Why the Animal Left?
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.