When you got dressed this morning, the chances are that at least one of the items you put on was made of cotton. The world uses more cotton than any other fibre. Cotton crops cover 5 percent of the planet’s cultivated land area.
The story of cotton is the story of the development and domination of worldwide capitalism alongside slavery, colonialism and exploitation.
Cotton has been grown for 5,000 years. But in the last 250 years, with the advent of capitalist globalisation, cotton has come to dominate whole economies. Cotton was the motor of the industrial revolution in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
New inventions helped transform cotton production from a domestic cottage industry to large scale factory production. The “dark satanic mills” of the 19th century in Britain were the first workplaces that crammed together thousands of workers, many of them women and children.
The rapid development of the cotton mills of Lancashire, where most of the industry was based, relied on colonialism and slavery.
Originally many African slaves were bought with cotton goods from India, part of the British Empire. When the Indian supply of cotton was threatened — through wars and revolt — Lancashire cotton companies stepped in to export their goods to Africa.
Britain’s rulers encouraged the slave trade and the expansion of the massive slave plantations in the West Indies and then the southern states of America.
That was to meet the rocketing demands of the Lancashire bosses for more raw cotton. “Slavery and cotton marched together!” as historian Eric Hobsbawm put it.
At the same time Britain’s rulers deindustrialised the cotton industry of India. Indians, who had produced fine cottons, were forced to import cotton goods from Lancashire. Profits for the cotton bosses were astronomical. “100s percent and 1,000s percent,” as one politician at the time put it.
Cotton was linked to the chains of slavery on the one hand, and to the exploitation of workers on the other.
It was the terrible living and working conditions of the Manchester cotton workers that Frederick Engels described so movingly in his 1844 classic, The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Those conditions would be recognised by Lydda Gonzalez, a cotton worker in the sweatshops of Honduras, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week producing shirts selling for $40 dollars each in the US.
“We produce more than a thousand of those shirts a day and just one shirt would pay much more than my wage for a week,” she says.
It would be recognised too by the women in the textile factories in Bangladesh, where over 1.3 million produce cotton goods for Europe and North America.
There women work in dirty conditions for 16-hour shifts, often through the night, for just $10 a month, suffering constant physical and sexual harassment from their bosses.
The global cotton market has been stitched up by the US plantation bosses and the Republican government. Cotton is the US’s biggest crop and the government — breaking trade rules according to the WTO — hands out $4 billion a year in subsidies to 25,000 plantation owners. That is more than the entire US aid budget for Africa.
The US has wrecked the livelihoods of thousands of small cotton farmers in West African countries like Mali and Bukina Faso, which the World Bank and IMF encouraged to grow cotton for the world market.
The story of cotton is not only one of exploitation. It is also a story of resistance. Back in 1844 Frederick Engels noted, “The factory operatives, especially in the cotton district, form the members of the labour movement. Lancashire, and especially Manchester, is the seat of the most powerful unions, the place which numbers most socialists.”
It was the New York garment workers who fought back in the “uprising of the 20,000”, a struggle still commemorated on 8 March, International Women’s Day.
It was textile workers in Bombay who fought in one of the biggest strikes, involving hundreds of thousands of workers, in the early 1980s.
So when you think of the story behind the cotton shirt you’ve put on this morning, think not only of blood, sweat and tears behind it, but think too of the resistance.