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Interview with John Tully, author of The Devil's Milk: A Social History of Rubber

Why, of all possible commodities, did you choose to write a book on rubber?

It started with direct experience of a rubber factory: namely working on a major overhaul of the Banbury internal mixer at the old Goodyear tire factory in suburban Melbourne. Before that, like most people, I hadn’t given much thought to it. Of course, when I was a small kid it was fascinating stuff, but after that it might as well have been invisible for all the attention I paid to it. Working on the Banbury made me think about it again and it became clear upon reflection that it was a pretty crucial commodity. Then, many years later, when I was writing a book on the French colonial period in Cambodia, I came across a stack of documents on the rubber plantations in the French overseas archives at Aix-en-Provence and the Cambodian National Archives in Phnom Penh. These provided the material for a chapter in the book on the plantations. Shortly afterwards, I had one of those brainwave moments: why not write a book about the history of the commodity? After all, it’s been done with steel, oil, sugar and so on, so why not rubber? It’s up there with oil and steel as one of the essential commodities for modern industry.

You’ve spent time working in the rubber industry — what did you do, and how did those experiences shape your research?

Back in late 1978, I was working for a heavy engineering contractor, Vickers Ruwolt, actually a subsidiary of the British armaments manufacturer Vickers. They specialized in the installation and repair of mining machinery and so forth: really large stuff. In those days I earned my living as a rigger. I think it’s called the same in America. We erect structural steelwork, bridges, cranes and so on, but also work in heavy industry such as steelworks, cement works and the like, lifting heavy machinery around with chain blocks, cranes, winches and so on. The Goodyear job entailed taking the Banbury apart. It was a huge machine, perhaps three stories high, partly above ground and with the electric motors and gearboxes etc in a basement. (The Banbury has been a standard piece of machinery in rubber and tire plants since before the First World War. It was first used in Akron, Ohio after its invention by Fernley H. Banbury, a Cornish immigrant who had trained at the Penzance School of Mines in Cornwall, the same place that Humphrey Davey, the inventor of the miner’s safety lamp, attended. To go off on a tangent, I’ll be in Penzance soon and will try to get a plaque erected there to honor Banbury. Not only did he make rubber manufacture more efficient, he also improved it as far as the health and safety of the workers goes. The Banbury’s predecessor was the old open roll mill.)

It was a dark, damp and cold place, and noisy, too, when the machine was running. It was also extremely dirty. Even though the Banbury was an improvement on the old open roll mixers, that part of the factory was still full of carbon black — fine carbon dust, raw rubber and a variety of chemicals that don’t bear thinking about too much. When we took it apart, we naturally got engine oil and grease all over us and this, mixed with carbon black, was almost impossible to wash off.

I was also aware of the production workers in the plant. Almost to a man, they were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, with a sprinkling from Vietnam. The WASPs were almost always employed in the skilled trades, clerical work and management and supervision. In comparison with the production workers, we were paid like kings. I wondered what it must have been like to spend years, decades even, in that place, producing crucial products for society and industry, yet being paid a pittance for it, and regarded, excuse the word, as “wogs” by many Anglo-Australians.

It also dawned on me that I knew next to nothing about the history of rubber. About where it came from, who made it, and in what conditions.

By focusing on a single commodity, what can this book teach us that other more traditional histories — say, of a certain nation state — cannot?

According to Thomas Carlyle, “History is but the biography of great men”. I never agreed with that. “Great Men” could never have been great but for the efforts of what Eric Hobsbawm called “uncommon people” and the effect of class forces and economics. Also, Carlyle and those who think like him are selective about who they class as “great”. Almost invariably, their heroes are from the ruling classes and people from subject classes are denigrated or ignored. It’s like Bertolt Brecht asked in “Questions from a Worker Who Reads”: did the kings haul up the lumps of rock for the monuments of antiquity? A lot of political history also ignores economics and focusing on a commodity like rubber can give us a different perspective.

Finally, it’s a cliché to say that we live in a globalizing world. But it’s also true, and Marx and Engels knew that back in 1848. When I came across the wealth of information about rubber in the archives in Aix and Phnom Penh, I thought initially of writing a book just about the plantations in Cambodia. (In fact, a friend of a friend, Margaret Slocomb, has done just that in her book Colons and Coolies and a good book it is too.) But because we live in a world economic system, to understand the rubber industry, we need to see it in an international context. And its history as an essential commodity is part of world history. That is why the Akron rubber companies were among the world’s first transnational corporations.

How crucial was rubber to the development of industrial capitalism and, following that, the rise of European imperialism?

Rubber was absolutely essential to the development of industrial capitalism. As Paul W. Litchfield, the president of Goodyear Tire & Rubber said in 1939: “Think of our industrial structure as a living thing, the skeleton of which is composed of metal and cement, the arterial system of which carries a life stream of oil, and the flexing muscles and sinews of which are of rubber.” Industry couldn’t function without it and we rely on it for myriad uses in everyday life. Modern imperialism, as J.A. Hobson argued early in the 20th century, was driven by the need to obtain raw materials, cheap labor, and outlets for manufactured goods — and to invest surplus capital. That is to say, it is capitalist imperialism, which largely marks it off from empire building in the pre-modern world. The world rubber industry was a paradigm for modern imperialist exploitation of the world. I should also add that rubber’s close cousin, gutta-percha (gum inelastic as opposed to gum elastic), was essential as insulation for the submarine telegraph cables which tied the colonies to the imperialist heartlands. The European colonial empires were on a scale never before seen in history. The distances were enormous and the time needed to communicate with far-flung colonies relied on the telegraph, which perhaps could not have existed without gutta-percha, or, at a pinch, ordinary rubber.

Is rubber still as essential to the world economy as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries?

I’d say so. We can add a few more commodities such as coltan to Paul Litchfield’s list, but the world economy still could not function without rubber. As the world economy has grown, so has the demand for rubber. It’s so ubiquitous that it might as well be invisible, but if we didn’t have it industry, transport and other parts of the economy and domestic life would soon grind to a halt.

You say that the book is written from an “ecological perspective” — what has been the ecological impact of rubber production around the world?

Large-scale plantation agriculture involves clearing enormous swathes of natural vegetation, much of which happens to be tropical rainforest which plays a vital role in the health of the planet. A lot of what defoliants, napalm, Rome plows and high explosives didn’t destroy in Laos, for example, is being planted in rubber by the Chinese. The rubber manufacturing industry gobbles up large amounts of water, electricity, coal and chemicals. You could smell Akron, Ohio, two miles above it in the sky and from 30 miles away if the wind was right. Synthetic rubber relies on grains or on dirty wastes from the oil industry or coal. It is unconscionable to divert food production into rubber production, and the other raw materials are very polluting. There are alternative natural sources of rubber in more temperate regions of the world and perhaps we should take a closer look at some of these. The Kok-Saghyz (“Russian Dandelion”) for example, contains 10% rubber. However, it is commercially unviable under capitalism except during wartime. We are also profligate with rubber, a hallmark of consumer capitalism. My perspective is that of a Red-Green; we can’t put our relationship with nature onto a rational plane until such time as we master our own social and economic organization.

The story of rubber production involves a lot of fairly brutal exploitation, from colonial plantations to Nazi death camps. But in every instance, workers have struggled to improve their conditions — what are some of the more inspirational moments you discovered?

The brutality has at times made me despair. But it is true that the workers fought back and that has often been inspirational. Even the Congolese villagers revolted against Leopold’s henchmen, although it was an unequal struggle against Gatling guns and gunboats and in the end the most effective form of resistance was flight into the deep jungles or over the nearest border. The Vietnamese rubber coolies struck on the French rubber plantations and it is no coincidence that, decades later, the plantations remained bastions of the Viet Minh against the French and Americans. The strike leader, Tran Tu Binh, later gained high rank in the People’s Army of Vietnam. Farther south, in Malaya, there were huge strike waves of Chinese and Indian plantation workers in which economic demands merged with directly political demands against British colonialism. On the eve of the Second World War, the workers occupied the Firestone factory at Singapore.

Thousands of miles away, in America, rubber workers took on some of the most intransigent corporations. Akron, Ohio, the rubber manufacturing capital of the world in the 1930s, was a bastion of the CIO and one of the homes of the sit-down strike. It was also stronghold of the Farmer-Labor Party and it is interesting to speculate what might have happened to the course of American history if the local union and socialist activists had been able to replicate their successes more broadly outside of the city.

I was reduced to despairing tears when reading about the slave laborers in IG Farben’s Buna factory and the SS Kok-Saghyz farm at Auschwitz. Human corpses were mere waste material of the industrial processes there. And yet, murderous as were the SS guards, and however horrific the living and working conditions of the slaves, the Buna factory never produced as much as a single pound of rubber. Slave labor usually isn’t efficient, but the failure of the plant also points to the fact that whenever the slaves could sabotage work or go slow, they did. And this wasn’t just the case with the British POWs in the plant, who had better conditions and some degree of protection by the Geneva Conventions. Let’s not forget, too, that when the SS men scurried off into their bunkers during air raids, leaving the slaves out in the open, that the laborers cheered on the bombers.

