06 May 2008

Why do Marxists drink herbal tea?

I'm still getting the hang of being 'retired' (in the 'not working' sense of the word, rather than the 'rogue replicant' sense), and so found myself awake this morning at an ungodly hour and shambling downstairs to the slow food cafe to get a cappuccino, before navigating my way to the hammock on the balcony for a few hours of quiet contemplation. The cappuccino is a nasty habit that I picked up in work, and was hoping to abandon it as a daily ritual once I was removed from the hustle and bustle of working life, but alas this has not proved to be the case.

Coffee is an aberration in this country, an American import that appeared in the workplace at the same time as call centres and off-shored back-office support arrived to take advantage of the government's liberal corporate tax regime and an educated workforce hungry for a better life than emigration and the dole. Call centres are to the noughties in Ireland what factories were to the 20th Century and mills were to the 19th, and coffee has quickly become the fuel that powers the engines of Irish capitalism. Starbucks only opened in Ireland within the last three years, late to the market and just one of a dozen local and international coffee chains that have emerged to feed our new national addiction.

In Camber last weekend one of our neighbours dropped over to borrow some tea. Of course we had brought our own Barry's Tea ("Every day should have it's golden moments") with us as English tea is bland and tasteless, designed to be masked with copious amounts of milk and sugar before consumed. The neighbour (naturally) also turned out to be Irish, and when he asked where we were from we waved the box of Irish tea at him, an object more identifying than a passport (though less so than a packet of Tayto crisps), and I wondered how we were incapable of travelling outside the country without our tea, yet at home it is ignored in favour of dark rich roast from the Ethiopian highlands.

Reading Raj Patel's "Stuffed and Starved" recently has given me much to think about. Published originally last year well in advance, but predictive of, this years UN-recognised food crises, it is a damning expose of the global food system. Now that it is more widely available in paperback I strongly encourage everyone to read it to understand the true cost of cheap vegetables, why biodiesel is very bad, and what drove one Korean farmer to kill himself at the WTO meeting in Cancun in 2003. One eye-opener for me is Patel's analysis of the role that tea had in the development of a global food trading system and the creation of multinational capitalism and empire.

In the 18th century, tea had become an integral part of the diet of working class women, the main workforce in the urban factory environments. Previously beer and spirits has been part and parcel of the workday, with many workers being given a daily ration (the 'sot'). The move away from alcohol to tea was encouraged by both the rise of the Protestant Temperance movement, and by the factory owners themselves who saw the increase in productivity amongst manual workers that the highly caffeinated tea brought. As demand for tea increased, England reached out to secure overseas supply through the first multinational corporations (such as the British East India Company) and later by direct rule. The acquisition of oversees colonies gave rise to the growth of the plantations, and this lead directly to the creation of the slave trade to provide cheap labour in the plantations to supply cheap fuel to the workers of the industrial revolution.

Although Patel doesn't examine it, I was drawn to the significance of tea in the American revolution. Many of the founding fathers (Samuel Adams, John Hancock and others) grew wealthy from tea smuggling, importing tea directly from the Netherlands and bypassing UK import duties. In reaction to this the East India Company successfully lobbied Parliament to let them import tea directly to the colonies, with no UK import duties, significantly undercutting the cost of the smuggled tea on the market. Facing financial ruin Hancock organised a boycott of tea, and Adams and his Sons of Liberty attacked a tea bearing vessel of the East India Company in the now famous Boston Tea Party incident. Thus the American revolution was instigated by wealthy capitalist pirates who saw a threat to their profit margins.

But why was the tea so important to the colonists? Was it that the wealthy elite of Boston could not imagine life without their 3 o'clock tiffin? More likely it was because, as in England, mill and factory owners had come to rely on the productivity-enhancing affects that tea had on their downtrodden workforce and realised the long-term financial effects that rising tea costs would have on their workforce and its output.

While tea was the genesis of global capitalism, coffee has become the fuel of neoliberal ultra-capitalism. In my office there were a number of Gaggia cappuccino machines. Before you could use them you had to be trained by a qualified instructor, adding to their mystique. The machines were always positioned as a perk, but as in many companies the productivity boost provided by a steady supply of engineers hopped up on coffee and energy drinks is an unspoken and unmeasurable asset. After four years in the online advertising industry at least I have emerged as a qualified barista, and given the growth of coffee shops in Dublin to fuel the tiger-cub economy I should be thankful to always have this skill to fall back on.

If you examine global market prices you see something alarming. Rice has risen from $464.8/metric ton in February of this year to $907/mt in April. Rice provides over 20% of the calories for the global human population, and yet it has doubled in price in two months. Coffee on the other hand has dropped from $3.46/kg to $3.10/kg over the same period. As the majority of the world faces a food crisis on a monumental scale the cost of our coffee, even after the increased transportation costs due to oil topping $120/barrel, has actually fallen. As one who refuses to believe in the invisible hand of the market, the cynic in me sees a close correlation between the rising cost of oil (increased costs for business) and the drop in coffee prices (the need to get more productivity out of workers to compensate for increases in other costs).

As more pressure is placed on western workers, the demand for coffee increases, and more farmers in the majority word turn to cash-crops to feed this demand. While coffee and rice do not compete for the same land, the global move towards more and more cash crops for western consumption reduces the land available for subsistence farming and raises the prices of basic food necessities beyond the means of most, and this leads to widespread hunger on a global level.

Its hard to accept that my daily cappuccino is contributing directly to food riots in Somalia and Haiti, but it is.

(oh, and why do Marxists drink herbal tea? Because proper tea is theft)

Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved
The World Bank's Commodity Price Data (Pink Sheet)


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