Democracy and Coffee

Jakob Norberg synthesizes some of the thinking on coffeehouses that hangs at the edges of contemporary democratic theory. Without reifying it as a miraculous commodity, he works through some of the ways that Habermas and Carl Schmitt used the figure of the coffeehouse to represent the pretensions and triumphs of the middle-class after the industrial revolution.

In both cases, coffee-drinking becomes a trope associated with modern liberalism, one that must be either rediscovered or extinguished. Coffee consumption is free from constraint and ritual, it is ostensibly more purely rational than alcohol or other other intoxicants, and tied to the productivity required by early capitalists. But the most important part of coffee drinking is the possibility of community: a coffeehouse can be a place of communal interaction, but in what will become the standard refrain of liberalism, it doesn’t have to be. Coffeehouses become wholly voluntary communities, which is what is what is both right and wrong about liberalism as a whole. We might have to live together, but we need not share a cup of coffee. Yet, if we choose to do so, we can more easily sit down for a cup of java than to pray or to become drunk, both of which threaten too much intimacy and too little control over the interaction. Liberal subjects pretend that this control is and ought to be standard, and that pretension is either the genius of the modern age (Habermas) or a sign of its decline (Schmitt):

According to Habermas, the bourgeoisie consumes coffee in the transient but promising public sphere; according to Schmitt, they do so in the spurious harmony of the bourgeois interior. Both thinkers ultimately describe how those who meet over coffee tend to view themselves as human beings freed from the pressures of political discord or social constraints. One drinks coffee in a space abstracted from all contexts that predetermine relationships. For the duration of the coffee break, the conditions that normally circumscribe an existence marked by conflict and inequality are suspended, and in the resulting state one can identify a principle of a sound public sphere or an apolitical and therefore fatal utopia.

Since we’ve opted for optional politics, we ought to be thankful it comes in this form: shade grown, organic, global, sustainable, and tasty.





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