This review of Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History was originally published by Monthly Review.
I could not wait to read Empire of Cotton. For four years following the 2008 mortgage crisis, I worked as a cotton merchant for one of the “big four” trading firms—ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. These shadowy giants, two of them privately held, maintain oligopoly control of agricultural commodity markets. From desks in Memphis, my colleagues and I purchased mountains of cotton in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, warehoused it, speculated on it, and sold it back to mills on those same continents. Our wood-paneled office was hung with quaint paintings of cotton fields and sepia photographs of the Old South. We sat at the pinnacle of a web of political and economic forces that funneled cotton into facilities we owned and cash into our accounts, but nowhere in the office was there a visible sign of the violence that made it all possible.
Too often liberal histories focus on a single period, territory, or class perspective, and end up obscuring the truth, severing the threads that tie a moment to its historical roots. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is different. Although a liberal historian, Beckert refuses to limit his scope in the traditional way. Instead, he follows the movement of cotton across time, space, and class, bringing forward the threads that bind the objects of an otherwise distorted past. Empire of Cotton is a history of the evolving relationships between city and countryside, toiler and owner, colonizer and colonized—all through the prism of cotton.
With this approach, Beckert joins the ranks of prominent scholars, such as Giovanni Arrighi, writing “global history.” He brings to a broad audience the iconoclastic lessons that have usually been the purview of marginalized academics, typically Marxist and oppressed nationality scholars. Empire of Cotton is a New York Times bestseller, book of the month on Amazon, and winner of the Bancroft prize. For a text that argues “Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence, were not aberrations in the history of capitalism, but were at its very core,” this is nothing to scoff at (441). It is a book that reaches beyond the audience of scholars and history buffs, and will no doubt make its way even into the hands of some of my former cotton-trading colleagues.
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