The idea of a ‘public sphere’ — that cultural space where free individuals would come together to ponder the issues of the day, and thus influence political action — was first discussed by the critical theorist Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt school.
For Habermas, the origins of the public sphere were to be found in the London coffee houses of the eighteenth century. It was here, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, that gentlemen of a certain leisure would ponder political pamphlets and converse amongst themselves on the great issues of the day.
As coffee shops became emblematic of the spirit of free inquiry, coffee replaced beer as the fashionable drink of choice. “One way to explain the industrial revolution is as the inevitable consequence of a world where people suddenly preferred being jittery to being drunk” writes Malcolm Gladwell.
The Coffee Shop was also the original laboratory for the economic philosophy of the Enlightenment. A London coffee house called Jonathan’s became the London Stock Exchange; Edward Lloyd’s coffee house became Lloyds insurance market, and Adam Smith wrote much of “The Wealth of Nations” in one. The combination of free conversation and economic liberalism were the defining features of a certain idealistic conception of the public sphere.
But the shine has certainly come off much of this association between Enlightenment idealism and our morning shot of caffeine. Last year Starbucks paid £18 million in UK tax, but managed to hand out £348 million in dividends to its shareholders.
Just this week liberal poster-boy George Clooney described himself as “surprised and saddened” after the discovery made by Channel 4, and to be aired in a Dispatches documentary next week, that the Nespresso brand, of which he is the ambassador, employs child labour in Guatemala. For all the hyped talk of fair trade, globalisation allows big coffee to fiddle its taxes and hide its exploitation of labour.
But it is within the coffee shop itself that the Enlightenment ideal of open exchange and public engagement has most clearly broken down. Even the most independent of coffee shops exist now as head-down work stations for peripatetic and ambitious young people huddled around the free wi-fi.
This is a long way from the space Habermas imagined when he spoke of the public sphere. The idea that you might use these spaces to chat to your neighbour about the issues of the day is an anathema. And with Nespresso, you don’t even need to leave the home for the whole coffee-shop experience. The link between coffee and public conversation is no longer there.
No, the real site of the public sphere is the pub. You can still get a much better quality of chat in the pub than in the coffee shop. Shorter supply chains are an ethical bonus, of course. But it is the general air of conviviality — with alcohol providing a valuable solvent to dissolve the distance between people — that creates pools of public space where people can freely engage with each other.