Slavery, Capitalism and Cotton Continued

Over the years, I have learned not to trust economists and, more importantly, not to trust economics as an endeavor. Economics, like a lot of 19th century social science, presents itself as a neutral way of observing, theorizing, and drawing conclusions about the world — conclusions divorced from culture and history because the science itself is divorced from culture and history.

So, for example, economists describe capitalism as an entirely theoretical construct, and then tell the story of capitalism’s rise as a way of “proving” the theory. Ignoring — at least some — that the theory arose in and from that very history.

So, in my last blog about Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History, I asked a question about capitalism and labor: if slavery is essential to the creation of capitalism, why is there any free labor at all?

Because … culture and history. While Englishmen, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Portuguese were busily enslaving Africans to cut cane (and, to a lesser extent, pick cotton) in the Caribbean, they were busy in other ways organizing textile production elsewhere in the 18th century:

As on the continent, cottons [in England] were at first manufactured in the countryside. Merchants, many of them Puritans and other dissenters, advanced raw cotton to peasants, who employed family labor seasonally to spin and weave, before returning the cloth to the merchants who sold it. As cotton cloth demand exploded, spinning and weaving become ever more important to smallholding peasants, and some of them eventually gave up their traditional crops and became entirely dependent on the industry. Some of the merchants who organized domestic cotton production turned into substantial businessmen. As they accumulated capital, they expanded production by providing ever more credit to ever more spinners and weavers, encouraging an “extensification” of production — its geographic dispersal throughout ever larger areas of the countryside. This was the classic putting-out system, quite similar to its incarnations across Asia centuries earlier, or to the British woolens industry. The countryside became ever more industrial and its inhabitants ever more dependent on putting-out work for distant merchants. (P.39–40)

Granted, growing sugar cane (and then later cotton) and actually spinning and weaving (milling) it are two very different endeavors. But these pre-industrial spinners and weavers — completely dependent on imported cotton — were, by the late 18th century, fairly voluntarily linked together by financial incentives into networks of producers. Rural England may have been a rough and brutal place for many, but there was no history of slavery and peasant and merchant were at least nominally bound together by the same set of customs and a common law. This wouldn’t prevent merchants from exploiting spinners and weavers, but it did tie them together in ways Africans imported to the Caribbean — or the growers, spinners, and weavers of Bengal’s many centuries old cotton industry — never were.

Because in Bengal, which came under the formal rule of the British East India Company by 1765, spinners and weavers were organized differently — a lot more violence was used, as were coercive contracts and eventually a “state monopoly.”

The company hired large numbers of Indians to supervise and implement new rules and regulations, in effect bureaucratizing the cloth market. Extensive new regulations attached weavers legally to the company, making them unable to sell their cloth on the open market. Company agents now inspected cloth on the loom, and endeavored to ensure that the cloth was, as promised, sold to the company. A new system of taxation penalized those weavers who produced for others. (P.44–45)

The point here is that whatever economic theory might describe, actual human beings made choices grounded in history, culture, and their relationship to and with the people they did business with, as well as their desire to make a profit. English and Indian spinners and weavers were treated differently, with Indian cloth producers subject to rules the English were not, and this despite the fact that well into the 18th century, Beckert states that Indian cloth was vastly superior to cotton cloth produced anywhere else in the world.

This difference in treatment became baked into, or better, was poured into the foundation of English capitalism, and affected how it thought and worked. Some labor was just inherently freer than others. (Britain would ban slavery once and for all in the 1830s, and yet would see the need for “unfree” labor to build colonial projects from railroads to plantations right up to the 20th century, which is why you find Indians in large numbers in places as varied as Guyana, South Africa, and Fiji.) A lot would be built on this distinction.

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