New book reveals the history of rubber: holocausts, environmental destruction and class struggle

The Devil’s Milk: A social history of rubber
By John Tully
Monthly Review Press, 2011

[Order the The Devil’s Milk from Monthly Review Press HERE. John Tully launched the book in Melbourne on February 17, at Readings Books, Carlton (309 Lygon St). He will also launch it in New York City on February 22, 7.30pm, at The Brecht Forum,  451 West Street.]

February 18, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- This new book from Monthly Review Press – by Australian socialist John Tully -- documents the history of rubber and the role it has played in the development of capitalism.

Rubber is an essential industrial material, although underappreciated by most of us, even though 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”.

Capital, as Marx once wrote, comes into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. He might well have been describing the long, grim history of rubber.

The Devil’s Milk 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 is a story of environmental destruction through rainforest clearing and plantations. The story returns to slave labour once more, this time of the mainly Jewish inmates of concentration camps during the Nazi’s holocaust. There are also tales of resistance, as rubber plantation workers and rubber factory workers have fought to be unionised 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 insides of rubber factories, cement works, steelworks, smelters, shipyards, mines and building sites.

Ben Courtice interviewed John Tully for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal on February 14, 2011.

John Tully.

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?

Maybe what I should talk about is how I became interested in rubber and how useful is it as a paradigm of imperialism.

Thirty years ago I was sent into the Goodyear plant in Melbourne. It no longer exists because there are no longer any tyre manufacturers in Australia; they’ve all gone offshore, to China predominantly.

I realised that I knew nothing about rubber, I knew nothing about where it came from. It was one of those invisible things that we take for granted. It’s ubiquitous, it’s everywhere, and 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 rubber. 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 dropped that I could not just write a chapter of a book on Cambodia and the history of the plantations, but I could write a social history of rubber on a world scale.

It became a paradigm for capitalist production and the division of labour on a world scale, and showed how crucially important it was for the world capitalist economy.

I think you can say that steel, oil and rubber are absolutely essential, without those the world economy would grind to a halt. That was underlined in World War I and World War II when the protagonists suffered a severe rubber famine.

You’re quite right, wild rubber collection was carried out 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 high-tech industries of the capitalist heartlands.

But of course the plantations that took over from wild rubber collection were on an 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 US war, the plantations were a hotbed of the so-called Viet Cong, or the Viet Minh as we should refer to them. I don’t think there’s any coincidence in that.

The other thing that it highlights is that internationalism is not a luxury. As early as 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were talking about globalisation, the globalisation of the world economy under imperialism, and rubber fits into that.

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, can move factories offshore at the drop of a hat, and they’ve always behaved in that manner.

So they’re international, yet we’re trying to counter them with trade unions based on a national scale. It hasn’t worked. There’s no rubber industry left in Australia. It has gone to China. where tyres are now produced in conditions which would have Marx and Engels rolling in their graves – which is a bit of a paradox seeing as the Chinese government claims the mantle of communism. It doesn’t deserve it, of course, but it still does.

The other material in this history is gutta-percha. What role did it play?

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 heyday of colonialism it was absolutely essential for telegraphic communication.

There were hundreds of thousands of kilometres of submarine telegraph cables laid – to Australia, to Africa, all around the world. They were absolutely essential to string empires together.

Gutta-percha is sometimes called a “gum inelastic”. It was a natural insulator, so it has been superseded by plastics since that time. The telegraph clearly revolutionised communications. For the first time human beings weren’t reliant on how fast they could travel terrestrially, whether on foot, horse, car or ship. They were now able to be in instant communication.

For example, when the 1857 Indian Mutiny erupted, because London didn’t know that this was happening for some time afterwards. Nor did the Dutch during the Java Wars [in the 1820s]. But with the rise of telegraph communication, there was now instantaneous communication. Colonising powers could despatch troops and warships straight away.

So the telegraph 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 in the book, 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 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.

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, and 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 received?

Basically they’ve got nothing, and today the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a hell hole in many ways. I think we can trace a lot of that back to the time of Leopold. The depredations 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 Congo becoming independent and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

Today the same sort of thing goes on: the big product the West is interested in is coltan [the industrial name for columbite–tantalite], which is used in mobile phones. It is extracted in primitive conditions. It is mildly radioactive, and 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 whereas Jewish people – they weren’t all Jewish slave labourers, but most of them were – have got some compensation from the German state for what was done those people, very little has been done [by Belgium], if anything, for the people of the Congo.

