I (mostly) copy-and-paste Deirdre McCloskey’s argument that cotton was not crucial to the Industrial Revolution in Britain. I also have a very brief rant about historians’ erasure of Robert Fogel from historiographic memory.
In an earlier post I argued that American slave cotton may have accelerated the Industrial Revolution, but certainly was not essential to it because there were alternative sources of cotton. One of the speculations I aired was: if Lancashire mills had to rely exclusively on inferior-quality Indian cotton from the very beginning, then textile machinery would have been optimised for Indian lint. And now there’s a paper which finds in fact that did happen in the British textile industry during the “cotton famine” of the US civil war: Hanlon, “Necessity Is the Mother of Invention: Input Supplies and Directed Technical Change” (ungated version).
But an entirely different argument I might have made in the earlier post is that cotton itself was not crucial to Britain’s (or America’s) industrial takeoff. But such a post wouldn’t have allowed me to pontificate on the international economic impact of the American civil war — let alone post a neat vintage photo of Indians towing their oxen burdened with massive bales of cotton…
I wasn’t going to return to this tired subject, but I keep seeing irritating articles like this or this, or book presentations by Sven Beckert like this which insist on extravagant claims about the “centrality” of slavery and slave cotton to the rise of western industrial capitalism.
My previous post was inspired by a wild assertion by Edward Baptist in his crude book that American slave cotton was “absolutely necessary” if the “Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture”. More measured language and temperate claims appear in Beckert‘s non-emotional book, but nonetheless its central implication is that industrial capitalism just wouldn’t have been possible without the violent exploitation of all kinds of coerced labour outside of Europe, which he calls “war capitalism”.
There’s a quick way to short-circuit all that loose talk.
In chapter 25 of Bourgeois Dignity, Deirdre McCloskey has a brief argument that, contra Findlay and O’Rourke, international trade was not an important engine of growth for Britain in the period 1780-1860. Her counterfactual involves halving Britain’s actual cotton textile output as a result of being shut out of foreign markets. It’s a static argument (i.e., not general equilibrium), but McCloskey is convincing that it’s good enough for the job and any dynamic model would not generate very large magnitudes for the importance of cotton.
The logic can be transported, with a few adjustments, to the counterfactual of cotton made more expensive by the absence of any coercion in cultivation. If the primary raw material had been more expensive, presumably its impact would have been a reduction in the quantity of output and a reallocation of the unused inputs to other, presumably less productive sectors of the British economy.
Since the argument is about as clearly presented as feasible, I simply quote most of the relevant bits, excising only McCloskey’s extended parenthetical asides. Anything in bold is my emphasis.
The table above embodies what is known as the “Crafts Harley view” — the controversial idea that the first phase of the British industrial revolution was driven by rapid productivity growth in a few “star” industries and the rest of the economy was largely stagnant. Crafts-Harley is essentially a “remainder” argument. GDP growth was estimated for the period 1780-1860, from which economy-wide productivity growth is derived. Then the productivity growth estimates for the very few individual industries which have actually been micro-studied are subtracted from the aggregate. The remainder turns out to be low. Hence, the “star” industries dominated the IR.
There have been many counterarguments to Crafts-Harley, but for me the most important is that GDP calculation for this period has a large margin of error, so there could be a substantial discrepancy between the macro estimates of productivity growth and the aggregation of micro estimates from individual industries. And every time someone studies a new, previously unexamined industry, it turns out its productivity was advancing rapidly ! A whimsical example is candle-making (source: Allen, ch.10, CEHMB v1) :
I mention all this because IF the Crafts-Harley view is wrong, then that implies the Industrial Revolution even in its earliest phase brought about a broad, diversified, multi-sectoral advance in productivity. And the cotton textile industry, by itself, was even less crucial than McCloskey’s exercise would suggest.
Edit: 10 July 2016. I hadn’t seen this at the time of writing, but I should mention Clark, O’Rourke & Taylor, “The growing dependence of Britain on trade during the Industrial Revolution” [ungated version]. The paper estimates the effect of foreign trade on British welfare circa 1760 and 1850: “We find that while trade had only a small impact on British welfare in the 1760s, it had a very large impact in the 1850s”.
Perhaps the most durable myth about slavery is that it was utterly incompatible with capitalism. Well before historians in the twentieth century began legitimating the idea, abolitionists suggested the disconnect themselves. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe portrayed slave-traders as underfinanced, disreputable fools—the furthest thing from competent, successful businessmen. Even Karl Marx, no friend of capitalism, believed that wage labor would destroy slavery. But in recent years, scholars have begun to demolish this myth, arguing not only that slavery was compatible with capitalism, but that the emergence of modern capitalism made slavery’s growth possible.
Herschthal, who specialises in the history of slavery, does not see fit to mention anywhere in the article the classic Time on the Cross by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman — even though it established 40 years ago, not only the compatibility of slavery with capitalism, but also the high productivity of slave agriculture and the flourishing of the market system in the slave economy of the US South. TOC even argued slavery would have worked just fine inside industrial factories ! Yet the “new historians of capitalism”, rather like the Argentine junta, have essentially disappeared Fogel and Engerman.
And then they claim to have invented the wheel. The narrative these “new historians of capitalism” (who are from US history departments) keep repeating is, before they started uncovering the truth, no one had noticed the capitalist nature of slavery.
Nobel laureate and chief desaparecido Robert Fogel is not mentioned even once in Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (***) even though its subject is the centrality of cotton and labour coercion to the rise of industrial capitalism. Amazing !
[(***) Edit 8 Nov. 2016: This was true at the time of writing. My Kindle edition still has no mention of Fogel, but on Google Books the latest copy of the book shows that Time on the Cross has been appended to footnote 37 of chapter 5.]
It’s meme replication via memory erasure.
Ever seen the French-language film Danton by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda ? It’s about Georges Danton, the first president of the Committee of Public Safety who was later guillotined by Robespierre during the Terror. There’s a scene in the film with Robespierre visiting the studio of the painter Jacques-Louis David. In the background is the yet-unfinished famous painting, “Le Serment de Jeu de Paume” (The Tennis Court Oath). Robespierre orders David to erase the figure of Fabre d’Eglantine, who has just been purged. It’s a Polish director’s allusion to Stalin’s doctoring of photos to remove purged rivals.