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By Joseph Heathcott


The Montréal Review, January 2015


Eight O'Clock Coffee (1935) by Ralph Steiner. (Image source: MoMA, Photo Courtesy Estate of Ralph Steiner)


I had my first taste of coffee from a glass mug featuring a Mercator projection map of the world.  I was ten years old, seated at my grandparents' kitchen table.  Grandma had ordered the mugs sometime in the early 1970s from Life magazine, which advertised them as a promotional offering from the Nestle corporation.  Through the obloid glass, the scalding hot coffee looked like weak tea, and it offered only the barest hint of flavor.  Quality was beside the point.  It was all about getting grandpa ready for his long shift hauling freight in semi-truck and trailer.  

Despite drinking from such a worldly cup, our sense of coffee remained close to home.  Like most working families in the 1970s, we had plenty of other things to worry about.  Living paycheck to paycheck, we had neither the time nor inclination to ponder the role of coffee in shaping global politics, economies, and cultures.  Coffee came in a big red tin from a shelf at Wesselman's Grocery Store three blocks away, along with Wonder Bread, Emgee Bacon, and Carnation Evaporated Milk.  For us, a dim sense of faraway places traveled on the smell of brewing coffee, but the beverage's deep affect drew us inward across that small kitchen table.  It was part of how we related to one another as a family.  (So were cigarettes, beer, and yelling, but that's another story). 

Over the past two decades, a vocal alliance of global south activists, student groups, labor unions, and fair trade advocates has succeeded in raising greater awareness around the origins of the goods we consume.  As a result, we have become increasingly aware of the geopolitical footprint that our consumptive habits create.  More and more we ask: what is this stuff we're drinking?  Where did it come from, and how did it get to our table?  To what are we bound through its consumption, and to whom?  As we drink cup after cup of coffee, we ingest a universe of transnational relationships spanning centuries and continents, grounded in extractive exchanges powered by capital and technology.  If we want to understand these relationships in the present, and to imagine alternatives for the future, our morning cup of coffee is one place to start.

Coffee and routes of trade

The origin myths of coffee consumption are as bucolic as they are apocryphal.  One day, as the story goes, an Ethiopian shepherd named Kaldi noticed that his goats became stimulated after eating the berries of a particular tree.  He took his observation to a nearby Coptic monastery, where the monks experimented with brewing the berries.  The result, however crude, was coffee.  Meanwhile, apothecaries in Abyssinia and Arabia had been prescribing the chewing of coffee berries for medicinal purposes for centuries. But humble herders and canny healers belie the material histories that brought coffee into world political prominence.  While pastoral myths reassure us and help us to make sense of the food on our table, they map awkwardly onto the longue-durée of coffee's place in the world--a reality marked by aggressive trade systems, metropolitan expansion, colonial subjugation, warfare, slavery, and botanical colonialism.

In the ninth century, Sufi travelers from Yemen encountered coffee berries during their proselytizing among the Tigray and Amhara people in the highlands of Ethiopia.  Highlanders had long perfected boiling and crushing the berry of the coffee tree to increase the potency of the extract, a practice imported to the Arabian peninsula around 900 c.e. by Islamic natural scientists such as Hippocrates student Abu Bakr Mohammad ibn Zakariya El Razi (Ukkers 1922: 11-12).  By the 1400s in Yemen, coffee was a principal item of leisure consumption, and by the sixteenth century Ottoman Turks were roasting, grinding, and brewing the bean of the coffee berry through methods still very much in use today (Allen 2003; Pendergast 2010: 3-4).  Travelers from Western and Southern Europe to Istanbul, Damascus, and Cairo marveled at the inky black liquid served in steaming hot cups from tiny stalls in the bazaar.  The beverage seemed to power the ecstasies of Sufi mystics and to fuel the grandiloquence of poets and court orators (Pendergast 2010: 5-8).  Accompanied variously by sugar, cardamom pods, finely chopped pistachio, or lemon peel, many purists consider the gritty Turkish-Arabic coffee to be unsurpassed by any subsequent innovation.  

Through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, coffee was one among many commodities enmeshed in intricate networks of trade that concentrated in Mediterranean port cities (Gilbert and Reynolds 2005; Freedman 2009).  On the northern side of the sea, Armenian, Greek, and Jewish brokers in Constantinople bought coffee directly from the woven sacks of Arabian caravan merchants, in turn selling the beans to Turkish, Portuguese, Genoan, and Dutch traders.  Along the southern rim of the sea, Egyptian caravans hauled coffee from Alexandria to Tripoli, Tunis, the Maghreb, even as far as Moorish Iberia.  Meanwhile, coffee made its way into the interior of Europe along the old Roman roads that linked the port cities of Venice, Genoa, and Marseilles with such upland destinations as Lyon, Strasbourg, Paris, Munich, and Vienna (Hattox 1985).  And Yemeni merchant ships brought coffee and its cultivars to the Swahili coast of East Africa.  

