Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton”: A Conversation

1922 Alexandria docks

Dockworkers load cotton in the port of Alexandria, Egypt, 1921

Faculty and students in the History Department are getting extremely excited about the upcoming November 5 event to launch the O’Connell Initiative in the Global History of Capitalism. The event, which  will feature a talk by Harvard University’s Sven Beckert on “Tracking the Global History of Capitalism,” is particularly exciting for the faculty who have read and been inspired by Beckert’s  award-winning 2014 book Empire of Cotton: A Global History. We asked two members of our faculty, David Hamlin and Christopher Dietrich, to sit down and share their thoughts on the book. Their conversation is transcribed below, and it represents both a wonderful entry point into the book’s larger themes and a meditation on the value of studying capitalism from a global perspective.

Christopher Dietrich: So, what did you think of the book?

David Hamlin: I really liked it. You?

CD: I thought it was interesting too. I noted that Beckert worked some with finance and the way finance capital supports different ways of life and power structures. I especially thought his thesis on war capitalism was a useful correction of the histories of capitalism that emphasize liberal values and institutions. What did you think about finance in Empire of Cotton?

DH: Beckert makes a really important point about people’s interaction with each other when he argues that on the other side of every transaction is money.  The flow of money is inextricably tied to the flow of things across the globe.  Beckert weaves a fascinating tale of the ways that control over money, and its sidekick information, wove together this massive empire of cotton.

CD: How exactly does he say that worked?

DH: Liverpool merchants directed capital to open up new cotton lands in the American South.  They also advanced the money needed to simply buy and sell cotton.  Finance and capital created, directed and sustained this global empire of cotton.  In the process, Beckert shows how things, objects, and people could fade into invisibility, could “melt into air” as Marx put it.

CD: I like that phrase: “melt into air.” What does it mean?

DH: He gives a lot of examples. Futures contracts allowed cotton to be traded that did not yet exist.  “Liverpool prices” became the universally understood symbol, a simple number, for how many shirts, sheets and napkins were thought to be wanted that year.  Enslaved African-Americans were converted into security for loans or a line in a plantation’s accounting books.

At the same time, Beckert shows very well how capital was always being converted back into things.  An English loan becomes a New Orleans cotton trading company.  A bad loan transforms Brown Brothers trading company into a slave-owner and plantation operator.  In Empire of Cotton, capital is constantly making things appear and disappear.  In many ways, it is a history of capital and finance as well as a history of cotton.

I have a question for you, as an international historian. Beckert says that the only way to understand capitalism is in a global context. Why?

CD: Well, I think you’ve hit on that in your examples of what melts into air and what materializes. Beckert believes that no history of capitalism can be complete without a close analysis of its global contexts, and he makes this argument compelling at a number of points in the book: in his assertion about the ubiquity of cotton in modern consumer life, in his discussion of imperial expansion and African slave labor in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in his examination of the expropriation of the most fertile American lands.

DH: You’re a nerd. I know you have a favorite section.

CD: I do! My favorite section is the one in which he contrasts the schism between exporting merchants and cotton plantation owners in the United States, which led to the Civil War, with the unified bloc of merchants and plantation owners in other slave societies, like Brazil.  A close second is his argument about the effects of the Civil War on the lives of people across the world, especially in the rise of state activism to protect cotton prices and markets.

DH: What do you mean?

CD: Well, listen to this: “Battles fought in rural Virginia reverberated in small villages in Berar and Lower Egypt, a farmer’s crop choice in Brazil rested on his reading of the Liverpool market, and real estate prices collapsed in Bombay as soon as news of the Union’s destruction of Richmond reached India’s shores.” The sort of research needed to arrive at these conclusions is hard for individual historians to do, because it requires language skill, funding, time and, frankly, insight most historians don’t have.  Beckert’s ability to do the research and navigate the different straits of his story is one of the reasons Empire of Cotton has garnered so much praise and attention.

DH: I like that.

CD: Why?

DH: It gets to something that has bouncing around in my mind.  Beckert is unusually effective at shifting geographic scales.  He works extremely well exploring the global reach of merchants in Liverpool, for example.  But he also is careful and sympathetic to very local factors.

CD: I agree. The combination of the local and the global isn’t easy. Widening the scope from individual experience to some sort of universal dynamic is a project fraught with pitfalls.

DH: This is not just the individual vignette that demonstrates a wider dynamic, though Beckert has those.  The book also encompasses, for example, the ways that peasant tenure in India shaped a different kind of relation to cotton than in the American South, while the strength of sugar growers in Brazil meant yet another structure of production.  And Egypt was something else entirely.  The global and the particular are brought together in a really illuminating fashion.  There is nothing like the “logic of the machine” pushing everyone to relate to the market in a particular fashion.  Cotton producers responded to common incentives, but from within different societies, so we find very different outcomes.

CD: This discussion is making me more and more excited to hear the talk. This was fun!

DH: Good! See you soon.




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