Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Reductionist Summary

Historian Sven Beckert’s widely acclaimed book, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, is a good agrarian, business, and labour history of a single commodity. But as economic history it’s not so good.

I think many readers are disarmed by the book’s magisterial sweep across time and space, which obscures or subdues its underlying thesis. Yet when you remove the dense narrative detail, there remains an ambitious polemic about the political economy of global development. So I have tried to capture the essence of that polemic in about a thousand words — without ever mentioning that dread white fibre.

Note: the following are NOT my thoughts. It’s my summary of Beckert’s book.

{Summary begins}

The West got rich by impoverishing the Rest.

“War capitalism” was the violent exploitation of the non-West through piracy, enslavement, theft of natural resources, and the physical seizure of markets. It was not caused by superior technology or organisation. Nor did it rest on “offering superior goodsempireofcotton at good prices”, such as you find in the la-la-land of economics textbooks, but on the “military subjugation of competitors and a coercive European mercantile presence in many regions of the world”.

Europe had little to offer the world other than some itchy fabrics. And oats. So Europeans profited as the global mafioso middleman skimming the freight between Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Europeans shoved aside Asian merchants and controlled Asian producers directly as both political rulers and monopsonist-buyers. The precious goods from the now-impoverished Asian artisans were paid for (at laughable prices) with the only thing of value the Europeans offered, the gold and the silver stolen from the dispossessed natives of the Americas. The Asian goods were then exchanged for millions of African slaves, who themselves would produce in the Americas the only non-bullion stuff that anyone ever wanted from Europeans.

At the same time, increasingly powerful and interventionist European states practised import substitution industrialisation, with protectionist measures shielding domestic infant industries from the stiff competition of superior Asian goods who were subjected to industrial espionage.

“War capitalism” was a precondition for the Industrial Revolution. It created markets abroad. It supplied essential raw materials made by slaves and other bonded labour. It accumulated capital which funded the new industries. And it was the foundation on which were built the institutions public and private which led to the Industrial Revolution. Even the new technologies invented during the IR would have been for nought without the markets first seized and opened by “war capitalism”.

Equally crucial to the Industrial Revolution was a domestic “war capitalism” — a powerful state compelled self-sufficient peasants and cottage industrialists in the countryside into becoming a wage proletariat. Without this there would have been no labour for the capitalists.



Therefore it was not technology but the role of the powerful state which was the distinguishing feature of the Industrial Revolution. New social relations — the transition from personal relations & customary rules to impersonal exchange and anonymous institutions — would have been impossible without this political intervention.

As the industrial revolution progressed, “war capitalism” transitioned to industrial capitalism, at least at home, with its rule of law and formal commercial relations. But “war capitalism” continued abroad. Industrial growth required the power of the imperial state to open markets across the world as the vent for surplus production. The violent opening of foreign markets deindustrialised the Rest by destroying their traditional industries.

The imperial state also crucially aided industrial capitalism by “enclosing the global countryside”. The domestic commodification of labour had to be followed by an international commodification of labour for this process to work. Just as the “market society” had been created in Europe by the powerful hegemonic state, so the powerful imperial state introduced capitalist social relations to the rest of the world.

In the new international division of labour, previously self-sufficient peasants in the Rest were ripped from their traditional modes of living. Risk-averse peasants preferred growing subsistence crops and supplementing their income with handicrafts. They were unwilling to become an agricultural wage proletariat. So the imperial state taxed them; made them tenants and sharecroppers; turned their commons into private plots; built railroads and ports on top of them; and wiped out the market for handicrafts through mechanised competition.

Peasants were compelled to become monocultural suppliers of raw materials to the metropolitan manufacturers. At the same time, they would also become consumers of the manufactured output of the metropolis. The result was dependence on low wages, predation by rural loansharks, and subjection to the vagaries of the international commodities market. Thanks to this coerced integration with global capitalism, millions fell victim to famine in the late 19th century.

None of this global “great transformation” was some ‘natural’ outcome of market forces. It was an invention, a deliberate ‘reimagining’, accomplished by powerful western states.

Western colonial powers then “kicked away the ladder” of economic development by imposing “free trade imperialism” on the colonies and thus foreclosing any possibility of infant industry protection. Import competition did not spur colonial industries to mechanise and compete with imports. Many parts of the non-European world had once had the prerequisites for an industrial revolution, but the missing element was state capacity. It was destroyed by European “war capitalism”.

The colonised peoples could not benefit from the support of an indigenous “developmental state”. When nascent capitalists did finally appear in the colonies thanks to the advantage of low wages, they were actively undermined by the imperial state who catered to the interests of the metropolitan manufacturers. The Rest remained poor and backward.

