Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 22, 2007

Sweetness and Power

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Sugar cane: more crucial for the transition to capitalism than turnips?

Despite Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s best efforts to strictly limit primitive accumulation to the “agrarian revolution” in Great Britain as way of setting the stage for capitalism in one country, Marx’s words are rather unambiguous on the matter:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

From now until the end of the summer, I want to take a close look at what Marx refers to as the “chief momenta.” This will involve a close examination of slavery, sugar production, silver mining, the opium trade, etc.

Sugar in particular occupies an important place in the early stages of capital accumulation in Europe since it, like tobacco and tea, for the first time makes available to the masses what had formerly been a strictly luxury good. Arguably, it is far more important than the turnip–with all due respect to Jethro Tull and company. With their tendency to become addictive, sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, etc. create an extremely dynamic market. As Warren Buffett once observed, “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It cost a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s a fantastic brand loyalty.”

For an analysis of the role of sugar in the rise of capitalism, there is probably no better source than Sidney W. Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History,” a book that I keep coming back to. Mintz, who was born in 1922, was part of a group of left-leaning anthropologists who studied with Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict at Columbia University. Two of the well-known Marxists, besides Mintz, who received PhD’s were Eric Wolf and Stanley Diamond.


Sidney W. Mintz

As was the case with Jim Blaut, Mintz’s sensitivity toward to the poor and the oppressed in the colonial world helped ground his research. In January 1948, he went to live with a young sugar cane worker in a shack in Barrio Jauca in Puerto Rico, where he developed a fascination with sugar and with the lives of such workers:

All the time I was in Barrio Jauca, I felt as if we were on an island, floating in a sea of cane. My work there took me into the fields regularly, especially but not only during the harvest (zafra). At that time most of the work was still done by human effort alone, without machines; cutting “seed,” seeding, planting, cultivating, spreading fertilizer, ditching, irrigating, cutting, and loading cane— it had to be loaded and unloaded twice before being ground—were all manual tasks. I would sometimes stand by the line of cutters, who were working in intense heat and under great pressure, while the foreman stood (and the mayordomo rode) at their backs. If one had read about the history of Puerto Rico and of sugar, then the lowing of the animals, the shouts of the mayordomo, the grunting of the men as they swung their machetes, the sweat and dust and din easily conjured up an earlier island era. Only the sound of the whip was missing

Mintz sketches out the early consumption of sugar, which was a commodity as precious as gold. When the Venerable Bede died in 735 A.D., his fellow monks inherited his trove of spices, including a package of sugar. Besides its tastiness, sugar–like salt and other spices–had importance as a preservative. That is why it was important to the Venerable Bede and the average European. Until the “discovery” of the Americas, sugar was a luxury imported good from the East that was largely confined to the ruling classes. In 1288, the royal household consumed 6,258 pounds of sugar. (Does this explain the hit-or-miss quality of the British smile, one wonders.)

When the British East India Company was chartered in 1660, one of its chief goals was to increase tea imports into Great Britain. A century later tea was the drink of choice in Great Britain, even more popular than malt liquor–and considerably cheaper. The rural poor had used malt liquor to moisten their bread, but a tax on malt made it relatively expensive. Meanwhile, factory workers relied on tea and sugar for a jolt that could help them keep pace with the rigors of the assembly line.

Tea, by comparison to malt liquor or gin, was cheap. You just needed sugar to make it more palatable. Hence, the irony that two key consumer goods of the British lower classes–tea and sugar–relied on the super-exploitation of African slaves and Indian plantation workers. This obviously sets the pattern for Wal-Mart today. Sugar also supplied a cheap substitute for complex carbohydrates, just as it does today. Oatmeal porridge was mixed with molasses–so-called “hasty pudding”. Mintz’s description of consumption patterns in the 18th century seem depressingly similar to those today:

The first half of the eighteenth century may have been a period of increased purchasing power for laboring people, even though the quality of nutrition probably declined at the same time. Innovations like the liquid stimulants and the greatly increased use of sugar were items for which additional income was used, as well as items by which one could attempt emulation of those at higher levels of the social system. But labeling this usage “emulation” explains very little. The circumstances under which a new habit is acquired are as important as the habits of those others from whom the habit is learned. It seemes likely that many of the new tea drinkers and sugar users were not fully satisfied with their daily fare. Some were doubtless inadequately fed; others were bored by their food and by the large quantities of starchy carbohydrates they ate. A hot liquid stimulant full of sweet calories doubtless “hit the spot,” perhaps particularly for people who were already undernourished.

