Luttinger and Dicum’s The Coffee Book is a work that seeks to provide a social history of coffee, as well as an evaluation of its present status as a key commodity in the world economy. As such, if one is to write a critical review of the book, it is necessary to understand it both from the perspective of the history which it invokes, and also from own attitude towards his history. If one does then it is possible to argue that, while the book presents an engaging and well informed history of some aspects of coffee production, it also frequently underestimates the necessarily negative aspects of this history, both in terms of coffee’s historical relationship to slavery, and in terms of is modern relationship to consumerism.
One of the key early sections of the book involves the description of the social history of the contemporary coffee house; something which the authors describe as originating in the Ottoman empire and then being imported to Europe where at key points and locations it formed an integral part of the social fabric. The authors describe, for example, how coffee was favoured as a commodity over alcohol by key religious groups as it was understood to avoid the negative consequences of alcohol and also to enable an increase in presence of mind, and in work-ethic amongst those who consumed it (2006, p. 42). Alongside this, the authors also pay attention to the literary associations of the coffee-house itself; noting the central role that such locations in Paris played in the lives of key enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot. As well as this presentation of the history of the consumption of coffee, the authors also provide an outline of suppression of coffee consumption and the manner in which early German police forces enacted policies which could be argued to be commensurate with contemporary anti-narcotic policies in order to deal with illegal coffee houses (p. 45).
Although this history is rich and interesting, it does not fully link the production of coffee with its consumption. While the authors do note that coffee production and distribution as achieved largely as a result of the colonial project enacted by European nations, they do not draw a sufficient relationship between this colonialism and the favour that coffee found amongst European ruling powers. The historian Edward E. Baptist (2016) argues that the success of coffee as a commodity is inherently related to the development of capitalist work-discipline and that “along with a massive campaign of religious revival and reform, the availability of coffee is the major reason why the average consumption of alcohol dropped dramatically form a peak of 7.1 gallons of absolute alcohol per capita early in the nineteenth century to well under three gallons by the Civil War decades” (p. 55). The purported benefits of this drop in the consumption of alcohol may be related directly to the development of work discipline, and therefore the growth and establishment of capitalism around the world. In sense, it may be argued that it is not an unfortunate accident that coffee production is intimately related to the history of slavery and colonialism. Rather, it is a necessary consequence of the drink’s relationship to capitalism as such.
Following this passage, however, Luttinger and Dicum do provide a detailed account of the manner in which coffee is produced in contemporary conditions, focusing most on Central America and providing an account both of the conditions of those who work on coffee plantations, and the technologies which they use. The authors also write of the effect that the coffee market and the price fluctuations which are associated with it may be seen to have had on individual domestic economies and key events in the 20th century. They note, for example, that Rowanda suffered significantly from a collapse in coffee prices in the early 1990s and that this blow “combined with political instability and World Bank structural adjustment demands […] helped push the country over the brink into the bloody meltdown of 1994” (p. 151). The history of coffee in the 20th century is therefore presented to be one in which individual farmers were left abandoned to the demands of the market, often with disastrous consequences.
Despite this, however, the authors end their book with the suggestion that Fair Trade and other organizations devoted to ethical production and consumption have essentially solved the problems which has plagued, and occasionally devastated, farmers throughout the history of coffee production. Luttinger and Dicum present examples in which positive changes have emerged in the lives of farmers as the result of Fair Trade practices, and argue that the organization represents a situation in which individual farmers are cushioned from the harshest exposure to market demand, while at the same time generating a process in which market demand is “channelled” in a manner that is results in justice for producers (p. 278). However, while it is true that the actions of organizations such as Fair Trade certainly positively benefit the lives of farmers, several argue that they do not go far enough to address inherent inequality or the loss of national and individual identity associated with the global promulgation of coffee brands such as Starbucks (Thompson 2004).
In conclusion, therefore, while The Coffee Book may certainly be seen to a detailed and rich history of coffee as a commodity, it may also be argued that its authors show a fundamental naivety in terms of how they relate the production of coffee to slavery and exploitation, and how they understand the potential for these things to be alleviated by Fair Trade policies.