“The human capacity to organize our efforts in ever more productive ways should give us hope, the hope that our unprecedented domination over nature will allow us also the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world’s people—an empire of cotton that is not only productive, but also just.”
— Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton
I began Beckert’s book two years ago, almost exactly. I’m currently blanking on who exactly recommended the book to me, although it’s anti-capitalist deconstructionist skew summons up a lineup of the usual Marxist suspects. (We all have them in our lives, yes? The perpetual agitators.)
This is an utterly necessary book to read if you buy or wear or use cotton (spoiler: we all do). And never have I read a more persuasive case for consumer consciousness, contra Walmart, or damning lack of concern on our parts.
Beckert, a Harvard history professor, makes crystal clear how early capitalists took advantage of state governments—held them financially hostage, if that’s not putting it too boldy—to gain control of the cotton market. He painstakingly drives all his points home demonstrating how the forefathers of global venture capitalists ripped apart local subsistence economies for their own gain.
It makes undeniably clear that industrialization on the global scale we have become accustomed to has always required a workforce held in slavery, bondage labor or severely underpaid. Our global capitalism and our American capitalism, Matthew Desmond quotes Beckert as saying, has chattel slavery and human exploitation stamped on its DNA.
If cotton is the “fabric of our lives” then it reveals something all too clear, that we do not wish to acknowledge: our lives are structured around injustice, they are structured in such a way to bar access to wealth and profit, particularly, in these globalized industries, the workers who are performing the majority of the work.
Consistently, throughout the book, Beckert follows the cotton industry across the globe. Without fail, the champions of the cotton industry, the king of the cotton hill who holds himself above water by pushing down on the heads around him, are the states who find access to sinfully inexpensive, exploited labor. Whether this is through serfdom, chattel slavery, or colonialized power over a poorer nation’s workforce, the emperors of cotton are those who can take advantage of poor children and women, who take advantage of weak labor laws to keep workers in the factory in twelve hour shifts, or who are able to coerce the state into letting them keep men and women in slavery.
It’s a gripping and infuriating read. Beckert’s focus is historical. Although the final chapter is an epilogue that demonstrates that our international corporations are simply the newest generation of merchants, who now have the advantage of being free of state regulations. They are, in fact, above the state, often coercing the state to accommodate their needs.
Beckert doesn’t spend much time on the present, other than pointing that China, a country that certainly does not have enough worker protections legally in place, produces 43 percent of the world’s supply of cotton. And the American family spends only 3.4 percent of its household income on clothing. This generally translates to eight days of labor. We have, again, priced the labor of the textile industry as less than nothing. Beckert ends on a hopeful note, quoted at the beginning of the article.
Is it possible to create a world that emphasizes production over human flourishing, local, subsistence farming and community well-being?
“The least powerful members of cotton’s empire have consistently tried to create such a world and at times also have succeeded in effecting dramatic change: a world that seems stable and permanent in one moment can be radically transformed in the next.”
Like Eugene McCarraher and William Cavanaugh this past fall, who point out that Marxism itself is built on the underlying paradigm it seeks to upend, and so falls short of a total revolution, Beckert points out how capitalism and communism, so often pitted against each other as polar opposites, actually find their meeting in the global industrialization that has overtaken our planet.
No wonder, the reader thinks, reading about the atrocities committed against these workers by the Liverpool manufacturers, the Southern Plantation owners, the Gujarati merchants, the Chinese People’s Party and the Russian tsars and the Soviet Union, that communism appeals to workers. We have created a whole class of people who are treated as less than nothing, their work not an expression of their creativity and dignity, but a pesky expense, just another barrier to the high profits the owners and merchants salivate after.
Even in the post-industrial cities like New York City, this injustice is perpetuated against the fast food worker, the delivery worker, the taxi driver. Their work is certainly not viewed as an expression of their gift of time and labor to the community. Rather, their work is a pesky expense that must be dispensed with so that I can get about the business of my luxurious life, so that the business can receive its profits.
How does such a revolution against such an image of the human person begin? Not just a revolution against the injustice of the economy that demands their work be priced lower than humane or humanly possible, but the revolution of love that reclaims work not as the provenance of merchants and investors, something to be speculated on for massive profits, but as an essential building block of a community? How do we see a human not as simply “labor”, without land, history, or rights, but as a human being—with a family, community, story, life—who labors?