Chapter two of “Sweetness and Power” is simply titled “Production” and makes the case that the sugar plantations in Jamaica and other British colonial outposts were forerunners of the modern capitalist factory system even though they relied on slavery rather than wage labor. The Brenner camp sees “agrarian revolution” as the opening stages of capitalism even though it had less mechanization than a sugar plantation and did not really exploit wage labor. Go figure.

By the late 17th century, sugar was a big business in Jamaica, responsible for the generation of 8 million pounds in revenue according to Sir Dalby Thomas, the governor of Jamaica and a sugar grower himself. Today, that would equal about 830 million pounds. After 1660, Britain’s sugar imports always exceeded the combined total of all other imports.

While the typical large farm of the British countryside was a fairly simple operation from the standpoint of machinery and the division of labor, sugar production was a far more complex operation. If the fields were mostly about growing and harvesting cane, the boiling house that could be found on all plantations were on the leading edge of industrial techniques for the time. British Caribbean planters were large-scale entrepreneurs for their time. A work force often exceeded 100 men and women–some free and some slave. Mintz writes:

All the more reason to specify what is meant by “industry” here. Today we speak of “agro-industry,” and the term implies heavy substitution of machinery for human labor, mass production on large holdings, intensive use of scientific methods and products (fertilizer, herbicides, the breeding of hybrid varieties, irrigation), and the like. What made the early plantation system agro-industrial was the combination of agriculture and processing under one authority: discipline was probably its first essential feature. This was because neither mill nor field could be separately (independently) productive. Second was the organization of the labor force itself, part skilled, part unskilled, and organized in terms of the plantation’s overall productive goals. To the extent possible, the labor force was composed of interchangeable units—much of the labor was homogeneous, in the eyes of the producers—characteristic of a lengthy middle period much later in the history of capitalism. Third, the system was time-conscious. This time-consciousness was dictated by the nature of the sugar cane and its processing requirements, but it permeated all phases of plantation life and accorded well with the emphasis on time that was later to become a central feature of capitalist industry. The combination of field and factory, of skilled workers with unskilled, and the strictness of scheduling together gave an industrial cast to plantation enterprises, even though the use of coercion to exact labor might have seemed somewhat unfamiliar to latter-day capitalists.

There were at least two other regards in which these plantation enterprises were industrial: the separation of production from consumption, and the separation of the worker from his tools. Such features help us to define the lives of the working people, mostly unfree, who powered plantation enterprises between the sixteenth and the late nineteenth centuries in the New World. They call our attention to the remarkably early functioning of industry in European history (overseas colonial history, at that). They throw rather provocative light on the common assertion that Europe “developed” the colonial world after the European heartland. They also afford us an idea of the life of plantation laborers, to contrast with that of European agricultural workers and peasants of the same era.

In my next post, I will deal with the question of technical innovation on the sugar plantation. Since it is an article of faith in the Brennerite literature that “precapitalist” institutions such as the sugar plantation could respond to market pressures and consequently introduce labor-saving machinery, it will be quite revealing to look at the actual record.


  1. With the recent linguistic turn in anthropology, modern anthropologists tend to poo-poo Mintz and the other Marxists that you mentioned as dated or, worse, simplistic in their conceptions. I have very little time for those people, as Mintz and especially Wolf have remained foundational for me as an anthropologist. Mintz studied capitalism, but he managed, in a superb fashion, to continually keep its economic, political, and cultural aspects in a dialectical unity, never sacrificing any one for the others, and he did it in a clear, concise, and powerfully evocative style. I’m glad to see that he is read and studied beyond the all-too-often narrow confines of academic anthropology.

