Sweet Talking: A Review of Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power

by tigermanifesto


I should admit from the beginning that I was always predisposed to appreciating Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. This 1985 monograph, which I read in a strangely tactile Penguin edition, is at the intersection of several of my interests. Those being, not exhaustively: the intersection of geography and history, temporal and spatial; discussions of commodities and the causes of their popularization in the market; histories of production and consumption; and sweet things. Indeed, I have a terrible propensity for aimlessly picking up sweets whenever I see them lying around. I hoped that, beyond enlightening me in the larger discussion of capitalism’s development, Mintz’s book might put some of my own tastes and habits into perspective. I would say the book succeeded on both counts.

At the core of the book, literally and thematically, lie three chapters about the production, consumption, and power dynamics of sucrose in human history. The author brackets these with shorter discussions about the biological facts of sugar and an ending chapter devoted to a discussion on the relationship between who we are and what we eat. Meanwhile, as a historian, the three middle chapters, being the most historical, caught the majority of my interest.

“Production” traces the ancient roots of sugar production back to India and follows the geographical spread of sugar production and demand across the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin, and Europe. Sugar, therefore, emerged as an exotic luxury and a fixture of European court life. At the same time, however, growing demand for the sweet substance––first accounted as a spice or condiment and only later as a sweetener––spurred extensification of production. As European empires grew, sugar became a major investment sector, and plantations devoted to cane  emerged as some of the ancestors of the modern factory. This short explanation highlights the intertwined layers of analysis going on in Sweetness and Power. Namely, space and time. Plantations could only thrive in certain places, and they had specific spatial needs in terms of how vast the fields needed to be, the close proximity of processing plants to the fields, etc. In addition, these were time sensitive, factory-like apparatuses where coerced slaves worked much in the same way as modern proletarians except that they did not even possess their own labour power to sell. These vast agricultural combines exhibit, in other words, some of the time and space dynamics associated with the factories of the industrial revolution.

None of these developments emerged without struggle, experimentation, and failure. Most of the sugar planters failed to become barons with enough money to sway parliament. Not only this, but the net gain of, for example, the British state from its sugar-producing possessions in Jamaica and Barbados was arguably negligible. As Mintz shows, however, sugar enriched private individuals and also satisfied a quickly expanding home demand as well as the appetites of an export market. Let’s not neglect the importance of rum, either, since that commodity played its own special role in the growing dissatisfaction of the American independence revolt of 1776-1783.

“Consumption” continues to investigate these time-space themes, this time looking into the reasons why sucrose became such a sought-after commodity, especially in northern European countries like Britain. Because the book is technically a work of cultural anthropology, it spends a great deal of time on the specific cultural uses of sugar and their evolution. One of the more extraordinary uses, which is marginal today, was the fabrication of immense “subtleties” from sugar and derivatives like marzipan. As shown in the book, they seem magnificent and profitable to venal dentists. Mintz documents the process by which sugar descended from “on high” as an unattainable luxury to a basic commodity that made up a substantial portion of the working class diet in the industrial era. What he sees is not simple imitation. Rather, he takes sugar and inserts it into an analysis of class struggle, not to mention the various gendered and racial connotations sugar has taken on. This Marxist gesture, contextualizing and attempting to peer past the mystification of sugar that we see in historical accounts, is one of the reasons why the book is worth reading. Although a slim volume, it manages to document the connections between a dizzying number of social facts, uniting them to a common theoretical framework. As Mintz writes:

One’s choice of what one wants or needs to eat makes sense only in terms of one’s preferences and and aspirations––in terms, that is, of the social context of consumption (162).

Marx’s critical explorations of the capitalist mode of production are vast but are notably short on analyses of consumption, deemed a “singularity” that is too susceptible to individual whims to explain with scientific laws. What Mintz is doing is “the work of history” that Marx mentions in Capital, establishing the whys and the wheres and whens of a particular use-value, sugar, and then taking a look at the other side, the effects of exchange value structures and the power that they imbue to capitalist classes. That is, in large part, the discussion going on in “Power.” He writes that, although the proletarians did adopt sugar along with other stimulants like tea into their diet, they did so not as a mere aggregate of individuals following their evolutionary tastes but as a mass, constrained in their access to cheap food and heartening meals by the ever-pressing demands of capitalism on their time. Mintz makes the connection between what he calls the “inside” meanings of cultural use with the “outside” meanings of political economy and politics in this apt passage;

“The uses to which [sugar] was put and its place in the diet changed and proliferated; it grew women important in people’s consciousness, in family budgets, and in the economic, social, and political life of the nation. These changes have to do with “outside” meaning––the place of sucrose in the history of colonies, commerce…but they also have to do with “inside” meaning as well, because the meanings people gave to sugar arose under conditions prescribed or determined not so much by the consumers as by those who made the product available (167).

In my view, this is an excellent way of investigating political economy and culture simultaneously, illuminating the position of classes, genders, races, etc. within each framework while also interweaving geographical and temporal arguments that bear on them. It’s within commodities like sugar that consumption, production, and power touch each other and in them that we can discover much, as Mintz has proven, about the workings of capitalist social formations.