Author’s Note: The following correspondence was in reply to the Article “COVID–19 and Circuits of Capital”, published in Monthly Review (MR). The lead author is Rob Wallace, an evolutionary epidemiologist who has done extensive research on the social factors underpinning the spread of pathogens – and whose book Big Farms Make Big Flu is essential reading for anyone concerned with understanding the place of animal agriculture in the origins of contagious diseases. Monthly Review was founded in 1949 and remains one of the leading independent journals of Marxist/ socialist theory in the United States. The article was readied for publication in the May 2020 issue of MR, but given its importance for understanding the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, MR editors posted it online on March 27, 2020.
Our correspondence was submitted April 22nd. Monthly Review rejected the submission, kindly informing us on the occasion of May 1st.
In our estimation, that MR could reject good faith correspondence on the shortcomings of an article that simultaneously places the destruction of animal life at the epicentre of capital’s role in pandemics and then refuses to acknowledge even the ameliorating impact of the animal rights movement — much less it’s full political demands on capital and society — speaks volumes about the Left when it comes to the position of animals in politics.
The original article is here: COVID–19 and Circuits of Capital
Correspondence: Animals, Capitalism and COVID-19
Rob Wallace, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves and Rodrick Wallace’s article (“COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital”) provides a welcome analysis of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Here the authors understand COVID-19 as not only an economic crisis, or as only a crisis about animals in food systems; instead COVID-19 is correctly understood as a symptom of human interactions with animals within the context of capitalist industrial agriculture.
While this might sound promising for leftists interested in how animal liberation might be compatible with socialization of production, there is, unfortunately, a great deal of disappointment ahead. When it comes to thinking about animals, Wallace, et al display a deep conservatism in imagining what sort of economic and social arrangements are possible as alternatives.
The last 150 years have seen the mass industrialization of animal agriculture as a key site of global capitalist production. This explosion in capitalist animal agriculture, like other forms of production, aims at the proliferation of commodities in order to generate surplus value. These same processes have also had an important impact on human food supplies, reshaping the means of subsistence (that is, the means for the reproduction of human labour) in a profound fashion. This has led to an extraordinary per capita growth in the human consumption of animal-based foods, and with it a massive expansion in intensive industrial scale animal agriculture and fisheries, now impacting the lives of trillions of animals on land and sea every year.
The costs for animals of these historical processes are no secret. The sheer scale of lethality and suffering is unprecedented in history.1 We assume the authors to be acutely aware of this dimension, as well as of other commentators who have added essential insights into the nature of the pandemic from a socialist perspective (e.g. Mike Davis, David Harvey, among many others).
Our contemporary food systems reflect the reality of not just capitalist production, but a horrific relation between capitalism and a prevailing hierarchical anthropocentricism. Billions of land animals are interned within intensive production systems. These beings are brought into life through forced reproduction, subject to continuing violence as part of the factory farm system, and destined for death in ways which manipulate the life cycles of animals to fit the profit cycles of agribusiness. The situation for sea animals is not improved: many wild fish species are now endangered through industrial fisheries which literally drag trillions of these animals, struggling for life, in agony, from the oceans. Developments in aquaculture over the last four decades have notoriously achieved the mass internment of sea animals in vast, intensive production systems.
These developments have been part of what Raj Patel and Jason Moore describe as a regime of “cheap food”, which has functioned to drive down the human “wage bill” (and thus expanding surplus) by reducing the cost of the means of subsistence.2 Mass intensification of animal agriculture, and the complete subsumption of this production within capitalism, are certainly evidence of what John Bellamy Foster has described, emphasizing Marx, as a “metabolic rift.”3 Indeed, we would go so far as to portray the modern animal agriculture system as the basis of a new “global metabolism,” which establishes a mechanized cycle for the reproduction of animal life and death, allowing for the proliferation of animal based foods as the very means of subsistence for the reproduction of human life and labour. Zoonotic diseases, including COVID-19, are clearly part of this new global metabolism between humans, animals and capital. Beyond the threat of pandemic, this interaction proves a long-term existential threat to humanity in other ways, particularly given the contribution of animal agriculture to anthropogenic climate change. In the interim, meanwhile, because animal agriculture and the fisheries industries are the primary drivers of mounting biodiversity losses and mass species extinction, the animal system’s more immediate “existential threat” is to the thousands of animal species, and billions of individual wild animals, who are already facing imminent annihilation.