It also makes me proud to relate how anti-imperialists such as Roger Casement and Edmund Morel led campaigns against the butchery in the Congo and South America, supported by those denigrated as “yelping socialists” by the rubber profiteers.

In additional to historical works, you’ve written two novels, Dark Clouds on the Mountain and Death Is the Cool Night — how has writing fiction influenced how you think about writing non-fiction, and vice versa?

Some academic history writing is pretty inaccessible stuff. OK, sometimes, particularly in the case of journal articles, academics write for a specialized readership with specialized knowledge and a specialized vocabulary. You don’t write novels that way, and while there is a spectrum from pulp fiction to more serious literary works, novelists do try to write for as broad a readership as possible. That’s my approach in my book The Devil’s Milk. I hope that it is accessible to as wide a readership as possible. I guess that stems from my agreement with Marx in his “Theses on Feuerbach” that “philosophers have hitherto interpreted history, the point, however, is to change it”. For an academic like myself, ideas are intrinsically interesting things, but as a socialist academic, I hope that my writing can help change the world. I think you can also say that my novels have broad social and historical dimensions. I’m fascinated by the mentality of racism and fascism, for example, and this is something that I hope comes through in my novels, although they are not didactic political tracts.

What are the major issues facing rubber workers today, whether in rubber factories or on plantations?

The story of the rubber industry in the “developed world” is a story of struggle; struggle against dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, struggle for a living wage, struggle for the right to form free trade unions, struggle in the final analysis for human dignity and respect. The rubber bosses’ response to union demands was always to threaten to go to low wage, non-union regions, for example Goodyear in Alabama. I think they would have done so eventually even if the Akron workers hadn’t organized. They called it “decentralization” and used it as a stick to beat the workers. As pointed out before, the rubber companies were among the first transnational corporations, e.g. Firestone, Michelin, Pirelli, Bridgestone, Goodyear, US Rubber-Uniroyal, and B.F. Goodrich. They started to spread their tentacles around the world from as early as the 1920s. Now, in an increasingly globalized economy, they have moved offshore to low wage countries in a big way. There are no longer any tire plants in Australasia, for example. They have all been moved to China where the corporations can take advantage of low wages, poor conditions and the absence of free trade unions. In a very real way, the conditions that those workers endure today are a re-run of those suffered by Western workers in the past. These include poverty-line wages, lack of job security, long working hours and few holidays, and exposure to dangerous machinery and chemicals. Fernley Banbury once observed Pennsylvania rubber workers supine outside their plant, with blue froth coming out of their mouths. This was the result of working with aniline dyes, which the rubber companies had discovered speeded up the vulcanization process. So, yes, without union protection rubber workers in the “offshore” plants will suffer all this and more. Chinese studies have, for instance, showed that rubber workers suffer significantly higher rates of bladder cancers than other people.

And as in the offshore manufacturing plants, so in the plantations. Liberia is a case in point. The plantation workers suffer long hours, poor working conditions, shocking OH&S hazards, child labor and rock-bottom pay. Their employer, Firestone-Bridgestone, reaps handsome profits as a result. The bright side of things there is that the rank-and-file workers recently dislodged the venal puppets in the company union, FAWUL, and installed their own people. Significantly, they were aided by the US Steelworkers union, which now represents American rubber workers. Very little will change anywhere until such time as the workers win the right to form independent, militant trade unions. It’s been clear for many years now that in the face of the global reach of capital that unions need to be international. It’s a tall order, but a necessary one. Internationalism is not just a fine-sounding moral idea, it is a practical imperative.

How do you hope people will respond to the book, in terms of the insights they draw from it or the possibilities for political action it inspires?

I think I say somewhere in the book that a friend told me that after reading it that she will never look at rubber in the same way again. From being an ordinary, commonplace thing, worthy of no more than a passing glance, it was revealed to her as a commodity in which there is a whole buried world of social relations. Let’s hope, too, that historical and contemporary knowledge of the conditions of its extraction and manufacture will make people angry, and that the struggles of rubber workers will inspire them to stand up against injustice where they find it too. I think I’ve shown, too, that it is an international struggle, encapsulated in the names of some of the people I’ve dedicated the book to, and that internationalism isn’t just a luxury. In a very real way, the story of rubber is the story of modern humanity. It’s a story of brutality and greed, but also of solidarity.

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