Cotton, Coercion, and Capitalism

A sweeping history aims to change the way we think about the origins of capitalism.


Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert, Alfred A. Knopf, 640 pages, $17.95

It's boom time for left-leaning histories of capitalism. After a long lull for the genre, 2014 saw the English translation of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a surprise bestseller, and the publication of the Harvard historian Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton. While the latter hasn't matched Piketty's commercial success, Empire made a splash in academia and is widely recognized as a significant work, winning the Bancroft Prize, being named finalist for both the Pulitzer and Cundill prizes, and getting tabbed by The New York Times as one of the 10 best books of that year.

While Piketty is ultimately an economist trying to wring mathematically comparable data from widely disparate historical sources, Beckert offers a vividly reshaped sense of the past. F.A. Hayek once wrote, with particular emphasis on histories of capitalism, that "political opinion and views about historical events ever have been and always must be closely connected," and that the "historian is in this respect at least one step nearer to direct power over public opinion than is the theorist." Now out in paperback, Empire of Cotton is likely to influence public opinion, both directly and indirectly, for years to come.

The core of the book covers the crucial decades from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the 19th century. It offers a powerful retelling of the economic history of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of modern capitalism, one centered around cotton and the textile production that it made possible. Beckert argues that cotton textiles were the key manufactured product in an integrated capitalist economy, one that reshaped not only northern England but much of the world.

This alone is fascinating, and may change a great deal of how we think about the economic past. In the American historical memory of the late 18th century, the triangle trade of "molasses to rum to slaves" figures so large that the musical 1776 features a song by that title, meant to show New England's complicity with slavery but leaving the cotton and textiles trades out of the picture. For the 19th century, heavy industry tends to loom larger in depictions of industrialization than does the production of clothing. Beckert's corrective shows very persuasively not only that "the growth of cotton manufacturing soon made it the center of the British economy," but that it became "the driving commodity behind the Industrial Revolution…there was of course inventiveness and innovation in other industries, but cotton was the only one with a global scope."

Alfred A. Knopf

That reshaping was no mere result of supply and demand, Beckert argues. It depended on, and created the incentive for, an extraordinary level of brutal intervention, from the imperialist conquest of India's hinterland to the expansionist wars of the American frontier to, especially, the slave economy of the American South. The huge growth in productive potential created an industry that was desperately hungry for inputs, including factory labor, enslaved labor, and expropriated land, as well as for consumer markets, gained if necessary by conquest and suppression of the conquered countries' domestic industries and economies. Empire of Cotton is not just another study of human history retold through one or another mundane product; it is a conscious attempt to explode what Beckert considers the ideological myths of capitalism.

A range of ideological interests have been well-served by obscuring how central the cotton-producing slave economy of the South was to the emergence of the modern economic world. Even before the war, southern apologists for slavery liked to paint the plantation as a kind of extended household, hierarchical but in a more familial way than northern factories. They denied that the cotton economy was ruled by economic logic in the way that northern and British industrial capitalism was, and they tried to align themselves with an imagined older aristocratic order that capitalism was displacing. The propagandists for the Lost Cause continued to spread this myth for more than a century after the Civil War.

But both the liberal and the Marxist historical imagination were also very comfortable with a sharp dichotomy between slavery and industrial capitalism. Marxist historiography understood capitalism to be a discrete historical era with a mode of production distinctive to it, one that overcame and destroyed the feudal mode; this was the conflict that Marx himself thought was playing out in the Civil War. Northern American liberals and believers in wage-based free labor were happy to deny any real contamination of liberal capitalism by the vanquished slave system.

Some of the latter impulse persisted with the 20th-century notion that slavery's inefficiency meant that it would have been doomed with or without war and abolition (a claim Adam Smith anticipated and denied in The Wealth of Nations). Beckert counters this by documenting how important the capital stock value of slave owners' claims on four million persons was to a vast financial economy. These slaves were not only workers whose productivity might be compared (unfavorably) with that of wage-laborers in the north. They were collateral, a store of wealth, as well as a source of income on a tremendous scale. The slaves' capital value was greater than the value of the north's whole industrial capital stock.

And despite the romantic stories that plantation owners' grandchildren told themselves, the plantation owners were savvy financial operators who used this store of value to its utmost. The debt-fueled expansion of cotton cultivation depended on mortgaged human bodies, and its beneficiaries understood that very well. Whatever plausible futures might have existed at the time of the American Revolution, by the 1850s and '60s slaves made up far too much of American wealth for there to have been a glide path to freedom.

But Beckert's history is global in scope, and the American South is not its only concern. He aims to show the entanglement of industrial capitalism not just with the power of slave owners and slave traders, but with state power at home in the industrializing countries, and with imperial power abroad.

Here I want to pause to discourage classical liberal and libertarian readers from dismissing the claim by semantics, denying that conquest, protectionism, slavery, subsidies, or forced integration into supply chains could ever count as "capitalism." Such forms of coercion may not fit a libertarian vision of what capitalism could and should be; but that is quite distinct from whether they were central features of the historical, actually existing phenomenon that was eventually called by that name.

I do not think Beckert is always careful about the relationship between the thing that he names "capitalism" and other phenomena, such as industrialization; in his brief treatment of the late 20th century, he identifies Indian socialist and Chinese and Soviet communist industrialization as mere variants of "capitalism." But in the European and especially British core of his narrative in the 18th and 19th centuries, the distinction does not much matter. That is where and when the Industrial Revolution happened; that's the economic development whose benefits liberals are happy to claim for capitalism. Beckert's history of the political economy of that world can't be held at arm's length simply by denying that the ugly parts of it count; his argument is precisely that they are part of the integrated whole. Perhaps further research will weaken that claim, but it's a claim to be empirically grappled with, not semantically waved away.

