As Animaleft gets off the ground, we keep noticing developments that strike us as being tailor made for our way of looking at the world. The recent fires in the Amazon for example. Take a look at this picture:
Looks like quite the correlation between slaughterhouses, soy plantations and fires doesn’t it? Who is investing in these CAFOs and soy farms? Here’s a great article explaining the intricacies of the business and political landscape surrounding the fires.
Now that you have subscribed to that newsletter, you might be interested in knowing where we are coming from. Let’s start at the very beginning.
A very good place to start is the New Republic piece that got us thinking about animals and left wing politics, which lead to a couple of us writing an essay for Scroll:
In our introduction to this blog, we we mentioned several reasons why the left should embrace animal rights, especially in a country like India where there’s been little attention paid to the wellbeing of non-human species by left-wing intellectuals and activists. The lack of engagement goes both ways. Animal rights and animal welfare discourse rarely engages with the substantive categories of left-wing theorizing, or at least those parts that veer beyond ethics and politics. It seems obvious that moral and political categories such as rights, justice, personhood and citizenship should be extended to non-human animals – though there’s controversy about how to do so and to what extent- but far less attention is paid to those aspects of the left-wing, especially the Marxist end, which talks about the material conditions of production and the structures that make those flows of matter and energy happen.
For example, John Bellamy Foster’s development of the Marxian conception of the metabolic rift has been used to describe the alienation of humans from the rest of nature and the ecological consequences of that alienation, with climate change being a favorite target of explanation these days. Not that the animal rights movement is unaware of the C word. Capital/ism is invoked in the treatment of animals, with profit motives becoming the basis of explanation of everything from the size of gestation crates to breeding that leads to animal bodies that can’t bear the weight of their own flesh. However, the rest of that discourse – in my opinion – rarely strays beyond liberal conceptions of freedom and justice with very little of the language of alienation, rift, class, labor that makes the left wing such a rich source of knowledge driven politics.
I believe that animals belong in that alienated landscape, that climate change, the immiseration of animals and metabolic considerations all belong to one integrated perspective. This series of essays explores that nexus.
Carbon Liberation and Meat Imprisonment
I start with the thought that we need a new politics of the anthropocene. This isn’t an original thought – McKenzie Wark has a book on a similar thought. Molecular Red is a book about the liberation of carbon; a book about how, in retrospect, the single biggest act of labor in the age of capital was the transfer of carbon from its subterranean prison to the atmosphere. In an interesting passage, Wark says:
What it freed was not the animals, and still less the cyborgs, although it was far from human. What it freed was chemical, an element: carbon.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition of two animal left topics within the context of climate change, i.e., the creative power of labor and the wellbeing of nonhuman animals. Marxists and other left wing thinkers have constantly emphasized the world making capacities of labor, that our lived environments don’t acquire their shape on their own; instead they are constructed – literally – through acts of labor. Of course, some of those acts may be creative from the point of view of labor but destructive to everyone else.
A central theme of the Anthropocene was and remains the story of the Carbon Liberation Front. In other words, the combined efforts of labor and capital have liberated an element that has turned on its master, like a diffuse Frankenstein’s monster.
The Meat Imprisonment Front
So much for liberation. What about its opposite? Wark is clear that nonhuman animals haven’t been freed in the anthropocene but otherwise he doesn’t spend much time on their fate. I believe his story is only half complete as a result. It deserves a sequel (or is it a prequel?) which talks about what labor succeeded in imprisoning, namely, animals.
By the trillions. Nonhuman animals are the largest victims of the carceral violence of the anthropocene.
Labor pounds and wheedles rocks and soil, plants and animals, extracting the molecular flows out of which our shared life is made and remade.
But before it pounds and wheedles them, labor has to mine those animals somewhere. It took several hundred million years for dead dinosaurs and rotting ferns to become oil. We don’t have that kind of patience, do we? Instead, we need a way of quickly turning animals into a commodity that can be mined, so to speak. To give just one statistic: humans account for 36% of the mammalian mass while cows, pigs and other livestock account for 60%. Then there are the billions of chickens, turkeys and other living beings reared for human consumption in torturous conditions. It is as if every human being has a retinue of slaves and prisoners who make the journey from pen to plate.
That has been one of primary uses of labor in the anthropocene. In hyphenating Animal and Climate, I want to explore the thought that the Carbon Liberation Front goes hand in hand with the Meat Imprisonment Front. Come to think of it, some of the more spectacular instances of Carbon Liberation are examples of Meat Imprisonment. As I write this article, fires are raging across the Amazon rainforest where ranchers are setting fire to forests before turning those lands into farms for rearing beef cattle.
We know that the production of meat is one of the biggest causes of Carbon Liberation with beef being a particularly liberative force. The most recent IPCC report on Climate Change and Land makes it clear that reducing meat consumption, especially in the first world, is key to addressing climate change and the authoritarian nature of the Bolsonaro regime is a poignant nexus of Carbon Liberation, Meat Imprisonment and right wing politics. A connection that Bolsonaro makes for us:
At the same time, an animal-climate perspective also warns us that we must be careful about plotting our escape from Meat Imprisonment. For example, consider this piece of news:
I am sure most of that soy is routed through cows, but let’s remember that this is the same Burger King that rolled out Impossible Burgers across all its stores and those burgers are made out of soy. It will be easy enough for Burger King to soy-wash their investments in Amazonia.
If human labor releases carbon when we drive our trucks across the country, what about those animals whose bowels release methane as they produce their own meat? Aren’t they labor too? Animal Climate doubles down on that realization, in claiming that labor, both human and non-human is a thread that runs throughout this nexus. It calls for an expansion of the traditional use of that term – which is human centric – to include the labor of non-human animals, just as traditionally female forms of labor – child-rearing, for example – are now included into the accounting of the efforts that go into maintaining a stable society.
One way to start doing so is by considering that the Meat Imprisonment Front is the consequence of a labor dispute gone south. Until machines came into the picture, the primary meat animals were co-laborers: ploughing fields, grazing meadows, pooping fertilizer and so on. It wasn’t a great life, but animals contributed complex labor to agrarian societies. All that complexity was transferred to cyborgs – i.e., human-machine collectives – when the industrial revolution arrived, so that animal labor shorn of all complexity became “commodity in the waiting,” substances that would be shaped by cyborg labor into burgers.
In short, the aniborgs lost and the cyborgs won. Of course, that victory isn’t uniform and sometimes the aniborg collective lives side by side with the cyborg collective. The current disputes over cattle trafficking in India is an example, where human-animal means of production are integrated into a cyborg network.
In the animal-climate world, the cyborg subordination of animals isn’t an accident – it’s built into the system, where the turning of animals into commodities is an essential expression of its power and a new hierarchy of labor is central to the new system that’s come into being.
Why labor though? Why not some other term that recognizes the creativity of non-human species through which they contribute complexity to human-machine-animal networks?
There’s a simple reason: while all animals including humans are autonomous agents, only some of them are embedded in production systems that constitute economic activity and their immiseration is directly tied to that activity. Labor remains the best term to describe the efforts of any being whose life is inscribed within the capitalist system. Plus, labor is the category that encapsulates everyone who is alienated from the fruits of their activity; what could be more alienating than losing control over your eggs, your milk, your children and your body?
Making labor a central term also privileges political economy and material processes over other conceptions of politics, including theories that start with the institutional form of a future animal friendly society such as Kymlicka and Donaldson’s liberal conception of the Zoopolis. The two aren’t contradictory; it’s possible that a liberatory struggle will lead to rights of animal labor that resemble the rights of citizens in a Zoopolis. Further, both conceptions agree in marking a boundary between human-animal collectives whose lives are ‘disciplined’ and the rest of the world where there isn’t a state or some other institutional authority that shapes behavior, i.e., the wild.
Having said that, animal-climate recognizes that labor can release forces that escape disciplined existence and these new agencies can disrupt, if not destroy, the stability of the capitalist system or even the stability of a future Zoopolis. That disruption can take the form of liberated carbon that has a dynamics of its own or viruses that jump from animals to animals to humans as various forms of bird flu threaten to do. Understanding the interplay between controllable and uncontrollable agencies is a key task of this project and unlike an E.O Wilson who wants half the earth to given over to the wild, I believe an animal left perspective should at least be open to the possibility of greater, even deepening, labor control over the biophysical processes of the earth, of stable and disciplined co-existence of human and non-human beings.
Every year about a hundred billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Closer to home, India has become a major exporter of beef, mutton, poultry, and dairy by-products, despite political posturing about the welfare of animals. These animals are often reared in torturous conditions, transported to slaughter in alarming ways and killed in great pain.
