Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire is available from Pluto Press.
Most people in the Global North likely go about their lives without giving more than a passing thought to palm oil. And yet, the stuff is everywhere: in our snack foods, our medicines, our soaps and shampoos, and a thousand other consumer products. For author and researcher Max Haiven, this invites a number of questions. How can something be both omnipresent and seemingly invisible? What networks of exploitation and suffering are required to support this state of affairs, and how did they come to be? In Haiven’s Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire (Pluto Press), many of the truths of palm oil are laid bare—the implications of which both disturb and raise compelling possibilities.
The story begins, like many histories of capitalist industry, with imperialism and mass slaughter. The oil palm (E. Guineensis) was cultivated for millennia by the Indigenous peoples of West Africa, who saw it as a semi-sacred provider of food and shelter and built entire civilizations around its use and trade. In particular, the Edo Kingdom, located in modern-day Nigeria, made the production of palm oil a central focus of its community life. Families would come together to harvest and refine palm kernels, and when a tree was felled, every piece of it was made into something useful, from palm wine to thatched roofs and spears. In this way, the Edo people flourished from the early 1300s to 1897—when the British Empire, no longer content to simply buy palm oil from African merchants, launched a “Punitive Expedition” that destroyed the advanced Edo society in a matter of weeks.
Much of Haiven’s second chapter, “Whose Punishment?,” serves as a requiem for the Edo Kingdom, and as such, it carries a haunting weight. As a product of the U.S. school system, I had never read about this particular atrocity before, and my education was long overdue. The British, it turns out, justified their invasion as a humanitarian intervention, aimed at ending the purported practice of human sacrifice in Benin City, which they slandered in the popular press as “The City of Blood.” In fact, though this kind of sacrifice was practiced to some extent in the Edo Kingdom, modern historians argue that it was far more rare than the British claimed—and that it more closely resembled the state-sanctioned capital punishment of Western societies than the “long record of savagery of the most debased kind” that was invoked by racist imperial sources.
In any case, the real motivation for the “punishment” meted out by British firepower had nothing to do with humanitarianism, and everything to do with the Edo Kingdom’s refusal to ramp up its exports of palm oil to meet British demand. With characteristic arrogance, the Empire concluded that the traditional methods of agriculture used by Indigenous Africans were little more than primitive superstition, and that they could run things more “rationally and scientifically” themselves.
And so, the Punitive Expedition set out to execute its murderous campaign. Armed with warships, bombs, and rockets, the British took control of Benin City in just five days, massacring countless civilians along the way and burning the city’s most important civic and cultural sites to the ground. In the year that followed, Britain exported an estimated 63,147 tons of palm oil from Africa, much of it from the former Edo lands—a great windfall for the shareholders of London’s trading firms, who could sit comfortably in their armchairs while the fruits of brutality rolled in. Such are the foundations of many of our modern consumer goods.
There is an irony here in that the notion of capitalist rationality—embodied by John Stuart Mill’s homo economicus, and contrasted against a putatively irrational racial “other”—is a purely ideological construction, and a deeply contradictory form of superstition in its own right. Throughout Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire, Haiven points out that even as they claimed to be abolishing human sacrifice, the forces of Western empire were in fact practicing it themselves, placing entire peoples, cultures, and ways of life on the altar of increased profits.
This is no less true today, when the palm oil industry has expanded by orders of magnitude beyond what was possible in 1897 and the dictates of international trade are imposed upon virtually every inch of the globe. The book’s central thesis is that human sacrifice is alive and well, lurking just below the surface of even the most “ethical,” “sustainable” forms of commerce—and that to truly be rid of it, the human species will have to transcend commerce itself.
To this end, Haiven does a meticulous job of documenting the palm oil industry’s modern-day abuses, dragging to light the suppressed horror stories of workers across the Global South. E. Guineensis can only grow within a narrow band of climates around the Equator, and over the course of the 20th century, Indonesia and Malaysia have joined Nigeria as its leading cultivators. As a result, the economies of all three nations are now heavily reliant on the plant, and their working classes are predictably exploited to ensure cheap prices for Western consumers.
