Sugar, Surveillance, and Citizenship: The Global Crisis of 1919–20 in Buenos Aires and New York

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:50 AM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
April Merleaux, Florida International University
During the demobilization from World War I in 1919 people around the world participated in protests over stagnant wages and rising living costs. With the Soviet revolution fresh in their minds, political leaders used two strategies to contain popular dissent: xenophobic political repression on the one hand, and heavy-handed economic interventions to control food prices on the other. By addressing food prices, policymakers hoped to forestall more radical protest, especially among immigrant workers, who they believed were most vulnerable to leftist agitation. Red-baiting and price controls were thus two sides of the same coin.

The same law enforcement agency charged with repressing immigrant radicals in the United States, the Justice Department, also briefly made sugar policy. They created a cost of living bureau in 1919, which collaborated with sugar brokers to purchase cheap sugar on the world market. In 1920 brokers attempted to buy sugar in Argentina, even though it was neither a major exporter nor one of the United States’ trading partners for sugar. This plan quickly ran into trouble, however, when brokers encountered the Argentine government’s reluctance to permit sugar exports. Policymakers in Argentina, like those in the United States, believed that they could forestall leftist politics by providing urban immigrant consumers with sugar. The resulting debates over sugar policy in both countries reveal how liberal democracies attempted to address political dissent through consumerism. By looking closely a brief, unusual moment during which police in New York and Buenos Aires distributed sugar to urban immigrant consumers, this paper argues that policymakers began to think of urban immigrants as political actors, ones who could either be incorporated through consumer populism or contained through police repression. In making calculations about how to control immigrant political participation, both Argentina and the United States implemented policies with lasting consequences for what people ate.