Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism by Sven Beckert - review by John Keay

John Keay

Soft Power

Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 615pp £30 order from our bookshop

After books devoted to coal, cod, sugar, salt, tea, coffee, the potato and countless other household staples, along comes cotton. The futures market in commodity titles has never looked brighter. This may not be the first volume devoted to our favourite textile, but it is the most ambitious and probably the most important. Claiming cotton to have been more widely grown, intensively processed and universally traded than any of nature’s other products, Sven Beckert, a Harvard professor, disentangles the fibre’s history to mount a powerful critique of global capitalism as red in tooth and claw as Thomas Piketty’s recent Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Cotton has certainly made life a lot pleasanter. Without it, we might still be wearing woollen drawers, reclining on skins, smelling like stables and scratching a lot. Bathrooms without towels would be no more inviting than bedrooms without sheets. The high street’s racks would be bare and the hills would

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