Review by Matthew S. Hinton
If you own a couch, a bed, jeans, shirts, t-shirts, towels, sheets, a handkerchief, or even a single pair of socks, then you are in direct contact with cotton. It is a silent partner, “The fabric of our lives,” and when it isn’t in something you wear, cotton is in your medical supplies, in your book-bindings, makes a great fishnet, and has even been to outer space. Cotton is perhaps the best kept secret of the history of humankind; the through line that connects us to early Aztecs, by way of the rest of the world, and it is this omnipresence that Sven Beckert aims to trace in his 2014 book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History.
Empire of Cotton is the biography of a ubiquitous product, one that, as Beckert puts it, remains at the center of “constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, farmers and merchants, workers and factory owners.” Perhaps the most interesting passages of this hefty tome are those that reveal the economic quagmires of cotton today. U.S. cotton farmers practically survive on subsidies (yes, American cotton is being “baled” out; tweet President Trump about it); meanwhile, most of the plant is grown in places like China, woven in China or Turkey, and manufactured into usable fabric in Vietnam. The people who touch cotton often work under slavish conditions, and the plant has meant profound wealth for many nations throughout history. In short, keeping our t-shirts and red ball-caps at low-low prices comes with leaving an international industry broken and its workers perpetually hungry.
Food, shelter, clothing. These are the basic necessities, and when prepared with a sense of aesthetics, each offers the chance for art and introspection: food has its spices, buildings have their architecture, and clothing is designed with function and fashion (sometimes one more than the other). Regardless of medium, art is the touchstone that denotes culture and what it tells us about a society and its values. If there is one thing that Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is lacking in, it is art. It should come as no surprise, then, that the desperate situations of families in second- and third-world cotton countries feels like an afterthought.
While Beckert does a fine job of relaying the contemporary concerns of cotton, it takes the author over 400 pages to really get there. What’s more, the journey to the final chapters of Empire is an arduous one, fraught with lengthy passages of academia drier than the Aral Sea after fashion week. Beckert’s research is admirable and sprawling – he leaves no stone unturned in his quest to show readers how the profitability of a necessity has built kingdoms and bank accounts, and more importantly, how such power and profit is fleeting. The problem that he has not solved is one of language and pacing, of bringing to life this bloody and bullish history in a way that keeps its message relevant.
Chances are quite high that you are wearing cotton right now, or maybe even a synthetic (or “cotton-adjacent”) fleece made of extruded plastic and oil. If you are even remotely curious about how your beefy tee got to the rack at Old Navy, you might find sections of Empire of Cotton worth reading, but for a ring-spun experience, this reviewer recommends picking your chapters carefully.