What’s at the Very Core of Capitalism? – The Empire of Cotton Provides a Pretty Revealing Clue

I am reading a large, wonderful, enlightening, but more-than-a-little-disturbing book.

The book is about the history of cotton.

Sort of.

It is about the people who worked the cotton fields, and then all the people in the entire chain in the cotton trade.

Sort of.

But the book is also about the decline of “states” and the rise of “corporations” which “easily shift all forms of production around the globe.”

Empire of CottonThe name of the book is Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert.

Let me give you a little more of the quote:

…these merchants still depend on state power, but their reliance on any one specific state has lessened considerably. As a result, they foster competition not just between manufacturers and growers, but among states….
As a result, the protections that strong nation-states offered, to al least some of their workers, for at least part of the twentieth century, have been gradually eroded….
Workers today are increasingly at the mercy of corporations that can easily shift all forms of production around the globe.

And, if you read enough about this ever-shifting worker base, you learn that even as workers in one country seek to rise just a little — in worker safety and protection, in wages – then the corporations find the next lower wage country to move the manufacturing work to.

Or, to put it more bluntly, again from the book (singling out one company, Walmart – but equally true of others):

For the last several decades, Walmart and other retail giants have continually moved their production from one poor country to a slightly poorer one, lured by the promise of workers even more eager and even more inexpensive…
…The empire of cotton has continued to facilitate a giant race to the bottom, limited only by the spatial constraints of the planet.


…the importance of coercion and violence to the history of capitalism. Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence, were not aberrations in the history of capitalism, but were at is very core.
…The violence of market-making – forcing people to labor in certain locations and in certain ways – has been a constant throughout the history of the empire of cotton.

Or, to put it bluntly (from The Fabric of Our Lives: The brutal history of cotton debunks many of the most popular myths about capitalismby Eric Herschthal :

Slavery was not a hidebound institution that capitalism destroyed, but an integral one that made capitalism possible.

This book sort of raises this question – how do we increase productivity, “do more with less,” and lower worker’s cost (either lower such cost by greater productivity; or by moving it to countries where workers are paid less; or, increasingly, by robots and software), while protecting the livelihood, even the very dignity, of human beings?

I don’t think any one has quite found the answer to that problem.

I am disturbed by this book.


(I will present my synopsis of this book at the May 21 Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored and hosted by CitySquare, at noon, at their Opportunity Center:
1610 S Malcolm X Blvd. Dallas,TX. 75226.
Come join us).


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