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Book Review: Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Sven Beckert)

“Empire Of Cotton” is really two books. First, it’s an exhaustive exposition of the history of cotton as a textile raw material. That’s about 80% of the book, and by exhaustive I mean very, very exhaustive. Second, and unfortunately dominating, it’s a puerile, scattered, self-contradictory and confused attack on the Great Boogeyman “Capitalism,” along with sustained criticism of anything originating in or related to European culture. This book is a sort of “Occupy For Eggheads.” But not for very clear-thinking eggheads.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with political screeds. If it had been well written, this would have been a reasonable political screed, sort of a Spartacist historical analysis for academics. It would have attracted the same people who always read such things, who believe howlers like Stalin ruined the righteous Russian Revolution founded by the great Lenin and that Trotsky would have Made It All Much Better, if he hadn’t been icepicked. But the book is instead a badly written political screed masquerading as an analysis of the cotton trade. I feel cheated.

Aside from its overt politics, “Empire Of Cotton” is actually more a book about the Industrial Revolution than cotton. Cotton is used as the progenitor and proxy of the entire Industrial Revolution, in order to erect around that discussion a political screed. Beckert seems to think, and other reviewers seem to think, that his accomplishment has little to do with cotton as such. Instead, he imagines himself heroically demolishing a range of myths relating to the Industrial Revolution, and demonstrating the resulting evils of “capitalism.” The truths he puts forth are, roughly, (a) factory workers in the Industrial Revolution had unpleasant, difficult and frequently brutal lives; (b) Western states arranged legal structures to facilitate industrial growth; (c) non-Western states were pushed around by Western states, frequently in nasty ways; (d) slavery was instrumental in certain aspects of the Industrial Revolution; and (e) some people got rich in the Industrial Revolution. But Beckert is somehow unaware that these things are commonplaces, known today and known then, and bemoaned then as now. A search for “Dickens” in Beckert’s book returns—wait for it!—zero results!

Beckert never makes his precise political argument completely clear, other than Europeans Are Bad, though he is clearly influenced by Marxism. The word “capitalism” is used continuously without definition and with a variety of meanings. In the first 20% of the book, which contains most of the overt politics, (a) it is actually “war capitalism,” (b) it is only practiced by Europeans, all other cultures being pure and wonderful, and apparently pacifistic, (c) said Europeans did not invent or add anything, only took the inventions and work of others and caused harm, (d) it has no benefits to anyone, and (e) it is nearly exclusively based on slavery.

One big problem with the book is its constant bias. Beckert makes no pretense of objectivity—he is too busy being the vanguard of the proletariat. Among other things, he shows his bias continuously by his choice of words. Europeans “stole” metals from the Americas (leaving aside that the occupants themselves were constantly shifting “ownership” in violent wars, and weren’t getting the metals out themselves). Europeans are repeatedly sneeringly referred to as “ignorant” “barbarians” dressed in “skins and linen,” while the rest of the world apparently relaxed in advanced cotton luxury, free men all until Colonialism and Imperialism ruined their day. Africans who wanted different choices in cotton textiles are, according to Beckert, “dynamic and discerning,” though the quotes he uses to prove that actually calls them “varied and capricious.” Sure, the words Beckert uses may be the same thing ultimately, but Beckert chooses the most glowing adjectives to apply to any non-European in every single instance. (And he rarely stoops to pointing out that the Africans were dynamically and discerningly choosing those cotton textiles in trade for the other Africans they had captured in wars and were handing over to slavery—which of course is purely the Europeans’ fault and doing).

Coupled with vocabulary bias are Beckert’s ill-conceived and factually-unsupported obsessions. One obsession is alleged theft by the evil Europeans of the intellectual property of the pure and good peoples of the rest of the world. For example, when the English began to dominate the international trade of raw cotton and cotton textiles, Beckert believes that the English “appropriated Asian knowledge.” (Here, he means India. Sometimes, when he says Asia, he means China too, without any consistency.) In the span of two pages, he uses the loaded word “appropriate,” meaning “steal,” six times. Presumably the evil English tortured the hapless Indian weavers for their secrets? No, the nefarious “appropriation” consisted of “European manufacturers, supported by their various national governments, collect[ing] and shar[ing] knowledge about Indian production techniques.” They “closely observed Indian ways of manufacturing.” They “wrote reports on Indian woodblock printing techniques, based on their observations.” They “investigated how Indian artisans produced chintz.” Oh, the horror! The underhandedness! Truly, the depths of depravity of the thief know no bounds! (Naturally, the vastly greater modern transfers of English technology back to India, where productivity in the textile industries is nonetheless still abysmally low, are not called “appropriation.”)

