Chocolate, Slavery and the World Capitalist System


Recently I received a communication from Socialist Register editor Colin Leys that defended what might be described as the Brenner thesis applied to Africa, and Kenya specifically:


"On the whole, then, I think Kenya _has_ made a transition to a capitalist mode of production, though in often archaic and dependent forms and with a weak state, lacking the necessary 'relative automony' in relation to the ruling class, leading to a high risk of implosion on the lines of the DRC and other places. And there _was_, of course, a 'combination of moments' which brought this about. It was a different combination from that which ushered in capitalism in England, of course, but it was also different from the combinations of moments characteristic of many other African countries, and this accounts for Kenya's relatively high levels (in African terms) of industrialisation, monetisation, proportion engaged in wage labour, etc."


Implicit in this is the notion that prior to industrialization and wage labor, and during the heyday of colonial rule, countries such as Kenya were precapitalist or even feudal. In the Victorian age, European state-run trading monopolies imposed plantation and mining systems throughout Africa that relied heavily on forced labor. Colonial Africa bore many resemblances to Spanish colonies in the New World some three hundred years earlier. In French colonies, you even found legally imposed 'corvees' that drafted native labor to construct railroad lines. These very same corvees were the mechanism used in feudal France to drain swamps, chop trees and build roads on the lord's demesne. To even add to the sense of temporal dislocation, we learn from Adam Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" that the Belgian monarch visited the colonial archives in Spain to study how places like Mexico and Peru were administered in the 17th and 18th centuries. So was the Congo Free State [sic] feudal? For that matter, were Mexico and Peru feudal because the men running the mines and plantations called themselves Lord Fernando, etc.? It is around such questions that Marxists in the Brenner mold and world systems-oriented Marxists conduct their search for the historical truth.


These issues have taken on a newly heightened sense of urgency around revelations that wide-scale use of child slavery or contract labor exists in the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast, where 43 percent of the world's raw commodity for chocolate is produced. A July 29, 2001 NY Times magazine article on the suffering of a 15 year old contract laborer named Youssouf reported the following:


"When visiting other plantations, Youssouf always talked with the laborers who worked there. He learned about good farmers and about bad ones. He learned that some workers were paid a little more than he, and some a little less. Some ate three times a day, some twice. He saw workers who seemed far younger than he, and others who looked as old as his father. He met a few boys who had worked more than a year but had not been paid at all. Some of them said that the trees on their farms were sick. The others didn't know why they hadn't been paid. All of them, though, kept working. They told Youssouf that they had no choice -- if they stopped and left, there'd be no chance of ever being paid. They said that they'd be ashamed to return home after so long with nothing. They said that people in their villages would look at them as failures.


"The trees on Lagi's plantation stayed healthy. The weeds were kept low. The cocoa pods grew, and when the pods were ripe, the boys chopped them down and Lagi's wives split them open and laid the seeds out to dry. Then the workers put them in sacks, and Lagi sold the sacks to people from the city. And then, like that, Youssouf had worked a year. His contract was over. Lagi asked if he'd like to stay for another year, and Youssouf said no. And so Lagi paid him the money. He paid him 75,000 Central African francs -- 7,500 a month for 10 months, with two months' work used to pay for his purchase price.


"For a year of hard labor, six days a week, sunrise to sunset, Youssouf was paid a total of $102. It was more money than he had ever seen. He was proud of himself. He knew for certain that he was now an adult. Lagi's oldest son pedaled him out of the jungle, and Youssouf's time on the cocoa plantation came to an end."


What the NY Times article omits, and that much of the human rights agitation around this issue fails to address, is the degree to which these kind of "backward," semi-feudal class relations are completely integrated into the world capitalist system. Without this understanding, it is nearly impossible to abolish the conditions that produced them.


Chocolate itself was a luxury until the mid-19th century when the imposition of the plantation system in Africa brought down the cost of the good. David T. Courtwright's "Forces Of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World," roots the introduction of coffee, tea, chocolate and other stimulants in the origins of the modern colonial system.


As Europeans brought new plants home from their conquests, they introduced significant changes in the countries that produced them. He calls this "the psychoactive revolution." This revolution, which he calls one of the signal events of world history in the introduction to the book, "had its roots in the transoceanic commerce and empire building of the early modern period - that is, the years from about 1500 to 1789. 'Forces of Habit' describes how early modern merchants, planters and other imperial elites succeeded in bringing about the confluence of the world's psychoactive resources and then explores why, despite enormous profits and tax revenues, their successors changed their minds and restricted or prohibited many - but not all - drugs."


For Courtwright, drugs are "the opposite of durable goods." They vanish immediately, leaving the user searching for the next fix. As Warren Buffett once said, ''I'll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty.''


Many years before Buffett made this discovery, governments and corporations understood that this kind of combination of cheapness and addiction makes them extremely valuable consumer goods. Drug taxes have historically made up a large percentage of government resources. By 1885, for example, taxes on alcohol, tobacco and tea accounted for close to half of the British government's gross income. The Opium Wars in China and the Boston Tea Party were both sparked at least in part by Britain's hunger for drugs.


The reemergence of forced labor in the Ivory Coast is related to the same kinds of global economic forces that led to class-based explosions in the past, both between colonial elites and the colonizers and between the Calibans of the plantations like Youssouf who are forced to confront their exploiters near and far.


Specifically, over the past 3 years or so cocoa prices have been in a slump. According to the Winter 2002 newsletter of the Global Exchange:


"[T]he price drop has been exacerbated by deregulation of agriculture in West Africa, which abolished commodity boards across the region, leaving small farmers at the mercy of the market. With prices in the basement, cocoa farmers have been forced to cut their labor costs, and tragically that has meant relying on slave labor."


While the farms that supply the cocoa beans are small, their purchasers are among the most powerful capitalist firms in the world. The 13 billion dollar chocolate industry is heavily consolidated, with just two firms--Hershey's and M&M/Mars--controlling 2/3's of the market. Although the industry has promised protesters that slavery will be abolished by July 2004, there is little reason to expect that this will happen. Ultimately, slavery is generated by the brutal laws of capital accumulation and not the ill-will of plutocrats. Contrary to the supporters of the Brenner thesis, I would argue that emancipation from slavery will come from socialist revolution rather than "a transition to a capitalist mode of production," as Colin Leys puts it. After all, capitalism has been around in Africa since the Victorian age, whether it takes the form of free or unfree labor.