The Prime Minister has shown us his limited originality by adopting Jacinda Ardern’s policy of phasing out smoking. The arguments for this policy are poor. The argument is, in short, that smoking causes health problems, and that it costs the NHS and hence the Government and hence the taxpayer a lot of money. There is some truth to the first part: but the second part is nonsense. The taxes on tobacco are colossal: and it is quite possible that the expectant lives of the Methuselahs untroubled by sudden death in their 50s, 60s and 70s, and who survive into their 90s and 100s, will cost the NHS much more.
But the subject of tobacco cannot be understood unless we relate it to coffee, to alcohol, to technology and to politics. And my particular point is about coffee, since I would like to predict that at some point in the future our rulers will announce that we should no longer drink coffee. It will be banned, or phased out. Everyone will pretend they did not drink it. Netflix will show nostalgic and accusatory programmes in which almost everyone in the past is depicted as chain-drinking coffee. In some countries coffee cups in old films will be blurred out by the censor. Sterling Hayden told Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar that a man only needs “a cup of coffee and a smoke”. Modern film critics will wonder how such a line was passed by the censor.
To make sense of this we should start the story with the oldest of all drinks. Alcohol causes problems. But almost everyone in the Middle Ages was almost permanently drunk. The concept of an ‘alcoholic’ did not exist until the 19th century: until then, everyone was at most a ‘drunkard’ and more likely just normal – gently sedated. Peasants in the fields swayed gently to the rhythms of nature as they drank endless pints of dilute cider and beer. Water was dangerous to drink, and there was nothing else.
With empire came the other drinks – tea, coffee, chocolate and tobacco (in England we ‘drank’ tobacco before we ‘smoked’ it: Turks still ‘drink’ it) – and of course the sugar which sweetened whichever of these drinks were made with boiled water. These drinks were not sedative but stimulating. Or, specifically, the stimulation was of a novel sort. Alcohol, as the Porter told Macbeth, provokes nose-painting, sleep and urine; and lechery “it provokes and unprovokes”, since “it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”. No one has ever really objected to alcohol, except on the strictest religious or puritanical grounds. An Ottoman Sultan who wanted to close all the coffee shops couldn’t have cared less about the wine shops. Wine went with women and song. But coffee went with sedition. James I was hostile to tobacco, famously writing a book about it; and after him his grandson Charles II attempted in 1675 to close the coffee shops on the grounds that they were places where men gathered – to discuss politics.
There was almost no politics in the Middle Ages. Newspapers were mere sheets in the 17th century. They proliferated in the 18th, despite being controversial, and by the 19th were the bedrock of the entirety of industrial and imperial society. Coffee shops were distrusted at first because newspapers were found in them: this was in the days before gentlemen read their own copy of a newspaper at breakfast. So many miniature Addisons and Boswells clustered round in wig and stocking to listen to someone read out what was in the newspaper, and then began to discuss politics in a highly caffeinated and nicotinic version of a Platonic symposium. Coffee – this wakeful, stimulating drink – encouraged political talk like no other drink. Tobacco added a certain convivial or conspiratorial element. I remember Orlando Figes in lectures on the Russian Revolution explaining that every meeting of the Bolsheviks was conducted in an impenetrable fog of smoke. Tobacco, coffee and politics went together.
Incidentally, they also went together with technology. Coffee played a part in the story of technology because, along with tea, it overcome lethargy. It did not provoke sleep, as the demon drink did, but provoked wakefulness, and also accuracy. We could work for longer, with less waste and at less risk. Adam Smith spoke about pins when he explained the division of labour. Chaplin could not have tightened his bolts in Modern Times without coffee. The 19th Century was a century of steam engines and looms and shuttles: and all these new technical devices, ‘machines’, with whizzing pistons and rotating parts, great of flame and emphatic of sound, required steadiness, accuracy and wakefulness. The industrial revolution was fuelled on coffee, also on tea and tobacco, certainly not alcohol. A medieval peasant would not have lasted 10 minutes in Middlesbrough or Manchester in the 1850s before losing a limb to a machine. In a factory the peasant would have thought he had entered the hell of Bosch.
But we live in a changed world. For some time we have lived in a second industrial age, in which our machines are made by other machines. We humans no longer need to be exact. Our characteristic gesture is the swipe, for God’s sake. And so we see the beginning of a tidal wave of revolt – aided and abetted by the swiping puritans – against the stimulants of the industrial and imperial era. Tobacco, first smoked aggressively, then passively, is now being outlawed aggressively. Admittedly, no one is likely to ban tea. (James Bond disliked tea, called it mud, and blamed it for the decline of the empire. This is one reason, perhaps, why modern decolonisers might continue to drink it. Another reason is that any leaf can be placed in boiling water and called tea.) But coffee will soon be cancelled.
Out of nostalgia and a late blossoming of café culture, we still, for the moment, drink it in large quantities. But it is strictly unnecessary for accurate industrial or engineering work. It is no longer even necessary for all those students writing essays over a Starbucks latte since AI has uncomplainingly taken over the work. And it is becoming bothersome to the elites who rule us. They cannot quite convict espressos of causing the sorts of health problems associated with cigarettes. There is no such thing as passive coffee drinking. And no one yet dislikes the smell of coffee in a train. But the old tradition of drinking coffee and reading the newspaper – even on a computer, tablet, or phone – is worrying to the elites. Coffee is still encouraging us to be wakeful, thoughtful, critical, sceptical, about the activities of our rulers. And they do not like it. They would rather have us pacified with marijuana, or psychedelics, or even good old Pharaonic beer. They don’t mind us swaying to the rhythms of nature, or the beats of Spotify, or the algorithms of Google: but they don’t want us thinking critically about anything. God forbid. Stay home, save lives, by Toutatis. Turn on, tune in, drop out: but don’t think.
One day soon thinking will be outlawed. They already have started to call it ‘conspiracy theorising’. At some point in the future Descartes’ cogito ergo sum will be retranslated “I think about conspiracies, therefore I exist” (Cogito de coniurationibus, ergo sum?), and will be refuted in essays written by AI bots who will employ the Guardian/BBC/Google knock-down argument that anyone who swipes far Right in such an atavistically lucid way is to be condemned and then cancelled as off-message, out-of-date and over-the-hill.
The hostility to tobacco is reprehensible, for it is a hostility to conviviality and also wakeful meditation. (Chesterton said that smoking made every man a philosopher for a moment, since it took him out of the cares of time.) Montezuma liked a pipe after dinner. Las Casas noted that other Aztecs liked smoking cigars. It is hard to think of Cobbett without a long clay pipe, or Churchill without a cigar: almost everyone chuffed away between Walter Raleigh and John Lennon. But the hostility to coffee – which I predict will come – may be even worse when it arrives. For it will be hostility to the extremely stimulating sort of wakefulness on which the civilisation of the last four centuries has been entirely built. They are breaking our conviviality; they are breaking our wakeful meditation: and next they’ll break our concentration.
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.
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