Monthly Archives: January 2015

Common Sense, Science and Government Part III: Manufacturing the sweet tooth

I ended the last post with the idea that making policy and engaging in government is a process of shaping common sense. The reason is that government, unlike direct rule, relies upon the consent of the governed (government must ‘go with the grain’). People generally consent to live under a particular social order when that order seems perfectly natural and normal; consent is most assured at the point when people can’t envision an alternative way of doing things, or shrug their shoulders and lament “that’s just the way it is.” In this way, consent to be governed a certain way by a certain set of people is grounded in the terrain of common sense.[i] Without consent, there can be no government.[ii]

In the best case, the need for consent produces a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, as President Lincoln famously proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address. In the ideal, democracy bubbles up from the grassroots: the citizenry consents to the rule of law because they define the law, and trust that the state they have chosen to implement that law serves their best interests. In other words, in an ideal case the consent of the governed is an active consent, predicated on the assumption that the law is a fair application of good sense to common public problems.

However, the populace can also passively consent to a government imposed from the top down. Thoughtful public deliberation can be bypassed altogether if an agenda of government can be made to fit smoothly within the existing framework of common sense. As we know from Gramsci, common sense is inherently dynamic. It changes and adapts over time due to chance and the aggregated choices of individuals, but common sense may also change to accommodate new realities of life (e.g. novel technologies or occupations) or by intentional manipulation (e.g. through media, education, propaganda, etc.). Here’s how David Harvey puts it:

What Gramsci calls ‘common sense’ (defined as ‘the sense held in common’) typically grounds consent. Common sense is constructed out of longstanding practices of cultural socialization often rooted deep in regional or national traditions. It is not the same as the ‘good sense’ that can be constructed out of critical engagement with the issues of the day. Common sense can, therefore, be profoundly misleading, obfuscating or disguising real problems under cultural prejudices. Cultural and traditional values (such as belief in God and country or views on the position of women in society) and fears (of communists, immigrants, strangers, or ‘others’) can be mobilized to mask other realities.[iii]

More importantly, these elements of common sense can be mobilized to mask the redistribution of benefits and burdens, to advantage some at the expense of others. But that’s a lot of abstraction to begin with, so I’ll turn now to some concrete examples to try paint a clearer picture of the dangers inherent in fiddling with common sense (as counterpoint to the previous post, in which I argued for the dangers inherent in not fiddling).

In the rest of this post and the next, we will look at two parallel, historical cases in which people changed their eating habits abruptly for reasons largely beyond their immediate For the remainder of this post, we will look at the development of a sweet tooth among the British working classes in the 17th through 19th centuries and the ways in which this dietary shift dovetailed with consent to an industrial capitalist mode of organizing peoples’ relationship with nature. In the next post we will look at the introduction of white bread to the American middle-class at the turn of the 20th century, and the ways in which the store-bought loaf acclimated Americans to the idea that experts know best how to organize relations between people and nature.

Habituating to Sweetness and Consenting to Industrial Capitalism

In his classic treatise Sweetness and Power, Sydney Mintz takes a deep look at the deceptively simple idea of the ‘sweet tooth’. While today we often take as fact that people like sweet foods, even to the point of self-harm, societal relationships with sweetness vary widely across both geography and time.[iv] At a time when the ubiquity of sugar in our diets is under intense scrutiny, even in the UK[v] (the birthplace of the modern sweet-tooth, as we’ll see), the irony that this problem was intentionally engineered is especially striking.

Just a few centuries ago, concentrated sweetness such as sugar was rare and expensive, and most people didn’t have it or even realize that they might want it.[vi] Such was the case in Medieval England, where merchants sold sugar, at exorbitant prices, as a prized luxury only the very rich and powerful could afford.[vii]  Between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries, however, sugar experienced a reversal of fortunes. From spice of kings to common man’s fare in a mere two centuries, by 1900 sugar accounted for 20% of dietary calories in England. “What turned an exotic, foreign and costly substance into the daily fare of even the poorest and humblest people?” asks Mintz. What he is trying to understand is a sea-change in common sense about food, the ways in which people, seemingly out of the blue, become “firmly habituated” to eating sugar and consuming sweetness.

