Chaleo Yoovidhya, who changed your life, died last week, a multibillionaire. Who he? Well in Thailand in the 1970s, he created a drink called Krathing Daeng — a stimulant drink mixing age-old recipes and new science in a way that boosted cardio function, it was popular among labourers, rickshaw operators and truckies, helping people live up to the spirit of the name, which loosely translates as “red bull”. Yes, that Red Bull — or a precursor thereof.

In the early ’80s, Yoovidhya went into partnership with an Austrian, Dietrich Mateschitz, who changed the formula, adding a big dose of caffeine to the existing drink (whose main ingredient was taurine). In doing so, and in spreading it to the world via the formula one circuit in the 1980s, they changed the rhythm of our lives.

Why? Well caffeine had already changed the world once — in the 1600s, when it was introduced to the West in significant quantities, especially via the coffee bean. It can’t be a coincidence that the arrival of this stimulant — in a culture whose staple drink was hitherto a weak ale, drunk largely to avoid diseases borne in “fresh” water — coincided with the scientific revolution, and then with the commercial revolution, in Britain. Lloyd’s, sundry banks, the South Sea Bubble, the modern newspaper, modern political clubs/parties … they were all started in the coffee houses of London, and they all bear the mark of the excessive exuberance of too much coffee — faster-than-usual thought, lateral thinking, a determination to get it done, to impose something on the world.

Also of course, irrationality, hyper-aggressiveness and detachment from real conditions. Caffeine, above a certain level, induces a short-term mania (or “hypomania” to be technically correct about it), and it is in this spirit that high finance, and then capitalism was born, and has continued ever since. The South Sea Bubble and the subprime crisis aren’t the pathological state of finance, they are its normal. The black jolt was arguably more important to its development than any shitty little steam engine. But caffeine is habituated too quickly, individually and culturally.

Once the coffee bean was introduced (its adoption in the Arab world coincided with their post-Mohammed scientific and cultural golden age as well), society — or sections of it — is set at a new level, a one-, two-, or three-cup level of functioning, for certain sections of society at least. The transmission is social, but also quite possibly intrauterine — for centuries we may well have been hooked on coffee before birth. Drinking cultures then adapt to maintaining a certain level of caffeination — the proverbial “endlessly stewing teapot” of England, the weak diner-style US coffee known as “joe”, or the average Italian day measured out in perfectly spaced espresso shots are all cultural adaptations to maintaining caffeination.

As a social practice, caffeine was maintained, rather than binged, since, beyond a certain level of consumption, it becomes an anxiolytic. Caffeine “bingeing” became associated with something else — intellectual, and especially creative work. Voltaire drank up to 60 coffees a day (they were weaker, demitasses — it probably adds up to about 15 espressos). Balzac, desperately writing to forestall bankruptcy, would down an 50-odd, and, if necessary, eat the coffee grounds, to get the final hallucinatory burst of caffeine toxicity.

In the 1880s, cocaine looked like a possible replacement. Developed as the latest cure for morphine addiction (the next one would be a medicine designed to counter the addiction among soldiers, where it was known as “heroes’ disease” — hence Bayer trademarked the name “heroin”), cocaine was responsible for the development of psychoanalysis, basketball and modern surgical techniques, inter alia. It was also cripplingly, disablingly addictive as this woodcut of Freud and Breuer, laughing like jackals, queued up at a Ringstrasse ATM at 5am in 1894 demonstrates (error: file not found). So, it was back to the crude high of caffeine — until it was replaced in the 1920s by the commercial availability of amphetamine, which for the next half-century gave us the poetry of Auden, the novels of Kerouac, bebop jazz, the tracts of Ayn Rand, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and the literary style of Bob Ellis, until, possibly in a response to the last of these, over-the-counter Benzedrine was withdrawn from sale in the late 1960s.

So it is, drum roll, no coincidence, as we say, that a new process of caffeine consumption was developed, just as a worldwide crackdown on legal speed began (led by the US, and prompted in part, by the devastating effects of its use among US soldiers in Vietnam). For the problem with caffeine, as a stimulant, has always been that of delivery. The plant itself is a bitter toxin, but masking it — with heat, milk, orange peel (in the 18th century), and sugar — counters the effect. This is especially the case with sugar, the most effective mask, which is a physical stimulant, but a mental relaxant.

The success of Coca-Cola — after the cocaine element had been replaced following the beginning of the US global war on drugs in the early 1900s** — derived in part from its judicious balance of the two elements, the caffeine stimulating, the sugar restraining. Thus adults can drink Coke all day, the tendency to run up and down the fire-escape stairs countermanded by the sugar effect, which suggests to the body that what it really needs is … another Coca-Cola. Diet cola, successively refined with aspartame, a hyper-sweet sugar (nearly 200 times the sweetness of glucose), mimics the neurological effect, and also stimulates a sort of appetite ideally suited to the convenience-store product range.

In the past decade, diet soft-drinks that don’t contain caffeine have been all but withdrawn from large convenience store chains — presumably because they don’t stimulate appetite or a sugar “roller-coaster” sufficient to promote further purchases. Red Bull’s success resides in overriding the sugar that masks the bitterness. The taurine essentially pushes the caffeine through the system, and crosses the blood-brain barrier, while also countermanding the anxiolytic effect of caffeine. Less sugar is required, which is why Red Bull has a slightly medical/fuel taste to it — which becomes part of the drink’s selling point. This is a serious drink, it says, a means to an end — it’s anything but a soft drink (no, RB, you can’t use that line). It has also brought to the centre of drinking culture, a combo that wasn’t really possible before the ’90s — alcohol and caffeine capable of being consumed continuously and in large amounts. Red Bull dropped the Jager bomb and everything changed.

