Workshop 2021 'The Raw and the Refined: Commodities, Processing and Power in Global Perspective'

‘The Raw and the Refined: Commodities, Processing and Power in Global Perspective’

Commodities of Empire International Workshop, Institute of Latin American Studies, School of Advanced Studies, University of London.

2-3 September 2021

There has long been a tendency to suppose that commodities exported from the Global South have been ‘raw’ and destined for manufacture in the Global North. They have certainly been labelled as such. The assumptions underlying this stated division of labour derived from theories of colonial pact, underdevelopment, dependency, and unequal exchange. However, prior to export, many commodities were subjected to a growing degree of processing, which was increasingly industrial and capital-intensive in nature. Thus, sugar famously came from ‘factories in the fields’. The industrial treatment of goods prior to export became the road to development in Japan (silk and tea) and Australia (wool and flour). Commodities were processed to varying degrees, partly due to their physical characteristics, such as the need to prevent spoiling (sugar, palm oil, meat and fish), or to save on transport costs (mineral ores and timber). However, the same commodity was processed to a higher degree in different localities, indicating that other factors were at play, such as cost, productivity, and availability of capital, labour, land, energy, and technical education. Policies of settlers, merchants, and imperial powers further affected outcomes, while organised labour sought to keep manufacturing jobs located in the Global North.

In this two-day workshop (held on-line), we explored, through case studies, how and why the history of commodity processing unfolded unevenly.

Workshop Programme

The workshop included a keynote address from Erika Rappaport:

“Tate not State”: Refining Sugar, Capitalism and Corporate PR in the British Commonwealth in the 1940s and 1950s

Erika Rappaport (University of California, Santa Barbara)

After the close of the Second World War, the British Labour government threatened to nationalise sugar refining as part of its overall effort to build a social democratic economy. Industry’s reaction was swift and extensive.  The sugar industry quickly moved much refining to the empire, especially the sugar islands of Jamaica and Trinidad, and later to British colonies in Africa. It forged ties with other domestic industries such as trucking, cement, and steel and manufacturing groups such as the Federation of British Industries to lobby government, workers and consumers. Led by Tate and Lyle, a firm that wielded monopolistic power over the sugar industry, sugar also developed one of the most successful PR campaigns in Britain. Tate and Lyle’s campaign employed the phrase “Tate not State,” which it printed on sugar packets, packages, toys and advertising at home. In the Commonwealth, sugar’s PR explained how “private interests” rather than public bureaucrats would create health, happiness, and progress. It especially focused on how growing, refining and consuming sugar would lead to development, modernity and racial and social equality.  This story deliberately suppressed significant aspects of the colonial past and fought tooth and nail against state-centred forms of development throughout the Commonwealth and Great Britain.  This campaign became also became a model for other industries that sought to fight “socialism” in the colonies undergoing decolonisation and in postcolonial nations thereafter.  The sugar industry thus became a major voice of capitalism during decolonisation and the Cold War, a history that has gone unnoticed by business, economic or political historians. The shifting global geographies of sugar refining is thus part of the story of global capitalism but also reveals the connections between metropolitan, colonial and postcolonial political and cultural economies.

A recording of the keynote can be seen here: https://www.sas.ac.uk/videos-and-podcasts/history/keynote-lecture-2021-commodities-empire-workshop-%E2%80%98-raw-and-refined