface). Beckert only showed a layman’s grasp of economics and did not engag I chose to read this book based on a glowing review from The Economist. I am unclear why the review was glowing. I have no reason to doubt the facts presented in the book. In fact, it may even be a good introductory source to the history of the cotton market. I had to abandon this book due to the constant historical theorizing that did not seem to hold water. My review is based on reading the first 3 chapters (plus the preface). Beckert only showed a layman’s grasp of economics and did not engage any type of counterfactual analysis, which would have been beneficial, and he seems to try to explain all of the events via singular causes (e.g. cotton or war capitalism). While I do not remember him saying it explicitly, Beckert seems to imply that “war capitalism” was necessary for the leap to industrial capitalism. Given the importance he places on war capitalism, I don’t think Beckert would refute this. It is with regard to this hypothesis (Beckert’s central claim) that counterfactual analysis would have been most useful. This book shows the weakness of mono-causal explanations of historical phenomena. Two things stand out in the chapter "Building War Capitalism". First, it seems that had the European state-sponsored merchants not tried to create direct links to Indian fabric producers, non-state sponsored merchants would have (Beckert notes that weavers had to be monitored so that they would not sell their product to other private European merchants). Second, Beckert makes a big deal about the importance of protectionism (e.g. bans on the importation of Indian cotton fabric). He says that this is what encouraged the European infant cotton weaving industry. Yet, for some reason, European cotton manufacturers felt the need to improve their fabric and use the weaving technologies from Asia “in order to compete on price and on quality with Indian producers” (p.49). This is said in the context of Europeans’ preference for Indian cotton, but even if this were in the context of the export market, Beckert is making the claim the importation restrictions are what drove the growth of the industry. This cannot be the case if it is export market that is driving innovation. In the chapter “Wages of War Capitalism”, Beckert provides a few reasons why he thinks the industrial revolution didn’t begin in Asia. This is quite the puzzle for Beckert since he believes cotton is central to the industrial revolution, especially since the Chinese had developed a water-powered weaving system in the 14th century. One reason that he thinks Asia did not industrialize first is that there were many intermediaries in getting cotton. This is how things started off with the Europeans, but the policy of war capitalism shortened their supply chains (so he claims). As noted above, however, it did not take the conquest of the sub-continent to get rid of the middlemen. Instead, European merchants made direct contact with cotton suppliers. It is unclear why the peoples in Asia could not shorten the supply chain, and Beckert does not give any reason for why the cotton supply chain remained inefficient for so long. Beckert also says that one reason the factory model did not originate in Asia is because of the lack of opportunities for women outside the home. Now if Beckert wants to make a cultural argument that Asian attitudes towards women were different than those of Europeans and that these attitudes forced women to stay in the home, he may be on somewhat solid ground. But this is different than his war capitalism story. If he does not want to make the cultural argument, then Beckert has to explain why an entrepreneur could not set up factory, pay slightly higher wages than the women would have earned weaving at home, and make a huge profit. He also has to explain why war capitalism was necessary to shorten the supply chain, allow women out of the house, and lead to innovation. Economists explain these phenomena with reference to different institutions, but Beckert has already disavowed that route. One thing that is left unclear (and which may be explained later in the book) is why did the industrial revolution occur in Britain? Beckert says that it is because Britain embraced war capitalism more than any other nation, but it seems if war capitalism is the key ingredient, Spain and Portugal had a head start in that arena. The French were also adept at the war capitalism game. Also, why was it that the Europeans made the journey to Asia rather than the reverse? Least favorite quote of the book: "northern Italians and southern Germans failed at least in part because they had not subjugated those people who supplied them with cotton" --- NO Good blog post on the relation between slavery and the rise of capitalism: http://bradleyahansen.blogspot.com/20... http://pseudoerasmus.com/2014/11/10/s... http://bradleyahansen.blogspot.com/20...

  5. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Beckert's magisterial, sweeping, yet humanized and personal examination of the role of cotton in the world is the best "commodities" book (Salt/Sugar/Tea/Cod/etc.) I have ever read. With a sure hand in economics, social history and world civilizations, he illustrates the creation of the modern world as 17th century war capitalism meshed--thread by thread--with colonialism, technology, infrastructure, slavery, mass media, foreign policy, fashion and force, fronted by the seemingly innocuous produ Beckert's magisterial, sweeping, yet humanized and personal examination of the role of cotton in the world is the best "commodities" book (Salt/Sugar/Tea/Cod/etc.) I have ever read. With a sure hand in economics, social history and world civilizations, he illustrates the creation of the modern world as 17th century war capitalism meshed--thread by thread--with colonialism, technology, infrastructure, slavery, mass media, foreign policy, fashion and force, fronted by the seemingly innocuous product we can't live without.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Charles

