Since I was a graduate student in the last millennium, I’ve been fascinated by the role of the cotton textile industry in recent economic history, beginning with that momentous event still being heard around the world, the First Industrial Revolution. It just caught fire in Bengladesh. There are books about cotton as a staple – a relatively recent and a reasonably good one is Stephen Yaffa’s Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber, published in 2006, which I am belatedly reading. Much of the book is actually about the cotton textile industry but it would be a stretch to see it as a linkage, namely, forward linkage, from cotton. Rather the real “staple” in the sense of a key or dominant commodity, is the cotton textile industry itself, with cotton it’s key backward linkage.
Which brings me to Albert Hirschman, whom I regularly re-read. In his 1977 essay “A generalized linkage approach to development, with special reference to staples” (reprinted in his Essays in Trespassing.) Hirschman writes:
“[I]t is possible to conjecture that the emergence of a new mode of production is more intimately tied to the availability, at the proper time, of a specific economic activity with a strong affinity for that mode than is realized later on when the mode has become ubiquitous and dominant and therefore appears to be and has in fact become independent from the activity. This sort of relationship, where a specific economic activity is, to paraphrase Marx, the midwife of a new mode of production, can probably be shown to have prevailed also between the textile industry and the Industrial Revolution. If our conjecture is correct, then the appearance of a new mode of production is primie evidence that an activity with the special intellectually suspect multiple affinity for the mode must have been around – the new mode could not have made it otherwise.”
This constitutes a powerful rationale for my hunch, and a way to re-tell a story that has been told so many times and researched ad infinitum. Following Hirschman’s insight, focus on a dialetical relationship, a shifting symbiosis, between an emerging mode of industrial capitalism and an emerging industry. Add, as it seems to me, that as the mode forms more fully, it then facilitates the emergence of other industries – the most powerful of linkages, the exemplary case of what some writers have come to call “lateral linkage.”
Hirscham liked to talk about how one thing led to another; it’s almost his motto for economic development or economic history. In this case, one thing leads to many others. The result is a spurt in economic growth, an industrial revolution, a take-off into sustained growth, a break with the past – a discontinuity from which there can be no looking back by Britain and, in due course, by the world.
A quarter century after Hirschman wrote, what he so powerfully suggested waits to be written. We have the title, namely, Cotton Textiles: The Midwife of Industrial Capitalism.