What does the exploitation of animals have to do with anything except the exploitation of animals? As Carol J Adams observes in The Sexual Politics of Meat, vegetarians appear to be saying one thing only: ‘Don’t eat meat’. But is it possible that there is more to be said? Indeed, that more is being said, though goes largely unheard beneath the familiar logic – meat-eating is cruel/destructive/unhealthy and therefore ethically wrong – of the vegetarian’s act of refusal? What radical charge, if any, does the eschewal of meat carry when it operates within the same capitalist matrix that has, since the industrialisation of meat production in the early twentieth century, turned animals into commodities on a massive scale?
I don’t intend for this essay to devolve into a series of moral claims on behalf of animals – Peter Singer, Mary Midgley and others have lighted up this territory in a way that doesn’t require replicating here. My interest is in sketching out some of the intersections between left and right ideologies, and the relationship of these to the treatment of animals. To this end, it is necessary to reframe the question of meat-eating within the context of a left that remains significantly hostile to the perceived personal nature of vegetarianism, and that remains convinced vegetarianism is irrelevant in the face of more urgent pursuits, such as improved human rights or working conditions.
In her Quarterly Essay Us and Them, Anna Krien begins her consideration of the importance of animals thus:
I am not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it. The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with?
The answer is a great deal, although Krien – careful to avoid appearing contentious – fails to spell this out.
It is difficult to comprehend the scale of the industrial farming system that produces the vast majority of the animal-derived products most of us in the West use, wear and consume on a daily basis. Numbers alone can scarcely provide an adequate picture, but they do give some sense. According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, around 550 million chickens are used for meat in Australia annually. This figure pales next to the 1.9 billion chickens raised for Europe’s meat and egg industries, and resembles a round-off error in comparison to the 9 billion that the US – the country with the world’s largest broiler chicken industry – produces every year.
In an online article for the Guardian, historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that we not only underappreciate the sheer numbers involved in the factory farming of animals, but also cling to an outdated bucolic view of the totality of animals that exist on the planet:
These days, most big animals live on industrial farms. We imagine that our planet is populated by lions, elephants, whales and penguins. That may be true of the National Geographic channel, Disney movies and children’s fairytales, but it is no longer true of the real world. The world contains 40,000 lions but, by way of contrast, there are around 1 billion domesticated pigs; 500,000 elephants and 1.5 billion domesticated cows; 50 million penguins and 20 billion chickens.
Little doubt remains about the capacity of these domesticated animals, almost incomprehensibly vast in number, to experience psychological and physical pain to a morally significant degree. It is hard, then, to fault the underlying premise of Krien’s essay – that our treatment of animals cannot reasonably be defended on ethical grounds.
In a paper published last year in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers Kristof Dhont and Gordon Hodson examine the relationship between ideology and ‘animal exploitation’ (as distinct from the Marxist notion of labour exploitation, about which more later). Their conclusion was that those of a right-wing disposition have a greater acceptance of animal exploitation, including meat-eating, than left-wingers. Dhont and Hodson’s explanation for this was twofold: first, right-wingers feel threatened by challenges to the ‘dominant carnist ideology’ and, second, a strong belief in human superiority over animals persists within right-wing circles. According to Dhont and Hodson,
Right-wing adherents do not simply consume more animals because they enjoy the taste of meat, but because doing so supports dominance ideologies and resistance to cultural change.
Both of these points have been usefully articulated by Melanie Joy in Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, in which Joy coined the term ‘carnism’ to refer to a prevailing ideology that, like patriarchy, often goes unacknowledged on account of its ubiquity:
We don’t see meat eating as we do vegetarianism – as a choice, based on a set of assumptions about animals, our world, and ourselves. Rather, we see it as a given, the ‘natural’ thing to do, the way things have always been and the way things will always be. We eat animals without thinking about what we are doing and why, because the belief system that underlies this behavior is invisible.
