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John Passant

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November 2009



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Marx and meat

The working class stands at the heart of Marx’s political economy. 

It was Marx’s historic insight that it was the working class which would liberate itself through  its struggle against capitalism and through that struggle become fit to rule.

The movement of the working class would be a democratic one, laying the basis for a planned economy to organise production to satisfy human need.

The abolition of the exploitation of the working class (or wage slavery as I have called it elsewhere) would also lay the groundwork for the abolition of oppression – of racism and women’s oppression for example, and of gays and lesbians. 

This is because these forms of oppression are centrally located in the exploitative system both as divisive ideological tools and just as importantly in putting downward pressure on wages.

For example women’s oppression is the main ingredient in reproducing the next generation of wage slaves for little cost to capital.

Obviously the nature of oppression has changed in some nation states in the last fifty years as the women’s liberation movement began to gain strength and challenge old ways of thinking and social relations (and in doing so opened up a space for the gay liberation movement).

The sharper edges of racism became blunted both as a consequence of a push from below (e.g. the magnificent Civil Rights movement in the United States) and the needs of capital for a well trained and well educated workforce.

Such needs could only be met by expanding immigration and simultaneously removing overt colour bars at home.  

On the other hand racism and sexism are institutionalised in most major Western economies as the percentage of blacks and women in poverty and unemployed is much greater than the average.  

Marxism is not a static set of ideas.  Turning Marx’s words into some sort of bible is the hallmark of stalinism. Even revolutionaries (like adherents of the Fourth International) can transform the strength or weakness of Trotsky’s writing at a particular time into eternal truths.

In all likelihood Marx was homophobic. Yet Marx’s method meant that in 1895 the German Social Democratic Party moved to accept homosexuality as natural. 

The Bolsheviks in 1917 decriminalised homosexuality (as well as freeing up divorce and abortion) and there is evidence that there may have been at least one gay marriage under their rule.

The rise of Stalinism and the state capitalist project saw homosexuality criminalised in Russia in 1933.

Later thinkers, standing in Marx’s tradition and building on his ecological foundations,  have further developed the idea of capitalism as a metabolic rift with nature.

 To quote Brett Clark and Richard York from Carbon Metabolism: Global Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Biospheric Rift

For Marx, there is a “metabolic interaction” between human beings and the earth. In fact, “Man lives on nature—means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die”. Thus a sustainable social metabolism is “prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”. Labor is the process through which humans interact with nature.

Their argument is that anthropogenic global warming is at the heart of the capitalist system and so only a systemic change can save the planet.

Marxists are often accused of being anthropocentric. The fact that the relationship  between humanity and nature is a dialectical one undermines this.

Humanity is both part of nature, and able to change nature.  While this is true too to some extent of animals the difference is one Marx mentioned in volume one of Capital. He said:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.

It is the capacity to think ahead which distinguishes humanity from the animal world. That, and complex language and opposable thumbs.

Under capitalism, the divorce of humanity from nature includes the enslavement of animals for food production. 

The revolutionary and democratic liberation of humanity by the working class will of necessity lay the framework for a new order of relationships with nature, including animals.

Any rights discourse has to accept that most rights are rights of individuals divorced from community. As Marx put it:

None of these so-called rights of man goes beyond the egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society, as a man severed from the common social life and withdrawn into his private interests and private caprice. Far from man being conceived in these rights as a generic being, the life of the genus itself, society, appears in them as a frame external to individuals, as a limitation of their original independence. The sole thread that keeps them together is natural necessity, needs and private interest, the preservation of their property and of their egoistic person.

Animals have no rights, other than those given them by humans.  To elevate any human designed animal ‘rights’ to the equivalent of human rights is to undermine the fight for human rights, not enhance them.

It is to counterpose human liberation to some egoistic human right disguised in the nomenclature of animal rights.

Under capitalism the ‘rights’ of many animals are to be caged, or hunted or fished to extinction, or to have their habitat destroyed.

A fundamental re-ordering of society will change that and humanity will reclaim its essentially harmonious but changing relationship with nature and animals.

This does not mean that animals as food will disappear, at least immediately.  Under primitive communism meat was a necessity for survival.

