Sven Beckert and Cotton

31 12 2014

In the twenty-first century, it is rare for books by academic historians to generate a buzz in the mainstream media. That’s largely a reflection of the narrow research focus of most history professors.  However, Sven Beckert’s epic new global history of cotton has succeeded in generating lot of attention. The book has been favourably reviewed by Slate, the New York Times,  and the Economist.

Here is the description of the book on the publisher’s website

The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism.

Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to an empire, and how this force transformed the world.

The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.

Beckert discusses the historiography of capitalism and slavery here.  Beckert published a summary of his book in the Atlantic.

Beckert is co-chair of the Program on the Study of Capitalism at Harvard University , and co-chair of theWeatherhead Initiative on Global History (WIGH). Beyond Harvard, he co-chairs an international study group on global history, is co-editor of a series of books at Princeton University Press on “America in the World,” and has co-organized a series of conferences on the history of capitalism. He is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. He also directs the Harvard College Europe Program.

Beckert’s work is likely to be influential for two reasons. First, it was based on extensive research. Second, this superb research was done by a tenured Harvard professor.

One of the reasons I’m pleased Beckert’s book is getting so much attention is that it highlights many of the same issues (slavery in supply chains, business ethics) that are central a paper on sugar that I’m working on with Kirsten Greer right now.

P.S. This is my first blog post of 2015.

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