In addition, the use of animals in medical and cosmetic experimentation continues unabated with weak punitive measures, and deep cultural apathy. We would imagine that progressive groups would stand up against the suffering of fellow beings but for the most part the left hasn’t adopted animal rights as one of its signature demands. The lack of concern for nonhuman animals is especially true among the left in India, with our deep unease over the caste and communal dynamics of Hindutva-inflected “animal protection.”
At Animal Left we aim to challenge the omission of animal rights from the progressive agenda, believing that it is morally, politically, and logically imperative to disentangle real questions of animal rights from the violent and purely symbolic politics of right-wing “cow protection.” In doing so we also want to create a unique left narrative on animal rights that recognizes co-suffering and oppression across human and non-human animals.
In our understanding, the left, broadly construed, adopts three interrelated positions:
Knowledge of the material and social processes that transform human-human and human-nonhuman relations.
A keen eye for injustices that are created or sustained by these transformations.
A political agenda for resisting these injustices.
It’s through these linked understandings that the left has argued for the dignity and equality of all human beings irrespective of gender, race, caste, sexuality or disability. That has led to striking advances across the world, making our mark on government policy, international agreements and checks on the behaviour of corporations. For example, the Indian constitution enshrines (some of) these principles.
More recently, the left has expanded its focus to include climate change – and ecology more broadly – as a key concern. In fact, the traditional concerns of the left have greatly benefited the climate movement as a whole, helping shift the focus away from a numerical assessment of emissions to the recognition that climate change is deeply intertwined with capitalist modes of production and exacerbates existing injustices since it threatens marginalised communities more than it does the wealthy. In return, the introduction of climate concerns has energised the left in many parts of the world, brought young people into the struggle and created ambitious policy agendas such as the Green New Deal in the United States.
The latest IPCC report on climate change and land makes it clear that reducing meat consumption is essential. But as the world moves one way, the Government of India sees the expansion of animal agriculture as a way to absolve their own responsibility towards sustainable livelihoods for farmers, and is working to move out of traditional plant agriculture altogether. The role of animals in the agrarian economy can’t be divorced from other material transformations affecting farmers, consumers of food, and residents of vulnerable landscapes across South Asia. For these reasons, we believe that the concerns of the traditional left and those of the animal rights movements are converging, both at the level of desirable actions (eating less meat, for example) and the realization that the crisis has arisen out of an interrelated series of causes.
That mutual strengthening of solidarity should be welcomed by those who work on animal rights and the traditional left in India and elsewhere. Industrialised factory farming – the colloquial term for Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) – of animals has long been increasing in India. These farms cause immense suffering to animals, but they are also capitalist enterprises which take a lot of investment and consume more than their share of land, water and feedstock; they also leave a trail of environmental pollutants and poor labour safety. Those who work in the exploitative conditions of mega-slaughterhouses are likely to be poorer, lower-caste, and Muslim–not because these are “traditional” occupations, but because these are economically vulnerable populations. The ending of factory farming should be on every progressive’s plate.
Progressives should also look beyond the nexus of animals and meat, to consider animals in sport and entertainment; animals in experimentation; and the role of increased dairy consumption by upper-caste Indians in the exploitation of the “mother cow.”
For these reasons, we believe that it’s time for the left to embrace the rights of animals and create a new Animal Left. By bringing our moral concerns and intellectual tools together, we can create a more effective movement for justice at a time when there’s increasing pressure to conform to old hierarchies. In contrast, we believe in an intersectional movement for justice for all beings that transcends caste, gender, race, community and species.
We also recognize that India has a long tradition of concern for nonhuman beings, that Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu traditions have long recognised the continuity between human and nonhuman beings and that these traditions of nonviolence influenced justice struggles in modern India, including the independence struggle. In short, we don’t conflate left with the west.
The Animal Left blog is our attempt to bring those who care about animal rights in conversation with those of us who come from the political left. We hope to cover a gamut of issues:
The scientific basis of sentience,
The dignity of nonhuman animals,
The gendered, sexualised and casted lives of animals in India and elsewhere,
Legal regimes that govern human and nonhuman lives, and policy frameworks to address and transform these regimes in progressive directions,
Platform for law and policy discussion on animal cruelty across the spectrum of companion and working animals.
Philosophical and religious traditions from India and elsewhere that might inform our understanding of human-nonhuman relations.
We invite participation – both constructive and critical – from those who share our concerns. We take a creative approach to the topic – we welcome artistic, literary and grassroots perspectives alongside academic and analytic analyses. This is just the beginning of a long journey towards the liberation of all beings.