This book is about the life of the people socially connected through coffee. Paige West, the author of the book has tried to provide an account that roams around the globe, from a small village of eastern highland of Papua new guinea(PNG) to western Europe and the USA. As the title of the book suggests the Social world of coffee, it elaborates the ethnography of people of Papua new guinea. In PNG people lives from diverse culture and ethnicity. It is also one of the most rural as only 18% of people live in urban centers. Traditional farming in PNG is the major source of livelihood for people. PNG is endowed with rich natural resources- minerals, renewable resources like forests, marine etc. Agriculture, subsistence and cash crops, provides livelihood to 80% of the population.
Coffee not only consumed worldwide but also traded all over the world. Trade is worth around $15 billion with 100 millions of bags move around the world for export-import every year. Western Europe, the USA, and Canada are the largest consumers of coffee. According to the International coffee organization almost two billion cups of coffee is consumed all over the world every year. In PNG coffee, which was introduced in the 1950s, is the major source of agricultural export. More than half of the population of PNG is involved in coffee production to coffee export. Due to its bitter taste, its own people do not consume coffee. Author has done the ethnographic study in Maimfu village of PNG, native of that village speaks Gimi. These people exchange coffee with cash and which ultimately make them socially connected. The relationship builds from production, processing, packaging to trading. Thus it creates a social world where People from farmer, cleaner, clerk, driver, exporter etc. are the part of this social relationship. Coffee can be seen as a product of globalization, it connects people from all over the world but some are gainers and some are losers in this social world. Paige West has told in this book about the neo-liberal concept through coffee, how western consumer world exploits developing and less developed countries. She described how value and image of coffee changes with the change of country which produces and which consumes and in the commodity chain. Labeling or images on the coffee packet describes the coffee drinkers but not the coffee producers.
West's central concern is how the increased importance of specialty coffees (fair trade, organic etc.)has happened and impacted small producer. Her specific small producers live in Maimafu, a marginal small village in a mountainous area of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). West has been associated with them for more than a decade. Starting supposedly with Karl Marx, West identifies what she terms (p. 26) ‘one of the central inherent contractions [sic]’ in capitalism, which is the drive to increase production. According to West, while previously this might have occurred by increasing relative surplus value, making production more efficient, or outsourcing labor to reduce its cost, in the latest phase a further change has occurred:
How a change of form can occur without a change of content or the addition/alteration of socially necessary labor time is a question taken up below.
The next step for West is to introduce the contemporary preoccupation with flexible accumulation, post‐modern aesthetics, and 'a push to accelerate the turnover time for commodities in terms of consumption and to a fixation on the production of spectacles and events and not the production of goods themselves'. However, Marx, with his usual perceptiveness, made the point around 150 years ago that the commodity satisfied human needs, and that the ‘nature of these needs, whether they arise … from the stomach, or the imagination, makes no difference’ (1976, 125). In short, spectacles and events, whatever these may be, are not lesser goods than specialty coffee or indeed bulk instant coffee. Further, the attachment of a spectacle via advertising to a food or any other product is an integral component of commodity production and should not be discounted or downplayed as any less involving or requiring productive labor than the growing of, in this case, coffee beans.
For West, it is the spectacle of PNG villagers as ‘exotic’ and ‘primitive’, attached to the country's coffee in general but specialty coffees in particular, which provides the signage for the roasters, marketers, and suppliers. Further, West argues: ‘the use of images to sell coffee is tied to neo-liberalization’ (p. 26). As ‘a philosophical worldview, as well as a set of policy‐related discourses and practices [neo-liberalization], has affected the world of coffee in two major ways’ (p. 27). The first is through the deregulation of the global coffee market, following upon the 1989 collapse of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA), which had previously acted to rein in the effects for growers of the harshest imbalances between supply and demand. Deregulation, according to West, opened the market for specialty coffee and created conditions for a ‘global coffee crisis’. Second, although neo-liberalization is usually associated with the 1980s and 1990s, West claims that structural adjustment programmes ‘implemented in most coffee‐growing countries beginning in the late 1950s’ (p. 28), enforced privatization and reductions in state expenditures, emphasized exports, pressed for devaluation of currencies and so on, and affected coffee growers in various deleterious ways.
The most important link between the international idea of neo-liberalization and specific state practices in PNG that have affected coffee growers, according to West, is the early 1990s privatization of the most important institution, which governed the marketing of PNG's leading agricultural export crop. In October 1991, the state Coffee Industry Board (CIB) became the Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC), a private firm owned by 12 grower associations. This privatization, along with other changes in PNG's political economy that reduced state support for smallholders, exposed growers – including those in Maimafu village – to the major slump in international prices of the 1990s. Producing specialty coffee became a means to arrest the price slump, or so it seemed to some proponents.