It is this carnism that, for right-wingers, renders vegetarianism an unacceptable challenge to the traditional order of things, contradictory to the worldview that sees meat as a dietary essential (for men, that is, who need it to maintain their virility), women as inferior, homosexuality as abhorrent and so on.
According to Dhont and Hodson, the personality traits that underlie the right-winger’s more marked predilection for meat are social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism.
Echoing Henry Salt, founder of the Humanitarian League and member of the Fabian Society, who called vegetarianism ‘progressiveness in diet’, Dhont and Hodson conclude their paper by noting that
[H]uman-animal relations are relevant to understanding human intergroup conflicts – after all, animalistically dehumanising human out-groups facilitates prejudice and discrimination toward that group only because animals are devalued.
In the Second World War, anti-Japanese sentiment among Allied troops was characterised by a unique bloodthirstiness – there was such a thing as a good German, but the only good Japanese was a dead one. This bloodthirstiness was driven by the depiction of Japanese soldiers as animals: rats, octopi, creatures that resembled apes. ‘Open season’ was declared and ‘Jap hunting’ licences issued. The headquarters of the 5th Indian Division urged its soldiers to ‘hunt [the Jap] and kill him like any other wild beast!’
Even before animalistic dehumanisation of this kind was used to fuel racist fanaticism, animals – or, more correctly, their slaughter – were used to prepare soldiers for battle. As Jeff Sparrow writes in Killing: Misadventures in Violence,
The idea that killing animals might, in some way, prepare you to kill people was an old one. Even the Mongols, not known for delicate sensibilities, had seasoned their young men for battle through great slaughters on horseback. More recently, in the Second World War, the British Army had tried inoculating its (increasingly urban) recruits against battle failure by taking them into an abattoir and showering them with sheep’s blood as they stuck dummies with bayonets.
Such practices situate vegetarianism within political as well as individual spaces, illuminating the historical intersections between vegetarianism, pacifism and the left. It was, as Adams points out in The Sexual Politics of Meat, the First World War that ‘yoked the heretofore sporadically linked notions of pacifism and vegetarianism … propelling [vegetarianism] as a movement into the twentieth century.’ No doubt the sight of millions of young men – famously likened to cattle in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – being fed into the war’s industrialised killing machine subconsciously resonated with the horrors of the modern slaughterhouse that had been exposed just a few years earlier by socialist Upton Sinclair in The Jungle.
It is worth digressing momentarily to consider the everyday – and, crucially, interconnected – ways in which the oppression of (some) humans and (some) nonhumans is maintained.
Early in 2015, there was an international outcry over the killing of a lion named Cecil in a Zimbabwe game reserve. The hunter was Walter Palmer, a white American dentist who handed over $50,000 for the ‘privilege’ of shooting the animal. In the wake of the killing, Palmer was vilified on social media, and his house and dentistry practice were targeted by protesters, some of whom scrawled ‘LION KILLER!’ on the garage door of his holiday home in Florida.
The moral confusion built into this outrage was plain: most of Palmer’s critics were, presumably, carnivorous, and several commentators, such as Roxane Gay, remarked that Cecil’s death had garnered far more attention than had any number of recent murders of people of colour. This observation – originally framed by Gay as a joke: ‘I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care’ – hints at a dominant discourse that devalues both Black and animal lives.
For Sean Parson, the conflicting responses to the killing of Cecil the Lion and to the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner – which brought about the Black Lives Matter movement – expose how, in equal and opposite ways, violence is masked and normalised. Writing for Counterpunch, Parson notes that
[T]he media coverage of Cecil does not show Americans’ love for nonhumans but instead the coverage serves as a way to hide the systemic and structural violence committed to both people of color and nonhumans in our society.
In the case of Cecil, the violence that is done to animals on an infinitely larger scale in factory farms, and through the loss of vast expanses of habitat through agri-business and climate change, is concealed by the special status bestowed on Cecil. As in the case of our domestic pets, Cecil’s naming set him above other animals, imbuing him with a sort of honorary humanity – and, decisively, an honorary white humanity – that rendered his beingness both visible and valuable. Once the furore had died down, Palmer tellingly informed the Minneapolis Star Tribune that if he had known the lion had had a name, he ‘wouldn’t have taken it’.
As with many of the police officers who continue to assault and murder people of colour with relative impunity, Palmer will not be prosecuted for ending Cecil’s life. Indeed, he is subject to a legal system that, rigged in his favour, gave him the authority to do so. Thus the systemic nature of these problems is exposed: the exoneration of Palmer and – as just one germane example – the Ferguson police officer who referred to protesting people of colour as ‘animals’ reveals both of these men to be representatives of oppressive, interconnected hierarchies rather than ‘rotten apples’.
Parson contends that the structural violence faced by people of colour is veiled in a different way to that which applies to animals:
As we have seen with recent police killings, providing a name or a face does not actually make white America connect with the victim of police violence. This is because race serves a foundational economic function [in] our society … Speciesism operates differently [to racism], as nonhumans are not seen as laborers in our society to be exploited but as machines and objects to be used for human ends.
This point is key to understanding not only the important distinctions between how the subjugation of people of colour and nonhumans operates within dominant discourses – which, as we have seen, are both racist and speciesist – but also the pushback against vegetarianism and veganism that takes place within the contemporary left.
One of the most referenced parts of The Communist Manifesto is that in which Marx and Engels pilloried what they regarded as ‘conservative, or bourgeois, socialism’:
A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.
To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind.
Left-wing critics of vegetarianism tend to reach for this passage when characterising the adoption of a plant-based diet as an essentially conservative act. According to this critique, those who do not eat animals, or who choose to buy meat produced under more humane conditions than those found in factory farms, are privileged tinkerers around the edges of a society they have no wish to change (except in the kind of nominal, hippie-cum-hipsterish fashion satirised in the TV series Portlandia) because it basically suits them. Furthermore, this analysis implies that, within a Marxist framework, animals cannot be exploited at all because they fall outside of the field of labour relations with which Marx, having rejected traditional, moralistic theories of exploitation, was concerned.
The idea that there is a higher incidence of vegetarianism/veganism in the predominately white middle and upper classes than in the rest of Western society is generally held to be true. For some on the left, this assumption supports the view that the refusal to eat meat is an activity that flows from a position of social and economic privilege. Vegetarian/vegan demographics, however – to the limited extent that they have been studied – paint a more ambiguous picture. One of the most thorough analyses to date has been provided by Jayson Lusk, Regents Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. In September 2014, Lusk aggregated one year’s results from his over 1,000-respondant, 19-month Food Demand Survey and came up with some surprising results. Yes, the data showed, vegetarians tend to be better educated and have higher incomes – but they are also more likely to be non-white and on food stamps. Moreover, Lusk found no statistically significant differences in the amount vegetarians and meat-eaters spend on food.
Choice, however, is another matter, and one often raised by leftwing critics of vegetarianism who contend that, in less affluent regional areas and outlying suburbs, diets that include meat are often unavoidable owing to a lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables. In culturally diverse North American cities such as Baltimore, whole areas have been designated ‘food deserts’, characterised by long supermarket commutes, widespread poverty, and limited access to transport and healthy food options. A 2013 Baltimore Sun article on the opening of a new grocery store in East Baltimore noted that the owners were not appealing to
the vegan or food faddist crowd. They just wanted a place where East Baltimoreans in the greater North Avenue area can find foods that won’t undermine their health.
While questions of diet cannot easily be divorced from class distinctions, it is far from clear that eating habits can be neatly sorted along purely socio-economic lines. Moreover, is it not perverse for sections of the left to (up to a point, correctly) call out those who would attempt to dictate dietary choices from a position of privilege yet fail to challenge food desert culture for fear of accusations of ‘classism’? Shouldn’t we be agitating for more – and better – dietary choices for all tiers of society, rather than defending a grossly unequal food distribution system out of what Jon Hochschartner has called ‘misplaced workerism’? Vegetarianism does not, of course, necessarily follow from this but the paucity of food options available in places like Baltimore has been thrown into sharp relief by an increasing awareness of the role of meat in poor nutrition and serious illness.
Hochschartner, in an essay titled ‘Socialists and the Animal Question’, argues that a ‘crude caricature of blue-collar culture’ that is glorified by disproportionately middle-class segments of the socialist left often underlies class-based critiques of vegetarianism:
To these more privileged members of the working class, casual indifference to animal exploitation is a defining trait of blue-collar workers. That this is immensely condescending should go without saying. But it’s also not based on a socialist understanding of class. For socialists, economic groups are not defined by eating habits, culture, or even income. They’re defined by someone’s relationship to the means of production.
Just as we have seen how the First World War married vegetarianism and the anti-war movement, and how the oppression of animals and people of colour are interrelated, the fate of workers under industrialised systems of manufacturing cannot easily be separated from that of animals. As Sinclair demonstrates in The Jungle, the innovative process by which the production of meat was industrialised in the early years of the twentieth century reduced both animals and labourers to cogs in a vast machine that was both brutal and brutalising.
The Jungle was first serialised in Appeal to Reason, the most widely read socialist newspaper in the Unites States. Having spent seven weeks researching the topic while undercover in the meatpacking plants of Chicago’s stockyards, Sinclair had hoped the story would alert the American population to ‘the inferno of exploitation’ of the country’s factory workers, and to the crushing of immigrant culture under the relentless weight of industrial capitalism. Instead, it was denounced as a gratuitous, muckraking Grand Guignol.
The bulk of the reading public – perhaps having skimmed over the book’s dedication ‘To the Workingmen of America’ – were moved neither by Sinclair’s depiction of the violent killing and dismemberment of animals, nor by the plight of the demoralised workers toiling from seven o’clock in the morning to late at night while steeped in a perpetual half-inch of blood. ‘In the beginning,’ Sinclair writes of his protagonist, Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus,
[H]e had been fresh and strong, and he had gotten a job the first day; but now he was second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and they did not want him … they had worn him out, with their speeding-up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away!
Shockingly little has changed in a century: meatpacking remains a dirty and dangerous occupation, mostly casual and transient, and usually low-paid. Writing within a North American context in a 2001 issue of Mother Jones, Eric Schlosser notes that
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpacking is the nation’s most dangerous occupation. In 1999, more than one-quarter of America’s nearly 150,000 meatpacking workers suffered a job-related injury or illness. The meatpacking industry not only has the highest injury rate, but also has by far the highest rate of serious injury – more than five times the national average, as measured in lost workdays. If you accept the official figures, about 40,000 meatpacking workers are injured on the job every year. But the actual number is most likely higher.
The psychological impact of the mechanised abattoir, Sparrow observes in Killing, remains poorly understood. Its historical legacy, however, has been well documented.
‘Auschwitz begins,’ wrote German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, ‘whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.’ This is not mere rhetoric. It was from the meatpacking plants of Chicago that Henry Ford drew inspiration for the continuous-flow production principles that saw his automobile factories revolutionise American industry. And it was from these factories that Hitler developed the methods by which humans, not animals, could be deprived of life on an industrial scale. Tellingly, the Nazis appropriated the language of the stockyards as well as their organising and technological practices: their victims, already stripped of human signification, were not slaughtered but ‘processed’. A portrait of Ford – who was also a rabid anti-Semite – adorned the wall of Hitler’s office in Munich.