Unraveling the puzzle takes close attention to the everyday ways in which people decide what to eat and the political, economic, health and environmental repercussions of diet. Toward this end, Mintz breaks his main arguments into three sections, titled Production, Consumption, and Power. From their origins in the orient, sugar plantations slowly spread to the Arab empire and eventually to the Mediterranean and, by the 17th century, to the New World. The salient point is that sugar plantations pioneered industrial and capitalist forms of organizing production and labor long before the start of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of capitalism (at least, so far as these things are conventionally dated by historians). During the late 1600s and early 1700s, plantations in the West Indies combined the field and the factory in one centralized operation designed to maximize output of a single commodity for export, with the single-minded goal of reaping large, rapid profits for absentee owners and investors back in England and the continent (these English speculators kept their personal costs down by using slave labor). [viii] The following images, dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, illustrate how “factory and field are wedded in sugar making.”

Sugar boiling house

“Most like a factory was the boiling house,” writes Mintz (p. 47), who in addition to this print, attributed to R. Bridgens c. 19th-century (courtesy of the British Library), included the following descriptive passage from a plantation owner in Barbados, describing the boiling house c. 1700: “In short, ‘tis to live in perpetual Noise and Hurry, and the only way to Render a person Angry, and Tyrannical, too; since the Climate is so hot, and the labor so constant, that the Servants [or slaves] night and day stand in great Boyling Houses, where there are Six or Seven large Coppers or Furnaces kept perpetually Boyling; and from which with heavy Ladles and Scummers they Skim off the excrementitious parts of the Canes, till it comes to its perfection and cleanness, while other as Stoakers, Broil as it were, alive, in managing the Fires; and one part is constantly at the Mill, to supply it with Canes, night and day, during the whole Season of making Sugar, which is about six Months of the year.”

Sugar mill in the Antilles, 1665

A sugar mill belonging to Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, from: Charles de Rochefort. Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l’Amérique. A Roterdam: chez Arnould Leers, 1665 [FCO Historical Collection, via King’s College London].

Digging the Cane-holes - Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate II - BL

“Digging the Cane-holes”, in Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate II – BL. Curated by William Clark, via Wikimedia Commons. More images from Ten Views are available at Wikimedia Commons.

Importantly, the plantations initiated an exponential growth in sugar production before demand existed to consume all that sweetness. This posed something of a problem, for the many new goods produced by exploiting people and nature in the colonies of the British Empire and its peers—including also coffee, tea, and cocoa—threatened to swamp the limited commodity markets back in Europe. What was needed was a rapidly expanding consumer demand for all of these new goods, and Mintz points out that this is exactly what happened with the widespread transformation of sugar from “costly treat into a cheap food”. To make a long and very detailed chapter short, the use of sugar as a status symbol among the rich and powerful percolated (with encouragement) down to the lower classes, who sought to emulate their social superiors. At the same time, the uses of sugar in diet diversified, especially through synergies with other plantation commodities (chocolate, tea, and coffee) and through displacing other traditional staples that people no longer produced for themselves (because they now spent their time working in factories instead of farms). For example, people who couldn’t afford butter (and no longer had access to cows to produce their own) could instead eat jams and preserves with their daily bread.

At the same time as the working classes were accepting sugar as food, the powerful—first aristocrats and merchants, and later the rising industrial and trade capitalists—were also adjusting their relationship to sugar. From a simple vehicle for affirming social status through direct consumption, sugar came to be seen and used as a vehicle for accumulating wealth and solidifying the British nation (and empire). In a paradigm shift of contemporary attitudes toward consumption, it was during this time period that political economists first recognized that demand didn’t have to remain constant (tied to existing subsistence levels), but that rather it could be elastic.[ix] Not only did this realization mean that capitalists could extract greater effort from laborers, who “worked harder in order to get more”, but it unleashed the hitherto unanticipated growth engine of the working class purchasing power, providing a ready sponge to soak up increasing commodity production and make owners an obscene amount of money.

So all of these things happened at about the same time: sugar production boomed, capitalists made lots of money, basic foods were no longer produced at home, and people developed a taste and preference for sweetness. Rejecting the idea that such a coincidence happened by mere chance, Mintz contends that these events are related through the intricate dance of power to bestow meaning on vegetable matter, to transform a simple reed into food, and thence into a pillar of empire and the birth of capitalism. A slippery concept in the absence of overt force or coercion, power grapples with the question of who ultimately guides the reins of common sense, and thus steers the vast course of social organization. Such power is very difficult to observe directly, and does not necessarily fit tidily into bins of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’. So Mintz instead turns to indirect evidence in the form of motive: who profited and who didn’t from the new British sweet tooth?[x]

While “there was no conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working classes, to turn them into addicts, or to ruin their teeth,” clearly widespread use of sugar as food benefited the sugar plantation owners, and also those who ran and operated the wheels of empire. It benefited manufacturers by making factory workers and their families dependent upon their jobs and wages to buy the new imported food goods so they could continue living. Mintz, through careful anthropologic interpretation, shows that the common people had no more free will in what to consume than they did in how to produce (i.e. by selling their labor power for wages): “the meanings people gave to sugar arose under conditions prescribed or determined not so much by the consumers as by those who made the product available” (p. 167). Though the mostly trivial webs of meaning spun by individuals lead us to believe in free choice in the marketplace, observation shows that our small individual webs of meaning are contained in and subsumed by “other webs of immense scale, surpassing single lives in time and space” (p. 158). Whoever can gain control of the shape and direction of these larger webs—such as common sense—can gain control over the mass of the people in a way that is not readily recognizable.