The emergence of industrial capitalism in the West was therefore fundamentally zero-sum, coming at the expense of its emergence in the Rest.

But this could not remain true forever. Workers in the “Global North” struggled against capitalists to improve their wages and working conditions. It was their political struggle and collective action which led to the improvement in their living standards. This in turn increased labour costs for metropolitan manufacturers, and made the products of the “Global South” more competitive as the wage gap widened further.

But the most important event in the economic resurrection of the Rest was decolonisation. Indigenous capitalists, who had played a crucial role in independence movements, were finally able to get a “developmental state” of their own to look out for their interests. Now the “Global South” could at last practise import substitution and infant industry protection. This precedent had already been powerfully suggested by Japan in the late 19th century, which was never colonised, and whose government could plan and steer the country toward industrialisation, especially by practising “war capitalism” in Asia.

{Summary ends}

In other words, the Beckert recipe is:

  • start with Marx and “primitive accumulation“, both domestic and international. The early Marx had gleefully welcomed the imperialists’ destruction of the “semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities [of Bengal], by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia”. This was, after all, an inevitable part of the transition to capitalism and then ultimately to socialism. But Marx was a bit too cheerful about the prospects of capitalism and industrialisation in the Rest…
  • so temper that cold-but-optimistic vision with Karl Polanyi‘s more rueful reflexions on the destructive creation of the “market society” in Europe.
  • add a lot of Eric Williams, especially as mediated by Joseph Inikori, to bring in the “Atlantic perspective” of African slaves’ contribution to Western development;
  • mix a dollop of Hamilton’s and List’s infant industry protectionism, (perhaps) as interpreted by Ha Joon Chang;
  • and get the concoction shaken, not stirred, by world-systems-theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein and dependency theorists like André Gunder Frank.

One might modify Ecclesiastes and observe, “There is never anything new under the sun”.

Since African slavery and the Atlantic economy have gotten so much attention in the reviews of The Empire of Cotton, I have tried to stress the aspects of EOC so obviously inspired by Polanyi and various dependency theory & world systems theory. But I think the book is really, truly, powerfully pervaded by Polanyi. In fact today I would argue most historians are neo-Polanyists.

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40 Responses to Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Reductionist Summary

  1. Brett says:

    How accurate do you think it is? If no superior technology nor organization was present, then how did Europeans establish hegemony on Asian and Indian markets where they didn’t have the advantage of devastating diseases (as in the Americas)?


    • I added a sentence at the very beginning (right after the first sentence, before the summary) which answers that question.

      I’m planning on a multi-part critique of the book. There’s no way I can write a critique and also summarise the book in a single post. Hence this summary.


    • R. Dudley says:

      I know this comment is a few days late, but if you are interested in this you should check out Greg Clark’s 1987 JEH article “Why Isn’t the Whole World Developed?”

      The British were competitive because worker efficiency corresponded strongly with the real wage in each country. Taking labor efficiency into account, and correcting for capital utilization, the only countries that could have been able to compete with Britain were India, China and Japan.


      • Actually that article created a mini-literature on Indian workers in Bombay cotton plants. That will be covered in…maybe not the next post but the one after that.


  2. Borners says:

    Just looking at his bits on Japan (which is important in the story of Cotton as its the country that unseats Manchester as the centre of cotton manufactures). He of course attempts to trash that potential story of progressive economic change by talking a lot about its colonisation of Korea. Now there were many evil deeds the Japanese did in Korea but bringing new cotton strains via public-private groups is hardly one of them (and this model is super common in Japan proper at the time). And Japan had been importing cotton from Korea since the 14th century where it was historically the main non-food crop.

    On better ground with the exploitation of young female labour in Japan, following the literature from Japan studies (Janet Hunter etc), although like them pretends that suddenly Japanese men started underpaying their women suddenly in the 1870’s because capitalism (its that bad I’ve been chewed out in seminars for pushing on this). Ignores the problems of the traditional rural economy (rice agriculture by hand is nasty, you should see what it does to your hands). And that Japanese wage performance was good (inequality did rise but not enough to take away all of the increase).

    He also tries twisting to his frankly trite assertion of the obvious that Japanese technological advance was sponsored by the government with its technical schools, research trips, technician scholarships is a secret (even Last of the Samurai knew that…). I mean he seems to think Economic Historians are all Republicans or something? This is basic public goods provision going on here. And glosses over the pre-1854 precedents to this from the Edo period. I mean he says on page 154 that like Bengal and Kano in Nigeria, Osaka does not get to use its historic putting out industry to develop, only to then regurgitate a pretty undergraduate level regurgitation of how those merchants do exactly that in the 1880’s (failures of Japanese cottons in the 1860’s-70’s are explained by the Unequal treaties, never mind they were put in stupid locations with poor technical adaptations).