    “Empire Of Cotton” is really two books. First, it’s an exhaustive exposition of the history of cotton as a textile raw material. That’s about 80% of the book, and by exhaustive I mean very, very exhaustive. Second, and unfortunately dominating, it’s a puerile, scattered, self-contradictory and confused attack on the Great Boogeyman “Capitalism,” along with sustained criticism of anything originating in or related to European culture. This book is a sort of “Occupy For Eggheads.” But not for very “Empire Of Cotton” is really two books. First, it’s an exhaustive exposition of the history of cotton as a textile raw material. That’s about 80% of the book, and by exhaustive I mean very, very exhaustive. Second, and unfortunately dominating, it’s a puerile, scattered, self-contradictory and confused attack on the Great Boogeyman “Capitalism,” along with sustained criticism of anything originating in or related to European culture. This book is a sort of “Occupy For Eggheads.” But not for very clear-thinking eggheads. There’s nothing inherently wrong with political screeds. If it had been well written, this would have been a reasonable political screed, sort of a Spartacist historical analysis for academics. It would have attracted the same people who always read such things, who believe howlers like Stalin ruined the righteous Russian Revolution founded by the great Lenin and that Trotsky would have Made It All Much Better, if he hadn’t been icepicked. But the book is instead a badly written political screed masquerading as an analysis of the cotton trade. I feel cheated. Aside from its overt politics, “Empire Of Cotton” is actually more a book about the Industrial Revolution than cotton. Cotton is used as the progenitor and proxy of the entire Industrial Revolution, in order to erect around that discussion a political screed. Beckert seems to think, and other reviewers seem to think, that his accomplishment has little to do with cotton as such. Instead, he imagines himself heroically demolishing a range of myths relating to the Industrial Revolution, and demonstrating the resulting evils of “capitalism.” The truths he puts forth are, roughly, (a) factory workers in the Industrial Revolution had unpleasant, difficult and frequently brutal lives; (b) Western states arranged legal structures to facilitate industrial growth; (c) non-Western states were pushed around by Western states, frequently in nasty ways; (d) slavery was instrumental in certain aspects of the Industrial Revolution; and (e) some people got rich in the Industrial Revolution. But Beckert is somehow unaware that these things are commonplaces, known today and known then, and bemoaned then as now. A search for “Dickens” in Beckert’s book returns—wait for it!—zero results! Beckert never makes his precise political argument completely clear, other than Europeans Are Bad, though he is clearly influenced by Marxism. The word “capitalism” is used continuously without definition and with a variety of meanings. In the first 20% of the book, which contains most of the overt politics, (a) it is actually “war capitalism,” (b) it is only practiced by Europeans, all other cultures being pure and wonderful, and apparently pacifistic, (c) said Europeans did not invent or add anything, only took the inventions and work of others and caused harm, (d) it has no benefits to anyone, and (e) it is nearly exclusively based on slavery. One big problem with the book is its constant bias. Beckert makes no pretense of objectivity—he is too busy being the vanguard of the proletariat. Among other things, he shows his bias continuously by his choice of words. Europeans “stole” metals from the Americas (leaving aside that the occupants themselves were constantly shifting “ownership” in violent wars, and weren’t getting the metals out themselves). Europeans are repeatedly sneeringly referred to as “ignorant” “barbarians” dressed in “skins and linen,” while the rest of the world apparently relaxed in advanced cotton luxury, free men all until Colonialism and Imperialism ruined their day. Africans who wanted different choices in cotton textiles are, according to Beckert, “dynamic and discerning,” though the quotes he uses to prove that actually calls them “varied and capricious.” Sure, the words Beckert uses may be the same thing ultimately, but Beckert chooses the most glowing adjectives to apply to any non-European in every single instance. (And he rarely stoops to pointing out that the Africans were dynamically and discerningly choosing those cotton textiles in trade for the other Africans they had captured in wars and were handing over to slavery—which of course is purely the Europeans’ fault and doing). Coupled with vocabulary bias are Beckert’s ill-conceived and factually-unsupported obsessions. One obsession is alleged theft by the evil Europeans of the intellectual property of the pure and good peoples of the rest of the world. For example, when the English began to dominate the international trade of raw cotton and cotton textiles, Beckert believes that the English “appropriated Asian knowledge.” (Here, he means India. Sometimes, when he says Asia, he means China too, without any consistency.) In the span of two pages, he uses the loaded word “appropriate,” meaning “steal,” six times. Presumably the evil English tortured the hapless Indian weavers for their secrets? No, the nefarious “appropriation” consisted of “European manufacturers, supported by their various national governments, collect[ing] and shar[ing] knowledge about Indian production techniques.” They “closely observed Indian ways of manufacturing.” They “wrote reports on Indian woodblock printing techniques, based on their observations.” They “investigated how Indian artisans produced chintz.” Oh, the horror! The underhandedness! Truly, the depths of depravity of the thief know no bounds! (Naturally, the vastly greater modern transfers of English technology back to India, where productivity in the textile industries is nonetheless still abysmally low, are not called “appropriation.”) And after all the Sturm und Drang about theft and “assimilation” of Indian technology, and the sweeping conclusion that “Asia [meaning India? China?] from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century remained the most important source of cotton manufacturing and, especially, printing technology,” Beckert gives a grand total of how many specific examples of technology that was “appropriated” or “sourced”? Zero. Go figure. Then, two chapters later, Beckert says that all British cotton manufacturing was “entirely dependent upon imports,” namely “Asian technologies and African markets.” (Let’s leave aside how an export market can be an import.) But he never says what those technologies were, and then he says, referring to the first British water mill in 1784, it “was unlike anything the world had seen.” Later, he refers to “British tinkerers’ revolutionary methods for the production of cotton yarn.” If you actually parse the facts Beckert sets out, it’s obvious that for millennia there was glacial, incremental progress in cotton technology, and in fact all real advances were either directly invented first in the West, or first put there to appropriate, productive uses. Beckert just doesn’t want to admit that, because it might put Europeans in a positive light. So he simply makes fantasy statements about “appropriating” and “importing” (unspecified) technology. Beckert’s other obsession is his invented term “war capitalism.” He loves this term. Loves, loves, loves. It is all purpose—it means a vast range of things, every single one of which puts Europeans in a bad light. At one point, he defines “war capitalism,” as “Imperial expansion, slavery and land expropriations.” It’s a bit strange to define a politico-economic concept by referring to the supposed impacts of it. At another, he says “war capitalism—exactly because violence was its fundamental characteristic—was portable.” So apparently it’s violence that marks out war capitalism from “traditional” capitalism (which is also never defined, but apparently simultaneously means state control and support AND total laissez-faire). But a few pages later, he says “Europeans gambled on the efficacy of war capitalism again and again: each time they succeeded in planting new fields, in coercing more slaves, in finding additional capital, they enabled the production of more cotton fabrics at cheaper prices, and they pushed their cotton rivals to the periphery.” So apparently non-violent aggressive competition, scientific studies and investment also all characterize war capitalism. Beckert uses war capitalism throughout as a Humpty Dumpty word, meaning nothing more or less than he wants in the case of each use, most useful for always casting a miasma over anything European as bad—even if what they’re doing is simply advancing human happiness by selling better products cheaper to poor people. War capitalism is all powerful, except when it’s not. For example, Beckert goes on and on, for many pages in many places, about how war capitalism was used to subjugate India, keep it as a captive market, and require generation of raw cotton for English manufacturers. But then he admits that despite aggressive efforts for decades, “Europeans only very superficially penetrated India’s cotton growing. Western merchants had no impact whatsoever on how cotton was produced in the Indian countryside. They had just as little impact on the ways cotton moved from its producers to the traders on the coast. British efforts to grow cotton on large farms with wage labor failed spectacularly, because labor could not be mobilized.” What happened to the continuous violence that war capitalism used to force everyone to do its bidding? Of course, “war capitalism” isn’t capitalism at all as traditionally understood. What Beckert is referring to is really the simple and well-understood historical concept of mercantilism (without the emphasis on bullion), coupled with frequent reference to the violence inherent in the pre-modern world (but only pointed out when committed by Europeans, of course). But “mercantilism” is not sexy enough and doesn’t sound original, and Beckert can’t use that to imply that the modern West is simply the old West with a glossy veneer, still wholly dependent on violence and exploitation (until wonderful socialism arrives, doubtless). The mask slips from Beckert in other ways, too. The best example is that he repeatedly quotes the odious and thankfully dead historian Eric Hobsbawm, an unrepentant Stalinist, for general principles of history, such as that the Industrial Revolution was “the most important event in world history.” That he goes to such a source for (banal) statements, when very few if any other historians are cited other than in footnotes, should tell us something about Beckert. There are lots of facts in this book (lots of repetition, too). Most are apolitical, so if you try hard enough you can separate out the dross that Beckert has layered on top. If you read the book with a practice and informed eye, a different story arises. That’s the story of Western heroism—how a small group of dynamic, risk-taking men took the entire world out of the Malthusian Trap by their actions, and thereby benefited the entire world (and themselves, if they didn’t die in the attempt, as most did). They should be celebrated. But this book isn’t the vehicle, and it’s not worth the time to read it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    This book is a one volume history of the cotton industry from the beginning (I am not joking) up through the heydey of "King Cotton" and into the modern age. It is very thorough and the author appears to have read nearly everything of importance ever written about the industry. This is a serious history by a Yale professor and as a result, it does not cut many corners to obtain a broad readership. While it is an academic book and will rival PIketty's book for important long books that are rarely This book is a one volume history of the cotton industry from the beginning (I am not joking) up through the heydey of "King Cotton" and into the modern age. It is very thorough and the author appears to have read nearly everything of importance ever written about the industry. This is a serious history by a Yale professor and as a result, it does not cut many corners to obtain a broad readership. While it is an academic book and will rival PIketty's book for important long books that are rarely read, this is a well written book with quite a story to tell and filled with "aha" moments and strange pieces of trivia. There is a lot to like here. First, it provides a comprehensive history of a material that is literally all around us but that most of us don't think much about, short of efforts at shopping for ourselves or our children. Beckert argues that despite its long history, cotton was the first and one of the most important industries to become organized on a global basis. As such it is tied with with the growth of capitalism right from the start. Beckert's book is also about political economy, which here means the linkage between the industry and state power. He links this to the story of "King Cotton" and the US Civil War and notes how it was commonly assumed that slavery was crucial to the organization of labor by the Southern growers at the time of the war. The worldwide fear within the industry was that the fall of slavery would mean the end of the industry. That was not the case, but instead other colonial governments worked with their industries to produce arrangements to foster world cotton production under the watchful eye of colonial power. This is a strong claim regarding the centrality of cotton to the world economy and the importance of responding to the demise of slavery in the subsequent growth of European imperialism in the late 1900s. Related to this line of argument is the comparison and contrast between industrial capitalism and what Beckert calls "war capitalism"- the coercive slave economy. His argument is that these are two different ways of organizing business-government relations that place contradictory demands on the state - which ties together economic and social stories about the Civil War. The central portion of the book concerns the rise and fall of the US Southern cotton complex and how the Europeans adapted to it. As the history moves into the 20th century, more familiar stories of decolonization and the divergence between East and West arise and are well covered. The epilog is focused and worthwhile and, of course, includes the role of Wal-Mart and the other big box retailers that discipline their global supply chains and are less tied to particular governments than their ancestors firms were. It is a good book with a lot to digest. It is worth the trouble to work it through.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Peter Mcloughlin

