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Intervista a Sven Beckert sul volume “Empire of Cotton”

Interview to Sven Beckert (Harvard University)

by Claudia Bernardi (Università Roma Tre)

1) In the last years, global history has become a vibrant field of study that involves many scholars at different stage of their career on a worldwide level. Several networks, study programs and research projects have been flourishing so far, in the aim of proposing a different historical practice and innovative perspective. But like other innovative approaches to history, it is in danger of becoming merely a buzzword among historians, more a fashionable label of the moment than a practice of writing a history of our world. Nonetheless, this field has not proposed a unique approach but it is nurtured by a wide variety of studies and ways of doing global history. Could we trace to some common elements, to a fil rouge, all this array of studies? How could we think and consider global history today in terms of narrative, writing and practice?

This is a very big question. Perhaps the best place to start is to say that there is not just one approach to history beyond the nation state, there are many different historiographical trends that somehow can be subsumed and have been subsumed under the label of global history. Some of them are rather new, and others have a very long history. It is also important to recognize that this is not just a development of the past few years, but of several generations of scholarship, and some of the most prominent historians of the twentieth century—from Eric Hobsbawm to Fernand Braudel—have had a vision of history that was already quite global.

Perhaps the oldest branch of this historiography is what people have called “world history,” often a sort of account of almost everything that happened in the history of humankind, using a civilizational approach on a large geographic scale. Then there is also the old tradition of international history, a history focused largely on the relationship between states, often with a focus on diplomatic relations.

More recently, two different schools have emerged. For one, and clearly most prevalent, are efforts by scholars to transnationalize national histories. These scholars, for example, write on the history of the United States, but they do so from a broader perspective, linking the history of North America to that of other parts of the world. Importantly, however, the primary reference point remains their respective national history. In the United States, Thomas Bender is the most prominent person who has taken the national history of the United States and embedded it within such a global perspective.

The second approach that emerged recently is quite different. The starting point of its investigations is not a particular national history, but a particular question or a problem that frame the spatial scope of the study. Let’s say you are interested in the history of racism. Obviously, lots of people have written national histories of racism—in the United States, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. If you take the global approach, however, you would compare different developments of racism, but then you would also — and especially—write a connected history, exploring how the developments of racism in particular parts of the world were connected to one another. The spatial scope of that study would be the United States, Europe, Australia — but not necessary all parts of the world. It would be a kind of subset of places that are relevant to the particular question you asked. This to me is the most interesting and innovative way of approaching global history. Again, this is very different from the world history approach that embraces a kind of civilizational perspective, it is very different from the international history approach that focuses on interstate relations, and it is also very different from transnational history because it does not take one particular national history as its starting point.

I am also of the opinion that you should not worry too much about labels. You try to write good histories and you try to recognize good histories. The starting point should not be to write “global history.” To write good history you need to have an interesting and important question, and then you need to be able to investigate that question on whatever spatial scales are needed in order to answer that question. Sometimes, a question is quite local and does not need to bring the entire world into view; at other times a question can only be properly answered from a global perspective. As I am interested in capitalism, the only proper scale of analysis is global.

To return to your original question, it is also true that global history has become a kind of buzzword. Not all of it is good. Some global history is very strong on a particular region of the world and very superficial on other regions of the world. That is not going to work. Global history needs to be based on a deep understanding of different regions of the world and it needs to be deeply empirical. It is not enough to make some grand assumptions about some other part of the world without actually investigating its history.

Yet despite these very real problems, we should not forget that almost all history written in the past 150 years has been national history, almost all of it has been framed by nation states. It’s an important development that we are going beyond that kind of history; we can understand many historical problems much better from a global perspective.

2) Among the many issues that are at the very core of discussions among global historians there is for sure the role of the nation that is not overcome, but studied under a different perspective in order to deeper understand many historical processes. At the same time, it can be considered a topic of concern as the general public is often more fascinated by national histories than non-national ones: as a consequence there is a strong and large audience for national histories. Your research and teaching is very much devoted to the connection of large audiences beyond national borders, and it is also increasingly attracting people beyond the boundary of the discipline of history. Are we facing the emergence of a new generation of historians, and people at large, who perceive themselves and their history as rooted in the world? Do you think there is a rising audience for global history?

