Orbis Lumen – Some notes on sugar and the evolution of industrial capitalism

Written by Peter Machen

In the best-selling book Sapiens, author Yuval Noah Harari points out that human beings, alone among earth’s species, are bound by collective stories or myths. These myths include things such as religion, creation stories, money, borders, capitalism, communism, humanism and racism. We are virtually always subordinated to these abstracted stories which end up taking a remarkable hold on physical reality. And none more than capitalism, which by this point in history, is the most widely shared narrative the species has ever embraced. Even if you don’t believe in the story of capitalism, it believes in you.

And so, every product, every object, every process, has a narrative and an iconography that binds it to the material reality and dominant mythology of the planet we live on. As I sit at my desk typing this essay, there are a few objects in view. A scanner, some scattered papers, a power supply, a hard-drive, an old folded-in-half magazine that I use as a mouse pad, an almost-empty plastic jar of coconut oil, a lighter, a bunch of keys, my computer monitor, the keyboard that I am typing on and the desk that holds all these things. Each of these objects has a complex history that spans the globe in a spidery network of places, people, resources and processes. Some of these objects have more iconic power than others in the evolution of economics and society. The flame that the lighter produces represents a key moment in human advancement but the lighter also, in its combination of gas, plastic and metal, tells stories about an extraction-based economy. The keys represent private property, the ability to create discreet value by separating something from the world and also the fear of that thing being taken away. The magazine and the ink it bears represent another critical jump, as do the keyboard and the screen – they are the mediums by which our collective stories are broadcast and networked and their physical production often involves the use of very poorly paid labour in a far-off country. The scanner is essentially a camera and it, together with the coconut oil and the desk, which came from Ikea, tells complex stories of an interconnected 21st Century global capitalism.

Some things tell bigger stories than other. And sometimes the bigger the story, the more invisible it is. That invisibility is often aided by ubiquity. Think of sugar. It is everywhere, and in some countries, it is – in its various forms – in virtually everything people eat. Yet, as a cheap and widely available source of sweetness and energy, it is a relatively recent human invention. It is a source of energy, both for people and machinery (in the form of ethanol) and its history is tied to narratives of economic power in multiple ways.

Although sugar has been in use in Asia for most of the last two millennia, the origin of modern industrial sugar production is specifically linked to Britain, which transformed the sugar industry, in the process transforming British and global society. While sugar plantations and extraction mills were already in use in the Arab world and both the Dutch and Portuguese had already established sugar colonies, it was the global scope of the British Empire, together with the first fires of the industrial revolution that helped to make sugar both a cheap and ubiquitous foodstuff and a central strand in the narrative of capitalism.

Before sugar became one of the first industrially produced commodities, heralding the era of mass consumerism and consumption, its appeal had already begun to take hold in the ruling classes of Europe in the 16th century as a far scarcer product. It took two centuries for what was initially a novelty for the rich and elite to cascade down to the rest of society (and it bears pointing out that meals based on cheap sugar and fats are still a go-to for the world’s working classes). By the mid-eighteenth century, sugar was the most valuable commodity in Europe, with all tiers of society consuming the white granular sweetness as well as the many newly available products which had sugar as their key ingredient. The huge demand for sugar also helped to increase the demand for the metal components used in industrial mills (thus both fueling and funding the industrial revolution), as well as establishing the prototype for multinational capitalism.

This prototype took the form of the British East India Company (and also the Dutch East India Company), whose command of trade routes, transportation, land ownership and monopolies put it in a very good position to take advantage of and shape the still embryonic industrial economy that we now call capitalism. It’s instructional to bear in mind that these two companies, although not nationally owned, were proxies for their respective countries and brought European laws and ‘values’ with them in their commercial forays around the globe. They effectively carried the sovereignty of their countries with them, and it is impossible to separate their action and activities from the nation states that gave rise to them. This is emphasized by the fact that the British East India Company was granted a monopoly on imports from the East Indies, and also suggested by the fact that the tax on sugar imports was sufficient to maintain the entire British Navy. Through these activities, the British East Indian Company and its Dutch counterpart were effective missionaries of early capitalism, just as Coca-Cola has been for the American empire. As remains the case today, legislation and trade agreements favoured large-scale producers, who were in turn, usually supporters of the economic and political status quo.

As such, sugar – along with its close companion tea, whose production secrets the British lifted from the Chinese – was also a key driver of the slave trade, an industry that is inseparable from both the history of imperial capitalism as well as its current neoliberal iteration. (In absolute numbers, more people are in conditions of slavery today than ever before). As more and more sugar plantations were established in the world’s temperate regions, there was a corresponding need for additional labour. The sugar industry, recognizing the vast profits that cheap, large-scale sugar production presented, responded by embracing slave labour, initially in the Caribbean, where the British converted many of the islands into ‘sugar colonies’ and soon after throughout the Euro-American empires. The advent of tradeable industrial-scale monocrops in the form of sugar and tea radically increased the size of the global slave trade as well as expanding the trade-routes along which corporate ships carried their human and non-human cargos. Even in the Americas, where sugar cane would not grow, it nonetheless dominated colonial growth.

