Too many notes - on the edge of crankitood

Rewriting and expanding the last post:

How does a heuristic fiction to become, at last, a policy norm? What are the existential consequences of an economic system based on the eventually substitutability of all things, relations and people? These are the questions that guide me with the uncertain light of a flickering torch as I go down into the undergrounds of history.

I am taking as a point d’appui the idea that something happened at the beginning of the modern era – something described, felicitously, by Adam Smith as a revolution of public happiness – and yet it is a revolution that happened, so to speak, behind the back of the revolutionaries, and indeed, of all actors:

“A revolution of the greatest importance to the public happiness was in this manner brought about by two different orders of people who had not the least intention to serve the public. To gratify the most childish vanity was the sole motive of the great proprietors. The merchants and artificers, much less ridiculous, acted merely from a view to their own interest, and in pursuit of their own pedlar principle of turning a penny wherever a penny was to be got. Neither of them had either knowledge or foresight of that great revolution which the folly of the one, and the industry of the other, was gradually bringing about.” WoN, Book 3, Chapter IV)

This citation comes from Smith’s chapter concerning the relations of the city to the country – another twist in the contrast between the great and little traditions with which we are setting out. Smith is describing this from a post-revolutionary position, in which the ridiculous – vanity – is contrasted with the much less ridiculous (acting merely from a view to their own interest). We have not yet reached the point at which the pedlar principle has become the basis of human rationality. We have certainly reached the point at which the system contains something above and beyond the intentions and views of its agents. This is an important and paradoxical point – for try as the classical economist will to reduce society to the individual, something doesn’t reduce here – call it progress, call it the market, there is an emergent, here, which is only honorifically attributed to ‘individuals’. This is in Marx’s mind when he writes:
“The secret of the commodity form thus consists simply in the fact that it projects back to Man the social character of his own work as the objective character of the product of labor itself, as a social natural property of this thing, and derivatively the social relationships of the producers to the collective labor as an social relationship of objects existing externally to them.”

What Harold Innis called –from the standpoint of neo-classical economics – the “penetrative power of the price system” was at its work of ‘eating’ the older system of status, to use Henry Maine’s terminology. The revolution in public happiness, of course, has its victims – how to separate the washerwoman’s enjoyment of tea in her sugar from the tortures of the slaves who grew and milled it is one of those finer moral questions that will haunt the West – but that revolution there was was certainly a fact that swam within the awareness of the Enlightenment philosophes. August Ludwig Schlözer, an eighteenth century German historian, celebrated Erfindung – invention – in his Weltgeschichte over war or monarchy. Erfindung, for Schlözer, reaches into the very nature of man, who is “by nature nothing” and becomes everything through ‘conjunctions”. “If he comes into the wilderness and grows up among sheep, he will become a sheep, eat the herbs sheep eat, and bleat like a sheep. If he comes into situations in which he meets the image of his creator, that is, where his reason is awakened, he will move away from the step on which he has up till now stood near the beasts and will either climb outwards and ennoble himself or will sink down and abase himself.” (58) For Schlözer, telling the true story of history – a story that is, indeed, the story of the Wealth of Nations – is itself a matter of awakening the public “out of a slumber in which our education has rocked us’ – “since we regard coldly a piece of bread, a printed page of paper, a pocket watch, a correspondence, a map of the globe, and a thousand other things whose current perfection demanded an uninterrupted progress of the human spirit from discovery to discovery over many centuries, and whose sum contains the ground of the actual culture of European human history, simply because we have seen it from childhood on, and enjoy its daily consequences.” That awakening is to the power of the revolution of public happiness that is immanent in history – a history that is officially written as if it were about kings and battles, the ‘death games’ of humans, when in actuality these are merely the “hooks” to which we hang history’s chronology. For Schlözer, true history would trace the advent of, for instance, ‘brandy [and] the potato in our part of the world”; these commodities – and others like tea, chocolate, coffee and sugar – made a tremendous difference between the man as sheep of savage times and modernity.
I will quote an earlier post at this point:

"Addiction is an illness of exposure. By and large, those who have access to junk become addicts." - William Burroughs, With William Burroughs: a report from the bunker [109]

In Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz tracks sugar from the cane plantations in Sicily and Egypt in the fourteenth century to the Canary and Azores islands (where the Spanish and Portugese developed the prototype of intensive sugar production with a mix of slave and free labor) to the Caribbean. Sugar cane was brought by Columbus, that divine, diabolical harbinger, to the Caribbean on his second voyage. The Spanish attempts to grow and process the sugar cane were not very successful, especially compared to what the Portugese did in Brazil. But the suggestion was, as it were, in the air; it was taken up by the Dutch and the English in the mid seventeenth century, long after the Caribs had vanished, the way blood, bones and skin massively vanishes – pushed into the vanishing act by the European magicians with their white magic.

