HABERMAS CONTEMPLATES COFFEE

August 29, 2007 at 12:43 am | Posted in Books, Economics, Globalization, History, Islam, Literary, Philosophy | Leave a comment

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Juergen Habermas and the

Philosophy of Coffee

1. Coffee Cultivation and Exchange,

1400-1800

Other Information:

Home

Coffee, 1800 to the Present

In This Essay:

  1. Coffee Cultivation and Exchange
  2. Coffee and Society
  3. Caffeine
  4. Conclusion

“The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has argued that coffee shops were both an important site and a constitutent element of what he calls the emergence of the “public sphere.” [20] Habermas claimed that the eighteenth century saw the beginning of a public discourse about politics, society, and the proper role of both citizens and government, all topics which had been the more-or-less exclusive domain of elites in the past. Just as it had provided a social setting for discussion in the Islamic World, coffee shops in Europe were some of the most fertile locales for the discussion of new political and social ideas.

Habermas:

Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, Neuwied: Hermann Luchterhand, 1962.

Habermas: “Transformation of the Public Sphere” 1962

Coffee has emerged from obscure origins in eastern Africa to become a major globally-traded commodity. During the six centuries historians are able to trace of its history, coffee has always been an object of commerce. From a relatively closed circuit of distribution in the Red Sea area, it spread across the Islamic world in the sixteenth century. From there, it spread to Europe in the seventeenth century and became a truly global entity when Europeans started coffee cultivation in their colonies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. As the world underwent the “modern revolution” in the nineteenth century, coffee both fueled the workday of the emerging industrial working classes in western Europe and tied slaves and wage laborers to the land in tropical regions throughout the tropical world. In the twentieth century, coffee continued to be exported from relatively poor nations to relatively rich ones, usually to the benefit of the latter, a tendency that culminated in the newly deregulated markets of the post-1989 global economy.

Thus, coffee provides a lens through which to view many of the most important world-historical processes of the last several centuries. Coffee was a point of contact between the Middle East and Europe in the early modern period, being traded by European and Muslim merchants alike in the Indian Ocean trade. After Europeans had secured their own coffee crops, coffee was part of both the slave system and colonialism, being cultivated in far-flung colonies from Indonesia to Mexico. Coffee almost literally fueled the human side of industrialization in Europe, helping to break the ties of sleep and wakefullness to natural cycles and substituting clock time, the working day, and caffeination. Finally, coffee was at the center of Cold War and post-Cold War policies of global capital, which first sought to regulate prices in order to prevent social unrest in producing nations, then abandoned them to the mercies of the free market when the collapse of communism obviated the necessity of insuring the welfare of the third world.

There is scant documentary evidence of coffee use before the early 1500s, but historians have found that there was a small-scale trade in coffee between Ethiopia and Yemen starting in the middle of the fifteenth century. Apparently, coffee was harvested from wild bushes in Ethiopia and transported across the Red Sea. The first documented use of coffee was among Sufi religious societies in the late fifteenth century. There, coffee was used as a devotional aid in Sufi dhikr ceremonies, in which Sufi devotees would meet a night and perform rituals meant to elevate their consciousness toward the divine. [1] In these ceremonies, coffee was regarded as a useful aid to worship since it allowed the devotee to perform the rituals well into the night.

Coffee seems to have spread rapidly in the Near East; it was established in the Muslim holy city of Mecca by 1511. By the time the Ottoman Turks conquered Egypt from the Mamelukes in 1517, coffee-drinking was already widespread in Cairo. It spread equally quickly across the Ottoman Empire after the Egyptian conquest; the court physician to Suleiman the Magnificient approved its use for medicinal purposes in 1522. [2] Within a few decades, coffee was enjoyed across the entire Islamic world, from North Africa to the Mughal Empire in India. From being a ceremonial drink of Sufi mystics, in the course of about a century coffee became a part of the social fabric of the Muslim nations.

For the first few decades of the sixteenth century, the vast majority of coffee cultivation was still carried out in Ethiopia. In 1544, however, the Imam of Yemen insisted that coffee be cultivated in place of qat, a mildly intoxicating herb that was grown locally, and from then on the majority of middle eastern coffee cultivation took place in the highlands of Yemen. [3] There, perched atop rocky mountain ridges, farmers built dwellings literally stacked on top of one another to maximize the space available for growing coffee. They dug deep terraces into the mountains and for the next century or so produced most of the world’s coffee. Likewise, at this time the Yemeni port of Mocha came to have a monopoly on coffee distribution to the Islamic world; coffee was transported by pack animals down from the mountains, purchased by merchants in Mocha, and distributed from there throughout the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and to the Muslim kingdoms in Africa and India accessible via the Indian Ocean trade. Until the middle of the seventeenth century, coffee was cultivated, traded, and consumed almost exclusively in the Islamic world; it would not arrive in Europe for another century.

The spread of coffee to the rest of the world took place in the seventeenth century. To maintain their monopoly on its control, coffee merchants in Mocha prohibited the distribution of live seeds or seedlings of the coffee plant. This technique worked to restrict coffee production to Yemen (and to restrict coffee distribution to Mocha) until late in the seventeenth century. This is not to say, however, that other people were unaware of coffee’s existence. The British East India company was founded in 1600 to facilitate trade in luxury goods from Asia, particularly spices. By 1620 the British were trading in coffee. [4] It did not, however, spread to Europe initially; the British joined Muslim traders in buying coffee at Mocha and selling it elsewhere in the Islamic world. Coffee was thus one of the commodities the British sold to the Mughal empire in India (of course, starting from these trading contacts, the British would eventually come to dominate the Indian sub-continent.)

Coffee was, however, eventually transported back to Europe, and it spread as rapidly there as it had a century earlier in the Middle East. The first British coffee house was opened in Oxford in 1651 and it enjoyed immediate success, particularly among university faculty and students. [5] Soon, coffee houses spread across continental Europe as well, although until the end of the century all coffee had to be imported from the Middle East. The first coffee shop established in Paris was next to the famous Comédie Français in 1689, and the first in Germany appeared in 1670. [6] Coffee thus joined with commodities like spices and tea in the long-range trade in luxuries from Asia to Europe.

The Yemeni monopoly on coffee production broke down at the end of the seventeenth century. Coffee cultivation’s spread to Europe is often tied to the last Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683; as they retreated, the Ottomans supposedly left behind large stores of coffee, both in the form of coffee beans and as raw seeds and seedlings. Whether or not the story is true (it seems just as likely that smugglers had made off with seedlings earlier than 1683), coffee cultivation did spread to Europe (or, more precisely, to European colonies) at the end of the seventeenth century. The Dutch VOC, their equivalent of the East India Company, established a coffee plantation on the Indonesian island of Java in 1699 and other European powers soon followed: the British brought it to their possessions in the Carribean and the French to theirs in the early eighteenth century: Jamaica in 1730, Cuba in 1748, and Mexico in 1790. [7] Coffee was not as important as sugar to the European powers in the eighteenth century, but European colonial coffee production skyrocketed nevertheless. By 1788, for instance, French colonies, especially St. Dominique (soon to become the independent nation of Haiti), produced fully two-thirds of the world’s coffee. [8]

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that as coffee production became globalized, coffees were sold according to their port of origin. Thus, “Mocha” and “Java” were specific varieties of coffee sold from the ports that bore their name, a nominal legacy that has remained with coffee ever since in the form of nicknames. It was not until the nineteenth century that coffee merchants began to consolidate a grading and naming scheme distinct from the port-of-origin technique.)

The labor systems in coffee-growing regions varied considerably. In the old coffee country of Yemen, farmers continued to grow coffee on their own plots in the highlands and merchants continued to purchase it directly from them. In the Portugese colony of Brazil and in the various colonies of the Carribean, coffee was grown on large plantations almost exclusively with slave labor. While Latin American production was relatively small until the nineteenth century, its labor systems were already regionally divided: where Brazil employed slave-labor, Guatamela and Mexico relied on both small farmers and on wage laborers working the plantations of large estates. Finally, on the Dutch-controlled Indonesian island of Java, coffee was extorted from Javanese peasants as a tax in kind (i.e. peasants were required to grow coffee and submit it as a form of taxation, rather than being required to pay in currency.) [9]

Under the European powers of the eighteenth century, coffee was intimately embedded in colonialism and slavery. The eighteenth century was the height of the slave trade between Africa and the New World, and slaves were forced to cultivate coffee on plantations throughout the Caribbean and parts of Latin America alongside other cash crops like sugar. However, while coffee cultivation spread rapidly in the late eighteenth century, supplying coffee-drinkers in Europe and the United States, it still remained something of a luxury item. Coffee prices were not yet low enough for it to be consumed regularly with meals, and most coffee consumption still took place in public coffee houses and taverns and was associated with a degree of upper-class (or at least bourgeois) respectability. Much was at stake in the future diet of the world in the last few decades of the eighteenth century, as the British gravitated toward tea over coffee, the United States rejected tea in obstinance to British tastes, and the foundations were laid for coffee to become an item of mass consumption, rather than the centerpiece of a respectable social ritual.

