University of Texas at Austin
Cross-posted from Not Even Past
Sven Beckert places cotton at the center of his colossal history of modern capitalism, arguing that the growth of the industry was the “launching pad for the broader Industrial Revolution.” Beckert follows cotton through a staggering spatial and chronological scope. Spanning five thousand years of cotton’s history, with a particular focus on the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, Empire of Cotton is a tale of the spread of industrialization and the rise of modern global capitalism. Through emphasizing the international nature of the cotton industry, Beckert exemplifies how history of the commodity and global history are ideally suited to each other. Produced over the course of ten years and with a transnational breadth of archive material, Empire of Cotton is a bold, ambitious work that confronts challenges that many historians could only dream of attempting. The result is a popular history that is largely successful in attaining the desirable combination of being both rigorous and entertaining.
Beckert frames his history of cotton with two intertwining terms: “war capitalism” and “industrial capitalism.” Both terms lack precise definitions but Beckert generally refers to their underlying themes. A play on the term “war communism” from the Russian Civil War, “war capitalism” was a period when European statesmen and capitalists established their dominance in global cotton networks, often through violent, imperialist means of conquest and expansion. Beckert counters the notion that Europeans controlled the cotton industry as a result of scientific innovation, arguing that, “Europeans became important to the worlds of cotton not because of new inventions or superior technologies, but because of their ability to reshape and then dominate global cotton networks.” “Industrial capitalism” evokes the more discreet ways in which states intervened to protect the interests of global capitalists through more diplomatic channels, preserving the initial gains made through “war capitalism.” Neither concept is exclusive, with “war capitalism” and “industrial capitalism” continually interacting with one another and overlapping chronologically, as Beckert underscores how “industrial capitalism’s institutional innovations facilitated war capitalism’s death.” Continue reading “Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert (2015)”