Audiobook Review: Empire Of Cotton

Empire Of Cotton:  A Global History, by Sven Beckert

There are a host of contradictions inherent in this particular lengthy book (in the audiobook version it covers 17 discs of more than an hour in length, requiring intestinal fortitude that few readers are likely to possess) that are worthy of discussion, as they demonstrate the immense fallacies of the socialism that the author professes and that is common in much of contemporary social history.  On the one hand, the author continually bemoans the expropriation and exploitation of the working classes of cotton workers and factory workers, the so-called rural and urban proletariat, that has taken place over the centuries since cotton manufacturing took off.  However, just as quickly, the author praises the attempts of freed slaves in the American South, laborers in New England and the Liverpool and Manchester areas, and post-colonial states in appropriating resources and higher wages and better working conditions through political or even extralegal ways.  Likewise, the author criticizes the abstractions of cotton being of different kind of grades in the way that it reduced the complexity of the real plants of cotton to a small band of standardized groups that could be manipulated and understood even as he contributes to the reduction and abstraction of history by his continual use of hackneyed and misleading language like “war capitalism,” “industrial capitalism,” and recasting, demonstrating himself to be no less of an abstraction-obsessed thinker than the cotton merchants of the 19th century that he criticizes so heartily.  The fact that the author is so blatantly and so continually hypocritical means that it is impossible for a critical but fair-minded reader to take his analysis at face value, since everything that is said is done so with a wicked and underhanded secret motive of supporting a morally, fiscally, and intellectually bankrupt socialist political worldview.

The contents of the book are broad and far-reaching, but handled with immense clumsiness and tedious repetitiousness by the author.  Despite the broad scope of the author in having written a global history of the world of cotton from its origins as several partially interconnected local worlds in East and South Asia, the Levant, West Africa, and the Americas to its present globalization under the control of massive apparel brands, it is clear that the author lacks the skill in handling the immense source material that he cites on several levels.  For one, the author repeats the same language and the same claims over and over again, as if mere repetition and length will grant a solidity of fact to mere obiter dictim as long as it is repeated over and over again, in the “big lie” fashion common to the author’s tribe.  For another, the author is not always forthcoming about the source of some of the more inflammatory statements made about the cotton trade, sometimes stating that “a historian” said many of the quotes made, without wanting to tip his hand as to the name of the historian, likely because it was a disreputable one on the level of Howard Zinn and others of his ilk.  Nevertheless, even despite these flaws the book deserves praise for its immense breadth of discussion, including the cotton manufacturing of 19th century Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, Japan, and Togo, and the intricate interrelationships between different parties involved in the cotton trade, the paradoxical role of government, the importance of local labor conditions and legal culture, and the ambivalent and sometimes parasitic relationship between the state and a multiplicity of business interests.  Even where the reader strenuously disagrees with the author’s perspective, the picture is an interesting one anyway.

In the end, this book belongs with a serious of dubious social histories [1] that is of marginal value in understanding the truth of history but of great value in understanding the political and philosophical biases of leftist contemporary historians.  However much the author’s writing gives the reader a sense of sympathy or empathy with struggling postbellum cotton sharecroppers or Indian and Togolese peasants seeking to maintain their dignity and self-respect in the face of imperial oppression and domination, and this sense of global empathy with the exploited is worthwhile, the book is far more useful in demonstrating the political ideology of the author and others of his kind and the threat that this worldview possesses to the well-being of the world.  Despite the author’s belatedly expressed desires for a just world with regards to cotton, it is clear that the author has no recognition of the ramifications of expropriation of wealth and the decline of political power on the actual workings of business.  It is only when there are no more poor nations full of people happy to work at a factory for any wages and any length of time simply to have some means that the well-being of any commonfolk are likely to be secured, and that will likely require direct divine rule of a sort that is likely to be unappealing to the author.  The course of the book demonstrates that revolutions of technology and structure are likely to provide only short-term changes to the long-term patterns of different trades, as success breeds imitation that forces continued changes that are then copied as successful, making the world of global trade appear something akin to the biological duel between bacteria and antibiotics, something the author does not explore, as it would make markets and market capitalism something organic and thus legitimate.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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7 Responses to Audiobook Review: Empire Of Cotton

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