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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015) by Sven Beckert


Book Review
Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015)
by Sven Beckert

    Sven Beckert, a Professor of History at Harvard University, won the Bancroft Prize in 2015 for Empire of Cotton: A Global History, which explores the role of the cotton industry in the advance of what we call "global capitalism."   Beckert is a Professor of International History, the study of history that crosses temporal and geographical barriers ("American History," "19th century history.") to provide a larger perspective on global events through a focus on international forces like capitalism, colonialism and communism/socialism.   It's both economic and social history, and it owes something to the "Annales School" of French history which focuses on normal lives and larger trends at the expense of the traditional "great man" school of biographical history. 

   Beckert is himself not clearly a socialist, though he describes capitalism in terms derived from that world.  He is clearly not a fan of "free market" capitalism of the Chicago school, and if the Empire of Cotton stands for anything, it is to refute the idea that global capitalism somehow exists independent of state power.  Quite the opposite, as Beckert shows again and again, the cotton industry could not have expanded in the western United States (United States government expropriated Native land) or Central Asia (Russian military invasion) or China without the heavy handed and direct intervention of Western military power.

   Empire of Cotton: A Global History is a must read for fans of the history of international capitalism and economic development.  I listened to the Audiobook, and it was a good fit- I've seen reviews mentioning the density of the text, but as an Audiobook it was an easy listen, even at double speed.  

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