    One of those books that takes the mask of the economy and exposes the ugly beast based on power and war capitalism. By using cotton as a case study the author demonstrates that the invisible hand that concentrates market power in industries like cotton goes hand in hand with military force. I have not seen such a strong critique of capitalism since the old days when Capitalism had serious ideological foes. Definitely doesn't tell a placid story of the magic of the marketplace but more about sta One of those books that takes the mask of the economy and exposes the ugly beast based on power and war capitalism. By using cotton as a case study the author demonstrates that the invisible hand that concentrates market power in industries like cotton goes hand in hand with military force. I have not seen such a strong critique of capitalism since the old days when Capitalism had serious ideological foes. Definitely doesn't tell a placid story of the magic of the marketplace but more about state capitalism and military force which helped british and american textiles centralize and make huge profits while enslaving millions. Not a pretty story and maybe a bit too heavy handed at times but certainly a good antidote to happy talk about market paradises on offer by say libertarians.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    Though it's dense and detailed, this book is expansive and fascinating. By tracing cotton through the ages, Beckert describes the roots of capitalism, war, slavery, and empire. Not to mention contracts and debt and trade. I think this book should be read with Graeber's Debt and Armstrong's Fields of Blood. I love the rethinking of world history contained in these new books.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Bfisher

    This book is an exhaustive review of the role of the cotton trade as the leading edge of globalization. It's very detailed, to the point of numbness in many cases. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of fodder for thought here; just who is it who really benefits from "free" trade?

