U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Beckert’s Empire of Cotton and the Telos Problem

The publication of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is probably among the most significant events in twenty-first century US historiography. Empire of Cotton won the Bancroft Prize, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer. Its research is so impressive, and its scale so vast, that it is impossible not to admire its accomplishments.

At the same time, we can probably agree that it is not a sign of a healthy historical community when good books–even great books–are simply lauded: arguments processed, comps lists updated, surveys restructured. A good book is good, to my mind, to the degree that it provokes passionate argument––even if we find ourselves, ultimately, in agreement with its premises.

I begin, then, with an affirmation of the praise that Empire of Cotton has received. I urge readers who have not yet had a chance to  work through it to make that a priority. But I follow up that affirmation with a confession of a certain anxious response to a footnote, early in the text, and a further confession that this anxiety never abated as I read Empire of Cotton. I would like, here, to offer some thoughts about this readerly anxiety: not to provide a traditional review, and without the super-ego commands to be, like Fox News, “fair and balanced.” Put simply: I have some worries, and I would like to share them.

In Note 6 to Empire of Cotton‘s Introduction, Beckert lumps together Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and the free market erotica of David Landes and Niall Feruson with the work of Robert Brenner and E.P. Thompson. The intention, I suppose, is to challenge stories of capitalism’s take-off as centered in Europe (or, more particularly, England). But this strikes me as both a grave insult to Brenner and Thompson, and as an insult issued in bad faith. Beckert compares the Eurocentric and often suffocatingly arrogant celebrations of the West’s “killer apps” (rationalist, religion, science, etc). in the work of scholars like Ferguson to accounts “that focus exclusively on conflicts between social classes within particular regions or countries.” Marxist historiography of capitalism, then, is condemned by Beckert as “just as flawed” as the triumphalist econ-historical fantasies favored by The Economist magazine.

Let’s situate this negging of Brenner and Thompson. Beckert constructs a very specific rhetorical situation in his Introduction. He interpellates the reader as a bourgeois Westerner, immersed in the world of globalized capitalism, probably wearing a cotton T-shirt purchased at the Gap or J. Crew. Again and again, Beckert toggles between this imaginary situation and “the world 100 years earlier” in which everything was different. To proceed in this way, of course, is to normalize and reify an ideal reader, as well as a highly contingent sense of both the present and the past.

This impression grows stronger as we read Beckert’s presentation of a certain question as particularly vexing: “why, after many millennia of slow economic growth” did “a few strands of humanity in the late eighteenth-century” suddenly get much richer? So, evidently, we are going to be thinking about the “take-off” of capitalism in one place and time? The “global-turn” innovation, then, will be in service of answering the same question probed by Brenner and Thompson––why capitalism in England?––and will offer “globality” as an explanatory alternative to Brenner and Thompson’s “class struggle”?

“This book,” Beckert writes, “embraces a global perspective to show how Europeans united the power of capital and the power of the state to forge, often violently, a global production complex, and then used the capital, skills, networks, and institutions of cotton to embark upon the upswing in technology and wealth that defines the modern world.”

So the story is still about Europeans in one place and time. It is a story that seems to grant to European elites something like unlimited agency (at least, there is no mention of resistance in this capsule). The story seems to be highly instrumentalist (elites as uniters of capital and the state) and selective. As presented here, it is also a story fundamentally in line with bourgeois economics: arguing for the unstoppable force of technology and wealth, in concert, as the defining force of modern economic history.

Note the peculiarity, too, of the final clauses: elites “used the capital, skills, networks and institutions of cotton to embark upon the upswing in technology and wealth that defines the modern world.” What exactly does this mean? How does one “embark” upon an “upswing”? What picture is formed in the mind of the reader of this passage? If the reception story of Empire of Cotton is the dissemination of the insight that the transition to capitalism was violent, bloody, and irrational––and this does seem to be the unquestionably valuable service that the book is performing for many of its readers––why is this phraseology so convoluted? Why is it so difficult to extract from this sentence an agent, an act, a set of consequences, and an ethical judgment?


