U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sven Beckert on Cotton, Slavery, Capitalism (Guest Post by Kristen D. Burton)

[Note to readers: the following is a guest post from Kristen D. Burton, a doctoral candidate in the transatlantic history Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Arlington. Her dissertation, “That Firey Liquid: How Alcohol Became an Intoxicant in the Early Modern Atlantic World,” examines the influence of Enlightenment thought on perceptions of distilled spirits in Great Britain, North America, and the Caribbean during the eighteenth century.]

Understanding ‘the Unity of the Diverse’:
Sven Beckert on the Entangled History of Cotton, Slavery, and Capitalism

by Kristen D. Burton

On April 3, 2015, the University of Texas at Arlington History Department hosted Sven Beckert – Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University – as a part of the Speaker Series on Transatlantic History. Over the course of forty-five minutes, Beckert presented a cascade of intriguing and provocative points from his new book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) on the interconnections between the history of cotton, slavery, and capitalism. Beckert explained how his book differs from other studies; specifically, he emphasized how Empire of Cotton uses the history of cotton to analyze the emergence of modern capitalism.

While his new book appears to be an addition to the ever-expanding list of commodity histories, Beckert’s study instead uses cotton as a lens to examine more complicated historical questions. He explained that, by focusing on a particular material good or product, historians can find ways to understand “the unity of the diverse.” As someone who also specializes in the history of commodities (alcohol), I found this turn of phrase quite striking. Too often, books that center on a specific trade good – be it salt, potatoes, or even beer – tend to center on the production and exchange of that chosen commodity in order to prove its historical significance. In Empire of Cotton, Beckert is concerned less with proving the importance of cotton (though he does uphold its significance compared to other products like sugar or tobacco), than he is with the global connections forged by the cotton industry in the nineteenth century.

The vast expanse of the cotton industry demanded a global perspective. To understand global connections, however, Beckert argued it is necessary to incorporate a local perspective. He rightly acknowledged the tendency of history as a discipline to organize along national lines. As the history profession emerged alongside the rise of nation-states in the nineteenth century, such an emphasis on national narratives should not come as a surprise. In order to move beyond the limitation of national boundaries, Beckert built his research upon the regional connections established by the nineteenth-century cotton industry across the globe.

“The global,” Beckert stated, “cannot be understood without the local.” This emphasis placed on connections not only revealed the significance of specific regions to a worldwide industry, but it also unveiled the necessity of moving beyond restrictive timeframes. Beckert explained in the presentation how the events of the eighteenth century cannot be separated from what happened in the nineteenth century, or the world we live in today. Broad timeframes and a global perspective help reveal the complex connections that continue to shape modern behaviors, living conditions, and ideologies.

While all of these aspects were central to Beckert’s approach to his research, the primary focus of his presentation rested upon the fundamental connections between the institution of slavery and the emergence of capitalism. The ramifications of slavery and the production of cotton were monumental; as the factory production of cotton increased, larger, industrialized emerged. This illustrated the strong connections between agricultural and urban regions. Beckert argued that, when we think about capitalism, we should not focus exclusively on cities, but we should also look to countryside plantations and farms. These developments were crucial to the early wave of globalization, and it was all built upon the cultivation of cotton. Cotton stood at the center of capitalism due to its inherent dependence upon the continuous labor of chattel slavery.

In what was likely the most provocative aspect of Beckert’s talk, and what sparked the most discussion afterward, was his argument that, after 1500, Europeans created a global market and economy via “war capitalism.” Beckert, who received critical inquiries regarding this term, explained that he found alternative terminology – mercantilism, economic exploitation, etc. – unsatisfying, as it did not embody the extensive violence wrought by the construction of this global market. A term like “war capitalism” is intended to convey the violent appropriation of the economic market through the unrestricted actions of private individuals and the protection of such actions by states.

“War capitalism,” as presented in Empire of Cotton, encompasses the era when colonizers like Great Britain depended upon cotton imports gathered and prepared for manufacturing through the vicious coercion of forced labor. Following the gradual emancipation of slaves in the United States, South America, and the Caribbean, “war capitalism” gave way to industrial capitalism, making the Industrial Revolution a spoil of the economic violence that was slavery. The rise of industrialization ultimately led to The Great Divergence, the rapid growth of particular regions, particularly Western Europe and North America, in the nineteenth century. Beckert explained how, after the development of The Great Divergence, growth became the new norm, rather than the exception. It was through cotton, then, that the dependence and exploitation of an enslaved labor force established the foundation, and led to the creation, of the industrial proletariat within the factory system.

