I’m ready for anything, but I don’t expect anything. I’m looking for flexibility. I’m avoiding getting trapped in a dead-end job like my parents. I am my own boss. I am free, and I can spend my time however I want. I believe I can strike a good work-life balance. I have transferrable skills. I am quick to learn. I will be a vibrant entrepreneur, and I will develop and grow an innovative, high-earning business.
Almost 80 percent of self- employed people in the UK are living in poverty, and they typically earn 40 percent less than someone on staff doing a similar job, according to data released by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. A quarter of the UK’s freelancers are also seriously in debt, although it is a sub-group called the “creative classes” that owes the most in both relative and absolute terms.
In Britain today, 7.1 million people are self-employed, equating to roughly one in five workers. That figure rises to one in two amongst the under-25s. The majority of self-employed people work in low-paid roles or industries, like taxi driving, cleaning, hospitality or care. It is unlikely that they will ever employ anyone else, or that their businesses will expand. (In many cases, a near-exclusive relationship to a host company prevents this from happening anyway.) They act as their own managers, executing essential administrative tasks that normal employees do not. To operate successfully they must stabilise cashflow, assess financial risk and calculate the tax implications of any new activity, as well as balance diverse schedules arising from their multiple revenue streams. This takes considerable time away from actually earning money.
The “reserve army of labour,” according to Marx, is a group of workers that are either partially employed, or in full-time temporary jobs. They probably earn enough to scrape by, but are highly vulnerable to circumstance and depend on friends or family for survival. Their role in capitalist production is simply to be available. The absence of predictable employment – and thus the impossibility of forming strong interpersonal bonds in their workplaces – gives rise to an easily expendable and replaceable workforce. In this, they are not dissimilar from the lumpenproletariat (which translates roughly as “rag workers”). Marx believed this group was politically useless, and unlikely to ever achieve class-consciousness because they could not unite; they had no shared activity, no collective place of work and did not belong to any particular community.
One of the fastest growing segments of self-employment is knowledge workers: professionals like lawyers, engineers, and architects; academics and university lecturers; technical experts; as well as all manner of designers. They are sometimes referred to as the creative classes, because their main economic function is (in the words of Richard Florida, who coined the term) “to create meaningful new forms” – that is, to use their expertise and skills to generate new ideas, new technologies, and new creative content. This group almost always works remotely, outside their client’s offices. Consequently, unlike lower-paid precarious workers, the creative class typically controls their own means of production. A taxi-driver might rent their vehicle. A seasonal fruit picker might be provided with equipment. But a graphic designer or music producer will probably be responsible for the tools they need to fulfil their contracts (computers, peripheral hardware, specialised software, etc.). They will also be liable for finding a place in which to carry out the work.
The café is the factory of the creative classes.
Considering the history of the café, this makes a lot of sense. From their origin, they have been central to commerce, business and immaterial production. The Venetians first brought coffee to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the 1620s, but due to its price it was chiefly restricted to (and thus associated with) merchants. Its introduction to the British – only the second peoples in Europe to taste coffee after the Venetians – was due to the entrepreneurial spirit of a single man called Pasqua Rosée. He set up shop in Oxford in 1651, presumably with an eye to revitalising lethargic academics, and quickly expanded the next year to London. Since he had been the manservant to a Turkish trader, he called this establishment The Turk’s Head. With remarkable foresight and commercial acumen, Rosée went on to open several other coffeehouses, including the first in France in 1672. He held a near-monopoly on caffeine in Paris until the Café Procope opened in 1686 (later a major site for French Enlightenment figures like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot; as well as being the location in which the first encyclopaedia was composed). It would be an understatement to say that Rosée significantly shaped the emergence of modern society.
