How did capitalism begin? It has, of course, not always been present. And it is, in fact, a very new system for producing and distributing things that are useful to humans. The recently late cultural theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood located the birth of capitalism in a set of significant structural (legal/economic) changes in late-17th century rural England. These changes spread to the cities and, finally, the rest of the world. In The Invention of Capitalism, agricultural economist Michael Perelman makes a similar argument. Land-use laws changed dramatically. The poor in England were no longer able to freely draw use values from public or wild areas. They became dependent on the market economy to obtain all of the necessities of life.
This dependency on the market put downward pressure on wages because it produced a massive reservoir of surplus labor. When a lot of this surplus escaped to the New World, it found enough land and open wilderness (or, better yet, what it imagined to be untouched land) to raise the value of its labor. This is Perelman's hypothesis. But I have one of my own. It began to take shape this summer when I realized that the period of Dutch economic hegemony (basically the 17th century) owed a lot of its success to profits generated from the mass production, distribution, and consumption of foods and substances with very little or no dietary value: tobacco, tea, coffee, sugar. Later, opium and coco joined the emptiness club. In short, capitalism, which matures in 19th-century Britain, could not be established without cheap stimulants.
Why was this the case? Because these foods and substances are addictive? And if so, what made them addictive? Capitalism or the properties of these items or both? This became my best guess: The unnatural temporal rationality of capitalist production and reproduction necessitated a break with the seasonal rhythms that humans had adapted to in various parts of world during the long Out of Africa migration. The suddenness of the transition from deep-time rhythms to capitalist rational temporality required the assistance of stimulants, many of which were initially the vices of the rich (such as the addiction to sugar). These empty foods and substances were made accessible first to the middle classes (the Dutch moment), and then to the poor and working classes that were introduced to the factory system (the British moment).
I spent much of the last two months looking for a book or academic paper that would either improve or disprove my hypothesis. I eventually found a book. It's new, it's by a British historian Lizzie Collingham (she has a supple yet pragmatic style of writing), and it's called The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World.
Collingham's book provided my stimulant/invention of the capitalism hypothesis with indirect confirmation, as its main mode is descriptive. Collingham describes the kinds of foods that were made, distributed, and consumed by the subjects of Empire. What did black African slaves eat? What did their white owners eat? What did the Founding Fathers and pioneers eat? What did English laborers eat? Sailors in the navy? Or Irish farmers? Or colonial officers in India?
Tea plays a big role in the standardized diet of Empire. And not for it's nutritional value (it almost has none), but for its comfort value. Workers synced to the industrial system drank lots of tea with lots of sugar because the comfort that the beverage supplied was cheap and immediate. Collingham also explains that rum served a similar purpose in the slave economy of the American colonies. The switch from foods with high nutritional value (beer, for example) to those with little or none but with high comfort value (tea, for example) corresponds with the rise of capitalism. (For Collingham, these comforts are not only stimulants but also repressants—they repress hunger, repress the stomachs demands for real and often costly foods.)
I plan to say more about Collingham's book in the future, but I'm going to make a leap at this point. I see some connection between this history of empty or comfort foods and the continued support Trump is receiving from his base. "In the heart of Trump Country, his base’s faith is unshaken," says an AP story published in the Seattle Times. The "allegiance" to a leader who has done nothing for nearly all of his followers is almost entirely "emotional" and not, as the AP reporter adds, "economic." What Trump supplies his base with, and what they appear to be addicted to, are the easily accessed comforts of "God, guns, patriotism, and saying 'Merry Christmas' and not 'Happy Holidays.'" The reason these ideological stimulants are strong enough to suppress deeper desires or demands for a more equitable redistribution of socially produced wealth is they have very low emotional and mental costs. The mental value of, say, winning the War on Christmas can be connected with the low dietary value of a cup of tea in the context of Empire.
But this may not be a fair comparison for a number of reasons, the main of which being tea as a stimulant does have some nutritional value, and also it was adopted by almost all of the subjects of Empire. In Zimbabwe, for example, a former British colony, the industrialized working-class black Africans also resorted to the brief comforts of super-sweetened tea. But in the US of our times, only certain working- middle-class whites are stimulated and comforted by Trump's mental nothingness.