While animal advocates call for the humane treatment of animals, animal liberationists insist that the only way to stop animal suffering is to grant them equal rights with human beings. In practice, this demand undermines efforts to create a society that will protect people and animals.
Humanity and Nature
Animal liberationists argue that cruelty towards animals and destruction of the environment arise from the human domination of nature. They point to prehistoric societies where people supposedly lived in harmony with nature. However, harmony between the human and non-human world is possible only in a mythical Garden of Eden, where God provides and people do not have to wrestle their survival from nature.
In the real world, there is no lasting balance or harmony. All species struggle to survive. There is violence, turbulence, and change. Periods of mass extinction are punctuated with periods of species proliferation. Continents rise from the sea and are later submerged. Suns explode. Galaxies implode. Order dissolves into chaos, and out of chaos new order emerges. All things come into being and pass away.
Human history is rooted in our struggle to control the world around us in order to secure food, shelter, and clothing, and to manage our fertility, mend bones, heal wounds, combat disease, and avoid premature death.
Pre-class societies took from nature what they needed – cutting forests, domesticating animals, and genetically altering other species through selective breeding. They treated the non-human world as a life-giving force, taking only what they needed and wasting nothing. For several hundred-thousand years, everyone lived this way.
About 10,000 years ago, class divisions appeared. Feudal rulers proclaimed their divine right to take the biggest and best of what nature and human effort had to offer. Responsibility for the natural world was subordinated to the greed of the elite. The development of capitalism, just a few hundred years ago, forced an even greater change.
Before capitalism, ruling families consumed the surplus. Capitalism shifted the goal of production from consumption to accumulation, fundamentally changing the way people relate to each other and the world around them.
Human beings have always used nature to meet their needs. Capitalism does this with no regard for the consequences.
Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the human and non-human world. While there is a limit to how much surplus can be consumed, there is no limit to how much capital can be accumulated.
All capitalists must compete to accumulate more profit or capital than their competitors. Those who fall behind go under. Even giant corporations like Microsoft must stay competitive in order to remain in business.
Because capitalists must compete or die, nothing matters more than “accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production,” not even the continued existence of life on Earth. In that sense, the pursuit of profit is mindless.
To justify profit madness, ancient customs and traditions were swept away. In the 17th century, René Descartes declared that people had souls, while animals were merely things. Descartes considered the cry of an animal in pain to be no more significant than the squeak of a cog in a machine. Descartes’ artificial divide between the human and non-human world violates Darwin’s finding that the species best able to survive are those best suited to their environment.
Capitalism also divided humanity into a hierarchy of ‘races’ with some groups designated as superior and others as sub-human. Racism was (and continues to be) used to justify colonial domination, Indigenous genocide, and the slave trade. The barbaric treatment of Indigenous peoples and African slaves rivals the most brutal examples of animal abuse. As recently as 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Black slaves were property, not people. Racism continues to justify imperial wars, the mass incarceration of poor people of color, and the systemic thievery that deprives billions of life’s necessities.
Capitalist exploitation is immensely destructive to the human and the non-human world. Workers are used up and thrown away. Nature is pillaged for raw materials on the one end and used as a bottomless toilet at the other end. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how disregard for people, animals, and the environment go hand-in-hand. The only reason that people are not also slaughtered for profit by the food industry is that, unlike animals, we can organize in self-defense.
In 1970, Richard D. Ryder coined the phrase “speciesism” to describe the practice of favoring or assigning greater value to one species over another. A speciesist is someone who places human needs above the needs of other species.
Animal liberationists reject speciesism by insisting that animals be given the same consideration as human beings, that is, they should not be regarded as property or treated as resources for human purposes (food, clothing, labor, scientific research, etc.), but should instead be regarded as legal persons and members of society with equal rights. There are serious problems with this stance.
Animals do not recognize the rights of other animals. They kill and eat each other from necessity. The right of one animal to dinner interferes with the right of another animal to live. To survive, every species must place its needs above those of other species. We eat plants and animals. We do not allow them to eat us.
Medicine assumes that human life has supreme value. When someone is stricken with pneumonia, we try to kill the invading microorganism. We do not grant the HIV virus the same right to live as a human being. Our survival demands that we value human life over non-human life. That does not mean that animals must be treated cruelly. However, it does mean that they cannot have equal rights.
Animal liberationists view the struggle for animal rights as an extension of the fight for human rights. However, human rights are never bestowed by the oppressor. The rights of workers, women, minorities, etc, have been won only by people fighting on their own behalf, creating their own history. As Frederick Douglass pointed out,
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The concept of human rights originated with the French Revolution (1789-1799), when the rising capitalist class appealed to the masses to help them depose the feudal aristocracy. After the dust settled, it became clear that ‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’ meant the right of capitalists to exploit workers and peasants. The American people suffered a similar bait-and-switch. After vanquishing their British colonial masters, they discovered that “all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” applied only to White male property owners.
Human rights exist within a class context. The rights of slave-owners conflict with the rights of slaves, the rights of employers conflict with the rights of workers, and the right of fascists to free speech conflicts with the right of their targets to stay alive. Therefore, we must choose what is right, who has rights (and who does not), and how people and animals will be treated.