  11. 5 out of 5

    Son Tung

    One of those books helps me understand the world better. Cotton industry was the king of industries in the past, it paved the way for the development/de-development of many regions across the globe with war-capitalism, land appropriation, slavery, wage labor, protectionism. I enjoy the comparison of different countries and thier conditions for cotton industry to thrive over the time span around 1800 to modern day.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth

    I had high hopes for this book, I'm very interested in economic history, and international trade and finance and the history of cotton includes all three. Alas, as a work of economic history the book is a total failure. The book contains not a single economic argument, market forces are almost nowhere to be found. Neither the price of cotton, nor the price of any of its inputs, nor products, nor processes are ever referenced or tracked within the book. From an economic perspective it is nearly i I had high hopes for this book, I'm very interested in economic history, and international trade and finance and the history of cotton includes all three. Alas, as a work of economic history the book is a total failure. The book contains not a single economic argument, market forces are almost nowhere to be found. Neither the price of cotton, nor the price of any of its inputs, nor products, nor processes are ever referenced or tracked within the book. From an economic perspective it is nearly impossible to discover why anything that is discussed in the book has actually happened. So in this regard, the book is a failure. As a case study in the myopia of structural marxism however, the book is a masterpiece. The author is a structural marxist and for him the reasons for the rise of the cotton industry primarily have to do with the racism and violence of Europeans. This is why there are very few economic arguments in the book, the author began the book looking to prove a particular case and then goes about looking for evidence of it, and ignores everything else he encounters. This makes the book quite fascinating to read because the main arguments the author makes are repeatedly refuted by facts disclosed within the book itself. Yet the ideology of the author completely blinds him to them. Take for example his assertion that modern capitalism could never have developed without slavery. He spends about 200 pages on this argument. He begins in the idyllic pre-industrial world in which all industry is artisanal then the European navigators round the Cape of Good Hope and begin trading directly with the Indian Ocean. At the time Indian technology was producing the most desirable cloth in the world at a cost that was much lower than Europeans could match and so Indian cloth was in strong demand in Europe and European traders also imported it to Africa. Then some clever Britons hit upon the idea of sinking a wheel into a river in Northern England and using it to turn spindles rather than by hand. This single invention increased the productivity of English yarn spinners by hundreds of times. Once cotton cloth could be produced in Europe close to markets at low cost demand exploded and with it, demand for cotton itself. The author then spends 100 pages arguing that Indian cotton growers, so satisfied with their lives as they were, simply refused to alter it. Same goes for cotton growers in Egypt, Anatolia, Africa, and elsewhere. The only way to keep the looms fed was to transport Africans to the Southern colonies in the US and put them to work growing cotton. No economic arguments for this are made, no reference to what the price of cotton was, the relative cost of production of the various methods, Egyptian, Indian subsistence farmers or American slaves. Numerous racists tracts at the time are cited and the assumption of European racism and greed are relied on and over and over the assertion is made that none of this would be possible without slavery. The fascinating thing about this is that history provides a natural experiment for this thesis on account of the Union strategy in the Civil War. The Union imposed a remarkably effective naval blockade on the Confederacy that took virtually all the slave grown cotton off the world market in about six months. Was the result the total collapse of the cotton industry? No! Within 18 months the looms were once again operating at capacity. Where was the cotton coming from? From Egypt, Anatolia, and India, the places where it was an impossibility that social structures would ever change and thus provide the cotton for European looms. How is this possible? The question is never answered because it is never asked. For the author racism and violence explain everything about capitalism. The true answer involves neither: there is a price for everything and everything has its price. Ottoman, Egyptian, and Indian social structures could be altered if the price was high enough but because racism and violence have to do all the work for the author, price is never referenced. The book is rife with questions that are unanswered because they are unasked. If industrial capitalism was totally dependent on European Imperialism as the author claims, how can he explain the fact that the number one, three and four cotton producers in the world in 1900 had no colonial empires to speak of? Unanswered because unasked. If the postbellum system for growing cotton in the US was so inherently racist as to make slaves virtual slaves of the former actual slaves why did so many white people enter the trade such that 44% of cotton cultivators in that system were white? Unanswered because unasked. If British colonial policy was so effective at destroying the Indian economy as the author claims, how can he explain the near total displacement of British cloth in India by Gujarati and Bombay cotton mills between 1915 and 1940? Unanswered because unasked. If British Imperial Trade policy was totally dominated by British Capital as the author claims, how does he explain the fact that by 1940 Japan was the destination for twice as much Indian cotton as Britain? Unanswered because unasked. What is amazing is that the author makes so many assertions that are refuted by facts he himself discloses. But it never occurs to him to ask because for him the answer is always the same. And these questions are all unasked and unanswered because the answer is something that the beyond the ken of the structural marxist. There is a more powerful force than European racism and violence in the world: markets mediated by prices determined by people exercising individual choice.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Will

    Others here have left better reviews so I will just say that I enjoyed this book but that it was very anglo-centric and at the same time overestimated the importance of cotton for Britain during the early nineteenth century. These two issues combine at times- for example, why is there no mention of the mass Chinese importation of Indian cotton, which dwarfed British consumption, and its lack of similar effects in China?

