The Story of Palm Oil Is a Story About Capitalism

Palm oil is in everything: what we eat, wear, read, drive. And like so much else that we consume and can’t disentangle ourselves from, palm oil is enmeshed in global supply chains that rely on brutal working conditions and the destruction of the planet.

A plantation worker harvests palm oil fruits in Riau, Indonesia. (Dimas Ardian / Getty Images)

A growing number of consumers in the United States have some sense of the violence of the palm oil industry. Decades of NGO ad copy and half heard speechifying have resulted in an inkling, a vague feeling, that palm oil — the substance derived from the African oil palm — is somehow bad. Bad in the way of sugar (addictive?), sugar-free sodas (carcinogenic?), e-commerce (environmentally and economically devastating?), and social media (where to even begin?). Bad, but in a far-off way, a danger that is sensed more than felt, and surely felt much more acutely over there. Something that, if we just had more time or money, we would avoid.

Naturally, this suspicion undersells how bad the industry actually is. In Indonesia, Malaysia, and other places where the oil palm is grown and processed, entire families (including children) are forced to undertake backbreaking labor, under horrifying conditions, for minimal pay. Deforestation, spurred in large part by the palm oil industry, is a climatological catastrophe of such proportions that it has resulted in the emergence of an entirely new annual season: “haze.”

This deforestation has also led to the displacement of indigenous peoples, the devastation of a panoply of endangered species, and accounts for an astonishing 6 percent of global carbon emissions. Historically, palm oil was the lubricant of the industrial revolution and the global war machine, key to the creation of dynamite and napalm. Perhaps it’s fitting that, before it’s processed, palm oil is bloodred.

Common consumer sentiment also underestimate the sheer ubiquity of palm oil. Palm oil and its derivatives are contained in roughly 50 percent of supermarket products, key as it is to the taste and texture of processed foods. Each of us eats about twenty pounds of palm oil per year. But palm oil is also part of the plastics, paints, inks, and paper products that we buy, the cosmetics and soaps that we use, the medicines we take, the fuels we burn, and the manufacturing processes on which we rely.

Max Haiven is a writer and teacher living in Canada. By his own admission, he has never seen an oil palm nor visited a palm plantation. Yet his realization of the centrality of palm oil to his and his students’ lives led him to write Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire. The book is a brief, brutal, and brilliant history of the substance — what Haiven calls an “impressionistic and idiosyncratic” account of the industry, an indictment, a lamentation, a laceration, a selective survey of the world palm oil has made, a critique of palm oil’s most prominent critics, and, above all, a story about the force consuming the planet and all of its inhabitants: capitalism.

Palm Oil is, as Haiven notes, far from the “comprehensive overview” of the palm oil industry offered by the journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman in Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything and Endangered the World, far from the “systematic history” compiled by the scholar Jonathan Robins in Oil Palm: A Global History, both released in 2021. What Haiven’s newer and far more slender book offers instead is an accessible account with the power to make plain why so many feel vaguely or acutely uneasy within the global consumer economy.

Palm Oil as Commodity

For thousands of years, those native to West Africa have cultivated the oil palm, deriving from it cooking and lighting oil, medicines, cosmetics, and much else. The “ever-giving” oil palm remains central to the traditions and the culture of many from this part of the world. Nothing about the African oil palm, or the oil it exudes, demanded the emergence of a globalized, destructive, and profitable industry. It was the international slave trade, inaugurated by agents of European imperialism, that created a global market for palm oil.

At first, the oil fed enslaved Africans enduring the middle passage or greased their bodies to increase marketability. Yet throughout the nineteenth century, industrialists began relying on palm oil to lubricate railway locomotives, steamship engines, and the machines of newly thrumming factories.

Initially, British merchants purchased palm oil from a distance, relying on Africans themselves to extract the oil. Yet as European demand increased in the mid-nineteenth century, enterprising British colonizers began invading the African interior to seize direct control of palm oil production themselves. Backed by the capital of corporations — still fairly novel entities in the Victorian age, a “strange legal fiction” created to “facilitate the risky colonial and later slave-taking ventures of the rising European bourgeoisie” — palm oil merchants hired private militaries to confiscate lands and subdue their inhabitants. In 1897, the British launched a “punitive expedition” to crush the Edo Kingdom, a powerful empire that considered palm oil to be a holy substance and therefore strictly regulated its trade — “to the chagrin of British merchants.”

