I wrote recently about an interview with food writer Michael Pollan about his latest book on how coffee works on the body and produces the addiction that so many of us have that makes need to have a cup first thing in the morning and for some of us to drink it throughout the day. In the April 27, 2020 issue of The New Yorker Adam Gopnik reviews several books that paint a somewhat darker picture of coffee as a tool of global capitalism.
Augustine Sedgewick’s “Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug” (Penguin Press), as the title announces, tells a story not very different from the kind that might be told of Colombian cocaine production and narco-terrorism, with another product that offers simulated energy to money-driven people. Coffee got produced by something like slavery and was then pushed on a pliant proletariat by big business and the Yanqui dollar. Americans, under the pressure of mass marketing and pseudo-scientific propaganda, have been encouraged to drink ever more coffee while the peasants of El Salvador suffer and die in the brutally efficient coffee monoculture promoted by plantation growers. Both North and Central America became “coffeelands”—a peasantry making the drug, a proletariat consuming it.
The originality and ambition of Sedgewick’s work is that he insistently sees the dynamic between producer and consumer—Central American peasant and North American proletarian—not merely as one of exploited and exploiter but as a manufactured co-dependence between two groups both exploited by capitalism. “Cravings” are not natural appetites but carefully created cultural diktats. Coffee is sold less to provide an individual with pleasure than to support an industry with a skillfully primed audience. The objective of capitalist coffee production, in Sedgewick’s view, was “the foreclosure of the possibility of unproductive eating, being, doing—ways of living that were not directly convertible into cash on the world market.” American workers were compelled to drink the stuff as Central American peasants were compelled to make it. The coffee lobby bought scientific studies to sell American industrialists on the notion that caffeine was the ideal productivity enhancer. One manufacturer served free coffee, because, according to an industry advertorial, it insured that workers would remain in peak form, keeping “the standard set by the early morning hours more nearly stable” for the rest of the day. If faith is the opiate of the masses, then coffee is their stimulant. Sedgewick suggests that profit-seeking bosses deliberately addicted American workers to the beverage, in ways that recall the drug industry’s dissemination of opioids to the same masses a century later.
While reading about coffee and caffeine addiction, something puzzled me. I have mentioned that I have a fondness for British television series, especially their police procedurals, and one of the things that are a staple of those stories is that people seem to be always, always, drinking tea. Whenever anyone comes to someone else’s home, even if it is the police investigating a crime, “I’ll put the kettle on” is pretty much the first thing that the resident says and then they all sit about drinking tea. So the British (and also the people in Australia and New Zealand that seem to have the same habit) should be caffeine-addicted but I have never heard of it being a serious problem, causing symptoms of hyper-caffeination. Is the tea they drink deficient in caffeine?