The most compelling answer to these objections might be: well, the book itself is a book-length engagement with/refutation of previous theorizations of capitalism’s history. In and of itself, this would be a tricky argument to maintain. Narratives embody arguments, flesh them out, illustrate them, render them legible to readers. But I do not think that the book-length narrative is the proper form for the presentation of a historical argument. The reason for this, of course, has to do with selectivity: the construction of narratives involves a series of motivated choices regarding level of detail (magnification or minimization of this or that event or force), editorial cuts, pacing, commentary, explanation, and tone. The act of narrativizing involves choices regarding the credibility of sources, the salience of those actors hidden from the written record weighed against the importance of those whose presence haunts surviving documents, whether to interrupt the flow of the story with editorial asides or ideological analysis.

Finally, and most importantly, constructing a narrative is almost always tied up with some telos or end; that destiny towards which the story inexorably extends is itself a powerful argument, often different from the one formally offered in a book’s introductory chapter. As many feminist critics of narrative telos have argued (I am thinking in particular of Teresa De Lauretis and Judith Roof), teleology in narrative is not simply a “fallacy”: it is an expression of ideology. When desire in narrative pushes or pulls towards a conclusion, we should be attentive to the political meanings that inhere in our investments towards certain conclusions: not to defend against manipulation (part of the fun of narrative is being manipulated, after all) but to recognize the technical mechanisms through which common sense reproduces itself in consciousness. (If we are political people, that also tells us where to aim our efforts as we create new works or study old ones).

In this light, it it useful to consider the ways in which teleology-as-ideology figures in Beckert’s text.

Consider the following passage:

Embedded within households and their particular strategies for survival, this premodern cotton industry was also characterized by slow technological change in ginning, spinning, or weaving. As late as the eighteenth century, a woman in Southeast Asia, for example, needed a month to spin a pound of cotton and another month to weave a piece of cloth ten yards long. This enormous time requirement was partly the result of what economists call “low opportunity costs” for the labor that went into spinning and weaving, and partly of a world in which rulers taxed their subjects’ production to the maximum extent possible. Moreover, since many households were self-sufficient in textiles, markets were of a limited scale, again reducing incentives to improve production techniques. Yet slow technological change was also related to constraints on the supply of raw materials. In most regions of the world, raw cotton could not be transported efficiently very far.

This is a rather extraordinary passage. It presumes a “normal” rate of technological progress, against which certain actors are judged “slow,” although it is hard to square this conventional economic vision of modernization with the very different stories told by historians of technology. It presumes the absence of “incentives” that should be active, but are missing. It imagines that markets are on their way, impeded by––what exactly? Backwardness? Traditionalism? Pre-modern moral economy?

The point here is that there are many different ways to narrate this passage. The choices evident in the strategy that appears in Empire of Cotton point to a naturalization of capitalist development as inevitable and, broadly speaking, beneficial.  Thus we discover that “overall productivity increases in the two thousand years prior to the Industrial Revolution were small.” (Should they have been big?) We learn that the “premodern world” was “safe behind two bulkheads”:  markets for finished good grew slowly and transportation across long distances was difficult. (Do these statements mean anything absent the looming telos of capitalist breakthrough?) “A great countervailing force would be needed,” we are told, “to break through these ancient constraints.”

Needed by whom? Or what? Is this need a historical force with momentum in the places and times placed under the microscope, or only the retrospective narrative force required to tell a certain kind of story? As we continue to synthesize the (undeniable and richly complex) contributions of the new histories of capitalism, I think that these questions––questions about what Fredric Jameson famously called the “political unconscious,” questions that often require close reading at the level of the sentence––should find a place in our broader discussions.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I haven’t read ‘Empire of Cotton’ but have a few initial reactions to this post (and thanks for the post, btw).

    First, re the offending footnote mentioned at the outset: I understand why you object to lumping Brenner and Thompson together with Landes and Ferguson. Only Ferguson, however, wrote that book about the West’s ‘killer apps’. Landes wrote some things intended for a wide-ish audience, but he never got to the level of ‘killer apps’. More importantly — and this just occurred to me now as I’m writing — I tend to doubt that Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations’ is properly classed as “free market erotica.” My recollection from the reviews of that book is that its main explanatory emphasis fell on “culture” — objectionable, perhaps, in its own way but different from a straightforward celebration of the ‘free market’.

