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John Passant

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June 2011
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Of dogs and alienation

The domestication of canines began about 15,000 years ago, well before the development of class society. In a world of scarcity the relationship could only survive if both parties did, literally, survive and both parties contributed to that survival.

Dogs were the acute eyes, ears and nose of homo sapiens groups then for hunting and protection. In some cases they were beasts of transport, and were also early warning guards. In return they received food and warmth with man and woman as leader of the pack. There was a two way relationship of companionship.

The rise of class society on the back of beasts of burden like cattle saw the nature of this canine-human relationship expand to the new ruling elites. Some dogs even became gods.

For the ruling class, dogs could be a status symbol, a sign of wealth and control. The ability to feed and house them and keep their dogs reasonably well was a sign of someone who had access to a share of the social surplus, of someone who lived off the labour of others.

The rise of capitalism and with it the nuclear family changed again the relationship between humans and dogs. Capitalism created pets as pets.

At first the poverty of the working class meant that most dogs were the plaything of the ruling class. The working class had pets, if they did, for local security or as part of their work or as some form of companionship in a cruel world.

The long post war boom made it easier for workers to pay for the upkeep of pets like dogs and cats. The pet ownership industry exploded and pets became commodities. 

But there was another aspect to this.  Some comrades describe pets as an example of our profound alienation under capitalism. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx described alienation in these terms:

The fact that labour is external to the worker, does not belong to her essential being; that she therefore does not confirm herself in her work, but denies herself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies her flesh and ruins her mind. Hence the worker feels herself only when she is not working; when she is working she does not feel herself. She is at home when she is not working, and not at home when she is working. Her labour is therefore not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but a mere means to satisfy need outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague.

This alienation finds many outlets. Religion for example is an attempt to explain a world turned upside down. The family is a haven in a heartless world, although that world manipulates and distorts all relationships. Thus the nuclear family is not only a refuge but also a prison.

Within that prison other humans provide some escape from the brutal alienation of the world around them, but are of course also shaped by that brutal alienation.

Pets are and can be another avenue of escape from an alienated world. But again they form part of the prison from which we are trying to escape.   

The love of a dog is real enough. It brings joy to both owner and dog in a joyless world; love in a loveless society. It doesn’t challenge that heartless world; it at best provides an avenue for ameliorating it outside the seeming boundaries of its brutality – the workplace and the production of profit.

But there are questions of dominance too that could be explored in this context. Unable to be free, we free ourselves through others. Dominance over dogs seemingly empowers us. It is an empowerment of sorts, much like the use of illegal drugs or legal ones like alcohol.

Does this mean that pets will be liberated with us? No. Animals cannot liberate themselves. Only humans can do that.

However democratic working class revolution offers us the opportunity to change all societal relationships, including that of humans and pets and in doing that liberate us and them. 

Vale Leo, the dog who listened on many a walk to my political discussions, never carping or criticising but helping me work out my positions on questions of the day by his presence.  



Comment from paul walter
Time June 13, 2011 at 1:14 am

Am thinking of my cat. He is very loyal, but is it because I feed him?
We (pet owners) are all liberal employers, today.

Comment from Brian Cambourne
Time June 13, 2011 at 10:11 am

I found this poem helpful when my constant companion of 12 years lay down outside our favourite coffee shop and died.
There is one best place to bury a dog.
If you bury him in this spot, he will
come to you when you call – come to you
over the grim, dim frontier of death,
and down the well-remembered path,
and to your side again.

And though you call a dozen living
dogs to heel, they shall not growl at
him, nor resent his coming,
for he belongs there.

People may scoff at you, who see
no lightest blade of grass bent by his
footfall, who hear no whimper, people
who may never really have had a dog.
Smile at them, for you shall know
something that is hidden from them,
and which is well worth the knowing.
The one best place to bury a good
dog is in the heart of his master.
Ben Hur Lampman

Comment from Terrance
Time June 13, 2011 at 5:43 pm

John, lovely piece. As my dogs get old – 14 and 7, I wonder if there is any greater companion in terms of unreserved love and company.