    He really doesn’t really think much about what kind of social capacities you need to have an effective state. Japan’s are difficult to understand, since if colonialism is the only cause the problem is why Japan is the exception, Japan’s one major foreign venture till 1893, Hideyoshi’s invasion was a total failure, and there is peace for the most part. Nothing on developments of village level governance, bureaucratisation, urban infrastructure, print-nationalism, strong direct taxation systems, commercialisation, expansion of education state and private etc. Japan does not have its own history. Nor deals with the interesting conundrum that Japan does well by playing by western rules of the time (education, competition, partial-liberalisation of society and economy institution building etc).

    Also some other flaws, misquotes Karen Wigen (Japanese geography specialist) on the “making of a periphery”, i.e. Japan as periphery to world cotton. The actual book is about a Meiji era centre of raw silk production up in the Japanese alps, which is defined as being reduced to periphery by Tokyo in process, which peaks today. But hey silk isn’t important (except for it being the core industry for French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese industrialisation, but nevermind).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad you are taking this one on. I bought the book but – fatigued by its combination of Boorstin-level detail and ideological intensity – abandoned it in favor of Giorgio Riello’s far less ambitious “Cotton:The Fabric that Made the Modern World”. Reillo seemed a bit innocent-eyed by comparison, but he stayed close enough to the material level of change to get the point across that local circumstances played a big role in the history of cotton, one as least as large as the supposedly inexorable laws of capitalist development.

    Of the inspirations you mention, I would point out that Wallerstein is not this heavy-handed. His core-periphery mechanism is not the caricature we see in Beckert, and he doesn’t see the need for well-poisoning monikers like “war capitalism”. Wallerstein’s balance sheet for capitalism certainly does include “the immiseration of the South” – but it is a balance sheet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s not Baptist-level of badness but there’s a lot of fast-and-loose-ness with things. For example:

      Berar became one of the world’s most significant laboratories for the reconstruction of the empire of cotton. Its diversified agricultural economy was turned into ever greater specialization on cotton crops. As The Asiatic reflected in 1872, “A pressure unknown before was put upon the people to grow cotton.” While in 1861 cotton was harvested on 629,000 acres of land in Berar, that acreage had nearly doubled by 1865, and then doubled once more by the 1880s. By the early twentieth century, Berar alone produced one-quarter of the Indian cotton harvest— a harvest larger than that of all of Egypt.

      It’s part of an argument that Berar was coerced to become a monocultural producer of cotton, which subjected the region to massive food insecurity.

      The source of Beckert’s information (footnote 42) is Satya’s Cotton & Famine in Berar 1850-1900. But if you look at page 184 of Satya, the data in Table 25 say the total cultivated acreage in Berar more than doubled between 1860 and 1880 (from ~3 million to ~6.7 million) during the period Beckert is talking about. Percentage of the land devoted to cotton cultivation rose from 21% to ~35%.

      I think what Beckert does in the passage above is pretty much the stereotype of “lying with statistics”.

      Another example which comes immediately to mind is:

      This drastic recasting of Central Asian economies opened up new markets for Russian cotton manufacturers, and by 1889 a British traveler observed that “money… is being taken from the pockets of Bombay and Manchester, and transferred to the pockets of Nijni Novgorod and Moscow.” This escalating focus on cotton growing, as elsewhere, had a grave impact on food security. Like other cotton-growing areas of the world, Central Asia now became dependent on food imports, while at the same time peasants’ income became “highly vulnerable to fluctuations in” the cotton market. By World War I, the recast class structure, along with a huge deficit in food crops thanks to the reorientation of local agriculture toward cash crops, produced terrible famines, resulting in significant depopulation. In Turkestan, for example, the population fell by 1.3 million people, or 18.5 percent, between 1914 and 1921.49

      Never mind that Russia also had a famine around 1920, and that the Turkestan famine is conventionally blamed on revolution, civil war, and Bolshevik grain requisitions !


    • Beckert’s omission of Riello’s book from his citations, which is a big deal in the textile history world, makes me suspicious, although it’s possible it was simply a matter of timing. Riello is enormously knowledgeable about the details of textile development (not just cotton) but perhaps he isn’t prestigious enough outside his field for an ambitious Harvard professor to acknowledge him.