Trade both satisfied and further stoked Western aristocratic tastes for "exotic" consumables by the seventeenth century, prompting competition among European powers for control of transylvan and transoceanic markets in coffee, tea, sugar, chocolate, pepper, saffron, indigo, cinnamon, cloves, and other comestibles.  European governments sponsored grand bioprospecting adventures, sending merchants and scientists around the globe in search of botanic specimens--including various strains and cultivars of coffee (Schiebinger 2007: 73-82; Hochstrasser 2007: 169-174).  Of course, the various European states fought one another over grave matters of faith and land, but nearly all wars--religious and otherwise--included struggles to control trade.  After all, trade was paramount to sovereignty and power.  Over time, the European demand for resources to power this global competition over commodity chains constituted one of the great motive engines of colonialism.

By the end of the eighteenth century, a hyper-militarized system of slaving, colonization, convict labor, and botanical appropriation was reshaping the world, sending millions of human beings, hundreds of millions of pounds of coffee and billions of pounds of sugar into worldwide circulation.  These commodities flowed from far-flung colonies like Yemen, Haiti, Jamaica, Brazil, Java, and Algiers, into the ports of Amsterdam, Marseilles, London, New York, and New Orleans.  Coffee, along with tea and rum, emerged as one of the great transnational beverages, commanding substantial portions of the earth's resources, and powering the early mercantile economies.

Colonies and capitalism

I said that I had my first cup of coffee when I was ten years old.  I had my first good cup of coffee when I was fourteen.  It was on a trip to Clearwater, Florida with my grandparents who, like many working class families, spent their annual one-week vacation in the same town in the same motel.  The motel was a utilitarian affair owned by a Greek couple with whom my grandparents had grown close over the years.  This couple spoiled me with strange confections, accompanied by an oily, sweet, swirling black sludge that they called coffee.  Being from the Midwest, I wasn't used to putting things in my mouth that had flavor.  This coffee had flavor.  It was an eye-opener, both literally and figuratively. It came in a tiny white ceramic cup, which made the coffee look like ink.  The cup didn't have a map of the world on it, but the brew it contained tasted like the world. 

Of course I didn't know it then, but the warm rush of flavor that washed over me, those aromatic hydrocarbons, featured heavily in the dramas of world trade. They comprised the repeating and dispersing molecular compounds that had long catalyzed desire into global relations of power and dominion.  The affect of coffee fueled expanding networks of exchange, the search and conquest of terroir, and colonial rule on a grand scale.  Meanwhile, nascent within expanding markets and colonial adventure was the emergent system we call capitalism.  In fact, the rise of markets long predates the rise of capitalism.  A market is a mode of exchange, a mentalité, manifested in conceptual spaces where the value of things takes on utterance and life, and in material spaces where people negotiate that value through trade.  This exchange can exist within a range of economic orders, though it is rarely if ever "free" of political control.   Capitalism, on the other hand, is a system in which the ownership of capital--land, machines, physical plant--governs the relations of production and shapes the contours of markets with the imprimatur of the state. 

Early global markets evolved with the multiplication of trade circuits, such as the Silk Road, powered by trade and monsoon winds or animal caravans.  In the 1300s, large, cosmopolitan markets sprang up in towns throughout coastal Europe, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean basin, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, the Maghreb, East Africa, India, and China.  Much of this early trade centered on spices, but also included textiles, jewelry, precious metals, and slaves (Freedman 2009).  These centers of exchange developed alongside older systems of production such as feudalism, pastoralism, tithe and tribute.  Meanwhile, European colonialism arose in the sixteenth century primarily as a relentless state-sponsored search for new wealth.  But the kingdoms and duchies of Europe were rent-seeking regimes, not capitalists per se; they required constant injections of wealth to finance wars of territorial expansion closer to home (Tilly 1992: 91-95).  To affect this search, monarchs expanded and militarized the scope of resource extraction across the globe, which in turn brought them into still greater conflict with each other, which required more capital, thus fueling further colonization (Tilly 1992: 84-90). 