That there is an audience for global history is somewhat of a surprise. About ten years ago, when historians engaged in the first sustained conversations on global history, one of the main concerns they had was their fear that few people are going to be interested in global history. Because people see themselves primarily as Italians, as Chinese, or some other nationality — and not as citizens of planet earth—people believed that global history would not have much of an audience. This turned out to be wrong; there is a large audience in various parts of the world, people are very much interested in global history. Why is this so?

Firstly, we live in a more interconnected world today, so that some of the approach that global history takes is more familiar to larger numbers of people because of our own day-to-day experiences correspond to some of the insights of global history. Fifty years ago, it would have been quite different and that kind of audience would not have necessarily emerged. Secondly, even if people are not interested in a history of humanity as a whole, they are still interested in how their little local history fits into a larger global story. If I tell the story of cotton industrialization in Mexico, Mexicans might be familiar with that history, but if they then encounter a discussion that puts their local past into a global framework, they become interested, because they can see how their local history is connected to things happening in China, India, Great Britain, United States and elsewhere.

Then, as historians, we should aim to speak to larger audiences. Almost everyone thinks about history in some ways, and people are rooting their own biographies in history and almost always also in some kind of collectivity, may that be local, ethnic, religious, national, global or something different. For 150 years, historians have played a strong role in constituting national communities. Some of it has been for the better: it has constituted national communities that, for example, have been the basis on which the welfare state has emerged. But we need to recognize that a lot of bad things have happened because of a nationalism based on invented national histories. We historians, therefore, should never forget the ill effects of nationalism and invented national histories. We should always acknowledge that in the end there is not an Italian history, a French history, and an American history that is entirely distinct and separate from other national histories. In the end, there is just one human history.

We are all connected in many different ways, and we have been connected to one another since the beginnings of time. As historians who are committed to telling truthfully what happened in the past, we need to make that point: we are just one human community on planet earth. Of course, nations and nationalism have played a very powerful role in our history. But in the end we are all in it together, and global history can perhaps play a role in helping people realize that they are first and foremost inhabitants of spaceship earth. Considering the global scale of the problems we are facing in the contemporary world, it is even more important for us as historians to contribute to a sense of identity that is not just local or national, but also global. We need to develop an awareness of our history as humanity as a whole in order to be able to confront the problems that we face today.

That might seem like a tall order, but then national history at some point also seemed like a difficult project. After all, when national history emerged it could be perceived as a loosing proposition as well. It encountered readers who had religious, local or regional identities, and these often conflicted with emerging national identities. In the 1830s, citizen of the Piedmont or of Sicily did not think of themselves necessarily as Italians. National historians emerged, they worked hard on making people think of themselves in terms of nations. Eventually these historians, and others, managed to create a sense of national identity and national history. But it seemed for a long time an uphill battle.

Even if it is also an uphill battle for global historians to create a global historical consciousness, we should embark upon this project. Today, in the year 2017, this has become so much more urgent than ever before, because in many parts of the world there is a return to a heightened nationalism with all kinds of ugly political implications. The global history project has become much more urgent now than it was even a few years ago. Thinking about history globally can contribute to our ability to address the huge problems that we are facing today.

3) Considering your background and first published book, your research was more focused on local histories or, at least, on a kind of history that was spatially delimited. How and why have you decided to move from a mainly local perspective to working across different scalarities? Was the specificity of cotton as a commodity that lead you to global history or there are also other reasons? In other terms, how are local and global perspectives entangled in your works?

I did not start as a global historian, all my work until I wrote Empire of Cotton was locally focused. It was not even national history, because I was interested in the careful dissecting of social relations and processes in particular locations, and their intersection with local, regional and then also national politics. I wrote, for example, on the history of New York.

