The Empire of Palm Oil and the Making and Unmaking of Racial Capitalism

April 29, 2022

The Empire of Palm Oil and the Making and Unmaking of Racial Capitalism

A critical reading of palm oil reveals the structural cruelties of our world—and how we might make a new world in its place.

Words by Marianne Dhenin

We live in “an age of human sacrifice,” to borrow from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and in a world made of palm oil. This is the two-pronged provocation in Canadian theorist and educator Max Haiven’s newest book, Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire, recently released from Pluto Press. Indeed, today, oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree is in our cosmetics, cleaning supplies, medical products, animal feed and fuel. As Haiven’s title suggests, it is present in industrial and manufacturing processes, often as an essential ingredient in machine lubricants. But more than anywhere else, it’s in our foods.

With Palm Oil, Haiven loosely traces the product from its roots as a treasured crop used for millennia in West Africa to our modern supermarket shelves, where it’s found in a mind-boggling 50% of products. However, the book’s most significant contribution is not in its untangling of the complex histories of palm oil cultivation and processing (for that, see Jonathan E. Robins’ Oil Palm: A Global History and Jocelyn C. Zuckerman’s Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World). Instead, Haiven’s mission is to show that we have built a world of violence, dispossession and exploitation, where workers are alienated from their lands and labor, many rendered surplus to the needs of capital, incarcerated, allowed to suffer or die—and we have built this world out of palm oil. 

Even as it features as the sole plot-driving character in Haiven’s tale of human suffering and sacrifice, palm oil itself is not the problem. But Haiven suggests that a critical reading of this slippery substance reveals the structures that facilitate and demand the cruelties of our world—that we can discern the contours of racial capitalism, colonialism and empire within its singular narrative. Readable, too, are alternate futures. If we have made this world of palm oil, how might we unmake it? How might we make a new world in its place?

Consider your breakfast. There’s palm oil in pre-packaged pastries and breakfast bars. It’s in the non-dairy creamer you pour into your coffee and the peanut butter or chocolate hazelnut spread you smear on your toast. If you bought your bread at the supermarket, chances are there’s palm oil in it too, as an additive used to improve loaf volume and keep the bread soft. We also ingest palm oil in trace amounts in an immeasurable number of preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers and coagulants that extend shelf lives and facilitate the transportation of foodstuffs across the globe. Last year, more than 81 million tons of palm oil were consumed worldwide, amounting to almost 21 pounds per human being. Thus, not only is our material world made of palm oil, but Haiven writes that each of us, as we metabolize and transmute it into energy, thought and action, are made of palm oil too.

The main reason palm oil has become so ubiquitous is that it’s cheap. According to Haiven’s research, it’s generally 20 to 30% cheaper than other oils, depending on application. However, its cheapness is not reflective of advanced technological innovation, efficient manufacturing, or natural abundance, but of the exploitative socioeconomic and geopolitical forces that shape its production.

The vast majority of palm oil is produced and refined in Malaysia and Indonesia; together, the nations are responsible for 80% of global exports. There, on corporate plantations, which anthropologists Tania Murray Li and Pujo Semedi liken to military occupation and a mafia operation, a fragmented workforce labors for long hours and low wages on short-term contracts. The work of cultivating oil palms, harvesting their fruit, which grows in dense bunches that can weigh more than 20 pounds when ripe, steaming and crushing seed pods to extract crude oil, and then reducing crude to refined, bleached and deodorized (RBD) palm oil is labor-intensive and dangerous. 

Many of the workers engaged in this process are migrants with limited local social networks and access to resources, and all are vulnerable to overwork, maltreatment and repression at the hands of their profit-driven overseers. Alienated from the land on which they live and toil and paid immiserating wages, many workers are rendered dependent on cheap foodstuffs laden with refined palm oil for survival, sustaining demand for their cheapened labor.

The violence committed against workers on oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia and on smaller but still significant plantations in parts of Latin America and West Africa is matched only by the violence committed against the earth itself. More than 27 million hectares of our planet are under palm oil cultivation, an area larger than New Zealand. Much of this vast area has been transformed by clearing forests or peatland, disrupting local ecologies, leaving regions susceptible to floods and fires, and releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The clearing and drainage of peatlands alone are responsible for an estimated 6% of global anthropogenic carbon emissions each year. 

