Critical Theory and Animal Liberation. A Review.

by Marco Maurizi

ct John Sanbonmatsu (ed.), Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, Rowman & Littlefield, Plymouth: UK, 2011.
The growing field of animal studies has become an important part of the academic activity all around the world. The times when writing about animal suffering could be labeled as a sort of “crankiness” (Adorno) are gone. Yet, as always happens when a new subject of study emerges from the mist of the unknown to become “normal” science in Kuhn’s terms, a lot of repetitive (and often boring) work becomes a stable part of the publishing activity. Critical Theory and Animal Liberation surely does not belong to such standardized routine. As a matter of fact, editor John Sanbonmatsu has managed to gather several impressive contributions, different from style and method, all unified by the common goal of criticizing both human and nonhuman exploitation from a political point of view. In a word, Critical Theory and Animal Liberation aims at broadening the theoretical concerns of animal advocacy, while at the same time making its praxis more influential and effective. The book, thus, presents the reader with a set of interesting attempts to endorse animal liberation from the Left, including two outstanding authors that opened the path of critical animal studies in the late 80s: Ted Benton (whose classic “Marxism = Specisism?” is here reprinted and made accessible for the younger readers) and Carol J. Adams (whose influential book The Sexual Politics of Meat: a Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory for the first time associated the term coined by Max Horkheimer in the 30s and the animal liberation movement).
The book’s perspective
The editor’s Introduction opens the volume with an intriguing and carefully constructed overview of the themes developed in the following chapters. Without ambiguity, then, it strongly takes side in favor of an anti-capitalist understanding of the struggle against animal abuse. According to Sanbonmatsu, “animal liberation and capitalism […] are mutually incompatible modes of civilizational development” (26). Such thesis implies a partial revision of the traditional theoretical and practical arrangements of animal right activism. The classical attack on speciesism – grown on the field of analytical philosophy – is here criticized since it fails to see the connections between animal liberation and “other systems of power and dominance”. The important contributions given by Singer and Regan to understand and criticize the ethical bias of speciesism are to be seen inside the largest political framework that made them possible: a thesis lately developed by Gardner, who openly admits that neither socialism, nor feminism, nor ecology offer a sound background for animal rights and that we should therefore be content with the liberal discourse. As Carl Boggs observes, though, the limits of traditional animal rights theories are at least three: first of all, the line of inquiry is often “narrow” and the animal concerns are “isolated from broader social and ecological problems”; secondly, the concept of “right” itself is excessively tied to questions of individual moral choice (a consequence of the fact that liberalism underestimates problems involving social structures, power and ideology); finally, few critical analysis of speciesism have produced the “political articulation” needed to avoid ethical individualism and implement more general strategic choices (87). It is true that the Left has been often blind to the violence committed against animals, but the main thesis of this book is that such blindness does not depends on an intrinsic incapacity of the socialist tradition to empathize with nonhuman nature, but it is rather the effect of historical contingency. As Renzo Llorente has convincingly proven in his contribution (“Reflections on the Prospects for a Non-Speciesist Marxism”), all the “alleged incompatibilities” between animal liberation and socialism are “largely spurious”. A unified theory of oppression, then, should point at the “basic affinity between Marxism and animal liberation”, an affinity that Llorente finds “in the radical egualitarian orientation that defines both perspectives” (122).