This image – a king of American industry alongside the father of National Socialism, united in their militant dehumanisation of a human out-group, each, in their individual but complementary way, the beneficiary of technology based on the principles of industrialised animal slaughter – vividly illuminates Adams’ claims around ‘the patriarchal nature of our meat-advocating cultural discourse’:
Meat’s recognisable message includes association with the male role; its meaning recurs within a fixed system; the coherence it achieves as a meaningful item of food arises from patriarchal attitudes including the idea that the end justifies the means, that the objectification of other beings is a necessary part of life, and that violence can and should be masked … In essence, because meat eating is a measure of a virile culture and individual, our society equates vegetarianism with emasculation or femininity.
Once again, the meat-eating impulse is shown to be one with deep conservative roots, shoring up a capitalist, patriarchal system that commodifies, in different but indivisible ways, people of colour, the working class, women and animals. In this arrangement, women are ultimately rendered, as Susan Griffin put it in Rape: The Power of Consciousness, ‘matter without spirit’. The metaphorical reduction of women into ‘pieces of meat’ – whether through being objectified in advertising and media portrayals, or through sexual violence – both reflects and shapes the dominant discourse in which animals are literally dismembered into consumable body parts.
Acknowledging the ways in which the individual can challenge this dominant discourse is the first step we must take in opening up sufficient conceptual space for an understanding of vegetarianism that admits its political as well as personal dimensions. However, the efficacy of the individual’s vegetarianism remains contentious. In Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals, Brian Luke summarises the two conflicting views on this question that dominate in vegetarian scholarship:
(1) an individual’s vegetarian choices are inefficacious—simply not noticed by agribusiness, so production levels are unchanged, and (2) vegetarian collectives of a large enough size are noticed and do reduce meat production.
As was shown with last year’s Black Friday boycotts in support of Michael Brown, it is notoriously difficult to measure the effects of consumption-based activism. Luke is cautious, warning that vegetarianism – and, by extension, any form of protest that shifts the focus from the system to the individual – may lead us into ‘faulty analysis and prematurely false hopes’. The result, he argues, is a type of vegetarianism that, while morally pure, risks becoming uncoupled from utilitarian considerations:
If virtue is achieved by boycotting a pernicious industry even when that boycott is not likely to be efficacious, then virtue is not outwardly directed – looking toward dismantling an oppressive industry – but is inward-looking, a matter of achieving personal purity by protecting oneself from culpability for the oppression.
Peter Singer is perhaps the most well-known advocate of the opposing view, stated most forcefully in Animal Liberation, that a reasonable assumption can be made – based on elementary economics – that an individual’s vegetarianism ‘has some impact on the number of animals raised in factory farms and slaughtered for food’. Given the formidable level of collusion between agribusiness and government, Singer argues, vegetarianism may be not only an effective form of protest but also the most effective. This view is echoed by that of Rahiel Tesfamariam, founder of progressive online magazine Urban Cusp and lead organiser of the Black Friday boycotts, who told the New York Times in December 2014 that: ‘The power structure isn’t listening to us in the streets or in the courts, so we are going to have to do it with our buying power’. Michael Latt, a fellow organiser from Los Angeles, put it even more bluntly: ‘America speaks the language of money, and that’s something that everybody can understand.’
Whether or not we envisage, as George Bernard Shaw once did, being followed to our grave by the thankful animals our vegetarianism spared, we may still grant that an individual’s actions carry political importance. Vegetarianism, as Luke recognises, often complements and supports more obviously radical anti-animal exploitation tactics – blocking vehicles taking animals to slaughter, destroying agribusiness equipment and facilities and the like. But as we have seen, it also rebuffs an oppressive system that, to borrow from Simone Weil’s definition of force, turns its subjects into things.
The challenge vegetarians can mount to such a system isn’t contingent on purity – bodily, ethical or ideological – but on the simple recognition that our diets reflect and fortify our politics. Bearing witness through lifestyle choices to the unnecessary suffering of sentient beings isn’t the most we can do – but for as long as capitalism plays out its long and bloody final act, it may well be the least.