To the well-known political, economic, and cultural revolutions that inaugurated capitalist modernity, we ought to add a fourth: a pharmacological revolution, one that began innocently enough with a variety of foreign substances — coffee, tea, chocolate — and culminated in a multi-billion dollar regulatory regime responsible for adapting subjects to their alienating conditions of existence. Forget “the opium of the people”: actual drugs have done and are doing more to prop up an increasingly delegitimized system than any mere ideology.
Like broader cultural developments, the history of drugs offers a unique lens through which to glimpse the inner workings of capitalism, and specifically the demands it makes on its human subjects. Perhaps no drug more revealingly illustrates this claim than coffee, a stimulant uniquely and consistently praised by the ruling class since its introduction to the west. The drive for surplus-value has intimately shaped coffee production and consumption, and coffee consumption has molded subjects capable of navigating the stresses of the modern working day. Coursing through the veins of the modern world and the modern subject alike, coffee is the spirit of capitalism in brewed form. Its past is conjoined to the rise of bourgeois entrepreneurialism, and its future is as dark as contemporary society’s own horizon.
In the 17th century, the average English family consumed approximately three liters of beer per person per day, children included, and beer brewing was a regular part of domestic duties. To convey “a sense of how pervasive beer was in the seventeenth century, and often even in the eighteenth,” the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch recounts “that breakfast as a rule consisted of beer soup,” a mixture of beer, eggs, and butter responsible for the portly figures of Jordaens and Rubens.
It was around the middle of the 17th century that coffee transitioned from being seen as an exotic curiosity of the Orient to a delightful and sociable beverage. Then, as today, it bore a powerful (though fantasied) property that was to determine its role in capitalist society: the ability to make sober. In the humoral perspective, alcohol made one “wet,” with all that that implied; coffee, by contrast, made one “dry,” and the anti-erotic element did not go unnoticed by either its champions or detractors. The emergent bourgeoisie appreciated the middle-class common sense and industry that the desiccating elements of coffee promoted — in 1865, the French historian Jules Michelet wrote that coffee “illuminates the reality of things with the white light of truth” by substituting “stimulation of the mind for stimulation of the sexual faculties!” — while conservatives like the physician Colomb feared that coffee dried up the nerve fluid, leading to “general exhaustion, paralysis, and impotence.”
This debate was sexed as well: In 1674, a broadside entitled “The Women’s Petition against Coffee” claimed that coffee “has so Eunucht our Husbands… that they are become as Impotent as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” The men replied soon after that “Coffee Collects and settles the Spirits, makes the erection more Vigorous, the Ejaculation more full, adds a spiritualescency to the Sperme, and renders it more firm and suitable to the Gusto of the womb, and proportionate to the ardours and expectations too, of the female Paramour.” This back and forth over the sexual effects of coffee was only a thinly veiled debate about the sex-based exclusion for which coffee was employed as a pretext: London coffeehouses, including Lloyd’s Coffeehouse (and eventually the largest insurance brokerage in the world), were centers of communication and business that generally excluded women.
Sexism notwithstanding, coffee consumption seemed generally to speed up the clearing away of the old structures. In 1789, Camille Desmoulins led a mob from a café and took the Bastille two days later. The Boston Tea Party was planned in a coffeehouse. In England, Charles II tried to close the coffeehouses on account of the seditious speech they fomented, but failed on account of pressure from the coffee dealers. After trying and realizing it was too difficult to ban coffee altogether, Frederick the Great issued coffee roasting licenses exclusive to the nobility and clergy so as to keep it from the hostile commoners. According to W.H. Ukers, “wherever [coffee] has been introduced it has spelled revolution.”
Wherever coffee production has become an intensive national focus, environmental devastation has followed.
In the places where coffee was produced, however, it was attended by the new misery spawned by the colonial age of capitalist modernity. The Dutch and the French respectively brought slaves to Java and Haiti, and by the 18th century Haiti was one of the world’s largest coffee exporters (making about half the world’s coffee) and slave importers (absorbing 30,000 African slaves per year). After the Haitian slave revolt in 1793, when the plantations were razed, the center of coffee production moved to Ceylon, first under the Dutch and then under the British. The colonial coffee estates of Ceylon were the largest producers of coffee in the world until “coffee rust,” a fungal disease lethal to coffee plants, appeared in the late 19th century, wiping out crops not only in Ceylon but also India, Java, Sumatra, and Malaysia. (Though tea consumption rose by leaps and bounds in England beginning in 1700, thanks to the monopoly of the East India Company, coffee rust is the reason that the world’s greatest coffee fanatics in the early 18th century definitively embraced tea as their national drink in the 19th.)
Just as Haiti’s decline made room for Ceylon’s rise, so too did the decline of Ceylon allow for the rise of a new coffee powerhouse: Brazil. Brazil had gotten into the coffee game on the heels of its break from colonial rule in 1822, after which its coffee production took off along with its slave imports. In large part thanks to coffee, slavery was to remain in Brazil longer than any other country in the western hemisphere. “Brazil is coffee, and coffee is the negro,” explained Brazilian senator Silveira Martins in 1880.
