January 12, 2015

"The global story of cotton is a story of great change, great tragedy, and great courage."

Sven Beckert’s Cotton: Guilty Fabric of our Lives

For the Delta to become the chief grower of the industrial world’s most important commodity – a kind of Saudi Arabia of the early 19th century – its land had to be taken from its original inhabitants; and labor, capital, knowledge, and state power had to be mobilized… Wealth, as viewed from the front porches of the lavish and elegantly furnished mansions in the Delta, appeared to flow out of the soil, the result of a strange alchemy that combined emptied lands, slave labor, and… the never-ending flow of European capital.

From Empire of Cotton, A Global History, by Sven Beckert. Knopf 2014. p. 113.

Sven Beckert at Harvard is the point man in a fascinating project to rethink Capitalism not as “dismal science” but as lively “biography.” His exhilarating Empire of Cotton — aptly called “remarkable and unsettling” — is a 250-year profile of a commodity that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution but came to model and drive the drastic growth of invention and productivity after, say, 1780.

The deeper we plow in Beckert’s history, the more we feel we’re watching the unfolding adventures of a complex and contradictory stage character, maybe two. Cotton itself – the fiber and “fabric of our lives” nowadays — has an ancient Asian pedigree. Until the middle of the 18th Century, it is almost a stranger in Europe, which dressed more in wool, flax and silk. And then quickly, the imperial expansion of Europe (England in the lead) captures (literally!) the labor of West Africa, the low-tech of Asia and the farm lands of Latin America, the Caribbean and the Mississippi Delta. And so a global colossus takes shape around a burst of European inventions that multiply the speed of spinning and weaving cotton by several hundred fold into the 19th century. And of course it thrives in North America.

The politics of Cotton Capitalism suffers a near-catastrophic breakdown in the US Civil War, yet cotton cultivation keeps growing without slavery – on the bargain price of many other kinds of captive labor in Egypt and India, for example, in the share-cropping American South and today in the fields of Kazakhstan and West Africa. Textile production gravitates back toward Asia, toward the “almost absurdly dangerous” and noisy factories of Bangladesh in the present day.

What we’re learning about our long-lived twin protagonists is that both cotton and capitalism are inventive and mobile; energetic to an extreme, resourceful, often predatory, opportunistic and instinctively global in their ambition and reach. They have radically increased human productivity and improved living standards in general. At the same time they have fattened on coercive, often violent exploitation and environmental devastation. They still do.

What Sven Beckert would ask us to remember as we order up our elegant Uniqlo T-shirts for embarrassingly few pennies is that “the global story of cotton is a story of great change… great tragedy… great courage… The world we live in today was created by people who’ve been enslaved for many generations – by taking the land of America’s native people… That legacy is still with us.”

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