Because animals cannot organize on their own behalf, animal liberationists organize for them. As Steve Rose observes,
“It is not the animals who are demanding rights, but the humans who are conferring rights upon the animals. This argument is not about the rights of animals but about the duties of human beings.”
Freeing animals from human control would be disastrous. Domesticated animals cannot survive on their own, and people who rely on animals for food would starve.
The only way to free nature from human control is to eliminate humanity. While some people argue that human extinction is the only way to save the planet, such despair cannot take us forward.
What we can do is liberate human beings and animals from capitalist exploitation.
Science is the sum of all human knowledge, skill, and experience. Capitalism perverts human know-how to such an extent that some reject science altogether. However, all human societies, including those of ancient hunters and gatherers, are based on science, on our need to understand the world in which we live.
The problem is not science, but how capitalism uses science to benefit a powerful elite at the expense of everyone and everything else. More than 95 percent of all science funding is dedicated to military and corporate (for-profit) research.
An example of unnecessary research is the way that military surgeons are trained to operate in Afghanistan. A pig is seriously wounded and the surgeon is required to resuscitate it. Once the animal’s condition is stabilized, it is repeatedly wounded until the surgeon can no longer keep it alive. Wounded soldiers will undoubtedly benefit. However, the wounding of soldiers and pigs is based on the assumption that the war must continue. In fact, most people oppose the war. In a genuine democracy, the war would end immediately, along with the torturing of pigs.
In response to the horrible conditions imposed on some research animals, animal liberationists condemn all animal research. The demand to end all animal testing is irresponsible.
Some medical experiments can be done on animal cells and tissues. Other research, like developing human vaccines, requires live animal testing at some stage. If we want new medicines, then we must test them on animals or we must test them on people. Thalidomide is a drug that was not subjected to enough animal testing, with catastrophic results for thousands of children born with gross deformities. The only country that ever banned animal experiments completely was Nazi Germany during the 1930s. They experimented on people instead.
HIV/AIDS has infected more than 33 million people. Every year, more than 2 million die of the disease and 2.5 million are newly infected. If we want an HIV/AIDS vaccine, then we must experiment on primates. Stopping this research would condemn millions more people to death – unless we decided not to create a vaccine and give everyone anti-retroviral drugs instead. That could be just as effective. However, this option cannot be implemented under capitalism, because the right of drug companies to make a profit conflicts with the right of people to life-saving medicines.
The question of animal testing obscures a more important question. Who decides the goals and priorities of society and science?
The pursuit of profit generates countless unsafe products and barbaric practices. In a genuine democracy, we could choose to eliminate toxic products, improving our own health and reducing the need for animal testing. However, capitalism deprives the majority of the right to decide such matters. Instead of demanding a halt to animal testing, we should demand a halt to capitalism, so that animal testing can be reserved for truly necessary research and conducted as humanely as possible.
Food animals and food workers
People can slaughter and eat animals without being cruel to them. Animals could be raised with kindness and provided with better, longer lives than they would have in the wild. This could be a mutually beneficial relationship; we feed them, and they feed us.
The capitalist food industry is completely different – a source of immense cruelty towards animals and workers. While animal liberationists condemn how food animals are reared and slaughtered, they ignore the plight of food workers.
Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, outraged America by exposing barbaric conditions in the meatpacking industry. Over the following decades, labor unions fought and won better working conditions, wages and benefits. These improvements were short-lived. In “The Chain Never Stops” (Mother Jones, July/August 2001) Eric Schlosser explains,
“Starting in the early 1960s, a company called Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) began to revolutionize the industry, opening plants in rural areas far from union strongholds, recruiting immigrant workers from Mexico, introducing a new division of labor that eliminated the need for skilled butchers, and ruthlessly battling unions. By the late 1970s, meatpacking companies that wanted to compete with IBP had to adopt its business methods or go out of business.”
By 2001, 85 percent of the U.S. meatpacking industry was controlled by four corporations: IBP, ConAgra, Excel, and National Beef. These fiercely anti-union giants dominate a primarily immigrant workforce, many of whom are undocumented. Wages have plummeted and conditions made intolerable for workers and the animals they process. Schlosser writes,
“The typical [production] line speed in an American slaughterhouse 25 years ago was about 175 cattle per hour. Some line speeds now approach 400 cattle per hour.”
Faster means cheaper and more profitable. Faster also means more frightening and dangerous.
Meatpacking is America’s most dangerous occupation. Officially, more than 40,000 meatpacking workers are injured on the job every year. The actual number is much higher, because the industry is notorious for not reporting injuries, falsifying injury data, and minimizing lost workdays by firing injured workers or forcing them back to work prematurely.
In 2004, a Human Rights Watch Report: Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants concluded, “workers [in the meat and poultry industry] … contend with conditions, vulnerabilities, and abuses which violate human rights.”
The condition of food animals cannot be separated from the condition of food workers. As the drive for profit ratchets up the speed of production, all consideration for living beings falls away. No time is allowed to kill humanely. No time is allowed to maintain sanitary conditions. Animals and workers are both terrorized.