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mal Warwick

    Here’s a new take on the history of capitalism, recasting the Industrial Revolution as a natural extension of the European mercantile expansion that preceded it. In Empire of Cotton, Harvard historian Sven Beckert asserts that the more familiar industrial capitalism that came of age in the nineteenth century was grounded in what he terms “war capitalism” — the relationships forged by the European conquest of the Global South by force — and, in particular, on slavery. “Slavery, colonialism, and fo Here’s a new take on the history of capitalism, recasting the Industrial Revolution as a natural extension of the European mercantile expansion that preceded it. In Empire of Cotton, Harvard historian Sven Beckert asserts that the more familiar industrial capitalism that came of age in the nineteenth century was grounded in what he terms “war capitalism” — the relationships forged by the European conquest of the Global South by force — and, in particular, on slavery. “Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence,” he writes, “were not aberrations in the history of capitalism but at its very core.” Thus, powerful nation states were crucial to the development of industrial capitalism, first, because of their ability to subdue the peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, where the industries of Europe and the United States obtained their raw materials, and, later, because they were able to bring force to bear to prevent workers from organizing.” Beckert goes on: “[T]he nineteenth century was an age of barbarity and catastrophe, as slavery and imperialism devastated first one pocket of the globe and then another. It is the twentieth century, by contrast, that saw the weakening of imperial powers and thus allowed more of the world’s peoples to determine their own futures and shake off the shackles of colonial domination.” For Beckert, the cotton industry was central to the development of capitalism and thus of the world as we know it today. “The empire of cotton was, from the beginning,” he writes, “a site of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, farmers and merchants, workers and factory owners. In this as in so many other ways, the empire of cotton ushered in the modern world.” To prove this provocative thesis, Beckert documents the history of the cotton industry in great detail. He writes convincingly. The cotton industry, he explains, was by far the largest manufacturing industry in the world from the beginning of the Second Millennium to the dawn of the twentieth century. Even in the nineteenth century, once the Industrial Revolution (literally) got up to steam, the cotton industry dwarfed the railroad, steamship, and telegraph operators so often held up as emblematic of that era. Empire of Cotton dwells at length on the American Civil War and its impact on the rest of the world. When the war broke out in 1861, the European yarn and textile manufacturers who dominated their economies were heavily dependent on raw cotton from the slaveholding U.S. South. In key countries, the South had a near-monopoly on the cotton trade. Once the federal government imposed a blockade on southern ports, shipments of cotton across the sea slowed to a mere trickle, the product of the very few successful blockade runners. As a result, the Civil War led the European powers to build substantial new capacity to grow cotton in their rapidly expanding colonies in the Global South. This proved to be a seminal development in the history of cotton (and thus of the world), introducing the unfamiliar concept of wage labor to traditional societies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Brazil in particular) and laying the groundwork for the emergence of the anti-colonial movements that would rock the twentieth century. Fair warning to the reader who is easily bored and isn’t a speed-reader: there’s more here than you ever might have wanted to know about cotton (assuming you wanted to know anything at all). Beckert is such a careful historian that, when he sets out to illustrate a point, he includes not one, two, or even three examples but a laundry list of them. Yes, Empire of Cotton truly is A Global History, as its subtitle promises. There’s no mistaking that, because the author repeatedly cites examples from all over the globe. However, to my mind, it’s all worth it, if only for the pleasure of reading such a radical interpretation of economic history from a Harvard professor. This is powerful stuff and must reading for anyone who wishes to understand the true history of capitalism.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Balasubramaniam Vaidyanathan

    300 years back, world was a different place. Most of the countries were self sufficient. They had land for their people, food grown from the land, a shelter, customs, culture and entertainment. Yes there were wars to satisfy the ego of few powerful individuals. But common man was very much affected by them. There were merchants. Some of them wanted to trade with distant shores. Some of them brought a commodity back home. It was a fancy item and people started loving it. This commodity changed th 300 years back, world was a different place. Most of the countries were self sufficient. They had land for their people, food grown from the land, a shelter, customs, culture and entertainment. Yes there were wars to satisfy the ego of few powerful individuals. But common man was very much affected by them. There were merchants. Some of them wanted to trade with distant shores. Some of them brought a commodity back home. It was a fancy item and people started loving it. This commodity changed the world order. This book is about that commodity - Cotton. In the course of 3 centuries of its interesting journey, the world metamorphosed to the one in which we live today. We got all the -isms which govern our life today, predominantly capitalism. No other commodity would have explained the birth and growth of capitalism like cotton. Form War Capitalism to industrial capitalism to imperialism to current market - an interesting journey. It explains the birth of commodity trading, futures trading and the need for it. It also deals with the labour movements, slavery, colonialism, freedom struggles etc. When we read history of countries, we get very narrow view and often we don't get the view from the other side. This book is a ringside view of world. Make no mistake, it is very detailed and thoroughly researched ( the book lists just 120 pages for references). This book exposes the blood stained history of capitalism. Capitalism as we know today talks about free markets. But it depended on state support and protectionism for reaching today's stage. Even the concept of State got strengthened by the revenue brought in by Capitalism. This book is an accurate attempt to portray the history of world using the commodity - Cotton. Some of you might have read the book by Jared Diamond - 'Guns, Germs and Steel' which is trying to reason out the success of few countries (races) over others. I would say that this book is giving better reasons why some countries are successful than others. As it comes out open - treachery, exploitation, double standards. I would rate this book is one of the best books I've ever read.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bou

    A highly detailed history of the worldwide cotton industry and the role it played in the creating of Capitalism There is a close relation between the history of cotton and the history of Capitalism. The concept of War Capitalism was created by privately owned joint stock companies forced, with much violence, local peasants into the forced growing of cotton for the European markets. According to Beckert, War Capitalism was a prerequisite of the following Industrial Revolution, without it, there wo A highly detailed history of the worldwide cotton industry and the role it played in the creating of Capitalism There is a close relation between the history of cotton and the history of Capitalism. The concept of War Capitalism was created by privately owned joint stock companies forced, with much violence, local peasants into the forced growing of cotton for the European markets. According to Beckert, War Capitalism was a prerequisite of the following Industrial Revolution, without it, there would have been no revolution at all. At the end of the nineteenth century Europe had a large cotton manufacturing industry, completely changing the lives of the European people and the structure of the society. The American civil war changed the forced labor concept in the United States and the cotton exports dropped. This forced Brittain to look for other cotton growing countries, such as Egypt and above all India, which set in motion the colonial systems. At the end of the First World War, the cotton industry disappeared and cotton would start to play a central role in uniting the former less developed countries against their colonial masters. Today's empire of cotton continues. Just as it happened for the last 250 years, connects growers, traders, spinners, weavers, manufacturers and consumers over hugh geographical distances in ever changing spacial arrangements. This fundamental innovation, the connection across space, was first forged by connecting slavery and waged labor in the concept of War Capitalism, and has remained at the core in the empire of cotton ever since. This is a very detailed, sometimes bordering to the dull, history of the cotton empire. The fact that it is so detailed, may be to your liking if you have a serieus interest in this commodity, but paradoxically may cause you to lose your interest after a time. For me I'd gave it 2.5 stars.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ken Larsen

