By Andy Feeney
Book Review of John Tully, The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber (New York, 2011), Monthly Review Press, paperback, 480 pp.
When many of us living in the Metro area commute to work or attend restaurants, movies, clubs and private parties in the evening, we travel in vehicles rolling forward on inflated rubber tires– via cars, buses, and bicycles. Those of us who travel by subway do so along electrified lines fed by wires with rubber insulation.
When we switch on lights in our homes and offices, when we use magnetic cards to trigger electrical locks to commercial or residential buildings, when we charge the batteries to computers and smart phones, we are reliant again, indirectly, on rubber insulation to keep the electricity involved from shorting out or starting fires. We make use of rubber yet again whenever we use latex condoms, wear elastic-fortified underwear, are treated by physicians wearing latex gloves, celebrate children’s birthdays with rubber balloons, wear rubber-soled shoes, water lawns and gardens using rubber hoses, or buy food that has been carried to market in semi trucks mounted on oversized tires.
Rubber since the early 1800s has become a key material for industrial capitalism, although we almost never give it the attention that American society devotes to oil, or even coffee. In The Devil’s Milk, Australian labor historian John Tully, who worked as a young man as an industrial rigger at a rubber processing plant in Melbourne, seeks to provide a lay audience with an easy-to-read social and environmental history of the rubber industry.
Citing Marx’s comment in Capital about the mystifying effects of commodity fetishism, Tully acknowledges that rubber seems a “banal commodity,” but adds that beneath our surface impressions of this particular commodity “is a whole buried world of social relations.”
Some of these social relations – but hardly all – have become familiar to literate leftists in recent years. Readers old enough to remember the Vietnam War, for example, are probably aware of the major role that colonial rubber plantations played in the economic and political life of French-ruled Southeast Asia, British-ruled Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies before World War II.
Socialists interested in the history of Belgian imperialism in Africa may also be familiar with Adam Hochshild’s grisly history King Leopold’s Ghost, concerning the near-genocidal exploitation of the peoples of the Congo by white business interests eager to profit from the country’s wild rubber vines during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Environmentalists concerned about the protection of Amazon rainforests are likely to have heard of the radical rubber tapper or seringuiero Chico Mendes, who won plaudits for his efforts to protect the forests before he was gunned down by thugs in the pay of local ranching interests in 1988.
What many of us probably less familiar with, however, is the technological history of the rubber industry itself. Ditto for the problematic saga of labor organizing in Akron, Ohio, once the rubber manufacturing capital of the world, in the decades leading up to World War II.
Tully’s book explores Akron’s labor history at some length, and outlines how the failure of an IWW-assisted strike in 1913 left the town’s largely white, Appalachian work force under an open-shop regime for the next twenty years. As Tully reports, the Ku Klux Klan played a significant part in keeping Akron anti-union during this period, to the extreme detriment of black workers and women who also were employed – at the lowest levels — in the rubber factories.
Yet when the worst of the 1930s Depression had passed, and when the Roosevelt administration signaled its support for the labor movement, Akron quickly grew into what Tully terms a “bastion” of union power, with former Klansmen in some cases taking important roles in the dozens of sit-down strikes that eventually forced the Akron rubber companies to come to the negotiating table.
Organizers for the United Rubbers Workers union (URW) at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Gadsden, Ala., on the other hand, were subjected to violent opposition, including beatings by company goons, until they finally won a ratification campaign in 1943 following a Supreme Court ruling against the company’s union-busting tactics.
Even so, rank discrimination against women workers at Gadsden continued for decades longer. Lilly Ledbetter, who worked as a supervisor at Gadsden for twenty years at pay rates consistently lower than those of her male colleagues, in 2007 lost a Supreme Court case demanding back pay from Goodyear for past sexual discrimination. It was only following Barack Obama’s election to the White House that in January 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act made it possible for other women to sue for back pay under similar circumstances, although Ledbetter herself cannot benefit from the law.
Three added aspects of the rubber industry’s social and political industry are likely to be news to many readers. One is the story of the abuse of rubber gatherers in Papua, New Guinea by Australian rubber interests over the years, a history that Tully relates in some detail. Another is the horrifying record of rubber extraction activities along the Putumayo River, a minor tributary of the Amazon, under the direction of the Peruvian entrepreneur Julio Cesar Arana between roughly 1899 and 1914.
