“Dyed in Blood: A Harvard historian shows how every stage of the industrialization of cotton rested on violence.”
So reads the headline in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, regarding Sven Beckert’s volume, Empire of Cotton. The book is part of a new and important historiographical school—the history of capitalism—and also exemplifies a popular genre, the global history of a commodity. With Madeira wine, tobacco, sugar, coffee and mahogany already claimed (consumed?) by other historians, Professor Beckert wrote an informative if biased account of the global history of cotton. He reminds us early and often about the nefarious drawbacks of global capitalism — “the realities of slavery, expropriation, and colonialism” (p. xviii), “slavery, colonial domination, militarized trade, and land expropriations” (p. 60), “the many spoils of imperial expansion” (p. 81), “the newly global, dynamic, and violent form of capitalism” (p. 84), “the onslaught of European merchant capital” (p. 131) and—just in case you didn’t get the message—“a vast and impenetrable machine, a painfully efficient mechanism for profit and power” (p. 135). Like George W. Bush, professor Beckert doesn’t do nuance.
From War Capitalism to Industrial Capitalism
Beckert calls the first phase of his narrative “war capitalism” —a term I like because Britain did indeed fight a seemingly un-ending series of wars with the Dutch and French in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. The line between warfare and commerce was thin. In this period most of the world’s cotton was grown and spun into thread in India’s countryside, then woven into cloth that was beautifully hand printed with colorful designs—paisley, chintz, madras, etc.. Not only was cotton lighter and less scratchy than woolens or linens; it held dyes better. The British East India Company muscled its way into India and set up “factories” (trading posts) that exported the cloth to England. From there some of the cloth was sold domestically, some was reexported to North America and Europe, and some was shipped to West Africa and bartered for slaves in the despicable “Guinea trade.” About half of the cargoes sent to Africa from London and Liverpool consisted of cotton cloth; the other half was metal, guns, alcoholic beverages, and cowry shells (used as currency in West Africa).
In the later eighteenth century “war capitalism” gave way to “industrial capitalism” thanks to two historic developments. A brilliant series of British inventors and industrialists figured out how to mechanize the spinning and weaving of cotton, dramatically increasing labor productivity. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, igniting a boom in the planting of cotton in the American South. This was a moral and social disaster because planters in Virginia and Maryland—who owned more slaves than they could employ profitably in the declining tobacco sector—were able to sell their slaves in the cotton frontier (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc.) rather than set them free, as was gradually occurring in the North. Many black families were broken up as slave traders marched “coffles” of enslaved African Americans hundreds of miles southward to slave markets in New Orleans and other cities.
Once “industrial capitalism” took hold in the 19th century, a powerful trans-Atlantic dynamic developed. Slaves on southern plantations produced cotton that was exported from New Orleans and Mobile either directly to Liverpool or to New York merchants who in turn sent it on to Liverpool (reserving some cotton for factories in the northeastern U.S.). Merchants and bankers in New York, Liverpool and London financed the production and shipment of cotton, thus effectively financing the westward expansion of slavery. By the 1850s over half of total U.S. exports were cotton. England’s notorious “dark satanic” mills, which used waterpower and the newfangled machinery to turn bails of cotton into bolts of cloth, came to symbolize the Industrial Revolution. In Beckert’s telling workers in England and America were violently coerced into working in these cacophonous brick factories.
Ignoring Poverty Reduction
Beckert’s book has many virtues. I love its global vista; you can’t understand cotton from the perspective of a single region, be it India, Britain, Africa or North America. And he tells some parts of the tale – such as the gradual mechanization of the English cotton production in the 18th century– exceedingly well.
Unfortunately the book is marred by its leftist bias and disregard of straightforward economic relationships. For example, we hear a great deal about the production of cotton fabric but almost nothing about its consumption. Millions of consumers, roughly half of them women, benefited from the availability of affordable cotton cloth. The tactic employed by historians to dismiss the rise in living standards generated by capitalist productivity gains is condescending invocation of “consumerism,” as though an impoverished woman who could finally afford to own a comfortable cotton dress was comparable to a suburban housewife buying her 10th pair of shoes at the mall. But Beckert pretty much ignores the rise in living standards, and associated alleviation of poverty, stemming from the expansion of the cotton industry.