      • Well, actually Beckert does cite 2 things by Riello — an article by him & Parthasarathi and a book edited by him and Tirthankar Roy. But, no, not his book on cotton, per se.


    • Misplaced modifier in my previous comment: It’s the book that’s a big deal, not the omission.


      • Thanks for the comment. Riello’s book is delightful. The matrix of what fabrics were produced, and how they were produced, and for what markets, is fascinating. The book doesn’t invalidate a more geopolitical approach to the cotton trade, but it sure demonstrates the dangers of facile generalization along those lines. And it conveyed the complexity and contingency of the pre-European cotton manufacturing and trading network. Yes, the Europeans disturbed this network hugely, but it’s not as if it were some static thing that would not have continued to change on its own.


  4. Christopher says:

    Maybe you will cover this in your forthcoming posts on the subject, but what are your thoughts on Ha Joon Chang and the whole “developmentalist tradition” (as he dubbed it) of Hamilton, List, etc.? From the tone in your summary and the link to critical review, you seem skeptical.


    • I’ll be using both Beckert and HJC as foils for several posts. I am not actually certain about the validity of the infant industry argument but I am certain if it is to succeed it requires substantial state capacity, and I am equally certain that the potential for state capacity predates colonialism.


  5. Benjamin Guilbert says:

    You’ve probably spotted it, but it is interesting that, in your summary, you are constantly using the term “Europe” to describe the birthplace of capitalism, it’s nice and vague. I allows to bundle together the Spanish conquests of the 1500s and the British Raj, thus carefully avoiding the reality that countries such as Spain, Portugal, France, Holland or even the Ottoman Empire all had plenty of conquests but little economic development to show for it. According to Nogal, Spanish GDP actually fell during the colonization process… They had developmentalist policies, the spoils of conquest and the cultural frame necessary for the whole industrialization process, but they didn’t take the bait.


    • Yes, it was a deliberate choice to make no mention of cotton or any specific country, precisely for the reasons you suggest — for Europe but also for the “Global South”


  6. Pingback: Pseudoerasmus: The Empire of Cotton: A Reductionist Summary | CK MacLeod's

  7. CK MacLeod says:

    The following is indeed quite Polanyian, but it also recalls Schmitt’s argument, offered in relation to Hobbes, that the modern state was the critical “invention” or “artifice” of the modern era, the invention prior to all of the others and that made them possible:

    Therefore it was not technology but the role of the powerful state which was the distinguishing feature of the Industrial Revolution. New social relations — the transition from personal relations & customary rules to impersonal exchange and anonymous institutions — would have been impossible without this political intervention.

    As for the “reduction” as a whole, I wonder if the blogger hopes to overturn the narrative by attacking its parts, while avoiding its moral premises. Will stay tuned!


  8. Whyvert says:

    This narrative is great fun but suffers from a big flaw: if Europeans were so diabolically cunning at exploitation, so adept at “inventing” and “reimagining” a global great transformation into being, so prudent as to endow themselves with states that protected their infant industries, then we are left wondering why they and they alone possessed those qualities.

    Sometimes the villains of the story come away as being the most engaging and entertaining of the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ha! In the above post I really should have quoted Milanovic:

    In the neo-Marxist literature on under-development one of the most important theories was about the disarticulation of the countries in the South (the erstwhile “Third World”).  What was meant by the term was that the Center, the developed North, established within a peripheral country only enclaves of modernity whose function was to keep the South producing for the needs of the North without being able to create an internally connected production structure, going from raw material extraction to their processing, and ultimately production of high value added commodities. What mattered to the North was extraction of raw materials. This was entrusted to be organized to a local comprador bourgeoisie, whose economic interests thus coincided with those of the former colonial powers. The economy was, to use Samir Amin’s terminology, “extroverted”, that is directed only towards abroad and lacking in domestic ability to develop. Both the polity and the  economy were disarticulated

    It’s an even shorter summary of at least the 2nd half of Beckert’s book !


  10. Unknown128 says:

    Beckert REALY argues that the non-western world stood right before an industrial revolution and the west just snapped it out under it by just being unimaginably evil?

    If he believes that a modern state was necessary for industrialisation and all the global good that came with it (like scientific and technological progress) and only the west developed such a state with the rest being far away from it, he should still acknowledge the wests role in massively spreading up human progress (of which more was made in the last 200 years then in the previous 50 000 years combined). Logically since no other culture was evil enough to create a “war capitalism” system no other culture could have catapulted the world into modernity, this logic would make the west not so much into the bloodsucking parasite, but into an accelerator that absorbs energy from the rest to transform it into massive results from which then everyone benefits (although to a different degree). But since he doesn’t want to allow even the possibility of the west being in any way useful to the world he somehow has to say that the modern state was necessary for industrialisation in the west but NOT in the rest which somehow all stood right before an industrial revolution RIGHT at the same time?