The wealth sought by these monarchic states became the primitive capital of an emerging European political economy.  Initially, the plunder was its own reward.  But by the seventeenth century the gold, silver, rare food crops, and slaves became vital primitive capital, underwriting military ventures among the warring houses of Europe.  Meanwhile, settler colonialism transformed appropriated land in the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Indies into monocultural plantations under varying regimes of forced or coerced labor (Fasseur 1994; Norton 2010; Ghachem 2012).  Through these processes, great wealth accrued to the suppliers of colonialism based in (and building) the burgeoning towns--the slave traders, merchants, wholesalers, lawyers, shippers, boat builders, manufacturers, and inventors--who were able to launder imperial bloodletting into new entrepreneurial ventures (Tilly 1996: 52-64, 68-72).  The formation of the East India Company (1600) and the Dutch East India Company (1602) marks a moment of transition to the state-chartered form of corporate maritime capitalism, supported by a growing appetite for liberal governance (Roy and Das 2012; Stern 2012). Indeed, the metropolitan bourgeoisie and their settler colonial counterparts began to assert themselves as an independent class, crafting novel political arrangements such as limited suffrage, state charters, leagues and parliaments that would favor their control of capital.

The commodities that these imperial cartels brought to the metropolitan table proved catalytic.  Coffee was just one among many new and exciting imports that accompanied this expansion of colonialism to the corners of the globe.  The British eagerly consumed tea from India, Ceylon, and China, while Spain dominated the importation of maize and chocolate from Mexico (Bowen 2008; Norton 2010).  Omani Sultans, later joined by Portuguese, German, and British military occupations, converted the Swahili coast into a massive export platform, a waterside slave plantation for the production of highly sought-after spices (Sheriff 1987).  Meanwhile, Italy and France parlayed proximity to Mediterranean shipping routes into dominion over the trans-European trade in coffee.  The Dutch employed coerced labor and expropriated land in Sumatra and Java to power their now industrial-scale commodity production in spices and coffee (Fasseur 1994: 26-28).  By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coffee was a commodity deeply enmeshed in colonial systems of labor coercion, land appropriation, resource extraction, and commodity trade.  Coffee was at the leading edge of a colonial system of exploitation that, in numerous guises, persists today.

Coffee figured in numerous European wars of the Modern period.  British dominance of Far East trade, for example, distorted the commodities available to France, Italy, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.  There, coffee assumed a dominant place in consumer cultures for little other reason than proximity to the Mediterranean base of trade.  Portugal and the Dutch states (Holland, Zeeland, Orange) continuously clashed over shared trade routes across the Indian ocean, with Britain entering the fray by the 1800s.  When the Dutch were banished from Mediterranean commerce by the French, the great Hanseatic companies expanded colonial efforts in the East Indies, establishing a thriving economy of plantation production based on coerced labor (Tilly 1992; Krondl 2008).  By the Napoleonic era, coffee had become one of the key commodities in world markets increasingly dominated by warring colonial powers.

Brewing insurgents and nations

However embroiled in imperial belligerence, coffee has always been a beverage laden with the affect of sociability (Simon 2011: 82-119).  The nature of this affect, and the raiment of social forms it creates, shifts with changing geographic and historical registers.  In the post-industrial Midwest city where I grew up, coffee occupied and shaped particular affective spaces: the home, the diner, the truck stop, the union hall.  Coffee enveloped us in our ritual exertions at the wake, the PTA meeting, the VFW dinner, and the YMCA pancake breakfast.  In the small, grimy auto repair shop, burnt coffee was the smell of waiting for the right front fender to be fixed.   At the church rectory, it was the smell of card games and bingo and counting money.  What we did not have in this post-industrial city was a coffee shop.  That kind of space--a space of leisure, idle consumption, dubious productivity--was not only absent, but unthinkable.   It was not until I went to college in St. Louis, a city awash in coffee shops, that I could join the grand tradition of café life, however ersatz or provincial.

While originally brewed in homes, the institution of public coffee consumption emerged as early as the 15th century with the rise of the coffee house in the Near East (today's Turkey and Syria).  First seen in great port cities such as Istanbul, Tripoli, and Alexandria, coffee houses quickly spread through the imperial trade routes of the Ottoman Empire (Hattox 1985).  Purveyors set up shops as far West as the Almohad Caliphate of Morocco and Southern Spain, and as far East as Mesopotamia and Persia.  Often these early shopkeepers were connected by kinship to brokers and seafaring merchants, and were themselves sojourners into new lands--Armenians, Jews, Greeks, and Syrians living abroad.  Consequently, the history of the coffee house as an institution has long been intertwined with suspicion of cosmopolitanism, fear of foreign influence, and moral panic.

