Unweaving Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton: A Global History”

Pause for a moment while reading this review and check out the inside collar of your shirt or blouse. There’s a good chance that the garment you’re wearing is not only made out of cotton but was made in a country other than the one you’re living in: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala, or somewhere else with appropriately low wages. Cotton, in short, is so much a part of our daily lives that its ubiquity as an industrial good and its central role in global trade are invisible. In an age of smart phones and Dreamliners, it’s easy to forget how humble cotton remains one of the most valuable and widely traded goods on the planet.

It’s easy, too, to forget that this plant has a history that is in large part the history of global capitalism–easy, that is, until the recent publication of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, published in late 2014 by Random House. Beckert, originally from Germany and the co-director of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Initiative on Global History, was already well-known to many American colleagues as a historian of capitalism. His 2001 The Monied Metropolis was a key early work in a generation of scholarship that has transformed a subfield formerly thought of as dusty, if not dead, into one of historical academe’s growth areas. Indeed, Beckert was an early champion of the field at Harvard, founding a Program on the subject there, and has helped shaped many a dissertation project–Louis Hyman on debt in modern America, Vanessa Ogle on time synchronization, Ian Klaus on trust and capitalism–in a burgeoning literature. But with Empire of Cotton, Beckert takes an approach that is still often focused on Anglophone, if not just American capitalism, and seeks to apply it to one of the greatest global goods of all time.

Harvard Historian Sven Beckert, author of “Empire of Cotton: A Global History”