[i] I take this basic point from David Harvey’s chapter on “The Construction of Consent” in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 39-41.

[ii] Out of concern for space, I grossly abbreviated the continuity of relationship between common sense, consent of the governed, and government. I wanted to note here that Foucault’s last writings, e.g. History of Sexuality, Vol. II & III, deal extensively with the idea of ethics, or “techniques of the self”. In a way, an ethic is used to describe rules that people have to regulate, or govern, our own personal behavior. If we want to talk about a government that rules with the grain, then it has to be a government that engages with these personal ethics—consent of the governed, then, can also be construed as the alignment of individual ethics with government, of techniques of the self with techniques of discipline (the relationship of ruler to subject). Given that personal ethics are informed as much by normalized (i.e. taken for granted) habits and patterns of behavior as by rational thought and decisive action, common sense can also be taken to describe the terrain of ethics to which the populace subscribes.

[iii] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press 2005), p. 39. This paragraph is from his chapter on “The Construction of Consent”, to explain why people have accepted the ‘neoliberal turn’ in global governance, which basically holds to the philosophy that the social good is maximized by funneling all human relations through the mechanism of a market transaction, even though many of the policies pursued under this program have demonstrably negative effects on the well-being of hundreds of millions of people while simultaneously lining the pockets of a far smaller set.

[iv] “There is probably no people on earth that lacks the lexical means to describe that category of tastes we call ‘sweet’… But to say that everyone everywhere likes sweet things says nothing about where such taste fits into the spectrum of taste possibilities, how important sweetness is, where it occurs in taste-preference hierarchy, or how it is thought of in relation to other tastes.” Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1985. (17-18).

[v] The BBC, for example, ran a lengthy series stories throughout 2014 on sugar. For example, in March there was “WHO: Daily sugar  intake ‘should be halved’”, in June there was “How much sugar do we eat?”, and in September there was “Sugar intake must be slashed further, say scientists”. And just this week (Jan. 5, 2015), BBC ran “Cut back amount of sugar children consume, parents told”. Today, the entire ethics (see endnote ii) and government of sugar consumption are changing together, and more consciously than perhaps at any previous point in history.

[vi] Coincidentally, after I had already composed most of this post, I saw the BBC documentary Addicted to Pleasure, which first aired in 2012. Hosted by actor Brian Cox, who himself suffers from diabetes and must carefully manage his personal sugar intake, the documentary covers much of the story told by Mintz, albeit minus most of the scholarly critique of colonial exploitation and oppression and the exploitation of working class people.

[vii] In the 16th century, the English royalty were noted for “their too great use of sugar”, which was used to demonstrate wealth and status at court—Queen Elizabeth I’s teeth, for example, turned black from eating so many sweets. Mintz, p. 134.

[viii] Mintz, p. 55 and 61. The classic definition of capitalism requires well-developed markets, monetary currency, profit-seeking owners of capital, the alienation of consumers from intimate involvement in production, and ‘free’ labor (i.e. not slaves or land-bound peasants, but rather workers paid in wages). The sugar plantations of the mercantile colonial period fit some but not all of these criteria.

[ix] Mintz is careful to demonstrate how political economists changed their thinking on the role of consumers in national economies. Whereas mercantilists had assumed national demand for any given good to be more or less fixed, a new wave of capitalist thinking held that demand could increase by enrolling the people of a nation more completely in market relations—people should no longer subsist on the good they produce for themselves, but should get everything they consume through the market (note that this thinking forms a direct connection between personal ethics and social organization, or government). In return, they should sell their labor on the market as well. See p. 162-165.

[x] “To omit the concept of power,” Mintz writes, “is to treat as indifferent the social, economic, and political forces that benefited from the steady spread of demand for sugar… The history of sugar suggests strongly that the availability, and also the circumstances of availability, of sucrose… were determined by forces outside the reach of the English masses themselves.” p. 166.


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