Through the 16th and 17th centuries the coffee house spread to the cities of Central and Western Europe, reaching Marseilles by 1644 and Paris by 1657.  In 1650, the first British coffee house opened in Oxford, where the beverage was referred to as "Turkes Berry Drinke."  The proprietor, "a certain Jew from Lebanon" named Jacob, sold coffee, chocolate, and ale to eager university students (Ukkers 1922: 31, 41-42).  The first coffee house in London, established in 1652 in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill, resulted from a business arrangement between two servants.  A merchant named Edwards acquired a coffee habit in Turkey, and brought back to London a Greek lad from Dalmatia, Pasqua Rosee, to prepare his brew.  Eventually, Edwards gave Rosee permission to open a coffee house with a Mr. Bowman, who was coachman to Edwards' son-in-law (Ukers 1922: 58).  In Paris, coffee was more commonly served by street vendors, a practice that persisted well into the eighteenth century.  In 1672, however, an Armenian named Pascal accompanied the Ottoman ambassador to Paris, where he set up a coffee stand at the St. Germain fair.  Rather than return to Istanbul, Pascal remained in Paris and opened the first coffee shop on the Quai de l'Ecole, near the Pont-Neuf (Ukers 1922: 92-93).

Once established in Europe, coffee houses quickly became associated with deviance and sedition.  Indeed, one the great ironies of coffee's long career is its adoption into early modern drug culture--particularly by bourgeois subversives and revolutionaries (Schivelbusch 1993: 72-75; Cowan 2011: 31-36).  Colonial expansion by the monarchic states brought coffee back to the metropole, where eager young plebian intellectuals and radicals clamored for the beverage in coffee houses throughout Paris, Florence, Budapest, Istanbul, Vienna, Berlin, and London.  As the appetite for liberty and self-government swelled, revolutionary fervor spread through the cities and towns of Europe, abetted by the printing press and the coffee house.  Paris alone had over 3000 cafés by the end of the 18th century--one shop for every 200 people (Haine 1998: 3-4). 

As coffee became increasingly linked to radicalism and moral deviance, insecure governments perennially raided or closed down cafés. In 1675, for example, King Charles II of England issued a 'Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses,' where "divers, false, malicious, and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of His Majesty's Government, and to the disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm."  While the decree was revoked within three weeks due to massive protests, authorities continued to keep a watchful eye on the coffee houses of London, filling them with informants and spies (Cowan 2011: 193-202).  The beans in the bag may have been colonial gold, but the brew's aroma carried the scent of revolution. 

Meanwhile, pamphlets printed by the thousands launched salvos for and against coffee.  These rancorous disputes pitted various commercial interests against each other, and often revealed underlying moral anxiety over changing gender and class roles (Cowan 2011: 246-254).  Social clubs and trade groups held debates over the merits and demerits of coffee, and beer brewers launched public relations campaigns to get men out of coffee shops and back into taverns (Schivelbusch 1993: 39-45).  A Women's Petition Against Coffee published in London in 1674 argued that "coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle of water."  Nearly two centuries later in post-revolutionary France, Honoré de Balzac (1981) summed up the importance of coffee to the intelligentsia in his Treatise on Modern Stimulants: "As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion.  Ideas begin to move...similes arise, the paper is covered.  Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle."

Somewhere around the middle of the eighteenth century, an insignificant young creole colony in the Americas rejected tea as a British imperial conceit, as its consumption was heavily taxed to support the global expansion of the Union Jack.  Tossing the tea into Boston harbor, these revolting republicans embraced coffee to the young national bosom, allying with their bourgeois cousins in France who were gearing up to defy their own king (Breen 2005: 222-236; 314-317).  At the time, much of the coffee imported to the colonies came from French plantations in the Caribbean, though by the end of the 19th century the United States would turn to Brazil, Guatemala, and Columbia for its caffeine fix (Tucker 2010: 58-59).

Meanwhile, French colonial authorities oversaw the slave-labor production of coffee in Haiti and other West Indian outposts.  The substantial wealth of the Ancien Régime relied not only on land rent in France, but also on the Atlantic trade in slaves, sugar, coffee, and other 'commodities' (Ghachem 2012).  However, at the end of the 1700s, the French state was besieged in the colonies by plantation uprisings, and in the metropole by bourgeois revolt--not to mention expensive military adventures up and down the Mississippi River (Doyle 2001: 50, 72-73).  Hundreds of coffee shops in Paris, Port au Prince, New Orleans, and Montreal found themselves short on their principal input--the coffee bean.  Likewise, the weakening of trade links among Italian ducal families from infighting as well as from increased British and Dutch competition resulted in a general decline in the availability of coffee.  Europe and America slid into one big caffeine withdraw headache that no amount of tea could overcome.