Another problem is the Euro-centric treatment of manufacturing in India. We learn on page 34 that European demand for cotton cloth—which was promoted and satisfied by the British East India Company—“clearly benefited” Indian weavers. We learn further that “This ‘factory’ system, with its continuing dependence on local traders and local capital, persisted for roughly two centuries.” Obviously an industrial system that benefited thousands of Indian weavers and traders over two centuries merits more than a couple of pages. Precisely how many workers were involved and how much did they benefit from the creation of a global market for their product? Very relevant and important questions, but answering them would confound Beckert’s anti-capitalist narrative.
New England Textile Workers—Attracted, not “Coerced”
Still more problematic is Professor Beckert’s conflation of New England’s early cotton factories with the “dark satanic mills” in the British midlands, which in many cases employed indigent refugees from England’s orphanages and poor houses. Things were radically different in New England, which unlike Britain had a labor shortage, not a surplus of desperately poor people. (Nearly every British visitor to ante-bellum America remarked on the absence of poor white people.) There is abundant historical evidence about how entrepreneurs staffed New England’s textile mills—both factory records and the writings of the workers themselves. As historian Thomas Dublin has written in a standard work on New England’s mill workers:
“According to the conventional view, women in the early Lowell mills were young, single women attracted from the surrounding New England countryside. They entered and left the mills frequently, working for repeated short stretches in the years before marriage. While in Lowell they resided in company boardinghouses, erected by the textile corporations and managed by boardinghouse keepers. . . . This description is basically correct and uncontroversial.…”
For our purposes, the operative word here is “attracted,” which is the precise opposite of the “coercion” Beckert alleges. Impecunious but respectable unmarried women living on hardscrabble New England farms were “attracted” to factory work by decent living conditions, acceptable working conditions and fairly good wages. For example, Thomas Dublin dissects the finances of one Mary Hall, whose earnings, net of charges for room and board, “must have enabled Hall to support herself quite well.” Factory girls could afford more fashionable clothes than the drab homespun worn on the farm. With the support of factory managements, some workers created a newspaper, The Lowell Offering, which helped to create a spirit of sisterhood among the workers. The factories offered flexible employment opportunities and a measure of independence—not oppression—to unmarried women. Later in the ante bellum period they were supplanted by Irish immigrants, whose living standards were much higher in America than they would have been, had they remained in Ireland.
The Seductive Charms of Rural Poverty
An obvious question—relevant to 18th century England, 19th century America or 20th century China—that capitalism’s critics fail to ask, let alone answer, is: “If factory work was so awful, why did so many people migrate from farms to factories?” To the impressionable outsider the simple rural village seems far more salubrious and appealing than a crowded, dirty factory town. But the rural poor knew better. They lived dreary lives of hard work, long hours, low pay and social isolation. Historian Joyce Appleby provides insight in her excellent book on early 19th century America, which is based in part on over two hundred autobiographies:
“Contemporaries looked on factory work as benign when compared to the farming life. Chauncy Jerome, one of the trail blazers of the clock industry, painted a particularly grim picture of what life held for him after his blacksmith father died in 1804: ‘There being no manufacturing of any account in the country, the poor boys were obliged to let themselves to the farmers, and it was extremely difficult to find a place to live where they would treat a poor boy like a human being.’ John Thompson echoes Jerome’s lament when he explained that he ‘did not want to work for the farmers thereabout, for they worked late and early and their work was too hard for me.’ James Riley recalled that the farmers he worked for were loath to release him for schooling despite his apprenticeship agreement.”
Factories Provide an Escape from Poverty
The reality that Professor Beckert and many other historians do not care to confront is that the alternative to rising manufacturing productivity orchestrated by greedy capitalists was—in a context of rising population and finite land—acute and intensifying rural poverty, malnutrition, starvation, and disease. For example, the percentage of people in China with an income of less than $1.25 per day is 6.3% versus 24.7% in India. Why so much higher in India, even though it boasts so many brilliant engineers and entrepreneurs and had a head start over China in creating a modern economy after World War II? A key reason is that China developed a vibrant labor-intensive manufacturing sector producing everything from toys to clothing to smart phones to computers. India has failed to do so, in large part because of burdensome over-regulation of manufacturing firms by corrupt and capricious government bureaucrats. (See my January 14, 2014 post for details.)
Copyright Thomas Doerflinger 2015. All Rights Reserved.