Cotton and Industrial Revolution

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From the beginning of times, there has been a constant struggle between migrant workers, slaves, and owners of the cotton plantations all over the world. Cultivation of cotton is difficult especially when required in large quantities since it is labor intensive. Understanding the history of this crop is crucial to understanding the background of the industrial revolution. Beckert puts emphasis on how every step of modern capitalism rested on slavery and oppression. The ups and downs of cotton production play a key role in globalization, the emergence, and development of modern capitalism. Beckert tells a story of modern capitalism in his book but through a crop or a commodity that is central to the world's economy. European countries adopted a culture whereby cotton plantations were done by enslaved labor. Slavery played a major role in the rise of capitalism. He also explains how laws were enforced that were discriminatory and undermined the rights and freedom of these workers. There were enslavement and displacement of the African people to meet the growing needs of the cotton industry. Beyond violence, every stage of the cotton industry development was fueled by the intervention of the government. This constant global struggle between the farmers, slaves, and owners of the industry resulted in an empire, which has transformed the world.

Scholarly Debates and Conversations

Cotton transformed into the world's most lucrative global commodity. The clothing industry explored the role of cotton as a crop developed in conditions of oppression, cheap labor, slavery and colonialism. "Military guards supervised workers placed in the cotton fields. They coerced migrant workers in cotton growing areas. Beckert points out boldly that every step of cotton industrialization depended on violence and oppression" (p.70). And when the Europeans realized the profit potential of cotton clothing, they opted to buy slaves from Africa. Beckert illustrates how Americans took control of this crop and used it to promote worldwide expansion.

Perhaps the most important point of Beckert is when he mentioned the role of the state in "Free trade". Particularly, Britain struggled to block coercive economic forces that were imposed on the workers, encouraged labor discipline and regulated the slave trade; the United States committed slavery and then stopped. Restructuring of the pre-economic state was necessary for the industrial revolution to occur. "War capitalism " involved the use of violence, enslavement, and oppression of the African people or those considered non-western. "War capitalism " was considered a condition that was necessary for the industrial revolution to take place. There was the production of important raw materials from cheap labor and generated capital that was used to build new industries and institutions leading to industrialization. Industrial capitalism made America an industrialized country and machine oriented. Beckert was more ambitious than the story of cotton. He wanted to use this crop to explain the process of economic development from the past to the current world. This was categorized into two stages: "war capitalism", where oppression and colonialism paved the way for the growth of the cotton industry, and "industrial capitalism", which was when the governing state intervened to fund and protect the business. Beckert wrote that "It was on the back of cotton, and thus on the back of slaves, that the American economy ascended in the world" (p.119).

Cotton is a global crop, its fertilizer demand and pest control make it the most chemical consuming cash crop. As much as it consumes agrochemicals, it also requires a lot of water for its growth. Therefore, it grows best along the river valleys. Beckert explains that there has been pesticide poisoning of the rivers around the coffee plantations, and those people who lacked clean water or unaware of the state of the water sources, died from using the poisoned water (p. 432).

Personal Opinion

When the Europeans discovered that clothes made from cotton were an important product to enhance trade, they made a decision to buy slaves from Africa. They are required to work for approximately 12 hours in a day, the working environment was not descent and no salary is given. Children also worked in the same work as adults and most were exposed to work-related injuries and illnesses. For any minor mistake, the workers were punished severely. I agree with Beckert's contribution where he emphasized that: "every stage of industrialization of cotton rested on violence and oppression". And in my opinion, there was no good reason for the factory owners to horribly exploit workers in the cotton fields. It's only greed that prevented the factory owners from providing a good working environment and fair wages.

Cotton is by far one of the most chemical consuming cash crop. It also requires a lot of water for it to flourish. But my question is: "Was cotton doomed to make the world turn into hell?" Extreme use of agrochemical has poisoned the water sources nearby. Those who lack water visit the river to wash or rather for domestic use but are dying from poisoning. The author lacked biological insight in relation to the crop. According to me, ways to prevent this issue were not properly addressed by the author.

When capitalism is mentioned, all we think of is workers who receive salary forgetting that the first step of capitalism was based on slavery and not free labor. Some people will argue that Beckert has sympathy for the migrant workers and slaves and gives them little opportunity to understand the system to use it to their advantage. The process of industrial revolution remains incomplete. Beckert's edition should not be the final say in the history of global capitalism, but it's an important read and a great start. Jeniffer Pitt's book, "A Turn to Empire" is scholarly and the scholarship is outstanding as compared to Beckert's book, "Empire of Cotton". Though Beckert's book was beautifully written, it's still a landmark in explaining the industrial revolution. Despite its shortage in the biological aspect, it's a great read and the scholarship is great.

November 13, 2023

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