Wherever lands are razed and local livelihoods interrupted, displaced locals are forced into precarious employment, many on the oil palm plantations carved into their expropriated lands—a fresh crop of laborers to feed the machines of the palm oil industrial complex. For Indigenous peoples, the expansion of palm oil cultivation has severed generations-old ties to the land, endangering or erasing whole ways of life. 

Haiven writes that the exploitation and dispossession that characterize palm oil production are not structural givens but the result of a political project that emerged from pre-existing plantation infrastructures established by European colonial powers. If the soil could speak, it might tell us that where it now cradles oil palms in neat rows, it used to nourish rubber, sugar and other cash crops cultivated to enrich the British and Dutch regimes that once occupied Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively. It might also tell us of the enslaved laborers imported from across the Asian continent who tended these cash crops, their production spurring the trade in enslaved Africans further afar. Elaeis guineensis itself, the plant native to West Africa from which most palm oil is produced, arrived on the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Indonesia in the mid-19th century in the bellies of European ships. Almost two centuries later, its progeny travels in the bellies of the world’s poor.

More than anything else, sustaining the immiserated masses, rendered so at the dictates of transnational capital, drives the ever-increasing demand for cleared land and cheapened labor to facilitate palm oil production—a vicious cycle. Between 1981 and 2015, production increased more than 10 times, with about 70% of that ending up in food products. According to industry estimates, fats will comprise about 45% of all additional calories consumed worldwide between 2011 and 2030, with palm oil the cheapest, most versatile, and most reliable option to fulfill this growing market.

But even as our consumption drives demand, the cruelties of palm oil feel distant to many of us. Countries like the Netherlands, Spain and the United States rank among the top 10 global palm oil importers. But no Dutch, Spanish or U.S. forests have been razed nor waterways poisoned to facilitate its production. Instead, these effects are outsourced to nations that colonial regimes have underdeveloped. 

The major health problems associated with oil palm consumption are also externalized. Where the product represents a staple source of nutrition among the poor in countries like India, Brazil and Egypt, it leads to increased rates of cardiovascular disease. According to one multi-country study, every additional kilogram of palm oil consumed per capita in developing nations corresponds to an additional 68 heart disease deaths per 100,000 people.

When the harmful effects of palm oil production do seep into rich countries, they are shouldered by communities of color and the poor who depend on cheap palm oil-laden foods. As one example, Haiven spends significant time in Palm Oil illuminating the links between palm oil and the profit-driven U.S. prison system. Within America’s prisons, where Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate more than five times that of their white counterparts, people are fed and sickened on diets thick in palm oil-derived foods like processed meat, cheese and instant ramen noodles. Oceans away, the same pre-packaged instant noodles sustain migrant laborers housed in dormitories or cramped apartments near oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia or global manufacturing capitals in China. As a cheap source of nutrition, instant noodles facilitate the reproduction of working-class bodies and the continual churn of consumption and production. 

If we want to cast off the violence of racial capitalism that Haiven elaborates in Palm Oil, it is not enough to fashion ourselves as ethical consumers. We cannot scour labels for “sustainable” palm oil and hope to unseat the economic system that organizes our world in the interests of profit—not least because the African oil palm has not been genetically modified and is subject only to voluntary certification schemes, so its derivatives are often labeled “organic” and “sustainable” despite their immense detrimental effects on people and the planet.

More significant a problem, however, is when we define ourselves and our relation to the world in market terms, becoming what social scientists call homo oeconomicus, the neoliberal subject, we confine our imaginations to the current regime. When we act as individual consumers, seeing commodities as if divorced from the world around them, we normalize the violence that brings those products to our supermarket shelves. Yes, we must do what we can to be thoughtful consumers. But individual consumer acts cannot disrupt the enigmatic web of coercion, cooperation and competition that orders our lives. You’ve seen that punchy line on Twitter before: There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.

Rather, to unmake this world, we must imagine new means of collective action. We must transform ourselves, our social networks, and ways of relating to our material world. Haiven implores us to recognize the potential for this action made manifest in palm oil, just as palm oil reveals the structures of power that we must disrupt. He suggests that in its viscous globe-spanning ooze, we glimpse the power that rests with the masses. It rests with those who harvest and thresh the oil palm fruit, raise their families in the shadows of plantations, and manufacture palm oil-based foods on factory floors because they have built the world itself through their labor. 

Packed with searing data points, rich case studies, and emotive prose, Haiven’s Palm Oil offers an accessible, almost bite-sized, if mind-bending in scope, introduction to the ways that transnational capital shapes our world. Tentatively, too, it charts a path forward, with our foodways and their workers at its center.

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