Moreover, this book is a critical history of capitalism that understands the power of markets—not only the explosion of productive power, but the information-transmitting function of prices, the drive toward quality control and standardization, the smoothing effects of futures markets that become possible once commodities of predictable and interchangeable quality become available, and more. While Beckert draws a great deal of attention to the planned and coercive structure of manufacturing and factory production, when it comes to commercial trade he is clear that "the global system, in effect, was built not from a central, imperial directive, but rather by myriad actors with local and diverse connections often solving very local problems." His discussion of cotton prices in the vital Liverpool exchange, and how they affected and were affected by ripples from around the world, shows his appreciation for the system's complexity. To defend capitalism against Beckert's critiques will require much more than restatements of commonplace definitions about markets, however true they may be.

The beginning and end of Beckert's book are much less persuasive than the story told at the core of the narrative. The concluding section offers banal and somewhat confused reflections on postwar globalized textile markets and the shift in both cotton-growing and textile production to the global south, along with some pious hopes that we might gain "the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world's people—an empire of cotton that is not only productive, but also just." These final thoughts might be freely ignored as lying outside the historian's expertise.

The beginning poses greater difficulties, as Beckert thinks it crucial to his story. It builds up a distinct vision of the pre-industrial European economic system, under the label of "war capitalism." This is in part what Marxists call the "primitive accumulation" at the foundation of capitalism: the openly violent expropriation of land, capital, and human labor in early modernity, in which early capitalists simply stole the wealth of the world rather than, as later, squeezing profit through the exploitation of wage-paid workers. Beckert never uses the "primitive" phrase, not even to say why not. This might be simply because he wished to escape the long shadow of Marxist history in telling a critical history of capitalism, or to avoid being drawn into interminable intra-Marxist disputes about the meaning and importance of the accumulation. But I think it is more than that.

Beckert means for "war capitalism" to encompass mercantilist imperialism in the 16th through 18th centuries as well as the slave systems of the 19th. He wants "war capitalism" to be the name of a kind of continuity between systems that long preceded industrialization or liberal economics and systems that survived well into the era that we normally consider capitalism's heyday. It was not, in other words, some discontinuous early stage.

But the case for this continuity is, at best, underdeveloped. His history of a multipolar early modern world with distinct regional cotton economies, one in which Europe barely figured, is fascinating. But connections from that era to later rest on hints: "some shrewd observers surely noted that the first European cotton producers [in the 1500s] failed at least in part because they had not subjugated those people who supplied them with cotton. It was a lesson that would not be forgotten." Such passive-voice pronouncements lack the extensive documentation that we find in the book's strongest sections; indeed, they lack any documentation of any actor who might remember a lesson from 1560 Germany in 1780 Britain. The attempt to draw preindustrial contact between Europeans and Turkey, India, West Africa, and Egypt tightly into the history of the industrial era falls flat.

Even the book's valuable central chapters are hardly flawless. All too often, Beckert's focus on cotton leads him to ignore other industrial sectors that might compete with it for land, labor, capital, and political power. The last, at least, is given some attention in the context of the run-up to the Civil War. And he is clear enough that subsistence agriculture and traditional cotton farming and weaving competed, often successfully, with the cotton monoculture and with industrial spinning and weaving. But once industrialism takes hold, other sectors become invisible.

This might not be a serious problem in telling the history of the first, cotton- and textile-led, industrial revolution. But it gets progressively worse as time goes on, and is a source of serious confusion by the time Beckert discusses rich countries' 20th-century shift out of textile manufacturing. The idea that land, labor, and capital could increasingly find higher returns elsewhere in growing economies simply plays no part in his explanation for this transformation, even though by now it is a familiar thought that developing countries tend to grow out of an early emphasis on textiles as they move up the value chain.

This neglect of other sectors also means that protectionist tariffs and other trade barriers occupy a very strange place in the book, which presents them as apparently costless boons to each country's cotton manufacturing. This was, of course, how the cotton industrialists themselves described the protections they sought, and Beckert has immersed himself in their documentary history. But that is no excuse for treating their word as the last word, for not looking at where the costs fell. In his eagerness to explode myths and show that capitalism emerged out of state planning, Beckert almost certainly overemphasizes the importance of protectionist industrial policy. His own account of the jaw-dropping advances in productivity brought on by early technological improvements—a 370-fold increase in spinning productivity in 30 years in Britain, for example—is easily enough to explain revolutionary economic transformation.

While he exhaustively documents interventions by European states to subsidize and protect their domestic cotton industries in order to show that capitalism was centrally dependent on the emerging modern state, Beckert does very little to establish the actual importance of such interventions compared with the scale of the underlying economic and technological changes. Indeed, he writes that of all the "market making" activities that states engaged in, the "most important of all" were "the road building, canal digging, and railway construction that characterized assertive states in the first half of the nineteenth century." But these "most important" interventions occupy two sentences, a tiny fraction of the space given to protectionism and various forms of industrial policy. And the costs of protectionist policies to other sectors of each country's economy—including its industrial economy—go unmentioned, as if cotton were not only the most important part of capitalism but the whole thing.

But at its best this is an extraordinary book that sets a new standard for history across long periods of time and worldwide space. If Hayek is right about the influence of the historians, Beckert's text may well re-set the terms for how the history of capitalism is understood for a generation to come. Defenders of modern market economies have been issued a powerful challenge, and one worth meeting.