    This is a disappointing book about a compelling subject. The author clearly needed a stronger editor; the writing is convoluted and tiresome. Sentences often exceed 40 words, and you get the sense that three or four sentences in a row have said exactly the same thing. I finally gave up on the book with about two chapters to go and skimmed to the end. The scholarship in the book is notable. The author offers compelling evidence that the history of the Industrial Revolution is about the mechanizati This is a disappointing book about a compelling subject. The author clearly needed a stronger editor; the writing is convoluted and tiresome. Sentences often exceed 40 words, and you get the sense that three or four sentences in a row have said exactly the same thing. I finally gave up on the book with about two chapters to go and skimmed to the end. The scholarship in the book is notable. The author offers compelling evidence that the history of the Industrial Revolution is about the mechanization of the spinning and weaving of cotton. It's also clear that slavery at the time of the Civil War was not a dying economic system; it could have been sustained for decades. The book seeks to persuade the reader that colonialism was driven by cotton interests; I remain unconvinced, but hope to do further reading. I'm glad I read this book. I learned a great deal, even as one who spent much of his childhood in the cotton belt, and who worked for a cotton broker between high school and college. But reading the book was a great slog.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Moore

    If you are someone who likes to learn about how the world works or how we got to where we are , read this book. It is a searing tale of the cotton industry and how the quest for the mastery of a superior textile laid a groundwork for the international economy we live in today. A damning indictment of wage labor, it is particularly interesting and infuriating as a history of how humans moved from the farms to the factory. You also come to understand how the British - a relatively small group of pe If you are someone who likes to learn about how the world works or how we got to where we are , read this book. It is a searing tale of the cotton industry and how the quest for the mastery of a superior textile laid a groundwork for the international economy we live in today. A damning indictment of wage labor, it is particularly interesting and infuriating as a history of how humans moved from the farms to the factory. You also come to understand how the British - a relatively small group of people- ruled the world for several hundred years.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bill S.

    I don't often quit on a book half-read but in this case I made an exception. Long-winded, dense, repetitive, and much more of an academic exercise than remotely interesting. By the time I hit the fourth or fifth chapter learning nothing more (over and over and over again) than the idea that economics & military power has the ability to shape commerce (gee, really?) I moved on. I'm sure there are those who'll find this a worthy read, I'm just not one of them.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Darko Doko

    Although there are some things to remember, the book is by far tooooo long while recyclng one idea over and over. Its just too much details and data that its too much boring

  21. 4 out of 5

    J. Quantaman

    "The Empire of Cotton" by Sven Beckert is an eye opener, a tour de force, a detailed account of human exploitation on a gargantuan scale. # The eBook of fully indexed with umpteen endnotes from original sources. It comes with excellent photos, charts and diagrams. Readers who have 96 dpi monitors (or less) will need a magnifying glass to make out the small print on some of the graphics. (Someday I hope Kindle will support zoom functions for embedded graphics.) I would not recommend reading this e "The Empire of Cotton" by Sven Beckert is an eye opener, a tour de force, a detailed account of human exploitation on a gargantuan scale. # The eBook of fully indexed with umpteen endnotes from original sources. It comes with excellent photos, charts and diagrams. Readers who have 96 dpi monitors (or less) will need a magnifying glass to make out the small print on some of the graphics. (Someday I hope Kindle will support zoom functions for embedded graphics.) I would not recommend reading this eBook with an iPhone or minimum-definition eReader. # Beckert documents the origins of cotton in India and China. Indian cotton was a luxury item for aristocrats of the Roman Empire. # The British East India Company introduced cotton to Europeans and adopted technological improvements for spinning and weaving. Soon British merchants around Liverpool open sweat-shop factories and employed children from orphanages who worked 13-hour shifts in cramped, unsavory conditions. Meanwhile, the East Indian Company bought yarns and cloths from Indian cotton producers. These they sold to Africans in exchange for slaves who were sent to the Western Hemisphere to work the cotton fields. In the USA the cotton gin enabled easier cotton harvesting and processing. Soon cotton plantations in the USA supplied Europe with 90% of the raw cotton for mills. # The cotton industry has always been a government sanctioned Ponzi scheme that provides cotton clothing to well-heeled consumers at rock-bottom prices. It went hand-in-hand with colonialism of the 18th- & 19th-centuries. Beckert coins a new phrase for the cotton enterprise. He calls it WAR CAPITALISM. # Government laws have enabled the cotton industry, which has used slavery, land grabs, wage slavery, violence, rape and even genocide to further its aims. The global cotton racket throughout its history has used the same methods as do drug cartels. Yet, cotton vendors are perfectly licensed and legal. Today the USA government spends more on its own cotton producers than it gives to foreign aid. # This eBook wonderfully written and produced. I recommend it for anyone who dares to face the facts. The dark truth of human capitalism.

  22. 4 out of 5

    N.

    First off, I would recommend this book for anyone. If you are ideologically opposed to Marxism, the author doesn't try to sneak anything past you, if that helps make it more palatable. He is clear about the themes--war capitalism (primitive accumulation, in Marxist terms) gave rise to industrial capitalism, which depended on the power of the state to protect intellectual property, selectively apply protectionist trade policies, secure financial instruments like insurance and credit that allowed First off, I would recommend this book for anyone. If you are ideologically opposed to Marxism, the author doesn't try to sneak anything past you, if that helps make it more palatable. He is clear about the themes--war capitalism (primitive accumulation, in Marxist terms) gave rise to industrial capitalism, which depended on the power of the state to protect intellectual property, selectively apply protectionist trade policies, secure financial instruments like insurance and credit that allowed capital to expand across the globe, maintain standards for imported goods, build infrastructure, and, crucially, facilitate capital's rapacious search for plentiful (cheap) labor. One may possibly come away feeling that the author's politics color his viewpoint, causing him to focus excessively on labor, but he largely lets the research speaks for itself. In fact one of my complaints is that Beckert often abandons his capable prose for dry paragraphs listing dates and figures. One thing I didn't expect was to come away with a respect for the dynamism of capital, something which the author draws attention to in the final pages. It has definitely put our contemporary global economy into better focus for me. One of the key takeaways is that cheap labor is the fuel of capitalism, that capital flows to the global countryside where it can either coerce or seduce new laborers out of their local economies into the global one. I'll be watching to find out what happens when there is no more countryside to absorb.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sjancourtz