Technology and the mass culturing of coffee

In time I came to depend upon coffee through a process that medical experts term "addiction"; with its elegant xanthine alkaloid structure, the caffeine molecule had truly captured my devotion (Weinberg 2002).  But how my drug of choice actually made it to my cup was always a mystery.  What I knew of coffee's origins came from watching Juan Valdez and his telegenic donkey scour the slopes of a Columbian mountain for perfectly ripe beans.  Originally a marketing scheme created in 1959 by the Columbian Coffee Growers Association, Valdez became a global branding icon--almost a metonym for coffee itself (Reina et al 2011).  The televised Valdez, ably played by actor Carlos Sanchez from 1969 until his retirement in 2006, performed the pitch-perfect Madison Avenue legerdemain--selling the sizzle rather than the steak (Luttinger and Dicum 2006: 76-77).  In the process, this dramatis persona neatly obscured the world politics, labor practices, and commodity chains that make our morning cup possible. The modern phantasm of the contented Columbian peasant clothed coffee is an agrarian myth, like using a cartoon pig to sell bacon or a Native American corn maiden to sell margarine.

The rise of industrial capitalism gradually eroded the authoritative resources of old European aristocracies.  The revolutions, insurgencies, and civil wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries periodically disrupted the flows of trade, resulting in a continuous push for greater and greater efficiencies and economies of scale through the application of industrial design.  As supply waned and prices climbed, inventors clamored to apply the new technologies of industry to squeeze more value from each coffee bean (Ukers 1922: 621-640).  At the turn of the nineteenth century, capitalists employed French and Italian engineers to produce machines and physical plant to extract the most value from the least amount of raw coffee.  Beginning in 1802, inventors lodged a fury of patents in Paris and New York for lowering the costs of producing a cup of coffee.  These machines intervened in all stages of coffee, from the point of production to the point of distribution to the point of processing and preparation for consumption. By the mid-nineteenth century, German engineers--considered the finest in Europe--had grown especially inventive, given German dependence on leftover coffee from weakened Mediterranean markets.  New products appeared regularly in catalogues and department stores, from begins and percolators to filter pots, recirculators, hydrostatic vases, vacuum pots, plungers and presses (Fumagalli 1995). 

Over the course of the nineteenth century, then, colonial wars introduced market scarcities, which drove up prices, which stimulated technological innovations.  The higher the costs of these technological innovations, the more prone they were to assuming capital status.  Rapidly, the bulky dryers, roasters, and steam-driven engines of coffee production became means of production, integrated into the singular, relentless mode of production sweeping the nineteenth–century globe: industrial capitalism.

Meanwhile the advent of steam-powered shipping in the second half of the nineteenth century gradually freed transoceanic shipping from dependence on prevailing winds, making delivery faster and more predictable.  Coupled to the rapid expansion of railroads, more and more coffee reached more and more households in Europe, South America, and the United States (Tucker 2010: 44).  John Folger of San Francisco developed an intricate bulking, processing, and distribution system to produce a more uniform product that could be hurled across the country at astonishing speed.  Brooklyn-based Arbuckle Brothers, Inc., founded in 1865, introduced industrial-scale roasting and small consumer-end packaging (Ukers 1922: 523-525).  Upstart national chain grocery stores like the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company--otherwise known as A&P--purveyed Mr. Folger's coffee on a truly mass scale.  Cafés, restaurants, and hotels routinely served the beverage to customers, and industrial and trade expositions featured the new fangled machinery for home brewing. 

By the late nineteenth century, then, coffee was no longer a luxury good; it had become a staple household item of the burgeoning middle class.  During World War I, American food scientists and industrial engineers succeeded in developing a soluble coffee that could be dissolved in hot water to make "instant" coffee for the troops on the front lines.  A flurry of patents followed through the 1920s for processes to manufacture and package soluble coffee for peacetime American consumers (Ukers 1922: 389).

Coffee underwent the same transformation as most commodities in the long nineteenth century, where technology, capital, and mass marketing increasingly alienated consumers from the process of production.  For hundreds of years, coffee had arrived to port cities in sacks that traced their origin from particular plots with particular ecological and climatic conditions.  As the demand for coffee rose and its production expanded and intensified, coffee beans became increasingly 'liquid'--a commodity much like grain that could be widely sourced, aggregated, stored in giant silos, repackaged through industrialized processes, and retailed through mass consumer markets (Cronin 1992: 104-128).  By the end of the nineteenth century, coffee, like wheat and sugar, came to be integrated into the commodity futures markets, securitized, derived, and traded against other commodities at the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange (Ukers 1922: 527-538). 