When slave importation was finally banned in 1888, the coffee barons of São Paulo convinced the government to subsidize the immigration of poor Europeans, mostly Italians, to work the plantations. It was under this new colonos system of labor that coffee production really exploded. In pursuit of the riches of coffee monoculture, Brazil unloaded 16.3 million bags on the world in 1901, while neglecting the cultivation of more basic subsistence crops, and also its rain forests. By the 1920s, the forests were being cleared at a clip of 3000 square kilometers per year, largely to provide more space to grow coffee.
Wherever coffee production has become an intensive national focus, environmental devastation has followed (as also in the case of Vietnam in the 90s). Coffee production is thus a particularly clear illustration of Marx’s claim that capitalist production develops “only by sapping the original sources of wealth – the soil and the labourer.”
The story of coffee in the 20th century — centered around three main characters (Brazil, Colombia, and the United States) but riven with subplots of more minor actors (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Uganda) — is an illuminating example of the interplay of capitalism’s crises and the regressive attempts to mitigate their effects. At the turn of the century, Brazil was experiencing a crisis of coffee overproduction, so in 1906 the government began taking out loans to buy and stockpile beans to keep prices artificially high, a process known as valorization.
After years of valorizing Brazilian coffee, the São Paolo Coffee Institute finally went bankrupt on October 11, 1929, sending coffee prices plummeting on the world’s largest coffee exchange in New York. Not uncoincidentally, thanks to the global importance of coffee in international commerce, the stock market crashed two weeks later. In 1930, with 26 million bags of coffee in storage (1 million more than had been globally consumed the previous year) and coffee price in freefall, Brazil initiated a program that would be an enduring and marvelous display of the utter irrationality of capitalism: they began burning their coffee. In the first year alone, 7 million bags were burned; in 1937, they burned 17 million bags at a time when worldwide consumption was still only 26 million bags. During this time they were also desperately trying to convince Colombia, who was eating into Brazil’s export market and benefitting from their valorization scheme, to adopt similar methods. Failing to do so, they dumped their reserves on the market in 1937 as retribution, instantly collapsing coffee prices for everyone.
Americans cried foul at the cartelization of coffee in the interwar period, but when agreements were proposed that kept prices high — first the Inter-American Coffee Agreement (IACA) in 1940 and then the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) in 1962 — they were willing partners. The motivation was unsurprisingly political. In the case of the IACA, the U.S. hoped to create good will in the hemisphere during wartime; in that of the ICA, very explicit Cold War anti-Communism was to blame. Speaking in support of the ICA, Hubert Humphrey claimed that “this is a matter of life or death, a matter of Castroism versus freedom…. Castroism will spread like the plague through Latin America unless something is done about the prices of the raw materials produced there; and those prices can be stabilized on an international basis.” To validate the sentiment, Colombian senator Enrique Escovar sounded the alarm: “Pay us good prices for our coffee or — God help us all — the masses will become one great Marxist revolutionary army that will sweep us all into the sea.”
Nobody was wrong to think the U.S. had this kind of clout: Already by 1923 it was consuming half of the world’s coffee, and during WWII it was importing roughly $4 billion in coffee, remarkably accounting for 10 percent of all imports. Coffee roasting was big business, and the ICA, by setting coffee export quotas that prevented smaller buyers from entering the market, only helped it get bigger. According to the small roasters who had survived the conglomerations of the ‘50s, “the monstrous International Coffee Cartel set up with the support of our Government, contrary to our Trust Busting laws, is having the only effect it can have. The big are getting bigger and the small have the hangman’s noose around the neck tightened daily.”
Large regional roasters were absorbed by even larger corporations: General Foods bought Maxwell House, Nestlé bought Hills Brothers and Chase & Sanborn, and Proctor & Gamble bought Folgers. As the big got bigger, the coffee unsurprisingly got worse, thanks in large part to a growth in the cultivation of lower-quality but higher-yield robusta beans over higher-quality and lower-yield arabica beans. To make up for the inferiority of their product, the coffee giants invested more and more in advertising. They even teamed up in 1952, in the form of the Pan American Coffee Bureau, to invent the phrase “coffee break” and spent the bureau’s $2 million/year budget to spread the good word on radio and television.
Undoubtedly the most disturbing feature of the new corporate coffee advertising world was the very direct misogyny, almost comically exaggerated from our present perspective. The small print of Chock full o’ Nuts’s “Men! Don’t let it come to this!” ad reproduced here reads: “A man’s home is his castle! You have a right to good coffee in your home, and your wife has a duty to serve it. Don’t be the victim of womanly penny-pinching!” Chase & Sanborn were even more direct in their “If your husband ever finds out” campaign. Years later Alecia Swasy discovered that Proctor & Gamble were very consciously pushing the limits of just “how ugly and aggressive [they] could get in the ads,” having conducted research that demonstrated that “women ‘would accept as reasonable all sorts of abuse’ in ads because many of them heard it at home.”
