The brutal history of cotton debunks many of the most popular myths about capitalism.

tags: capitalism, cotton

Eric Herschthal, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University, has written for Slate, the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere.

Less than a decade ago, a historian interested in the rise of capitalism would have a difficult time finding a job in a history department. The closest thing scholars wrote about capitalism was called labor history, the story of the working class. Almost no one bothered writing about the flip side, elite capitalists; to do so suggested sympathy for the enemy. The people who took capitalism seriously became economists (or bankers). Filling the void were popular accounts that celebrated the brilliance of tycoons like Andrew Carnegie and the Rothschilds, or perhaps the genius of the Industrial Revolution’s inventors—think Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. If anything like “the history of capitalism” existed, it exalted entrepreneurs and inventors, extolled the efficiency of the factory and the free market, and suggested that the whole system thrived only in the absence of a regulatory state.

Then came the Great Recession of 2008. Although some historians had already been piecing together parts of the story, “the history of capitalism” suddenly began to appear on college course lists. But what was that history, exactly? Was it just a rebranding of labor history? Did elites now matter? And if so, how would they be cast—as heroes, villains, something else? The truth is that no one knows what “the history of capitalism” is because its history is just now being written. But if there is any indication of what it might look like, it appears in Sven Beckert’s remarkable and unsettling new book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Beckert insists that many of the myths we tell ourselves about capitalism—how it functions best when government gets out of the way, how it broke clean from slavery—are as false today as they were during its 500-year history. In Beckert’s account, not only does slavery play a pivotal role in capitalism’s rise, but so does the state. Governments supplied the guns, built the roads, enacted the tariffs, and regulated the markets that made, and continue to make, capitalism thrive.

Beckert, a recently tenured history professor at Harvard, has also decided to bring back the elite. But they’re cast, now, in a far harsher light. Constantly hovering at the margins are the millions of people who they exploited to make their fortunes—to make, in other words, the capitalist world we live in today. Beckert tells this story not through elites, exactly, but through the commodity that was central to their wealth: cotton. Before the 18th century, cotton was a rare commodity for Europeans. Yet in places all across the globe, from Peru and Mesoamerica to Japan, Egypt, and India, cotton grew in abundance. It was not the dominant crop it would become by the end of the 19th century, but each of these regions had vibrant local markets. They grew their own cotton, spun it into yarn, and then hand-wove it into textiles, with individual households doing most of the work themselves.

By the early 19th century, Britain, and soon all of Europe, had robust cotton manufacturing industries. But they relied on imported cotton—and no source for those imports was more important than the United States. On the eve of the Civil War, the U.S. supplied Great Britain with 77 percent of its raw cotton, 90 percent of France’s, and 92 percent of Russia’s. At the same time, cotton-manufacturing industries emerged in northern U.S. cities, propelling the U.S.’s own Industrial Revolution. In fact, Beckert writes, the United States was unique among all other industrializing nations in that it both grew and manufactured its own cotton. The trick, of course, was that all these new cotton-manufacturing nations depended on slave-grown cotton. Like other new scholars of capitalism, Beckert drives home the point that slavery was not a hidebound institution that capitalism destroyed, but an integral one that made capitalism possible...

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