    This book will make sure you never again say "my family had nothing to do with slavery." Raising cotton, and turning it into cloth, would not have been possible without slaves. More than tobacco, more than rice, more than sugar, cotton drove the economies of nations from the East Indies to Africa to England to China to the Americas. EVERYONE was in on it. Slavers who captured ten MILLION people (talk about a holocaust!) and transported them to plantations where they'd be tortured, beaten, and wo This book will make sure you never again say "my family had nothing to do with slavery." Raising cotton, and turning it into cloth, would not have been possible without slaves. More than tobacco, more than rice, more than sugar, cotton drove the economies of nations from the East Indies to Africa to England to China to the Americas. EVERYONE was in on it. Slavers who captured ten MILLION people (talk about a holocaust!) and transported them to plantations where they'd be tortured, beaten, and worked to death in a matter of a few years. Country gentlemen in England, Ireland, and the Americas who "invested" in ships and far-off plantations and textile factories. (Where do you think Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester made their fortunes? In the West Indies, in sugar and later cotton.) Bankers all over the world who provided credit. Yankee textile owners (and the semi-enslaved young women who worked in their factories) making the cotton that took over from wool for most garments. About the only people who weren't in on it were extremists like Bronson Alcott, who wouldn't let his family wear cotton (imagine woolen dresses and underwear in a hot, humid Concord summer. Ick.) But I digress. This is very well-written, and entirely riveting.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

    “Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence, were not aberrations in the history of capitalism but at its very core.” Thus Harvard historian Sven Beckert kicks off his prodigiously researched and encompassing exploration of the first global commodity. Empire of Cotton: A Global History is that wonderful new animal in literature--an engrossing, narrative, academic non-fiction page-turner in the vein of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century and Edward Bapt “Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence, were not aberrations in the history of capitalism but at its very core.” Thus Harvard historian Sven Beckert kicks off his prodigiously researched and encompassing exploration of the first global commodity. Empire of Cotton: A Global History is that wonderful new animal in literature--an engrossing, narrative, academic non-fiction page-turner in the vein of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century and Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told. Sven Beckert exhumes copious primary sources to show the evolution of a simple plant from ancient times through the middle ages and Renaissance and to mercantile Europe, where it spurred and maintained the Industrial Revolution. It traces how slave and forced labor --war capitalism--exploded the profits and market for the textile, inspiring coal-rich England to find ways to accelerate production through new mechanical technologies. The terrible connections between war capitalism and colonialism, land expropriation, imperialism, and America's slave industry illuminate both cotton's power and impact on global politics and economies that linger even today. An excellent book worth multiple reads.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Isern

    A difficult work to finish, because it is so predictable. And yet, as an artifact, the book is fascinating to behold. Its blinkered Marxism, while tiresome, produces insights. For instance, if you slog through to the end, then on page 441 you come to Beckert's revision of Hobsbawm, which is where the contribution of his work to world history comes into focus. Read critically, the book's ponderous deployment of "war capitalism" and similar one-size-fits-all, monocausal explanations soon runs out A difficult work to finish, because it is so predictable. And yet, as an artifact, the book is fascinating to behold. Its blinkered Marxism, while tiresome, produces insights. For instance, if you slog through to the end, then on page 441 you come to Beckert's revision of Hobsbawm, which is where the contribution of his work to world history comes into focus. Read critically, the book's ponderous deployment of "war capitalism" and similar one-size-fits-all, monocausal explanations soon runs out of gas. We are left to sift through the slag for the veins of insight, which are indeed there. Blinkered inquiry is not bereft of value. In the end, though, the foremost impression from the book is one of wonder that it could be published by a commercial publisher, and win the Bancroft Prize, at this point in the 21st Century! In places, indeed high places, there persist pockets of unmitigated Marxism, forted up like fundmentalist sects, occasionally sallying forth for missionary work, determined to conserve the gospel in truth and purity, awaiting the second coming.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    This book is really hurting me: I want to read it, and I really want to stop reading it. The premise is interesting and convincing: "war capitalism" paves the way for "industrial capitalism," and the history of the cotton industry provides a great model. Not a pretty picture. But interesting. But the books screams, "I'm an academic and can't get completely out of academic writing mode completely....though sometimes, for you, dear reader, I do try .... since you're paying to read this in your free This book is really hurting me: I want to read it, and I really want to stop reading it. The premise is interesting and convincing: "war capitalism" paves the way for "industrial capitalism," and the history of the cotton industry provides a great model. Not a pretty picture. But interesting. But the books screams, "I'm an academic and can't get completely out of academic writing mode completely....though sometimes, for you, dear reader, I do try .... since you're paying to read this in your free time." It is only February 5th, and Sven Beckert has drained my 2016 supply of "indeed" tolerance to the dregs. The chapters belabor arguments and examples ad nauseam --- valuable for a complete history and for a complete academic defense of arguments, but increasingly painful for the layperson reading the book. Nonetheless, I'm determined to persist, b/c this crop is such an influential one on our lives and environment. The knowledge is (likely?) worth the pain of the read. But be warned, not the most enjoyable intake of otherwise excellent history and thinking!

