The dark side of coffee

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?


  1. Who Cares says

    Is the tea they drink deficient in caffeine?

    It does depend a bit on how you drink coffee or tea but standard tea has 1/2 the caffeine that standard coffee has.
    See here, link, under tea varieties and coffee varieties

  2. Ridana says

    And yet USians are only 25th in per capita consumption at a paltry 4.2 kg a year. Even Canada (10th) far outstrips us at 6.5 kg. But nobody comes close to the Nordics, who, along with Netherlands, take the top 6 spots, with Finland’s prodigious 12 kg a year running away with it.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that I don’t know enough to dispute the author’s assertions, but it seems very limited. The reason the Nordics took up coffee so enthusiastically purportedly had to do with prohibitions on alcohol, not an effort to make them more productive. And of course it’s been important in Arab countries for hundreds of years, with religious roots and significance in the past.

    So given the various ways and reasons coffee has embedded itself in cultures around the world, I think I’m not ready to look at it as a capitalist plot to addict worker bees and exploit the peasants. How it’s grown and marketed and manipulated to me is a separate issue from coffee’s emotional and physical effects on humans wherever they are. Or maybe I missed the point of the article. 🙂

  3. lorn says

    Sounds like BS to me. I drink coffee. Have since I was a child. Some days I drink a pot of it. Other days, none at all. Most a couple of cups. Used to be coffee was everywhere, and cheap. Often free. In construction it used to be consumed by everyone in the morning. Now most of the younger guys drink soda. Even on cold mornings. Yuk.

    I grew up in navy towns and the military runs on coffee. joke was if they developed a bomb that blew up the coffee and carbon paper the US military would be a pushover. The navy used it for more than just drinking. Leftover coffee is dumped on the deck where the heat and acid take off the top layers of wax. The moist grounds are used as an effective sweeping compound. It is also vital for qualifications for senior chiefs. They are required to prove they are salty enough to run the length of the DC deck with a full cup of coffee and not spill any.

    Sure coffee is massively consumed and slightly addictive, but this is also true of tea, and soda. Shall we throw in the other stimulant of choice, tobacco? All of them have massive infrastructures to keep profits high by keeping workers poor, regulations few, and consumers addicted to an image and lifestyle, if not the actual product.

    Of course Augustine Sedgewick is also pushing a product: his book. He will certainly sell many more because his topic plays on the common addiction to looking at life as a conspiracy and mainlining an emotional cocktail of outrage and self pity as you confirm what you always suspected. That they tricked you again, profited from your weakness and yet another aspect of your wider failure can be blamed on someone else.

  4. says

    First @ Lorn, No. 3… Thanks for the memories, you brought a smile to my face this morning. On board the Bainbridge (CGN 25) one our silly nautical superstitions was that you never washed the coffee pot on deployment, which meant that six to nine months might pass and the pot got really grotty.

    Second, tea, I was sent to an Australian frigate for a brief time to help with their weapon system and was introduce to Aussie Navy Tea: two bags in six ounces of water, two sugars and the mug topped of with milk. That’ll wake you up.

    Finally, Ian Flemming put these words in James Bond’s mouth:

    I don’t drink tea. I hate it. It’s mud. Moreover, it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire. Be a good girl and make me some coffee.

    For me, coffee is existential as demonstrated by the name of my blog. : )

  5. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    As a member of the World Champion team I can assure that in Finland drinking coffee is mostly a social thing. We have the same “I’ll put the kettle on” reflex as the British, we just make coffee, not tea. Same thing at work. Even if you get the first daily shot of coffee at home, as soon as you arrive to the workplace, you join the coffee table to plan the day and hear the latest gossip. I’m not sure if the caffeine actually is so important…

    The British drink tea, because it is a “domestic” product, i.e. it is produced in their colonies like India. The Russians are also heavy tea drinkers, because they grow their own tea. The coffee growing colonies were mostly in Latin America, which explains Spanish coffee drinking (and probably Italian as well). Finland has to import both, but we prefer coffee, because we’re not Russians.

  6. says

    hyphenman @#4

    Be a good girl and make me some coffee.

    This statement isn’t just rude, it is also sexist. Even when talking with a lady working in a canteen whose job is to provide food and drinks for other people, you should not tell her to “be a good girl.”

    On top of that, I know plenty of men in real life who feel entitled to demand women to make food or drinks for them just because the person who makes this request is male and the person who gets asked to prepare the drink is female. Even though I am a trans guy, some people have dared to ask me for coffee or tea in situations where they would never ask the same from a cis man. Such demands always annoyed me, because I am nobody’s servant and men are welcome to make their own coffee if they want it.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Some historian I read long ago -- Fernand Braudel, perhaps -- observed that when caffeine came to Europe, beer-drinking societies ended up quaffing tea and wine-drinkers took to coffee. If he(?) explained why, I don’t remember.

  8. says

    @Andreas Avester, No. 6

    I don’t recall anyone ever suggesting that Ian Fleming—and by association James Bond—was even remotely non-sexist.
    While the films have smoothed the character a bit, if you ever have occasion to watch the early movies you’ll see that Fleming’s attitudes toward women come though loud and clear.

  9. lorn says

    The proper response of a lady to being told to “Be a good girl and make me some coffee” is to brew up a nice fresh pot, pour a cup of steaming delight … and pour it into his lap. I think that is page 205. or is it 204, in the modern ladies charm school curriculum.

    That was the standard response for both of my sisters, and mother, to such condescension. How it is poured is a matter of how offended they felt. The range being between a simple sloppy mess and genital skin grafts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *