There is a concept in biology called “punctuated equilibrium”: organisms can display little discernible change over long periods of time before sudden, sharp, and profound changes. Without wishing to give credence to teleological or determinist views, it does seem that human history is profoundly dialectical. Sharp change that bewilders an apologist for the status quo can inspire and give hope to those of us who believe that a better world is possible. We live in interesting but depressing times today. Neoliberal ideas are hegemonic. The old collectivist values of the labor movement have been submerged in a tide of market fundamentalism, summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families.” When I began researching for my Silvertown book, it became apparent to me that a similar flood tide of liberalism had washed over much of nineteenth-century Britain. This portrayed the status quo as normal, natural, and inevitable, but the equilibrium was punctuated in the last decades of the century.
Forthcoming in November 2015
Long before the smokestacks and factories of industrial Akron rose from Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley, the region was a place of tense confrontation. Beginning in the early 19th-century, white settlers began pushing in from the east, lured by the promise of cheap (or free) land. They inevitably came into conflict with the current inhabitants, American Indians who had thrived in the valley for generations or had already been displaced by settlement along the eastern seaboard. Here, on what was once the western fringe of the United States, the story of the country’s founding and development played out in all its ignominy and drama, as American Indians lost their land, and often their lives, while white settlers expanded a nation.
In 1889, Samuel Winkworth Silver's rubber and electrical factory was the site of a massive worker revolt that upended the London industrial district which bore his name: Silvertown. Once referred to as the “Abyss” by Jack London, Silvertown was notorious for oppressive working conditions and the relentless grind of production suffered by its largely unorganized, unskilled workers. These workers, fed-up with their lot and long ignored by traditional craft unions, aligned themselves with the socialist-led “New Unionism” movement. Their ensuing strike paralyzed Silvertown for three months. Historian and novelist John Tully tells the story of the Silvertown strike in vivid prose. He rescues the uprising—overshadowed by other strikes during this period—from relative obscurity and argues for its significance to both the labor and socialist movements.
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. From the early stages of primitive accumulation to the heights of the industrial revolution and beyond, rubber is one of a handful of commodities that has played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, and yet, as John Tully shows in this remarkable book, laboring people around the globe have every reason to regard it as “the devil's milk.” All the advancements made possible by rubber—industrial machinery, telegraph technology, medical equipment, countless consumer goods—have occurred against a backdrop of seemingly endless exploitation, conquest, slavery, and war. But Tully is quick to remind us that the vast terrain of rubber production has always been a site of struggle, and that the oppressed who toil closest to “the devil's milk” in all its forms have never accepted their immiseration without a fight.