  27. 4 out of 5

    Francisco Valdes

    A history of the world through the lens of the history of cotton. Global trade and the evolution of capitalism cannot be fully understood without taking a good, hard look at cotton. Very well researched although with a marginal though glaring mistake: it keeps confusing Teotihuacan with Tenochtitlan. Different cities, different epochs. In its pages, my corner of the world, La Laguna, makes several appearances. We were once *the* cotton producing region of Mexico and it determined our culture. Th A history of the world through the lens of the history of cotton. Global trade and the evolution of capitalism cannot be fully understood without taking a good, hard look at cotton. Very well researched although with a marginal though glaring mistake: it keeps confusing Teotihuacan with Tenochtitlan. Different cities, different epochs. In its pages, my corner of the world, La Laguna, makes several appearances. We were once *the* cotton producing region of Mexico and it determined our culture. The dates of the opening of the floodgates are still timed according to cotton's requirements. The local fair was known until recently as the Cotton Fair. Numerous murals and architectural references remain in our region. We have a cotton museum. DDT is still among us, literally inside us, as the soil remains soaked with this persistent pollutant. I recommend it highly.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Greg Brown

    Make no mistake: this isn't one of those cutesy pop-history books that focus in on a single subject, but an extraordinary work of history making extraordinary claims. Beckert's book is a history of power. Power deployed by the state in concert with merchants and creditors. Power used to subjugate land and people towards the goal of growing and manufacturing cotton goods. Power that upended entire cultures just to get what it wanted. For being just 450 pages (if we aren't counting the footnotes), Make no mistake: this isn't one of those cutesy pop-history books that focus in on a single subject, but an extraordinary work of history making extraordinary claims. Beckert's book is a history of power. Power deployed by the state in concert with merchants and creditors. Power used to subjugate land and people towards the goal of growing and manufacturing cotton goods. Power that upended entire cultures just to get what it wanted. For being just 450 pages (if we aren't counting the footnotes), Empire of Cotton is a long and slow read. The writing's clear and consistent throughout, but there's none of the pleasure in storytelling that you'd see in, say, Judt's Postwar. And at times the book is too encyclopedic to step up the pace. But man, this is an Important Book that I found utterly stimulating despite itself. Good stuff.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Aidan Fortner

    I guess I've been spoiled by cultural histories by Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, and Mark Kurlansky, who all write in a crisp, engaging, borderline informal style that is informative, engaging, and accessible. While I was very excited to pick up a copy of Empire of Cotton, and knew that the subject matter would require a huge scope and dense narrative, I was disappointed by the dry presentation. I wasn't expecting a little light reading, but this felt like a college textbook. I got bored and didn't f I guess I've been spoiled by cultural histories by Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, and Mark Kurlansky, who all write in a crisp, engaging, borderline informal style that is informative, engaging, and accessible. While I was very excited to pick up a copy of Empire of Cotton, and knew that the subject matter would require a huge scope and dense narrative, I was disappointed by the dry presentation. I wasn't expecting a little light reading, but this felt like a college textbook. I got bored and didn't finish it.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mr. Masterson

    Very informative but dull to read. If it were written better, I'd have given it 4-5 stars, which is weird because there were many sections in Beckert's writing that were really engaging. It's meticulously researched and detailed, but this translates into paragraphs and paragraphs of just straight data at times. I suppose Beckert may have been trying to let his research speak for itself, which is nice and all, but large sections of the book were horribly boring. I'd maybe let Beckert off the hook Very informative but dull to read. If it were written better, I'd have given it 4-5 stars, which is weird because there were many sections in Beckert's writing that were really engaging. It's meticulously researched and detailed, but this translates into paragraphs and paragraphs of just straight data at times. I suppose Beckert may have been trying to let his research speak for itself, which is nice and all, but large sections of the book were horribly boring. I'd maybe let Beckert off the hook on this and say "did you really expect an economic history NOT to be boring??" if I hadn't read Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told, which was an economic history that read like a page-turner novel. I only convinced myself to read Beckert's whole book because the information presented is valuable if you want to understand, at least partially, the historical origins of modern global capitalism. Some takeaways: - I read David Harvey's companion book to Marx's Capital Volume I this summer. One concept Marx has in the book is "primitive accumulation," his theory on how wealth and capital were accumulated to begin with. Marx says, without much historical citation, that this was a violent and illiberal process. In Empire of Cotton, Beckert describes a phenomenon he terms "war capitalism," which seemed to me to be the historical citation missing from Capital I (Beckert himself never makes this connection, but I've noticed many other goodreads reviewers have). In the early days of industrial capitalism, capital was gained through violence, war, colonialism, and slavery abroad, while enclosure laws proletarianized a population very resistant to wage labor at home. This last part was a theme throughout this history: wherever industrial capitalism expanded to, the local population had to be legally or violently coerced into becoming wage laborers, which is pretty understandable because that shit sucks. - Strong governments of emerging nation states were essential for the creation of modern global capitalism. Economies were deliberately planned. It was not a natural process. Capitalists depended on laws favorable to property ownership and capital, laws that coerced and disciplined labor, enclosure laws, strong armies/navies conquer new exploitable land and colonial empires, strong and favorable tariffs and trade laws, creation of infastructure, etc. In the early 20th century, however, governments of nation states became "Janus faced" to use Beckert's term, suddenly creating laws favorable to labor because they valued social stability and didn't want worker uprisings. Capitalists adapted with the creation of corporations, which no longer need to use big government to solve their problems. If one nation state has laws favorable to labor, you move your factories to a nation state that doesn't. And everyone knows, big government = big problems. - I did already know these were a thing, but the chapter on the late Victorian age reminded me: there were massive famines all over colonized world, but especially in India in the second half of the 19th century. In just one of the many famines, 6-10 million people died (Wikipedia says between 15-35 million people died in the various famines throughout the British Raj). These famines were created when farmers who used to grow their own food on their own land had their land enclosed in order to "incentivize" them to become wage laborers. They then grew cotton to pay rent and taxes. Now at the mercy of market prices, and now not growing their own food, they continually found themselves unable to buy enough food to survive. And there was always plenty of food to go around, too. The British officials did nothing to help them, blaming the situation on Malthusian dilemma, blaming it on Oriental laziness, etc. I have my suspicions, but I wonder why these holocausts don't get much attention.

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