In a classic divide-and-rule maneuver, employers encourage workers to vent their rage on animals. In 2004, workers at a chicken-processing plant in Moorefield, West Virginia, were discovered torturing chickens with the apparent approval of management. Incidents of torture increased when employees were forced to work overtime. Such cruelty is profitable for the capitalist. As long as workers are attacking animals, they are not demanding better conditions for themselves and for the animals.
Who can solve this problem? The capitalist State grants the employers the exclusive right to manage the workplace (which is legally their private property) and to make a profit. Consequently, conditions improve only when workers organize and fight back.
Food workers who improve their own conditions automatically improve the condition of food animals and the safety of the meat produced. Animal rights advocates and food workers should be natural allies, but middle-class moralism gets in the way.
“The warring classes will seek to gain victory by every means, while middle-class moralists will continue to wander in confusion between the two camps. Subjectively they sympathize with the oppressed – no one doubts that. Objectively, they remain captives of the morality of the ruling class and seek to impose it upon the oppressed instead of helping them to elaborate the morality of revolution.” – Leon Trotsky
Over the course of the 20th century, colonial wars, two World Wars, and the threat of atomic annihilation revealed the destructive potential of science. Socialists condemned capitalism for applying science in these ways. Moralists saw it differently. They argued that science was inherently dangerous and destructive.
Anarchists argue that all forms of power (including efforts to control nature) are corrupting, therefore, we must abandon efforts to control anything. This is mistaken, because the power to shape events can be liberating.
Power is not the problem. The problem is unequal access to power. If we abandon the fight to take collective control of society, we will not survive.
Using moralistic arguments, sections of the peace movement, the ecology movement, anarchists, eco-feminists, and animal liberationists attack the right of humanity to control nature. The effect has been to strengthen right-wing forces.
If human beings have no right to control nature, then they have no right to control their own fertility. An abstract reverence for life (‘right-to-life’) is typically used to oppose contraception and abortion.
Colorado is considering an amendment to grant legal rights to fertilized human eggs. Voters would be asked whether inalienable rights, the right to due process, and equal justice should be granted to “any human being from the moment of fertilization.” The fact that ‘equal rights’ for embryos undermines the rights of women is simply ignored.
Another form of moralism blames human beings for the environmental destruction caused by capitalism. Attributing environmental problems to ‘overpopulation’ supports racist population control and anti-immigration policies. If you think that too many people are endangering the planet, then you would have to cheer every war, famine, flood, earthquake, and epidemic that reduces the population.
In fact, environmental damage is accelerating despite falling global birth rates. Between 1970 and 2000, the fertility rate in the world’s poor nations dropped by more than half. In Europe, it is below replacement level. The United States has the greatest impact on the environment, yet its fertility rate has been below replacement level for the past three decades. The root cause of the environmental crisis is not people but profit madness.
James Lovelock disagrees. “We, personally, are the polluters…We are therefore accountable, personally…for the silent spring that Rachel Carson predicted.” The New York Times takes the same position. “We simply cannot continue to hold our national security and the health of the planet hostage to our appetite for fossil fuels.”
There is no “we,” when it comes to who is responsible for human and environmental degradation. The real world is divided into conflicting classes. The capitalist class directs social policy to increase their wealth and power. The working class struggle to resist exploitation and oppression. The middle-class sidestep this conflict by demanding that everyone have equal rights, human and non-human alike.
Animal rights advocates do not support food workers to improve the conditions of food animals. Instead, they take the middle-class position of attacking food corporations and their employees. The moralistic pronouncement that “meat is murder” places meat-packers in the same category as the killers of human beings. This is one example of how the argument for animal rights is used to attack the working class.
Most animal liberationists condemn meat-eating in the belief that a vegetarian or vegan diet is the only way to protect food animals. This is mistaken. The 2006 strikes in support of immigrants’ rights achieved what vegans have never accomplished – they closed America’s feedlots and slaughterhouses.
The middle class do not see the power of the working class to change society. Instead, they seek reform from the capitalist State, which embraces every opportunity to advance its own agenda. The ruling class will use the concept of universal rights to ‘protect’ embryos from abortion or stem cell research, while it builds its war machine and allows people of all ages to die from lack of basic essentials.
All animals alter their environment in the process of meeting their needs. Human beings are the first to do so consciously. We are the only species capable of discovering and applying the laws of nature to enhance our survival, which includes protecting the environment on which our survival depends.
While human beings have the ability to control nature, we have not yet learned to master ourselves. This is our most urgent challenge.
How people relate to the non-human world has always been shaped by how they relate to each other. For most of human history, people lived in egalitarian societies that promoted responsibility towards the natural world. Even today, most people support human responsibility for the environment. We are blocked from doing so by the capitalist class who prevent the majority from exercising any control over the direction of society.
The fate of the animal world is inextricably tied to our own. As long as some people are allowed to exploit and oppress other people, they will also exploit and oppress animals. To end animal abuse, we must support the working class – the only force capable of ending profit madness and all the human and animal suffering that goes with it.