It was in the nineteenth century that coffee underwent a fundamental shift, fueling the new industrial economies of the west and becoming the centerpiece of the agricultural economies of various emerging nations in Latin America and certain areas in Asia and Africa. Nevertheless, the fundamental pattern of coffee production and consumption that has survived to the present was established by the late eighteenth century: tropical regions produced coffee and exported it to the wealthy nations of Europe and North America, largely for the economic benefit of the latter. Likewise, from being produced in the formal colonies of imperial powers, coffee came to be grown as a cash crop by nominally independent nations, albeit ones who were frequently dominated politically and economically by their neighbors to the north.

2, Coffee And Societies, 1400-1800

One of the most interesting elements of coffee’s history is the impact that coffee-based socializing had on various societies. This is a factor that is easy to overlook when considering only the large-scale commercial exchange of coffee. After all, demand for coffee sprung up in the Ottoman Empire almost immediately after it was introduced in the early sixteenth century. About 150 years later, demand for coffee exploded in Europe as well, shortly after it was introduced in the manner described above. The question is thus why was coffee in demand, and what impact did coffee consumption have on the societies in which it was consumed?

One answer has to do with the social settings in which coffee was served. From the beginning, in both the Middle East and Europe, coffee was a social drink. The coffee house quickly became a social gathering place outside of the immediate purview of state or religious authorities. People, largely men, gathered in coffee houses to read and to discuss news, religion, politics, and just to chat. Coffee was cooked in large vats, pots, or cauldrons and was distributed to the patrons while they talked and read. None of this seems exceptional today, but at the time there were potentially revolutionary implications for the social context of the coffee house.

In both the Middle East and in Europe, there were relatively few places for people to meet socially outside of the workplace and the place of worship. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, in which alcohol was banned due to the strictures of Islam, the coffee house rapidly became a socially-acceptable place for men to meet and talk outside of the mosque. [10] Not only were coffee houses new in that they provided an acceptable social gathering spot, but there is considerable evidence that members of different social classes and backgrounds gathered in coffee shops and conversed with one another (although it also seems clear that coffee-drinking was a Muslim pastime; the Christian and Jewish subjects of the Ottomans were expected to socialize among themselves elsewhere.) [11]

The Ottoman authorities were quick to diagnose the potential problems this introduced: without the guiding hand of state or religious authorities present, after all, coffee houses might serve as hotbeds of sedition. Almost immediately, the Ottoman Empire introduced a series of measures meant to counteract the dangers of the coffee house. In 1544 the first of many bans was issued on coffee houses. [12] More followed over the years; the most serious was issued by Sultan Murat IV in 1623, who ordered the coffee houses of Istanbul torn down completely. They remained closed for the time of his reign (1623 – 1640) but were reopened afterward. [13] In every case, even when the penalty for coffee consumption was execution by drowning, coffee consumption continued and the bans had to be rescinded. [14] Meanwhile, in neighboring Persia, Shah Abbas dispatched official orators to the coffee houses of the major cities to lecture on religion and history (naturally, the lessons were designed to inculcate loyalty to the regime.) [15]

In the Islamic world, one of the most important debates was whether or not coffee was an intoxicant, and should thus be forbidden according to Islamic law. As early as 1511 in the holy city of Mecca, religious scholars (ulema) issued an anti-coffee polemic, since coffee was being consumed for pleasure rather than as an aid to religious devotion as it had been earlier by the Yemeni Sufi orders. [16] Likewise, in 1535 in Cairo, following a series of anti-coffee sermons by a religious leader, anti-coffee rioters attacked coffee houses, and were promptly engaged in street combat by pro-coffee mobs. The authorities had to restore order and a legal decision was rendered confirming the legality of coffee. [17] In the end, the bans and conflicts were never successful because religious leaders themselves were divided on the issue: coffee was thought by many to be harmless, if not actually beneficial to both health and religious piety. With a lack of consensus among religious leaders, the coffee shops stayed open.

In Europe and, later, the United States, coffee had a huge social impact. As it had in the Ottoman Empire, the coffee house quickly became a social gathering spot. London coffee houses were called “penny universities” because admittance cost a penny and the houses were packed with people discussing the latest news and the latest ideas. As in Ottoman coffee houses, in Europe coffee was served to patrons communally and discussion and education were the major purposes of being there. The impact of this cannot be overstated; from coffee houses many of the major social and political movements and institutions that were to shape European history emerged; Lloyd’s of London, The London Stock Exchange, and the East India Company were started in coffee houses as the result of discussions between patrons. [18] The Declaration of Independence was first read in front of The Bunch of Grapes, a Boston coffee house, and many of the revolutionary leaders met regularly at the Green Dragon, a coffee house / tavern. [19] In short, coffee houses were the intellectual and political centers of their day outside of the courts, palaces, and other official organs of political life.

The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has argued that coffee shops were both an important site and a constitutent element of what he calls the emergence of the “public sphere.” [20] Habermas claimed that the eighteenth century saw the beginning of a public discourse about politics, society, and the proper role of both citizens and government, all topics which had been the more-or-less exclusive domain of elites in the past. Just as it had provided a social setting for discussion in the Islamic World, coffee shops in Europe were some of the most fertile locales for the discussion of new political and social ideas. The well-known aristocratic salon had its bourgeois counterpart in the coffee shop, where discussions were fueled as much by caffeine as by the excitement of discussing new ideas. This aspect of coffee and the coffee shop as social center-point faded in the nineteenth century, to be replaced by coffee as the fuel of industry and casual conversation, but both of these roles can be explained in part by coffee’s identity as the carrier of a powerful drug: caffeine.

3, Caffeine

One fascinating aspect of the coffee story to consider in this context is the role of caffeine in shaping world history. As mentioned above, a major debate quickly emerged in the Ottoman Empire as to whether coffee was “intoxicating,” and thus expressly forbidden by the Quran. The initial decision was that it was not intoxicating, and thus coffee consumption, and coffee houses, were acceptable under Ottoman rule. As noted above, however, the Ottoman regime vacillated in its attitudes toward coffee and coffee shops over the years, and religious leaders sometimes argued that coffee was unhealthy and that it led to the spread of vice and should be banned as a result.

In Europe and the United States, it was a different story. Europeans had long consumed alcohol as their major source of liquid refreshment: water was often unsafe to drink, and as a result the daily drink of everyone (children, women, and men) was beer and wine, albeit with a lower alcohol content than their present-day equivalents. Some historians have noted that most Europeans were always at least slightly intoxicated as a result. [21] Coffee (and, of course, tea) changed the drinking habits of Europeans not only by providing an alternative to alcohol, but by providing an alternative with a dramatically different drug-effect.

Where alcohol is a depressant, lending itself to sociability but not to coherence, caffeine is a stimulant, a fact that contemporary coffee-drinkers were quick to realize. The enthusiasm for coffee in the Islamic World was due, at least at first, to its ability to sustain religious devotion. Likewise, Pope Clement VIII supposedly blessed coffee for its invigorating effects, just as literary coffee-drinkers praised its ability to heighten their focus and provide energy. In the midst of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, caffeine helped contribute to the intellectual ferment of the age (and justified the fears of authorities that coffee houses were potential hotbeds for pernicious political agitation.) Numerous writers and thinkers at the time were not only coffee-house aficionados, but caffeine-addicts; many took advantage of coffee and tea to stay up well into the night. Simultaneously, Europeans began to consume sugar in ever-increasing amounts. Thus, the diet of Europeans of all classes came to include powerful stimulants and easily-digestible simple sugars, which provided short-term energy boosts. [22]

There was still another side to the advent of coffee and other caffeinated drinks. As the industrial revolution began to stir in the second half of the eighteenth century, caffeinated drinks helped the new industrial working class adjust to the demands of a work-day that no longer conformed to natural cycles: instead of rising with the sun, working during the day, then going to sleep as night fell, increasing numbers of people were obliged to follow “clock time” instead. The same writers who praised coffee and tea for enabling them to focus their thoughts and write for longer hours also suffered from horrendous sleep-deprivation. Some historians have even argued that insomnia began with caffeinated beverages: freed from natural cycles and under the influence of a powerful stimulant, eighteenth-century Europeans began to have a profoundly different relationship to sleep than any before them. [23]

4, Conclusion

Coffee from 1400 to 1800 was at the center of two major movements of world history: the growth of global commerce and the beginnings of the modern revolution. From an obscure stimulant traded in the Red Sea region, it came to be grown, transported, and consumed from Brazil to Java. European colonialism brought coffee to tropical regions and Africans enslaved by Europeans grew it, often on the same plantations on which they grew sugar. Elsewhere, independent farmers continued to grow coffee for their own subsistence (and/or profit.) Everywhere that coffee was consumed – largely in the Islamic World, in Europe, and in North America – it fueled social ferment by creating social spaces that lent themselves to relatively open conversation. It also, along with tea, introduced a powerful stimulant into the regular diets of millions of people around the world, playing a part in the break from natural cycles to the systemization of time that was concomitant with modernity.

