Beasts of Burden: Capitalism - Animals - Communism



Beasts of Burden: Capitalism - Animals - Communism
Published by Antagonism Press, c/o BM Makhno, London WC1N 3XX, UK
Paperback / 32pp / Free / No ISBN

Whether you liked the music or not, the anarcho-punk scene was undoubtedly a major force in the radical politics and culture of the 1980s. It helped to revive the largely moribund anti-nuclear and anarchist movements, triggered an upsurge in militant animal liberation, and played a role in industrial disputes like the miners' strike and Wapping, as well as in the resistance to the poll tax. Its influence can still be felt today (and not just in increased sales of smack and super strong lager), for instance in the way it has contributed to the emergence of Earth First! and ecological struggles throughout the 1990s.


Of course, like every self-respecting movement, it also experienced bitter schisms, most notably when many turned their backs on animal liberation and similar 'lifestylist' concerns, opting instead for the heady world of traditional class struggle politics. While Beasts of Burden (BoB) is mainly addressed to these people and seeks to repair the rift by making the communist case for animals (Red in Tooth and Claw) - it is of more than just historical interest or as an exercise in movement marriage guidance counselling. Philosophically speaking, to attempt to reunite such seemingly disparate perspectives (à la the old chant "Human freedom, animal rights - One struggle, one fight") has to be welcomed. But it has more direct practical relevance than that. In the 'PostScript: Anarcho-punk, the ALF and the miners' strike - a cautionary tale from the 1980s', the authors warn that for the "numbers of anti-roads protesters adopting or moving towards communist positions", this theoretical development "can be a step forward, but not if it means abandoning what is already subversive in your activity" - as it often did with our punky predecessors. Putting away 'childish' things to self-consciously prepare for the serious business of Revolution? With such political specialism comes the danger, as Uncle Raoul once pointed out, of losing sight of "what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints"...

However, this tale is just a PostScript - the bulk of BoB revolves around defining many struggles against animal exploitation as "an expression of the communist movement" and as "a starting point for a fundamental questioning of the way we live our lives". While there may be truth in both descriptions - more, I suspect, to the latter - regrettably a number of its arguments in support of this premise aren't completely convincing.

Much of it consists of a whistlestop tour through the anthropological record, from pre-history to the present day, and highlights the extent to which our social forms have been intertwined with the use of animals - particularly with the production and consumption of meat. (In this context it is worth noting that the words 'capital', 'chattel' and 'cattle' share the same root.[1]) BoB effectively demonstrates how "the animal industry was the starting motor of primitive accumulation" - primitive accumulation being the embryonic stage of capitalism around the world, the means by which control of the means of production (i.e. the land) is wrested from the 'producer' by trailblazing capitalists with hordes of livestock.

The treatment of animals seems to have served as a template for more recent capitalist innovations as well. Apparently Henry Ford (the Great Satan himself) admitted that "the idea for the automobile assembly line 'came in a general way from the overhead trolley that the Chicago packers used in dressing beef.'" In this sense animals are a testing ground for cutting edge capitalism; topically, in relation to advances in biotechnology and the current furore over whether manipulative techniques already applied to animals should be applied to humanity.

But the further you go back with this sort of historical investigation, the more tenuous it becomes. I am always uncomfortable with glib assertions as to the practices of ancient, primitive societies. I think BoB is probably right when it says that such societies viewed animals not "as commodities, but... with a mixture of awe, wonder, respect and fear. Instead of being seen as subordinate species, they are seen as separate beings sharing the world with humans" - but no evidence is cited for this. Aside from wish fulfilment, how do - or can - we know, especially when dealing with almost exclusively oral cultures? How can we divine what occured thousands of years ago, on the strength of usually quite scanty archaeological remains - when frequently we cannot even agree on the meaning of what happened 200 years ago (or two weeks ago, for that matter!) Being uncharitable, it is akin to using a wet match to cast light on a bottomless pit (in a gale force wind!)

While it does say that "we should avoid ascribing to agriculture the role of 'original sin,'" BoB also states that "relations between humans and other animals, and between humans themselves, were radically transformed by the development of agriculture." To this extent they shadow John Zerzan and his perceived need to go ever further back, in order that we might locate the source of our 'fall from grace' and of all our earthly ills. Broadly speaking, BoB identifies the tribes of primitive communism with a minimum of meat consumption (and therefore 'good'). Conversely, capitalism and its civilising forebears are associated with an ever increasing level of domestication and exploitation of animals and plants, and are therefore 'bad'. From this initial domestication ultimately flowed states, classes, cities, work, private property, patriarchy, and all those other things so dear to our hearts (even though it does acknowledge that "some form of agriculture existed for thousands of years without particularly radical social change.")

