Tobacco Capitalism

Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

Peter Benson
FOREWORD BY Allan M. Brandt
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rwvn
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  • Book Info
    Tobacco Capitalism
    Book Description:

    Tobacco Capitalismtells the story of the people who live and work on U.S. tobacco farms at a time when the global tobacco industry is undergoing profound changes. Against the backdrop of the antitobacco movement, the globalization and industrialization of agriculture, and intense debates over immigration, Peter Benson draws on years of field research to examine the moral and financial struggles of growers, the difficult conditions that affect Mexican migrant workers, and the complex politics of citizenship and economic decline in communities dependent on this most harmful commodity.

    Benson tracks the development of tobacco farming since the plantation slavery period and the formation of a powerful tobacco industry presence in North Carolina. In recent decades, tobacco companies that sent farms into crisis by aggressively switching to cheaper foreign leaf have coached growers to blame the state, public health, and aggrieved racial minorities for financial hardship and feelings of vilification. Economic globalization has exacerbated social and racial tensions in North Carolina, but the corporations that benefit have rarely been considered a key cause of harm and instability, and have now adopted social-responsibility platforms to elide liability for smoking disease. Parsing the nuances of history, power, and politics in rural America, Benson explores the cultural and ethical ambiguities of tobacco farming and offers concrete recommendations for the tobacco-control movement in the United States and worldwide.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4040-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Allan M. Brandt

    In the sandy loam of Wilson County, North Carolina, tobacco farming remains a dominant economic and cultural trade. Peter Benson, a gifted ethnographer and social analyst, worked the tobacco fields side by side with undocumented migrants and African Americans who labor on these family farms, eager to understand both the meaning of this work and its context in a complex and highly contentious global market for tobacco products. There was a time—in the not too distant past—when growing tobacco was equated with national pride and public identity, a critical link between the early nation and its agrarian ideals,...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-34)

    Since smoking prevalence has waned in the United States, it is often presumed that tobacco farming has gone by the wayside. North Carolina has long been the country’s leading producer of tobacco. Now the state has a new economy of biomedical and pharmaceutical research to brag about. There is the Research Triangle near Raleigh, and Durham, once a premier tobacco town and headquarters of James B. Duke’s global cigarette monopoly, is now home to Brightleaf Square, a converted tobacco warehouse district that offers an array of restaurants and shops in the downtown area and is close by one of the...

  7. PART I The Tobacco Industry, Public Health, and Agrarian Change
    • Chapter 1 Most Admired Company
      (pp. 37-62)

      Tobacco has been a visible part of daily life in large parts of the world for hundreds of years. Profound changes in tobacco’s prevalence and effects occurred in the twentieth century. The modern commercial cigarette and multinational tobacco corporations proliferated. Smoking is now the single greatest cause of preventable disease and death worldwide. In the last century, there were one hundred million tobacco-related deaths. Although smoking declined and tobacco-control measures took hold in several countries over the past few decades, it is now widely recognized that the unabated global demand for cigarettes will kill 1 billion people in the current...

    • Chapter 2 The Jungle
      (pp. 63-95)

      Motorists tend not to think of the North Carolina they drive through as part of the Atlantic system. The tobacco maturing in carefully managed fields with the straight rows of people who take pride in not being sorry seems either unfamiliar, like a vestige of the past, or like nothing more than a commodity. These fields do not seem to house the botanical progeny of plants that helped fuel the slave trade. Billboards rise from land on which blood has been spilled over tobacco, people whipped and warehoused, reputations made, an agrarian social order ordered, and immense takings taken on...

    • Chapter 3 Enemies of Tobacco
      (pp. 96-132)

      At one Wilson exit there is the financially strapped Tobacco Farm Life Museum, established by the R. J. Reynolds Corporation in the 1980s to espouse a positive view of tobacco as a heritage. Motorists learn interesting facts about old-fashioned production techniques of the Depression-era tenant world that have now been swept away by technological change. They browse among the handicrafts, lots of wooden farm equipment, and black-and-white photographs. For the tobacco industry this kind of cultural investment was strategic. The museum frames tobacco agriculture as an innocent pastime available to motorists and local growers alike. In favor of a wholly...

  8. PART II Innocence and Blame in American Society
    • Chapter 4 Good, Clean Tobacco
      (pp. 135-165)

      Economic restructuring in the tobacco industry induced changes related to how growers manage their businesses, interact with and talk about the farm labor workforce, and derive symbolic and material worth from tobacco farming. With the Tobacco Buyout of 2004, discussed in chapter 3, the government distanced itself from leaf production. Growers are at the mercy of cutthroat companies with flexible international sourcing mechanisms. The traditional marketing system for tobacco (public auctions at locally owned warehouses) has been dismantled. The new system operates on one-year private contracts between growers and tobacco companies. Temporary contracts are now the only way to market...

    • Chapter 5 El Campo
      (pp. 166-209)

      Friday is payday on the farm. At noon, before heading back to the labor camp for lunch, the crew gets paid. Bartolo, the crew’s foreman, handles a manila envelope that Craig Tester, the owner-operator, gave him that morning. It contains a dozen paychecks, each in a sealed envelope. He gives one of the envelopes to Diego, an older, frail man who moved to the United States from Central Mexico during the late 1970s’ wave of Mexican immigration. Diego has worked in various regions and sectors of the U.S. economy, recently settling in North Carolina. His checkered shirt is unbuttoned and...

    • Chapter 6 Sorriness
      (pp. 210-257)

      A common joke is told among white North Carolinian tobacco growers at the country store, farm meetings, the gas pump, and, in the past, the tobacco warehouses where their cash crop was sold. It goes like this:

      A tobacco farmer is at the warehouse, waiting to sell his tobacco. He walks the rows of tobacco to see how his bales were graded. One bale got the grade N1GR. He turns to a group of farmers chatting, waiting for the auction’s start, and says, “My tobacco is so damn sorry that they wrote nigger on it.”

      During my fieldwork, I heard...

  9. Conclusion: Reflections on the Tobacco Industry (and American Exceptionalism)
    (pp. 258-274)

    Despite the immense burden of disease caused by tobacco and widespread critical awareness about the tobacco industry, ten times more people will die from smoking in the current century than died in the last century. This may be surprising to readers. In the United States, adult smoking prevalence has significantly declined since the peak in the 1960s. This decline contributes to the common misperception that the smoking problem lies in the past.

    “At no moment in human history has tobacco presented such a dire and imminent risk to human health as it does today,” writes Allan M. Brandt (2007: 450)....

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 275-306)
  11. Index
    (pp. 307-323)