But as a student of United States history I was struck by how so much of the writing of American history took almost no note of what was happening in other parts of the world, how little it engaged in the analysis of comparisons and connections. And thus I wanted to write something that embeds the history of the United States in a more global perspective. Since I was interested in economic questions, I decided that looking at a commodity, looking at cotton, was a good way to widen the field of vision in the study of American history while at the same time contributing to the understanding of its economic development. When I started researching the book, the United States was the center of the story I wanted to tell, but it quickly became clear to me that this was deeply problematic. The story of cotton was really a global story that needed to be understood from a global perspective. It seemed not sufficient to transnationalize the national history of the United States, but instead to take a satellite perspective to look at the world as a whole and to see, for example, how the dramatic transformations of the Industrial Revolution affected and integrated various parts of the world in different ways into a global system.

That said – as I come from local, social, and political history – it was also clear to me that you cannot understand the global solely from a satellite perspective. If you just look at the globe as a whole, you easily end up focusing on globally interconnected actors, merchants and statesman, politicians. Almost no one else would enter the picture. Peasants in India, for example, were certainly not a part of this connected world and they would get written out of this kind of global history. I wanted to write a global history, in contrast, in which Indian peasants, among others, would not only be included, but perhaps even be at the center of the story. That is why I often took a social history approach, looking very carefully at very particular locations. I tried to understand the global from a local perspective. I looked, for example at what happened in Ahmedabad in India at the beginning of its cotton industrialization, or at the labor mobilizations in cotton mills in England. In fact, I combined the satellite perspective with a very local perspective to see how they interacted with one another. That is, for me, the most promising way to do global history. The local and the global constituted one another. This is one of the core arguments of the book.

4) Your last book “Empire of cotton. A global history” (2014) has been translated in ten languages, it has won many prizes and awards, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and recognitions multiply as new translations come up. As many have noticed, your book is made up by two studies: one on the history of cotton, and another on the history of global capitalism. The latter entails the grand ambition of rethinking capitalism. How have you begun to grapple with this issue in a renovated way? Is it a retrospective analysis of the economic globalization, or a spatial analysis of capitalism, or an investigation on the plurality of forms of capitalism, or what else?

The book started as a history of cotton and it only later became a history of capitalism. Basically, the more I learned about the global history of cotton, the more I saw that this story illuminates in really interesting ways the history of capitalism. Empire of Cotton, for example, shows that you cannot understand capitalism from a national historical perspective. There are hundreds of books on the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, or on the plantation revolution in the Americas, or on the history of weavers in India, all of them very interesting and important, but the really interesting story is about the connections between these different parts of the world.  Focusing on these links allows you to see, among other things, the links between the expansion of industrial production in Europe and the expansion of slavery in the United States, or the destruction of certain segments of the Indian textile industries and the expansion of European textile production.

What you learn from that study, first and foremost, is that capitalism is global from the get-go and it can only be understood as a global system. Then, you also understand that much of our thinking about capitalism has focused on the city and industry, but from a global perspective you see immediately that this leaves out very significant parts of the history of capitalism, namely the important and drastic changes that occurred in the countryside and in agriculture.

You mentioned the varieties of capitalism. In this regard, a global perspective allows you to compare and, for example, to see how capitalism in Japan developed differently from the United Kingdom. But you need to be careful not to keep Japanese and British capitalism completely separate from one another. They were linked to one another. Ideas about how to organize state policies towards economic developments, for example, travelled from one part of the world to another; you also see that it matters that Japan industrialized later than the United Kingdom because it brought about different sets of politics and different kinds of social conflicts. Global history can never be just comparative history, it always also needs to be connected history. Once you look at history in that way you see, for example, that capitalism is a global production and needs to be understood as a connected process.

One more important thing: In the West, many people persuaded themselves that we are so rich because we were rational and inventive, we had great scientists, and because the West created stable property rights, contracts, patent laws, legal systems, and more democratic governments. This is what the story of capitalism as told in Europe and North America is usually about. However, if you take a global perspective you immediately see that capitalism is just as much a story of massive dispossessions, a story of massive enslavement, a story of enormous coercion and of violence. I think that a global perspective really changes the way how you look at capitalism.

