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Capsule Review

Empire of Cotton: A Global History

In This Review

Empire of Cotton: A Global History
Empire of Cotton: A Global History
By Sven Beckert
Knopf, 2014 640 pp. $35.00 Purchase

Two main camps dominate scholarship on the origins of capitalism. Internalists argue that capitalism was born European, or more specifically British, and then became global. A system of interconnected parts and peoples, it radiated out from a few original hot spots and over time replaced the “isms” it encountered elsewhere. The internalist narrative has long been shadowed by an externalist rival, which sees Europe’s leap forward as dependent on relations with places beyond Europe. The most recent externalist explanation of capitalism is Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. Beckert, a leading global historian, offers a dark story of capitalism, born of worldwide empire and violence. The book is a triple threat: it insists that the Industrial Revolution would never have happened without external trade, that the rise of industrialism and factory labor would never have transpired without the spread of slave labor, and that cotton was a commodity that made an empire and thus the world economy. In other words, capitalism was born global because it required an empire to buoy it.

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