Book Review

Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire by Max Haiven

palm oil as microcosm of the mess that is capitalism

6th September 2022

Autumn is here and the weather gets worse, the temperature stagnates then gets colder and the days get shorter and shorter. What doesn’t change though – what never changes across the seasons – is my malaise and my compulsion to compulsively read rather than do anything else, anything at all.

Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire is one of the books I bought myself for my birthday (I’m 34 years old now, whoops), another publication by Pluto Press, this from their Vagabonds imprint.

Max Haiven, the writer of this book, is a Nova Scotia based academic (or at least one who spends a lot of time there (given occasional asides in the text), so this is not a text based on long-term field research in any the locations where Elaeis guineenis (the Latin name for the plant most palm oil comes from) is farmed, for palm oil is a product of the tropics, principally – as I’m sure you know from middle aged white women telling you about orangutans – Malaysia and Indonesia, though the crop originates from West Africa and is grown extensively there, too, as well as in Latin America.

As you’re probably aware, if you’ve read any West African (principally the area now known as Nigeria) literature – if you haven’t, go and fucking do that instead of reading this blog, you child – palm oil has a long history in the region, in particular palm wine which has had long-time symbolic and cultural associations.

It was – as it often is – colonial exploitation of this plant and this oil derived from it in the late 19th century that really kicked off its global expansion, with the complicity of corrupt exploitative regimes and morally bankrupt but cash-rich companies around the world who took advantage of the plant’s resilience and high yield to begin farming on a huge scale.

Haiven details how, much like cotton and sugar – the products that turbocharged the economic strength of the United States and the various colonial powers who got rich off that landmass before it became politically independent – the most significant reason why palm oil became and remains so profitable is because of incredibly devalued labour.

Although in this globalised, connected, world there are slightly more checks and disapproving thoughts around the use of what is explicitly slave labour, capitalism – as it always has – finds a way to effectively turn people into economically dependant vassals of corporations. Capitalism and expolitation persists.

Lots of indentured farmers, lots of very unethical workplace practices: Haiven documents starvation wages, and – almost ironically – a huge reliance on palm oil-containing mass-produced, nearly nutritionless, food to sustain these kinds of farming practises.

As Haiven acknowledges at the end of the book, though, palm oil itself isn’t evil – just as poppies and coca plants are not (the “war on drugs”/prohibition (with no concurrent effort to remove the wider sociopolitical problems that mean mass international craving of escapist intoxication is widespread) has hugely incentivised the violence and bloodletting because the narcotics industry is economically worth fighting for) – it is the capitalist system that makes palm oil currently such a problem, both ecologically and socially, in the places where it is farmed.

Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire isn’t an exhaustive text about palm oil, and in many ways it’s more of a summary of the topic in a very engaging form, using palm oil as a product to explore various ideas around capitalism and globalisation and the ways in which these are inherently dangerous ideas and structures.

Globalised capitalism benefits very few people and causes huge amounts of misery, malnutrition, disease, environmental destruction, ecological destruction, loss of habitat, loss of life, and all of the other terrible, avoidable, problems we face in the world today.

Palm oil is present in a huge amount of foodstuffs and cosmetics, and is used as an industrial lubricant, meaning that there is likely palm oil inside the machines that make even items that don’t contain palm oil. Palm oil is so ubiquitous that is is essentially impossible to avoid it, Haiven writes. It is also legal in many countries to use pseudonymous words, acronyms or phrases to obscure the inclusion of palm oil as an ingredient in products, and because it’s a very resilient and productive plant, it’s also not hard to be certified organic (or self-certified as organic), and – as we should all remember – “organic” doesn’t mean “ethical”, it means “no chemicals”. (I’m sure you’ve met straight-edge people in your life: no chemicals doesn’t mean good, just as chemicals doesn’t mean bad.)

As an introduction to palm oil as a commodity, this book is super interesting, and the ways in which it explores the various colonial historicities that allowed the current situation to arise is super interesting, too. Haiven looks at how propaganda and racist tropes in media were used to “justify” colonial wars and genocides that barely appear as footnotes in the “canon” of “world history”

Palm Oil a short book. It’s very engaging and if the issues discussed pique your interest as they piqued mine, there’s very in-depth referencing throughout, so finding further reading and a more in-depth exploration on the histories of this product, the places it’s produced, as well as various competing ideological explorations of the situation, is very much doable.

A great read. A wonderful present from myself.

Purchased at Housmans Bookshop. If you haven’t been there before you should go there. Unless you’re right wing then it’s probably not for you.

Order Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire direct from Pluto Press via this link.


my latest – and imo best – book hip-hop-o-crit available now

sad prose book the pleasure of regret from Broken Sleep Books.

Humour ‘n’ Full Frontal Nudes in Because Earth Is Flat (with Sean Preston)

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Order my raucous poetry collection via Open Pen.

Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.


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