[Marxism] SUGAR, The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 29 08:51:16 MDT 2018

NY Times Sunday Book Review, July 29, 2018
How Sweet It Is. And How Malignant.
By Sven Beckert

The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity
By James Walvin
325 pp. Pegasus Books. $27.95.

Sweets have invaded the English language the way they have invaded our 
diet, with almost universally positive connotations. Sweet love, sweet 
people and sweet deals all suggest pleasant experiences, as do the 
sugary confections that grace our tables and fill our stores. James 
Walvin’s new book, “Sugar: The World Corrupted: From Slavery to 
Obesity,” will thoroughly disabuse you of such agreeable associations 
and may make you reluctant to reach for something sweet. Sugar, he 
shows, is a blood-soaked product that has brought havoc to millions and 
environmental devastation to large parts of the planet, premature death 
to the poorest populations in many parts of the world and huge health 
costs for societies from the United States to India. After reading this 
book the mere mention of sugar should make you think of slavery and 
cavities, imperialism and obesity — and remind you to check the label on 
the products you consume.

Walvin, the author of several books on slavery, takes his readers on a 
roller-coaster ride through 500 years of history. Sugar, he shows, was 
rare for most of human history, with sweetness largely derived from 
fruits and honey. Sugar was believed to have healing properties and in 
much of the world it was dispensed by apothecaries; consumption of small 
quantities of sugar was the prerogative of elites. Then, in the 16th 
century, Europeans seized large territories in the Americas and quickly 
dedicated much of that acreage to sugar cane. By killing off local 
inhabitants and enslaving Africans to do the backbreaking labor of 
tending the sugar plant, European settlers managed to build a huge 
production complex. Hungry for power and profit, they turned the fertile 
soils of Brazil, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, St. Domingue and other 
places to the growing of sugar for European markets by slave labor, 
producing extraordinary wealth in cities like Bristol, Bordeaux and 
Boston, and unimaginable misery for millions of enslaved workers.

Sugar, Walvin argues, was the cutting edge of global capitalism, with 
the plantations among the largest business enterprises, the most 
significant sources of profit and, in light of their highly regimented 
discipline, the most modern work sites. As a major share of the total 
trade of both 18th-century France and Britain, sugar lubricated the 
world economy and provided nutrition to the growing number of people who 
worked in cities and industry. Sugar catalyzed some of the first waves 
of globalization — notably in British North America, which entered the 
world economy as a supplier of goods to the Caribbean sugar complex and 
a processor of its harvest. Boston, as much as Barbados, is sugar’s 

As sugar streamed from the Caribbean, consumption grew. The European 
elite consumed ever-larger quantities — their rotting teeth in full view 
of their contemporaries, although discreetly hidden by their 
portraitists. By the 19th century, the working class in Europe and North 
America was sweetening its tea and coffee, and putting jam on its toast; 
by century’s end, it was breakfasting on sugary cereals. Fantastic 
quantities of sugar, in all its forms, kept stomachs full and workers 
productive. In 1770, rum — made from sugar cane — provided possibly 
one-quarter of the caloric needs of British North America. By the 
mid-20th century, the average annual consumption of sugar in Britain was 
an astonishing 110 pounds per person. “The fruits of slave labor,” 
Walvin writes, “had thoroughly permeated the Western world.” Even with 
slavery abolished in the British and French Caribbean, North Atlantic 
demand and investments allowed for another huge expansion of sugar 
slavery, this time in Cuba.

When slavery came to its slow end in the 19th century, the geography of 
sugar shifted. Brutalized indentured workers from India and China took 
up sugar production in Guyana and Fiji, Mauritius and Trinidad. Beet 
sugar producers in Germany and the American Midwest gained market share. 
And by the late 20th century, American corn growers were feeding huge 
quantities of high fructose corn syrup into global markets, enabling an 
ever-increasing quantity of sweeteners to be poured into soft drinks and 
cereals. Along the way, sugar turned out to be so important that 
governments came to regulate its production and trade, trying to secure 
inexpensive sugar for domestic markets and to bolster an ever more 
powerful food industry addicted to cheap sweeteners. Subsidies and 
tariffs, as well as imperial exertions on behalf of sugar-consuming 
industries, Walvin makes clear, shaped the global sugar market in ways 
that were good for industry and all too often harmful to workers and 
consumers. The result has been a wave of obesity that has moved at 
awe-inspiring speed across the planet — fattening up people from Europe 
to the United States, from India to Mexico, creating a global health 
crisis that suggests sugar is as toxic as tobacco. If current trends 
continue, Walvin observes, the majority of the British and American 
population may be obese by 2050.

“Sugar” is an entertaining, informative and utterly depressing global 
history of an important commodity. It takes its cues from histories of 
commodities like salt, tobacco and cotton and makes good use of the 
possibility inherent in this approach, especially the ability to link 
diverse developments in distant parts of the world over long time spans. 
It is less analytically sophisticated than some of its predecessors, and 
it enters a field — sugar studies — built on Sidney Mintz’s magnum opus 
“Sweetness and Power,” arguably the book that started the recent boom in 
commodity studies, and one that Walvin often cites. What Walvin adds to 
this literature is accessible prose and a more expansive view that 
focuses on the contemporary moment and, especially, the public health 
implications of a world addicted to sugar.

“Sugar” could have used another round of edits — it is maddeningly 
repetitive. Its numbers are often vague, and trajectories — of sugar 
consumption, for example — would be clearer if shown in a table or 
graph. Walvin’s arguments are morally forceful, but their lack of 
precision and specificity makes them analytically nebulous. “Sugar” also 
reads almost like two books — one focused on slavery, the other on 
obesity. And despite its global scope, the book remains beholden to a 
Eurocentric perspective that has little to say about pre-European 
systems of sugar production in Asia, glosses over the enormous expansion 
of systems of indentured labor in sugar-growing Asia, and is weak on 
sugar consumption in places like India, Barbados or Senegal — all 
currently suffering from a diabetes epidemic. Perhaps it is true, as 
Walvin asserts, that sugar tainted “all involved wherever it took root,” 
but how it tainted places and people, and who did the tainting, and how 
conditions changed over the past 500 years are often left unexplained, 
as are any resulting lessons we might learn.

By alerting readers to the ways that modernity’s very origins are 
entangled with a seemingly benign and delicious substance, “Sugar” 
raises fundamental questions about our world. It does not resolve all 
those questions, but it provides enough information for its readers to 
begin to see some answers and to see how troubling and disconcerting 
they are.

What the Mystery of the Tick-Borne Meat Allergy Could Reveal
Sven Beckert is the Laird Bell professor of American history at Harvard 
University and the author of “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.”

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