Those merchants (and their hired chemists) were learning how to bleach and deodorize palm oil, to drain it of any characteristic smell or color and thereby render it as maximally usable and minimally distinctive as possible. Palm oil became so profitable precisely because of this protean quality, and soon it was central to the creation of a range of cheap commercial goods like candles.

William Lever, a Liverpool industrialist, started using palm oil to produce bars of soap, and soon he had established massive oil palm plantations — another “uniquely modern and fundamentally colonial” innovation — throughout the Congo. Counterintuitive though it may seem today, soap was not at the time an especially common consumer good, so Lever had to use advertising to create a market for his wares, adopting the language of personal responsibility to communicate to middle-class and later working women that the bars were needed amid increasing urban pollution.

Thanks far more to the advertising than to the quality of his soap or the efficiency of its production, Lever (and his eponymous company) grew rich. Today, his company — since renamed Unilever — remains “one of the world’s single largest consumers of refined palm oil.”

An ad for Lifebuoy Soap, a brand of the Lever Brothers, 1902.

Palm oil’s preeminence was neither predestined nor inevitable, and its industrial rise met with continuous resistance. Those within the Edo Kingdom waged a guerrilla war against British occupation for years, and others deployed what the scholar James C. Scott has called “weapons of the weak,” including the strategic refusal to work and the deliberate sabotage of palm oil production. In response, Lever utilized “ever more draconian and extortionate labor relations,” including debt peonage and paramilitary violence.

In the early twentieth century, shoppers outside of Africa began consuming palm oil directly in the form of margarine (the famously economical butter substitute). Around the same time, palm oil became central to the manufacture of tin cans, making canned foods safe and affordable for imperial militaries and middle-class purchasers alike. Then as now, palm oil’s appeal stemmed from its “profound cheapness.” Today, it is usually 20 to 30 percent cheaper than other oils.

Yet as Haiven notes, cheapness “is not so much evidence of efficiency of production or natural abundance as it is of exploitative economic and geopolitical forces.” In the modern era, palm oil is cheap because it is largely grown in places with cheap labor. Throughout the twentieth century, palm oil plantations increasingly clustered in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Nigeria, which featured not only hospitable climates but also infrastructures built by colonizers, leaders amenable to foreign corporate interests, and the repression of unionization efforts and local resistance. Because the fruit of oil palms must be gathered from high, thorny trees, the industry is “almost impossible to automate,” so palm oil’s continued cheapness depends on wages remaining low and human rights abuses staying hidden.

The flip side of this cheapness is palm oil’s critical importance to the lives of the world’s poor. In the countries of the Global South, including India and Indonesia, palm oil has replaced local, artisanally produced oils to become the primary cooking oil. Demand for processed, packaged foods, produced with palm oil, has exploded.

Such trends in consumption are not without consequences; palm oil, high in saturated fat, has been tied to increased risks of heart disease deaths as well as possible carcinogenicity. For wealthy consumers and epidemiologists, this is a matter of considerable concern — “but poor people have few other options and often lack access to relevant information.”

The response of nongovernmental organizations dedicated to human rights has been to call attention to symptoms without proposing steps to address the underlying malady. When it comes to a product that is so invisibly integral to so many industrial processes and products, it is next to impossible to isolate a particular bad actor. Further, focusing on individual corporations or products erases the depth and diversity and complexity of modern globalized supply chains — that is, “the broader totality that connects all aspects of the palm oil commodity.” Worse, some NGOs are guilty of producing fetishistic literature depicting “brown-skinned people as in need of the benevolence of white consumers” and valorizing “the picturesquely tragic Indigenous person, or the disenfranchised smallholder.”

Such missteps on the part of NGOs have opened the door for the palm oil industry to claim, not without reason, that wealthy Westerners are stigmatizing the poor countries that produce most palm oil, allowing the industry to whip up a popular backlash in Malaysia and Indonesia. At the same time, industrialists have striven to rebrand palm oil as sustainable and organic and hired many of the world’s savviest public relations firms to demonize scientists and other critics.

Ultimately, palm oil epitomizes the trickiness of apportioning blame for the violence of capitalism. “Local landowners and plantation managers point to pressures from above,” Haiven writes, “while corporations plead ignorance or helplessness for what happens deep in the jungle.” We consumers can no more avoid palm oil than we can avoid cobalt, another substance that is quietly vital to modern life (essential as it is to lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, those that power cell phones and laptops), but that is mined by child laborers enduring execrable conditions. We can no more avoid palm oil than we can avoid Amazon, which not only ships a massive proportion of consumer goods but also owns the very architecture of the internet itself.

