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New Left Review 95, September-October 2015


Robin Blackburn

WHITE GOLD, BLACK LABOUR

Sven Beckert has produced a fascinating and wide-ranging history of cotton, from its early appearance in household production in Asia thousands of years ago, via its modest debut in local exchanges, to its eventual role as a key ingredient in the Industrial Revolution and its continuing importance for today’s consumers, poor or rich. [1] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, Allen Lane: London, 2014, £30, hardback 615 pp, 978 0 241 01171 3 Importantly, this is an account of both stages of cotton’s production, in the fields as well as the factories, agriculture as well as manufacture. A German historian now based in the United States, Beckert is the author of The Monied Metropolis (2001), a study of the consolidation of New York’s bourgeoisie in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His new book, Empire of Cotton, is enriched by research into documents and archives from two dozen countries. This is by no means untrodden territory. Giorgio Riello in his—also prizewinning—Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World (2013) has recently provided a fascinating account of how and why Asia’s manufacturers (for him, India’s in particular) were displaced by Europe’s. Both are works of much greater ambition than the general run of commodity histories—anecdotal narratives of cod, coal or tobacco, for instance. For its part, Empire of Cotton is closer in explanatory reach to Sidney Mintz’s path-breaking story of sugar, Sweetness and Power (1985), though through the lens of economic history, not cultural anthropology. Beckert aims to recast our understanding of ‘the making and remaking of global capitalism’, and with it the modern world.

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