Coffee from 1800 to the Present

Other Information:

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Coffee, 1400 to 1800

In This Essay:

  1. Introduction
  2. Ceylon and Brazil
  3. Labor
  4. The Twentieth Century
  5. Approaching the Present

1. Coffee from 1800 to the Present

While coffee was widely cultivated, traded, and consumed by the end of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw the true coffee boom, as prices dropped and coffee became a staple part of the diet of much of the world. Modern transportation insured that ever-larger quantities of coffee could be transported from producing regions, particularly Latin America, to consuming regions in the north. Simultaneously, earlier forms of forced labor (particularly slavery) eventually gave way to wage labor, although the latter was not always significantly less onerous than the former. Likewise, the twentieth century saw attempts to regulate the international coffee market to protect the livelihoods of producers eventually collapse, leading to a flood of cheap coffee and an overwhelming imbalance of profits between the financial and commercial nations of the north and the producing nations of the tropics.

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France. He promptly set out to conquer Europe, for a few years controlling much of the (sub-)continent. Napoleonic France’s greatest enemy was Britain, which dominated the seas after its conclusive naval victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Napoleon’s response was to create the “continental system,” in which the areas under French control were to strive for self-sufficiency, hoping to bankrupt Britain’s overseas trading empire and providing for the needs of continental Europe in the meantime. The Napoleonic system had two long-term effects on coffee: since the amount of coffee reaching Europe dropped dramatically under the continental system, various substitutes were tried (the most successful of which was the chicory root, which makes a vaguely coffee-like beverage when boiled, if one ignores the fact that it tastes nothing like coffee and has no caffeine.) This somewhat altered long-term consumption patterns in Europe.

More importantly, the continental system encouraged coffee-producing nations, many of whom were gaining their independence in South America from Spain at the time, to look to the United States as their most likely major consumer. They were not disappointed. During the nineteenth century the US became the single largest consumer of coffee; by the end of the century it was importing 40% of the world’s total amount of coffee, and it continues to be the single largest coffee importer. [1] As the American population grew, its thirst for coffee grew with it, and the proximity of Latin American coffee-producing nations helped insure that the long-term production and consumption pattern of southern coffee satisfying northern tastes was predicated on solid foundations.

A complex set of circumstances came together to make the nineteenth century the era of Latin American dominance in coffee production. First, the Haitian Revolution in 1791 spelled the end for Haitian coffee production, which had produced roughly half of all coffee exports immediately prior to the revolution. [2] The specter of a successful slave uprising, and the independent black nation that arose as a result, terrified the powers of Europe and the Americas and all refused to open official relations with Haiti until well after the revolution. While this doomed Haiti to economic backwardness, the gap left in the global coffee (and sugar) market allowed ample room for the emerging nations of Latin America to make tremendous gains in their respective shares. [3]

Second, in many areas (especially Brazil), planters aggressively seized land and introduced coffee cultivation. Virgin rainforest was converted into coffee plantations in South America, Africa, and Asia. In almost every case, the favored method was the slash-and-burn technique in which plots of virgin forest were cut down, burned on the spot (thus providing nutrients to the soil), and coffee was planted on the ashes. This provided high yields for the first few years, but had a deleterious long-term impact on the ecology of the forest and, ultimately, on coffee cultivation itself. As long as fresh virgin forest remained, however, coffee plantations could grow rapidly and yields remained high.

2. Two Examples: Ceylon and Brazil

Two areas illustrate this pattern of coffee development in the nineteenth century: Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and Brazil. [4] The British had taken control of Ceylon in 1796 and, as European colonists did the world over, tried to cultivate foods already familiar to them rather than adapting to local cuisine. Coffee already grew wild in Ceylon thanks to earlier seedlings planted by either Arab or Dutch traders, but large-scale cultivation did not start until 1824. The Kandyan Highlands of Ceylon had long remained inaccessible to human settlement thanks to the thick forest and their remoteness. The British, however, impressed local villagers into service and began a long-term assault on the forest for the purpose of growing coffee. Large-scale cultivation began in 1824. After 1840, large numbers of impoverished laborers from southern India began to make the arduous journey from their homes, across the Palk Strait, and to the Kandyan highlands looking for work on the coffee plantations. Many died, and those that made it were paid a pittance. For several decades, coffee cultivation thrived.

The downfall of coffee in Ceylon, however, was ecological in nature. Once the British had forced their way through the rainforest to the Kandyan hills, they initiated a full-scale effort to convert the forest to plantations. Once the protective vegetation had been destroyed, the thin, nutrient-poor soil was extremely vulnerable to erosion, and the high winds that swept across the hills wreaked havoc on the coffee plants. The destruction of the forest ecosystem drove away or killed large predators, and rats thrived amongst the plantations as a result. The British overseers struggled to find methods that would hold the soil in place, provide windbreaks, and control pests even as they carved further into the remaining forest. By the 1880s, less than sixty years after the first coffee plantation in Ceylon, the forest was all but destroyed.

In the late 1860s, a fungal infection spread among the coffee plantations of Ceylon. Called “coffee rust” or “left rust,” Hemileai Vastatrix infected the leaves of coffee plants and could quickly devastate entire plantations. [5] From Ceylon it spread rapidly to other coffee-producing regions in Asia and Africa but, interestingly, it did not spread to Latin America (a fact that had much to do with the consolidation of Latin American coffee dominance in the late nineteenth century.) Coffee rust destroyed a number of coffee economies, particularly that of Dutch-controlled Java; it was one of the major factors that saw Java’s share in the global coffee market plummet after 1873. Meanwhile, the British in Ceylon struggled against the eroded soil, pests, and the coffee rust to keep coffee production going until the 1880s, but finally abandoned it when coffee prices plummeted on the world market. They then switched to the cultivation of tea.

Ceylon is an interesting context in which to consider coffee cultivation in the nineteenth century not only because it starkly demonstrates the ecological impact of coffee, but because the problems the British faced in Ceylon led them to establish the first modern scientific institutes explicitly devoted to studying agriculture in the tropics. After the switch had been made to tea, the British established the Gannaruwa Research Station in 1902, the first station to consider the medium-term and long-term impact of farming in tropical areas. It was perhaps the first initiative to conclude that slash-and-burn agriculture was ultimately detrimental to both the environment and, in the long-run, to agriculture itself. Likewise, it concluded that the rainforest itself helped maintain the natural balance of the area, and that for agriculture to succeed in the tropics the forest had to be treated as more than just a nuisance to be replaced with cultivated fields. Ceylon was thus the setting of some of the first “scientific” scholarship on the impact of human activity on the environment of the tropics.

Ceylonese coffee cultivation lasted for just over half of a century. Brazil, on the other hand, seized its position as the major coffee producer in the world and kept it. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the importance of Brazilian coffee cultivation: Brazil was largely responsible for the explosion of affordable coffee in the nineteenth century that saw the shift from respectable sipping-drink to common chugging-drink. In a sense, Brazil’s entire social structure came to center on coffee: coffee planters formed a powerful political bloc, coffee merchants became wealthy on exports, and the entire banking system was deeply enmeshed with the coffee industry.

Just as coffee was at the heart of the Brazilian economy (a fact that remained true until the late twentieth century when manufacturing finally surpassed its importance), slavery was at the heart of Brazilian coffee. Brazil was the single largest importer of slaves during the centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In turn, Brazil was the last nation in the world to abolish slavery within its borders (in 1881), a fact that can be explained in large part by the social and economic power wielded by coffee planters. As has been noted, the forms of labor by which coffee was cultivated varied considerably around the globe. Even within Latin America, there were many areas (Costa Rica and Mexico, for instance) that employed wage-labor and small farms to grow coffee, rather than relying on slavery. [6] In Brazil, however, the planting class was adamantly opposed to abolition, believing that slavery was the very condition of Brazil’s continued existence. [7]

The combination of slave labor and the hitherto-untouched vast expanses of the Amazon rainforest allowed Brazil to seize preeminence among global coffee producing regions. From 1800 to 1850, the Imperial government of Brazil (which was technically the crown of Portugal; the king of Portugal had fled Napoleon and set up shop in Brazil) awarded land grants to anyone who would promise to cultivate crops. One of the conditions of land grants, however, was that the would-be cultivator had to have proof of owning enough slaves to work the land. [8] Land grants in the Amazon led to an explosion of both coffee-farming and land speculation. Previously virgin rainforest was rapidly converted into coffee plantations (even as the same process was taking place in Ceylon.) One of the important differences, of course, was that Brazil’s potential coffee-growing areas were vastly largely than their equivalents in Ceylon, and Brazilian coffee production soon dominated global exports.

While it was almost exclusively Portuguese-descended Brazilians who owned and ran the coffee plantations, their coffee ultimately ended up enriching banks and trading companies based in London and New York. Even prosperous farmers were often deeply in debt, having staked their plantations and (until the end of the century) their slaves as collateral on loans. The banks that supplied these loans were, as often as not, owned and run from overseas. The planters lived harvest-to-harvest, a fact that led to widespread bankruptcy when harvests went badly. The banks, of course, were able to foreclose on the plantations in question and the coffee industry as a whole continued to grow despite fluctuations.

