Navigating old and new geographies of production: The Empire of Cotton

I am sharing a commentary I gave as part of the Opening of the Academic Year of International Studies 2018–19 — a long overdue post.

The book ‘The Empire of Cotton: A Global History’ by Sven Beckert, provides a detailed account of the rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton. Europeans became essential to the worlds of cotton, the author argues, thanks to their ability to reshape and dominate global cotton networks. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that what set European capitalists aside was their ability to dominate global networks. The book provides a fresh reading of European dominance as capitalism, aware of some crucial advantages in several key areas: naval technology, weaponry, navigation and geography. Why exploring these advantages in relation to cotton? There is a unique aspect of cotton as a commodity: it is labour intensive both in the field and in the factory. This aspect is crucial to understand the emergence of capitalism in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Nevertheless, cotton was already significant centuries before the explosion of manufacturing in Europe. Eastern Africa, Central America, South America, South Asia had already large industries related to cotton, though its production was mostly based on household manufacturing. And who within the household? Women. Women’s labour mainly created the empire of cotton. Europe was not integrated into this network. This commodity was exotic to Europe. It seems Europeans imagined cotton as a vegetable lamb: little sheep grown on plants. Cotton came to Europe with the spread of Islam. It is somewhat ironic that Europe displayed to dominate the industry.

Through this historical account, this book reminds us that the starting point to understand capitalism must have both logical and historical content. The former to make sense of the nature of production and expansion under capitalism, while the latter focuses on the uneven ways in which capitalism emerged and continues to expand across different countries and populations. Capitalism is distinctive but not homogenising. By flagging the internal contradictions, tensions and sources of ‘improvement,’ e.g. productivity gains, Beckert’s work offers a narrative of the potential of capitalism to realise uneven outcomes in specific instances.

It was imperial expansion, slavery and land expropriations — something Beckert denotes as war capitalism — what laid the foundations for the domestic cotton industry. The Empire of Cotton is attentive to the parallel processes of exploitation and coercion, but also resistance, e.g. as weavers in eighteenth-century India resisted the coercive European presence in the production process (back then East India Company). Exploitation not only took place in terms of colonisation of territories and populations but of the people living at the margins of the state during the industrialisation phase. Textile production was based on child labour and facilitated by slave trade.

Patterns of accumulation, restructuring and social and economic reproduction are better understood through historically grounded analysis. A close reading of this work, from dependency theory, confirms that historical conditions have shaped the world economy in such a way that favour some countries at the detriment of others. Global structures limit the development possibilities of subordinate economies and marginalised populations. Capital and technology determine who are the winners and losers of economic integration, a challenge that (late) late industrialisers continue facing.

The book also gives a detailed account of technological dependence. New ways of spinning cotton yarn did not spread evenly. Such technological improvements took ten years or more to travel from the UK to continental Europe, twenty or more years to cross the Atlantic to the US, fifty or more years to reach Mexico and Egypt, and a hundred or more years to reach India, Japan, China, Argentina and most of Africa. Though early manufacturing provided access to capital, vast areas of the world saw no industrialisation in cotton even though they had the preconditions — following a Rostowian approach to growth and development. Then, was war capitalism the precondition to advance cotton industrialisation?

Early capitalism was based on violence and bodily coercion. Take the example of the colonisation of the Americas: the most significant land grab, and where the colonial state played a central role. This process is central to the book’s argument, as war capitalism flourished not in the factory but the field, it was not mechanised but labour and land-intensive, resting on the violent expropriation of land and labour in Africa and the Americas. War capitalism had a material and ideational core: force and dispossession. Furthermore, it was this war capitalism what nourished insurance, finance and shipping. A massive asymmetry marked the world economy at the time. European dominance set the context for international trade, which was in European hands, as they had access to the knowledge, the capital, and transport networks. This book carefully relates colonialism to different phases of capitalism, e.g. mercantile vs industrial and flags the different nature of colonised land, e.g. 15th century Brazil vs 19th century India.

Is war capitalism history? Does it have a lasting impact? What remains of it today? Even though war capitalism may not directly dictate how capitalism works as of today, this does not mean that the marks of war capitalism exert no influence in the ways of conceiving development and underdevelopment today. Is war capitalism a process that can coexist with capitalism as we know it? The colonial expansion enabled industrialisation but left significant scars on the colonised: slavery, blocked and dependent development, ‘bad’ institutions, neo-colonialism, foreign notions of progress and development. Colonialism undermined the state capacity of colonised territories, making them dependent on the interest of the colonisers, without access to their capital and technology. Not only it restructured local rules, institutions and rights but produced new social relations, introduced particular ways of living, with countries and populations engaging in economic and social struggle against one another. It paved the way to align social relations with the model of the market, governing and reshaping subjectivities.

