Critical Book Review: Sven Beckert and Naomi Klein’s Books
In this comparative book review, we will compare contrast two books loosely connected to the subject of capitalism and its influence on the world. The first book is titled “Empire of Cotton,” written by Sven Beckert. The second book is titled “This Changes Everything,” written by Naomi Klein. While the books view capitalism from different perspectives, the overarching tone present in both books is that of negativity. Both authors criticize numerous aspects of modern capitalism.
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In “Empire of Cotton,” Sven Beckert studies the emergence of the modern capitalist world model through the lens of historical analysis. His main point of view is that the so-called Empire of Cotton, also known as the world cotton trade net served as a prototype for the globalized economy that exists in the world today. The author does so by presenting to us the main staples and tactics used to create the Empire of Cotton and maintain production to keep the wheels of commerce rolling. As Beckert often points out, these wheels must be oiled with human sweat and blood. Many traits reminiscent of the Empire of Cotton can be easily found in a modern globalized economy, to a greater or lesser degree.
The author perceived the foundation of modern capitalism through war capitalism, which used military strength and technological advantages in order to clear land for cotton plantations and subjugate or exterminate various indigenous races that got in the way. This happened in the USA, which in turn grew to be one of the largest cotton plantation countries in the world. Then, cotton capitalism was forced to transform several times, in order to adjust to changing social, economic, and political realities. The cotton capitalism model was then used as a blueprint for various other products and services that make up the modern globalized economic system.
Beckert lays out several staple traits necessary for an organized world-spanning chain of production to exist. For the Empire of Cotton to function, it needed:
- Land for planting cotton. Not just any land, too – cotton grows well in areas with wide spaces and relatively hot climate. North America, India, China, and Central Asia thus became primary targets for the Empire’s expansion.
- Cheap labor force. Tending cotton fields is hard manual work that requires plenty of hands.
- Economic and technological disparity. A necessary tool used for subjugating countries into staying in their prescribed roles of cotton-growers or factory workers.
- Military strength. Necessary in case of open rebellion.
It is possible to see clear parallels with how the modern global economy looks. Nowadays, a disparity between nations continues to exist. Companies and corporations use cheap labor force from China and other poor countries in order to extract more profit. The economic and technological disparity is used to remove unwanted local producers from markets and ensure economic domination, which happens in Eastern European countries. Wars for economic reasons are becoming more widespread, as it was seen in the Middle East. Beckert states that as long as disparity and inequality between nations exist, the “Empire of Cotton” will live on, in one way or another.
The author presents a very convincing argument to his cause. As a historian, he presents numerous examples of practices and atrocities committed in the name of capitalism. At the end of the book, there is an impressive number of sources cited to support his claims and evaluations. While Beckert’s position is flawless from an evidential perspective, its weakness lies in that his book does not answer a question that must be asked at the end of any academic research and endeavor. That question is “So what?” What can we do with the information given to us? In the epilog, Beckert expresses a hope that “our unprecedented domination over nature will allow us also the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world’s people—an empire of cotton that is not only productive but also just.” However, that statement is vague and contradicts everything the book stated so far – that capitalism will always evolve and that the “Empire of Cotton” will continue to exist so long there is inequality and disparity in the world.
Naomi Klein’s book, on the other hand, takes a much more solid stance in opposition to capitalism and states that modern capitalist practices and consumerist culture are what stand in the way of ecology. She predicts a social and environmental catastrophe, once the resources of the planet run out and the global warming cause irreversible climate changes that are going to affect the entire world.
Her argument is split evenly to cover all the major aspects of the problem – first, she explains that the nature of capitalism is opposite to environmentalism in its core and states that the two systems cannot coexist in the same environment. She proves this by presenting examples of billionaires backing away from their environmentalist claims as soon as their profits are on the line. Then, Klein transitions to the concept of geoengineering and dismisses it as a concept aimed to justify further harming Earth and its ecosystem based on a perception that “we can fix anything.” The book is concluded with ideas on how to stop or significantly slow down pollution and extraction, which is imperative for the survival of the human race.
Klein presents convincing arguments to support her points, as many authors usually do. Her claims are backed with citations and scientific sources. The weakness of the book, once more, lies in conclusions. Unlike Beckert, Naomi Klein offers a course of action – away to act upon the information and ideas presented in “This Changes Everything.” She calls for a massive reformation of the world and societies towards environmentalism, and cites that the biggest changes against injustice were often brought upon through “protests, blockades, and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists, and other activist groups.”
The error of this position lies in that Klein separates the people from the capitalist system that exists today and ignoring supply and demand. The main factor in increased pollution is population increase. The world keeps growing in population, and technological advances will not be enough to tip the balance between renewing and consuming resources. Klein does not dare to state that, avoiding the uncomfortable subject of the people losing their creature comforts, as well as the issue of reducing childbirth to facilitate the shrinking of the population. A massive social shift is required to do so, but the realization that capitalism will not be the only one to suffer would likely make her supporters think a second time.
If we compare and contrast these two books, we would be able to see that both authors share the same position, to a certain degree – both point out the flaws of capitalism. Their approaches differ – Beckert uses the historical approach in order to reveal the roots of many modern practices we grew to see as a staple in a modern economy. His claim is that modern capitalism and globalization are immoral at their core, from concept to implementation. Klein supports this and states that capitalism is outright dangerous to the existence of the human race, and calls for action, in a much more vocal way than Beckert does. She approaches the issue from an ecological point of view. To summarize, the overarching lessons we learn from these two books is that capitalism is immoral and dangerous.
Reading these two books left me with a feeling of duplicity in regards to the subjects raised by both authors and the overarching ideas they promote and defend. It is hard to disagree with either author on how they are presenting the issues important to them – no one would deny that modern economic and political systems are built on suffering and blood. At the same time, no one would deny that the ever-expanding production and consumerism are harming the planet and pose a danger to humanity at large. However, the calls to dismantling capitalism in favor of better and fairer political systems do not solve the core problems behind it. Consumerism stems from the desire to improve one’s standards of living and to possess. Malicious practices within the capitalist model are born of greed. The system that exists right now is hardwired into the world. To change it, massive and radical reformations will have to take place. These changes will not be possible without committing injustices and atrocities associated with revolutions. While I believe changes are necessary, if only to save humanity, I am not brave and determined enough to enforce the new paradigm, whichever that is. Who would be?