A Book Review by Karyn Pomerantz of : The Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert. London, Penguin Books 2014.
The cultivation of cotton and the production of cotton materials, made profitable by racist slavery and genocide, birthed capitalism. The Empire of Cotton describes the history of cotton production from before the Christian era through present day outsourcing to Asian sweat shops heavily staffed by impoverished women and children. Mexico, Brazil, India, China and Egypt also grew cotton yet never developed any new economic structures to maximize its value as England did.
In the 19th Century, England’s cotton trade and manufacturing transformed British feudalism into a capitalist system using violence, governmental interventions, and economic coercion to create a working class employed by a class of land and factory owners, and their financiers. Beckert graphically depicts the inhumane labor practices of chattel and wage slavery. Enslaved people were whipped heavily to increase production (vividly described in in Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told). British workers turned cotton grown in the US South by African people into garments for the growing middle and ruling classes. In more modern times, people in Bangladesh and New York work in confined spaces enveloped in dust and noise, often killed by fires and building collapses, and paid unlivable wages.
Berkert characterizes the genocidal displacement of Native Americans to secure land for cotton plantations and the brutal enslavement of Africans for free labor as “war capitalism” and government interventions, such as criminalizing and jailing workers for mistakes or absences, as “industrial capitalism.”
Successful “cotton imperialism” required 4 conditions:
- A robust infrastructure of roads and electricity
- A large and disciplined workforce
- Government interventions and policies, such as labor laws and trade agreements, that supported the class of growers
- A financial system that provided credit and insurance
While other countries used violence and coercion to force people into cotton production, they didn’t have the roads to take the cotton and clothes to the ports for shipment to England. People grew cotton (and food) to supply their own needs, farming the shared land adjacent to their homes, “the commons.”
In England, the feudal lords abolished “the commons” with the Enclosure Laws that made it illegal to use these collectively farmed lands, resulting in the loss of income, pushing 1000s of families into newly developing cities. Living and working conditions were squalid with open sewers, scant medical care and food, and no leisure time. Children as young as 8 worked over 12 hours each day performing rapid, repetitive movements and physically punished for any infractions.
Meanwhile, Native Americans lost their lands and lives, and enslaved Africans lost their liberty and families. Harsher whippings increased productivity as the demand for cotton increased. Without enslaved labor, the US would not have generated the wealth that made it a superpower. Capitalism required their labor, enriching plantation owners, textile manufacturers, shipping magnates, insurers, and bankers in the North and South. (Farrow A, Lang J, Frank J. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. NY, Ballantine, 2005).
The same class of plantation and factory owners exploited the labor of white and black adults and children in England and the US. They suffered atrocious conditions that led to rebellions through slave revolts, sabotage, and strikes. Unfortunately, white and black cotton workers rarely united in their common interests.