I visited the office of professor of History Sven Beckert to talk about his recent winning of the prestigious Bancroft Prize. On the door was a large poster for Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century.” Professor Beckert, tall and well-dressed, grinned and invited me into his office with a firm handshake. History books, notes, and objects from his travels filled the room. He couldn’t grab a meal because he had to leave in an hour to fly to Dallas for a talk about his book, but with a wide smile and even wider eyes he talked enthusiastically about his life’s work.
Fifteen Minutes: First, can you give a brief summary of your book, “Empire of Cotton?” Professor Beckert: Basically, the book is an effort to understand the history of capitalism in the past 300 years, but it does so by telling the history of cotton. Cotton is very essential to the global economy before the Industrial Revolution, but when the Industrial Revolution unfolds in the 1770s, 1780s, and thereafter, cotton becomes the absolute center of industrialization in the U.K. but also with the cotton textile mills in New England, and throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, cotton is very central to the global economy. And what it allows me to do unlike many other histories of capitals is it allows me to focus on the global aspect of the history of capitalism, the links between the plantation economy in the American South and the industrial economy in New England, the connections between imperial expansion and colonialism in Asia and Africa, and the emergence of free trade ideas in the UK and elsewhere.
FM: That’s such a huge topic. How do you even begin to research that? Where do you start?
Beckert: It’s a very big topic, but in some ways because it focuses on cotton, there was something to hold onto, so I could follow that commodity around the globe, and that’s basically how I started researching that. So, where is it grown? Who’s trading it? How is it traded? How is it manufactured in some other part of the world? And then eventually, how is it consumed? So, basically, you follow that commodity wherever it takes you.
FM: Did you go visit many of these places and talk to people?
Beckert: I researched on every continent. From Australia to Japan to India, all over Europe, to Latin America.
FM: What were some of the more interesting places you got to go to do your research, or experiences you had while you were there?
Beckert: I could write another book about just my research because it was so, so interesting. The most difficulty I definitely had in Egypt, in Cairo, where I spent weeks sitting in the waiting room of the national archives because despite the fact that I had permission to study, in the end they wouldn’t let me in the archives. I spent 10 days sitting in the waiting room, sipping tea with the director. Part of the point of the book is that it’s not written from the vantage point of, let’s say, Cambridge, Mass. That’s only possible if you actually go into the archives and research in parts of the world.
FM: Do you think capitalism today should be modified based on what we’ve learned about 19th century exploitation?
Beckert: In some ways, the way how we designed the world we live in is up for grabs. It’s subject to human influence and to our interests and what kind of world we would like to create. It’s not a force that is outside of human possibility. Sometimes the book is a kind of dark story because it deals with slavery, a lot of violence and coercion. It’s not a happy story, but on the other hand, I think it is a happy story because it does emphasize the importance and possibilities of this enormous human creativity.
FM: Part of me has always felt that capitalism is in some ways pretty fundamental.
Beckert: Look, it structures all aspects of our lives. This is why I work on capitalism in the first place, because I think it’s one of the most important facts in our life. But I don’t think it’s innate in the sense that it’s just a realization of human nature, it’s very historical. It takes on a particular shape because of its particular history.
FM: So you think that it’s feasible that world history could have taken a different turn and we could be living in a completely different kind of society today, even with similar technological innovations.
Beckert: That’s a good question. I’m trying to explain how we ended up with the world we are living with right now, but I think you’re right in some ways, you know there is contingency. There is choice. Things can turn out differently. Do they have to turn out this particular way? I don’t know, but even though the book is dark, it left me with a certain optimism that this is something we built as humans.
FM: If you had to give advice to a time-traveler going back to the 19th century, who really wanted to make it big without exploitation, what would you tell him or her?
Beckert: If you think about the late 18th century and early 19th century in the U.K., then I actually compare the early cotton industry with the Silicon Valley industry today. The people who had little capital and wanted to try something new, often went to cotton manufacturing, and many hundreds of thousands of people did so, and it was spectacularly profitable. By the 1850s or so, that was not so much the case anymore. Then it was more railroads or steel mills.
FM: Do you yourself wear cotton clothes?
Beckert: Yeah, it’s impossible not to! Like, you do!
FM: Of course. I’m guilty.
Beckert: Cotton, the fabric itself, has certain qualities which are clearly superior. You know it would be very unpleasant to wear wool clothing in the summer. Linen is also kind of scratchy.
FM: When you were a kid, did you want to be a historian?
Beckert: Yeah. Isn’t that weird? Strangely enough I always wanted to be a historian. I was always interested in history, but I came to that kind of history much later.