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Empire of Cotton in Sven Beckert’ Book “Destructions” Essay

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Updated: Aug 28th, 2020

Just like any other socio-economic system, the global cotton capitalism model did not stand still and did its best to adapt to the ever-changing realities of the world. However, the said evolutions were not meant to make the system fairer to those participating in the process, as it was built upon exploitation and inequity, to begin with. In the 11th chapter of the book, titled “Destructions”, Sven Beckert focused on the transformation of the Empire of Cotton, and its conquest of Asian markets.

One of the main arguments that appear throughout the entire book is that to survive, the system must separate the world into “areas of competence.” Europe was meant to be the world’s financial and industrial center, while certain countries like India or China were supposed to be quiet and comely farmlands, where numerous populations would continue working for meager pay and grant the metropolis even more riches. After the collapse of the slavery system, a suitable replacement was urgently required. The population of those large Asian countries was meant to become the said replacement. According to Beckert, “Asia’s cotton markets were vast, and winning them was the grand prize that British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and American imperialism bestowed.”

As it was mentioned in previous chapters, the main tool for deindustrialization of these countries was technological and economic domination. European merchants sought to eliminate any sort of industry or business in the countries, to penetrate their market. Cotton presses and factories, owned by Europeans, were built on Indian soil, successfully ousting any homemade production made through weaving and spinning. The merchants themselves sought to oust Indian intermediary merchants while brokering deals with the producers, directly. While on paper that eliminated the formalities and freed producers from paying extra, in reality, it served as a tool to eliminate regional Indian merchants as a class since they were unable to enter European markets in the same way. Also, it helped marginalize the producers, thus making them incapable of the bargain and influence the cotton market. Thus, Beckert once more reaffirms that the Empire of Cotton always finds a way to make itself more profitable and stable, at other peoples’ expense.

Exploring the issue of marginalizing cotton producers, Beckert states that one of the main tools of modern enslavement was the banking system. Many producers in India were forced to make loans to “to acquire seeds, pay their taxes, and tide them over to the next harvest, almost always at ruinous rates of interest.” The debt was used by the European powers to control the fluctuations of cotton production and prices and keep the market under their control. The Same practice was repeated in China and Egypt.

However, the changes in the Empire of Cotton also caused shifts in power. Merchants became so successful in eliminating the middlemen between producers and producers, that in so doing they rendered their role obsolete. The State started gaining more power and control over the cotton industry, and a myriad of merchants, brokers, and dealers were replaced by a much fewer number of state professionals. Thus, another argument that Beckert pushes forth in this chapter is that the Empire of Cotton becomes institutionalized.

By presenting the arguments mentioned above, Beckert slowly moves the readers towards the main argument of this chapter. The attempts to squeeze every ounce of profit out of the regional producers in India, China, and Egypt, backfired spectacularly. Deindustrialization and cotton price fluctuation, in addition to the unfavorable banking system and blatant military subjugation, ended up causing famine and revolt in these countries. Cotton producers were dependent on cotton prices and were constantly swindled by their buyers. Eventually, the situation became so strained that certain farmers did not have enough money for food.

The economic crisis caused a rise in nationalism and self-identification, along with the realization that foreign businesses and occupation did not have the peoples’ best intentions in mind. The impoverishment of the Asian countries served to enrich Europe and nothing else. The popular position during the famine in 1899 was summed up neatly in the following quote: “Those who come to India from Europe…after having collected large fortunes, take the same to Europe, all which is obtained from our Labour, but we are left without means of support.”

Through this quote, Beckert’s main argument is brought into the light. The reason why Cotton Empire’s globalization model was unsustainable through any means other than the sheer brute force exerted by the states and empires that made it up, was that it was not even marginally profitable and benevolent towards the nations it exploited. It represents capitalism in its crudest form – a desire for wealth and profit with no thought for potential consequences. As a result, the so-called “cotton nationalism” became one of the prominent driving factors in the struggle of the colonies and satellites against the metropole. These forces would shake the Empire of Cotton to its core, and force it to undergo a process of extreme reformations, to maintain its existence.

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IvyPanda. "Empire of Cotton in Sven Beckert' Book "Destructions"." August 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/empire-of-cotton-in-sven-beckert-book-destructions/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Empire of Cotton in Sven Beckert' Book "Destructions"." August 28, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/empire-of-cotton-in-sven-beckert-book-destructions/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Empire of Cotton in Sven Beckert' Book "Destructions"'. 28 August.

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