Review: Palm Oil

Max Haiven Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire. Pluto Press, London, 2022. ISBN 9780745345826.

Leonidas Vournelis (Baruch College)

Max Haiven’s Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire explores an important chapter in the global expansion of Capitalism by examining the relationship between palm oil and systems of power and ideas during the past two centuries. The history of palm oil as one of the world’s most ubiquitous mass-produced cash crops is one of sacrifice of peoples, environments, and ways of life on the altar of imperium and capital accumulation. Although informed by a rich bibliography, this book is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the palm oil industry, or a thorough account of the offenses of today’s palm oil industry. It is also not an ethnography, although the analysis benefits from many ethnographic insights.  “Palm oil binds us, revealing the space in between, the syntax of the world”, the author argues (p 5), and his approach is to borrow from a variety of sources and disciplines to synthesize the story of palm oil within the history of modern palm oil production. Haiven refers to Michael Taussig’s Palma Africana, another recent exploration of the workings of the palm oil industry which invites us to consider “what [ ] it means to be human in a world made of palm oil, in the sense that it is part of the production of so many things we use every day” (11). By following palm oil, Max Haiven wants to answer this question and, in the process, underscore the ways we are all bound in a global paradigm of exploitation that benefits some more than others. Ultimately, the author wants us to imagine a world in which palm oil tells a story that is not based on sacrifice and the cosmology of late capitalism.

African peoples have used palm trees for millennia to derive a variety of byproducts such as cooking and lamp oil, but also cosmetics, medicines, sacraments, remedies, wine, arrow, and spear shafts, and more. Chapter One, titled Whose Grease, introduces the reader to the many uses palm oil has today. The kind of palm oil found in processed foods like packaged baked goods, edible spreads, ramen noodles, dairy products, and snacks is highly refined, bleached, and deodorized (HBD), and is produced in processing plants, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia, but also in West Africa and Latin America, usually on lands that once sustained rainforest. HDB palm oil and its various by-products can also be found in preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, coagulants, and additives that give industrially produced foods an extended shelf life and facilitate globe-spanning trade networks.  HDB palm oil is important in the production of plastics, dyes, inks, paints, paper products, lozenges, pills, suppositories, and other consumer and professional medical products that we use in or on our bodies. It is also crucial in many industrial and manufacturing processes, as lubricants, dyes, detergents, etc.  Palm oil, the author convincingly argues in chapter one is a key element in the fashioning of the world we inhabit today.

Chapter Two, titled Whose Punishment, briefly describes how the modern palm oil industry arose from the slave trade, and how palm oil became a main lubricant of the industrial revolution.  Palm oil first became a transoceanic commodity with the slave trade and its uses included feeding enslaved Africans during the middle passage and greasing their bodies so that wounds and scars would be invisible to prospective buyers.  After slavery was abolished in the British Empire, Liverpool’s slave merchants turned toward the extraction of palm oil from West Africa to Europe. In Europe, palm oil, provided a lubricant for machines, locomotives, steamship engines, and as its importance grew rather than trading for palm oil off the decks of ships docked at the mouths of West African rivers, the British moved to consolidate control of the region. The British Punitive Expedition of 1897 against the Edo Kingdom exemplifies the increasing importance of palm oil for the British empire; it also demonstrates the instrumentalization of racist ideologies because it was justified to the British public as a way to stop the barbaric practice of human sacrifice.  

In late 19th century Europe, palm oil became crucial to how Europeans came to understand and experience their world with the emergence of new consumer products such as soap, cheap candles, and tin cans.  Chapter 3, titled Whose Fetish, focuses on the ways palm oil facilitated capitalist imperium  by examining its role in the ways Europeans came to imagine the Self and the Other through the mediation of palm-based commodities. Soap was advertised to the masses as a hygienic practice and a tool of personal responsibility so that public health hazards, which were the result of great inequalities, were presented as risks to be privately managed through the right consumer choices.  Soap was also promoted to middle class and working-class women as a way to care for the family. It is for palm oil products such as soap and candles that consumer activism and pocketbook solidarity were first introduced as marketing campaign tools; the purchase of palm products by European consumers was promoted as a tool that fostered civilization and economic prosperity to West Africans.  The fetishization of soap and candles helped reproduce a racist capitalist cosmology, that revolved around the European notion of homo economicus, the “economic man”. The prevailing European economic theories of the day, which engendered a fetishistic belief in the power of “free trade” to bring “civilization” to non-Europeans around the world, proclaimed themselves free of fetishism, based solely on the calculating rationality of the market. Europeans imagined themselves as rational economic actors and consumers, mystifying their own social relations and their own  participation in an economy of sacrifice that they came to take as natural and inevitable. The use of racist imagery depicting  “savages” in need of European guidance in matters of hygiene and morality demonstrates that soap became a formidable European fetish that justified the violence perpetrated on Africans and their lands.

