European express train to global economic dominance

Thursday March 19 2015

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton.

Karen Blixen’s maudlin memoir evoking her nostalgia for European colonial life in Kenya during the early decades of the last century begins, “I had a farm in Africa…”

The harsh realities of the plantation system — the hundreds of angry Kikuyu workers picked coffee for a pittance on their own expropriated land— remain hidden away. Today her bungalow on the outskirts of Nairobi is a popular tourist attraction for viewing a time long gone! Or is it?

Surely colonial legacies live on, not only in Kenya but throughout the world, in income inequalities, tiered schooling, disjointed health care and poor housing for the underserved. Yet each year tiring Eurocentric screeds pour off the presses — also unsavoury artefacts of Britain’s Victorian Empire in East Africa — that do little to build on history’s quintessential operative value: Daring public policy initiatives for easing the festering dilemmas and controversies of our age resulting from a radically reimagined world.

Along comes American Sven Beckert with an easy-to-read global history of modern capitalism pivoting around the development of cotton that speaks directly to our times.

Emergence of global history

Beckert’s engrossing work, Empire of Cotton, examines the centrality of European-dominated cotton manufacturing to the rise of modern global capitalism.


It is a strenuous effort by a Harvard historian to work past the progress-of-the-nation-state paradigms of yesteryear, to a dialectical approach that transcends national boundaries to encompass the entire globe.

This foregrounding of processes, that is, recapturing events needing long-term explanations, is not a new trend, just a timely reprise of what French historian Fernand Braudel has called the longue duree. In combining the template of canonical social history set down by scholars from Karl Marx to Max Weber and Braudel, Beckert has radically reimagined the evolving political economy of the entire modern world.

Seen on an enormous global stage beginning in the 1550s, modern capitalism is divided into war capitalism, a first violent phase of imperial expansion for export markets, militarised trade, slaves and land expropriation. It is interwoven into an epic tale of new technology leading to the destruction of the ancient industrial centres of East and West Africa, India and China.

At its centre, Beckert argues, is the cotton industry. As the world’s most significant engine for capital formation, cotton also spawned the system’s second phase that he calls industrial capitalism. This was characterised by a heightened demand for essential raw materials as well as superior technology for accelerating the speed of transportation of manufactured goods over long distances.

The process led to huge infrastructural projects like Kenya Railways, which carried building supplies, bicycles and books, say, from Kilindini to Kisumu; sugar, coffee and tea were exported on the same line. Viewed from this perspective, Kenya’s fabled Lunatic Express was merely another manifestation of European-dominated industrial capitalism.

Emerging secondary sectors of the economy encouraged the organisation of insurance, finance and shipping. Public institutions such as government credit, money itself and national defence also evolved.

It was the wildly ruthless profiteering by elite players on every economically viable continent, in connivance with mostly European governments — peopled by the same capitalist class — that catalysed the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s centrality to it. It forged an institutional framework including markets for wage labour, property rights created by laws and administrative structures for protecting long-term capital investments.

Only Britain and a few other European nations had the ability to police external borders. Without this “novel and powerful state in the heart of industrial capitalism, these efforts could easily fizzle.”

New economic order

In l600, the East India Company catalysed the entire economic system that was to become Britain’s Victorian Empire.

The massive expropriation of land and privileging property rights to secure domination of frontier capitalists over indigenous inhabitants, ultimately requiring state power to create world spanning empires, became a key feature of modern capitalism. It led to increasing commercialisation of the economy and the highly centralised, bureaucratic state.

By the l780s, during a period scholars call the “great divergence,” those countries experiencing industrialisation and those that did not created a vast economic divide. The world’s former dichotomy of colonisers versus colonised, now depicted as the global North versus global South, still structures today’s world.

By l850 a new labour-intensive system of cotton production and mechanised cotton spinning mills, complete with steam-powered spinning machines, spread anywhere capital, cheap labour and a network of middle men were available. In the New World, as in Egypt, cotton production was built on slave labour.

From l860 to l862, with production paralysed, a “cotton famine” saw exports to Europe drop from 3.8 million bales to nothing. Cotton production shifted from the South to India and Egypt. But not for long! It took only a few years until cotton production returned, this time in the hands of rural smallholders.

Human activity

Human agency is also woven into Beckert’s fabric of complex economic processes and policies, outpaced only by inventions for accelerating travel and communication that continue today. After the Industrial Revolution, human activity revolved around machines in a manner unthinkable in previous ages.

But at what cost? Beckert reminds us of the raw abuse of children in England’s industrial heartlands. In 1861 in Britain, 446,000 people were in the cotton industry. Coerced by their own parents no less, fully one-half of all cotton workers were children.

In the US, Britain, Denmark, Sweden and Russia, all orphans end up in textile factories, working 13 hours a day. Like that of children, women’s labour earned 45-50 per cent of male wages.

By the 1830s, Britain’s better-informed citizenry had taken issue with the appalling working conditions at the mills. Ellen Hooton, aged 10, a cotton worker in Lancashire began her day at 5.30am and finished at 8.00pm.

Hooton had two breaks, one for breakfast and one for lunch. If she or others resisted, by absconding, they were necklaced with 16-20 pound weights and forced to parade around the factory floor.

It is hardly news that even today exploitation of workers is alive and flourishing everywhere weak legal frameworks cannot enforce fair play. So is resistance.

Beckert threads his study with moving tales of class insurgency, rounding out his study with a third global shift in capitalism, returning the industry to its origins in the global South. Drawing on “a pool of low-wage workers,” the new shifted geography “foreshadows the new global division of labour so familiar today.”

Written with honesty, clarity and conviction, this transformative study is much more than another jeremiad against capitalism. The text glows from its underlying proposition for changing the world that will alter forever the way you view modern history, and your own class position in it.