For many people, the term “globalization” only has significance as a label for business development over the past 25 years or so. In fact, globalization is nothing new and is typified by the cotton business. The rise of textiles, as the first rung of industrialization, the rise of textiles, particularly in 19th century Europe, would not have been possible without the globalized production of cotton in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and elsewhere. Cotton, so it seems, was an essential, if unassuming, raw material of not only textiles but world development as well.
“Today cotton is so ubiquitous that it is hard to see it for what it is: one of mankind’s great achievements,” so declares Sven Beckert, a historian at Harvard University, in his newly published Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Even so, as Dr. Beckert elaborates, “cotton is as familiar as it is unknown," a prescient observation when we consider the current state of the cotton industry. If you’ve ever wondered why the cotton business behaves as it does, I recommend reading this insightful history. Deeply researched, highly analytical, and well written, Dr. Beckert successfully relates the importance of cotton to the evolution of global capitalism. Indeed, the author’s case rests on his observation that although a mundane commodity, cotton was essential to the development of the global textile industry. In so doing, the cotton industry helped to create the global networks necessary for expansion of global trade. Moreover, cotton proved to be a far more versatile raw material than other natural alternatives -- such as flax, wool, or silk -- which not only suffered from small supplies but limited application in various textile products.
As Dr. Beckert points out, the mercantilist economies of the 18th or 19th centuries would not have been possible were it not for the availability of cotton to the burgeoning textile industries of Europe -- particularly in England, by far the most important producer of textiles into the 20th century. Far-flung supply chains, along with eager supplies of capital made the merchant community the vanguard of an increasingly globalized world. By the time of the industrial revolution in 19th Century Europe, cotton supply chains were already well established in the United States, Brazil, India, Africa and Asia. Indeed, with the advent of high-speed spinning and weaving in the 19th century, those supply chains were only deepened to meet the needs of European industry. Cotton, as a result, became the essential raw material for what became the single most important manufacturing sector in the 19th century, textiles.
Pulling no punches, Dr. Beckert describes capitalism as an exploitive force in the development of the global economy, but cotton was an essential thread intertwined with the growth of global capitalism. Without a ready supply of fibers, the industrialization in England and elsewhere in Europe would not have been possible. From the standpoint of economic development, this was a good thing. Yet such development came with the horrifically negative cost of slavery (to grow cotton) and labor exploitation (to produce textiles), negatives that, although disdainful, contributed mightily to the success of capitalism and, by way of that success, the introduction of much of the world to modernity.
However, due to its importance as a raw material, producers and manufacturers of cotton yarn and fabrics enjoyed a level of political influence seldom enjoyed by any industry throughout history. This influence, though, resulted in abuses in the political, economic, and social development of the world, ultimately resulting in the manipulation of political influence, economies of scale, and, inexcusably, the exploitation and enslavement of large numbers of peoples in the American South and elsewhere. Slave labor, in turn, helped to support the wheels of industry, which provided the markets and capital necessary to support the overall system of supply and demand. With the advent of the industrial revolution, exploitation of factory workers took on sinister levels second only to the slaves picking cotton in the fields. Nevertheless, these evils enabled a rapidly developing Europe to meet its potential as the industrial powerhouse of the world by advent of the 20th century.