By the time Brazil finally abolished slavery in 1881, coffee had transformed the nation completely. Certain areas were already ecologically devastated: in the Parahyba Valley, for instance, what had been virgin forest a century before was reduced to barren hillsides covered in weeds, now given over to cattle pasture since they could no longer sustain coffee plants. This in turn drove coffee planters further into the jungle to carve out new plantations. As newly-freed slaves struggled to establish lives for themselves and their families, many became wage-laborers on the ever-growing plantations. At the same time, the Brazilian government (a Republic as of 1889) subsidized the immigration of large numbers of Europeans, primarily southern Italians, in order to insure a continuous supply of cheap labor for the coffee industry. [9]

3. Labor

The question of labor was always central to coffee production. The nineteenth century saw a slow and intermittent shift away from forms of outright forced labor to more subtle forms of coercion. Brazil was unique not only in having relied on slavery for as long as it did, but for its subsidization of immigration after the end of slavery, a factor that kept its massive coffee industry stable despite the radical shift that abolition brought about. Elsewhere, Javanese coffee production had been a particularly pernicious form of taxation in kind, a practice which continued even after Java had vanished as a major player in the coffee market (labor taxation was finally eliminated completely in Java in 1917.) [10] In Guatemala, meanwhile, a shortage of cheap labor led the state (which was controlled by coffee barons) to impose a labor law in 1877 which obligated Mayan villagers from the highlands to work on the coffee plantations for fixed times and fixed wages, a system that lasted until the early 1920s. [11] Finally, forced labor and other forms of quasi-slavery continued in West Africa (particularly Angola) until the 1940s.

Elsewhere, however, a longer-term labor pattern was coming about. Where slavery and labor laws had obliged people to work on coffee plantations, the global coffee system increasingly relied on a combination of state intervention and market forces to insure a steady supply of labor. Foreign-owned coffee buying concerns dictated the policies of many Latin American states, resisting efforts to allow organized labor and setting coffee prices as low as possible. Prices themselves were sensitive to natural forces (i.e. diseases, droughts, etc.) but, after the first coffee futures market was founded in New York City in 1883, they came to be dictated as much by price speculation as by the size and quality of the actual harvests. [12]

Likewise, by 1900 the emerging global coffee companies were almost all owned and operated by Europeans and Americans, which coffee-producing nations were forced to cater to. Essentially, debt forced coffee producers to sell their beans at the going rate as soon as they were harvested, no matter how successful or unsuccessful those harvests had been. Good years saw flooded markets and low prices, while bad years saw higher prices but poor yields. Either way, the bulk of the profit went to the coffee concerns run in New York, London, and Hamburg. Foreign firms not only owned and financed coffee production, but they monopolized coffee exportation and processing, the most technologically advanced and costly areas of the coffee economy (and thus the areas from which most of the profits were to be derived.)

4. The Twentieth Century

The history of coffee in the twentieth century was a struggle surrounding the price of coffee beans. Having been battered by price fluctuations since the 1880s, Brazil introduced a revolutionary “valorization” scheme in 1906, in which it deliberately kept a portion of its harvest off of the world market to keep prices at a certain level. This brought about howls of protest in consuming nations, especially the United States, which had long since latched on to free market ideology as the holy writ of economic relations. [13] Where low coffee prices were a matter of convenience for American and European consumers, they were a matter of life and death for Latin Americans. By 1912 coffee was over half of the total exports of Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Likewise, by 1913 fully 91% of all coffee produced in the world was Latin American. [14]

Thus, until World War II, the fundamental pattern of global coffee was Latin American production feeding American (and, to a lesser extent, European) consumption. Labor was kept in check (and thus prices were kept low) by an alliance between the foreign-owned transportation and processing concerns and local oligarchies of land-owning elites, who often held tremendous political power. It is important to emphasize that the exact circumstances of this process varied from nation to nation: Brazil’s plantations were already huge, while Costa Rican farms remained small, for instance. Likewise, while the general pattern was that oligarchic coffee magnates controlled land and labor, their relationships with peasants and workers varied. Brazil instituted the valorization scheme at least in part to protect the livelihoods of workers, while in El Salvador coffee barons massacred communist-affiliated peasants who rose up in protest to the confiscation of their lands for coffee production in 1932. [15]

World War II and its aftermath brought about a few major changes in coffee. First, the massive consumption of coffee by soldiers in the war cemented the taste for cheap instant coffee in the US, creating a long-term market for low-quality beans at rock-bottom prices. This in turn allowed regions (such as the Ivory Coast in Africa) that could not grow large amounts of higher-quality arabica, but could grow robusta, to enter the world market. Second, the postwar colonial liberation movements, particularly in Africa and South Asia, ended the last vestiges of imperialist coffee ventures. European and American corporations continued to control the industry as a whole, but coffee production was no longer under the direct power of imperial governments. Finally, the Cold War realigned global politics in such a way that western powers, primarily the US, had an active interest in maintaining capitalistic (though certainly not always democratic) governments throughout the world. This, in turn, saw the growth of a limited consensus between coffee-producing and coffee-consuming nations that set prices to prevent the more severe economic cycles of the “pure” free market from destabilizing the economies of producers.

The most important event in the global coffee economy that arose in the Cold War context was the signing of the International Coffee Agreement in 1962. The ICA was an international accord between producing and consuming nations that regulated the amount of coffee sold on the international market (it was inspired by the Brazilian valorization scheme, which had continued in different forms since its inception in 1906.) Quotas were set which were meant to fix supply to demand and thereby regulate prices in order to prevent the kind of major price fluctuations that had wreaked havoc on the economies of coffee-producing countries in the past. The ICA was a strategic decision on the part of western nations in response to the Cold War: the United States in particular was concerned that economic crises in third-world nations could result in the growth of international communism. Thus, to prevent the possibility of a coffee-based crisis feeding into an upsurge in leftist politics, the US (which represented more than half of the total coffee consumption in the world at the time) supported the agreement. [16]

Patterns of production and consumption throughout the Cold War period were similar to those of the early twentieth century, with the exception that the US frequently intervened should a communist (or even left-leaning) leadership come to power in a “third world” nation. In the civil wars in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the 1980s, US-trained death squads wreaked havoc. Coffee oligarchs usually supported the right-wing dictatorships that faced leftist opposition, but even the most powerful planters were often simply trapped between warring sides, trying to bring in their harvests and keep their farms from being destroyed or seized. Likewise, even when leftist regimes did come to power (despite American intervention), the plight of coffee producers was not always improved. When the leftist Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua in 1979, they nationalized coffee production, but paid producers only a small percentage of profits and proved utterly incompetent at maintaining the coffee plantations themselves. [17]

5. Approaching the Present: Neo-Liberal Economic Policy

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, a symbolic event which is often thought to have spelled the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Not coincidentally, the US withdrew its support from the ICA a few months later. While revised versions of the ICA are still technically in effect, the withdrawal of the major coffee consuming nation in the world has undermined its effectiveness. Prices of coffee dropped rapidly in 1989, driving huge numbers of coffee farmers into desperate circumstances and often forcing them off of the land entirely.

The US’s withdrawal from the ICA was symptomatic of global economic changes in the post-Cold War era, changes which had a profound impact on the coffee trade. Without the threat of communism to balance the need for profits with the need for social welfare, US-led global economic organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank became increasingly stringent in enforcing free market-based (“neo-liberal”) policies. Typically, the IMF and World Bank would provide loans to developing nations to build up infrastructure on the condition that social services and any kind of price-stabilizing policies were abandoned and that the commodities would be sold directly on the world market with a minimum of taxes and tariffs.

The effects of neo-liberal economic policies are easy to discern in the case of Vietnam. In the early 1990s, Vietnamese farmers received large numbers of loans to start coffee cultivation (although Vietnam had been producing coffee since the 1920s, it was not until the 1990s that it did so on a large scale.) [18] In order to repay those loans, they were forced to sell their coffee on the world market as soon as possible. The flood of cheap Vietnamese coffee drove international prices sharply down, provoking crises in other coffee-producing countries. Meanwhile, Vietnamese farmers found themselves locked into a cycle of debt: interest rates on their loans forced them to produce as much coffee as possible, while there was little possibility of ever paying the loans in full. Meanwhile, already China shows signs of entering the world coffee producing market; if it does, prices will be forced down even further and Vietnam will probably join the ranks of impoverished coffee-producing nations as the market is further glutted with overproduction. [19]

Meanwhile, some efforts were made starting in the 1990s to introduce more sustainable models for coffee production. “Fair Trade” coffee is produced by farmers (largely in Central America) who own the land they work, sometimes communally with their neighbors, and are paid a guaranteed minimum price per pound. Currently, most Fair Trade coffee is sold in Europe, although there is also a significant market in the United States. Fair Trade coffee is, however, only a tiny percentage of the total coffee produced in the world; the vast majority of coffee is produced according to (internationally enforced) free-market principles and most coffee farmers themselves are wage laborers working for large plantations. [20]

6. Conclusion

Today, coffee consumption has stabilized overall; despite the explosion of specialty coffee shops (such as Starbucks), actual per capita consumption of coffee has not grown significantly world-wide. With consumption stable, every new region to entry coffee cultivation drives prices down further. Thanks in large-part to the decline of the ICA, the percentage of profits going to coffee-producing nations has dropped from 40% in 1991 to 13% in 2004, since transportation, processing, and commercial markups remain in the hands of American and European corporations. [21] Free Trade coffee is one of the only efforts within the coffee economy that tries to maintain a minimum price per pound and thus to allow the possibility of a living wage for coffee producers. [22] Thus, despite the vast changes brought about by the modern revolution, the fundamental patterns of the global coffee trade have remained consistent since the end of the Yemeni coffee monopoly at the close of the seventeenth century: interests in the temperate zones of the north control the coffee trade while tropical producers cater to their interests.

