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).
Everything from unsavory working conditions, self-policing factories, lock-ins, corporeal punishment, and the beginnings of the prison-industrial complex were devoted to cotton production around the world. Beckert cites an Estonian newspaper describing environments that took “no more care of the people than [did] a slave-owner of his Negro slaves” (192). There are passing references throughout the book that graze the racial dynamics of the cotton empire without ever really delving into the linkages between race, racism, capitalism and slavery.*** Beckert claims to decenter the nation-state and focus on the “networks, identities, and processes that transcend political boundaries” (xxi). Yet he does not engage the paradoxes that comprise racial typologies, universalized and imposed by Western powers. Were they born of capitalism? I think his thesis could have been strengthened by engaging what I have previously referenced – the transmutation of slavery into sharecropping into the prison-industrial complex.
* How do we define global commerce in a way that excludes trade and economic exchanges that precede European transatlantic? Indeed, what is global? If globalism is something that transcends artificial geographic boundaries, and if nation-states are modern and ever-changing constructs, then globalism has always existed (merely dependent on scope). Was the Silk Road part of global commerce; was contact between indigenous tribes global? [Also of note: Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s Plumes takes a similar approach to Beckert, centering her analysis on ostrich feathers.]
** Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery is also transnational in scope and subverted Western historiography’s preoccupation with its own progressive exceptionalism, illustrating its reliance on slave labor and failed economic system. Descriptions of the work today claim Williams was “years ahead of his time,” but what does that even mean? By whose standards? I think this connects well to what Dr. Harvey Neptune has called epistemic/historiographical gentrification.
*** Excerpts below.
129-31. “… Indigenous merchants remained powerful in the circuits of exchange, effectively limiting Western encroachment … Europeans had only very superficially penetrated India’s cotton growing … coerced labor seemed an attractive option … [given] the great slave-based American system of cotton growing …” [Connotations of indigeneity change depending on context. For this, it’s used to juxtapose the Indian population of India with British colonizers. In the United States, it’s used more as a catch-all for Native American groups and is associated with displacement, but separate from the postcolonial scheme.]
270. Block quote from The Economist at the end of the Civil War: “It is probably the destiny, it is even now the function, it is certainly the interest of the European, and more particularly of the English family of mankind to guide and urge and control the industrial enterprises of all Asia, of all Africa, and of those potions of America settled by the African, Asiatic, or hybrid races … The one necessity essential to the development of these new sources of prosperity is the arrangement of some industrial system under which very large bodies of dark labourers will work willingly under a very few European supervisors … the skilled European at the top [made] the despotic master of the half-skilled black or copper-coloured labourer below … the dark races must in some way or other be induced to obey white men willingly …” [This passage touches on the interplay between racism and colorism, and connects well to the transmutation of slave labor in America into other coercive, productive institutions.]
284. A description of black codes that could have opened up a discussion on the notion of “productive Black bodies,” and the preoccupation with Black (in)activity and “usefulness” within a white supremacist state. Additionally, there was room for a more Foucauldian (“colorblind”) exploration of “docile bodies” and the processes through which the government foisted compulsory labor on freedpeople.
290. More exploration of the dynamics between white yeoman farmers, migrant workers, and the forced labor of Black prisoners.