Arana’s rubber empire on the Putumayo undoubtedly did not cost as many human lives as King Leopold II’s rule over the Congo Free State did. Exact population figures are impossible to obtain, but some recent researchers conclude that between 1880 and 1920, a period that bracketed Leopold’s rule, the population of the Congo was likely cut in half, from an estimated 20 million to an estimated 10 million people.
Along the Putumayo River in Peru, the number of Huitoto Indians and other tribal peoples was far less than the original population of the Congo had been. But Tully concludes that “genocide” is a term that can legitimately be used to describe Arana’s exploitation of the region’s Indians in the interests of maximum rubber output.
The Anglo-Irish aristocrat Roger Casement, who had previously helped expose rubber industry abuses in the Congo, concluded in 1912 that slavery was common along the Putumayo, with women and children as well as men being forced into rubber collection activities at starvation wages, under the threat of beatings, torture and the occasional murder. Tribal women and children were sold “retail and wholesale” into slavery in the river town of Iquitos, with some of the women being forced into unpaid prostitution, Tully notes. Indians who were too old or too weakened by illness, malnutrition and overwork to contribute adequately to Arana’s profits were killed. In some cases they were apparently tortured for sport, by Arana’s sadistic overseers.
Thanks to Casement’s investigation and those of two other observers of Arana’s empire, a young U.S.-born railroad engineer, Walt Hardenburg, and a courageous Marxist journalist in Peru, Benjamin Saldaña Racca, the genocide on the Putumayo eventually came to the world’s attention, in part due to the assistance of the Anti-Slavery Society and the British Foreign Office, and Arana’s activities came to an end. But in his 1912 report, Casement estimated that out of 50,000 Indians living along the stretch of the river Arana controlled, some 32,000 had been killed over a 12-year period.
Casement accused British and U.S. commercial interests of profiting from Arana’s abuses, or at any rate tolerating them: several wealthy British directors served on the board of Arana’s Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company, PACO, and the company maintained an office in London, where the bulk of its rubber was sold.
U.S. diplomatic officials were doing nothing about Arana’s abuses and arguably were protecting him, Casement suggested, adding that “If the United States cannot let light into the dark places of South America, then she must stand aside or be swept aside … The Monroe Doctrine is a stumbling block in the path of humanity. Instead of being the cornerstone of American independence it is the block on which these criminals behead their victims.”
Casement’s efforts to expose King Leopold’s abuses in the Congo and his identification of British and U.S. involvement in Arana’s venture may account for the fact that although born to the aristocracy, he was increasingly moving in an anti-imperialist direction. A few years after Casement submitted his report, his anti-imperialism and his Irish nationalism inspired him to support the failed Easter Rebellion in Dublin, Tully reports. But ironically, it was the rapid development of rubber plantation agriculture under the British, French and Dutch empires in Southeast Asia that helped bring an end to the genocidal style of wild rubber extraction that was practiced in the Congo and along the Putumayo in late Victorian times.
In a major section of his text, Tully explores the strange world of the European rubber planters in Southeast Asia in the early 1900s and the harsh labor conditions facing imported coolie laborers who worked for them. He also explores the role of Communist Party labor organizers in mobilizing coolies to fight for better conditions – and eventually, of course, to fight for an end to colonialism, too.
A grimmer history surrounds a separate effort that Western consumers of raw rubber, particularly the Germans during the 1920s and 1930s, made to perfect synthetic chemical substitutes for natural rubber. Very early on, Hitler recognized the essential part that rubber plays in the equipping of modern military forces, and almost immediately after taking office in 1933 he began pressing chemical researchers with the massive German chemical cartel IG Farben to accelerate their work on synthetic rubber production – for eventual use in war.
The Nazi effort to develop and manufacture acceptable forms of synthetic rubber on an industrial scale culminated in an attempt by the Third Reich to construct a major new mining and manufacturing complex at a place called Monowitz, in Poland, close to the town of Auschwitz. There engineers and chemists from IG Farben, along with helpful S.S. officers, strove in the 1940s to build a large synthetic rubber manufacturing facility. To this end they employed enslaved Jewish workers from the Auschwitz concentration camp, with the prisoners’ daily workloads and diets scientifically calibrated to guarantee that most would be worked to death in matter of months.
Labor conditions at U.S. synthetic rubber plants during World War II were not good, but they were not designed to kill the rubber workers, whose work under difficult circumstances was probably critical to U.S. success in the war.
The U.S. effort to substitute synthetic rubber made from coal and oil constituents for imported plantation rubber from Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia was a belated one, Tully writes. This was largely due to delays caused by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey stubbornly holding onto patents for the Buna variety of synthetic rubber under one of its licenses from IG Farben in Germany.
