Sidney W. Mintz RIP

Posted: 30 December 2015 in Uncategorized
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Sidney W. Mintz, a renowned cultural anthropologist who focused on the Caribbean rural proletariat and linked Britain’s insatiable sweet tooth with slavery, capitalism, and imperialism, died on Sunday at the age of 93.

The son of a restaurateur and an amateur chef himself, Professor Mintz was best known beyond the academy and his own kitchen for his Marxian perspective on the growing demand for sugar in Britain, beginning in the 17th century.

In his view, that hunger shaped empires, spawned industrial-like plantations in the Caribbean and South America that presaged capitalism and globalization, enslaved and decimated indigenous populations, and engendered navies to protect trade while providing a sweetener to the wealthy and a cheap source of energy to industrial workers.

“There was no conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working class, to turn them into addicts or ruin their teeth,” Professor Mintz wrote in “Sweetness and Power.” “But the ever-rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of interclass struggles for profit — struggles that eventuated in a world market solution for drug food, as industrial capitalism cut its protectionist losses and expanded a mass market to satisfy proletarian consumers once regarded as sinful or indolent.”

He added, “No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it.”

For me, Mintz’s work was important for many different reasons: the importance of history in making sense of food, economic and social relations, and commodity exchange; a conception of capitalism as a global system; and a focus on capitalist and noncapitalist class structures and class struggles in both the North and the South. Perhaps most important, he turned traditional economic determinism on its head by arguing that the consumption of sugar, tea, and other commodities and their social importance in eighteenth-century Great Britain shaped British colonial policy and the production of those commodities throughout the empire.

Mintz’s work was also an important inspiration for one of my recent courses, Commodities: The Making of Market Society.

  1. Thanks for this. I didn’t know about Mintz. BTW, the linked NYT article has a truly obnoxious pop-up courtesy of Exxon- Mobil. The battle to control us continues in cyberspace.

    The willingness of these people to intrude so desrespectfully in an attempt to brainwash us shows the cultural dark hole into which they would toss us for the sake of their profits. But in a fair accounting of that thought, I would equally need to discuss the unpleasant nature of public buses in the Czech Republic— the use of the latest technology chiefly to ensure that no one dare ride without paying, and the persistence of paper advertising taped directly onto inside windows, blocking one’s view out of the merciful vehicles which transport the damnned souls to equally unpleasant places of employment or “schooling”— but I should add the defense so frequently heard in the CR: all of this is better than communism.

    For my own part, I see the obnoxious pop- up as the very same thing as the tacky paper advertising which blocks my view out of a crowded bus, where I need constantly to prove that I’ve paid for the right to ride. We are hemmed in and disrespected, and we are not supposed to talk about it. And any suggestion that technology changes our position is itself a ludicrous deception.

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