Coffee played an outsized role in some of the worst human rights disasters of the ’70s and ’80s. It propped up Uganda’s economy under Idi Amin, who had ruined all other industries by 1977. The major roasters in the U.S., for whom Ugandan green beans constituted a significant percentage of their imports, refused to take a stand on the genocide that was enacted under his reign. Only when it became clear that the government was on the verge of issuing an embargo in 1978 did they preemptively halt imports from Uganda, publicizing their decision widely so as to claim the moral high ground for themselves.
When the Sandinistas ousted Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, one of their first orders of business was to seize the Somoza family estate, which included large coffee fields, and to socialize the coffee industry in the form of the National Enterprise of Coffee (ENCAFE). Though the Sandinistas did a good deal to improve the lives of the urban poor, ENCAFE unfortunately used its single-payer buying power to underpay the coffee growers, driving many to join up with the Contras.
Fearing that other Latin American countries would fall to Marxists as in Nicaragua, the United States supported repressive regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, both of which violently quelled guerilla insurgency. It was in large part thanks to the progressive International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), whose dockworkers refused to unload Salvadoran coffee, that awareness was brought to the terrors of El Salvador’s civil war, which finally ended in 1992.
Despite the Reagan administration’s obsession with Nicaragua, the Cold War fears that had animated the ICA slowly abated in the ‘80s, and with them the willingness of the United States to pay artificially-inflated coffee prices. The ICA finally collapsed in 1989, and the price of coffee dropped by nearly 75 percent in the next five years. The “Coffee Crisis” that followed was a massive disaster in all producing countries: dispossessed farmers turned to violence, to the guerillas, or else to coca and opium poppy cultivation. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was precipitated by the value decline of coffee, which had accounted for 80 percent of the country’s exports. Letting the ICA lapse was the functional equivalent of the United States halving its world aid budget.
In response to the bastardization of their beloved bean by the giant roasters, coffee enthusiasts like Alfred Peet and the Starbucks founders began opening shops in the ’70s and ’80s devoted to bringing higher-quality beans and the European fine art of coffeemaking to the United States. In their otherwise excellent The Coffee Book, Nina Luttinger and Gregory Dicum describe the “relative decommodification of coffee” in the specialty roaster industry and an attention to “origin, quality, processing, and cultivation methods as relevant qualities of the bean.” The truth is that the specialty roasters, at first with the ignorance of craft devotees and later with full knowledge, commodified these other aspects of coffee. They were selling a completely different product than the coffee giants, and the relative autonomy of the specialty coffee market from the regular coffee market bears this out.
Coffee keeps us awake, it keeps us alert, it lends our work habits a machine-like efficiency.
There’s a great deal to ridicule in the specialty coffee market, especially now that the torch has been passed from since-corporatized Starbucks to the likes of Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture. In 1996 it was discovered that Central American beans were being routed through Hawaii so that their producers could brand them as Hawaiian Kona coffee, even though professional cuppers recognized the imitation coffee as better than Kona itself. One of the most expensive coffees today is the Kopi Luwak, which has been eaten by the Asian palm civet and retrieved from its feces. And of course almost every specialty roaster is in a cutthroat competition with the others for the ability to say that they can simultaneously lift indigenous peoples out of poverty and save the planet, if only you buy their beans. The claims of green capitalism are nowhere as inflated and repugnant as in the world of coffee.
But the most absurd product that the specialty coffee artists hawk also fulfills a genuine need in contemporary American society: sociability. Radical centrist Howard Schultz, the CEO that oversaw the rapid expansion of Starbucks, sees coffee shops as fulfilling the need for a “third space,” a term he borrows from sociologist Ray Oldenburg. A “third space” is a one that is neither work nor home, a public space sought as an escape from both alienation and isolation. Coffeehouses have always offered “the diversion of company” in a “nursery of temperance,” to quote the 17th c. author of Coffeehouses Vindicated, but in the unforgiving environment of today’s society, they are pillars of social reproduction in providing spaces for us to be alone together.
In 1980, “caffeinism” was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (alongside “ego-dystonic homosexuality”), capping years of silly alarmism about coffee’s supposed health effects, but was soon removed. The truth is that coffee is an addictive but largely harmless diuretic, but throughout the history of capitalism its harmlessness has been employed in the service of the endurance of harm. As Luttinger and Dicum argue, “coffee has always been the perfect complement to dehumanizing industrialization,” and no less has it been the perfect complement to dehumanizing deindustrialization.
Coffee keeps us awake, it keeps us alert, it lends our work habits a machine-like efficiency. In the kind of unwitting critique borne only of unreserved enthusiasm, Margaret Meagher, author of To Think of Coffee in 1942, aptly named the function of coffee today: “Coffee has expand[ed] humanity’s working-day from 12 to a potential 24 hours. The tempo, the complexity, the tension of modern life, call for something that can perform the miracle of stimulating brain activity, without evil, habit-forming after-effects.”
Today, global climate change has begun to threaten the production of this wonder drug. On our current trajectory, the amount of land suitable for coffee cultivation will be halved in 30 years and eliminated in 60. It is hard to imagine a world without coffee — especially for the 20 million rural families who currently depend on coffee cultivation for their livelihood. But then so too is it difficult to fathom the other myriad effects of capitalism’s self-erosion, most of which promise to be much more devastating than caffeine withdrawal.