Before dealing with the broader argument, it is necessary to point out that once again West's account is open to challenge, in this case when confronted with the details of what the international idea of privatization meant in PNG and for coffee exporting from the country.3 The drive to change the terms of issuing export licences for coffee in PNG was the antithesis of deregulation, usually associated with the perceived importance of increasing competition and limiting the potential of large firms to dominate the market. Instead, the domestic politics of the previous decade or so, after PNG's independence in 1975, when indigenous commercial interests were firmly attached to state power, had seen more trading companies established and the major exporting firms lose ground, with reduced market shares of coffee exported. The formation of the CIC was an attempt by the larger firms, under the guise of representing grower interests by removing the state CIB, to restrict the issuance of export quotas and licenses (i.e. establishing barriers to the competition for new entrants in PNG). That is, the objective of forming the CIC was to prevent a key element of ‘neo-liberalization’ in West's terms.
However, after the formation of the CIC, once again centralization and concentration of capital occurred in PNG coffee marketing, with smaller and some larger firms going to the wall. This process owed far more to the constant feature of trading capital, present for hundreds of years and that marks this form of capital off from productive capital than it did to the ideological fashions of the end of the twentieth century.4 The international price slump, which further accelerated the concentration of trading capital and discouraged smallholders from devoting labor time to growing and initial processing of their coffee, also prompted a drive to raise the quality of PNG coffee exports and boost the profitability of the crop for firms.
Value chain or commodity chain analysis was extended to the local industry at the same time as it gained prominence in World Bank documents and various intellectual circles, including this Journal (e.g. Bernstein and Campling 2006a,b). The ostensible purpose of such accounts and the policy prescriptions that followed are to increase smallholder production at improved qualities to obtain higher prices and thus to raise living standards, reducing poverty. Less often noted is that these supposed solutions underpin various recipes for extending working hours and intensifying labor processes for all those who labor in the production of any particular commodity, in this case, coffee.
With specialty coffees, less than 1 percent of PNG's exports, and still less than 10 percent of total US consumption, West is correctly skeptical that any shift to these varieties of coffee will substantially raise living standards of growers. She is also rightly critical of the consumers she encountered in travels to major cities in Western Europe and the USA, who attach ethical imperatives to their coffee preferences in the name of ‘making poverty history’. However, how West reaches these conclusions is less satisfactory. West is in many respects an old‐fashioned dependency thinker draped in post‐modern clothing. Her argument is that specialty coffee does nothing to change the relative powerlessness of smallholding growers: ‘fair trade coffee’ does not mean fair prices received by producers. Consumers in industrial countries pay high prices while growers receive less than their labor is worth, with ‘middlemen’ in large domestic and international firms strategically located along the commodity chain accruing profits (see Tables 2, 5 and 6, pp. 166, 224 and 229, in West).
It is now time to return to the larger implications of the already suggested weaknesses in West's separation of ‘stomach from imagination’ in the forms that commodities take. This rupture has serious ramifications for her argument about the prices that growers should receive and thus the larger thesis about the effects of specialty coffees on household living standards. For West, production stops soon after the parchment bean (the most common form in which smallholders sell their crop) is processed locally into a green bean and bagged or containerized for international transportation. This latter is, according to West, an act of distribution, as the green bean of various grades travels around the world, and particularly to the major ports in Western Europe and the USA. That transportation is not an act of production is simply deduced by definition, but never explained. However, its introduction allows the author to avoid raising or answering the question: when does production reappear and end for this particular commodity?
Contra West's principal line of argument, coffee as a commodity is the same as all other commodities. Specialty coffee is not so special. Each human activity that transforms the green bean into roasted coffee and thence into packaged coffee or purchased cup involves the socially necessary labor time of productive workers and also adds to the value of the coffee. Where price is commensurate with value, as it is for West, the price paid for a cup of specialty coffee in a fashionable New York, London or Amsterdam coffee house must include the value of all the socially necessary labor embodied in the commodity, including that of baristas and waiters typically paid on casual wages. The price also provides the basis for the realization of whatever surplus value is contained and has been appropriated at various stages.
There is simply no sound reason to privilege, to expect a higher price for the labor of a smallholder grower in PNG over that of any other worker whose labor power is also central to the production of either specialty or any other form of coffee. Indeed, on West's own figures for the minimal working hours that smallholders expend on growing and elementary processing of coffee (Table 1, p. 125, in West), it is unsurprising that the returns are low. Raising the returns to growers, whether for specialty or bulk coffees, can only mean changing production processes in such a way that tasks now performed ‘off‐farm’ will be done before the coffee leaves smallholdings or in processing factories using household labor.
Instead of being concerned that changes in commodity fashions, away from specialty coffees towards some newer food fashions, will lead to further impoverishment for growers, especially of Maimafu, West could have considered two other possibilities. Longer, more intense working hours, as well as indebtedness to pay for many consumer goods, including health and education, is the present as well as the future for rural villagers and urban workers alike, regardless of whatever commodity production occurs. The only alternative, as things stand for the villagers of Maimafu or the baristas of Sydney, is unemployment and impoverishment.