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The Devil's Milk reviewed in Labour History

Labour History • Number 101 • November 2011

John Tully, The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2011. pp. 480. $24.95 paper.

Reviewed by Thomas D. Rogers, Emory University

In his ambitious new book John Tully provides a six-continent tour of imperialism, capitalist expansion, and workers’ experiences along the rubber production chain from raw latex extraction to tire building and synthetic rubber fabrication. This book fits in a tradition marked by Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power and like that classic it explores production and consumption across huge geographical divides to reveal the ties betweencdifferent sorts of exploited (and sometimes bonded) workers. In the past 20 years or so, an increasing flow of studies running along the continuum between popular and scholarly provide insight into the feedback loops that link a commodity’s extraction or production with its consumption.

Scope presents an obvious problem for studies of this sort. Sifting through rubber’s sprawling global presence, which social histories are important? Should we keep our eye on the itinerant rubber tappers in Amazonia or the debt peons on Southeast Asian rubber plantations? Should we think more about the Appalachian migrants sweating away in the vulcanising sheds in Akron? Do we include every person wearing a raincoat or a condom or riding a bicycle or riding in a blimp? The questions have methodological and logistical implications bearing on writing transnational history and they relate to the intellectual challenge of explaining the relationships between far-flung processes and people that have manifest but still complicated connections. Recently, Greg Grandin tied the history of Henry Ford’s megalomaniacal plans in the USA and in Brazil together (another story partly about rubber). And though Fordlandia makes for compelling reading, it took a sure hand and ruthless editing to narrate that transnational story….

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