Notes on Coffee

Carl Schmitt and Jurgen Habermas are, without a doubt, the most (in)famous political theorists to come from Germany since Marx. (One might want to include Leo Strauss, but I don’t think he wrote anything of substance on coffee.) As is well-known – many of us get our introductions to Habermas via his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere - Habermas associated the development of the salons and coffee-houses with the development of the public sphere, located between the spheres of ‘family’ and ‘state.’ Coffee, for Habermas, was essential to the development of liberal, bourgeois and democratic politics.

Much less well known is that Schmitt also wrote on coffee, the bourgeoisie and liberal democratic. His assessement of coffee and liberalism is nearly the opposite of Habermas’. Their respective assessments of coffee present interesting grounds upon which to judge and compare the anti-liberalism of Schmitt with the pro-liberalism of Habermas. Interestingly, it is worth noting that Schmitt’s notes on coffee (1947-51) predate Habermas’ book on the coffee-house (orig. 1962) by over a decade and coincide with the end of Schmitt’s internment and interrogations at Nuremberg. While Habermas engages in a lengthy – if albeit surprisingly ambivalent – confrontation with Schmitt in the Structural Transformation, he does not cite Schmitt’s notes on coffee (most likely because they were not widely available, even in Germany, until 1991).

Extracts from Habermas’ Structural Transformation and a discussion of Schmitt’s Glossarium

Jurgen Habermas

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 1962

Around the middle of the seventeenth century, after not only tea – first to be popular – but also chocolate and coffee had become the common beverages of at least the well-to-do strata of the population, the coachmen of a Levantine merchant opened the first coffee house. By the first decade of the eighteenth century London already had 3,000 of them, each with a core group of regulars. Just as Dryden, surrounded by the new generation of writers, joined the battle of the ‘ancients and moderns’ at Will’s, Addison and Steele a little later convened their ‘little senate at Button’s; so too in the Rotary Club, presided over by Milton’s secretary, Marvell and Pepys met with Harrington who here probably presented the republican ideas of his Oceana. As in the salons where ‘intellectuals’ met with the aristocracy, literature had to legitimate itself in these coffee houses. In this case, however, the nobility joining the upper bourgeois stratum still possessed the social functions lost by the French; it represented landed and moneyed interests. Thus critical debate ignited by works of literature and art was soon extended to include economic and political disputes, without any guarantee (such as was given in the salons) that such discussions would be inconsequential, at least in the immediate context. The fact that only men were admitted to coffee-house society may have had something to do with this, wheres the style of the salon, like that of the rococo in general, was essentially shaped by women. Accordingly the women of London society, abandoned every evening, waged a vigorous but vain struggle against the new institution. The coffee house not merely made access to the relevant circles less formal and easier; it embraced the wider strata of the middle class, including craftsmen and shopkeepers. Ned Ward reports that the ‘wealthy shopkeeper’ visited the coffee house several times a day, this held true for the poor one as well.

[...]

However much the Tischgesellschaften, salons, and coffee houses may have differed in the size and composition of their publics, the style of their proceedings, the climate of their debates, and their topical orientations, they all organized discussion among private people that tended to be ongoing; hence they had a number of institutional criteria in common. First, they preserved a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether. The tendency replaced the celebration of rank with a tact befitting equals. The parity on whose basis alone the authority of the better argument could assert itself against that of social hierarchy and in the end can carry the day meant, in the thought of the day, the parity of ‘common humanity’ (‘bloss Menschliche‘). Les hommes, private gentlemen, or die Privatleute made up the public not just in the sense that power and prestige of public office were held in suspense; economic dependencies also in principle had no influence. Laws of the market were suspended as were laws of the state. Not that this idea of the public was actually realized in earnest in the coffee houses, the salons, and the societies; but as an idea it had become institutionalized and thereby stated as an objective claim. If not realized, it was at least consequential.

Secondly, discussion within such a public presupposed the problematization of areas that until then had not been questioned. The domain of ‘common concern’ which was the object of public critical attention remained a preserve in which church and state authorities had the monopoly of interpretation not just from the pulpit but in philosophy, literature, and art, even at a time when, for specific social categories, the development of capitalism already demanded a behavior whose rational orientation required ever more information. To the degree, however, to which philosophical and literary works and works of art in general were produced for the market and distributed through it, these culture products became similar to that type of information: as commodities they became in principle generally accessible. They no longer remained components of the Church’s and court’s publicity of representation; that is precisely what was meant by the loss of their aura of extraordinariness and by the profaning of their once sacramental character. The private people for whom the cultural product became available as a commodity profaned it inasmuch as they had to determine its meaning on their own (by way of rational communication with one another), verbalize it, and thus state explicitly what precisely in its implicitness for so long could assert its authority. As Raymond Williams demonstrates, ‘art’ and ‘culture’ owe their modern meaning of spheres separate from the reproduction of social life to the eighteenth century.

Thirdly, the same process that converted culture into a commodity (and in this fashion constituted it as a culture that could become an object of discussion to begin with) established the public as in principle inclusive. However exclusive the public might be in any given instance, it could never close itself off entirely and become consolidated as a clique: for it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of all private people, persons who – insofar as they were propertied and educated – as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion. The issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate. Wherever the public established itself institutionally as a stable group of discussants, it did not equate itself with the public but at most claimed to act as its mouthpiece, in its name, perhaps even as its educator – the new form of bourgeois representation. The public of the first generations, even when it constituted itself as a specific circle of persons, was conscious of being part of a larger public. Potentially it was always a publicist body, as its discussions did not need to remain internal to it but could be directed at the outside world – for this, perhaps, the Diskurse der Mahlern, a moral weekly published from 1721 on by Bodmer and Breitinger in Zurich, was one among many examples.

In a note in his acrimonious postwar glossary, the legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt captures the stale atmosphere of the bourgeois interior, and points to coffee as a symbol of the desire to enjoy undisturbed security within the confines of the household:

French: sécurité; German (until now): Gemütlichkeit. That is the internalized – or interiorized – but at the same time secularized assurance of divine grace, the end of fear and trembling at a nice cup of coffee and a pipe stuffed with spicy tobacco. It is the reappearance of well-concealed sensual enjoyment, after Luther and the Moravians raged against security as the actual form of sensuality.

In Schmitt’s view, the typical bourgeois philistine, unmistakably portrayed in his entry, is not so much ascetically opposed to pleasure as he is wary of pleasure that cannot be enjoyed securely – that is – without worry. Coffee, in combination with tobacco, stands for intoxication without risk; it is a stimulant that does not dangerously loosen the subject’s self-possession. It signifies a furtive bliss distinguished from the ecstatic, which implies a movement transcending the bounded ego lodged in the safety of plush comfort.

Yet the note contains a more far-reaching critique. Schmitt contends that the comfortable life in the bourgeois interior, despite its mundane and modest quality, seduces men into a sinful attachment to worldly enjoyment. The sinfulness resides in the pursuit of security: the will to achieve a state of complete safety in the shielded salon betrays a blasphemous belief in the possibility of a man-made utopia.

Schmitt’s diary entry might come across as a peculiar expression of a severe Christian ethos, but he joins a long line of critics of the bourgeoisie, who fault it for its incapacity to appreciate a community that extends beyond the realm of the family. The bourgeois individual typically believes that his real life plays out in the private sphere, and perceives the outside world as a foreign and dangerous territory. To the extent that the bourgeoisie does act politically, however, it continues to be guided by the desire for security nurtured in the home, and its ambition is to turn the world into a calm interior. To the bourgeoisie, conflict rudely disturbs the continual traffic of discourse – it should simply not take place. At this point, the bourgeois host’s call for the re-establishment of placid conversation – Nur immer gemütlich! or “Temper! Temper!” – sounds increasingly sinister.

Schmitt’s manner of constellating the concept of security, which from the Absolutist age and onwards is a central item in the vocabulary of political philosophy, with the everyday notion of domestic tranquility, ultimately suggests a critique of a modern utopia. He maintains that in its political projects, the bourgeoisie transposes the values immanent to Gemütlichkeit to a political realm necessarily defined by conflict. From a theological viewpoint, this equals blasphemy, and yet he also points to the disastrous political consequences of the unacknowledged vision of a global interior. Believing that conflicts are unnecessary and immaterial, the bourgeoisie refuses to acknowledge any opponents, and the one who nonetheless puts up resistance and voices opposition to the preordained social harmony captured in the concept of sécurité will be swept away and deemed nothing more than an inconvenience.

