During a recent BBC radio four program that hosted Rob Harrison, the editor of the ethical consumer magazine, I was left feeling a little frustrated as people phoned in to talk about consumer boycotts (Call You and Yours – 21st November). The host, Julian Worricker, did a fine job in covering plenty of ground in the time allocated. However, there seemed to be a skepticism over what consumer boycotts could actually achieve. This became particularly apparent when Worricker suggested that it might be impossible to know if anti-apartheid boycotts achieved tangible success. Admittedly the show was tailored to fit the consumer topic de rigueure* (boycott action and divestment over tax evasion, by the likes of Google, Amazon and Starbucks), but I felt that a little bit of history would have gone a long way. Sarah Emily Duff, a South African historian, does an innovative job summarizing some of this history on her website on food and power – tangerineandcinnemon.
In this second post on anti-saccharite cultures I situate the sugar boycott at the juncture between economic necessity and individual and collective forms of religious sacrifice and purging.
Moral capital and hegemonic cycles of capital
Questions surrounding the sense of personal responsibility and morality felt by the anti-saccharites have been raised by several historians. Christopher Brown argues that a variety of political actors felt that they could accrue moral capital from framing “anti-slavery initiatives as an emblem of national character” (2006:27), as a way of sustaining the reputation of an empire perceived to be declining. Drawing from Arrighi and Braudel’s work on the longue durée and hegemonic cycles of capital accumulation, and with a historian’s keen eye for hindsight, Brown suggests that creating moral capital by vindicating British liberty was a seductive way of extending the British hegemony of capitalist relations before the transition to the American cycle of dominance.
OPPRESSION! thou, whose hard and cruel chain,
Entails on all thy victims woe and pain;
Who gives with tyrant force and scorpion whip,
The cup of mis’ry to a Negro’s lip;
Marks with stern frown thy wide, unhallow’d reign,
And broods with gloomy wing o’er Afric’s injur’d plain!
First stanza of A Poem On The African Slave Trade, 1791, by Dublin based Quaker, Mary Birkett. The poem is addressed specifically to female consumers of sugar.
In this first post on anti-saccharite cultures I want to briefly point toward some of the wider political issues at stake during the time of the sugar boycott.