The Devil’s Milk: A social history of rubber
By John Tully
Monthly Review Press, 2011
This new book from Monthly Review Press documents the history of rubber as it has played its role in the development of capitalism. Rubber is an essential industrial material, although underappreciated by most of us even as we are surrounded by it.
Since its industrial uses began to be fully appreciated in the 1800s, the quest for rubber has been in Tully’s words “a paradigm of imperialism”. The story covers ghastly colonial holocausts: the murderous exploitation of the Belgian Congo starting with King Leopold’s dominion (1885-1908), slave-like conditions for rubber tapping workers along Amazonian rivers such as the Putumayo where whole tribes were decimated, and Australian-administered apartheid in colonial Papua and New Guinea.
Equally it talks of the environmental destruction of rainforest clearing and plantations. The Nazi holocaust returns the story to slave labour once again, this time of the predominantly Jewish inmates of the concentration camps.
But there is also a tale of resistance as rubber plantation workers and rubber factory workers have unionised and fought against the rapacious transnational corporations that have dominated the rubber industry since the early 20th Century.
John Tully is a socialist and a member of the "Generation of '68". He became politically active in the movement against the Vietnam War and conscription. Today he teaches Politics and History at Victoria University in Melbourne although "in another life" he worked as a rigger in construction and heavy industry. During that time saw the inside of rubber factories, cement works, steel works, smelters, shipyards, mines and building sites.
I interviewed John at his home in Melbourne on February 14, 2011 for Links journal (where you can also read an excerpt from the book)
BC: Your book suggests that rubber extraction combines a very primitive, even slave labour economy, in some cases, in an international division of labour with modern industry and transnational corporations. How does understanding this history help us to understand the development of the imperialist world economy?
JT: Maybe what I should talk about is how I became interested in rubber and how useful is it as a paradigm of imperialism.
30 years ago I was sent into the Goodyear plant in Melbourne. It no longer exists because there are no longer any tire manufacturers in Australia, they’ve all gone offshore, to China predominantly.
I became interested in rubber, being sent into this plant, and I realised that I knew nothing about rubber, I knew nothing about where it came from. It was one of those sort of invisible things that we take for granted. It’s ubiquitous, it’s everywhere, we can’t do without it. So I started to think about it: where does this stuff come from?
I was also quite affected by the lousy conditions of the production workers in the dirty part of the factory. They were, surprise surprise, southern and eastern Europeans with a smattering of Vietnamese by that time.
So I started to think about it. I went back there some time later to do another job in that plant, and then I did some work in archives in Cambodia and France on the rubber plantations in Cambodia which were run by companies such as Michelin. The penny sort of dropped that I could not just write a chapter of a book on Cambodia and history about the plantations but I could write a social history of rubber on a world scale.
As I say, it increasingly became a paradigm for capitalist production and the division of labour on a world scale, and just showed how crucially important it was for the world capitalist economy. I think you can say steel, oil and rubber are absolutely essential, without those the world economy would grind to a halt. That was underlined in world war one and world war two when the protagonists suffered a severe rubber famine.
But you’re quite right, rubber – wild rubber collection – was produced in slave labour conditions, certainly on the Putumayo [river, in the Peruvian Amazon], an extremely primitive method of production. This was in enormous contrast to the hi-tech industries of the capitalist heartlands.
But of course the plantations which took over from wild rubber collection were on industrial scale, run according to industrial methods. They created a proletariat, which in the case of Vietnam was a strong component of the liberation struggle. So right up to what we might call the American war the plantations were a hotbed of the so-called Viet Cong, or Viet Minh as we should maybe talk of them. I don’t think there’s any co-incidence in that.
The other thing that it highlights is that internationalism is not a luxury. As early as 1848 Marx and Engels were talking about globalisation, the globalisation of the world economy under imperialism, and rubber fits into that, increasingly.
