The vast labor done outside of North America and Europe was not marginal but central to the history of the grand narrative of the rise of capitalism. It comprised a great diversity of tightly linked labor regimes. We are thus facing a puzzle: How are we to explain the diversity of labor systems in different parts of the world in the face of what might seem like the universal logic of capital and state power? This is the core question faced by labor historians committed to global perspectives. This paper explores this fundamental issue through the history of one important commodity: cotton. It involved slavery, share-cropping and “free” wage labor in ever-changing combinations shaped by employers, states and the struggles of rural cultivators.
By Sven Beckert