It was after the mass cultivation of sugar cane on Barbados and Jamaica and – by the French – on St. Domingue that sugar became more than a medicine or a luxury good in Europe. As Mintz puts it, it became the first “exotic necessity” “… by 1750, the poorest English farm labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea,” as R.J. Davis wrote [quoted in Mintz, 45]

David Courtwright, in Forces of Habit, includes sugar with tea, tobacco, coffee and chocolate as the commodities that produced what he calls the ‘psychoactive revolution” of the eighteenth century. All operated, in one way or another, to alter moods. These exotics were intermingled with each other as well – as for instance, tea and chocolate with sugar. For Europeans, they produced, over a hundred and fifty year period, a radically altered physiological environment. Courtwright surveys the impressive statistics of sugar use in England, always the main consumer: “The demand for sugar was phenomenal. During the eighteenth century, the annual growth rate rose to 7 percent, and during the nineteenth century, when beet sugar roduction also became a factor, to 20 percent. The British possessed Europe’s sweetest tooth – and perhaps the continent’s worst teeth. Their per cappita consumption rose from 4 pounds in 1700 to 18 pounds in 1800 to about 90 pounds in the decade before 1900.” [28]

I like to think, here, about De Quincey. The incident that led De Quincey to opium was a tooth ache. He calls it a rheumatic tooth ache, which I think is De Quincey laying it on thick. But could it be the tooth ache of a boy of privilege, who, indeed, enjoyed that new environment of sugar products? De Quincey’s father was a merchant, and once, in a bout of virtue (for he seems to have been a good man), he forbade sugar at the table, in sympathy with the Evangelical crusade against slavery. This was in the 1780s – but man is as grass, as we all know, and bends with the wind, and the De Quincey’s did live in high style, and Thomas’s father did, after all, do a lot of trading with the West Indies.

Mintz, in his analysis of the double triangle of the trade in sweetness (slave labor to sugar to England back with goods sent back to Jamaica, and commodities from England to Africa for slaves to the West Indies for sugar production), argued that we should look to the sugar plantations, rather than to Europe, for the development of the first factories. This, of course, contradicts an old account, by the Marxists and Weberians, that free labor was a condition for the development of the factory. According to Mintz, the sugar plantations worked under extreme time constraints, and divided the labor into a sort of assembly line, with the slaves cutting the cane and other slaves assigned semi-skilled tasks boiling the cane and refining the sugar. This required a certain number of skilled supervisors. It was horrendously hard labor, and proved to be a man-eater: “From 1710 to 1810, Barbados, a mere 166 miles in area, received 252,000 African slaves. Jamaica, which in 1655 had been invaded by the British, followed the same pattern of ‘economic development’; in the same 109 years, it received 662,00 slaves.”

The plantation owners fretted about their kidnapped and abused stock, always dying on them. Unlike the less work intensive tobacco estates in the Southern U.S., this slave population never fully reproduced itself. It would fail to until the slaves were liberated, in fact. Thus the giant trade in human blood and flesh, those white lips and sharp fangs on Africa’s throat. As one model of work is developed for Europe, another model of transport and labor is developed for Africa – which will, in its time, be emplaced in Europe. Hypnogogy on the periphery, creeping in.

The sweetness, the drugs – oh, we don’t have to dig deep to find, under the surface of the artificial paradise, the piles of bones. But it is important to see that the paradise a-building in the sugar stats is not only what comes to surround us, but what we come to be. The Mordspiel is at work deep in the interior. And, as in a cartoon of a robber hiding in a cartoon cave, the cops are soon to follow. The commodities are now in motion. What only the Gods could once pluck is now cut, harvested, tapped, boiled and barged across the entire face of the godless globe.

Which only goes to show that hophead history is not merely a suburb of universal history. Hopheads have witnessed, with all the sorrows of young Werther and every suicidal lover, that their accept no substitutes passion was doomed in the accept all substitutes world.

New pains, new pleasures, new worlds, new cravings. The catchers of men are learning about the bodies of men.


Bruce said…
Very, very good. Thank you.