Empire of cotton: A globalhistory – BECKERT (PR-RDCDH)

BECKERT, S. Empire of cotton: A globalhistory. 2006. Resenha de: MULLINS JÚNIOR, R. D. Panta Rei. Revista Digital de Ciencia y Didáctica de la Historia, Murcia, 159-160, 2016.

Every year in Virginia, many teachers instruct students that capitalism is a system in whichgovernment stays out of the way. The author of this review, being a former high school teacher inVirginia, taught this very concept. Nevertheless, Sven Beckert tells a different story in his book Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Beckert argues that not only was the state involved in the development of capitalism, but also “the needs of nation-states were not conflicting”, meaning that in many instancescapitalism intertwined with goals of the state (p. xxi) He uses a commodity, cotton, as a centerpieceto exemplify his point. From the onset, the reader may think they are embarking on a history ofcotton, but that is not Beckert’s goal. His goal is to tell the story of capitalism, by focusing on a topicthat everyone knows something about: cotton.

Beckert begins his book by discussing cotton’s presence in South America a “half of millennium ago” in small villages in “what is today called Mexico” (p. 3). By starting the story this early, he not only shows that “cotton had a long history”, but he also shows that so did capitalism (p. xx). Next, Beckert addresses Christopher Columbus’ landing in 1492; Columbus’ landing was a major event that “recast global connections” and made way for the global rise of capitalism (p. 31). It is after making this point that Beckert is able to get to the meat of his story.

From the landing of Columbus, Beckert progresses, arguably quickly, through roughly four hundred years of history. Through out the four hundred years, he describes the different phases of capitalism, and how different nations experienced it. Although this is a daunting task, Beckert does well in this endeavor and describes how major events, such as the American Civil War, affected capitalism (p. 242-273). By looking at world changing events such as wars, Beckert is able tocapitalize on exemplifying how capitalism had global connections. By emphasizing how major eventshad worldwide ramifications, he is successful in the pursuit of constructing a global history.

As Beckert reaches into the nineteenth and twentieth century, he supports his argumentof state involvement in capitalism even more by discussing how when individuals from differentc ountries attempted to enter the global world of cotton, “they learned about the importance of strongstates to industrialization” (p. 412). Although this point is not direct, it strengthens Beckert’s argumentby showing that although many argue capitalism is a system in which government should stay outof the way, a strong state is practically a prerequisite for entering the industrial realm. As Beckert concludes, he reminds the reader that even into the twentieth century, “the trajectory of the empire of cotton converged more and more with the goals of state-led development” (p. 436).

Beckert thoroughly researched this work, which is evident by examining his notes at the end of the book. However, the choice of having the notes at the end can be laborious when the readerwants to reference one of his notes, as it requires constantly flipping to the back of the book. It wouldbe helpful to have notes within the page for a quick reference, which would provide a smoother read.

Aside from arrangement issues, Beckert makes a statement that could have used more clarification. While describing how America was different from the rest of the world, he discusses that America was the only colonial ruler “which had made cotton-growing territories available byremoving the native people who had dwelled on those lands for centuries” (p. 359). Here it wouldhave been helpful if Beckert could have added more context to this statement. One could arguethat the precedent of taking native lands for business endeavors started with Spanish and English colonization. Although Beckert specifies he is talking about cotton, the way in which he argues thispoint makes it appear as if America set the precedent for taking native lands for business endeavors.

Sven Beckert successfully conquered the task of writing a thorough history of capitalism. Hischoice to focus on a commodity, rather than on individuals, offer a unique and intriguing story to thoseinterested in economic history or the history of capitalism. His story is best suited for the professional historian, but would also be something of interest to the economist or possibly even the political philosopher due to his focus on state affairs. Beckert reminds the reader through his narrative of atruth that is present even today; “a world that seems stable and permanent in one moment can be radically transformed in the next” (p. 443).

Ricky D. Mullins Júnior – History and Social Studies Education at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA. USA).

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