Despite its peaceable disposition, then, the bourgeoisie can be a formidable opponent. In his study of the concept of the political, Schmitt warns against liberals who identify themselves as men free of all specific determinations, and who claim to act in the name of humanity. The term humanity does not designate a genuinely political subject, conscious of its polemical position in a space structured by conflicts. The one who monopolizes the status of humanity will instead disqualify his opponents as non-human, and go about their annihilation. The pursuit of security that culminates in the maintenance of global peace, ultimately an endeavor to construct an earthly paradise of perfect Gemütlichkeit, thus ends up marginalizing its potential antagonists in the worst possible manner, namely by robbing them of their membership in the human community. Nothing is more dangerous than family values.

According to Habermas, the bourgeoisie consumes coffee in the transient but promising public sphere; according to Schmitt, they do so in the spurious harmony of the bourgeois interior. Both thinkers ultimately describe how those who meet over coffee tend to view themselves as human beings freed from the pressures of political discord or social constraints. One drinks coffee in a space abstracted from all contexts that predetermine relationships. For the duration of the coffee break, the conditions that normally circumscribe an existence marked by conflict and inequality are suspended, and in the resulting state one can identify a principle of a sound public sphere or an apolitical and therefore fatal utopia.

What is it about coffee – and coffeehouses – that makes it so agreeable to the bourgeoisie? asks Jakob Norberg in a brief social history of the dark, rich brew. For Jürgen Habermas, the coffeehouse is a place where bourgeois individuals can enter into relationships with one another without the restrictions of family, civil society, or the state. It is the site of a sort of universal community, integrated neither by power nor economic interests, but by common sense. For Carl Schmitt, coffee is a symbol of Gemütlichkeit, or the bourgeois desire to enjoy undisturbed security. And for Alexander Kluge, drinking coffee provides the opportunity for people to talk to each other beyond the constraints of purpose-governed exchanges, to enter into “human relationships”.

Jürgen Habermas’s study The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, published in 1962, sought to remind contemporary society of its own inheritance, namely the vision of citizens participating in a critical discourse devoted to the scrutiny of state policies.[1] By recovering a history of democratization, Habermas confronted the modern European nation-state in general and the Federal Republic of Germany in particular with an idealized depiction of the lively political culture of the Enlightenment. In addition, the study contained some material on coffee.

In his survey of how the bourgeoisie gradually constitutes itself as a public interlocutor in matters of governance, Habermas relates how this class emerges as a collectivity claiming the right to subject political decisions to a standard of argumentative reason. The exemplary case of a successful transition from autocracy to public discussion is, for Habermas, modern England. And the primary locus of English bourgeois discourse is a new social venue, the coffeehouse.[2] The coffeehouse provides Habermas with the most satisfying historical instantiation of the speech conditions that he deems foundational for rational political self-determination: non-hierarchical deliberation rooted in shared capacities for reasoning, detached from the economic field of transactions and freed from the constraints of religious dogma.

But why does the coffeehouse play such an important role in the formation of the public sphere?[3] And why coffee and not the equally exotic tea or chocolate, two other consumer goods introduced by the middle of the seventeenth century, whose careers are intertwined with England’s rise as a global trading power? What specifically about coffee gives it the power to make the bourgeoisie a more politically vocal class? Caffeine is, after all, a “psychoactive addictive substance” with “antihypnotic and antifatigue properties.”[4] Does the ingestion of this drug wake a dormant class, long unaware of its political potential, from drowsiness? Is the conspicuous consumption of an oriental drink indicative of a systematic legitimation of the previously scorned pursuit of luxury, all according to new principles of political economy?[5] Is the sudden restlessness of the bourgeoisie, its increasingly explicit ambition to influence legislation, fuelled by a caffeine kick?

Historians of stimulants have tried to invest coffee with characteristics that would explain its agreeability to the bourgeoisie. Coffee does not contain alcohol and can easily be promoted as its antidote, as a means to maintain energetic sobriety and keep working, a disposition in line with the ascetic ethos of the agents of early capitalism.[6] There is no shortage of advertising material from the period to support such a view. Drawing on puritan coffee propaganda, the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch asserts that, with coffee, rationalism entered the physiology of man.[7] Its somatic effects associate it with the exhortation to constant alertness and activity.

However, to Habermas, the chemical constituents and invigorating effect of coffee do not play any overt role in the constitution of the public sphere. As a thinker with Marxist allegiances, he avoids the fetishism that seems to inhere in the genre of commodity histories, in which objects of consumption take on unexpected powers and become protagonists in adventurous narratives.[8] Yet no Marxist would believe that social relations can be neatly disentangled from commodity capitalism. According to Habermas, bourgeois individuals are able to enter into novel kinds of relationships with one another in the coffeehouse because the links between family, civil society, and the state are restructured under capitalist conditions.

The capitalist reorganization of the societal whole enables more fluid relations between individuals, whose social and economic ties predominantly assume contractual forms. The market economy allows agents of commerce to operate independently of societal bonds of lordship and servitude, but the household also ceases to be a site of manufacture and trade. As a consequence, the intimate familial circle of parents and children seems to be composed of autonomous individuals united not by production, but by mutual love and sympathy. Within the released sphere of intimacy, the bourgeoisie also discovers and explores a new mode of subjectivity, and the members of the family become readers and writers of emotionally saturated letters and diaries. On the basis of this new repertoire of experiences, they begin to conceive of themselves as human beings with an existence beyond prescribed official roles.

This private realm of human intimacy does not remain sealed off from other societal areas. Rather the individuals discourse with one another in new settings, such as the coffeehouse. When they do so, however, they retain their newfound status as autonomous and equal human beings, unburdened by the intricate feudal ceremonies through which rank was once ostentatiously displayed and corroborated.[9] When the members of the bourgeoisie meet for coffee, they convene as participants in true humanity: they claim not to represent a particular constituency or interest, but to embody a universal community. In fact, it is partly by their claim to represent humanity as such rather than a defined group within an established grid that they can arrogate to themselves jurisdiction over policy matters. Enlightened public opinion can legitimately check the exercise of political power, because in the public discourse that unfolds through the voluntary interaction among individuals unencumbered by feudal barriers, rational argument prevails over all other concerns.

In Habermas’s narrative, then, the success of the English coffeehouse as the primary organ of bourgeois political influence derives from its ability to portray itself as the site of a universal community. Those who in their free time gather in coffeehouses are integrated neither by power nor by economic interest, but by common sense. Yet this pretense is supported by restrictive admission policies: almost in passing, Habermas notes how the reputation of the coffeehouse as a space of sober rationality requires the exclusion of women. The coffeehouse remains a gendered space: humanity, it turns out, comprises coffee-drinking men.[10]

Habermas’s description of the English coffeehouse has in many ways crossed the boundaries of the academic study and become a kind of myth, a historical model that remains curiously evocative. The notion of a vivid intellectual culture tied to a specific site that is public and yet characterized by relaxed communication resonates with us because it is still recognizable. We have coffee, we meet in cafés, we sit down for chats with friends and acquaintances; Habermas’s depiction of the coffeehouse still corresponds to an everyday practice. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere suggestively melds a normative vision of a liberated discourse with a common, even trivial experience. This blend explains some of the overly optimistic enthusiasm for the café as a site where conflicts can be resolved or at least bracketed. In a recent issue of the Swedish journal Axess, one contributor wonders if “the cafés of Europe can cure nationalism?”[11] Ethnic and religious conflict, discrimination and class differences – perhaps they can be effaced, as through a miracle, once we meet over a cup of coffee.

But Habermas himself presented a rather pessimistic account of the fate of the public sphere as a series of interlocking sites of face-to-face debate after the Enlightenment period. The success of the coffeehouse as a medium for the formation of bourgeois public opinion rested on institutional premises that disappeared over time. As an intermediary space between state and market, in which autonomous individuals can enjoy their common humanity in unrestricted conversation, the public sphere vanishes with the increasing interpenetration between government authority and commercial enterprises. Capitalist firms increasingly wield considerable power, and while the state expands its responsibilities to counterbalance them and guarantee individuals a measure of security, the resulting interaction between large-scale corporations and a growing state leaves little room for an efficacious free debate.

