Black Gold in the Past and Present

In the Times Literary Supplement, a review of a four volume collection of original sources on Eighteenth Century Coffee-House Culture, edited by Markman Ellis who has authored a cultural history of these ‘penny universities’ (The Coffee House: a cultural history). I’ve always been fascinated by the links  (see comments) between these cultural locations of information and exchange and tea shops in India, and the ways in which they act as good metaphors for much of the online world – see this presentation I once gave.

This review touches on this but also relates the past of the producers and consumers of coffee together in an enlightening way. I excerpt at length (missing out massive chunks of the article):

Two billion cups of coffee are drunk every day, globally. Coffee is now the second most widely traded commodity, after oil (the original black gold). The total value of all coffee traded last year has been estimated at $140 billion.The farmers harvesting their Mocha beans in Sidamo are sitting on a gold mine, but one whose value they are powerless to realize.

The world economy in coffee is controlled by four big multinationals – Kraft, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee – who are largely able to determine the price of coffee to their own advantage. The farmers – most of whom have tiny family farms – cannot sell direct to this market, but must go through middlemen – exporters who themselves take another sizeable chunk.

We are a long way from the coffee culture of the eighteenth century, which, we are supposed to believe, was a model for benign democratic activity. By 1750, there were probably more than 2,000 coffee houses in London, places where men went to read newspapers, smoke tobacco, conduct business, see friends and drink a murky brown liquid which went under the name of coffee.

Now that cultural history of the eighteenth century is dominated by the influence of Jürgen Habermas, the institution of the coffee house is generally treated as a prime example of the “public sphere” in action, what Habermas called “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed”.

Habermas himself categorized coffee houses as institutions offering “social intercourse” of a non-aristocratic, non-hierarchical kind, free and open debate and the inclusion of all-comers (assuming that they were men). As the cultural historian Markman Ellis writes, in Eighteenth-Century Coffee-House Culture, the British coffee house, a “heady combination of news, literature, debate and writing”, was “the central locus of newly egalitarian practices of discussion and conversation, including forms of structured discourse, such as lectures and debates, as well as unregulated discourse, such as gossip and chatter”.

Now, we are still getting a terrible deal (two pounds for something that costs next to nothing to produce) but no one can claim they are being ripped off. If anything, the situation has become reversed. The consumer, assuming he or she has two pounds to burn, can buy themselves a cup of coffee which is wonderfully pure, pre-selected for taste by hundreds of nasal coffee-swillers, and brewed to perfection by a highly trained barista. Their two pounds will also buy them the use of a comfortable chair in a well-lit, air-conditioned room, for as long as they wish. We have moved from a nineteenth-century market in which the consumer was systematically ripped off to one where the consumer is king. If only the desires of this consumer could finally be made to collide with the needs of the coffee producers, we would be living in a kind of caffeinated paradise.