Coffee and "free" labor (and land)
Louis N Proyect
lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sat May 11 06:56:03 MDT 1996
What was important about coffee cultivation is that required
*free* rather than *servile* labor...
Why does coffee require free labor?
Coffee growing is highly capital and labor-intensive. The conditions of
production are inimical to the semi-feudal relationships that existed in
colonial Central America. "Free" labor and "free" soil were required in
exactly the same way as the industrializing north required them prior to
the American Civil War.
A good description of pre-coffee Central American can be found in
Robert G. William's "States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise
of National Governments in Central America". Williams is also the
author of "Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America", the
book I cited in my post on the contradictions of cattle-ranching in
Central America. His work is a model for Marxist political
economists. He says:
"After independence, the Central American landscape was divided
into large landholdings held by private individuals and by the church,
communal lands held by Indian communities, municipal lands held by
townships, and 'tierras baldias', unoccupied lands that were under the
official jurisdiction of higher-order state institutions. None of these
forms, even large landholdings in which vast areas were left idle, were
naturally conducive to a rapid conversion to coffee, and in many places
people held strongly to their traditional practices regarding land
rights. As coffee became more profitable, a struggle over land rights
began, and public institutions at various levels, from the township to
the department and, finally, to the national state, became involved.
The way that state institutions at these various levels intervened in the
land question differed from time to time and place to place, greatly
influencing the coffee boom, the turbulence of the transition, and the
ultimate structures of landholding with coffee."
While Williams focuses on the question of land usage, it is not to hard
to deduce the other side of the equation. The "liberalizing" coffee
bourgeoisie needed a proletariat to work its farms. Labor was in short
supply since much of it was attached to traditional land holdings.
Overthrow traditional relationships in the countryside and not only do
you "liberate" labor, you also free up land for capitalist exploitation.
This, of course, was the sort of thing that occurred in Scotland and
Ireland around the same time. Ideologists like John Stuart Mill embraced
these changes as did liberal ideologues in Central America. It is useful
to keep in mind that liberalism historically doesn't mean Roosevelt's
New Deal. It means thoroughgoing and consistent support of capitalist
property relations in town and countryside. Republican values--
democracy, separation of church and state--were important, but only as
a way of helping to maintain ample access to free labor and land.
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