Wednesday, January 6, 2021

John M. Hobson's "Multicultural Origins of the Global Economy"

John M. Hobson is Professor of Politics & International Relations at the University of Sheffield and is a Fellow of the British Academy. His books include The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (2004) and The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics (2012).

Hobson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Multicultural Origins of the Global Economy: Beyond the Western-Centric Frontier, and reported the following:
Given that this is a 506 page book comprising some 190,000 words, so the objective chance of page 99 being significant for the whole book’s argument are slim – indeed a 1:506 chance! But if I could choose one page that is absolutely central to the book’s core argument it would be… page 99. This describes the twelve-sided Indian cotton textile (export) trading system that spanned Afro-Eurasia after 1500 and which reached out to the New World after about 1571. Its significance lies in my claim that India via its export of cotton textiles played one of the most important roles in weaving together what I call the “first global economy” (c.1500–1850). Moreover, India’s dominance of global cotton textile markets equipped its merchants with “global structural power”, through which much of the global economy was organised. For in addition to constituting the world’s single most important trading commodity, these textiles also became a universal means of exchange that both fuelled further transactions of non-textile commodities and enabled the emergence of other key global trading commodities. For example, the products/raw materials that the African slaves produced in the New World, including raw cotton, cacao, sugar, rum, coffee and tobacco, were made possible by the fact that the main commodity that the African slavers would accept in exchange for African slaves was Indian cotton textiles. But, while the British in particular had become dependent on re-exporting these textiles in order to purchase the African slaves, so the former became increasingly frustrated and sought to develop their own cotton textile sector. However, in order to compete with the superior Indian product, they had no choice but to mechanise production such that by the 1820s they finally came to export more of the British-made product. Accordingly, Indian cotton textiles and Indian structural power formed the basis not only of the first global economy, but they prompted the industrialisation of Britain through what I call the “Afro-Indian global cotton whip of necessity”, which in turn enabled the transition from the first to the second modern capitalist global economy after about 1850.

But why this emphasis on Indian cotton textiles? The key framework of the book is to challenge Western-centric conceptions of the global economy that award a hyper-agential power to the Europeans while the non-Western peoples are, by contrast, denigrated as but irrational and passive such that they contributed nothing to the creation of the global economy. This book instead focuses on the agential contribution of Indians, Chinese, West Asians, and Africans as well as Europeans, and reveals how they all entwined together not least through the trade in Indian cotton textiles as collectively they created the first and second global economy.
Learn more about Multicultural Origins of the Global Economy at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue