1. Capitalism and class society
All life on planet earth is becoming
increasingly enmeshed in a global economy based on money, profit and exchange
- capitalism. Virtually everything has a price on it - food, drink, the soil,
homes, plants, animals, the labour of humans. Needs and desires count for nothing
- those who cannot afford to pay the price have to do without even if the consequence
For the majority of human beings the consequence is a life dominated by work, half-lived in schools, factories, offices and prisons. For many this is compounded by the effects of poverty, war and various forms of oppression. But humans are not the only creatures caught up in this net. Animals of all kinds are subject to the industrial application of suffering and death in the wild, in factory farms and laboratories.
It is obvious that the experiences of humans and animals are linked, having a common origin in the same system of production and exchange. But we want to go further and assert that the development and maintenance of capitalism as a system that exploits humans is in some ways dependent upon the abuse of animals. Furthermore the movement that abolishes capitalism by changing the relations between humans - communism - also involves a fundamental transformation of the relations between humans and animals.
1.1 Animals and primitive communism
When we talk of the relationship
between humans and animals, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that
humans are animals too. As we trace back our origins as humans, our ancestry
merges with those of other primates. Hominids emerged about 25 million years
ago, from which evolved various species of apes including, about 250,000 years
ago, homo sapiens. Dental and other evidence suggests that like most modern
species of apes, these hominids were primarily vegetarian. Humans do not have
the sharp teeth, retractable claws or digestive systems common to carnivores.
Although early humans, like other hominids may have sometimes scavenged meat
killed by other animals, diet was probably based almost entirely on plant foods.
The hunting of larger animals for food, with the increased importance of meat in the diet, may have become more significant when humans encountered colder conditions in which plant foods were harder to come by, particularly in the last Ice Age. Large scale hunting brought with it a more rigid sexual division of labour, as the mobility required effectively excluded women who were pregnant or nursing young children.
Hunting also saw the earliest traces of the transformation of free human activity into something resembling work. This is partly because hunting requires more effort: ‘On average 240 calories of plant food can be gathered in one hour, whereas, taking into account the high failure rate of hunting, it has been estimated that one hour of hunting produces only 100 calories of food’ (Ehrenberg). More importantly foraging could be undertaken by the whole community and fully integrated with other social activities such as singing, chatting and childcare. Hunting on the other hand depended on stealth and silence, and tended to become the specialised task of able-bodied males.
Even once hunting had become established, It is certainly not the case that all early humans ate meat all of the time. The popular image of bloodthirsty primitives slaughtering their way through the animal kingdom is nonsense. The notion of ‘Man the Hunter’ whose ‘principal food is meat, and his principal occupation hunting’ has been criticised as ‘largely a reflection of the interests and preconceptions of nineteenth-century Western male anthropologists and of the status of hunting as an upper class pastime in nineteenth century Europe’ (Ehrenberg).
So-called ‘hunter gatherer’ societies should perhaps be called forager societies as the gathering of plants, nuts and grains was in most cases far more fundamental than hunting, and accounted for a higher proportion of the regular diet. In most modern foraging societies, plant foods gathered primarily by women account for 60-70 per cent of diet (Ehrenberg). Different communities across the world would have had different ideas about animals, and different ways of treating them, but we can deduce something about their beliefs and practices from cultural artefacts left behind (e.g. cave paintings), and from similar communities that have existed until recently.
For most of the time humans have existed, they ‘lived in relatively autonomous and scattered groups, in families (in the broadest sense: the family grouping all those of the same blood), in tribes’. Their way of life was essentially communistic. There was no buying and selling, no wage labour, no state and no private property: ‘Goods were not produced to be consumed after exchange, after being placed on a market... The community distributed what it produced according to simple rules, and everyone directly got what it gave him... Activities were decided (actually imposed on the group by necessity) and achieved in common, and their results were shared in common’ (Dauvé & Martin).
In these societies, the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world was completely different to the modern one. The most significant fact about animals in so-called ‘primitive communism’ is that they do not belong to anybody. There is no private ownership of land, trees, or animals, and no domestication. While some animals may be hunted, all animals run wild and free. People only take what they need from nature, and where animals are hunted it is on a limited basis. In any event there would be no point in indiscriminate mass killing of animals, as the community would have no means of using or storing the surplus, and no market on which to sell the surplus. Communities typically live in a harmonious relationship with their environment; it is their home and their provider and it is not in their interest to destroy it, by for instance, exterminating animal species.
Animals are not viewed as commodities, but are regarded with a mixture of awe, wonder, respect and fear. Instead of being seen as subordinate species, they are seen as separate beings sharing the world with humans. Often communities adopt a particular animal as their ‘totem’; animals may be regarded as ancestors or protectors of the tribe, and may even be worshipped.
1.2 Domestication and domination
The relations between humans and
other animals, and between humans themselves, were radically transformed by
the development of agriculture. Agriculture instituted a new relationship with
the natural world: ‘The land itself becomes an instrument of production and
the planet’s species its objects’ (Zerzan). Domestication, marked by the cultivation
of plants and the constriction of animals to a particular place, was a key turning
point in the gradual replacement of nomadic lifestyles with the sedentary systems
of states, classes, cities, work and private property. In this sense, Zerzan
argues, ‘in domesticating animals and plants man necessarily domesticates himself’.
We should avoid ascribing to agriculture the role of ‘original sin’, the singular cause of humanity’s misfortunes and of our expulsion from some primitive communist Eden. The development of states and classes were contradictory, complex and contested processes taking place over many millennia. While the domestication of plants and animals was an important part of this story, we do not want to suggest that it was the whole story.
Indeed some archaeologists suggest that it was the emergence of social elites that gave birth to agriculture rather than the other way round. According to Hodder (1990) ‘The possibility exists that domestication in the social and symbolic sense occurred prior to domestication in the economic sense’. Whereas foraging offers immediate access to food (when it is available), there is a ‘delayed return for agricultural labour investment’; crops have to be planted, animals fed and raised before food is available. Thus, ‘The adoption of more intensive production techniques, leading to agriculture, served the interests of dominant groups in society in that the new economic regime ensnared people within social and economic structures on which they came to depend’. It is in this sense that ‘The domestication of wild cattle and of the external wild more generally is a metaphor and mechanism for the control of society’.
Some form of agriculture existed for thousands of years without particularly radical social change. The transition from foraging to farming is believed to have begun in the so-called Fertile Crescent (now covered by Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Israel and Jordan) around 10,000 BC and to have become well-established in this area by 6000 BC. However, only small numbers of animals were kept, with most meat still being obtained from hunting. The main focus of farming was on growing crops using simple technology, rather than the plough; archaeologists sometimes refer to this as horticulture rather than agriculture as such.
The real changes took place in the later Neolithic (from around 3000 BC) with the development of intensive agriculture. Animals began to be used for milk and wool products as well as for meat, and to pull the newly invented ploughs and carts. For the first time, humans began to keep large herds and flocks of animals. Systematically separated from the wild and later selectively bred, these domesticated animals gradually became physically distinct from their wild cousins.
The social impact of this was enormous. Out of the practice of ‘animal husbandry’, Camatte argues, ‘grew both the notion of private property and exchange value’ and ‘the rise of patriarchy’. The amount of labour required in society increased dramatically with a whole range of new tasks: clearing forests for grazing land, feeding and tendering animals, milking, processing milk products, spinning and weaving wool, and so on: ‘farming and food production... changed from a comparatively small series of tasks which one woman, or group of women, could have performed with comparatively little equipment, to a series of complex operations which would have been a full-time occupation for the whole population’ (Ehrenberg).
Gender relations were transformed. The demand for labour required women to have more children (in foraging societies childbirth tends to be spaced by three or four years). The intensification of women’s work in reproducing labour excluded them from other tasks. As the importance of hunting declined, men increasingly took over the farming tasks previously undertaken by women. Women’s social position declined as ‘they no longer contributed so much to the daily production of food, which had been a crucial factor in maintaining the equal status they had previously enjoyed’ (Ehrenberg).
It has also been suggested that it was ‘the management of herds of domestic animals which first gave rise to an interventionist and manipulative conception of political life... Domestication thus became the archetypal pattern for other kinds of social subordination. The model was a paternal one, with the ruler a good shepherd, like the bishop with his pastoral staff. Loyal, docile animals obeying a considerate master were an example to all employees’ (Thomas).
1.3 Animals as wealth
After domestication animals, or at least some species, no longer ran free. Now they could belong to somebody: Adam Smith noted that along with crops, herds of animals were the earliest form of private property (Thomas). This property was not just used to produce food and clothing; it was also a form of wealth. From the earliest stages of domestication ‘Meat consumption was the conspicuous display of dominant ruling power. The more cattle slaughtered, cooked and eaten, the greater the man’ (Spencer).
Domesticated animals were a fundamental form of wealth ‘which could be accumulated and handed on from one generation to the next.... as one family accumulated more cattle, or acquired better ploughs the gap between their wealth and that of their neighbours would increase progressively... A distinction between rich and poor, which is insignificant in forager societies, develops’ (Ehrenberg).
As well as being maintained as an embodiment of wealth, animals not needed for immediate consumption could be traded with other property owners and even be used as money. In this early stage of the market, as Marx observed in Capital, ‘The money-form comes to be attached... to the object of utility which forms the chief element of indigenous alienable wealth, for example cattle’.
As animals became the property of groups or individuals they could be not only bought and sold, but stolen and fought over. While the development of hunting required the organisation of part of the community as a killing machine, the transformation of this into a war machine to systematically kill other humans may have arisen ‘when for the first time people owned a resource which it was both worthwhile and fairly easy to steal’ (Ehrenberg).
Many of those put to work in early civilisation were slaves. Once it is taken for granted that animals are mere objects provided for the use of humans the introduction of slavery simply involves assigning to certain groups of humans the status of animals. As Marx notes ‘under slavery, according to the striking expression employed in antiquity, the worker is distinguishable only as instrumentum vocale [speaking implement] from an animal, which is instrumentum semi-vocale [semi-mute implement], and from a lifeless implement, which is instrumentum mutum [mute instrument]’ (Marx, 1867).
In the modern period, racist ideology defined black people as more animal than human, legitimising slavery. Slaves were treated as animals, having to endure ‘terrible conditions under transportation, the removal of children and the separation of families, branding with hot irons, the wearing of collars and chains and even medical experimentation’. Slaves were sold at markets modelled on livestock markets, with one contemporary noting that slaves were handled at markets ‘as we handle beasts’, tested for their fitness and strength and so on. Unruly slaves were sent to ‘nigger breakers’ to be crushed in the same way that ‘horse breakers’ were used to domesticate wild horses. ‘These techniques were not new, they had been developed over the last few centuries on farms, in livestock markets, in abattoirs and... laboratories’. (Meat and dairy produce: symbols of male power, sexual dominance and racial discrimination, 1997).
Similarly, ‘Animal domestication furnished many of the techniques for dealing with delinquency: bridles for scolding women; cages, chains and straw for madmen’ (Thomas). We could probably add prisons to this list too, and more recently the use of cattle prods in torture.
1.5 Cows, boys and Indians: Primitive accumulation and animals
The animal industry, in particular cattle and sheep farming, has been central to the spread of capitalist social relations throughout the world. Marx argued that for capitalism to develop, there has to be a process of brutal dispossession which he called ‘primitive accumulation... the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production’. Capitalism requires that all the means of production (including the land) belong to capital, and that the majority of the population are reduced to proletarians - people who can only survive by selling their labour in return for a wage.
In pre-capitalist societies, these conditions do not exist. The land either belongs to nobody or it is divided up into small plots, with most people having their own plot of land which they either own or can use, and/or access to common land. People who can grow their own food have no need to earn money to buy food, and given the choice most would not take a job in a factory. For this to change, peasants have to be forcibly deprived of land through ‘conquest, enslavement, robbery [and] murder’- ‘this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in blood and fire’ (Marx, 1867).
The historical evidence suggests that not only is capitalism dependent on ruthless primitive accumulation, but primitive accumulation relies upon the animal industry. In England, the process of ‘forcibly driving the peasantry from the land’ and enclosing common land started as early as the late 15th century. But what was it that motivated the nobility to undertake this? Marx is clear that it was ‘the rise in the price of the wool’, which made it profitable to transform ‘arable land into sheep walks’. People were driven from their homes to make way for sheep, leading Thomas More to write at the time of a curious land where ‘sheep... swallow down the very men themselves’.
This process was accompanied by the clearance of forest, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this period, ‘An ideology of meat-eating (ennobling the heart, enriching the blood, encouraging the soldiers) played its part in the formation of the eighteenth century person...The growth of London meat consumption has been linked to the development of scientific breeding practices, the extension of turnpikes and highways, the draining of marshes, the cutting down of forests’ (Linebaugh). As well as opening up grazing land for animals, this was also aimed at clamping down on the forest-dwellers, many of them squatters living ‘free from the normal social constraints of church and manor courts’ (Thomas).
The Highlands of Scotland were virtually emptied of people in the nineteenth century, as the inhabitants were forcibly removed to make way for sheep, and later deer as the Highlands were turned into a hunting resort for the rich. The Highland Clearances were resisted, but evictions were enforced by the military.
The genocidal colonisation of the Americas also featured the replacement of indigenous people with profitable animals, starting with Columbus who brought the first cattle and horses to the ‘New World’ in 1494. Hollywood’s myth of the epic struggle between cowboys and Indians might not be historically accurate, but it does express a basic truth. The dynamic for the dispossession and extermination of native peoples was often the wish to replace them with cattle.
Ironically some of the victims of earlier dispossession helped in this process. For instance in Patagonia, Araucanian Indians were rounded up and slaughtered in the 1870s, making way for cattle grazing. Some Scots helped in this slaughter, ‘exiled in the Highland Clearances, torn cruelly from their homeland and tossed on to the high seas, they fetched up in the Falklands, then took part in another brutal clearance at the other end of the world’ (Wangford).
Cattle grazing was not the only aspect of the animal industry important to colonisation. In north America in particular the fur trade was important, as shown by the crucial role of the Hudson Bay Company. According to Fredy Perlman, in the late 18th century ‘Fur is Europe’s oil. The French Empire in America revolves around fur. The nascent Russian Empire in Siberia is a fur trappers empire’.
Primitive accumulation was not driven by a historically inevitable manifest destiny. There had to be an immediate economic incentive to dispossess those living on the land, and this was provided by the profits to be made from animals. In this sense the animal industry was the starting motor of primitive accumulation, without which the subsequent gains for the ruling class (the creation of a proletariat, access to mineral wealth etc.) may not have been realised.
1.6 Animals and the origin of the factory system
Capitalism tries to squeeze the last drop of life out of human beings, intensifying the work process to eliminate all non-productive movements. It seeks the ‘eradication of any uncontrolled movement of the hand, any unproductive glance of the eyes, any unwanted wandering of the mind’ (Collectivities). Similarly with animals, the aim is to eliminate everything that does not contribute to the final product, to turn them into machines for the conversion of feed into meat or other commodities.
With animals as with humans, the factory system aims to restrict the movement of the body to maximise profits. Factory farming was already established by Roman times; Plutarch writes that ‘it is a common practice to stitch up the eyes of cranes and swans and shut them up in dark places to fatten’. In seventeenth century England pigs, poultry and lambs were fattened by being confined indoors in darkness; ‘Geese were thought to put on weight if the webs of their feet were nailed to the floor’ (Thomas). Then as now, the movement of animals was restricted because it burned up calories and therefore slowed down weight gain.
The same basic techniques are still in use in modern factory farming, with the addition of new methods of confinement such as individual cages for chickens and piglets. It seems highly likely that the development of the factory for humans in the modern period was influenced by this long history of factory farming. The aim of the factory system was to concentrate human bodies in one place to increase control over their movements. The main difference from factory farms is that humans are only confined for part of the day; capitalism needs their bodies to last longer in order to maximise the labour it can extract from them. With animals, the aim is to fatten them for slaughter in the minimum time - broiler chickens, with a natural lifespan of seven years, are killed when they are seven weeks old.
The origins of assembly line production are to be found in the US beef packing yards of the late 19th century: ‘The packing houses were the first American industry to create assembly lines, unable to cope with the constant stream of cattle coming in every day the packinghouse giants hit on a way of streamlining the slaughter process – they invented the conveyor belt’ (Rifkin).
A 1942 publication, financed by a meat-packing company, says: ‘The slaughtered animals, suspended head downwards from a moving chain, or conveyor, pass from worker to worker, each of whom performs some particular step in the process¼ So efficient has this procedure proved to be that it has been adopted by many other industries, as for example in the assembling of automobiles’. Henry Ford acknowledged that the idea for the automobile assembly line ‘came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers used in dressing beef’ (Adams).
As Carol Adams observes it is appropriate that the slaughterhouse has been used ‘as trope for treatment of the worker in a modern capitalist society’ in works like Upton Sinclair’s ‘the Jungle’ and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Saint Joan of the Stockyards’. Aside from the historic link, both the animal and the assembly line worker are treated as ‘an inert, unthinking object, whose creative, bodily, emotional needs are ignored’, while the dismemberment of the animal’s body is echoed by the ‘fragmentation of the individual’s work’ on the assembly line (Adams).
1.7 Good Breeding: the genetic intensification of production
Jacques Camatte has talked of the anthropomorphization of capital, whereby capital raises human beings in its own image: ‘Capital becomes autonomous by domesticating the human being. After analysing-dissecting-fragmenting the human being, capital reconstructs the human being as a function of its process’. With humans, this process is accomplished not just by ideology but by subjecting the body to a range of disciplinary regimes: the school, the prison, the factory.
With animals things have gone a stage further with a modification of the physical bodies of animals to make them more productive. There is a long history of selective breeding of animals in this way, described by John Zerzan: ‘the domesticating of animals... defies natural selection and re-establishes the controllable organic world at a debased artificial level... Transmuted from a state of freedom to that of helpless parasites, these animals become completely dependent on man for survival. In domestic mammals as a rule, the size of the brain becomes relatively smaller as specimens are produced that devote more energy to growth and less to activity. Placid, infantilized, typified perhaps by the sheep, most domesticated of herd mammals; the remarkable intelligence of wild sheep is completely lost in their tamed counterparts. The social relationships among domestic animals are reduced to the crudest essentials. Non-reproductive parts of the life cycle are minimised, courtship is curtailed, and the animal’s very capacity to recognise its own species is impaired’.
The twentieth century has seen a number of attempts to apply animal breeding techniques to humans, as promoted by the eugenics movement. Forced sterilisation and other efforts have been applied to stop the ‘unfit’ and disabled from breeding. While this was applied with the most ruthless determination in Nazi Germany, eugenics programmes have also been implemented in social democratic Sweden and elsewhere. In Britain, eugenics may not have been systematically applied but its ideas were very influential amongst sections of the ruling class earlier this century and influenced various state policies. For instance, birth control pioneers like Marie Stopes were partially motivated by such concerns.
Selective breeding of animals is now being refined through the development of a range of genetic/bio-technological methods. Animal species are being genetically manipulated to develop xenotransplantation (cross species organ transplants), pharming (the production of drugs and other products from genetically-mutated animals) and increased food productivity. Examples of the latter include attempts to develop chickens without feathers and animals whose immune systems attack their own fat cells to produce leaner meat.
In a further move in the commodification of life, the European Parliament has recently voted to allow the patenting of genetically-mutated animals and plants. Biotechnology companies can now claim that a mutated animal they have ‘invented’ is their exclusive private property.
Camatte anticipates that one possible long-term development of capitalism could be the ‘mutation of the human being, or rather a change of the species: production of a perfectly programmable being which has lost all the characteristics of the species Homo Sapiens’. The Critical Arts Ensemble suggest that this has already begun as ‘Individuals of various social groups and classes are forced to submit their bodies for reconfiguration so that they can function more efficiently under the obsessively rational imperatives of pancapitalism (production, consumption, and order)’. In the immediate future the main mechanisms will be ‘the blending of the organic and the electromechanical’, new eugenics (linked to genetic screening) and mood-controlling drugs. Human clones, cyborgs and replicants are the stuff of science fiction, but the technologies are being developed with animals which could be used in an attempt to modify human bodies at a future stage of class society.
As with humans, those animals that cannot profitably be integrated into the productive process are simply discarded. Domestication has focused on a narrow number of species; others not entirely domesticated have been preserved for recreational slaughter - such as deer. But many other species have been exterminated altogether, threatening the biodiversity of the planet. In ‘colonial India and Africa, the flower of British manhood indulged in veritable orgies of big game slaughter’. In north America, the wolf ‘became the symbol of untamed nature’ and was exterminated in most areas, as earlier in Europe, while between 1850 and 1880, 75 million buffalo were killed by hunters (Thomas). In each case, mass slaughter was seen as part of the divinely sanctioned transformation of wilderness into civilisation.
The same mania of extermination fuelled the hunting of humans defined as animals, such as the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, or the indigenous population of the Philippines, the subject of ‘goo-goo hunts’ after the US conquest of 1898.
Many other animal species have disappeared because of the destruction and fragmentation of their habitat. The animal industry is often directly involved in the wrecking of fragile local ecosystems, particularly when forests are cleared to make way for grazing land.
Today we are used to seeing the last survivors of endangered species conserved in zoos. The origin of these zoos formed part of the same colonial mentality that exterminated so many creatures: ‘the spectacle of the zoo animal must be understood historically as a spectacle of colonial or imperial power’ (Baker) with the captive animals serving as ‘simultaneous emblems of human mastery over the natural world and of English dominion over remote territories’ (Ritvo).
Vivisection has been part of scientific practice since the late 17th century. Today experiments on animals are carried out on a vast scale by, among others, private corporations, academic institutions and the military. Nobody seriously denies that this causes suffering to animals, but the counter claim is made that this contributes to meeting human needs.
To argue over whether a particular experiment, or class of experiments, is potentially beneficial is to miss the point: capitalist progress, of which vivisection is a part, is a fraud. Put simply it is a myth that science at the service of capital will deliver a never ending series of products which will make our lives easier, healthier, longer.
On the contrary, the intensification of the abuse of animals often contributes directly to improving the techniques of domination of human beings. In some cases this is self-evident. The classic example is military research. In the UK, the use of animals in experiments at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) at Porton Down in Wiltshire increased steadily in the 1990s, with tests including shooting pigs and monkeys and a range of biological warfare experiments.
It may be true that some new drugs could benefit some individuals in spite of being tested on animals. But there are plenty of well-established cures that the majority of the world’s population are denied access to because of their poverty. The same drugs companies which claim to be crusading for human health would rather let people die than allow their patented products to be made available on a non-profit basis. Research into new drugs is aimed at increasing profits not solving medical problems.
In any case improving human health is not just a matter of plentiful pills; the most efficient way to help people is to provide clean water, sanitation, food and basic medical care to those currently lacking. The very industrial process which holds out the promise of new life enhancing commodities actually manufactures ill health. New drugs don’t just mean abused animals; they can also mean more factories polluting the air and water with chemicals, more people working longer hours and suffering stress, depression, repetitive strain and the other diseases of civilisation.
The answer to the question ‘why does capitalism experiment on animals?’ is ‘because they can’t get away with doing it to humans’. But there are exceptions - since Porton Down was set up in 1916, tests have also been carried out on more than 12,000 humans, chiefly military ‘volunteers’ duped into taking part for a few perks without being properly informed of the consequences. Substances tested have included nerve gas, mustard gas, anthrax and LSD. Hundreds of ex-servicemen claim that they are suffering from disabilities including skins and eye disorder, kidney and liver complaints and depression as a result. It has only recently been revealed that in the 1950s tests of the nerve gas Sarin killed a 20 year old conscript, Ronald Madison (Guardian, 20.8.99).
1.10 Commodity fetishism and meat
In 1998 two pigs escaped from a slaughterhouse in Wiltshire, swam across the River Avon and ran off into the surrounding countryside. On the run for a week, the Tamworth Two’ became the focus of an intense media circus; when recaptured they were spared the slaughterhouse, a newspaper bought the pigs off the owner and found them a safe home. The contradiction between the sentimentalisation of these particular pigs and the simultaneous mass consumption of other pigs can only be explained with reference to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism.
Commodity fetishism is the process whereby commodities are imbued with a life of their own with their origins as the product of labour concealed. It is particularly well-developed in relation to animal products, whose origins are systematically disavowed by supermarket packaging and linguistic distancing (pork not pig, beef not cow). This in turn creates a space for the circulation of a range of semi-magical symbolic meanings around these animal commodities. Meat is seen not as the product of factory farm and slaughterhouse, but as a token of masculinity (‘real men eat meat’) or as a national totem. So in France steak ‘follows the index of patriotic values: it helps them to rise in wartime, it is the very flesh of the French soldier’ (Barthes) while across the channel nothing is quite ‘as British as roast beef’.
Recently this fetishism has been partially fractured by disclosures about the animal production process resulting from health scares. In France, blood and offal from animal carcasses, sewage and untreated water were revealed to have been used in making poultry and pig feed; in Belgium dioxin contamination was found in poultry. In Britain there was the BSE epidemic in cows (and in some humans) linked to the practice of feeding cows with protein pellets made from the remains of chicken, as well as outbreaks of E.Coli food poisoning from contaminated meat.
The health impact is not confined to those who eat meat. Even the British government’s advisory committee on the microbiological safety of food recently warned of the ‘calamitous consequences’ of the overuse of antibiotics in farming (Guardian, 19.8.99). The use of drugs to speed growth and their routine prescription for whole herds or flocks to prevent disease is leading to the development of micro-organisms resistant to antibiotics.
Are these problems of capitalism or of meat production per se? Clearly the thirst for profit is a major factor and specific practices could be reformed, and indeed are being reformed. But meat production on anything like the current scale would be impossible without intensive farming. There is a limit to how far it could ever be possible to sanitise an industrial process involving slaughter, blood and the eating of flesh.
If meat eating answers a human need, it is a need that many human cultures and an increasing number of individuals do not feel. It is certainly a need for the huge food corporations who depend on it. In modern capitalism it is a need, like smoking, that has to be continually reinforced by marketing, regardless of its effect on people, animals and the environment.
1.11 Hunting and class power
In the ancient slave states, hunting ‘became increasingly an opportunity for the ruling elite to publicise its dominance over lesser beings’ (Serpell). In the Roman Circuses, Emperors would oversee and participate in the mass slaughter of captured wild animals including lions, elephants, bears and crocodiles. Archers paid for the privilege of shooting animals from ringside seats. Gladiators killing each other, or heretics being tortured, were also part of the entertainment.
Hunting has performed a similar function as a display of ruling class power in modern Britain. For much of the 18th century, fox hunting was ‘the casual and disorganised pursuit of backwoods squires and farmers’. The development of regular hunts with their own territories in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries came about as fox hunting became the favoured leisure pursuit of the great landowners. As well as a means of socialisation for upper class males, fox hunting ‘reaffirmed their prominence in the local community’ (Colley).
Interestingly in view of the hunting lobby’s claim to defend the rural way of life this process saw the further subordination of the countryside to the interests of the wealthy: ‘The very scenery of Great Britain was now reorganised and re-envisioned in keeping with the leisure priorities of men of land and substance. Hedges were torn down, ditches filled, gates and bridges built, tenants’ privacy invaded, all in pursuit of the unfortunate, uneatable fox’ (Colley).
In the twentieth century hunting has provided a means for the social integration of the non-aristocratic rich into more traditional wealthy circles, and it remains primarily a pursuit of the rich and powerful from the royal family down.
Despite this, abolishing hunting would no longer threaten the interests of the ruling class as a whole. Capital is becoming more impersonal and is not dependent on the kind of socialisation offered by hunting to create a coherent dominant class. In fact it is barely dependent on individual rich people at all - the top 200 wealthiest families could be wiped out without affecting the reproduction of capitalism one iota. As a display of ruling class power, hunting is a minor footnote compared with the modern spectacle of high-tech televised warfare. In this context, hunting can now be treated as a moral issue and opposed even by parts of the ruling class. At the time of writing, the prospect of some hunting being banned in the UK is becoming more likely.
Such moves will meet with resistance from rural-based sections of the ruling class and their supporters. The movement to defend hunting demonstrates all too clearly how the right to kill foxes is tied up with a wider agenda of defending the interests of landowners (opposition to rambling etc.). With its threat to unleash a violent petit-bourgeois small farmers’ backlash under aristocratic patronage, the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance resembles a classic fascist movement in the making (albeit one with no chance of taking power), especially as in its right wing populist take on rural life ‘The Countryside is seen as a place of all things traditionally British... white, cultured’, patriotic, heterosexual, family centred, beef eating, conservative’ (Animal magazine).
1.12 Working class violence - against animals
In addition to the corporate abuse of animals, there is a more diffuse field of cruelty, exploitation and extermination. Partly this is driven by economic imperatives - if the choice is between extreme poverty on the one hand or poaching an elephant to sell its tusks on the other, it is hardly surprising that animal welfare is low on many people’s priorities. But there is also an element of the powerless venting their frustration on those they have power over - animals or children. Marx notes that the slave treated as a beast of burden or a tool ‘gives himself the satisfaction of knowing that he is different by treating the one with brutality and damaging the other’ (Marx, 1867).
The internalisation of relations of domination partially explains why some working class men take pleasure in killing animals. Even fox hunting, while organised by and for the rich, relies on the paid and unpaid participation of terrier men and a cross-class mix of hunt followers. This was evident on the mass rally in favour of hunting in London’s Hyde Park (1997). The presentation of this as some kind of spontaneous cross-class rural revolt disguised what it actually demonstrated: the semi-feudal relations of patronage that still exist in the rural economy. Yet while many were paid or pressured to take part, it is undeniable that faced with some of the lowest wages and longest working hours in the country, a section of the rural working class is prepared to line up with its bosses to defend their miserable situation. We are reminded of Louise Michel’s insight that ‘The more ferocious a man is toward animals, the more that man cringes before the people who dominate them’.
1.13 Beyond humanism
Human domination of animals has been justified by Christianity and humanism, both of which posed the human being at the centre of creation, the king of the beasts, in nature but not of it. The boundary between humans and animals was absolute and rigidly policed. Before the widespread advent of pet keeping, any intimacy with animals was suspect: ‘in at least half of the well-documented witchcraft cases which were brought to trial in England, the accused was implicated by the fact that he or she possessed and displayed affection for one or more animal companions’ (Serpell).
The construction of ‘man’ in this image has involved the denial and repression of human needs and desires. Thus whole categories of human life, such as sex, dancing and nakedness have been denounced by moralists throughout history as ‘bestial’. Women who step out of line can be referred to as dogs, bitches, shrews, vixens or cows (Arkangel).
The Italian socialist (and apologist for domestication) Antonio Gramsci wrote approvingly that ‘The history of industrialism has always been a continuing struggle...against the element of ‘animality’ in man. It has been an uninterrupted, often painful and bloody process of subjugating natural (i.e. animal and primitive) instincts to a new, more complex and rigid norms and habits of order, exactitude and precision which can make possible the increasingly complex forms of collective life which are the necessary consequence of industrial development’ (Prison Notebooks).
In cultures less penetrated by the values of capital, this animality is something to be admired rather than degraded. Thus an elder of the Dogon people in Mali once said: ‘Animals are superior to men because they belong to the bush and don’t have to work. Many animals feed themselves on what man grows by painful toil’ (Horniman).
In fact wildlife does provide an implicit critique of human society, as an inspiration, and contrast with ‘domesticated’ society. Despite attempts to portray all animal social life as amounting to a permanent war for survival, anyone with cats or dogs knows that much of their lives are spent playing and lazing around.
As Fredy Perlman shows animal activity is the opposite of alienated labour, much like human activity in ‘primitive communist’ societies: ‘A time and motion engineer watching a bear near a berry patch would not know when to punch the clock... the bear makes no distinction between work and play. If the engineer has an imagination he might say that the bear experiences joy from the moment the berries turn deep red and that none of the bear’s motions are work’.
‘Wild’ remains an insult passed on the free (or those who would be free), just as rioters continue to be denounced as animals and militant workers as wildcat strikers. But the flipside of this is that the idea of wildness as liberation will always have a hold on the imagination of rebels and insurgents (‘rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number’ - Shelley). If, according to Martin Luther in 1530 and Pope Leo XIII in 1891, possession of private property is an essential difference between man and beast (Thomas), then we should be happy to shake off our ‘human nature’.
1.14 Capitalism and animals today
In previous stages of class society, animals were the main form of wealth and sometimes of exchange. Capitalism’s subsequent development was dependent on primitive accumulation, and in many parts of the world it was the rewards of the economic exploitation of animals that provided the incentive to clear people from the land. In early capitalism, animals still provided the main means of transport and were absolutely central to the economy.
Today capital has diversified and the animal industry is one among many. Some would no doubt argue that capital has no imperative to exploit animals, and that a consistently ‘cruelty free’ capitalism is a possibility. Indeed this view seems to be shared both by pro-capitalist advocates of market forces liberating animals (through consumer boycotts), and by anarchists and communists for whom this is ‘proof’ that opposition to animal exploitation offers no threat to capitalism. Of course it is possible to imagine a theoretical model of capitalism that does not depend on animals, but this is to confuse an abstraction with the actually existing capitalism that has emerged as a result of real historical processes. Similarly we could imagine a capitalism without racism or women’s oppression, yet both of these have played a crucial role in maintaining capital’s domination and continue to exist despite superficial changes to the contrary.
It would be a mistake to think that the exploitation of animals is now only of marginal concern to capital. The companies involved in funding animal experiments are some of the world’s largest multinationals. Agri-business is becoming increasingly capitalised. In the past capital was largely invested in the manufacture and retail of products made from animals reared by relatively independent farmers. Today, farmers are going out of business as larger companies take over every stage of the animal industry. For instance, one company, the Grampian Country Food Group supplies one-third of UK chickens to eat (200 million a year). Direct corporate involvement in farming will be accelerated as capital expands its new biotechnological frontier.
The animal industry continues to dominate land use in many parts of the world. In Britain 80% of agricultural land is used directly or indirectly for meat and dairy production (Spencer). In many parts of the ‘Third World’, food production is dominated by the growth of cereals to sell for animal feed in the West rather than to meet local needs. Animals in factory farms produced huge amounts of waste, with frequent incidents of pollution of water and land.
In Marxist terms, meat production represents the destruction of use-value to increase exchange-value. Food that could be used to feed people is instead fed to animals in order to increase profit. Most of the energy and nutrition this provides is (from an economic point of view) wasted in keeping the cattle alive, rather than directly transferred into muscle. Ten acres of land will support 61 people on a diet of soya beans, 24 on wheat, 10 on maize but only 2 on meat from cattle. Cattle are thus used by capitalism as a form of fixed capital, consuming living and dead labour in order to produce a product (meat) containing increased surplus value.
McDonalds has become a totem of capitalist expansion, at the cutting edge of the development of low-waged, casualised work combined with the most advanced spectacular techniques of marketing. No part of the world is held to be completely subordinated to the global market until a McDonalds has opened there. The continuing enclosure of space, marked by deforestation and dispossession is as dependent on the animal industry as the earlier stages of primitive accumulation. Forests are still being cleared for animal grazing or to grow animal feed, peasants cleared from the land to make way for international agri-business. The dynamic of capitalism is towards more control over all life, human or animal. If things move in the opposite direction it will only be because capital has been forced to take a different turn or abolished altogether.