Under a world of abundance that may not be the case.  Take food production today.

There is more than enough food produced to adequately feed the world.  Animals make up some of that food. 

The real question for socialists is to challenge the distribution system that condemns over 1 billion humans to starvation. 

One of the immediate tasks of the successful international socialist revolution will be to feed everyone on the planet to enable everyone to become a citizen.

That will, given the present mode of food production,  of necessity involve slaughtering animals for food.   

Whether that continues in the long term is a question for future generations.

That doesn’t mean we as socialists should reject the idea of animal liberation from capitalist exploitation as a consequence of human liberation.

But it does mean understanding that it is the working class, with its power to fundamentally re-order society and realign humanity with nature, that gives us the only chance to put such animal liberation on the agenda of socialist and communist society.



Comment from John
Time November 2, 2009 at 5:13 pm

There has been a bit of a commentary on facebook about my intention to write the article and te article itself. So I have cut and pasted those comments here.

John P FB message: I think Paul D’Amato’s article against animal liberation (which I posted on my blog) is seriously flawed. Now all I have to do is figure out why. Something to do with dialectics, the working class as the agent of human liberation, species-being, ‘rights’, the metabolic rift and the like, plus a bit about Trotsky and permanent revolution… Hmm, all this in 800 words. I don’t think so.

Kieran: The [D’Amato] article seemed to imply that only beings with the ability to liberate themselves have the right to liberation.

All you need to do is bring that back to Hitler and the death camps and you’ve won!!

John M: I think that only beings with the ability to liberate themselves can understand or appreciate liberation. And that the idea that beings can have rights they will never understand is a mistake. It’s about materialism – I want to fight for the realization of the full potential of self-emancipation for each human.
I think being unnecessarily cruel to dogs is bad for humans. But inventing rights for other animals only at best confuses the issues.
As for the argument “I don’t agree with you so i’ll mention Hitler,” it is unimpressive.

Andrew: You don’t need to get bogged down in philosophical arguments to know what is wrong with animal liberationists. They are, for the most part, a bunch of lettuce munching, middle class, moralising bastards. Their tactics have absolutely zero chance of ‘liberating’ animals because they appeal to people on a purely fatuous ethical basis which they then go on to totally undermine by calling those people the ‘cancer of the earth’. These are the sort of people who accost activists who are putting up posters for anti-war rallies and scream at them for hurting trees. They often have a very bad position on class and capitalism, usually because they are middle class turds themselves. Therefore they refuse to recognise that the alienation inherent to capitalism is primarily responsible for the appalling way animals are treated. No decent person enjoys seeing animals in pain, and we don’t need a lot of arrogant fuckers lecturing us on why all that unnecessary cruelty is all our fault. I hope they all get eaten by wolves!

John P: Kieran, talking about Hitler adds nothing to your argument – it detracts from it and sidelines the real discussion.

John P: Andrew I assume your comments are an attempt at provacative humour. It falls flat. Your stereotyping says nothing to comrades for whom this is an important question.It alienates them. Lettuce munching middle class moralising bastards indeed. Maybe it’s time to form the lettuce faction.

Martin: Animal liberation must be a fundamental tenet of all Marxism. The dialectic of nature = humans are alienated from nature most explicitly through the alienation of productive action from ownership of nature
The social relations of labour in class society further alienate humans from nature.
Liberation of humanity begins with our recognition of the rights of all species, why else would you want to hug a tree!

Rebecca: i still think that things like battery cages for chickens and the awful conditions of pigs that caused the swine flu outbreak are quite putrid and disgusting in real life, regardless of what some of the middle class moralising arses going on about, however this doesnt mean that they arent reacting to a REAL issue (regardless of their crappy political response). chickens in battery cages etc actually is pretty damn awful, and is yet another system of the fucked up nature of capitalism. in the same way that its true the climate change activists are pretty much all right wing middle class do-gooders that talk about a racist population control or less cows farting or whatever other rediculous solution as the answer. just because a solution is rediculous, anti working class and right wing, does not mean these people arent pointing out real issues under capitalism, that arent just fucked for the animals involved, but for the workers too, who would benefit from having better conditions to work with these animals on – mexico and the swine flu outbreak being the most recent case in point.

