Slavery, Capitalism, and Cotton

I picked up a copy of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History at the Gonzaga University library (how I miss the days when I had time on my hands and the resources to blog frequently about books I was reading!) and came across this description of the global cotton trade toward the end of the 18th century:

European trade in cotton textiles tied together Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Europe in a complex commercial web. Never before in the four millennia of cotton had such a globe-spanning system been invented. Never before had the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to produce agricultural commodities for European consumers. This was an awe-inspiring system, speaking clearly to the transformative powers of a union of capital and state power. What was most radical was not the particulars of these trades, but the system in which they were embedded and how different parts of the system fed upon one another: Europeans had invented a new way of organizing economic activity. (P.36–37)

Sven notes that cotton production for much of human history was done by small holders, as was spinning (making yarn) and weaving (making cloth). Cotton was already established as a global commodity by the 12th century, and when British and Dutch traders first showed up in India, they bought Indian cloth from relatively free Indian growers, spinners, and weavers. However, things would change by the 18th century, as Sven notes:

This expansion of European trade networks into Asia, Africa, and the Americas did not rest primarily on offering superior goods at good prices, but on the military subjugation of competitors and a coercive European mercantile presence in many regions of the world. Depending of the relative balance of social power in particular places, there were variations on this central theme. In Asia and Africa, Europeans settled costal enclaves and dominated transoceanic commerce, without at first much involvement in cultivation and manufacturing. In other pars of the world, most prominently the Americas, local populations were expropriated and often displaced or killed. Europeans invented the world anew by embarking upon plantation agriculture on a massive scale. Once Europeans became involved in production, they fastened their economic fortunes to slavery. These three moves — imperial expansion, expropriation, and slavery — became central to the forging of a new global economic order and eventually the emergence of capitalism … Not secure property rights, but a wave of expropriation of labor and land characterized this moment, testifying to capitalism’s illiberal origins. (P.37)

Slavery was, as Beckert notes, “the beating heart of this system” and became central to economic development in the Americas because plantation agricultural became central — especially in the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies of the Caribbean and South America. Sugar was the primary culprit, at least early on, and it seems that one constant throughout human history is the reality that plantation agriculture requires slavery of some kind because few human beings will labor of their own free will on plantations.

For Beckert, this system of expansion, dominance, and enslavement is best called “War Capitalism.”

War capitalism relied on the capacity of rich and powerful Europeans to divide the world into “inside” and “outside.” The “inside” encompassed the laws, institutions, and customs of the mother country, where state-enforced order ruled. The “outside,” by contrast, was characterized by imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples, theft of their resources, enslavement, and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states. In these imperial dependencies, the rules of the inside did not apply. There, masters trumped states, violence defied the law, and bold physical coercion by private actors remade markets. While, as Adam Smith argued, such territories advanced “more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society,” they did so via a social tabula rasa, which, perhaps ironically, provided the foundation for the emergence of very different societies and states on war capitalism’s “inside.” (P.38)

Cotton is central to this story, Beckert states, and I am guessing he wrote this book to make the case of cotton’s essential place at the center of global empire and capitalism since the 18th century, when Europe stopped simply encountering the world (and doing business with it) and began to conquer it.

I won’t say much more about this book right now except to note that I believe Beckert here is on to something, about the centrality of slavery — unfree labor — to capitalism. Not just its development, but its very nature as an economic system. I’ve long been suspicious of capitalist rhetoric, and economic “logic,” about how important free labor is to capitalism. Why pay for something when you can simply extract it by force from the unwilling? I realize that, by this logic, there’d be no reason at all for free labor to exist, and it clearly does. But if Beckert is right, and slavery was a central feature of capitalism’s rise, then the fact of unfree, coerced labor was baked into capitalism at the beginning, and is likely something capitalism cannot escape. Even if it wanted to.


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