In Germany, with its traditionally strong executive and politically weak middle class, it is even doubtful if the culture of rational deliberation outlined by Habermas ever appeared in the interstices of state structures and markets. In fact, coffee has slightly different connotations in the German context. It is often associated with particular values – or perhaps a particular atmosphere and mood[12] – encapsulated in the notion of Gemütlichkeit, of semi-domestic coziness and comfort. Gemütlichkeit is the motto of a much less assertive bourgeoisie, a class that never really conquers a public space but rather withdraws into the well-isolated drawing room, furnished with “porcelain stoves, draped portieres, Turkish carpets, and sofas and arm-chairs of plush.”[13] The German bourgeoisie barricades itself behind luxurious furniture, thereby fortifying its homes against the nuisance of the public world.[14]

In a note in his acrimonious postwar glossary, the legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt captures the stale atmosphere of the bourgeois interior, and points to coffee as a symbol of the desire to enjoy undisturbed security within the confines of the household:

French: sécurité; German (until now): Gemütlichkeit. That is the internalized – or interiorized – but at the same time secularized assurance of divine grace, the end of fear and trembling at a nice cup of coffee and a pipe stuffed with spicy tobacco. It is the reappearance of well-concealed sensual enjoyment, after Luther and the Moravians raged against security as the actual form of sensuality.[15]

In Schmitt’s view, the typical bourgeois philistine, unmistakably portrayed in his entry, is not so much ascetically opposed to pleasure as he is wary of pleasure that cannot be enjoyed securely – that is – without worry.[16] Coffee, in combination with tobacco, stands for intoxication without risk; it is a stimulant that does not dangerously loosen the subject’s self-possession. It signifies a furtive bliss distinguished from the ecstatic, which implies a movement transcending the bounded ego lodged in the safety of plush comfort.[17]

Yet the note contains a more far-reaching critique. Schmitt contends that the comfortable life in the bourgeois interior, despite its mundane and modest quality, seduces men into a sinful attachment to worldly enjoyment. The sinfulness resides in the pursuit of security: the will to achieve a state of complete safety in the shielded salon betrays a blasphemous belief in the possibility of a man-made utopia.

Schmitt’s diary entry might come across as a peculiar expression of a severe Christian ethos, but he joins a long line of critics of the bourgeoisie, who fault it for its incapacity to appreciate a community that extends beyond the realm of the family. The bourgeois individual typically believes that his real life plays out in the private sphere, and perceives the outside world as a foreign and dangerous territory. To the extent that the bourgeoisie does act politically, however, it continues to be guided by the desire for security nurtured in the home, and its ambition is to turn the world into a calm interior. To the bourgeoisie, conflict rudely disturbs the continual traffic of discourse – it should simply not take place. At this point, the bourgeois host’s call for the re-establishment of placid conversation – Nur immer gemütlich! or “Temper! Temper!” – sounds increasingly sinister.

Schmitt’s manner of constellating the concept of security, which from the Absolutist age and onwards is a central item in the vocabulary of political philosophy, with the everyday notion of domestic tranquility, ultimately suggests a critique of a modern utopia. He maintains that in its political projects, the bourgeoisie transposes the values immanent to Gemütlichkeit to a political realm necessarily defined by conflict. From a theological viewpoint, this equals blasphemy, and yet he also points to the disastrous political consequences of the unacknowledged vision of a global interior. Believing that conflicts are unnecessary and immaterial, the bourgeoisie refuses to acknowledge any opponents, and the one who nonetheless puts up resistance and voices opposition to the preordained social harmony captured in the concept of sécurité will be swept away and deemed nothing more than an inconvenience.

Despite its peaceable disposition, then, the bourgeoisie can be a formidable opponent. In his study of the concept of the political, Schmitt warns against liberals who identify themselves as men free of all specific determinations, and who claim to act in the name of humanity. The term humanity does not designate a genuinely political subject, conscious of its polemical position in a space structured by conflicts. The one who monopolizes the status of humanity will instead disqualify his opponents as non-human, and go about their annihilation. The pursuit of security that culminates in the maintenance of global peace, ultimately an endeavor to construct an earthly paradise of perfect Gemütlichkeit, thus ends up marginalizing its potential antagonists in the worst possible manner, namely by robbing them of their membership in the human community. Nothing is more dangerous than family values.

According to Habermas, the bourgeoisie consumes coffee in the transient but promising public sphere; according to Schmitt, they do so in the spurious harmony of the bourgeois interior. Both thinkers ultimately describe how those who meet over coffee tend to view themselves as human beings freed from the pressures of political discord or social constraints. One drinks coffee in a space abstracted from all contexts that predetermine relationships. For the duration of the coffee break, the conditions that normally circumscribe an existence marked by conflict and inequality are suspended, and in the resulting state one can identify a principle of a sound public sphere or an apolitical and therefore fatal utopia.

The author and filmmaker Alexander Kluge can be said to occupy a position between the two poles described above. His attitude is best articulated in the story “Lieutenant Boulanger”, published in his collection Case Histories [Lebensläufe] from 1962, the same year that Habermas’s dissertation on the public sphere appeared. “Lieutenant Boulanger” relates the turbulent career of an ambitious young man, Boulanger, who, after failing to obtain a medical degree, agrees to work as the assistant for a Professor Hirt at the Reich University of Strasbourg in 1942. His task is gruesome – it entails procuring the craniums of Jewish-Bolshevist commissars on the Eastern front, and Boulanger is entrusted with isolating and executing the targeted group among prisoners of war. The professor’s aim is to complete his collection of type samples of the “subhuman species” embodied by Jews in the higher ranks of the Soviet army,[18] and Boulanger believes that his acceptance of this special mission will advance his chances of a “transfer to research” despite his previous failure to embark on an academic career.[19]

The bulk of the narrative is taken up by descriptions of how Boulanger carries out his task in as clinical and systematic a fashion as he can. He conducts interviews with captured Soviet soldiers in order to select those who seem to belong to the defined group, kills them with injections, severs their heads, and sends them off to Strasbourg in specially designed tin containers. Boulanger – the baker – has in fact been employed to carry out a “butcher’s duties”.[20] In other words, the desired advancement within academia does not occur.

However, the very last segment of the text relates an encounter that takes place almost two decades later, in 1961. Boulanger is working as a packer at a mill in Cologne, where he tries to keep a low profile and avoid further legal consequences of his earlier employment. But he is not forgotten: a French journalist from the left-wing newspaper L’Humanité tracks him down and is able to arrange an interview. During this interview, the report of which takes up the final part of the novella, the journalist concentrates on Boulanger’s method of selection during his time as Professor Hirt’s assistant. How did he identify the Jewish-Bolshevik commissars, how did he proceed?

The interview that ends the novella thus reverses the distribution of roles that prevailed in the earlier parts. In 1961, Boulanger no longer conducts interrogations with potential victims, but has been dislodged from a position of power and is himself asked a series of questions about his involvement in crimes, the answers to which will reveal his participation in the National Socialist machinery. Kluge’s story is made up of a series of investigative moves, and the text is written in the stripped-down language of the criminal profile or the cross-examination, most pronounced in a brief section towards the end where every utterance is marked as “Question” or “Answer”.[21]

Yet the dominant interrogation style is broken up in the brief, final paragraph, when the journalist has finished his interview and yet is not quite ready to leave Boulanger. Despite the strictly regulated interrogative form, a tentative encounter between two human beings has somehow occurred, and both the reporter and Boulanger want to keep conversing outside of the framework of the enquiry. Contrary to Boulanger himself, who struck up conversations with people whose status as human subjects had already been annulled by the very process of trying to record the positive traits of a subhuman category, the French journalist-interviewer seeks to break out of the format of the investigation to engage in another kind of dialogue. But this more supple and egalitarian mode of interaction is immediately blocked, for the two protagonists cannot drink coffee with each other:

No coffee: During the interview a human relationship had developed between B. and the representative [Vertreter] from L’Humanité. When the interview was over they would have liked to have a cup of coffee together. This turned out to be impossible. At this hour coffee was not being served in the cafeteria so as not to give the staff an excuse to leave their jobs. And in the cafeteria no one was allowed to sit down. So B. and the interviewer parted without having had a cup of coffee.[22]

Previous commentators have observed that the human contact between the journalist and Boulanger cannot be developed further because of the harsh workplace regulations devised for maximum efficiency: casual meetings are organizationally prohibited for the sake of profit.[23] The company cafeteria is not exactly a coffeehouse, a place of leisure outside the bounds of hierarchy and production. Yet this interpretation hardly exhausts the critical intention of the concluding paragraph. The irony directed at contemporary industrial capitalism is complicated by the presence of another problem, namely the possibility or impossibility of a “human relationship” with Boulanger. Even if Boulanger has reformed his thinking and regrets his involvement with Professor Hirt, to what extent can one sit down with him to explore and confirm a common humanity?

Kluge does not write that the attempt to cultivate a more human contact with Boulanger is inadmissible or inadvisable, but that it is “impossible”. It is impossible to bridge the distance that separates, and indeed must separate, the investigative journalist and the former Nazi research assistant. In this interpretation, the French reporter not only represents a left-wing ideology or an invaded country; he is also, as the German text declares, a representative [Vertreter] of humanity, of L’Humanité. Given that Boulanger participated in a research project based on the premise that there is no universal humanity but only distinct and clearly ranked racial groups, he may not even be able to recognize such an ambassador.