That seems startling, until you think about it — and realise that before the possibility of downing six RBs and vodka of a night, caffeine and alcohol were substantially separate substances. Rum and Cokes, or anything and Cokes, had too little caffeine, and were too sweet to slam — unless you wore denim and drank at the Depot in Richmond, where they seemed to buy it in vats — no one ever got monstered by slamming wine and espresso, and apart from Kahlua, and the Mexican habit of mixing cola and beer — mmmmp — that was about it. You went out, you got drunk, you recovered in the morning with black coffee or a Coke, the black doctors.

Red Bull came along just as something else was happening — a switch from a mass drinking culture based overwhelmingly on beer, to one including a fair mix of spirits. Beer, in any reasonable measure, is a relaxant, and its effects from high consumption are more variable — one person falls asleep, another glasses people, while a third, sobbing, drunk dials their year 8 girlfriend. Spirits alone first give you first a weird deepening effect, then you compose “Searching for the Heart of Saturday Night”, then you watch 5am repeats of Pensacola: Wings of Gold with dribble hanging from your mouth and scribble ‘Xerxes — second act, but tighten it up, amigo. Parsnips!!!’ on the back of an envelope, for the morning.

But Red Bull and spirits together (other energy drinks are available) is a new combo. Powered-up, mellowed but not soporific, mind racing, without anxiety, heart pumping like a train, you are the king of the city, well up for traipsing from one godforsaken nightclub to the next. Culturally, the combo is a cheap, legal analogue of Coke and Cristal, available to all. In all the anguished discussion of youth drinking, binge drinking, urban violence, no-go zones, surprisingly little discussion has centred around this refinement and blending of two hitherto distinct forms of intoxication. That is, in some ways, a pleasure and a gain — a further refinement and adaptation of culture. The idea that public violence has risen in past decades is an illusion — it has simply moved around, from local and suburban beer-barn “blood houses”, to the city centre, and become more mobile. But one suspects something else has happened to, and that is that the atmosphere of potential violence — or at least of unstinting aggressiveness — has risen sharply, and the nature of social space has changed, especially for young men.

Middle-aged former binge drinkers (to quote my passport) should be a little wary about making sweeping judgments, but one suspects that what has changed the nature and perception of the social space of a “Saturday night” is this sense of projected aggression, the feeling sometimes that the city is less a pleasure-garden than a gauntlet. I suspect that that is something of a shift, and one that has been fuelled by the innovation of caffeine and booze that da bomb has made possible.

The fuel, yes — but not the engine. That has come from the wider transformation of life which made a market for da bomb in the first place, the hyper-individualised social space of current urban life. The most striking cultural development in the past three decades has been the way in which the idea of the person, from a participant in a shared space, to an atom in a world of scarce opportunity, a finite quanta of pleasures, and acute competition. The post ’50s shaggy, fuzzy, mellow idea of self — much of it asinine of course, but there you are — has yielded to a celebration of the hard-bodied survivor, locked down and flying through the void, occasionally coming into contact and sparking a reaction.

For that you need to travel light, hard and fast, like a formula one car, or, well — with wings. That the current culture has the style and imprint of fascism, without its collective organisation, is old news of course. The hard bodies in the streets and on the magazines, the shining skin and tight hair is exactly what Reich talked of as the body armour, the hardened defence against any sense of flow or fluidity to selfhood (and what is a formula one car with or without the Red Bull logo, but a tiny model of Homo Cartesian, the machine steered through endless futile circuits by its strapped-in homunculus?).

Red Bull and vodka is John Galt-fuel, relaxation for people who won’t, or feel they can’t afford to, let down their guard, or dissolve into the carnivale. That pleasure requires, to put it medically, the pushing of fluids in this way, is a measure of the attempts to dole it out and ration it, to draw it into the wider culture of remorseless acceleration. The rickshaw drivers drank Krathing Daeng to power through work; we drink it to push us through non-work, initially for the thrill of it, and then to assist in sheer endurance.

It’s pretty striking to look at the way Coke was marketed from the ’60s through to the ’90s — adding life, buying the world a Coke — always accompanied by tribes of young people in amorphous collective forms, and compare with energy drinks often as not project an image that would not be out of place in the Saw franchise (indeed Red Bull has recently differentiated itself from a whole new generation of harder drinks, with its whimsical cartoonish campaigns).

But more recently, the formula has come to be extended back to the world of work as well. The “five-hour energy shots” that are now placed in the impulse-buy slot next to every one of the vanishing number of human-operated cash registers are essentially the same formula as Red Bull, without the sugar, and with a few herbs added. Having been on sale since 2004, they’re now sold in double shot packages, in five-packs, and in cartons. In the US, a new ad campaign has normalised them, as what you take “when you gotta get stuff done!” — i.e. complete normal tasks, or chemically increase your individual labour-power productivity rate.

They are increasingly popular in a culture so saturated in sugar that significant numbers of the population are wandering around in a permanent sugar haze. The formula is thus being employed at both the production and consumption ends of the spectrum. The desperate drive of capital — to accelerate turnover in time and space — has thus received a new and more systemic boost, the metabolic fix. You wouldn’t deny that an extra boost is sometimes necessary, nor would you trade away the wild nights — but it’s all a question of what becomes normal, and who sets the speedo. The profits from this new energy industry fuel the formula one cars; the rest of us are in the rickshaw, both driver and passenger, often simultaneously, peddaling ever more furiously.

*Hat tip, Humphrey McQueen

**At the time a partially progressive development, in that it prevented European empires from funding themselves with the opium trade. Under pressure from the US, Britain pledged to end its opium trade to China, which had crippled the country for a century, in 1906, and did so in 1907 — the same year that a permanent universal income tax system was introduced by PM Herbert Asquith.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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