Palm oil was essential to greasing the wheels of the railways in African lands, facilitating the extraction of palm oil, minerals, and other materials. It also provided new instruments of war making, such as dynamite, the machine gun, and napalm. Chapters 4 and 5, titled Whose Weapon and Whose Fat respectively, describe how palm oil byproducts were crucial to the expansion of capitalist imperium during these past two centuries. The tropical climatic conditions of colonial warfare made lubricants essential for preventing the jamming of weapons and maintaining military hardware. From the mid-1800s until after the Second World War, English army and navy rations were mostly canned. Canning allowed the armed forces to avoid dependence on local food and thereby avoid profiteering and the chance of sabotage from anti-imperialist locals, such as the 1857 mass poisoning of European personnel that occurred in Hong Kong.  Like soap, canned food disseminated notions of empire and seduced the poorer populations into loyalty to the empire. The first canned foods to be marketed to the public highlighted the products of colonial imperium: salmon from Canada, meat from Australia, and exotic fruit from the tropics. The modern miracle of safe, globally sourced, durable food was advertised to the public as the triumphant victory over space, time, and nature. While British imperial “pacification” of local populations abroad was making land and people cheap,  at home the consumption of palm  was marketed as a patriotic duty, with British troops, traders, and merchants seen as forging civilization out of barbarism and prosperity out of misery. Canned goods soon became a working class staple because of their ability to provide cheap nutrition. The affordability of palm byproducts depended and continues to do so on practices such as rainforest destruction or the illegal dumping of waste that further reduce production costs. Palm fruit grows high up in thorny trees and because automation is not an option it requires considerable human labor. Hence, affordability is made possible by cheapening the labor that goes in to make palm products.  Affordability also depends on practices such as seizing Indigenous and peasant lands, clearcutting forests, pitting workers against one another, debt bondage, company store tactics, and the use of gangs and paramilitary forces to suppress opposition. Because there are a huge number of nutritional, cosmetic, and industrial markets exporters and producers see palm as a “flex crop,” relatively impervious to global fluctuations in price and demand. Today, industrialized palm production continues to rely greatly on cheapened human labor to produce cheap palm products that are essential for the survival of low wage workers.

The palm oil industry today functions as a giant machine that churns out generations of workers, often entire families, dispossessed, deskilled, and dependent on palm based industrially produced commodities for their survival. Chapters 6, titled Whose Surplus, traces the role of palm oil in the reproduction of bodies which are dependent on capitalist wages for their survival and are at the bottom of hierarchies of power and privilege. The author first focuses on the coarticulation of beliefs around body size and concerns about overpopulation.  Although in the nineteenth century corpulence was portrayed as the result of the rich overindulging, today fat is associated with those living in poverty that are seen as lacking the right amount of neoliberal self-control. In the cultural climate of late capitalism, fat is typically seen as a marker of weakness and denotes lack of proper management of the self. Millions living in poverty who are systemically denied the resources to pursue healthier lifestyles are pathologized and made responsible for managing risks created by a system that values people based on their ability to facilitate the reproduction of capital. Here the author demonstrates how in the US prison industrial system, palm oil is equally involved in the reproduction of surplus bodies by feeding millions who are excluded from the formal capitalist economy.