Rebecca: the point is like all other liberations, animal liberation cannot happen without workers revolution.

Andrew: I agree that battery cages are terrible and should be abolished. I agree that a lot more should be done to stop species being wiped out. I agree that for the most part, capitalist farming practices are unacceptably cruel and need to be changed. I, like I think most people are, am appalled by animal cruelty and I have NEVER said otherwise.

But I draw the line at animal liberation which is basically the position that animal oppression should be viewed the same way as racism or sexism and animals should be afforded the same rights as humans. Presumably, if it is to be ‘liberation’ in any meaningful sense this could only mean that all fences are torn down and animals are free to roam wherever they want and do whatever they want. Furthermore, I assume that donkeys would be given the same democratic rights as people and that if sheep didn’t feel like it they could refuse to be shorn, regardless of the weather. Maybe we should expect foxes and rabbits to set up an arbitration procedure to overcome their grievances. Clearly this is totally utopian and if nobody can give me a coherent reason why it is not (vague, abstract references to dialectics and metabolic rifts are a long way off fulfilling this feat), then I will continue to believe that it is all just moralistic posturing.

John P: Donkeys given the same democratic rights as humans? WTF do i argue that? I think your prejudice is clouding your judgement. I am in the main talking about capitalist practices in relation to animals. I am not arguing for animals councils or whatever your fantasies imply. Could I suggest you actually read the article without the blinkers of bullshit you have on at the moment? In fact, I think you’ll find if you did that I am actually agreeing with D’Amato (which was not my intention at the start), and, although it is hard to discern any rational kernel at the moment in your diatribes, I suspect you and I agree too on the fundamentals.

Andrew: I’ve read your article now (I wasn’t aware of it before), and it doesn’t argue an animal liberationist position at all. There is a very big difference between changing our relation toward animals so we are more humane when we exploit them (I can realistically see no way of ending the exploitation of animals) which is what you seem to be for and regarding all utilisation of animals for production as fundamentally unjust and akin to slavery which is the animal liberationist position.

Scott: The production of meat need not be cruel, but under capitalism it is. The point I think as with all of capitalism’s barbarisms is to identify the cause and from there to identify the solution.

Blaming ordinary people for the cruelty of the profit driven capitalists is fundamentally wrong and as a marxist I see that in so doing alienates the only force in society capable of overthrowing the capitalist world system which is responsible. The working class.

The working class is the only class that does not materially benefit from capitalism. A huge percentage of the value created by workers every day is taken by the bosses in profits. Since we don’t benefit then the idea that capitalism with all its horrors is not in our interest can be won. Offering an alternative of a worker’s democracy with no interest in oppression and environmental abuse.

Humans exist within an eco-system, albeit one that is completely distorted by the capitalist system, one that I think is falling apart at an unprecedented rate. Fastest mass species extinction in the planets history, if you know the Earth’s history that itself is a chilling understanding, and is only the tip of the ice burg.

I think Paul D’s article was fantastic because it shows how funny the idea is of animal having rights and at the same time made it clear that being distressed and disgusted by the barbarism of capitalism and the abuse of animals is part of being human and nothing to be sneered at. It is sentiment like this that radicalizes us, but it is having a politically clear understanding of the fundamental nature of capitalism that offers us an alternative from the horrors that exist everywhere around us!

John P FB message: I have just posted an article called Marx and meat. I feel somewhat out of my depth and hope it isn’t too flakey. Maybe it is a first draft and should have been left to the gnawing criticism of the mice. Oh well. The discussion and debate might help clarify my own ideas.

Stacy: i liked it stated at the basics and i liked the detailed part about the relationships with nature. so it comes down to more necessity more then anything.

John: Thanks Stacy. I think the last two paragraphs sum up my views. It’s the working class, the working class, the working class…

Jay: I think the assessment of productive capacities and methods is spot on – though in the context of a revolution, and with environmental destruction as caused by capital in mind, we may have to, and would be able to, rapidly alter the methods and products of food (and many other things) – but more directly appropriate because, at the end of it all you come to the point about what humanity really is, and needs, and can work to change the environs we’re given.

John P FB message: Writing about meat means you will lose allies on all sides for what appear to me to be the most nonsensical reasons. So one FB friend has now dropped me (presumably I am now a speciest) and another has argued hard against a position I don’t hold. I think emotion on an issue can easily cloud discussion.

Andrew: Sorry if I have been a little too hard on this, and in no way think that you have lost an ally. But at high school we had an English teacher who played videos of animals being tortured by humans, pretty horrific stuff. He argued that all meat is murder, you shouldn’t use leather, etc. etc. I assumed that this guy would be fairly left wing, so I … Read Moreasked him what he thought about John Howard. Turns out he voted for Howard, hated the union, thought humanity was a cancer that was better exterminated, had a small business somewhere (because he believed strongly in free enterprise) and thought the War on Terror was a good idea. This guy was a pretty serious activist in the animal liberation movement.

I honestly think that genuine animal liberation is totally incompatible with any serious historical materialist outlook. If you consider that any meaningful liberation can only be bought about by self-emancipation, how can you be for animal liberation? It is impossible.

Jay: I think Andrew’s right, that we cannot look for animal lib in the same way as worker’s self-emancipation. But i nonetheless think it would be appropriate to curb many of the practices of the profit-driven meat industry – for example factory farming is worse than just unsanitary. I think it’s okay to lose people sometimes, if they don’t agree with the core arguments of how to change the world, or to try.

John: I thought that the self-emancipation of the working class was the whole point of my article.But I am worried that some good left wingers (perhaps comrades, don’t know) might think that ‘speciesism’ is the new racism and we are supporting it.Since our analysis doesn’t recognise speciesism that is not the case. Oh well. Anyway, I’d like to lift the comments from here and elsewhere and put them on my blog.

John: I was using animal liberaton as short hand for liberation from the destructive processes of capitalism, something that flows from the self-emancipation of the working class. As to the other queston of killing animals for sustenance – that’s a question for communist society.

Comment from Flower
Time November 2, 2009 at 10:27 pm

1. There are several scientific papers on the observance of altruistic behaviour between other species and a code of ethics practised in the animal kingdom.

2. The animal kingdom does have language. Is D’Amato inferring that because animals don’t speak English, they’re inferior to man?

Let’s face it man brutalises the “voiceless,” the defenceless and the vulnerable just because he can and has done long before hominids butchered the woolly mammoth into extinction.

Naturally as a result of man’s indifference to brutalising other species, the brutality is often perpetrated on insane, demented, crippled and defenceless humans.

One should not wholly attribute animal brutality to any political party, though I daresay that a capitalistic society is far more sophisticated in its heinous treatment of the “voiceless.”

Here in good old civilised Australia, the livestock industry hack off pigs’ testicles and tails and file their teeth so they wont bite each other. Never mind that they must compete with up to 40,000 other comrades in a prison whilst wading in their own excrement.

This industry then moves on to incarcerating millions of battery hens, dosed daily with antibiotics and who never see the sun and have their beaks burnt off.

Then in Australia, the hapless cow is incarcerated in a steel crush, bellowing profusely while the rouseabout enters her back end and hacks off her ovaries.

In 2004, Australia’s vivisection laboratories managed to torture 6 million animals but cowardly man insists on an anaesthetic to have one tooth pulled.

In China, the working class skin animals alive so some fat dowager in the West can drape the animal fur around her neck. For entertainment value, the Chinese throw live cows off the back of a truck to be devoured by a pride of lions and the spectators howl with delight.

And the canines? Oh my:

Alas for Homo Sapiens, the animals are fighting back. Don’t worry that they can’t speak English. And whilst we salivate over the tournedos rossini on our dinner plate, the second phase of the Sixth Extinction is occurring, according to eminent paleontologists and seventy percent of diseases now afflicting man are of zoonotic origin.

Karma is indeed, patient.

Comment from Flower
Time November 3, 2009 at 12:40 am

Whoops the following link – an omission in my last post:

Disclaimer: I am not yet a vegetarian – but I’m working on it!

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