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Caffeine and capitalism - a symbiotic relationship
'This is your mind on plants' by Michael Pollan - published by Allen Lane
Reviewed by Dave Carr
Is the molecule C8H10N4O2 - that's caffeine to you and me - responsible for the slave trade, colonial wars, imperialism, increased labour productivity, and even the development of capitalism?
Posed like that, the suggestion that the consumption of tea and coffee is responsible for modern society seems like reductionist nonsense - after all, as the Communist Manifesto proclaims: "The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle". Marx and Engels didn't add the sentence "... and a nice cuppa!"
Rest easy; Michael Pollan's book - 'This is your mind on plants' - doesn't refute Marxism. In fact, it's an informative take on the ubiquitous caffeine drug, which over 80% of humans regularly consume as tea and coffee. And it is a drug; you try giving it up for a week!
Pollan's book explains how caffeine complemented the development of capitalism, principally by expanding global trade. He points out that although tea had long been consumed in China, as had coffee in north Africa and the Middle East, when these products (and chocolate which contains caffeine) hit Europe in the 17th Century, when capitalism was in its infancy, the world was transformed.
London's coffee houses - one for every 200 Londoners at their peak - became a hub of the rising bourgeoisie and middle classes (who could afford to drink it; the masses had to wait for tea), which led to the expansion of commerce, trade, science, literature, and free speech. With an explosion of debate came dissent, and Pollan relates the futile attempt of Charles II to ban coffee houses in 1675 - which lasted eleven days as everyone simply ignored the royal proclamation!
However, the popularity of Europe's coffee houses caused a problem for the nouveau riche; namely, that Arab traders enjoyed a highly profitable monopoly trade of the product. Of course, it didn't take long for a Dutch trader and a French naval officer to steal coffee plants and relocate them in their respective colonies and then import the beans into Europe.
But for fuelling the working class to make the industrial revolution in Britain, it was "tea from the East Indies - heavily sweetened with sugar from the West Indies".
Soon after the British East India Company began trading with China, cheap tea flooded into Britain and displaced coffee.
The empire-building East India Company quickly realised the profitable potential of turning India into a tea producer rather than buying it from China. This involved stealing the plants and then seizing land from peasants in Assam to grow it.
But the tea imported into Britain was bitter to drink as a hot beverage, and so to sweeten it, sugar was used. That in turn drove a huge growth of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and hence a big increase in slavery. 70% of the slave trade supported sugar. Slave labour was also extensively used in Brazil's coffee plantations.
"The introduction of tea to the West was all about exploitation - the extraction of surplus value from labour, not only in its production but in its consumption in England as well."
Caffeine, by overcoming the circadian rhythms of our biology, allows us to keep awake and alert - perfect for the late shift and the night shift.
"Caffeine in tea helped create a new kind of worker, one better adapted to the rule of the machine - demanding, dangerous and incessant. It's difficult to imagine an industrial revolution without it."
The role of caffeine in modern capitalist production became subject to 'time and motion' studies. But how could caffeine increase work capacity without conveying calories to the worker? Bosses didn't wait around for a scientific explanation. In early 20th century USA a couple of companies introduced a coffee break or free coffee at the workstation.
But the 'coffee break' in the US - free coffee plus paid time - only became a legal entitlement in the 1950s. Its establishment centred around the Los Wigwam Weavers company, whose bosses realised that productivity shot up by giving workers a coffee break. But they deducted the break time from workers' pay. Eventually, the issue ended up in court and the workers won. However, like the 'tea break' in the UK, I suspect that such a concession to the worker (even though the employer benefits) is being rapidly eroded today from the workplace.
Coffee and tea production remains labour intensive. But needless to say the growers - many are small farmers - despite their many attempts to combine and buck the market by limiting supply, have been broken by a small number of powerful multinational corporate buyers. Coffee prices since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s have been set by futures markets in London and New York.
"A free market in any commodity crop that is grown by millions of small producers and bought only by a tiny handful of large buyers will inevitably enrich the latter while tending to impoverish the former."
Lastly, I should point out that 'This is your mind on plants' is divided into three sections - opium, caffeine and mescaline. The central section on caffeine is the most absorbing (no pun intended), but the other sections do touch on important issues like the 'war on drugs' and on the survival of native Americans.
Without trying to sound like the blurb on the dust jacket, the book is an entertaining and informative take on the everyday beverages of tea and coffee.
Pollan's mischievous parting question is, who has benefited the most through the interaction of tea and coffee with civilisation - caffeine or humans?
In The Socialist 6 October 2021:
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