This book is a welcome reminder of the social costs that are incurred when pushing the frontiers of capitalism. First, the countryside, the centre of our ‘modern’ world — heavily neglected in many instaces. Slave labour was compatible with the early phases of manufacturing — and it could be argued is still relevant in global production networks that might maintain exploitative features. Orphan children were the first to enter employment in manufacture. However, the success of rapid industrialisation, and structural transformation more broadly, depended on the state’s capacity to turn people into proletarians. The British example shows us the importance of another enabling factor: the state, in the process of industrialisation, e.g. tariffs, import-substitution, infrastructure.

Industrial capitalism emerged in Europe. It travelled in particular ways, changing the configuration of global commodity chains, with manufacturers sourcing raw materials, brokers setting international standards, connecting production and finance, import merchants providing credit and financing the expansion of cotton planting. In some ways, The Empire of Cotton provides evidence of the beginning of financialisation, with speculation in futures and the emergence of other complex financial instruments that benefited capital over labour and natural resources.

Is the fall of the cotton empire a reminder of the unstable nature of capitalism? There is vast evidence that free trade fuels unsustainable patterns of production, employment, distribution and consumption, changes the priorities of state finance and conditions of global integration, thus increasing economic uncertainty, volatility and vulnerability to crisis. Nevertheless, something is reassuring about historical analysis. It reminds us that this reality is not the only and best that could be achieved. Are there alternatives, both within and beyond capitalism? It has become increasingly clear that the market ethos is incompatible with economic inclusion and hollows out political democracy.

Uncomfortable truths are easier to ignore. We tend to think of industrial capitalism as male-dominated. However, there is a strong case to argue that women’s labour created the empire of cotton. How can we understand the current state of capitalism, patriarchal and exclusionary, and reimagine its future in light of its troubling past? My reading of Beckert’s work allows me to draw a parallel story of the racialised and gendered expansion of capitalism. Ever new forms of labour, coercion, violence and expropriation, affect female bodies, colonised bodies, marginalised bodies differently. I would have liked to read more about them. However, only a few cotton workers have entered history books. For those female cotton workers who have entered, they are often depicted as the victims of a system of coercion and exploitation. Their voices are still missing.

We live in new geographies of global capitalism, as in the case of cotton, that moved away from European, and North American states. The global South has welcomed back home the world’s cotton industry, but under which conditions? Should we recall the deadly factory fire that killed garment workers in Bangladesh six years ago? We are witnessing a reconfiguration of global production, with China transforming into the assembly hub of the world, away from the once centres of industrial capitalism. This new configuration has brought different patterns of uneven and combined development, with massive networks of production where prosperity and poverty coexist. In sum, a shift in the balance of power, against labour and in favour of capital.

The merchants that come so vividly in Beckert’s work are still among us, but bow we call them retailers, we use their brands, though thanks to e-commerce we do not even know where their headquarters are located. These ‘merchants’ still depend on state power to maintain their dominant position in the global cotton commodity chain. They keep on sourcing ever-cheaper labour and distant markets. As they do so, the collective action of workers and states matters a great deal to protect labour against the unmoored expansion of capital.

We continue enduring an essential feature of capitalism: its ability to continually adapt, as capitalism both demands and creates a state of permanent revolution. The liberalisation of trade, finance and capital movements that followed the crisis of the Keynesian, Fordist and social democratic ‘Golden Age’, together with the provision of support to accumulation by competing states, the attack on taxation and welfare provision in most countries speak of a different ‘state’ within a globalised world.

What is the role of the state today? Even if less involved in production and manufacturing as per earlier phases of state-led development, state institutions intervene upon and through markets and other institutions. The traditional sources of resistance to previous forms of capitalism have lost strength, e.g. weakening of the influence of trade unions, peasant movements, atomisation of left responses and the shrinking space of civil society. Strategies of contestation and cooperation among differently situated actors are now ever more relevant if, quoting Chandra Mohanty, our minds should be as ready to move as capital is, to trace its paths ant to imagine alternative destinations.

Critical social policy. Political Economy. Latin America.