EMPIRE OF COTTON by Sven Beckert


A Global History
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Beckert (History/Harvard Univ.; The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896, 2001) writes convincingly of cotton as the impetus for a world-system kind of capitalism.

Cotton, of course, has been grown and worked for millennia, long before the development of capitalism. As the author observes, initially cotton required efforts so labor-intensive that cotton goods had outsized value: “Rulers everywhere demanded cotton cloth as tribute or taxes, and indeed it might be said that cotton was present at the birth of political economy as such.” The shift in the Industrial Revolution to mass production removed some of the allure and value, moving cotton from household to factory and shifting cultivation from small plots to large plantations—and, importantly, forging international links among banks, markets, suppliers and shippers around the world. In one case study, Beckert weaves the stories of towns in the Black Forest of Germany, the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and the American South into a neat fabric. Market production meant the development of new systems of banking and credit, thus remaking the world of finance, with European credit in particular being instrumental in furthering the development of the slave economy in the United States. Beckert’s narrative sometimes threatens to grind to a halt amid an overabundance of detail, but his conclusions and asides are fascinating—as when, for example, he puts the lie to the idea that ours is an age of deindustrialization “when exactly the opposite is true, as the greatest wave of industrialization ever has overtaken the globe.” In that light, his close-up study of the cotton economy is a valuable model for the study of capitalism generally, an economic system in which slavery and colonialism were not outliers but instead integral to the whole.

Of narrower interest than Monied Metropolis but a valuable contribution all the same.

Pub Date: Dec. 2nd, 2014
ISBN: 978-0375414145
Page count: 656pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2014


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