One thing that it underlines, at least for me, is the need for international trade unions, which people have talked about a little bit in the past. Companies such as Goodyear and Firestone, BF Goodrich (which is no longer in the industry) and Michelin, etcetera can just move factories offshore at the drop of a hat, and they’ve always behaved in that sort of manner.
So they’re international, yet we’re trying to counter them by unions based on a national scale. Basically, I don’t think it’s going to work. It hasn’t worked, there’s no rubber industry left in Australia, it’s all gone to China where of course tires are now produced in conditions which would have Marx and Engels rolling over in their graves – which is a bit of a paradox seeing as the government claims the mantle of communism. It doesn’t deserve it, of course, but it still does.
BC: The other material in this history is gutta-percha. What role did it play?
JT: Gutta-percha is a close cousin of rubber. It’s another natural product. It’s not used much today, dentists use it for fillings, and there are a few specialist uses like that, but in the time of the heyday of colonialism it was absolutely essential for telegraphic communication.
There were hundreds of thousands of miles of submarine telegraph cables laid – to Australia, to Africa, all around the world. They were absolutely essential to string those empires together.
Gutta-percha is sometimes called a “gum inelastic”. It was a natural insulator, so it’s been superseded by plastics of course since that time. But the telegraph clearly revolutionised communications. For the first time human beings weren’t reliant on how fast they could travel, terrestrially, whether that was on foot, horse, car or whatever it may be, or ship. They were in instant communication.
The thing which really sent shockwaves through the colonial capitals was the Indian Mutiny, because they didn’t know that this was happening for some time afterwards. Also I suppose the example would be the Dutch didn’t really know what was going on in Java during the Java Wars.
But with the rise of telegraph communication, that was instantaneous communication, they could despatch troops, warships and things straight away. So that was a step forward for humanity, but it also wasn’t, because it was contradictory for the colonial peoples. Marx did say, and I quote him on that, basically that colonialism was a double-edged sword. It brought with it oppression, but it also brought with it the possibility of actually being able to supersede colonialism and go beyond that.
He said that the sine qua non [essential prerequisite] of the regeneration of India was the creation of an Indian army, which was trained by the British, and also telegraph technology, which he remarked on right back in that time.
BC: Some may know a little of King Leopold and the destruction in the Congo, a holocaust of sorts, and the Jewish holocaust is mentioned in your book as well, slave labour in the concentration camps. Not to compare different holocausts with each other, but if Jewish holocaust victims have got compensation in many cases from German industrialists, what have the indigenous peoples of the Congo, of the Putumayo got?
JT: Basically they’ve got nothing as a result of it, and today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a hell-hole in many ways, and I think we can trace a lot of that back to the time of Leopold. The depradations of the Belgians – which didn’t stop after Leopold had been exposed –were toned down to some extent, but the oppression continued. There was meddling at the time of the state becoming independent and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.
Today the same sort of thing goes on: the big product the west’s interested in is coltan these days, which is used in mobile phones. It is extracted in primitive conditions, it’s mildly radioactive, but if you work with it for long enough it has very bad effects on the health. In fact there is a remarkable symmetry between the primitive 'mode of extraction' of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo today and the methods used to collect rubber and ivory in Leopold's Congo Free State.
So yes, whereas Jewish people – they weren’t all Jewish slave labourers, but most of them were – well, people who are dead aren’t going to get compensation, but there has been some compensation from the German state for what was done those people. But very little has been done if anything for the people of the Congo.
And the Puutumayo indigenous people retreated into the rainforests, some of them were only recently found by anthropologists, and I don’t think they were very happy about it. Certainly nothing was done. What was done on the Putumayo I think fully warrants the term genocide. There is a debate about whethere it was genocide in the Congo, certainly it was mass murder on a colossal scale. It’s a legal quibble as to whether it was. but it’s certainly horrific. But no compensation.
I recall that when the king of the Belgians was at the independence ceremony he launched into a great speech about the wonderful things, the mission civilisatrice [civilising mission] that the Belgians had carried out. People such as Lumumba couldn’t believe that any person could say that sort of thing after the history of the Congo.