As more and more goods traveled greater and greater distances from field to factory to family table, consumers grew anxious about their disconnection from the products they imbibed.  To calm these fears and to broaden the appeal of coffee, the emerging apparatus of mass marketing successfully repackaged coffee within a mythic complex--a kind of therapeutic tonic for Modern disquiet (Marchand 1985: 352-363; Lears 1995: 102-103).  Skillfully executed advertisements from the 1920s juxtaposed romantic scenes of full-masted sailing ships with casual, companionate North American families calmly imbibing their after-dinner coffee.  By the 1950s and 1960s, advertisers tapped into the deep well of the American agrarian imaginary, promoting coffee as a wholesome product of earth's bounty harvested by contented peasants (who, incidentally, would never dream of joining communist insurgencies).  Ironically, the actual monocultural-industrial system of commodity production tended to obliterate the smallholder agrarian world cherished by metropolitan consumers and to provoke the very proletarian insurgencies obscured through advertising (Williams 1986).

Sipping coffee around our small kitchen table, however, these visions of agrarian utopia cut several ways.  My grandparents were part of the great rural to urban migration of twentieth century America.  For generations, their families drifted between farm labor, sharecropping, and coal mining in Kentucky and Tennessee, until heading north to work in the factories and mills of Evansville, Indiana.  So my grandparents seldom looked back on rural life with nostalgia.  For them, access to commodities like coffee underscored the benefits of living in a city.  At the same time, they harbored abiding connections to rural landscapes and imaginaries, whether in the country music they constantly played, the neighborhoods where they lived cheek-by-jowl with other refugees from the South, or the return trips to their ancestral homes.  Coffee accompanied them on these journeys, fused with the tinny sound of Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash on AM radio, truck stops, roadside picnics, hot weather, and monotonous rows of corn and tobacco.  Most every break in the routine unfolded to the acrid smell of coffee poured out of a large red plastic thermos.  Together, we partook in what science writers Bennett Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer (2002) called "the endless simmer" of coffee in twentieth century America.

Trade and neocolonialism 

Co-incidentally, the industrial transformations of agrarian worlds that pushed my grandparents away from their rural homeland also reshaped the circuits of the coffee they drank every day.  Large factory farms had made life precarious for my grandparents' people, uprooting them from their smallholds and shanties in the Upland South.  Similar processes transformed land, reshaped agricultural production, and dislocated populations in many of the world's coffee regions, especially Brazil--today the world's largest exporter of coffee (Font 1990; Luna and Klein 2012: 6-17, 53-55).  While inventors perfected the extraction process for home brewing and the advertising industry cannily obscured the networked machinery that brought the beverage to market, coffee beans as a commodity grew evermore enmeshed in an interdependent world system of agro-business, trade relations, and political power (Lucier 1988; Paige 1998: 259-264).  The result, for us, was an affordable cup of coffee.   

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, colonialism continued its rent-seeking, ancien regime habits as its curators ferried soldiers, sailors, and goods across the globe.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, colonialists and capitalists worked in dynamic tension; colonial adventures established export platforms for the flow of commodities and resources to metropolitan centers, where industrial capitalists converted them into value-added goods.  The systems were, for a time, largely interdependent; capitalists relied on the imperial state for access to raw materials and military protection, while colonial enterprises relied on capitalists for access to markets and taxable wealth.  Colonialism and capitalism were mutually constitutive and reinforcing, even while they relied on different visions for control of markets, organization of labor, terms of trade, and the role of the state. 

Colonialism generated enormous wealth, but it was largely tributary, locked into quasi-religious ethno-hierarchical pathways of power and control. In key respects colonialism stood in the way of full-blown capitalism because it concentrated wealth in hereditary accounts rather than liquefying wealth into investment streams to serve the ends of capital formation.  In the end, insurgent republican capitalists triumphed not by destroying colonialism, but by absorbing it—capitalism was a more ruthless and efficient way to organize the overhead of trade, more so when its advocates seized control of the state, slashed the immense expenditures of noblesse oblige governance, and displaced the costs of social reproduction fully onto workers and their families.  Nevertheless, the colonial tendency toward 'latifundia' (rent monopoly) in many Central and South American counties ensured the maintenance of traditional elites and migratory, harvest-dependent labor well into the twentieth century (Cockroft et al 1972; Brockett 1998).