And after all the Sturm und Drang about theft and “assimilation” of Indian technology, and the sweeping conclusion that “Asia [meaning India? China?] from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century remained the most important source of cotton manufacturing and, especially, printing technology,” Beckert gives a grand total of how many specific examples of technology that was “appropriated” or “sourced”? Zero. Go figure.

Then, two chapters later, Beckert says that all British cotton manufacturing was “entirely dependent upon imports,” namely “Asian technologies and African markets.” (Let’s leave aside how an export market can be an import.) But he never says what those technologies were, and then he says, referring to the first British water mill in 1784, it “was unlike anything the world had seen.” Later, he refers to “British tinkerers’ revolutionary methods for the production of cotton yarn.” If you actually parse the facts Beckert sets out, it’s obvious that for millennia there was glacial, incremental progress in cotton technology, and in fact all real advances were either directly invented first in the West, or first put there to appropriate, productive uses. Beckert just doesn’t want to admit that, because it might put Europeans in a positive light. So he simply makes fantasy statements about “appropriating” and “importing” (unspecified) technology.

Beckert’s other obsession is his invented term “war capitalism.” He loves this term. Loves, loves, loves. It is all purpose—it means a vast range of things, every single one of which puts Europeans in a bad light. At one point, he defines “war capitalism,” as “Imperial expansion, slavery and land expropriations.” It’s a bit strange to define a politico-economic concept by referring to the supposed impacts of it. At another, he says “war capitalism—exactly because violence was its fundamental characteristic—was portable.” So apparently it’s violence that marks out war capitalism from “traditional” capitalism (which is also never defined, but apparently simultaneously means state control and support AND total laissez-faire). But a few pages later, he says “Europeans gambled on the efficacy of war capitalism again and again: each time they succeeded in planting new fields, in coercing more slaves, in finding additional capital, they enabled the production of more cotton fabrics at cheaper prices, and they pushed their cotton rivals to the periphery.” So apparently non-violent aggressive competition, scientific studies and investment also all characterize war capitalism. Beckert uses war capitalism throughout as a Humpty Dumpty word, meaning nothing more or less than he wants in the case of each use, most useful for always casting a miasma over anything European as bad—even if what they’re doing is simply advancing human happiness by selling better products cheaper to poor people.

War capitalism is all powerful, except when it’s not. For example, Beckert goes on and on, for many pages in many places, about how war capitalism was used to subjugate India, keep it as a captive market, and require generation of raw cotton for English manufacturers. But then he admits that despite aggressive efforts for decades, “Europeans only very superficially penetrated India’s cotton growing. Western merchants had no impact whatsoever on how cotton was produced in the Indian countryside. They had just as little impact on the ways cotton moved from its producers to the traders on the coast. British efforts to grow cotton on large farms with wage labor failed spectacularly, because labor could not be mobilized.” What happened to the continuous violence that war capitalism used to force everyone to do its bidding?

Of course, “war capitalism” isn’t capitalism at all as traditionally understood. What Beckert is referring to is really the simple and well-understood historical concept of mercantilism (without the emphasis on bullion), coupled with frequent reference to the violence inherent in the pre-modern world (but only pointed out when committed by Europeans, of course). But “mercantilism” is not sexy enough and doesn’t sound original, and Beckert can’t use that to imply that the modern West is simply the old West with a glossy veneer, still wholly dependent on violence and exploitation (until wonderful socialism arrives, doubtless).

The mask slips from Beckert in other ways, too. The best example is that he repeatedly quotes the odious and thankfully dead historian Eric Hobsbawm, an unrepentant Stalinist, for general principles of history, such as that the Industrial Revolution was “the most important event in world history.” That he goes to such a source for (banal) statements, when very few if any other historians are cited other than in footnotes, should tell us something about Beckert.

There are lots of facts in this book (lots of repetition, too). Most are apolitical, so if you try hard enough you can separate out the dross that Beckert has layered on top. If you read the book with a practice and informed eye, a different story arises. That’s the story of Western heroism—how a small group of dynamic, risk-taking men took the entire world out of the Malthusian Trap by their actions, and thereby benefited the entire world (and themselves, if they didn’t die in the attempt, as most did). They should be celebrated. But this book isn’t the vehicle, and it’s not worth the time to read it.

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