Bring Pamphlets Back

Despite providing a kaleidoscopic survey of palm oil’s history and present, Haiven’s book weighs in at a mere 141 pages, just 116 of them before the endnotes. Palm Oil is the fourth book in Pluto Press’s Vagabonds series, which the publisher calls “radical pamphlets to fan the flames of discontent at the intersection of research, art, and activism.”

To keep his text within the literally narrow parameters of this series, Haiven’s approach is necessarily selective. Thus, he alludes to — but does not illustrate — so many elements of this industrial juggernaut, from the nuts and bolts of the palm oil production process, to the details of palm oil’s harm to biodiversity, to the specifics of labor organizing within the industry today.

This is by design. Instead of a comprehensive account, Haiven employs vignettes, brief parables that apparently have their origins in a series of “modules” Haiven developed while teaching material culture and capitalism at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Thus, one chapter begins with an extended excerpt from the 2018 film Black Panther and a meditation on the Benin Bronzes. Another chapter starts by noting that Palm Oil itself was written on a machine constructed with palm oil, by an author whose energy is provided by palm oil, and may be read on pages or with ink derived from palm oil.

In one inspired passage, Haiven notes that Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica not only documented the violent consequences of palm oil (a key component of dynamite was almost certainly cheap glycerin, derived from palm oil) but was itself literally created with palm oil (a key component of the paint Picasso used for his large canvasses was, again, cheap glycerin).

Museumgoers discuss Pablo Picasso and palm oil. (hbp_pix /Flickr)

Among the most compelling of Haiven’s vignettes is his narration of the systematic starvation of American prisoners who are so chronically undernourished that they rely on a shadow economy of instant ramen noodles in order to get enough calories to survive (and labor). Instant ramen — which has the benefits of an “almost infinite shelf-life,” an “extremely cheap price,” and “a reliable 375 calories” — typically contains palm oil, Haiven tells us.

Yet as the scholar Alice Rudge noted in a recent essay, “the paper on which Haiven relies to relate this story in fact makes no mention of palm oil.” And while Rudge agrees with Haiven that the ramen noodles likely contain palm oil, Haiven’s narrative choices force him to rely on “broader assertions regarding very global processes in which the place of palm oil itself remains unclear.”

This is a fair criticism, but it’s also kind of Haiven’s point. For palm oil is not truly Haiven’s subject. Capitalism is. Palm oil “helps us map” the forms of capitalism that triumphed over the last century, he writes. It epitomizes and exemplifies; it was there with the bayonet and the bomb and remains with the stock ticker and glowing laptop screen and rations of the mass incarcerated; it is a product stripped of its distinctive qualities, fabricated by communities rendered invisible by dominant media sources, inescapably intertwined in a million other products and processes.

Rudge concludes her essay by asking a methodological question: How can “broader structural narratives of capitalism and colonialism” like Haiven’s “be made to co-exist with more grounded and localised stories,” ones that contend with “the subtleties of the human stories” behind the metanarrative? I conclude with an inverse inquiry. How can immense stories be told in small books? Why should such immense stories be recounted in bite-size products? In other words, whither the pamphlet?

Once so central to revolutions of mind and politics, pamphlets have long been a dying form. Cheaply printed newsletters, underground zines, photocopied posters — all of these have been replaced with email or eliminated almost entirely. Publicly accessible blogs have become paywalled Substacks, which are often more ephemeral and less likely to reach unintended audiences (to say nothing of the relative unlikelihood that most such posts survive in the archive).

Palm Oil, and the series of which it is a part, stands athwart this trend. These books are brief but impassioned reports, designed to fit into a purse or a pocket. The series’ titles can truly be read in an afternoon or an hour or a smoke break or precious bits of time reclaimed from a system that demands unceasing labor. Pamphlets are not comprehensive, not magisterial, and we need books that are grounded in messy, meaty human realities.

Indeed, in contrast to the many nonfiction books today that seek to appeal to a general readership by using the novelistic convention of characters (people to root for, people to hate), Haiven can only tell so vast a story so fast by relying on abstraction, by omitting pretty much any named subjects from his narrative. Yet any movement of the overworked and the time-starved needs the pamphlet. In a world without soapboxes — and where the soap is made with a product created by the exploited and the silenced — we need the jeremiad, the screed, the call to arms. Palm Oil is more than merely a good book. It is a model for historical scholarship that engages an exhausted public.