BC: And on a domestic note, what does the history of rubber reveal about Australia’s colonial history in places like PNG?
JT: That’s something that not many Australians know about. In fact we didn’t even used to refer to Papua and New Guinea as colonies of Australia, they were always “external territories” or “overseas territories” – all sorts of circumlocutions so that we wouldn’t call a spade a spade.
What we did there was quite horrific, not just in the rubber plantations but in the mines. We basically disrupted the indigenous culture to an enormous degree, I don’t think it’s ever recovered from that – we displaced whole populations, we depopulated villages. Up until the early 1960s when the United Nations told us that the Australian government had to do something about it, we had an enormous battery of legislation or regulation which I think fully warrants the title of apartheid.
The rubber plantations were part of the centre of that. So Australia was a rapacious colonial country, if not as rapacious as the Belgians, that’s perhaps on the end of a spectrum of horror, but nevertheless we’ve got a lot to account for. And we basically walked away from that too, washed our hands of it and we say “tut, tut tut, look what the natives are doing there today”.
And of course Australian mining companies have been involved in all sorts of dubious practices, ecological and social, since the independence in 1975.
BC: For many progressive people the mention of the rubber industry brings to mind the 1980s Brazilian rubber tappers’ union leader, and forest conservationist, Chico Mendes. How representative of the history of the rubber industry is his story?
JT: As I was researching the book I got very depressed about the horrible things that have been carried out by people in pursuit of profit through rubber. But then I also became quite inspired at times by the history of struggle by people working inside the rubber industry, whether that be people in plantations or wild rubber collection like Chico Mendes, or in the manufacturing industry in the developed world.
His story is inspirational, and not just to Brazilians but to the world. He falls into a long tradition of people fighting back, and what is terrific to me is that he was both a socialist and an environmentalist, and I think that’s an important combination.
But if you look at the history of struggle, even of the Congolese people at the time of Leopold. In his depradations in the Congo, up to ten million people died – nevertheless they did fight back as best they could. It was a bit of an unequal struggle, spears against rifles and gatling guns, and in the end often the best form of resistance was flight into the jungle or over the nearest border, but they fought back.
As did planation workers with huge strike struggles in places such as Vietnam and Malaya against the rubber companies and also against the colonial governments. On the eve of world war two there was even a factory occupation at Firestone in Singapore, so the first world and the third world shared common elements of struggle too.
One of the most inspiring things, I think, was the story of Akron, Ohio, where I spent a bit of time. It’s a different place today of course, because the rubber industry has practically gone. Goodyear hangs on with a few thousand employees but it used to be the rubber centre of the world – rubber’s home town, as they called it. It was one of the bastions of the CIO [Committee of Industrial Unionism], it was a bastion of industrial unionism even before the CIO was founded. It was also a citadel of the Farmer-Labor Party, and that in itself is an interesting story.
So yes: Mendes was one of the latest people in struggle and it still goes on today. I don’t know how much people know about Liberia today, it’s been a US neo-colony since way back, but very recently the Firestone-Bridgestone workers gained control of what had been a company union. There were terrible working conditions – child labour and so forth – and they turned it into a genuine workers’ trade union.
BC: Not everyone’s aware of it, but a lot of modern rubber is actually synthetic. What has this meant for the old rubber tapping industries and the plantations on the one hand, and the ecological footprint of rubber overall?
JT: It’s maybe 50-50 synthetic and natural rubber production in the world now, and I don’t think natural rubber is ever going to die out. In fact the Chinese are busily creating enormous rubber plantations in Laos, what the Americans didn’t bomb to pieces, they’re taking over.
Of course natural rubber plantations do impinge on the natural environment because the plantations are on a colossal scale. They superseded wild rubber. There was some wild rubber production, as we know from Chico Mendes, in Brazil, but mainly the natural stuff is produced on plantations, and of course that has an enormous effect on the environment. It means cutting down huge swathes of mainly tropical rainforest, which is something we shouldn’t be doing today.