When he was starting out, Rosée’s main problem was how to explain what coffee was, and why the effects of caffeine were so extraordinary. He settled on a marketing approach that stressed the health benefits – in his handbill advertisement of 1653, titled The Vertue of the Coffee Drink, he wrote:
“The Grain or Berry called Coffee groweth upon little Trees, only in the Deserts of Arabia … It is a simple innocent thing, composed into a drink by being dryed in an Oven, and ground to Powder, and boiled up with Spring water. It is very good to help digestion, and therefore of great use bout 3 or 4 a Clock afternoon, as well as in the morning … Coffee quickens the Spirits, and makes the Heart Lightsome. It is good against the Head-ach. It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for Busines, or if one have occasion to Watch. Therefore you are not to drink of it after Supper, for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours.”
After the Spanish destroyed Antwerp in 1637, London became the largest port in Europe, quickly growing into the densest city on earth. The fluke of finding itself at the geographic centre of all trade between the Americas and Orient caused immense wealth to flood the city’s narrow streets and jumbled mess of wooden houses. Due to the intense overcrowding, most merchants lacked offices, and coffeehouses rushed in to fill that need. By 1675 there were over 500 operating in London (and more than 3000 in England overall), essentially providing what we would recognise today as coworking spaces. Each tended to specialise in a different type of activity: as places for silent writing, as hubs of gossip, as venues for lectures and political speeches. Many were freely accessible, while some were by membership or subscription only.
A number of these spaces gave rise to significant institutions. Jonathan’s Coffee-House (1698) began as a place for listing stock and commodity prices, but eventually became the London Stock Exchange. Lloyd’s Coffeehouse (1688) was popular amongst underwriters for maritime insurance, later forming Lloyd’s of London. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were both founded when their coffee club auctions outgrew the original premises. This new typology transformed mercantile society by providing forums for philosophical and intellectual production, business, court intrigue and treasonous plots. It was this last trend that particularly worried Charles II, who referred to coffeehouses as “seminaries of sedition.”
After a number of high-profile assassination attempts linked to coffeehouses, the king lost his patience. Charles issued an executive order to shut them all down. He decided to rescind the command before it could be implemented, narrowly avoiding some embarrassment. He knew he had waited too late to act, and realised how impractical (or outright impossible) such an order really was.
The incredible popularity of coffeehouses was not simply that they provided a more or less communal space within the city – taverns and pubs (public houses) already existed and were just as numerous. Rather, the coffee itself was integral to the attraction. Because it is a central nervous system stimulant, caffeine blocks chemical signals in the brain to stop it from feeling drowsy. Unlike the modern espresso shot, which has an intense effect on the brain, the piping hot, gritty cups being served in London establishments were basically unfiltered French press. This moderate caffeine dosage led to a smooth high: improved mental focus, better reaction times, enhanced memory and acute reasoning. This unparalleled artificial boost to productivity would have appeared as a godsend to busy merchants.
In this sense, caffeine was the first capitalist drug, preparing the mind and the body for a regime of constantly accelerating communication and fiscal flows.
The only other drug known at the time to perform similarly was nicotine, sourced from the exact opposite cardinal direction. But by comparison with tobacco, coffee was both cheaper to source and easier to dispense. Additionally, public opinion was already deeply divided over the benefits of tobacco (James I had even published a treatise suggesting it might be toxic). The church got behind the king, arguing instead along theological grounds that smoking might not be a morally pure act; a debate which continues to the present day.
Against this, coffee was seen as “a simple innocent thing” – there was no evidence of caffeine having negative side effects, physical or spiritual. Of course, medicine had not yet advanced to a stage that it could diagnose caffeine’s impact on blood pressure, heart murmurs, osteoporosis or muscle ache. We now know that long-term coffee use produces a physical dependency, and any significant variation in daily intake leads to irritability and fatigue. It may be the bedrock of the capitalist quest for ever-greater industriousness, but it doesn’t come without some risks. Nonetheless, those risks are small. It is no coincidence that the rise of neocapitalism in the 20th century corresponded with an explosion in global consumption of coffee. It is now the most popular drink in the world, and around two billion cups are drunk every day.
