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  • From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500–2000
  • Suzanna Reiss
From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500–2000. Edited by Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. 377 pp. $23.95 (paper).

Topik, Marichal, and Frank bring together sixteen business and economic historians in this impressive collection to explore and promote the value of what they describe as the "commodity chain approach" to history. Each of twelve essays focuses on one commodity that was extracted from Latin America between 1500 and 2000, with the expansion of the international capitalist marketplace. When the Spanish used Mexican metal to monetize the Atlantic world economy, silver was transformed into the internationally valuable commodity "money" and the land and peoples of Latin America into resources that could be bought and sold. In turn, for the next five hundred years industrial revolutions and wars fueled corporate and consumer demand in Europe and North America for an array of Latin American raw materials including indigo, cochineal, tobacco, coffee, sugar, cacao, bananas, fertilizers, rubber, henequen, and cocaine. The contributors discuss each of these raw materials as "products" circulating within transnational circuits of supply and demand, approaching history from the perspective of the capitalist commodity chain.

This volume presents considerable archival research and scholarly analysis regarding the role commodity circuits played in defining cultural, economic, political, and social relations in our modern world. Every essay offers something for both a specialist in the particular commodity's field, as well as broader methodological insights for writing history attentive to transnational dynamics. It provides a rich source [End Page 369] of information on the rise and fall of market demand for key modern products. For example, in a fresh take on the United Fruit Company, Bucheli and Read follow the banana commodity circuit into consumer markets where a rare, exotic luxury became a staple of the American diet. Corporate and state policies initially combined to make the fruit affordably popular among the poor and immigrants; by Word War I bananas constituted almost a quarter of all fruit consumed in the country—a statistic that has fluctuated but is once again accurate today.

The collection provides a welcome contribution to a growing literature that seeks to "internationalize" the study and writing of history. By following the flow of commodities these historians map interconnections between people and communities that historically transcended the nation-state. An examination of the eighteenth-century cochineal trade moves from elite fashions in England, Flanders, France, and Italy to the labor regimes subjecting Indian laborers in Mexico. Carlos Marichal discusses the forces of "supply" and "demand" in trade circuits that helped realize a desire for crimson fabrics worn "by popes, princes, nobles, military officers, and wealthy residents of European cities and towns." Cochineal is a red dye Oaxacan Indians made from insects farmed on nopal plants; its export boom—and hence European access—was undermined when disease, death, and the demise of a rural credit system befell the exploited Indian peasantry who farmed it.

From Silver to Cocaine presents the "commodity chain" as an analytical tool for studying the fundamental transnational forces at play in any given geography linked to global commodity circuits. Historians and theorists of underdevelopment (influenced by anticolonial movements of the postwar era) as well as promoters of liberal economic development (aligned with advocates of "free" trade) have both provided frameworks for thinking about the international foundations of national power—the latter measuring progress based on degrees of integration into the capitalist economy, and the former criticizing these structures for creating dependency and limiting sovereignty. However, the editors of this volume argue that the commodity chain approach enables historians to provide a more balanced account, transcending the limitations of these other interpretive frames, "avoiding the pitfalls of dogmatism." These scholars decenter the nation-state in their studies, eschewing an emphasis on economic inequalities between nations. Instead they present the commodity chain as a transnational and politically neutral conduit for the "principal goods that human beings produce and consume," and suggest it provides a useful framework for doing world...