Violent domination of global production and the enslavement of a labor force was the foundation of “war capitalism” – the means through which colonizers established their empire of cotton. As cotton did not grow well in Europe, the expansion of European imperialism became necessary to gain access to regions that could grow the fluffy, white commodity. The industrial production of new machinery in the nineteenth century was only possible through the profits gained from cotton markets. Increasing demands for cotton only motivated the capture, cultivation, and colonization of more cotton producing land. It was in this way, Beckert argued, that states played an important role in the development of industrial capitalism. Nations, like the United States, would not have been able to seize its role as a significant cotton producer had it not been for the extensive exploitation of an enslaved labor force. In this way, Beckert argued, slavery was inherently embedded in the emergence of capitalism and the vast economic divide that now exists between countries today.

An extended discussion followed Beckert’s presentation, with the bulk of the questions focused on the connections between the rise of capitalism and the institution of slavery. My own question to Beckert centered on a point he made about the tendency of historians to take an exclusive approach to the topics of slavery and capitalism. I asked how, then, did historians’ research on seventeenth and eighteenth-century sugar production in the Caribbean differ from Beckert’s research on cotton. Influential works by Sidney Mintz and Richard S. Dunn make similar connections between sugar production and the emergence of capitalism, while also revealing the horrific conditions slaves labored under as this industry spread across the Caribbean. Beckert explained that sugar was an important part of the story he told; the dependence upon enslaved laborers to produce sugar marked the beginning of European commodity exploitation. However, he stated that sugar did not extend as far as the cotton industry, and it was not as connected to the global industrial economy.

Beckert also acknowledged the many prominent works, including those by Eric Williams, Philip Curtin, and Walter Johnson, also linked the history of slavery to the emergence of capitalism, but he held firm that historians tend to treat the subjects exclusively or privilege one over the other. He argued that, by the turn of the nineteenth century – after the Haitian Revolution destroyed French control over the sugar and cotton-producing colony Saint Domingue, and Whitney’s cotton gin permanently changed the nature of cotton production – the use of enslaved labor shifted. At that point in time, a sense of modernity appeared in the institution of slavery, making the connections between slavery, cotton, and capitalism much stronger than what had appeared in the sugar mills of the Caribbean.

While not everyone in attendance found Beckert’s defense of the connection between slavery and the rise of capitalism convincing, and some found Beckert’s presentation of capitalism too critical, Empire of Cotton will undoubtedly continue to spark lively debate among historians. This seems to suit Beckert, as he called for the increased involvement of historians in public debates on capitalism. He stated that historians have an edge on economists as historians have the training to look beyond national boundaries and focus on global connections that might otherwise remain unnoticed. Some economists may disagree with this stance, but historical training does provide many essential tools for a transnational study of this nature.

Many of the points raised in the presentation brought to mind Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto, in which they called for historians to embrace broader perspectives and greater public involvement. While the heart of Beckert’s research centered on the nineteenth century, he made it clear this debate is ongoing and the cotton industry continues to be an economic powerhouse. With roughly 350 million people currently working to produce cotton, it is necessary to investigate how the past shaped the powerful economic forces of the present. In order to grasp an understanding of these connections, and to see how individuals scattered across the globe create “the unity of the diverse,” Beckert argued it is essential that the analytical eyes and critical voices of historians remain part of this continuous public discourse.

To read more about Beckert’s arguments in Empire of Cotton, see his article, “Slavery and Capitalism, in The Chronicle Review: http://chronicle.com/article/SlaveryCapitalism/150787/.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I guess the obvious question is how much of James Livingston’s recent critique of Walter Johnson and the new histories of capitalism here at USIH also apply to Beckert’s work. But I don’t have that answer. Perhaps someone is feverishly at work on a USIH 2015 roundtable featuring Johnson, Beckert, Edward Baptist, and Livingston?

    • I think that much of Livingston’s critique of Johnson also applies to Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, and, on various levels, to the work of Seth Rothman, Johnathan Levy and especially Edward Baptist.

      Historians ( James Livingston among them) have always agreed that slavery was essential to global trade during and prior to the 19th century, and to the development of capitalism thereafter. To say that slavery is “pre-capitalist” is not to say it is irrelevant to, or disconnected from, capitalism.

  2. Kristen, thanks so much for this wonderful writeup. There’s so much fantastic work and discussion and collaboration happening all the time, and it’s really nice to be able to catch a glimpse of the vitality and variety of our community of inquiry. Thanks for bringing the vitality of the program at UT Arlington to the blog here — and for bringing Sven Beckert’s ideas along as well.

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