In some ways I feel that BoB caricatures these 'primitive' cultures: "People only take what they need from nature, and where animals are hunted it is on a limited basis." Firstly, as far as we know, many tribal peoples 'managed' nature quite extensively. Native Americans burned the forests and prairies. Australian aborigines practised 'firestick farming' too, with the result that "it has been argued that the ecology of Australia is the single greatest human artifact."[2] Much of that archetypal forested wilderness the Amazon "may very well reflect the intercessions of man ... [the Kayapo Indians] have collected germ plasm over a region roughly the size of Western Europe and planted it in areas of interest to them. They place plants along trekking trails [motorway service stations!], in forest gaps, in camping sites, in favoured hunting areas, and near gardens. These produce "resource islands," areas of useful plants not necessarily located close to the village but important to the larger human community and regional ecology. These fruit and food plants also serve to attract and maintain populations of wild animals, a highly prized food source for the Kayapo."[3 ]Animals can also actively manipulate their environment (or 'reproduce their world', as Marx might have said). It's not just my special phat-tailed friends, the beavers; ants 'milk' aphids and 'farm' fungus - and then there's the amazing 'alligator ponds' of the Florida Everglades. Created by the alligators, they are often the only oases left in the dry season, a vital lifeline at the most inhospitable time of the year - which means that they lure vast numbers of birds and other animals and thus furnish the alligators with an extremely well-stocked larder - similar to the 'game gardens' of the Kayapo and others. Are these ants and alligators then capitalists in waiting, and their eradication part of any truly revolutionary project?

Secondly, to claim that animals are only hunted on a limited basis in primitive communism seems to fly in the face of the available evidence. What about the horrific mass extinctions of species seen in North and South America, Australia, Madagascar, New Zealand and Hawaii? Some attribute this to climate change, but it seems strangely coincidental that these extinction waves should flare up in different places at different times, shortly after humans appear on the scene.[4]

Having established that capitalism is rooted in animal abuse, BoB examines the extent to which modern-day capitalism still depends on such abuse - responding to those critics who maintain that since "capital has no imperative to exploit animals... opposition to animal exploitation offers no threat to capitalism." While "a consistently 'cruelty free' capitalism" is indeed extremely unlikely, this does not automatically mean that animals remain indispensible to the continued functioning of capitalism, and that without them the whole minging edifice would collapse. I feel that (without diminishing its value) animal liberation poses a threat only to certain specific sectors of the economy - and, as BoB points out, "Capitalism based on social relations mediated by property and money. As long as these relations exist, capitalism will reproduce itself, regardless of the fate of any particular company." Our masters don't particularly care what they sell (be it bullocks or binary code), as long as it sells. It is not so much the specific content of a commodity that is important, but the form itself, and the value that a particular commodity yields at a particular time. BoB's account of primitive accumulation includes Marx's comment that "it was 'the rise in the price of wool' which made it profitable to transform 'arable land into sheepwalks,'" thereby dispossessing peasant farmers. The point is not that they had been evicted to make way for the animal industry per se, but for an immediately more profitable land use. Likewise, Marx is also quoted as saying that "under slavery... the worker is distinguishable only as 'instrumentum vocale' [speaking implement] from an animal, which is 'instrumentum semi-vocale' [semi-mute implement], and from a lifeless implement, which is 'instrumentum mutum' [mute instrument]". It is not that the worker is viewed as an animal, but that both are viewed as instruments, or commodities. As BoB points out, "The basis of working class concern about animals is... empathy arising from a shared condition as beasts of burden".

[PULLQUOTE] "The basis of working class concern about animals is... empathy arising from a shared condition as beasts of burden".

Individual sectors of capitalism wax and wane over time in terms of their strategic importance to the whole - all commodities are equal, but some are more equal than others. With the significant exception of biotechnology, agriculture and animal businesses have the feel of a peripheral backwater, 'sunset industries', not really where the action is - in the 'developed' nations, at least. All eyes are presently fixed upon the virtual, and if you listened to the delirious cheerleaders of the "Information Revolution," you could be forgiven for thinking that we'd achieved 'lift-off' from fundamental material needs such as food, shelter, warmth, etc. (Blair's favourite pundit Charles Leadbeater calls it "living on thin air"), and that these needs were in some way 'passe'. Foolish as this may be, it does reflect something substantial: our rulers' best hopes for the future of capitalism. As such it may currently be the most important arena - the new linchpin - in which to contest that future (just don't ask me how!)

Although I'm not about to start a campaign for vegetable rights, it is noticeable that BoB focuses overwhelmingly on the plight of animals. Although practically it is impossible to separate out the two (e.g. plants are cultivated as animal feed, animal habitat is destroyed for arable farming), questions to do with plants, habitat and an ecological sensibility rarely rear their awkward heads. In this respect, it suffers from the (curiously anthropocentric?) blind spot of much animal rights thinking - the hierarchy of compassion, moving down from primates and other mammals, based on a creature's proximity to us, whether it has a recognisable face and eyes, and so on. (So respect is due to the Crustacean Liberation Front!) This has the unfortunate effect of excluding plants, as well as invertebrates (and thus the great mass of the natural world) from consideration. As a fully paid-up houmous junkie myself, I'm reluctant to raise the old vegan-baiting question of soya, but... the fact that the brilliant bean is currently laying waste to Amazonia suggests a dire need for a critique of farming and land use/distribution that encompasses more than just the presence of animals.[5]

BoB talks of the rebels and revolutionaries throughout history "who have fought for their own liberation and that of other human beings whilst also denouncing the abuse of animals." It also quotes Do or Die No.5's comment that "the fact that people are moved to confront the state by the suffering of animals at least gives us hope that... [they] are not completely alienated". I'm not so sure - I think animal rights can spring from an understandable, quite profound disillusionment with humanity, even from misanthropy (speaking as an ex(?)misanthrope). Similarly, "denouncing the abuse of animals" need not always lead people to fight "for their own liberation and that of other[s]" (I am reminded of the campaign to free caged prison birds - often the prisoners' only comfort - while leaving the prisoners incarcerated.)

To put the pessimistic spin on it, people are so atomised that some can only be moved to outrage at another species' misfortunes, in a kind of abdication of the messy human sphere for the less troublesome 'natural' world. (This can apply as much to ecological struggles.) It's a form of transference: like the 'unborn child', animals are innocent or blameless paragons (more 'acted upon' than 'acting'), whereas humanity is irredeemably tainted - or at least deeply ambivalent. Therefore they can serve very well as a repository onto which we project our ideals and discontents. This may, in part, explain the amazingly broad spectrum of people on animal rights demos - the bizarre (and positive) spectacle of blue-rinse 'ALF grannies' mixing happily with 'green-rinse' spiky top anarchos. It may also explain the reactionary streak in animal rights (sometimes expressed as anti-abortion, opposition to halal meat, etc.), with slime such as John Aspinall, Alan Clarke and - I'm sorry to say - Brigitte Bardot. I suspect that opposition to animal abuse can quite comfortably remain as a 'single issue' (albeit a very vehement one) - indeed that for some its appeal is that it doesn't confront them with too many difficult questions about themselves, humanity and the way the world is organised. (Hence foul animal abuse is frequently explained in terms of 'moral failures' on the part of the abusers, such as sadism, being an inbred bumpkin, or as resulting from a nebulous 'greed'.) The Lynx anti-fur campaign, for instance, was popular partly because it's easy to renounce a commodity you're never likely to make use of anyway.

[PULLQUOTE] Opposition to animal abuse can quite comfortably remain as a ‘single issue’ (albeit a very vehement one)—indeed for some its appeal is that it doesn’t confront them with too many dif½cult questions about themselves, humanity and the way the world is organised.

So, might we make our way back to concern for humanity via concern for animals? I'm not totally convinced.

On a more positive note, BoB is right to say that the act of liberating animals from farms and laboratories "directly confronts the logic of capital, abolishing their status as products, commodities and raw materials by reinstating them as living beings outside of the system of production and exchange."[6] By uncovering the torment that lies behind one category of product, and beginning to appreciate ways in which animal exploitation intersects with other underpinning interests, campaigners may then begin to revolt against 'products' more generally. What the McLibel campaign did with the image of Ronald McDonald's face quite literally unmasked the machinery behind the commodity in this way. Likewise, the activity of hunt sabs challenges the control exercised by the rural elite over the countryside, as well as developing valuable practical techniques that can be utilised in other situations. Finally, BoB argues that the experiences of the 1995 movement against live exports "posed fundamental questions for those involved about the role of the state". I remember one pillar of the community Neighbourhood Watch type in Shoreham who returned medals he had received from the police in disgust at their behaviour on his doorstep.

All of this is 'praxis': learning through doing, the School of Hard Knocks - or "Animating Liberals", as the saying used to go. However, could such praxis not result from practically any struggle? Refusing the commodity, property rights and the state all seem to be outcomes of the process, or form, of the struggle, rather than of its specific content: the treatment of animals. Are animals incidental to the wider social insights to be gained from animal liberation?

Beasts of Burden is a very stimulating and worthwhile publication. Unfortunately at the end of it I am left with the conclusion that animal liberation needs communism more than communism needs animal liberation. But does this really matter anyway? Essentially, animal liberation is founded upon forgotten empathy for other beings, the natural impulse towards solidarity - and that in itself is worth fighting for.


1) See the entries for 'Cattle' and 'Chattel' in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Volume I (1965).

2) 'The Question of Agriculture' in Fifth Estate, Spring 1989, p.36. See also Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers - How Agriculture Really Began by Colin Tudge (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), pp.13-14.

3) The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon by Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn (Verso, 1989), p.29 - see also p.38.

4) Colin Tudge, pp.21-24. See also In Search of the Noble Savage, Transcript of BBC Horizon programme 27/1/92, pp.5-8.

5) E.g. see 'Seeds of Doom' by Sue Branford and Nicole Freris, The Guardian, 19/4/00.

6) ...And that, innit.


This site has been created as a permanent archive of Do or Die magazine. It is not maintained by the erstwhile editors of Do or Die so please do not try to contact them through us. The original Do or Die site, which has not been updated for over 7 years, is currently still available though all content from the old site is also available here.