So far, the book told the story of how environments, lives, and ways of life are sacrificed in the mass production of palm products.  Chapter 7, titled Whose Sacrifice, elaborates on the ways death, destruction, and suffering is normalized. Although the ethnographic record on human sacrifice does not allow for universalizing conclusions, it suggests that sacrifice, found in a variety of cultural settings, tends to become systemic in societies with pronounced social stratification and often in the name of preserving existing power structures. In those societies, elites who practice sacrifice present it as a minor investment made in the name of averting future disasters, which echoes in the cosmology of late capitalism as well. Armed with theories and mathematical equations like a modern-day sacred hieroglyphics indecipherable to the great masses, the high priests of neoliberalism, economists, technocrats, special interest groups, think tanks, and politicians justify the sacrifice of millions of people in the name of appeasing market forces and averting future economic crises. The sermons of prophets and philosophers of neoliberalism from Hayek to Fukuyama predicted the triumph of Enlightenment and the end of History, with markets administering the governing society and  friction-free capitalism emancipating the world, much in the same way that nineteenth century British candle and soap advertisers or the proponents of the Benin Punitive Expedition predicted that “free trade” under the threat of a gun would liberate Africans from their primitive beliefs and practices. Today, after decades of neoliberal policies, the sacrifice of millions of people placed on the altar of capitalist accumulation “transpires in the clinical anonymity of market relations” (p. 105), and the prophets of neoliberalism have given up their predictions that sacrifice today will mean anything other than more competition, precariousness, and inequality in the future. Such fetishized beliefs, from the civilizing effects of “free-trade”, to the infallibility of the market and its rational choice actors, have justified the kinds of human sacrifice we see throughout the history and contemporary material relations of palm oil.

In Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire Max Haiven writes a story of palm oil from within the history of palm oil, a story of friction, connection, profit, and sacrifice. The final chapter of the book, titled Whose Story, invites the reader to image a world, not without palm oil, but a world in which the future story of palm oil is no longer based on artificially cheapened labor, lands, and lives. Today hundreds of millions of people “cooperate” in a global palm oil economy that congeals their labor in a vast array of commodities that depend on palm oil and benefits very few. The problems lies in the context palm oil is manufactured and the functions it serves and not because it is an inherently problematic cash crop. Within this global system of capitalist accumulation based on mass exploitation and dispossession the answer is not the sustainability-minded individual palm oil producer that some NGOs promote or the ethically-minded consumers, both aspects of the ideology of homo economicus. Today, increasingly its function is to feed those poorest among us who are abandoned to the vagaries of a global, decentralized market system. Today the story of palm oil reveals a web of coercion, collaboration, and competition that spans the globe and  is shaped by markets that are fetishized as free and unquestionable.  In this final chapter Max Haiven returns to Taussig’s question posed in the beginning of this book: now that palm oil is in our bodies, our tools and our commodities, a specter haunting our world, what stories should we tell as a species to move away from the sacrificial cosmology of late capitalism? The growing environmental, social, and economic crises mandate rejecting this cosmology and recognizing the future is in the power of our  species to cooperate in transforming our world. Without going into exhaustive details, the author suggests a good place to start is a roadmap, “Just Transition”,[i] recently developed by a consortium of researchers and grassroots organizations for alternatives to the current state of affairs that places emphasis on ecologically communal and collective land rights, labor rights,  preserving the ecological commons, and global solidarity.

In his previous book, Revenge Capitalism, Max Haiven examined forms of structural violence in late capitalism within the United States and called upon the reader to radically reimagine the world. Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire is a continuation of this call.  This book does not provide step-by-step alternatives to the myriad of problems plaguing the modern palm oil industry. Its value is in the synthesis of disciplines, materials, and sources that allow the author to trace interconnections between the macro- and micro-level. It reveals the normalization of cruelty and the fetishization of markets in the cosmology of late capitalism  without getting lost in extended theoretical and philosophical considerations, making it accessible to readers of wide backgrounds from the those interested in the history of the modern palm oil industry, to college students and to food researchers. It’s goal, in which it is very much successful, is to educate our awareness to the necessity of change at a global scale, one that requires  “transforming ourselves not only in terms of how we imagine and cooperate but in the very way we, collectively, cooperatively compose and recompose our bodies, minds, and societies” (p116).


Haiven, Max. 2020. Revenge Capitalism; The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts, Pluto Press

[i] Pye, Oliver, Fitri Arianti, Rizal Assalam, Michaela Haug, and Janina Puder, “Just Transition in the Palm Oil Industry,” Transnational Palm Oil Labor Solidarity (blog), September 2021, just-transition-in-the-palm-oil-industry-a- preliminary-perspective/.

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