Coffee and capitalism: why drinking a cup of coffee does delegitimise Occupy London

The only reason anybody considers having a cup of coffee to be 'ordinary' is precisely because of capitalism.

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Are coffee and capitalism inexorably intertwined?
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George Igler
On 7 November 2011 16:00

One feature of the London manifestation of the Occupy protest, like its international equivalents, has caught the eye of the conservatively minded.

It is the enthusiastic predilection that so many of the protesters seem to have for products and services provided by the big corporations whose downfall they are calling for.

Both the Home Secretary Theresa May on Thursday night’s Question Time, and her fellow Tory MP Louise Mensch on Have I Got News for You, highlighted this by remarking on the irony of people castigating corporatism one minute and then greedily guzzling down lattés from Starbucks the next.

Both of them were cheerily derided to enthusiastic applause and laughter from their respective BBC audiences, and I hope those who poured scorn won’t mind my paraphrasing their incensed reactions.

“Are you really saying,” came the incredulous ridicule, “that having something as ordinary as a cup of coffee invalidates being opposed to capitalism?”

It’s the classic straw man, intentionally misrepresenting your opponent’s argument to the level of ludicrousness in order to pretend to defeat it.

And the crux of such waggery is a reductio ad absurdum (and a merry sidestepping of the question of the corporation as a necessary intermediary) which posits a supposedly preposterous contention.

Drinking something as ubiquitous as a cup of coffee can’t possibly negate opposing capitalism.

Well yes actually, I’m here to tell you that that’s kind of what it does.

In non-capitalist societies like pre-89 Eastern Europe people had coffee, but they also groaned every three months when the price of it got higher still. I know.

Pick up a jar of your favourite brew on the way home from work today and accidentally leave it on the bus, and it’s an inconvenience, a trifle. Do so back then and there, and it was an argument with your wife, or the certainty of being crabby and tired every morning for the next month, unless of course you chose to go without something else.

The only reason why we consider coffee, or affordable glass, or bananas, or five pairs of socks for £3, to be ordinary at all is because we live in a capitalist system that has made them so.

When coffee came to this country it was an exclusive luxury enjoyed infrequently by the burgeoning middle class of Georgian England. Now it is a staple.

But what it is, has remained the same. It is the product of back-breaking agricultural labour in tropical climes with wildly varying meteorological conditions, which is then shipped over mountain ranges and ferried across oceans to reach our shelves.

How is this commodity, whose production varies dramatically in line with the temperamental nature of the climate where it is grown, not here one month and unaffordable the next?

Well that would be those sickening casino bankers, in this case speculators on the futures markets, who enable us to keep the prices of such items at a relatively steady level where they can thus be a fixed and negligible cost within a housekeeping budget.

Whether you like it or not, only capitalism has the ability in this way to turn the profoundly exotic and astonishingly complex into things so mundane that it literally never occurs to us to give them a second thought.

(As the American social commentator Bill Whittle brilliantly demonstrated, in truth we live in an age of miracles and wonder as a result.)

Every time we lift a cup of coffee to our lips, we are sitting at the end of a vast supply chain stretching back thousands of miles.

Of the hundreds of people involved in every stage of that process every person is doing what they are, rather than something else, because of the profit motive; a little sliver of margin at each step, which is kept low and thus affordable to us because of the power of competition.

Large parts of Western European societies are now so divorced from the means of production, particularly agricultural production, that they have no concept of how arduous it is.

Nobody would do it for the good of “the collective”. And we know this for certain because a significant chunk of the world tried to do precisely that for a sizeable portion of the 20th Century, and failed so spectacularly that millions went hungry as a result.

The only reason anybody in these audiences considered having a cup of coffee to be 'ordinary' at all – and laughed – is because of capitalism.

The irony is that the laughter directed at the likes of Louise Mensch and Theresa May, was the sound of their points being conclusively made for them.

George Igler is the managing director of Discourse, the UK’s institute for free speech. A City-based political analyst and strategist, he also researches both religious and political extremism

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