    Second, as you would presumably agree, treating capitalism as something new, transformative, and more productive than what preceded it doesn’t *necessarily* have to equate to celebrating or “naturalizing” it as something beneficial. Beckert might do that, but there is sometimes a fine line between describing/explaining a big, long-term change and treating it as inevitable, and it’s not always an easy line to walk. Also, there’s “x was inevitable” and then there’s “x was inevitable *and* beneficial” — one can espouse the first proposition without adopting the second.

    Lastly, and this gets back to some of the issues broached in your earlier posts on ‘political Marxism’ — a question this post perhaps implicitly raises but does not directly address is: what is the crucial period for the capitalist ‘take-off’? And how to characterize the period just before the industrial revolution? Was there an “agricultural capitalism,” to use Wallerstein’s phrase, before there was an industrial capitalism? Does Beckert get into this or does he just start from the assumption that the late 18th century is the ‘take-off’ period in which he’s interested?

    • Louis, thanks for this comment. To my mind, the differences between Landes and Ferguson are nugatory.

      The broader point, I think, is that telos generates narrative momentum as a matter of literary style, which need not have anything to do with how history went. I don’t think one needs to have a perfect alternative story at the ready to critique a given example.

      I do think that there is an important counter-history to be written against the trope of ‘take-off”- the work of Arturo Escobar provides one model, and the work of Cedric Robinson another.

      • Thanks — both names ring a bell, and in particular Escobar’s ‘Encountering Development’ I will take a look at.

  2. Kurt, again, great essay. I think that, from your essay alone (I haven’t read the book), Beckert’s understanding of capitalism is prefigured, to a large extent, on Giovanni Arrighi’s Long Twentieth Century, who is himself heavily rooted in Braudel. Arrighi’s is a provocative genius from whom I’ve learned a great deal, but his whole apparatus raises many problems. Is capitalism really just that transhistorical space in which the rule of the jungle operates and states are just playthings? Perhaps a critique of Beckert by way of Arrighi would make for a good essay? Maybe I can bring in Theory as History as kind of a via media between the Braudelians and the Marxists.

    • Kyle, thanks so much for this very helpful link to Arrighi and the Braudelian tradition. I always found Arrighi kind of a funny writer: very sophisticated as a theorist, but also very much an old-fashioned “this happened, then that happened” sort of historical narrator.

      I think that at the bottom of these differences in approach we will likely find disagreements about a word nobody likes–“positivism.” At the end of the day, the question concerns the the extraction from the historical record of law-like generalities or generalizations: and debates (that, for some reason, we don’t want to have) about whether or not the search for such generalizations is, broadly speaking, a good idea or a bad idea.

  3. “So the story is still about Europeans in one place and time.”

    Is there a history of capitalism that won’t be, in part if not in whole? Even if one objects to the teleological prospects of Beckert’s narrative, one is still left with the same results. Capitalism emerged in a certain place at a certain time, and not at other times and places. Changing the frame won’t change the picture. So on some level the teleology in Beckert’s narrative is innate: capitalism happened. Thus, a narrative about the emergence of capitalism will be teleological by default because capitalism emerged. Whether one thinks that’s good or bad is one thing, that it did another. They ought not to be conflated. But for reasons elucidated in the post and previous comments it may not be possible to avoid that, either.

    • Thanks for this very useful note. Yes, I think you are right: but then Beckert’s assertion of having produced a new counter-narrative seems less correct than a claim that he is restating a rather traditional account of capitalism’s rise (a la McCusker and Menard).

      There are alternatives, of course: one can say that capitalism did not happen (as Latour claims vis-a-vis modernity), or that capitalism has always existed (or emerged as soon as the first truck, barter, or exchange took place) or work from a Humean epistemic skepticism (capitalism may or may not have taken place, but there are severe limits on our abilities to verify such a description, or maybe the business of historical description is just a habitual imposition on a chaotic flux of reality that is not in and of itself “historical”). What say you?

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