Check out the "Insider/Outsider: Racial Bias & Positionality in Interpretation" recap/reflection thread here!
Peter James Hudson’s Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean traces the occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti by the United States through banking institutions. Much Like LaFeber’s The New Empire, Hudson finds economic conquest grew up in tandem with American imperial interests between 1890 and 1930, as bankers sought to acquire new overseas markets and investment opportunities free from the constraints and responsibilities of total administrative dominion. Reading “along the archival grain,” Hudson interweaves the stories of various white male actors whose politics and self-interest, losses and successes gave way to a “staggered incursion” – rather than an “inevitable hegemony of the United States in the Caribbean” (152).
Indeed, the United States government did not consistently wield capitalism as a tool of domination, as the agendas of Washington and Wall Street did not always align (65). As Hudson describes, what “was meant to be a systematic and rational approach to internationalization was prone to poor judgment, human error, vanity, and the frissons of cultural difference” (137). As William Leuchtenburg points out in “Progressivism and Imperialism: The Progressive Movement and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1916,” Progressive ideals and actions were seemingly at odds – “a concern for democratic processes at home and a disregard of them abroad … antagonism to financial empires in America and encouragement of them overseas” (497). While the Spanish-American War was viewed as a dual battle against Spanish tyranny and Wall Street’s greed, Leuchtenburg finds that “imperialism and progressivism flourished together … since the United States was the land of free institutions, any extension of its domain was per se an extension of freedom and democracy” (500). This confluence of humanism and nationalism (503) mirrors Immerman’s discussion of ethnocentric American freedoms in Empire for Liberty. Even still, Hudson describes how protests on the ground against the presence of American economic institutions signified a larger struggle against American imperialism as a whole (266). This presents the fatal flaw of reading “along the archival grain” – the absence of subaltern experiences, perceptions and reactions. How could a "bottom-up" history of this same topic counter Hudson's "top-down" approach?
Honing in on a single good or product, historians can transcend the internal polities of nation-states. By tracing movement and exchange, Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton does just this – drawing connections across national borders and illustrating the ebbs and flows of global commerce. Footnotes in the book's introduction cite Eric Williams’ 1944 Capitalism and Slavery as “vibrant literature” and C. L. R. James’ 1938 The Black Jacobins as one of many examples of how global history does not constitute a new wave of scholarship.** Indeed, Williams’ “Laissez Faire, Sugar and Slavery” (written over sixty years before Beckert’s work) engages the same global scope, rise and demise of imperial domination and production schemes – “To the capitalists the distinction between free-grown and slave-grown produce was humbug. Britain depended for her very existence on the slave-grown cotton of the United States … British capitalism had fostered West Indian slavery and destroyed West Indian slavery – all in the interests of British capitalism. But it continued to thrive on Brazilian, Cuban and American slavery” (71, 85). Williams acerbically confronted the mythos built up by Western historiography from within, much like C. L. R. James.
Beckert’s analysis in Empire of Cotton relies on violence as an analytic. “Colonialism, the embrace of slavery, the expropriation of lands – war capitalism, in short – had enabled the rise of industrial capitalism … [which relied] on a combination of capital and state power – creating markets and mobilizing capital and labor in novel ways” (173). Violence – and, by association, war capitalism – was portable (93). For centuries, people toiled as slaves, feudal dependents, or self-sufficient agents. But exchanging labor power for wages versus required a large-scale mobilization and restructuring of human labor (179). The coercive domination of bodies and geography by imperial powers led to industrial capitalism. Through this “highly aggressive, outwardly oriented capitalism … Europeans came to dominate the centuries-old worlds of cotton, merge them … and invent the global economy we take for granted today” (xvi).