Some of you may know that I used to be a professional horse trainer and veterinary technician before I turned to history. It left me with a deep interest in how animals fit into a socialist society, and how we transform human-animal relations. Here’s a letter I wrote in Socialist Worker outlining a possible approach to that question. It’s a dialogue I hope to continue.
I APPRECIATED the dialogue that Jon Hochschartner began in his letter (“Socialists and animal liberation”). However, I felt that because of his approach, he fell short of what he was trying to accomplish–to reframe how socialists approach the questions of “animal liberation”–because the argument was taken from the point of consumption (attitudes toward veganism and vegetarianism) rather than the social relations that produce consumption.
Fundamentally, it makes no sense to talk about “animal liberation”–if that’s the term we want to use, I’m still on the fence about it, but will continue to use it for clarity of debate–without considering the relationship between humans and animals as a dynamic one, rooted in the social relations of human society. It’s not only that humans ruthlessly exploit animals–we do–but that changing the social relationship we have with animals, particularly domesticated species, would require a similar transformation of human society.
Like all aspects of our society, the consumption of animal products and the way they are produced are based in these relations. They are the product of such relations, and not themselves the cause of “animal exploitation.”
This is why it’s not just as simple as “stop eating meat.” What happens then to the legions of animals bred and raised–mostly in bad conditions, but some in quite good conditions–specifically for that purpose? While capitalism has morphed the ecological relationships of husbandry to something unrecognizable, the reality is that domesticated animals like chicken and cattle perform other important functions besides the production of meat, eggs and milk. Chicken litter is a central fertilizer used by poor farmers throughout the Appalachian mountains. Cattle play an important role in field rotation.
The question of animals and socialism demonstrates why eco-socialism is so important: We can’t view human societies or practices as separate from the ecosystem it operates in. This isn’t to defend mass slaughter or the disgusting treatment of many animals raised for meat, milk or eggs, to which I am opposed. But to pretend those relationships could be quickly undone misunderstands the role of domesticated animals in the environment. We don’t just need to abolish animal exploitation as it is, we need to reconfigure our social relationship with animals in a way that is more mutually beneficial.
This kind of materialist approach that historicizes animal-human relationships allows us to extend our analysis of animal questions beyond the slaughterhouse, to animal-human relationships that involve neither slaughter nor appropriation: pets and companions, animals and humans who share common spaces. Even under capitalism, such relationships are, on the whole, mutually beneficial.
Obvious problems exist: abuse, mass extermination in shelters, etc. It would be wrong, however, to argue that our relationships with pets, companion animals, etc., are inherently exploitative or dominating. In our social system, they can be and too often are. Yet humans, domesticated animals and non-domesticated animals with which we share close quarters have evolved to live together. The current organization of human society under capitalism makes it impossible for this mutually beneficial relationship to realize its full potential.
For those of us who have been fortunate to spend significant time working with animals, we have glimpsed the possibilities of what this relationship can be. We know that our relationships with animals improve us as people.
As socialists, we can envision a society where these moments of possibility are broadly accessible. As socialists, we should talk about our social relationships to animals, rather than our consumptive relationship to animal products. This approach is more nuanced, can explain more about the world, and refrains from the moralism that, while not universal, is still far too common among vegan/vegetarian activists.
As socialists, our job is to advance the struggle of the working class. At the end of the day, making personal choices about whether to consume animal products doesn’t offer a way forward for our class as a whole, but demanding that companies like Tyson Chicken treat its producers (mostly poor, Appalachian farmers) better and stop warehouse farming that is destructive to the environment, torturing to the chickens, a hazard for workers, and dangerous for the people who eat the product, offers a way for the working class to struggle together, and to keep the conditions of animals embedded in our wider vision of a different kind of society.