5) “Empire of cotton. A global history” could also be considered as a conflict-ridden account of economic change through a continuous competition and negotiation between different actors, through the reshaping of labor regimes and states, through the expropriation of land and the reconfiguration of commodity chains. The contributions and lessons of social history are part of your way of doing global history. What is the role of social conflicts in the shape of capitalism and thus the modern world?

Social history is enormously important. A superficial history of global capitalism would privilege small subsets of actors, namely the people who own capital and control state power. You could write a history that depicts their interactions as determining the structures of global capitalism. But I completely disagree with such an analysis. What I am arguing in the book instead—and what I show—is that very local distributions of social power, very local social conflicts, had a tremendous impact on structuring global capitalism.

To give you one example: Why did slavery become such an important part of the empire of cotton in late 18th and early 19th century? My argument in the book is that alternative ways of mobilizing labor in the countryside through other mechanisms, such as sharecropping or purchasing cotton on markets, in places such as India, Africa and the Ottoman Empire, almost always failed. European merchants and manufactures were not able to purchase huge quantities of cotton for European factories in these parts of the world, because local peasants retained significant social rights and sometimes political power, and they were not interested in the monoculture production of cotton for European factories. Instead, they produced some cotton to sell, but they also produced food crops and cotton for they own textile production. European capitalists failed to dominate cotton production in much of the world, but they succeed in the Americas through the use of enormous violence and the enslavement of Africans to work on plantations. Thus in a roundabout way, social conflict, and the social structures in India and West Africa, had a great impact on developments in the Caribbean, in Brazil and in the United States. You can see how very local social conflicts can have tremendous implications for the development of the structures of global capitalism.

6) Do you think global history is redefining the field of international history as political history?

All writing of history is always political and the kinds of questions we ask are very much informed by living in a particular historical moment. Of course, the turn to a more global perspective is very much informed by our own experience of living in a more globally connected world that is facing increasingly problems on a planetary scale. Current politics, social and cultural developments do inform the kind of questions we ask and they create audiences for the things we care about. We have the responsibility to speak to these audiences. And one way we can do so is through global history.

There is a big difference between global history and international history. Traditionally, international history is mostly focused on the relations between states, on the interactions between diplomats and business people, in sum it is a perspective that tends to take the nation state as a stable container, and then looks at how these nation states were linked to one another. It tends to ignore the level below the nation state.

Global history is completely different and it focuses on economic and social relations, on the exchange of ideas, on how religious beliefs travelled, on how political movements — such as 1968s or the Civil Rights movement — were linked to one another national boundaries. The spectrum of things that can be investigated is just so much larger than what is typical for international history. And the way in which they are investigated is much different, because global history focuses, for example, on the struggle of Gujarati peasants to retain access to subsistence agriculture, and how that story impacts the development of plantation agriculture in the United States. Obviously, some of what international history does is also important to global history, but global history in itself is a much broader field.

7) You argue that the analysis of shifting commodity frontiers is crucial for the understanding the historical specificity of capitalism and its changes over time. It seems you are shaping a history in movement of a ‘capitalism in action’. Which is the relation between the frontiers of commodity and capitalism in a connected history?

These two concepts are important to the book, in particular the notion of “capitalism in action”. What I am not doing is to analyze capitalism on an abstract level; other people have already done so brilliantly. Instead, I am trying to analyze how capitalism historically unfolded, and – in the process — I argue that capitalism is not just something that drops out of the sky, but is a project. People built capitalism and they had certain kinds of interests and powers that they were able to deploy. In the process they encountered other groups and different interests and other means of power, which again shaped the development of capitalism. As historians we should understand capitalism as a kind of constantly moving historical project that particular groups of people engaged with. This is what I call in the book “capitalism in action”. One of the things that characterizes this “capitalism in action” is the search for ever new commodity frontiers, to find new ways to extract labor, land, raw materials, and agricultural commodities from various parts of the world. Capitalism is best understood as an imperial project, not in the sense of capturing colonies, like Italy going to Africa (though that is important as well), but in the sense that capitalism has a tendency to capture ever more spheres of social life and ever more territory. That is the history of “capitalism in action”, an imperial project of expanding the boundaries of capitalist social relations both in space and in the social structure.

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