Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert Essay

October 14, 2020 by Essay Writer

Cotton is a very humble material. It is not flashy, not expensive, and can be found in the majority of clothing articles around the world. It is sturdy, comfortable and easy to wash. Anyone can find a few cotton T-shirts or undergarments in their wardrobe. However, there is a reason why cotton is called “white gold” in many economic manuals and tractates. Cotton became a core material for the foundation of modern industrial capitalism, as it was, and still is one of the main raw materials necessary for the creation of cheap, comfortable, and durable clothes. Its influence on the history of humankind is massive, as it served as the foundation for the prosperity to some countries, while painting others as targets for brutal military and economic expansion. This subject is thoroughly researched in Sven Beckert’s book, called “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.” It reviews and criticizes capitalist practices throughout its history through the prism of the cotton trade, observing its evolution from humble regional trade and practices to massive multinational business.

One of the countries that profited the most from cotton’s widespread popularity around the world were the United States of America. Their rise to becoming a cotton-manufacturing powerhouse is analyzed in Chapter 5, called “Slavery Takes Command.” The author explains the reasons for such rapid grown by stating that the USA was destined to become the world’s cotton farm due to the having the three main components required for the production of raw cotton: slaves, territory, and money. American climate was perfect for growing cotton, it possessed a great deal of land open for expansion, and it was a prime market for slave trade, which ensured that the plantations would never suffer from a lack of laborers. Lastly, America was a country rich with resources and wealth, meaning that it had the capabilities of purchasing labor and technology whenever required.

The author connects cotton trade with the slave trade, thus stating that coercion into labor was one of the key factors behind war capitalism. Ironically, due to how cheap cotton was, it was made a perfect material for making clothes for slaves. Thus, a revolving cycle was formed – slaves collected raw cotton, and the Metropolia produced clothes used for slaves. The reasons why cotton production rose so quickly in the USA is because they used slaves brought for Africa. In other countries of the world like India and China, the attempts to indenture and coerce the population were met with resistance. In Saint-Dominque, a revolt overthrew the European plantation owners, effectively cutting off one of Europe’s largest cotton plantation sites. The USA on the other hand, was in no such danger, due to the slaves being separated and possessing, according to Tench Coxe, “no artillery nor arms.”

After exploring the importance of indentured labor in the formation of capitalism, Beckert moves on to another trait attributed to war capitalism, which is the forceful invasion of the native markets. The author’s argument is that many European countries used economic warfare on regional manufacturers in India and China in order destroy local enterprises by offering cheaper and higher-quality goods. In so doing, they would free the population to be employed in the only industry the West wanted from the East – raw cotton production. These policies were meant to curb the East from growing and eventually turn them into agrarian societies with no means of overthrowing their colonial masters. According to Tench Coxe, these measures would force the native population of Asian countries “to turn to raising cotton instead of making piece goods they cannot sell.”

Thus, Beckert outlines three staples on which War Capitalism resides: coercion into labor, military and economic domination, and industrial superiority. Slavery as a key component is required for war capitalism as a source of cheap labor, military expansion is needed to acquire new lands to be used for plantations, and industrial superiority goes hand in hand with the economic domination of less developed markets. War capitalism served as a foundation for industrial capitalism, as it created industrial centers in Europe and markets all around the world. It also created an unfair balance, where the advanced countries sold high-quality products, while the colonies and less-developed countries were used as resource bases.

Of course, not everyone was happy about the brutal New World Order brought by War Capitalism. The revolt in Saint-Dominique which cut worldwide cotton trade in half at the time of its occurrence, rose many concerns among the business owners and observers alike. The sheer amount of brutality towards slaves made the business seem like a ticking time bomb, which would explode in an inevitable revolt. Still, by the majority of accounts, as the author had stated, the demise of war capitalism was far off, as those with riches, wealth, and arms under their control supported it. Violence, expropriation, and warfare motivated by economic reasons, thus, spread across the world. As somberly mentioned by Beckert in the ending line to the chapter, “throughout France, the German lands, Switzerland, the United States, Lombardy, and elsewhere, capitalists tried to follow the path laid down by Manchester.”

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