War Capitalism: Notes on Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton #envhist

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton examines the significant influence that the institution of slavery had on the foundation of the United States’ role in cotton production and dawning of global capitalism. In the years following the treaty of independence of 1783, the areas in the upper South where enslaved people were concentrated experienced a severe depression. Tobacco plantations were plagued by soil exhaustion and a glutted market. Rice, wheat, and indigo production similarly brought little profit to the planters involved in those ventures. As a result the price of enslaved people declined and the institution seemed to be deteriorating. Planters, being cognizant of losses and hopeful of future gains did everything possible to sustain their losses in chattel slavery until the market recovered. The rise of cotton reinvigorated the slaveocracy. [1]

Already the system of producing cotton textiles was undergoing revolutionary changes in England, and with the invention of spinning and weaving machinery, the manufacturing process was so cheapened that the demand for cotton goods was greatly stimulated. It was momentous as it occurred at a time when the planter elites in the southern United States were in dire need for something that would resurge the lagging plantation system.

Sven’s Beckert’s work, Empire of Cotton asserts that the empire of cotton was from the beginning a site of constant global struggle between enslaved people and planters, merchants and statesmen, farmers and merchants, workers and factory owners. Beckert’s argument is that most of capitalism’s history is the process of globalization and the needs of nation states are not conflicting but mutually reinforced by one another.[2] Southern grandees looking for profits in slave labor and agricultural production through enslaved labor found cotton to be perfectly fitted for their financial preeminence.

For ages mercantilist operations of the world had regarded cotton as among the most fundamental textiles. Difficulties in technology initially stood in the way of its being more widely produced. When the time came for the plant to be spun and woven easily, the double problem of locating a variety that could be easily separated from the seed and of inventing a machine to do this work was all that was left to conquer before cotton would become the world’s greatest textile.[3] Conquering is an apt term and useful as it supports Beckert’s emphasis on the war capitalism that ushered in industrial capitalism as we know it. Beckert asserts that war capitalism was the foundation from which evolved the more familiar industrial capitalism, a capitalism characterized by powerful states with enormous administrative, military, judicial and infrastructural capacities.[4] In the United States especially, war capitalism remained tightly linked to slavery and expropriated lands.  In North Carolina for example, colonial settlers’ encroachment into Indian ancestral lands in the eastern region of the state resulted in skirmishes with the Chowanoc, Tuscarora and Weapemoc tribes throughout the seventeenth century; by 1715 however a treaty with the Tuscarora resulted in their tribe’s to relocation to Hyde County near Lake Mattamuskeet. With no threat of Indians, colonial elites looking to profit from the lands there could do so freely.

Even further south in Georgia and South Carolina these two states used their mutual interests in cotton profits and infrastructural might to aid in the invention of the cotton gin. In 1786, planters on the Georgia-Carolina coast began to experiment with growing a long, silky sea island fiber that was superior to other variations of the short staple variety that had been cultivated for some time. They found this variety very effective and manageable without machinery to separate the seed from the fiber. Because of this functionality, a greater quantity could be produced. South Carolinians and Georgians tasked their enslaved laborers with planting larger cotton crops and used enslaved people to cultivate the crops as well as separate the fiber from the seeds. As demands for cotton increased, Georgia in 1792 established a commission tasked with looking into prospects for the creation of a cotton gin. Eli Whitney would prove victorious in the invention and the south saw an economic transition where cotton profits worked in their favor. Demand soared and to supply production needs planters bought thousands of enslaved people. Beckert informs that by the 1790 the enslaved population of the state nearly doubled to sixty thousands. This was the labor force, an enslaved one that was subjugated in service to profit-driven aims of southern patricians.

Beckert clearly highlights how industrial capitalism allowed European and Euro-Americans to dominate the world market however in the United States south its dawning was significantly increased through the exploited labor of enslaved people and dispossession of American Indians from their ancestral lands. “War capitalism” undoubtedly was the imperative link in the system of capitalism as we know it today.



[1] John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (New York: Knopf, 2009)101

[2] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).loc 265

[3] John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (New York: Knopf, 2009)101

[4] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).loc 2593

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