10/25/2015 08:38 EDT | Updated 10/25/2016 05:12 EDT

Tracing the Roots of Modern Capitalism Back to Cotton

BCFC via Getty Images
Cotton crop landscape with copy space area

Chances are, as you read this sentence, you are wearing something woven from cotton. And it is just as likely that you have never plucked a cotton boll from its stem, seen a wispy strand of raw cotton fiber, or heard the deafening noise of a spinning mule and a power loom.

Cotton is as familiar as it is unknown. We take its perpetual presence for granted. We wear it close to our skin. We sleep in sheets made of cotton. Cotton is in the banknotes we use, the coffee filters that help us awaken in the morning, the vegetable oil we use for cooking, and the soap we wash with.

Cotton is everywhere.

Indeed, cotton is so ubiquitous that it is hard to see it for what it is: one of mankind's great achievements. As a Manchester newspaper remarked already in 1860, cotton is one of the "wonders of the world."

The humble fiber, spun into threat and woven into cloth, was at the core of the world's most important manufacturing industry for about a millennium. It stood at the center of the Industrial Revolution that began to unfold in the United Kingdom in the 1780s, and wherever modern industry arose, it always began with "satanic mills" churning out cottons.

Cotton revolutionized huge economies: India for centuries had supplied the world with the finest cottons, but by the nineteenth century its industry went into a dramatic decline, as British textiles captured much of that market. New global connections emerged around cotton, creating the first phase of globalization, with Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe constantly drawn into ever changing economic relationships focused on cotton.

Most dramatically, the needs of European manufacturers for raw cotton provided the impetus for a vast expansion of slavery in the Americas. The labor of these hard driven enslaved workers then established the United States' position in the global economy, as the link between slavery and industry became one of the foundational characteristics of modernity.

Following the cotton trail through the centuries and around the world allows us to see the emergence of the modern world and in the process reinterpret a history of huge consequence: the history of capitalism. Capitalism has come to dominate most aspects of human life in most of the world; indeed it has expanded to such a degree that some contemporary ideologues believe that our present economic system stands outside the processes of history and human agency and instead represents a kind of state of nature. To them, capitalism, like cotton, is rather like the air we breathe. This is an unfortunate misreading of history.

Looking at the history of a humble plant -- cotton -- we can observe capitalism in action: we see the huge productivity explosions in spinning and the humble artisans who enabled them, we see the violence descending upon the global countryside to mobilize workers to grow ever more fibers and the activities of bureaucrats and administrators to reshape the global economy to their advantage. We see eager consumers admiring the wonders of cotton, and the connections between the rise of ever stronger states and ever more powerful entrepreneurs.

And, through the lens of cotton, we see the expansion of capitalism as the global process it was, and not as the Eurocentric story we had accepted for all too long. The history of cotton is important in its own right, but even more significantly, it allows us to trace the emergence of the modern world that is so familiar to all of us.


Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History is an epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism. The non-fiction book is a finalist for the Cundill Prize. The Cundill Prize is the world's richest non-fiction book award -- the winning author will receive $75,000 and the two remaining finalists will recieve $10,000.


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