Within two generations, smallholding farmers across Southeast Asia have found themselves dispossessed from their families’ land by government policy, forced to work for the very firms that bought it out from under them. The “explicit or implicit use of paramilitary and gang violence” has been deployed to suppress the smallest sign of discontent, to police working hours and enforce low wages, and in particular to crush the communist resistance movements of the Cold War era. In 2016, a report by Amnesty International found “serious human rights abuses” throughout the palm industry, including “forced labour and child labour, gender discrimination, as well as exploitative and dangerous working practices that put the health of workers at risk,” often exposing them to toxic pesticides with little or no protection.
As a rule of thumb, when liberal NGOs admit that bad working conditions exist, the actual conditions are significantly worse; certainly for female workers, “discrimination” is a severe understatement. On many palm plantations, entire families are pressed into hard labor, but only the male head of the household is paid—extending beyond exploitation and into outright enslavement. Meanwhile, sexual harassment or assault of female workers by their supervisors is commonplace. All of these crimes are either tacitly tolerated by or perpetrated in direct service of the same multinational corporations that boast of their “empowered” female CEOs and shareholders at home. (Just a few examples of corporations that reap the benefits of cheap palm oil: Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, L’Oreal, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Unilever.)
These conditions are hardly unique to palm oil production, but the industry represents a particularly grotesque expression of the injustices common to global capitalism. Palm oil is a cornerstone of a vast array of everyday conveniences, and the grim truth is that whenever we eat an Oreo or wash our dishes with the aptly named Palmolive detergent, there is every possibility that someone was beaten, starved, or poisoned to make it possible.
Beyond these obvious forms of human sacrifice, though, there is the broader harm of environmental destruction, which threatens to decimate human and inhuman beings alike. By some estimates, the cultivation and processing of oil palms accounts for 6% of the world’s carbon emissions—a staggering figure for any single product, making it especially galling that palm oil derivatives are often promoted as “green” biofuels.
In Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra, many plantations are built on peatland, which releases huge plumes of smoke when burned, choking the lungs of humans and animals for miles around—and that’s when the fires stay under control. The critically endangered orangutan (our close evolutionary cousin, a highly intelligent and empathetic being known for befriending and caring for other animals in zoos) is treated as a pest to be rooted out and shot, in an obscene and fratricidal practice of extermination.
None of this disqualifies products that incorporate palm oil from being labeled “organic” and “sustainable.” The pace of devastation is all too easy to sustain. When advocates attempt to challenge the perpetrators on these points, responsibility is dodged by a circular assignation of blame, in which, Haiven writes, “local landowners and plantation managers point to pressures from above, while corporations plead ignorance or helplessness for what happens deep in the jungle.” No one, ultimately, is ever held accountable.
All of this would be bad enough. But as Haiven’s fifth chapter, “Whose Fat?” explores, the end users of palm oil are not immune from the cycle of harm. Once shunned as a foodstuff in the West because of its association with soaps and industrial greases, palm oil is now consumed more than any other vegetable oil worldwide, and is beloved by manufacturers for its “profound cheapness”—which, as we’ve seen, is the result of suppressed wages and exploited labor.
Around the world, palm oil is whipped into creams and margarines, baked into breads, added to chocolates and peanut butters, and included in a “vast array of different emulsifiers, coagulants, preservatives, and other food additives.” None of these are remotely good for human nutrition, but all of them serve to prolong the shelf lives and cheapen the prices of highly processed foods and pre-packaged meals, facilitating distribution on previously unimaginable scales.
In turn, these same foods have become dietary staples of the world’s poor, for whom healthier options are prohibitively expensive—or, in cases like the “food deserts” of Appalachia and the American Midwest, not available at all. In India, to take just one example, the consumption of pre-packaged foods has risen by roughly 20% for each of the past nine years, with corresponding increases in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. According to one study, every kilogram of palm oil consumed in developing nations causes 68 deaths from cardiovascular diseases, the inevitable result of its high levels of saturated fat.