As late as September 1942, when U.S. synthetic rubber output was minimal, a Rubber Survey Committee headed by financier Bernard Baruch informed the Roosevelt White House that “Of all critical and strategic materials, rubber is the one which presents the greatest threat to the safety of our Nation and the success of the Allied cause.”
Defying conservative critics who deemed it “socialism,” the Roosevelt administration responded by setting up a government-operated program that increased national synthetic rubber production from just 40,000 tons in 1942 to some 900,000 tons by late 1943, and to some 1.2 million tons in 1945.
The added production occurred in 51 new government-built factories, Tully writes, and he quotes an expert to the effect that along with U.S. stockpiling of natural rubber before the Japanese took control over the plantations of the East Indies, the rapid expansion of synthetic rubber production in U.S. government factories in 1945 “saved the country from military paralysis in the last year of the war.”
Synthetic rubber produced in the plants “was used for tens of thousands of military and industrial purposes,” including in the tires of military trucks and artillery guns, in the manufacturing of aircraft tires, in ammunition belts for machine guns, in rubber gas masks, in rubberized life vests and pontoon boats, and in some 45 million pairs of rubber boots and shoes that U.S. military personnel used up in just the war years 1943 and 1944.
The private companies dominating the U.S. rubber industry, “which operated in factories paid for by the U.S. government,” made huge profits during the war, Tully notes. Then after the war ended, to head off the threat of publicly financed industrial production that might amount to “socialism,” the government began selling off to private corporations the synthetic rubber factories it had just built with the taxpayers’ money.
The rubber workers of Akron gained thousands of new jobs thanks to the war effort, and for individuals and families that had been struggling during the Depression, this change must have been welcome. There is good reason to believe that many or most of the rubber workers also were happy to contribute to the war effort, and the left-leaning leadership of the URW strove to enforce a “no strike pledge” during the fighting in order to defeat fascism.
Yet there were losses for the Akron workers as well as gains, for rents and prices in Akron rose faster than wages. Also, after earlier instituting a six-hour day in the factories in hopes of containing labor militancy, the rubber companies went back to the eight-hour day in order to maximize production. In 1943, over the protests of union activists, the Ohio legislature and the governor enacted a law allowing for increased working hours for adult workers as well as teenagers.
Women workers gained new jobs in the industry during the war, yet “there were widespread claims that [Akron’s] women faced discrimination in the factories’ hiring practices.” The first contract that Goodyear signed with the URW in 1941 established a minimum wage rate for men of 85 cents an hour, but a rate for women of only 65 cents. At the war’s end, as suggested in the movie Rosie the Riveter, women in the rubber factories were laid off in huge numbers, just as they were in many other U.S. industries. Black workers in Akron meanwhile faced severe discrimination during the war years, were assigned to the lowest-paid and worst jobs, and were the first workers to suffer layoffs.
Today, Tully notes in the conclusion to Devil’s Milk, there is virtually no rubber production occurring in Akron; the big factories have almost all closed, and the once-mighty United Rubber Workers Union has been absorbed by the United Steelworkers. The genocidal work regime that IG Farben and the Nazis established in the 1940s at Monowitz (which currently bears the Polish name of Monovice), is now only a memory. However, the synthetic rubber facility that IG Farben built there is still an active chemical manufacturing plant, with a monument to the slave laborers who worked and died there.
The world’s largest single rubber plantation today, Tully notes, is the massive operation that U.S. entrepreneur Harvey Firestone established in Liberia in the 1920s. The Firestone plantation, now under the control of the Japanese company Bridgestone, fairly recently employed some 10,000 people at its Harbel estate property alone, at an average wage of $3.00 a day. According to a Guardian article in 2006, most plantation workers at Harbel were then living in crowded mud huts with tin roofs, no indoor plumbing and no running water or electricity.
A federal class action suit brought by two U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations against Bridgestone-Firestone in 2005 accused the company of promoting “misery” in Liberia, although the company retorted that it was the only major foreign corporation not to have abandoned Liberia during the country’s 14-year civil war. At any rate, there is some chance that labor conditions for Firestone plantation workers in Liberia may change. In 2007, after a favorable ruling from Liberia’s Supreme Court, as well as a series of strikes that received some help from the United Steel Workers, Firestone at last agreed to negotiate with an insurgent committee of militant workers who had won control over the tame company union on the plantation.