Kluge’s final paragraph even offers the reader an impasse. If one assumes the position of a representative of humanity in relation to Boulanger, one is inevitably forced to in some way betray the substance of that which one claims to represent. On the one hand, one cannot grant Boulanger a measure of human contact without smoothing over his willing participation in horrendous crimes. He worked within an apparatus designed to negate the existence of a single human community, and the research he helped carry out furnished pseudo-scientific proofs for extermination programmes. On the other hand, one cannot refuse him a human relationship without in some way repeating a kind of differentiation and exclusion. The situation is, as Kluge writes, “impossible”.

This problematic is suggested in a paragraph about a cup of coffee. There is no space for the journalist to have coffee with Boulanger, to engage with him in the most humane of all activities, namely to cease working and chat about nothing in particular. Coffee stands as an emblem for a sociability that escapes the strictures of the interrogation, or the mould of any kind of instrumental communication. The cup of coffee metonymically signifies the opportunity for people to talk to each other beyond the constraints of purpose-governed exchanges, and relieve themselves of the specifications inherent to assigned roles. Kluge does not repudiate our need for such opportunities, but he poses the question of what problems we can resolve during a coffee break, or what divisions we can possibly overcome.[24] It is hard, or impossible, to drink coffee with Boulanger.

Habermas, Schmitt, Kluge: their disparate texts discuss a notion of amiable, self-regulating modes of interaction, as well as the potentially political contents and uses of this form of interaction. The social history of coffee that emerges in their statements may seem curious, but it is far from concluded. Contemporary commentators can also read the expanding coffee culture as a manifestation of value shifts in society:

In the dismantled Swedish welfare state [folkhemsbygget] there was the idea that the state carried a certain responsibility for the social and for what people did outside of their work. [...] Now this responsibility rests, like so much else, on the individual, and the only thing that has happened is that more coffee shops have opened.[25]

“The only thing that has happened is that more coffee shops have opened” – one should not underestimate the role of coffee in the bourgeois social imaginary. The specific rituals and behaviours of commensality that have emerged around coffee drinking do seem to occupy a special place in bourgeois life: coffee does not intoxicate, it is even conducive to labour, but one must still take a short break to consume it; the conversation that accompanies coffee consumption can range from the banal to the serious, but it never takes place among irreconcilable enemies and tends to present itself as an opportunity to neutralize noxious conflicts; it is pleasant to have coffee with others, and yet the act of drinking it is not an essentially collective enterprise, and hence does not violate the idea of a society of neatly separable atoms. The coffeehouse or the café is thus the site where the bourgeoisie has, throughout its history, shown that it can conceive of a kind of human interaction that, in a minimal fashion, transcends the contacts necessary for purely economic transactions. One can say that bourgeois society allows for at least one place where community appears as something other than the secondary and somewhat mysterious effect of the pursuit of individual self-interest. We can converse, for a while, over a cup of coffee.

It is unclear, however, if all the coffee shops that have appeared since the state has started to withdraw from the social existence of men in any way embody the kind of public sphere that Habermas described: a forum for discussion available to all who want to express their views and are prepared to advance and listen to arguments without consideration of hierarchies and official positions. To drink coffee involves a lifestyle choice, and constitutes yet another example of how we build our identities through acts of sophisticated consumption:

Coffee has now joined wine, whiskey, and cigars. Clever marketing and expanding consumption have pushed the snobbery to ever-new heights. [...] It’s not enough to order a simple espresso anymore. No, rather a Shade Grown Colombia Nariño Supremo Decaf.”[26]

  • [1] Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit: Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, Neuwied: Hermann Luchterhand, 1962.

  • [2] A quotation adduced by Habermas notes the spread of explicit political interest beyond this primary site, thus confirming its centrality to the process of bourgeois politicization: “Men have assumed to themselves a liberty, not only in coffeehouses, but in other places or meetings, both public and private, to censure and defame the proceedings of the State.” Habermas, 73.

  • [3] For a more empirically oriented study of the English coffeehouse and its significance for social networks and consumer culture during the eighteenth century, see Brian Cowan’s book The Social Life of Coffee, New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. For an overview of the contintental café and its role as a meeting place, work space, and scene for literary coteries, see the anthology Literarische Kaffehäuser, ed. Michael Rössner, Vienna: Böhlau, 1999.

  • [4] Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug, New York: Routledge, 2001, xi and 292.

  • [5] For a discussion of the changing perception of luxury in the bourgeois epoch, see Joseph Vogl “Luxus,” Ästhetische Grundbegriffe: Historisches Wörterbuch in sieben Bänden, vol. 3, ed. Karlheinz Barck, Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2001, 694-708.

  • [6] For a discussion of coffee and the bourgeois ideals of sobriety, see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Das Paradies, der Geschmack und die Vernunft: Eine Geschichte der Genußmittel, München: Carl Hanser, 1980, 29.

  • [7] Schivelbusch, Das Paradies, der Geschmack und die Vernunft, 52. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White make a similar point, arguing that coffee proved to be “a new and unexpected agency in the prolonged struggle of capitalism to discipline its work-force”. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Meuthen, 1986, 97.

  • [8] Habermas discusses the fetish character of the commodity in Theorie und Praxis: Sozialphilosophische Studien, Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1963, 179-88 and 317. For an overview of recent commodity biographies, see Bruce Robbins’s “Commodity Histories”, PMLA, 120.2 (2005), 454-63.

  • [9] Habermas is not the only social theorist who singles out the coffeehouse as a space where the tirelessly emerging bourgeoisie can convene. In his study of the type of the intellectual, Lewis Coser writes that the English coffeehouse allowed for “daily intercourse across the cleavages of birth and rank and station” and in this way “helped to replace a solidarity based on common styles of life or common descent by one based on like opinion”. See Coser’s Men of Ideas: A Sociologist’s View, New York: Free Press, 1965, 20-21. Habermas is not the only social theorist who singles out the coffeehouse as a space where the tirelessly emerging bourgeoisie can convene. In his study of the type of the intellectual, Lewis Coser writes that the English coffeehouse allowed for “daily intercourse across the cleavages of birth and rank and station” and in this way “helped to replace a solidarity based on common styles of life or common descent by one based on like opinion”. See Coser’s Men of Ideas: A Sociologist’s View, New York: Free Press, 1965, 20-21.

  • [10] For a recent discussion of the coffeehouse as a gendered space, see E. J. Clery, The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England: Literature, Commerce, and Luxury, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, esp. 13-25. See also Robert Cowan’s “What was Masculine about the Public Sphere? Gender and the Coffeehouse Milieu in Post-Restoration England”, History Workshop Journal, 51 (2001): 127-57. Both scholars track the constant effort of the coffeehouse community to ensure the masculine status of their site of congregation, for instance by denigrating the fop, a strategy that points to the anxiety about weakened gender lines.

  • [11] Annika Ström-Melin, “Kan Europas kaféer bota nationalismen?”, Axess, no. 9 (2006).

  • [12] Harold Nicolson writes “The adjective gemütlich and the substantive Gemütlichkeit imply both an atmosphere and a mood. [...] It is a kindly, amicable, comfortable, somewhat lethargic mood”. Good Behavior being a Study of Certain Types of Civility, London: Constable & Co, 1955, 204-5.

  • [13] Nicolson, Good Behavior, 205.

  • [14] Walter Benjamin notes, “[d]er Fortifikationscharakter bleibt wie den Möbeln so auch der Städten unter der Bourgoisie”. Gesammelte Schriften, V.I, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991, 284.

  • [15] Carl Schmitt, Glossarium: Aufzeichnungen der Jahre 1947-1951, ed. Eberhard Freiherr von Medem, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1991, 185.

  • [16] For a discussion of the etymology of the word security, see Werner Conze “Sicherheit, Schutz”, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, vol. 5, ed. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1984, 832.

  • [17] “Das Interieur ist nicht nur das Universum sondern auch das Etui des Privatmanns. Wohnen heißt Spuren hinterlassen.” Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, V.I, 53.

  • [18] Alexander Kluge, Case Histories, trans. Leila Vennewitz, New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988, 114.

  • [19] Ibid., 115.

  • [20] Ibid., 117.

  • [21] Ibid., 124-25.

  • [22] Ibid., 128.

  • [23] See for instance Rainer Lewandowski, Alexander Kluge, München: C. H. Beck, 1980, 30.

  • [24] Since the interview with Boulanger constitutes much of the final part of the text, the impossibility of this meeting also points to the impossibility of writing about Boulanger in a more recognizably “human” manner. The desired but blocked conversation over a cup of coffee, a conversation supposed to affirm and develop human contact, would have to exceed the framework of the cross-examination. It would in other words have to be written in a warmer and more fluid style than the preceding story, a style that would presumably surpass the unadorned language of the profile or the investigation. But, again, this is impossible. “No coffee”, a phrase that suggests the promise of a more spontaneous and egalitarian relationship only to withdraw it, encodes the impossibility of narrating Boulanger’s life in a “human” language. There is no place for literary warmth in his story. The journalist remains an “interviewer” to the very last line of the text.

  • [25] Gabriella Håkansson, “Ja, vi shoppar för mycket”, Dagens Nyheter, 19 February 2007.

  • [26] Niklas Ekdal, “Ett kungarike för en kopp”, Dagens Nyheter, 15 November 2006

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