    As far as I remember not even Pomeranz went that far…. He actually argued that China was nowhere close to an industrial revolution and tried to find reasons for that. He rather tried to find reasons why the UK “took of” then for why China didn’t. So if we say that evil exploitation was what really gave us modernity then we should build shrines to it since without it we would still live in a premodern time and 50% of all born children would die before reaching the age of 1…


    • DensityDuck says:

      I think Beckert would suggest that, on balance, civilization and technological development have left humanity worse off than before, because of the pernicious influences and evil reasoning behind it. What he thinks necessary is for people to really understand the things that drove that development so that, in the future, we can make different non-evil choices.


  11. Abel Molina says:

    At a first look, the shakiest part of the story seems to be “a powerful state compelled self-sufficient peasants and cottage industrialists in the countryside into becoming a wage proletariat”.

    Of course, rural areas differ from each other, and I’m sure this happened in some areas. But this seems to miss a lot of the reality of rural areas, that I happen to be familiar with due to having been raised in one of them. That reality is one where people at some points in the past could hardly manage to feed themselves, and generally were at the mercy of a bad year of harvest – so despite all the horrors of the city, it offered them better prospects. Also, in this context most peasants were serfs of some kind, and not as independent as that quote makes them look.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. broggly says:

    Is that really how the trade with Africa developed? Because I thought Europe exported metals (such as bronze), manufactured goods, alcohol, and weapons to Africa in exchange for slaves, ivory, gold and pelts, while Asian exports were brought back to Europe?


    • Well my hostile summary verges on parody and caricature but it is true that Africa was an important market for Indian textiles, which were marketed by European trading companies in exchange for slaves. Of course there were other goods besides Indian cottons but Beckert’s book is about cotton and that’s what he stresses. He says about half the barter goods were cottons.


  13. chris says:

    I look forward to your longer critique. The worldview you summarize has the virtues of being radical enough to be exciting, detailed enough to look authoritative, simple enough to be reducible to a few slogans. When that facilitated communication rape case was in the news last year I had a look at the culprit’s history book / polemic, which was based on this pirate-Europe idea very much as you describe it. It was a very bad book, but I wondered from what school she lifted her ideas. So this worldview is common currency among fashionable idiots, and it needs a criticism formulated in a way which is just as easy to pick up and apply. I suppose it falls apart in the details, but to see details you have to stop seeing the world in terms of class interests. The radical view is to see individuals with their own agency.


  14. Pingback: The Calico Acts & British Cotton: infant industry protection from Indian competition??? | pseudoerasmus

  15. Most comments above seem apologist for neoliberal economic othodoxy, ignoring the violence caused by colonialism because “50% of babies died before the age of 1” and the West fixed all those problems of infanticide and disease, substituting Western materialism and sales. I am more sympathetic to Beckert. The dominant culture lauded by the critics of this book causes too much pain on me, and I would have preferred to take a slower more careful approach to industrialization. We should be more mindful of the environmental destruction encouraged by capitalism and price-setting mechanisms that reward new extraction over recycling, pollution over being more careful with industrial production processes. The West goes too fast and sells materialism as progress, and consumes other choices instead of letting them exist in parallel. Neoliberal economics is normative: You must prefer polluted cities to living outdoors. But I want to live outside.


    • Have you even read Beckert’s book? Your comments have nothing to do with EOC. One of his major arguments is colonialism delayed industrialisation. He does not push some anti-industrial ecological agenda in his book.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Someone should push an anti-industrial ecological agenda. If no one else does, then I will.


        • Also, delayed industrialization has the potential to be better. If the west weren’t so rushed and jumpy, we could use knowledge more wisely and carefully without destroying so much of the environment and disturbing so many animals and old growth, etc. We should all learn from the Jains, whose emblem ( contains a raised hand saying in one sense: “stop and think before you act to assure that all possible violence is avoided.” Capitalism, in ignoring such ancient knowledge, is morally wrong, and ignorant of better theories of value than it espouses.


    • aaa says:

      I hate to break this to you, but there was also a significant amount of environmental destruction in economies that didn’t employ capitalist price-setting mechanisms.


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  18. Pingback: Labour relations & textiles: addenda | pseudoerasmus

  19. Pingback: The Calico Acts: Was British cotton made possible by infant industry protection from Indian competition? | History on the mysteryStream

  20. Pingback: Labour relations & textiles: addenda | History on the mysteryStream

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