In rubber manufacturing plants in the long-industrialized counties, Tully notes, working conditions and health protections are significantly better than they were in the early 1900s. However, “Dickensian” working conditions still exist in rubber factories in the newly industrializing countries and in China, where a large fraction of global rubber manufacturing occurs.
In Guangzhou at the time Devil’s Milk was being written, Tully indicates, workers in the rubber industry and other export industries were enduring “low pay and long hours, forced overtime, dangerous machinery and toxic chemicals in the workplace,” while housing conditions were bad and free trade unions were illegal.
Thanks in large part to capitalist economic laws and trends in business development that Marx identified more than a century ago, rubber is an essential material for our society and one whose beneficial uses are many and important, yet it is also a substance that brings immense harm to human societies.
In addition to have complicated social and political consequences, the global production and consumption of rubber have big environmental impacts. For example, the bloody methods of Victorian rubber companies in King Leopold’s Congo helped ensure that Congolese villagers who were being threatened with beatings, rape and mutilation for not harvesting enough wild rubber vines were feverish in their efforts to harvest as many vines as possible in the quickest possible time. The result was that they devastated the population of wild rubber vines, making the industry unsustainable.
In Malaya, the East Indies and other parts of Southeast Asia between the late 1850s and approximately 1900, the once-significant gutta percha industry suffered a similar biological fate, although not for exactly the same reasons. Gutta percha, a close chemical relative of natural rubber – in fact, it is a stereoisomer of isoprene rubber – has physical properties that make it even better than rubber as an electrical insulator, especially when exposed to corrosive agents found in salt water.
The Victorians found many attractive uses for gutta percha, which is still used in some kinds of dental and orthodontic work. However, by far the most important was as a protective material for intercontinental oceanic cables carrying telegraph messages between imperialistic European nations such as Britain and France and their colonies. As the world’s undersea cable network grew by leaps and bounds in the late Victorian age, global demand for gutta percha burgeoned, and indigenous harvesters of the stuff in Southeast Asia responded to this demand as they had traditionally responded – by felling the large taban trees that were the most important source of the resin and quickly extracting rather small amounts of sap from the trunks.
It was an inefficient process that had traditionally done no harm, but under the pressure of accelerating global demand it led to the devastation of taban tree populations, at least for many years. The craze for gutta percha production, along with other pressures on local forests, also brought about massive deforestation in parts of the Malay Peninsula.
The processing of natural rubber into the hardened, vulcanized material that is most used by modern industrial society also exposes rubber workers and the natural environment to a number of noxious chemicals, Tully notes.
These can include hydrogen sulfide, the poisonous gas that accounts for the awful smell of rotten eggs; sulfur dioxide, which when mixed with water produces sulfuric acid; the aromatic ring compounds benzene, xylene and toluene, which can cause leukemia and other cancers as well as genetic damage; and carbon bisulfide, a gas that can give rubber workers and other chemical workers terrible headaches, as well as the symptoms of severe drunkenness. In Akron when the industry was in its heyday, Tully writes, lead also was “widely used” in rubber factories, threatening workers with permanent damage to their central nervous systems.
Yet perhaps the biggest environmental problem with the global rubber industry, in Tully’s view, comes from its role in tire production, and hence with the functioning of gasoline-burning automobiles whose CO2 emissions contribute to global climate change.
A less obvious environmental risk is the possibility that a South American blight affecting Hevea brasiliensis trees, the most important source of natural rubber, could spread to other continents and decimate the plantations of Asia. Natural rubber is still superior to synthetic rubber for most uses, Tully writes. And if modern jet airplane travel inadvertently leads to the relatively fragile spores of the fungus that causes Hevea blight to migrate to the plantations of Asia, this could have a disastrous effect on natural rubber production worldwide.
To Tully, the history of the rubber industry since the 1800s therefore not only illustrates what Marx wrote about simple commodity production often concealing from us the often unjust networks of social relations in which we are embedded; it also illustrates a famous remark Engels made in his essay The Dialectics of Nature. As Engels wrote:
“Let us not … flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory takes its revenge upon us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.”
The challenge for human society, Tully concludes, is for us to recognize that we ourselves are part of nature and must find ways to live in harmony with its laws. But the laws of capitalist development conflict with this need, even as they have historically motivated capitalists in the rubber industry to act with appalling brutality towards other human beings, ultimately in the service of capital accumulation and personal greed. In The Devil’s Milk, Tully fails to offer any simple recipes for how to correct capitalism’s destructive tendencies. But in laying out how they have played themselves out in the global rubber business, this book lays a foundation upon which a search for solutions can be based.
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