Marginalia 6

Cotton, roses, and building cathedrals

22 September 2019

I'd never thought much about cotton. It's good because it feels much better against my skin than petroleum-based fibres and is a natural product. It's bad because cotton farming has sucked Australia's biggest river system dry, with devastating results for river fish, amongst other things. That was about the extent of my curiosity. But it turns out that cotton is central to the history of international capitalism, the North Atlantic slave trade, United State political and economic history, and to colonial policy in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth centuries. I learned this in Sven Beckert's extraordinary book Empire of Cotton: a new history of global capitalism. The key message in Beckert's book is that, in contrast to the claims of today's libertarians, capitalism simply wouldn't exist without the frequent and brutal interventions of European states - particularly Britain - over several centuries. Markets don't naturally exist, especially international ones. On the contrary, colonial states created - often with extraordinary brutality - the conditions that allowed European capitalists to remake the world to their liking. I've previously read assertions of this history, but Beckert lays out in great details exactly how this was done, and how each step built on the previous ones. I'll never look at a cotton shirt the same way again.

Here in a time where capitalism has devolved from merely reconfiguring entire societies in order to produce products more 'efficiently', to mass-producing goods that contradictorily serve primarily as signals of exclusivity to simply producing climate change as the only tangible output, an unlikely form of refusal has appeared. The Salvage Art Institute (SAI) exhibits artworks that are 'damaged beyond repair' - art that is, officially, no longer art. As the exhibition tours, SAI has to go out of its way to ensure that these artworks never regain market value, lest these former artworks become, once again, officially 'art'. This story is weird and hilarious and hopeful, and I wish them all the best.

What the Salvage Art Institute points to is how much effort it can take to reject the socio-economic environment in which one finds oneself. Rejecting commercial monopoly commmunication platforms, Darius Kazemi shows us, is more complicated than simply starting up your own smaller version, because organising large groups of people is really hard and gets harder as the group grows. This is especially the case when even our grasp of mathematics is tainted by our political identity. It might be tempting to think that this is a new phenomenon, caused by social media and the Internet. But if you think that, Kevin Seeber has some bad (good) news for you. Of course, before capitalism emerged, other socio-economic systems existed, and the system prevalent in Western Europe for a time produced the extraordinary buildings we call cathedrals. Nicholas Kemper's essay Building a cathedral is a fascinating read, explaining how cathedral projects really worked (and still do), and why cathedrals tend to either be built quickly or very, very slowly. As I read it I couldn't help reflecting on Eric Raymond's famous essay The cathedral and the bazaar, and how Raymond's conception of cathedral building doesn't really match the reality. If anything, Seeber's description of cathedral-building projects - bringing communities together, requiring complex political manouvers, and often proceeding in fits and starts under serial leadership that often takes them in new directions - sounded a lot like many big open source software projects to me. Even if you're not that interested in software or cathedrals, it's still a fascinating essay, and worth the read.

Now, I'll be found reading more on AI and libraries before commiting any thoughts about that to the ephemeral record: turns out there's a lot to think about.