Beyond providing the blueprint for neoliberal international trade, with its congenital requirement to reduce labour costs as intensively as possible, sugar also occupies a unique position in the evolution of industrial capitalism and the early factory floor, providing a cheap source of calories for the working class who had only recently begun to move en masse from the country’s agricultural fields into the newly constructed halls of industry. (The factory floor is also the place that gave birth to unions and the notion of solidarity.) The modern tea-break, usually in the late morning and mid-afternoon, was introduced in British factories not so that workers could enjoy precious moments of downtime but as a means of extending productivity. (Most us are aware of a biorhythmic lag once or twice a day and we, like factory workers, often head for the sugar and caffeine instead of having the siesta that our bodies might appreciate). Reinforced by the stimulating effects of tea, sugar was effectively an injection of energy into the working day and, by that point in time, a cheap one whose main cost lay not in its origin but in its transportation and commodification. (This remains a key element of industrial capitalism. It is common for cost of production to tend in the direction of zero, with the main costs being transportation, packaging, marketing and the rent paid to the owner of the premises where the end product is sold).

Today, much of the world’s sugar is produced from sugar beets. Although its first industrial extraction dates to 1747, widespread commercial availability of beet sugar was not established for another hundred years. Sugar can also be derived from other sources, including date palms, sugar maple trees and, using more intensely industrial methods, corn, a crop that grows easily in less temperate regions. In the United States, high corn fructose represents the ultimate availability of a product, nearly all of it genetically modified and grown in tandem with the wide-spectrum weed killer glyphosate. It is cheaper and sweeter than conventional sugar and is an ingredient in virtually all industrially produced foodstuffs, from bread to beer. Europe is a little more restrained in the use of industrial sugar – and industrial foodstuffs in general – due to European regulations, a generally more educated population, and a culture of food and agriculture that – despite the imposition of the famously bureaucratic EU rules – is still at least notionally linked to traditional society.

In terms of health and nutrition, it is precisely the ubiquity of sugar that makes it a health risk. Our bodies are evolutionarily wired to like sugars and fats because they are relatively rare in nature. With rarity inverting to ubiquity in a relatively short space of times, our bodies are unable to make the required evolutionary developments that might help us process this relatively new addition to our diet.

Sugar is also highly addictive, although only in the last few years has this become a source of genuine concern and we don’t yet know very much about why or how sugar is addictive or what all of the long-term implications are. And because we live in a hyper-capitalist age, even the scientific method has been partially bought (at the very least, one can say that research is disproportionally dominated by commercial concerns). Sugar, together with its cheap-fat stablemates, has become a major health concern around the world, with the indicators including diabetes, obesity and a host of other health issues.
I grew up off the coast of Durban, South Africa, a key sugarcane region. It was everywhere in my childhood, the monocrop of my innocence and a constant motif in my memory. Nearly every agricultural field, bar a few small-scale farms, was covered in sugarcane. The most dominant buildings in Durban’s harbour are sugar silos, and if you fly into Durban, you do so over a landscape covered mostly by sugar cane. It is a beautiful green viewed from above.

I mention this not for the sake of personalized narrative – although there is that too – but because there is a strong relationship between sugar and land ownership. Sugarcane is a sturdy – if thirsty crop – and is happily grown on hilly land. This means that it is an excellent occupier of territory.
In 1848, sugar cultivators and cuttings were imported from the island of Mauritius. Sugar grew with such ease in the area around Durban that that fact alone made the region ’eminently suited to colonisation’ according to a British naval captain. The first mill was built two years later, with several more mills following in quick succession. In 1860, the British colonisers imported labourers from British-occupied India to grow and cut the sugar cane as they were unable to persuade the Zulu locals to do the job, particularly in an economy that was not yet monetized. And following the lowest-cost labour model, most of the cane cutters were brought over as indentured labourers – a kind of long-term slavery in which labourers had to work for many years in order to cover the price of their passage and earn their freedom.

As a result, Durban now has the largest population of people of Indian descent outside of India, and the descendants of the sugar barons have become inheritors of vast tracts of agricultural land. As the price of residential property has increased, much of this land has been stripped of its sugarcane and transformed into middle-class suburbs, with sugar giant Tongaat Hulletts establishing a property development division. This transition from rolling hills of sugarcane to high-end residential property is a cogent illustration of the shape-shifting agility of capital. It can change its form from a cellulose-based product to one consisting of concrete and glass without missing a heartbeat.
Even the current obsession with removing sugar from our diets gives rise to other industrial riches. As the food industry and the chemical industry gradually morph into one, foodstuffs are increasingly labelled ‘sugar-free’ and given a ‘healthy’ marketing halo. When sugar is replaced by synthetic chemicals, however, it’s usually not out of concern for consumers’ health, but simply because sugar replacements such as aspartame and acesulfame K are cheaper, and offer yet another product variant to increase supermarket shelf-space. There’s that agility again.

In its continued occupation of our land, our cultures, our bodies and our neural pathways, sugar remains a key component of the capitalist project. But even if it were to vanish tomorrow – if we were all to go on a twelve-step programme and swear never to return to our collective vice – its impact on the planet and the way we live will resonate for long into the future. In terms that might make Michael Saup smile, the story of sugar has a very long half-life.