As a model environment for work, the contemporary café is ideally suited to self-employment. People choose to come, and thus are free to go. You cannot generally reserve seats and you are not obliged to interact with neighbours. There is no suggestion that people in a café form a community. In fact, it is the opposite: we are together, but totally isolated from each other and socially discouraged from any camraderie. It epitomises the conditions of the reserve army of labour – a fluid workforce that is highly mobile, totally self-reliant and solely responsible for its own maintenance. This is what makes the café a de facto factory for the creative classes, masking their own self-exploitation under the guise of entrepreneurship.
The principal difference between these early coffeehouses and their modern descendants is the provision of meals. But from the perspective of the freelancer this brings an added advantage, since the café eliminates the need for breaks, prolonging the effective working day. Another important evolution is the nature of the spe- cialised activities now being proposed. Membership models for cafés are not widespread (if indeed they exist at all), nor are they sites for political discourse. They may provide a limited cultural programme, normally for live music, or as art galleries and book- shops, but this is a far cry from vigour of the seventeenth century. Cafés today do not focus on civic amenities, but personal luxuries. These include access to animals, predominantly rabbits and cats (because the self-employed overwhelmingly rent their homes, they are routinely denied pets), as well as distinctive diets (such as vegan, gluten-free, high-protein, or paleo). This limits our scope of possible pursuits to either working at the café, maintaining our bodies at the café, or relaxing at the café. We cannot debate, discuss or mobilise at the café.
The aesthetic treatment of contemporary café interiors reaffirms their role as places dedicated to work. Exposed brickwork, raw concrete and reclaimed wood all refer to our industrial heritage, even when they have to be fabricated, imported or simulated. The conceit is clear: this is a factory. And what’s more: this is also a farmhouse. Rustic wholegrain breads, artisanal cheeses and organic produce are presented on hewn timber slabs (as if we were medieval peasants), and accompanied by beverages in customised jam jar glassware. The style that dominates hipster freelance work cafés is a kind of post-industrial, post-agrarian chic (indie-agro?). Taken together, they speak to a desire by an anomic metropolitan population to recapture something of the ethical righteousness associated with industrial and agricultural labour. They attempt to restore a profound connection to the social and biometric rhythms of previous paradigms: the stable order of a life dictated by the seasons, or a day governed by the clock. Self- employment offers no certainty, and ultimately dissolves all structures and forms of life. We are literally out of sync with ourselves as well as one another. As one friend recently complained, “what ever happened to Monday mornings?” – there is hardly any chance to resent returning to work for another week, when Sunday is effectively no different from a weekday. The months pass, without respite or relaxation.
For all this change in recent years, the café is still evolving. As the market continues to expand over the next decade there will certainly be numerous terrifying and wonderful innovations to come. Food sector forecasters Allegra predict that by 2025 the total figure for UK coffee shops will comfortably exceed 30,000 outlets with £15 billion turnover. Their 2016 report notes that, “On the high street, café culture has also continued to boom, 80 percent of people who visit coffee shops do so at least once a week, whilst 16 percent of us visit on a daily basis.” An important caveat to this apparent solidity is the fact that the vast majority of cafés do not survive for very long. Eighty percent of current owners have been running their business for less than seven years, while just 2 percent reach the twenty-year milestone. Part of the reason for this is probably attributable to 93 percent of café owners operating premises on commercial leasehold agreements of less than ten years. Inasmuch as the self-employed worker sitting in the café has little loyalty to a particular establishment, the owner of the café’s premises offers little security to the operators.
This suggests a point of solidarity between patrons and proprietors. As it stands, the café has become the site of our own voluntary victimisation. By reviving the social and political dimensions of the coffeehouse we can imagine a new genre of resistance and opposition emerging from the shell of the precariously employed freelancer. Clubs, cooperatives, foundations and unions are all models that could come to serve discrete civic agendas, as well as cups of coffee.
This text was first published in Real Review 3, 2017
© The author and Real Review