On the other hand we have the example of what synthetic rubber production does, because it uses pretty polluting technology: petroleum wastes, coal. You can use grains, but should we be doing that with foodstuffs when we’ve got a food crisis in the world? I don’t think we can. It’s the same as ethanol being produced as fuel.
There are enormous problems and it’s something that isn’t going to go away. Conservation? We waste colossal amounts of rubber, we just throw it away, burn it even, on huge pyres. There are alternatives that we could use even in the temperate countries. The Nazis were aware of one of them, the Kok-Saghyz, the Russian dandelion, that has about ten percent of it’s dry weight rubber. That could be used, we could do a lot better than we do at the present time.
BC: Peak oil and climate change, these two intertwined crises impact on the availability of petrochemicals and raw materials and energy, but also a lot of people expect them to cause a decline in the auto industry. This would presumably lessen the quantity of rubber needed. So what future do you see for the rubber industry?
JT: There will always be a need for rubber. If you think of cars, for instance. Even if we – lets hope – use alternative technologies, we’ll still need rubber. Not just for the tires, which is the first thing people think about, but I think the average car has about 200 other components in it which are composed of rubber. Electrical insulation, whatever industry you look at you see rubber crops up.
That’s one of the things that I began to think about when I worked in the factory, just realising that I don’t even notice this stuff, so we’re always going to have to use it. Synthetic or naturally produced.
But peak oil – well that means that synthetics aren’t going to be as available, also coal – do we really want to keep burning coal? I don’t think so because of climate change. So I think that conservation and natural rubber, but also rubber that we can produce in temperate climates, would be the way forward.
BC: Gutta-percha is not well known now, but perhaps if petrochemicals become more scarce, it could make a comeback?
JT: It was once a household name, everyone knew it, but hardly anyone knows about it now.
It could, yes, but it’s produced on plantations, and it came at an absolutely colossal cost. Again it was an example of a wild product. It came from southeast Asia, from the mainland and the archipelagoes, and it caused colossal destruction of the rainforest.
I wrote that it was an ecological holocaust because that was the size and scale –millions of trees being cut down. A tree would yield maybe a kilogram of gutta-percha, and the whole thing would be chopped down. So if we do go back to it, it would have to be on a plantation basis, a sustainable basis. But certainly it would be preferable, I suppose, to oil wastes and such like, and coal wastes.
BC: The main body of your book goes up to the end of the second world war, with just the epilogue on the postwar world. Why did you choose that as a concluding point? Is that where the modern, mature structure of the rubber industry was settled?
JT: I think it was by that stage. As I pointed out before, some of the first transnational corporations of the world were the rubber giants, and by the second world war they were well and truly entrenched.
They were entrenched in a sort of synergistic relation with the state, even a form of state capitalism in a way in the United states. It wasn’t pure state capitalism, but it was nevertheless that close relationship.
That continued after the war, with further monopolisation of the industry. I think by then it was set in place, and basically what we had seen up to then was repeated and repeated on a colossal scale.
So the struggles of the workers were decentralised away from Akron. They started that in the 1930s, there was the threat, if you go on strike and get militant we’ll move to the deep south. They did that, but they’ve moved right out of there now, they’ve moved offshore to low-wage areas.
But it’s the same sort of thing again, you’ve got appalling health and safety, low wages, a struggle to even have trade unions recognised. It was all done before by the same culprits basically in the United States. But the factories have gone off shore to China, Vietnam, those sort of countries. Where it’s the same thing – no free trade unions, shithouse conditions.
I’ve seen some studies and I quote some of them, on cancers among rubber workers in China, and they’re significantly higher than the general population, particularly bladder cancer. This was also something which was the case when rubber manufacturing was in places like Akron, Ohio.
The Devil’s Milk is available from Monthly Review Press. John Tully will be launching the book in Melbourne on Thursday February 17th, 6:30 PM at Readings Books, Carlton (309 Lygon St); and in New York on Tuesday February 22nd, 7:30 PM at The Brecht Forum, 451 West Street.