And the Putumayo 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 [in terms of compensation has been] done.

What was done on the Putumayo I think fully warrants the term genocide. There is a debate about whether 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 was certainly horrific. But there has been no compensation.

I recall that when the king of the Belgians was at Congo’s independence ceremony he launched into a speech about the wonderful things, the mission civilisatrice [civilising mission] that the Belgians had carried out. Lumumba and other Congolese couldn’t believe that any person could say that sort of thing after the history of the Congo.

What does the history of rubber reveal about Australia’s colonial history in places like Papua New Guinea?

That’s something that not many Australians know about. In fact we didn’t even 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 only in the rubber plantations but in the mines. We basically disrupted the indigenous culture to an enormous degree. I don’t think PNG has ever recovered from that; Australia displaced whole populations, depopulated villages. Up until the early 1960s, when the United Nations told us that the Australian government had to do something about it, an enormous battery of legislation and regulations were in place which I think fully warrants the title of apartheid.

The rubber plantations were at the centre of that. So Australia was a rapacious colonial country, if not as rapacious as the Belgians, that’s perhaps on the worst end of the spectrum of horror, but nevertheless Australia has got a lot to account for. And we basically walked away from that, washed our hands of it and now 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 PNG’s independence in 1975.

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?

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 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.

Mendes’ 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 there has been a history of struggle, even by the Congolese people at the time of Leopold. During his depredations in the Congo – up to 10 million people died – nevertheless the Congolese people did fight back as best they could. It was an unequal struggle, spears against rifles and Gatling guns, and in the end often the best form of resistance was to flee into the jungle or over the nearest border, but the people fought back.

As did plantation workers in Vietnam and Malaya, with huge strike struggles against the rubber companies and against colonial governments. On the eve of World War II 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 Committee of Industrial Unionism (CIO), and 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 people in struggle and it continues today in place like Liberia.

Liberia [on Africa’s west coast] has been a US neocolony 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.

Not everyone’s aware of it, but a lot of modern rubber is in fact synthetic. What has this meant for the old rubber tapping industries and plantations, and on the ecological footprint of rubber overall?

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, Chinese companies are busily creating enormous rubber plantations in Laos; what the US didn’t bomb to pieces, they are 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 polluting technology: petroleum waste, 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 10 per cent of its dry weight being rubber. That could be used, we could do a lot better than we do at the present time.

Peak oil and climate change, these two intertwined crises impact on the availability of petrochemicals, 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?

There will always be a need for rubber. If you think of cars, for instance, even if we – let’s hope – use alternative technologies, we’ll still need rubber. Not just for the tyres, which is the first thing people think about, but the average car has about 200 other components composed of rubber.

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 rubber 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.

Gutta-percha is not well known now, but perhaps if petrochemicals become more scarce, it could make a comeback?

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 South-East Asia, from the mainland and the archipelagos, and it caused colossal destruction of rainforest.

I write in The Devil’s Milk that it was an ecological holocaust because of its size and scale – millions of trees cut down. A tree would yield maybe a kilogram of gutta-percha, and the whole tree would be chopped down. So if we do go back to it, it would have to be on a plantation basis, on a sustainable basis. But certainly it would be preferable, I suppose, to oil waste and coal waste.

The main body of The Devil’s Milk goes up to the end of the World War II, with just the epilogue on the post-war world. Why did you choose that as a concluding point? Is that where the modern, mature structure of the rubber industry was settled?

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. The corporations started that in the 1930s to threaten that if workers go on strike and get militant they’d move to the US deep south. They did that, but they have moved out of there now; they have moved offshore to low-wage areas.

But it’s the same sort of thing, 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 offshore 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 cancer among rubber workers in China, and the rates are significantly higher than the general population, particularly for bladder cancer. This was also something which was the case when rubber manufacturing was in places like Akron, Ohio.

[Ben Courtice is a Melbourne-based climate activist and member of the Socialist Alliance. He produces the Blind Carbon Copy blog.]