In short, palm oil and its byproducts are used to feed working people as cheaply as possible, sustaining them just enough to continue productive labor, while shortening their lifespans and destroying their long-term health. In Haiven’s human-sacrifice analogy, this is just one more offering to the almighty market.
Organized opposition to the palm oil industry is largely represented by the NGO and non-profit sector, which roots its criticisms in liberal conceptions of exploitation and injustice. To their credit, some, including the occasional Democratic lawmaker, have a sense that the palm oil industry is A Bad Thing globally, and have made noises of protest in its direction. But in relation to the sheer scope of violence and destruction involved, their efforts have been both naïve and ineffective, and Haiven is merciless in picking them apart.
In the first place, he argues, the liberal discourse around environmental issues is riddled with tacit imperialism; the entire framing is one of “brown people in need of the benevolence of white consumers,” whose “enlightened” choices within a market framework can supposedly enact reforms while averting any deeper structural change. However, the sheer ubiquity of palm oil on the market renders this politics of “voting with your wallet” all but useless.
Boycotts (one of the favorite tools of liberal environmentalism) only work when they’re targeted at specific companies, with specific demands. Deployed against an industry with a product that appears in half of all goods sold in supermarkets, where would such a boycott even begin? Then, too, the idea of mounting a pressure campaign against a single country to change its ways falls short in a globalized world. Any country that did reform would be instantly out-competed by cheaper, dirtier offerings from those who did not.
There must also be a full accounting of the complicity of Western corporations with the exploitative policies of foreign nations. Ultimately, no international megacorp will ever prioritize the common good over its own bottom line. As a result, NGOs like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil are only able to extract token concessions from the industry. To put it bluntly, destroying lives and habitats is profitable, and no amount of liberal free-market tinkering will make it less so.
In that sense, Haiven’s interrogation of the palm oil industry is not solely the story of palm oil, but rather the story of global capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy, with palm oil serving as a window on its workings. One could just as easily write the same book with the title Cocoa Beans or Copper; the historical contingencies would differ, but the pattern they would reveal remains the same.
In its fluidity, versatility, and ultimate noxiousness, palm oil bears a resemblance to capital itself. For Haiven, the commodity becomes “a holographic shard of a greater capitalist totality,” through which we might see “all of the processes of exploitation that were invested in each stage of its production… the sacrificial violence on which the economy rests, hidden in plain sight.”
For some perspective, it could be instructive to read his Palm Oil alongside one of the popular “commodity histories” of the early 2000s, such as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History or Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses. Those books, while occasionally entertaining in a pop-history sort of way, are almost pathologically apolitical, lacking a coherent analysis beyond the particular significance of any one commodity: a sort of underdeveloped materialism that fails to pursue its own implications.
Haiven, by contrast, appears both alarmed by the contours of international capitalism that he unveils and darkly fascinated by their sheer scope and power. In a very real sense, he says, “we are all alchemically palm oil now”—the stuff flows in our bloodstreams, is infused into our hair and skin, and fuels the very neurons that allow us to contemplate it. The notion is a little disconcerting. Yet however vast and ubiquitous it may be, the palm oil industry, and the world market of which it forms a part, is ultimately a human invention; its existence is neither natural nor inevitable.
Haiven’s book is woven through with threads of resistance, tracing the victories of trade unionists, Indigenous protesters, and others who have dared to imagine an alternative to environmental vandalism, suffering, and death. It does not shy away from the words “global revolution,” and encourages its readers to seriously consider what that might entail. Throughout, Haiven’s message is clear: our species built this network of human sacrifice, and we have a responsibility to face its full implications. If, through collective effort, we can bring it about, we also have the power to end it.♦
Alex Skopic is a freelance writer from Springville, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, Vastarien: A Literary Journal, and the Cleveland Review of Books, among other places.