The War on Coffee | The New Yorker


The first moral that this new literature brings out—a commodity that was a huge aid to the European Enlightenment was a huge drag on the people who made it—can be found as well in Antony Wild’s 2004 book, Coffee A Dark History.” Even Stewart Allen couldn’t conceal the truth that growing and harvesting coffee is luckless and backbreaking work. A built-in divide separates things we hunt and things we grow: hooking swordfish and netting tuna have been the subject of romances, since the erotic aura of the chase still attaches to them. But there’s nothing romantic about mass agriculture, no matter how prized its products are. Virgil’s Georgics—a propaganda poem ostensibly in praise of farming—makes plain that frugality, austerity, and repetition are the farmer’s civilization-supporting but lamentable lot.

But, far beyond the hardships of farming, the story that Sedgewick details (and Wild sketches) identifies a system of exploitation powered by fine-toothed gears. It is much like the story of sugar told by Sidney Mintz in his epoch-marking “Sweetness and Power,” from 1985: sweet are the uses of adversity, Shakespeare’s Duke says, and adverse are the sources of sweetness, Mintz replies. What sweetened the cup of Europeans was bitter to the people who produced it.

Extremely wide-ranging and well researched, Sedgewick’s story reaches out into American political history, not to mention the history of American breakfast, but it is mostly set in El Salvador, where a large-scale monoculture of coffee began, at the turn of the twentieth century, under the fiendishly brilliant direction of a British expat named James Hill. Originally from Manchester, the birthplace of the British industrial revolution, Hill, in the nineteen-twenties, imposed a program of modern serfdom on the indigenous Salvadoran people in order to grow coffee on an unprecedented scale. Recognizing that wages were of limited value to a peasantry who largely didn’t live within the cash economy, Sedgewick writes, Hill “used food rather than money to attract people” to work for him, “offering an extra half-ration, one tortilla and beans, for the completion of each task. The extra rations were always given as breakfast, which was a double incentive, for only workers who arrived at the plantations before 6 a.m. qualified for breakfast—serving stopped and work started at 6:00 sharp.” Hill had the Fitzcarraldo-like obsessiveness of the European in Latin America: he wouldn’t use child labor, but kids served as messengers between mill and plantation and were treated like something close to hostages, their welfare guaranteed as long as their parents worked; elderly people were recruited as spies, reporting on slackers among the working peasants.

Cartoon by Carol Lay

Sedgewick concedes that this program was less total than it might sound. Because coffee-growing was booming, peasants could usually find a marginally more humane deal in the next plantation. But given capitalism’s inclination to cancel competition rather than encourage it—a truth known to John Kenneth Galbraith as much as to Karl Marx—coffee was handed over to an oligarchy that had coalesced by the nineteen-thirties. Eventually, a legendary “fourteen families” came to dominate El Salvador’s coffee plantations, aided by a complicated program of American investment. When, in 1932, the peasants rose in a revolt, led by the Communist revolutionary Farabundo Martí, they were mowed down in the thousands, and their leaders, Martí included, were summarily executed. (A brigade of guerrillas fighting under Martí’s name bedevilled Ronald Reagan’s Central American policy fifty years later.)

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.

To be sure, Sedgewick recognizes that the actual history of caffeine and capitalist efficiency is more complicated than one might expect. Famous “rationalizers” of industrial work, including Frederick W. Taylor, saw coffee drinking as more distracting than energizing. Taylor, with his mechanistic take on human physiology, sided with the breakfast-cereal creators John Harvey Kellogg and C. W. Post, who had a dim view of coffee. At the same time, Sedgewick perhaps ascribes undue propagandistic power to the public-relations exercises of coffee producers. Like many radical historians, Sedgewick has a passionate feeling for detail, but lacks a sense of irony. Ordinary people saw through advertising campaigns then as readily as academic historians see through them now. No one, hearing that Chock Full o’Nuts is the heavenly coffee, has ever thought it actually was.

Sedgewick’s approach can seem dutifully leftist, but the evidence suggests that socialist models of production have hardly humanized the demands of agricultural labor. The problem, it emerges, is of a planetary enslavement to a monocrop existence. Agriculture, practiced on a mass scale, is the original sin of modernity. As Morris’s history of coffee emphasizes, Vietnam, after its victory against the United States, made itself one of the world’s chief producers of coffee, harvesting vast amounts of cheap robusta, first for the Soviet dependencies in Eastern Europe and then for a global market, with peasant labor and horrific environmental degradation of the country’s highland coffee farms. Whatever else this was, it was clearly not an issuance of capitalist hegemony.

Sedgewick, in a tradition of protest literature rooted more in William Blake than in Marx, sees mankind chained to a treadmill of obedience leading only to oblivion. His book is filled with nostalgic glimpses of prelapsarian Central America, the Eden before Columbus and Hill, and he concludes with a vision of a new order in which “food sovereignty” will emerge as “a direct rebuke to the core order of the modern world . . . pulling up the root of the international coffee economy, cutting off the principal mechanism of long distance connection between people who work coffee and people who drink coffee.” Communities in rural El Salvador will then be left alone to attend to the business of eating and feeding, “picking wild fruit, tending tomatoes and blackberries, cultivating corn and beans, raising chickens, hunting and fishing, cooking with family, feeding children, sharing with neighbors, welcoming friends, eating anytime, and going back for more, again.”

A milder, milkier case against coffee advances from another front in Michael Pollan’s new audiobook, “Caffeine” (Audible). After the evangelical, psychedelic enthusiasms of his last book, “How to Change Your Mind,” he proves to be ambivalent about the jumping bean. Accepting the life-enhancing and surprisingly medicinal effects of coffee, he also relates how, in his own experience, breaking a coffee addiction can be a step toward self-discovery: it was the coffee that was waking up and doing all that writing. He sees it as a wonder energy drug—cocaine for the masses—but, where others have taken the coffeehouses of Europe primarily as seedbeds for the Enlightenment, he, like Sedgewick, focusses on caffeine’s role in the regimentation of work. For all the good it does us, Pollan argues, coffee is also ruining our sleep. The caffeine addict—king or commoner—must decide whether sleep may be a more powerfully salubrious remedy than the coffee that ends it.


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