After two world wars and a global economic depression, advocates for capitalism and free trade saw an opportunity to restructure the world economy toward even greater access to raw materials, markets, and finance.  In the decade following World War II, the newly created "Bretton Woods Institutions" of global financial governance--the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization)--reconstituted the basic architecture of colonialism through the political, military, and economic ramparts of North-South relations.  Indeed, the Bretton Woods institutions established the legal infrastructure and military policing of international trade in products ranging from oil to automobiles to electronics to coffee along ancient lines of imperial extraction.  And for much of the second half of the twentieth century, the World Bank and IMF pursued policies such as structural adjustment, privatization of state sectors, and export platform development that materially debited farmers, workers, and landless families in most coffee-producing countries (Robinson 2008: 18-21, 38-42; Kingston 2012: 124-124; 137-138).

Countries such as Brazil and Columbia made repeated attempts to form coffee cartels to control supply.  These moves provoked outrage among Washington D.C. politicians, who accused the countries of threatening the American Way of Life with Communist tactics.  Congress held a series of hearings on coffee prices in the 1950s, and the Eisenhower administration formed a Coffee Study group to pursue solutions, made up of representatives from General Foods, Maxwell House, Folgers, and other major corporations with interests in coffee (Luttinger and Dicum 2006: 78-83).  The U.S. government succeeded in keeping the prices of coffee and other imports down by exerting its influence on the IMF loan terms and threatening to withhold military aid to Latin American regimes.  For Washington, the central goal was to cultivate export platforms that would provide continual access to cheap raw materials (Talbot 2004: 54-55).  Such residual colonial relations were rendered particularly clear when world commodity prices for tea, sugar, wheat, maize, sisal, bananas, and coffee collapsed in the late 1970s and again in the late 1990s, further impoverishing Third World producers to the benefit of Northern consumers (Paige 1998: 18-24, 76-95).

While prices for raw commodities plunged, the quest for higher profits, the skyrocketing cost of fuel, and elite land consolidations in Central and South America kept prices relatively stable for the U.S. consumer, except for occasional spikes due to crop failures (Lucier 1988).  Throughout the early 1970s, a cup of coffee at the Knotty Pine café held steady at 25 cents with free refills.  I often went to the Knotty Pine with grandma to meet one of her many social groups--the card club, the ladies' auxiliary, the Little Sisters of the Poor volunteers, or just the gals in the neighborhood.  Women with names like Patty, Thelma, Odell, Mary Frances, Wilma, Agnes, and Bea.  We could walk to the Knotty Pine; it was the closest diner to my grandparents' house, located on North Main across the street from an adult bookstore.  The diner actually featured knotty pine paneling, as well as a counter with stools, checker cloth covered tables, a cigarette machine, and surly waitresses with beehive hairdos.  They served breakfast all day, as well as lunches of liver and onions, brain sandwiches, pork chops, meatloaf, and navy bean soup.  But every meal, however light or full, greasy or spare, included coffee--a scalding hot cup of weak, burnt coffee.  It was the diner's staple beverage, and an essential ingredient in the ritual of diner fellowship.

Today, whether served at the Knotty Pine or the Louvre, coffee retains much of its colonial character.  While the conditions of coffee production and the circumstances of its consumption tend to be highly local and specific, it flows through world markets as an abstract commodity (Lucier 1988).  It might be produced on a capitalist plantation in Brazil, a smallholder farm in Kenya, or socialist cooperative in Mexico, and it might come to our table as a hastily poured swill or as an iced mocha latté.  But coffee still circulates as part of a system of commodity chains governed by long-established relations of power, which distort ownership, valuation, and wealth-creation in the favor of Northern corporate interests (Tucker 2010: 123-125).  There are very few coffee-producing countries whose output to world markets can match the value added through skillful advertising by Starbucks, Nestlé, and General Mills.  As of 2010, coffee shops comprise the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry in the U.S., and over 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed annually around the world (Tucker 2010: 4-5).  Coffee, like most globally traded commodities, circulates through a severely unbalanced world system of production and consumption, subject to the vicissitudes of global investment, floating currencies, crises of overaccumulation, transoceanic shipping cartels, and the rise and fall of democratic social movements and repressive post-colonial regimes (Verwimp 2003; Talbot 2004: 26-27).

Our morning cup

My grandfather was a gruff, broad-shouldered, tattooed man--once an orphan, a hobo, a truck driver, and a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.  He grew up in the Great Depression and came of age in the era of wartime rationing, so there were many times in his life when he didn't take a cup of coffee for granted--let alone a meal.  But when he settled down to raise a family in the decades following World War II, coffee was a readily available staple for the breakfast table, as grocers across America sold it cheaply by the pound.  And despite the volatility of world commodity markets, the price of a cup of coffee in the U.S. grew incrementally and steadily.  This predictability of prices for coffee and other commodities has been a boon to American families, a kind of global subsidization of the middle and working classes of North America and Europe.  For much of the second half of the twentieth century, families like ours could afford coffee, as well as the cars we used to drive to the grocery store to buy coffee, and the homes wherein we drank our coffee.  Coffee became a core part of the consumer republic.

But that affordable cup of coffee came at a steep price.  The very "free trade" policies that structured commodity pricing in favor of U.S. markets also created the conditions for the decline of the American working class: the globalization of finance, the development of flexible production and processing technologies, the routinization of container shipping, and the deterioration of unions unraveled the world we knew.  In 1982, after 42 years driving a truck, my grandfather lost his job when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  There simply wasn't have enough freight to haul anymore, since fewer good were manufactured in our city.  It was just one of thousands of companies to close up shop amid the crash of U.S.-based manufacturing.  At 60 yeas of age, Grandpa was too old by that time to find work elsewhere, so he took an early retirement.  At least on his union pension he could still afford his morning cup of coffee--no small comfort.

The food that we choose for our tables has a basis in real material-historic relations that span the globe.  While these relations are hidden by prices, advertisements, logos, and personal associations, our morning cup is nevertheless part of a long chain of events and processes, from capital investment and labor mobilization to resource extraction, energy input, processing, shipping, distribution, retail, and wealth accumulation (Talbot 2004: 6-8; Luttinger and Dicum 2006: 37-38).  

At each link in this long chain there are real environmental and labor costs to commodity consumption.  Coffee trees are nutrient intensive, and when planted in close proximity they have erosive effects on soil structure.  Processing and grading coffee uses high volumes of water; depending on the degree to which growers deploy herbicides and insecticides, the resulting graywater runoff concentrates toxins in the environment.  Shipping and transporting coffee, a heavy bulk commodity, consumes millions of gallons of petroleum annually, as does its mass packaging.  And at the consumer end, we rely on multiple resource inputs and subsidies to make an affordable cup of coffee, such as plastic for the coffee maker, glass for the carafe, copper for the electric wire, bleach paper for the filter, coal for the power, and the petroleum necessary to produce, refine, and transport these inputs. 

At each link in this long chain there are real people involved in real struggles over the terms of labor and consumption.  Coffee passes through dozens of "shop floors," from the plantations and processing plants to the docks, tankers, warehouses, freight trucks, retail stores and coffee shops (Luttinger and Dicum 2006: 38-52).  At every point where value is added to coffee, real people add that value--people who may live and work under onerous conditions, people with families and talents and individuality, people with joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams.  The affordable cup of coffee relies not only on neocolonial dependencies and cheap export platforms, but also on the suppression of earnings for hundreds of thousands of growers, factory workers, drivers, dockhands, roasters, and servers.

So coffee brings us into relationships--however imbalanced--with one another, and these relationships stretch across the globe.  But we do not readily and easily see one another; we gaze through a penumbra, floating amid a fog of obfuscations.  If we delineate the historic nature of these relationships, we can begin to see the people behind the processes, come to grips with our morning cup, and imagine alternatives.  Fair Trade is a start.  The movement emerged in the late 1960s in the handicraft sector, and was advanced considerably with the founding of Equal Exchange in 1986 and the Fair Trade Labeling Organization in 1997 (Tucker 2010: 128-129; Luttinger and Dicum 2006: 197-199).  But thus far the Fair Trade movement comprises a kind of boutique circuit within a system overwhelmingly geared toward uneven accumulation. Critics charge that Fair Trade has shifted from an "economic and social justice movement to largely a marketing model for ethical consumerism" (Haight 2011).  Meanwhile, multinational corporations have proven adept at appropriating the Fair Trade concept, focusing on bulk purchasing agreements while rejecting the political ethos of a cooperative smallholder democracy.

As for the thrill I felt when first sharing coffee with my grandpa, it was all about being included in the mystery of adulthood--a feeling I have always linked to the smell of coffee.  The beverage carries symbolic and affective meanings close to home--rites of passage, fellowship, community rituals, and habits of the heart.  My grandparents are both gone now.  But I still have one of their Nestle mugs with the frost-etched map of the world on it--an item that, for some reason, they felt worth keeping for a long time.  Without a dark beverage inside, its hard to see the world map.  When you pour coffee into the mug, the world stands out in sharp relief.  Coffee illuminates the world.


Joseph Heathcott is a writer, photographer, and educator based in New York, where he teaches at The New School.  His work has appeared in a wide range of venues, including Antioch Review, Camera Obscura, Metropolis, Folly Magazine, The Next American City, XCP Streetnotes, On Site Review, Cross Currents, City and Community, Winterthur Portfolio, and Art Documentation.



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