Empire of Cotton
Allen Lane, 2014
In the seventeenth century, heavily-armed European traders—English, Dutch, Danish, and French—set out to dominate the lucrative business of cotton cloth by force of arms. Taking ever more direct control of cotton-producing regions like Bengal, they cut out the old overland trade via the Ottoman Empire in order to establish sea-borne empires of their own in an effort to capture the profits of a growing European appetite for a finer, more versatile material than could be made out of local wool or linen. This realignment of the global cotton trade, continuing into the eighteenth century, rested not on free markets but on “the military subjugation of competitors and a coercive European mercantile presence.” What was happening was not so much merchant capitalism, writes Sven Beckert, as “war capitalism.”
Empire of Cotton is as much a story about empire as it is about cotton. Just as the early modern states of Europe rose on the back of global trade networks they helped to violently re-organise, so the development of states’ capacities, and the unfolding relations of production in both field and factory, were tied together in an intricate historical dance. It was cotton, Beckert argues—with its “two labor-intensive stages,” first growing and harvesting the crop, then turning it into cloth—that “wove continents together” for the first time. But it was less the weaving together than the separation of those two stages by oceans, empires, and lines of credit, that began the world-historical process of capitalist transformation.
Despite their arms and capital, merchants’ control over cotton-producers remained limited in places with well-established networks of kinship and credit backed by local industrial practices. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, though, a completely new system of cotton production dramatically took off, a system that would be definitively in the hands of capitalists, not workers. This was the new form that would characterise the empire of cotton at the height of its power and importance—when cotton was a crucial factor in national and international politics, and when the largest proportions of the world’s men, women, and children worked, one way or another, in its shadow.
At one end of this new system was the slave plantation. There, war capitalism was extended to the violent control, and legal ownership, of labourers’ very bodies. European colonists in the New World had exploited enslaved Africans for centuries, especially in the production of high-value crops like sugar and tobacco, but as demand for cotton in Europe continued to grow, slave-masters looked to enter that arena too. Cotton grown by slaves in the Caribbean and Brazil rapidly displaced Indian cotton in world markets towards the end of the eighteenth century, to be overtaken in the nineteenth by the slave plantations of the new United States. There, African-descended slaves transported from the old south raised, picked, ginned, and pressed millions of pounds of cotton each year, on land violently wrested from native inhabitants, for the profit of white masters and their distant financiers.
That cotton, shipped most likely via New Orleans, New York, and Liverpool, found its way on the other side of the Atlantic to the factories of Lancashire and the heart of the Industrial Revolution. There, amid the deafening noise and mutilating danger of the new coal- and steam-powered machines, a force of wage labourers often made up of women and children spun and wove raw slave-grown cotton into the “muslins” that clothed the people of Europe. Not only that, but the cloth produced in such enormous quantities by the new industrial techniques—both machinery and discipline—was increasingly sold back to India itself at prices cheaper than local producers could match. Thus power and profit were realigned on a global scale, not only by masters, merchants, and factory-owners, but by the new industrial states that protected their property rights and provided the infrastructure—the rules, regulations, roads, canals, and bridges—that made markets work.
Only Civil War in the United States, from 1861 to 1865, halted the rise of this leviathanic iteration of the cotton empire. For a time, the disruption shifted importance back to the cotton producers of India. It also provoked an expansion of production in Egypt, driven by its ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha, that used the coerced labour of Egyptian peasants to work enormous plantations owned by the Pasha himself and his allies. The war’s global impact underlined the fragility of international supply lines and encouraged Europe’s industrial empires to invest effort and capital in the cotton-producing capabilities of their own imperial territories in Asia and Africa. Once again, the pattern of global production was reshaped by the state’s capacity to make both war and law.
While the Civil War freed American cotton growers from slavery, power remained largely in the hands of those who owned property and capital. Without the right to compel labour by force, cotton planters sought to control their former slaves through share-cropping and wage-labour arrangements. Whites in the cotton South manipulated local law to deprive free blacks of mobility, undercutting the competitive labour market. In other cotton regions, too, legal regimes controlled by owners and imperialists disempowered labourers in order to support profitable production. At the other end of the chain, wage workers in the factories used unions and democratic politics to negotiate for better wages and conditions; but in doing so, they squeezed profits and increased pressure on producers at the margins of empire.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, new empires of cotton emerged in Japan, Mexico, and Brazil, challenging Britain’s dominance in global production. Then came the revolt of the margins, and the series of anti-colonial movements that brought down European empires in the wake of the Second World War. In India, for example, nationalists like Mohandas Gandhi—who championed local, pre-industrial cotton production as a symbol of India’s old ways—forged alliances with capitalists like Purshotamadas Thakurdas and Naval Tata who saw that with independence they could exploit wage differentials and turn the tides on the old imperial centres, reversing the flow of cotton goods from Europe to India that had begun in the nineteenth century. Today over half the world’s cotton is not only grown in India and China, but processed there too.
Yet Beckert’s story does not end with a straightforward victory for the once-oppressed postcolonial nations. The problem is that business corporations, once so deeply embedded in their own particular states, have come to wield a power that transcends the boundaries of nation-states and politics. “Workers today,” he writes, “are increasingly at the mercy of corporations that can easily shift all forms of production around the globe.” Rather than the eclipse of the state, this new dynamic has forced states to compete for corporate investment, not least (though Beckert doesn’t exactly say so) by turning the techniques of “war capitalism” back on their own citizens. For Beckert, this change represents just one more turn in “capitalism’s endless revolution.”
Empire of Cotton‘s greatest achievement lies in framing capitalism as a process, rather than an ideal state of affairs—a historical chain of cause and effect rather than a static condition that can be abstractly analysed. Its other great achievement is to show how deeply connected that process has been with the history of empires and states, politics and power. Together those contributions should make it impossible for anyone to hold onto the vision of a pure, rational, and essentially stateless capitalism that has had such a powerful influence on western politics for the last half-century. Behind every job creator, every inventor and entrepreneur, every hero of libertarian fantasy, there has been a deep structure of coercion, an empire, a wave of violence that they happened to be riding.
With all its focus on global connectivity, though, Empire of Cotton is also a story of separation—the disruption of networks; the severance of communities from their land; the wrenching of men and women from their former lives and homes into enslavement. The separation of growing and harvesting from spinning and weaving is what, for Beckert, made cotton the first capitalist commodity. He could have gone further. At the heart of his story, the story of capitalism, is the separation of labourers from the value of their labour, the creation of a distance that became a field of power and struggle. But that separation is also a source of tension, and even of contradiction.
Cotton is no longer harvested by human hands; nor is it spun by them, or woven by them. What if all value were, in the same way, finally to snap loose from its moorings in the need for labour? The sea-faring Europeans of the seventeenth century could little conceive of the empire of cotton, or the modern world they would help to create. They did know there was something else out there. “Capitalism’s endless revolution” is not our only conceivable future. It will remain, for the time being, a vitally important object of historical investigation.
Tom Cutterham  is the Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford. He is a contributing member of the early American history blog, The Junto.