It is possible to select any key commodity of world capitalism and write a micro-history of that commodity that will reveal much about capitalist exploitation and growth. In writing such a history it will inevitably turn into a macro-history of world capitalism. Such commodities in the pre-capitalist age would include spices and dyes. But in the age of capitalism we would include carbon-based energy, steel, cotton, the major grains (wheat and rice before 1945, corn after 1945), and the products of international agribusiness such as, coffee, bananas, cocaine, opium, etc. The history of each of these commodities, if investigated with an open mind and with skepticism towards the delusions of the "free market" would reveal the same process of state-intervention, subversion of democracy and the rule of law, violent repression of worker's self-organization and intervention by the state in order to maintain profits. The ideology of capitalism, with the propaganda on how capitalism thrives in democratic republics where "free markets" are the norm, is always subverted by the actual facts of history.
Steve: One of the big dangers with any kind of monoculture agriculture is if one of them is going to get it, they're all going to get it because they are clones of each other.
Koeppel: Right. And that's what makes the banana so wonderful: In a way that banana was the first fast food, you know? Every single banana is exactly the same as every other one. They are totally reliable, they ripen at the same rate; they taste the same. This is what made the banana so practical. I mean, if you think about it, bananas are cheaper than apples, yet they come from thousands of miles away; and the reason for that is that bananas have these tremendous economies of scale because they are all the same and they require the same shipping methods. They don't require six different kinds of techniques, the way the six different apples we eat do. So a banana is just the, sort of, perfect thing for cheapness. And, you know, but because each banana is identical, each banana is susceptible to the same disease. This Cavendish banana in Pakistan is susceptible to the same disease as this Cavendish banana in Guatemala. And so once the disease hits, it spreads very quickly, and that's what's happening with Panama disease right now.
Steve: Now there are some scientists who are working to try to figure out what the next banana is going to be or to stop the Cavendish from going extinct; and the world capital of banana research is in a very unexpected place, tell us about that.
Koeppel: Right! The world capital of banana research is unexpected on the surface. It is Belgium of all places, and that is where most of the work on genetic engineering of bananas is being done: in a laboratory at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, which is right outside of Brussels. And the reason for that actually is because the most important bananas in the world and the bananas that are subsistence bananas where people actually rely on them for their primary source of nutrition is in Africa. And Belgium had a great colonial interest in Africa to [through] much of the 19th century, and that colonial interest has transferred in the 20th century to a scientific interest, and so Belgians are the great banana experts of the world.
Steve: It's a fascinating artifact of colonial history. Other artifacts of colonial history, they are not even artifacts, they're still going on. Talk a little bit about the relationship between the banana and Central American politics. I mean, it's not even a relationship, the banana has been the Central American politics for [a] lot of the century.
Koeppel: Right and you know, banana companies, in order to keep bananas cheap, had to really control the cost of labor and land. By control, I mean, control. You know, they had to have no cost for labor and land. They have to have slave labor and free land and they had to take over countries and that meant brutal tactics. They had to use the U.S. military and massacres and all sorts of terrible things. Over 20 times, there were interventions whenever there were attempts to unify banana workers or have fair prices for land and these countries that were taken over by banana companies, that's where the term "banana republic" come[s] from. Interestingly, from a scientific perspective, all these needs for takeovers spring from Panama disease. Because as these banana lands go fallow, you can't grow new bananas in them once they're stricken by disease. The banana companies have a desperate need for new lands to grow their bananas and so the more the disease spreads, the more they need land; and this is why they have to take over countries and become ever more brutal because there is this geometric progression of fallow land and this desperate need to maintain their profit margins, all spreading from this advancing malady, Panama disease.
Steve: And we're talking about what Guatemala, Honduras what else?
Koeppel: Almost every nation in Central America and then spreading down to Columbia, Ecuador, and even into some of the Caribbean nations, Cuba and early on into Jamaica; you know, almost anywhere that you will see, if you go into your super market, you will see a sticker with the country of origin on it, on that banana, it was a banana republic at one point. And in some cases it still can be: [In] Ecuador, one of the perennial candidates for president is the head of the biggest banana company that is not Chiquita or Dole.