But what does the editor and the authors of this book understand under the expression “Critical Theory”? Sanbonmatsu makes clear that such label goes beyond the “classic” authors we identify with the Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, to name a few). “Critical Theory” is then understood as a more general philosophical position, drawing from unorthodox Marxism, feminism, phenomenology and even post-structuralism (the theses on the animal by the late Derrida, for instance, are often discussed here). According to Sanbonmatsu, one of the key feature of Critical theory is that it rejects the “ontological distinction…between facts and values” (5). It is precisely such entanglement between facts and values that shows the intrinsic necessity in the encounter between animal liberation and Critical Theory. The idea of a deep link between the atrocity committed against harmless animals and the Frankfurt critique of “totalitarian” reason, is explained by Sanbonmatsu himself: the very essence of totalitarianism, in fact, means “that there are no limits to what can be done to the individual, or even to entire classes of individuals” (4). And how should one call “the gigantic, technologically advanced, mechanized apparatus whose sole function is to produce, destroy, and process the bodies and minds of thousands of millions of living beings each year” (3)? As for the Nazis, we recognize “atrocity” not by “the joy, ruthlessness, or simply boredom of the killers, nor by the helpless terror, anguish and suffering of the defenseless victims, but the way the two become conjoined in a mode of action whose symbolic function is to demonstrate absolute superiority of on group over another” (4). The sense of impunity, granted to the “everyday rituals of the master race” – as Victoria Johnson call them – means one and only thing: that those who are seen as nonhuman or non subject are factually reduced to objects. The intersection between ethic and ontology coulnd’t be clearer than it is when the fate of the animals is under scrutiny. “To witness atrocity”, so Sanbonmatsu “is to see ontologized or made real a relation which, until that moment, could only be expressed ideologically – namely, the idea of the worthlessness of the other”. For this reason, a correct look at what happens to animals – at what animals are under capitalism – can’t do without an ethical concern: it is not simply a matter of adding some human touch to the crude facts of animal exploitation. As the rhetoric of “humane killing” shows, once the suffering and death of the animals is obliterated from view, even ethical concern becomes spurious and wrong. The point is exactly the opposite: without looking with solidarity to them (without “thinking with them”, as Gerhardt writes), the crude fact of exploitation does not even emerge, it simply sleeps in the background of our perception.
From the other hand, it would be impossible to talk about “ethics” without looking at what the current economic system does to its victims, without experiencing its crudest and horrifying reality. During the Nazi regime it was possible to live a normal life while other humans were mechanically killed and their traces dispersed: how much – asks Sanbonmatsu – such coexistence affected even the most noble, kind and moral acts of the Germans? By the same token, the animal liberation movement asks humanity if it has any meaning to keep on talking about “morality” when an analogous massacre is ruthlessly going on all around us (12). Critical Theory means that without objective (ie economic and political) analysis and subjective involvement (ie taking care), reality disappears behind the veil of ideology.
The goal of Critical Theory, so Sanbonmatsu, is “to liberate humanity and nature too from the brutalizing logic of power that prevents us from realizing our capacities and essence as free, creative beings”. This means that both the Frankfurt School and the animal liberation movement criticizes “not merely one aspect of the existing order, but the entirety of human history and culture” (6). Not surprisingly, such theme is especially developed by Christina Gerhardt and Eduardo Mendieta, whose contributions are the only ones that directly and exclusively examine the works of the Frankfurt School. They both prove that Derrida was right when he affirmed that interpreting the role of animals in Adorno’s thought “would take the least trodden but in [his] view the most crucial paths in the future reading of Adorno” (147). Academic Adornoism has for a long time neglected the importance of animality in Critical Theory. The essays presented here, on the contrary, openly develop such reflection from two distinct but necessary perspectives. Gerhardt’s “Thinking With” exposes the Kantian and Schopenhauerian legacy in Adorno’s and Horkehimer’s concern about animal suffering. Eduardo Mendieta’s “Animal Is to Kantianism as Jew Is to Fascism” focuses on the dialectical tension between animality and humanity that one can find at the core of their work. Adorno was in fact interested in what Mendieta calls “an anthropology without anthropos, a zoology without an animal”(155). According to Mendieta, “there is no morality proper to human freedom, because humans as such have yet to realize their humanity in accord with their animal nature” (155). The crucial point of the argument is that humanity as not merely defined itself by “ideologically” negating its own animality, it has materially built its psychological and social Self at the expenses of its animal nature. A crucial contribution about this, which largely takes inspiration from the Frankfurt School, is Zipporah Weiseberg’s “Animal Repression. Speciesism as Pathology”. Focusing on the role played by the repression of animality in the making of our civilized Self, Weisberg observes: “to sever thinking form sensuousness […] is both to degrade our experience as natural beings and to diminish our capacity for critical thinking”; in other words, we reduce ourselves to “an unthinking automaton” (179). It is only by realizing our humanity that we return to consider ourselves as animals, or, better, we discover what our specific animality actually is and realize that our freedom does not depend on a condition of detachment from bodily experience: it is rather the intellectual and emotional understanding of our own and other species’ vulnerability. Such fulfillment of our dynamic essence implies a different attitude towards animal suffering, an attitude rooted in the same natural-historical process that produced animal oppression in the first place. As Llorente correctly writes (although speaking about Marx and Engels), critical theory points to “a transcendence of speciesism” (134). In order for such transcendence to take place, as Aaron Bell puts it in his “The Dialectic of Anthropocentrism”, we should renounce to our imaginary right to do whatever we want with other species, a kind of behavior that Bell equates with Hegel’s notion of “radical evil” (169). According to the Frankfurt School, the history of civilization is a historical and natural process at the same time, since it implies the possibility to overcome natural violence and establish a different world of relations between the species.
Maybe the only aspect in the work of the Frankfurt School that has not sufficiently taken into account in the book is the important role that Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse granted to “art” in putting static oppositions into question. Form and matter, reason and sensibility, knowledge and expression are all mediated and aufgehoben in the work of art. With the possible exclusion of Mendieta (153) and of Susan Benston (whose contribution to the book is a beautiful poem entitled “Neuroscience”), no attempt is made to pitch the intrinsic creativity of the aesthetic dimension against the totalitarian gaze of instrumental reason.
Speciesism as mode of production
The most promising thesis of the book is the following: Speciesism is not a question of mistaken “beliefs about the world” (as the liberals tend to argue), but rather a “mode of production”. This means that “the way we produce our lives is organized around the way we view and treat the other animals, and this is a historical process”. Speciesism, concludes Sanbomatsu, is therefore not a “fixed ideology”, some “unchanging essence”: it is rather a “complex, dynamic, expansive system that is materially and ideologically imbricated with capitalism as such” (21). Sanbomatsu himself tries to enucleate the role played by animal exploitation in the long process that led from Fordist to post-Fordist economy. For example, he observes how “the ready availability of meat in particular was a key ideological and cultural feature of the 1920s-1950s period, particularly in forming a new consuming subject” and shortly thereafter: “If the Fordist regime of accumulation required the construction of a new mass consumer whose desires could be standardized to fit the needs of manufacturers, the post-Fordist regime is interested in creating a fragmented market of savvy, educated consumers” (22-23). Accordingly, the ecological crisis obliges the animal industry “to develop new psychological and discursive frames”. It is in such socio-historical context that the phenomenon of “locavore” consumption becomes intelligible. The article by Vasile Stănescu (“Green” Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local”) makes clear with a detailed analysis how the “locavore” ideal is just another, subtle, strategy from the part of the meat producers to undermine the possible link between veganism and environmentalism.
Nevertheless, the point where the book probably comes closer to a proper economic analysis of the intersection between speciesism and capitalism is Dennis Soron’s essay on “road kills”. Apparently a minor case of animal abuse, road kills “now surpass hunting as the leading human cause of vertebrate mortality, accounting for over a million deaths per day in the United States alone” (58). Also, the modern road system is “the largest human object on earth”, leading our assault “upon biodiversity” (68). But it is not just the quantity of animals involved that make the case of road kills interesting (and worrying) for the animal advocate. As Soron acutely suggests, the way these animals are killed has a lot to do with the way late industrial capitalism organizes our lives. It is, in a deep and surprising sense, a thoroughly economic and political problem. The theoretical premise of Soron’s attempt is that commodity fetishism can be understood in a strict and in an expanded sense. Marx considered the commodity system as a way to veil the objective exploitation of the working class. According to Soron, what the consumer faces today is a system that obfuscates other kind of processes, too, like “colonial domination, environmental destruction, gender oppression, animal suffering” (57). I must admit, I don’t think such expansion of the concept of commodity fetishism is completely correct. Marx speaks of fetishism as a “socially necessary appearance”. This means that fetishism is a sort of illusion and reversion of reality that happens almost automatically by the law of the market and for both those who buy and sell their goods, while the oblivion of colonial domination, environmental destruction, gender oppression, animal suffering from the part of the consumer is more likely the effect of a lack of knowledge actively produced by the corporate interests. Anyway, I think that Soron’s analysis of road kill doesn’t need such premise and hits the point accurately and with interesting conclusions. Road kills not only modify the way “people in automobile-oriented environments apprehend animals in their everyday life” (59), it also tells a lot about the way “automobility itself is meshed with broader imperatives, driving production, consumption, and government policy” (61). A sound political and economical approach to the animal questions – like the one here attempted by Soron – requires to understand animal abuse not as “the consequence of individual moral failure, but the impersonal outcome of social and material structures that shape our collective patterns of habitation and mobility, as well as our relationships to the nonhuman world” (61). The car concentrates all the potentialities and irrational choices of modern capitalism, embodying its contradictions and moral failures. Once we look through its commodity appearance, the car strikes us as a “social hieroglyph”, a “potent totem” of contemporary world. “Although the car offers drivers a sense of self-motivated freedom, this freedom is collectively enabled, heavily dependent upon political decisions that shape land-use and transportation options, and upon the vast collective resources devoted to the automobile’s social and material infrastructure” (67).
It is in such essays that the book proves another of its important features, namely the possibility to give animal liberation an ecological twist. At least since Regan’s definition of deep ecology as a form of “green fascism”, the encounter between the green and the animal rights movements has been problematic. Ecology’s holistic approach which tends to dismiss individual animal suffering as irrelevant, and the strictly ethical perspective shared by many animal right activists which makes them underestimate the relevance of politics in achieving their goal, are condemned never to understand each other, unless a bridge between the twos is built. Critical Theory, as this book suggests, seems to be the answer to such dilemma. The argument is openly and accurately treated in Carl Boggs’ “Corporate Power, Ecological Crisis, and Animal Rights” which invokes “a new theoretical synthesis […] incorporating dynamic elements of Marxism, radical ecology, and animal rights” (95). Focusing on the concept of “meat addiction”, Boggs inspiringly alludes to the connections between our everyday life-style, the capitalist exploitation system and the global ecological crisis. Links that only an animal-rights-oriented look can actually see and coherently denounce. All ecology unconcerned with individual animal suffering is thus condemned to give only partial solutions (if any) to the global crisis it pretends to solve. Boggs’ description of the theoretical problems raised by social and deep ecology is convincing and confirms how the point of view of animal liberation is politically essential to avoid such shortcomings: “lacking a theory of rights or its equivalent, biospheric egualitarianism shades into a vague general orientation, leaving moral and political space for humans to continue their meat addictions and related activities” (93). Deep ecology has the tendency to shift to a “hopeless romantic myth”, a sort of “sacralization of nature” (94).
            The only way to get rid of the holistic confusion is to underline the specific destiny of individual animals caught in the machine of capitalist and scientific exploitation. As a matter of fact, genetically modified animals are the definitive proof that we exploit animals “at the level of ontology” (25). Here the Marxian concepts of “reification” and “commodity fetishism” do provide us with essential theoretical weapons. As Karen Davies shows in “Procustean Solutions to Animal Identity and Welfare Problems”, capitalism turns animals into machines, since they are subjected to “a continually manipulated adjustment of their bodies to fit the iron conditions of commerce” (36). Animals become objects because they are manipulated with no regard to their psychical and physical integrity. The “fact” that they behave like machines is a consequence of the way we actually treat them. Animals “are alienated from surrounding nature, from an external world that answers intelligibly to their inner world. […] They just have to be, in an excremental, existential void, until we kill them” (37). Davies denounces the ideology of researchers and philosopher who make intellectual efforts to demonstrate that the modifications we produce in the bodies of these animals make impossible for us to say that they “suffer” some sort of deprivation. Being born as mutilated creatures, animals develop according to our, not to their needs. They fit the machine and won’t care about possibilities they don’t even get the chance to have. Such abuse can even be mystified as a form of protection of the animals themselves. In the words of the defenders of such system, “brutal amputations can be made to sound sensible and even benignant” (42). “Forcing our psychic pattern on animals who fit the pattern only by being ‘stretched’ or ‘amputated’ to conform is the very essence of genocidal assault on nonhuman identity” (39). Davies called such forced adaptation by its name: “a form of interspecies rape” (44). The structural analysis of this violence shows similarities with human genocide and the psychological response from the part of the assassins is either self-victimization or denial of the abused committed: “the slave/animal doesn’t feel, doesn’t know, doesn’t care, is complicit, or isn’t even there. In the latter case the victim is configured as an illusion” (45). Davies supports empathic anthropomorphism as “a valid approach to understanding other species” (47). Anthropomorphism does take place, is a standard psychic and bodily procedure in trying to make the behavior of other species meaningful for us (just like we use our own self-experience to understand what other humans really think or do). The point is not to avoid projections, but to use all our rational and emotional responses to make them real and sound. As Davies properly observes, if animal advocates denounce the “suffering” of chicken and cows, they are easily attacked and ridiculed for “humanizing” them, while animal industry advocates can assure the public that chicken and cows are “happy” or “content” and still sound scientific and reasonable. In the final pages of her essay, Karen Davies deals with the problem of brain-dead animals, discussing Peter Singer’s position, according to which the production of a “brainless bird” would be “an ethical improvement” (51). Criticizing such position, Davies maintains that genetic engineering is not the solution to speciesism, but rather “and extension of the system and mentality that produced and produces such suffering in the first place”. It would then be wrong to even produce wingless birds, as some producer has suggested. According to Davies, “a bird’s wings are [not] mere physical, expendable appendages [but] an integral part not only of the body but of the very being of a bird” (52). If I got her argument right, she also points out that some kind of “ancestral memories” could be programmed in living animals at the level of DNA, making for researcher difficult to prove that a genetically modified “wingless bird” doesn’t perceive some kind of psychical or even physical loss. I feel that Davies’ critique of Singer is not conclusive. First of all, one could reply that what Singer means with “brainless bird” is distinctively different from the case discussed by Davies. If a truly “brainless” bird could be genetically produced – this, I believe, is Singer’s line of reasoning – then no moral criticism could be raised against its use. Singer’s point is not about a bird genetically modified to live without wings, rather a bird genetically modified to grow up without a brain, regardless for it having wings or not. If the moral status of animals depends on their capacity to suffer (as both Singer and Davies believe), it follows that there are two ways to avoid ethical concerns about their suffering: either we give up exploiting their bodies, or we create brainless bodies that can’t suffer. Both are ethically justified from the point of view of suffering and Karen Davies has not proposed an alternative moral view that could sustain her argument. I believe that Davies’ objection would have been more powerful if she had abandoned Singer’s and Regan’s “psychocentrism” and formulated her critiques in a more “continental” way. Rather than starting from our similarity with other animals, including them within the circle of moral solidarity according to their “humanoid” characteristics (a way to reduce their difference and assert the moral privilege of what makes us identical), she could have turned the argument upside-down: the very idea of morality, as Derrida and Levinas suggest, begins with the defense of Alterity as such. Thus, one could argue that our will to manipulate the Other according to our needs is wrong in itself, since it is a way to control and, in the last instance, annihilate diversity, the primary source of any meaningful moral action. Davies comes very close to such argument, since the refusal of not-identity (Adorno), or of différance (Derrida) is the very logic of genocide, as she intends it.
            The final part of the book is dedicated to the “Problems in praxis”. A fine article by John Sorenson describes the “ideological attacks on animal advocacy from Right and Left”. The central thesis here is that the communicative strategies from the opposite sides of the political fence do converge in describing animal advocates as “extremists” that fight against the right of “normal” people to do what they want to animals, and in dismissing moral concern about these, depicting it as a form of “hatred” against the human race (224). The book closes brilliantly with two feminist contributions: the first by Carol J. Adams, the second by Josephine Donovan. Both share the idea that “a new kind of society” should be based on “genuinely universal equality, justice, and caring” (276). Adams’s “After MacKinnon. Sexual Inequality in the Animal Movement” is a strong j’accuse against the blindness of those activists that refuse to acknowledge the intersection between “human dominance and animal subordination”, from one side, and “men’s dominance and women’s subordination” (257), from the other. The equation “manhood = humanhood” has the consequence of identifying the very essence of humanity with masculine rationalism (259). Since it never put such conclusion into question, the Animal Movement “bifurcates the human into ‘rational thinker’ and ‘emotional reactor’” and such hidden quid pro quo is at the heart of the “reasonability” of both Singer’s and Regan’s main works (261). As Donovan beautifully explains in her “Sympathy and Interspecies Care. Toward a Unified Theory of Eco- and Animal Liberation”, the very idea that morality can do without emotions “betrays a conception of emotion which construes it as irrational, uncontrollable, and eratic” (280). We should therefore look at those theorists (like Hume, Schopenhauer or Scheler) that put the “sense of sympathy” at the heart of morality, rather than dismiss “moral imagination” as irrational and unscientific.
The theoretical and practical conclusions to such feminist analyses are fully political. From the one hand, as Donovan writes, we must recognize that the “rights theory and the Kantian rationalist ethic were developed for an elite of white property-holding males” and we must therefore look for political alternatives to the narrow liberal framework that produced them (289). Secondly, according to Carol Adams, a feminist critique of power relations should implies a deep change not only in the way animal advocates understand speciesism as a part of a more complex system of exploitation and degradation of the other, but also in the way they relate with one another and with their own gender. The inability from the part of the animal right movement to see the intersection between animal and women exploitation explains why PETA can be so blind in his thoughtless misuse of pornography, and why a great part of the movement does not takes the necessary measures to undermine sexual inequality in its own group-dynamics (271).
Criticism
If criticism might be raised to this powerful book is the absence of a real engagement with the Marxist analysis of society, a failure that must be explained with a somewhat unjust treatment of Marx. Since the introduction, Sanbonmatsu makes clear that the general leftist attitude of the book doesn’t mean the authors forget the hostility of the Left to animal rights. According to the editor, such hostility is rooted in the “ambivalence and tensions at the heart of the humanist and Enlightenment traditions from which it sprang” (14). Several essays in this book seem to suggest that the role played by Karl Marx in the history of Socialism was decisive for preventing a rather natural evolution of it towards animal rights, ecology and feminism (16). The problem with the Left, as Llorente puts it, are “the views of Marx and Engels themselves” (125). But the whole perspective of the book seems to rely on a theoretical critique of Marx. One of the beloved quotes throughout the book is Ted Benton’s argument according to which Marx believed that – “wage labor effectively reduces human beings […] to the status of animals” (17). Benton derives from such Marxian belief a whole set of mistakes that made impossible for Marx and Engels to even perceive the problem of animal suffering. It is this kind of “fraudulent ontology” that prevented Marx and his scholars to “identify our own true emancipatory interests, let alone those of the other conscious beings” (19). A point also made by Boggs, who denounces the positivist, scientistic and productivist side of Marxism (88) and even affirms that animal suffering is “untheorizable” within a socialist tradition (90).
It is sad to see Rosa Luxemburg and Herbert Marcuse included in the list of those Marxists unconcerned with the exploitation of nature. True, Borg admits that Marcuse has partially tried to avoid the standard productivist approach of Marxism (in my opinion he avoided it at all, being often accused of utopian primitivism by both “orthodox” communists and conservatives), but the case of Rosa Luxemburg is even more irritating. How can someone who read Rosa’s letters from prisons – her tiers about the killing of birds and her famous cry against the mistreatment of a bull by a soldier – agree that all Marxist only dedicated “occasional abstract discussions” to the question of nature? (89)
Although many contributors to the volume assure that Marxist “class analysis and anti-capitalist theory” remains indispensable “to forging anti-system movements against transnational corporate power” (95), the book doesn’t answer the question if and how Marx’ thought can be merged with animal liberation. The final impression one receives from the reading, is that a key problem has not been really discussed. If Marx’ speciesist ontology, as displayed in the Manuscripts, is at the heart of his theoretical critique of capitalism, then we must abandon them altogether. If not, then we can accept his critique of capitalism as it is and abandon the works of the young Marx “to the criticism of mice” (as Marx and Engels actually did). My personal opinion is that the task we’re facing is more complex and difficult than this.
First of all, I don’t believe there is a speciesist ontology, even less a speciesist ethics, in Marx at all. Although historically important for the development of a socialist-oriented animal liberation perspective, I think Benton’s critique of the Manuscripts is unilateral. Even if the young Marx is proven to be a speciesist, from this it does not follow that the old Marx is, neither that Capital is a speciesist work in itself. Although I don’t fully endorse Althusser’s distinction between the two phases of Marx’ thought, the theoretical link between the Manuscripts and Capital doesn’t seem to me sufficiently evident here (are we really sure that “estrangement” is a “central concept” to Marx’s thought, as Llorente maintains? 126), nor has it been explained since the publication of Benton’s essay in 1988, although it has been often repeated as a “fact”. Moreover, I wouldn’t agree that Benton has proved the young Marx to be a speciesist either. The often cited quote about the “humanization of nature” totally forgets what Marx writes in the same text: “communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man” (104). When Benton writes that such sentence is “clearly incompatible” with other assertions made by Marx on nature, he seems to obliterate all the dialectical tension in it (not so Mendieta: 153). I am not saying there aren’t speciesist elements in Marx here, but surely they have not been cleared by Benton’s critiques. Even the famous description of wage labor alienation in terms of regression to “animality” is questionable: there are loci in Marx where such regression sounds purely metaphorical and where Marx affirms that capitalism takes man to a condition inferior than that of animals! After all, it is really hard to believe that the authors of the Holy Family and the Dialecitcs of Nature had not seen the idealistic consequences of the “conceptual oppositions nature/culture, animal/human, and body/mind” (106). It is true that Marx and Engels didn’t personally care about animals, but this does not follow from their “ontology” or “ethics” – concepts that their theory puts into question – rather, from the fact that they focused on capitalism: a mode of production characterized by a specific form of relation between humans. It is true that such exclusive interest prevented them to fully understand the suffering of nonhuman animals (and its role in the creation of power relations in general), but it also enabled them to understand the human mechanism at the heart of capitalist exploitation in a way other more “humane” and less cynical socialists had not done before.
Secondly, and accordingly, I think the animal liberation movement should make use of Marx’ analysis of capital in order to understand the contemporary world. But since the entanglement of human and nonhuman oppressions is more vast and deep than it appears in capitalism, we must take Marx’ project even further, if we want to understand how human and nonhuman exploitation really works. In a word, we need to modify Marx’ theory of capital deeply and at length in order to use it for our purpose.
The strategy followed by leftist animal advocates has always been to apply Marx’s description of human alienation to nonhuman animals (let’s think of the outstanding work made by Barbara Noske). From this necessary follows that “the most noteworthy difference between the cases of exploited workers and exploited animals surely lies in the degree of exploitation”, as Llorente put it (128). But this is clearly wrong. Animals are exploited to death, their death, i.e. the total consumption of their body, is planned since the beginning of the working process. Workers, on the contrary, are there for their labor-force to be extracted and valorized by capital. If they die the extraction of surplus-value can’t be accomplished. This makes the whole difference and prevents any direct parallel between the two cases. At the same time, this points to the direction where leftist are suppose to search in order to find a true analogy between human and nonhuman exploitation: the production of value. This takes us to the problem of domestication and the shift of human society to a Neolithic culture.
Although the importance of a political and economic understanding of speciesism is often invoked in this book, the material role played by animals in the construction of power and property relations is often obfuscated by the general reference to speciesism as “ideology”, as a “narrative of superiority” (12) etc. Surely, Sanbonmatsu underlines “the original or most primitive form of value accumulation in human culture” but only to show its “endless technical adaptation and variation” (24). In order to attack the liberal discourse – where specisism resembles an “ancient idea” that we should fight – Sanbonmatsu stresses the importance to trace the link between our traditional mistreatment of animals and “the most advanced forms of finance capital” (25). Sanbonmatsu’s worries are understandable, since it is the “power of the neoliberal state” that makes our current abuse of animal lives quantitatively and qualitatively unprecedented. Yet, it is a pity that no attempt has been made to investigate the phenomenon of speciesist value accumulation in terms of historical materialism. The only point where the book comes close to such materialistic reading is Victoria Johnson’s “Everyday Rituals of the Mater Race”, where she talks of how the Neolithic revolution paved the way to class systems and human oppression (206). Yet, Johnson immediately focuses on an anthropological description of such activities in terms of “rituals” – i.e. the “symbolic expressive dimension of social action” – and she, too, ends up talking about the “discourse” that justifies the subordination of vulnerable groups (208).
It is possible that a vigorous (and political) foundation of veganism as praxis might come from seeing it as a critique of domestication, rather than as an ethical “life-style” (implying less cruelty or even “a redistribution of global resources”, 214). Understanding the historical nexus between domestication and the birth of property relations and the state, i.e. tracing back the history of class-societies to the enslavement of nonhuman nature, could help us to couple Marx’ structural analysis of capital, with a critical description of its genesis. Such move would make it easier for us to talk of the political essence of speciesism in itself, while today we limit ourselves to denounce its ecological and ideological consequences. If we really want to show that the link between capitalism and speciesism is an objective one, pushing the Left to accept our alternative view of animal relations as the only possible ground for truly radical politics, we probably need to develop a whole critical theory of society in the original vein of the Frankfurt School. This would imply taking up the project of the Dialectics of Enlightenment and supersede its fragmentary status (or, at least, explaining the specific position of animals in its general theory of domination on nature). If such a huge task will ever be accomplished, this book would surely be remembered as the milestone that put us on the right track.
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