Thursday, 19 June 2014

Dead Hypocrisy.

Jeanette Winterson recently set off a whirlwind of fuss on Twitter. The author had trapped a rabbit and what followed set off the standard Twitter hate mob. After trapping the fluffy creature Winterson prepared it for cooking, skinning it, then feeding its entrails to her cat; the shots of which she then tweeted to the horror of bewildered twits. Apparently, farmed meat and industrially produced meat is superior somehow to freely hunted and slaughtered animal flesh. It would seem hypocrites don't just come in herds anymore, they now operate with greater convenience by iPhone.

The flowering displays of abstract moralism here should draw the suspicion of anyone concerned with animal rights. It's a lot like the so-called debate on halal meat in the UK, which is routinely instigated by the right-wing press. Only vegetarians and vegans can pass judgment, not the befuddled consumer base of Subway's quaking at the possibilities of "creeping Shariah". It's as if millions of people believe cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens, are all stupendously pampered - well fed on a healthy diet and well treated in open fields - before being painlessly dispatched. Maybe a portion of them believe cans of tuna grow on trees cultivated by the well meaning people of Cornwall. If only it weren't for troublesome minorities and writers spoiling our paradise.

Actually, it is probably the case that the outpouring of anger towards Winterson comes down to the fact that the photographs she uploaded remind people of what we take part in on a much larger scale. I'm sure that at some level the same can be said of the hysteria around halal. The industrial system of meat production can hardly be deemed humane and ought not to be taken as a significant advance upon the dietary practices of desert monotheisms. Yet it is the presupposition of most of the criticism led by a cynical media campaign that it is Islam which is backward (and not just in this instance). The lack of any moral highground for the meat industry cannot be stressed more. Except perhaps in cases where the suffering of animals makes us feel we should do anything.

Reformism is the default position for those in search of convenient redemption through moralism. We may eat meat, but at least the animal is properly stunned first before it is killed and dismembered. Instead of falling into this, we should keep in mind our own choices as omnivores and ask questions about the motivations behind the media campaign against halal. As for the political contours of animal rights we ought to look critically at the mechanised production system that keeps us well fed. There was a thought provoking piece by Jon Hochschartner in CounterPunch last week in which he articulates a Marxist theory of animalism. He puts forward an adaptation of the Marxist labour theory of value and extends it to non-human animals.

Domesticated animals, like slaves, are distinct from proletarians in that they do not sell their labor power under the pretense of free choice. Rather, they themselves are commodities. Their labor power is sold all at once, unlike proletarians’ whose labor power is sold in increments. “The slave did not sell his labour-power to the slave-owner, any more than the ox sells his labour to the farmer,” Karl Marx said. “The slave, together with his labour-power, was sold to his owner once for all. He is a commodity that can pass from the hand of one owner to that of another. He himself is a commodity, but his labour-power is not his commodity.”

In Hochschartner's argument emphasises the difference, as well as the common ground, between the human worker and the non-human animals found in the food production system. The proletarian produces their own livelihood in necessary labour, after which comes the surplus labour spent toiling without remuneration creates the profits of the capitalist enterprise. By contrast, Hochschartner notes "When an animal exploiter purchases a non-human, he is not only purchasing the animal herself, but a lifetime of her labor power, which is used to create commodities that include - among others - her offspring, her secretions, and her own flesh." The degree to which the non-human animal is owned goes far further than the way in which human beings rent themselves out for wages.

The need to increase profits to higher and higher levels forces the capitalists to take one of two options. As Hochschartner argues, absolute surplus value is obtained by increasing the amount of labour time devoted by each worker while relative suprlus value is maintained by lowering the amount of work involved in necessary labour proportional to the work dedicated to surplus labour. He claims that the surplus labour of non-human animals can be divided in the same way and he has examples to support this assertion. The amount of time a horse spends pulling a carriage can be extended to raise absolute surplus value. Likewise, the factory farming of chickens lowers the costs of production substantially thereby increasing relative surplus value per chicken.

In the same way that the question of animal rights has to be understood in qualified terms, to be specific, as rights not identical to those enjoyed by human animals. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, rights partly come down to responsibilities and non-human animals cannot be endowed with the same rights as humans for they do not have the capacity for responsibility in the same way we do. Dogs and pigs can't commit crimes for this reason. Yet we would extend rights to infants who similarly lack responsibilities and, in that regard, we might have to own up to a modestly necessary anthropocentrism. So when it comes to animal liberation Hochschartner is wise to clarify the distinction from human emancipation.

Of course, what constitutes liberation for slaves or proletarians is different than what constitutes liberation for domesticated animals. Whereas the ultimate economic goal for human laborers is social control of the means of production, domesticated animals, were they able, would presumably not want to seize, say, a factory farm and run it for themselves. They would want to be removed from the production process entirely.

It is certain that there is a moral case for vegetarianism, but it is also clear from all of this that the limits of consumer ethics are hard to overcome. It's not just an issue of demand, it's supply as well. Most people will find it hard to give up meat as long as it is readily available to them in shops cheaply. Many of us (including myself) make choices every day which have negative consequences in ecological and economic terms. The consumption of meat makes such a contribution, just as the use of products tested on non-human animals does. Unless we become vegetarians and vegans overnight we can hardly pass moral judgment on people like Jeanette Winterson. Likewise, we should pause for thought and reflect on our own behaviour before accepting the claims of a smear campaign against Muslims and Jews.

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