    Comment by whenelvisdied — July 22, 2007 @ 7:48 pm

  2. Whatever sugar’s role in the development of capitalism, it played that same role in sustaining feudal, and semi-feudal regimes sworn, and acting to inhibit the growth of capitalism…

    But the first point that should be made is that Brenner specifically does NOT regard an “agricultural revolution” in England as being the source for the development of capitalism. Let’s look at what Brenner really says in his paper “Low Countries In the Transition to Capitalism.”

    Brenner writes: “Neither a revolution in technology (like ‘the agricultural revolution’ or even the ‘industrial revolution’), nor an ‘original accumulation of capital’ for investment (as was derived, e.g., from the gold and silver mines of the Americas or the African slave trade), nor the rise of an elaborate interregional/international division of labor (such as structured both the European medieval and Wallerstein’s early modern world system) has in itself sufficied to catalyze self-sustaining development….”

    We can go on in this vein, but more important is to actually look at where sugar-slave economies existed and what social relations of production those economies created. And let’s be clear, sugar is an article, an object; it sugar is to become wealth and if the system producing sugar is to produce capitalism, capitalist relations of production, we have to look at the conditions of labor and the results of the conditions of labor. .

    Look at the results of slave production, the wealth transferred to Spain and Portugal without engendering substantive changes in semi-feudal relations of land and labor much less unleashing chain reaction capitalist development.

    But more than that, look at Brazil, which constituted itself as an empire, first as a refuge (taxes and transfers paid in full by the British) for the Portuguese monarchy from the revolutionary impact of Napoleon’s invasions; and then apart and against Portugal itself when republican stirrings in the mother country jeopardized the privileges of the planters, the merchants, and the monarch.

    So where was the great enabling power of sugar there and then for the timid, trembling, shadow of a bourgeoisie in Brazil?

    Comment by s.artesian — July 22, 2007 @ 10:10 pm

  3. Sugar under feudalism was a luxury item. In the primitive accumulation stage of capitalism, it was a commodity for the working class and peasants. This is an important distinction. As far as Brazil and Portugal (and Mexico/Spain) are concerned, their role in the emerging world capitalist system was subservient to Great Britain but necessary. Without Iberian colonialism, British industry and finance would have withered on the vine. Despite the fact that Spain and Portugal lagged behind Great Britain socially, they were key links in the chain. As Karl Marx stated, “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” His words support my approach (and Maurice Dobbs’s, btw), not Brenner or Wood’s.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 22, 2007 @ 10:51 pm

  4. Very good. I am learning a great deal from this website.

    In 1288, the royal household consumed 6,258 pounds of sugar. (Does this explain the hit-or-miss quality of the British smile, one wonders.)

    That was funny.

    Comment by Graeme — July 23, 2007 @ 1:20 am

  5. OT (not quite):

    warren buffett must have stolen his comment about cigarettes from a play I had a role in in high school (1955!) called “The Curious Savage” where all the action takes place in a looney bin. One of the inmates says, “I’d like to invent something that could be made for a dime, sold for a dollar and was habit-forming.”

    Mr. Buffett: you’re a thief!

    Comment by steve heeren — July 23, 2007 @ 3:56 am

  6. […] Yep. See also Fast Food Nation and also Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz […]

    Pingback by Life and Arts on the stepper (working up a sweat with the FT) « — October 2, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

  7. […] ultimately sugar is a political problem rather than an existential one. In an article I wrote  five years ago on Sidney W. Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern […]

    Pingback by Sugar: the bitter truth « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 3, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

  8. I wasn’t quite convinced of the account of tea’s eclipse of alcohol as the British labourers’ drink of choice. Britons drank beer (not malt liquor) in the Middle Ages. Like making tea, brewing beer is a way of purifying water. (Medieval beer wasn’t very strong, called ‘small beer’, when brewed for slaking thirst.) With industrialisation a teetotal movement was started by the middle classes to wean workers off beer and onto the Chinese/Indian import, tea.
    The rise of cane sugar in the English diet comes as urbanisation takes Britons further away from fruit sugars in apples, pears and berries. Taken in tea or as boiled sweets (often moulded into the shape of fruit and flavoured with citric acid to recall what they substituted) cane sugar became a part of the factory workers’ diet.

    Comment by James Heartfield — December 28, 2015 @ 9:13 am

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