What is the solution? While Wallace, Liebman, Chaves and Wallace argue that we need to commit to radical reforms equivalent to “birthing a new world,” it is disappointing that their dreams for animals remain little more than status quo:
We reintroduce the livestock and crop diversities, and reintegrate animal and crop farming at scales that keep pathogens from ramping up in virulence and geographic extent. We allow our food animals to reproduce onsite, restarting the natural selection that allows immune evolution to track pathogens in real time.4
In other words, for animals the solution is to return to the “old world” of small-scale agriculture. Is retaining the exploitation of animals the best we can do in imagining this new world?
Clearly any thinking about our food systems has to reckon with the realities of a world in which animal-based foods have become a core means of subsistence. For many human communities, hunting and animal agriculture are central parts of both food system and are informed by cultural traditions and beliefs. From this perspective, wholesale and immediate demands calling for the end to animal agriculture must be made with care. Any reforms to food systems would require change to be driven by local communities within the context of heterogeneous cultures and traditions, and would need to maintain as its goal democratic control over food systems, as well as animal justice.
However, COVID-19 presents a rare opportunity to think about our existing food system and the problematic centrality of animals within it.5 The crisis provides us with the historic opportunity to think about how we divest from the production of animal-based foods, sharply reversing the growth of meat, egg and dairy products as a global food staple, and eliminating our dominion over animals once and for all. It is not just animals who benefit from an end to their exploitation. Beyond thinking about whether trillions of animals should perform the “necessary labour” of being produced as commodities for exchange and as means of subsistence COVID-19 also presents an opportunity to think about human workers involved in the production of these foods: who are not only subject to extraordinarily poor work conditions globally, such as low-wage or forced labour, but are also in the front line for zoonotic disease transmission.6
If anything, Marxism teaches us that unprecedented historical conditions create the opportunity for previously unimaginable futures, including the promise of the democratic control of production and the reduction of unnecessary labour time. COVID-19 indeed presents an opportunity to go beyond “old ways” of thinking. But the unprecedented connection with animal agriculture means we also have a greater opportunity at hand. If we are to “birth a new world,” we must move well past a defense of old anthropocentric worldviews – views that distort our most elementary relationships with the planet’s sentient inhabitants by reducing those beings to the status of mere commodities and by representing them as abject “inferiors” whose lives and interests have no value apart from their utility for our purposes. Our attachment to old anthropocentric worldviews severely limits our possibilities for renewed socialist struggle in agrarian and land reform efforts, renewed labor organizing in the agricultural sector, collective food programs, and the like. These and other struggles would be enriched rather than diminished by a robust animal liberationist perspective. There are indeed serious questions to be asked of socialists that refuse to countenance the political defense of animals – on Marxist as well as humanist grounds.
Dinesh Wadiwel, Michael John Addario and John Sanbonmatsu
- See Yuval Noah Harari, “Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history.” The Guardian, 25 September, 201. At: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question
- See Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. Oakland: University of California, 2017. 3-5. See also Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. “How the Chicken Nugget Became the True Symbol of Our Era.” The Guardian. 8 May 2018. At: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/may/08/how-the-chicken-nugget-became-the-true-symbol-of-our-era
- John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010; John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Robbery of Nature”, Monthly Review, 1 July 1 2018 At: https://monthlyreview.org/2018/07/01/the-robbery-of-nature/
- Rob Wallace, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves and Rodrick Wallace, “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital”, Monthly Review, 1 April, 2020. At: https://monthlyreview.org/2020/04/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/
- See Jan Dutkiewicz, Astra Taylor and Troy Vettese. “The Covid-19 pandemic shows we must transform the global food system.” The Guardian. 16 April 2020. At: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/16/coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic-food-animals? See also David Nibert. “Now Is the Time to End the Oppression of Nonhuman Animals.” Common Dreams. 14 April 2020. At: https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/04/14/now-time-end-oppression-nonhuman-animals?
- As we write, meat production facilities in North America have become sites of industrial friction, given the impossibility of maintaining social distancing where production requires human workers to stand “elbow to elbow.” Tom Polansek and Rod Nickel. “’Elbow to elbow:’ North America meat plant workers fall ill, walk off jobs” Reuters. 13 April 2020. At: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-meat-focus/elbow-to-elbow-north-america-meat-plant-workers-fall-ill-walk-off-jobs-idUSKCN21V0WM. Outbreaks have occurred at major processing plants, including those operated by Tyson and Smithfield. See Tommy Birch. “Officials urge Tyson Foods to shut down plant after employees test positive for COVID-19.” USA Today. 17 April 2020. At: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/04/17/tyson-foods-officials-call-plant-close-over-coronavirus-cases/5158361002/; Jessica Lussenhop. “Coronavirus at Smithfield pork plant: The untold story of America’s biggest outbreak.” BBC News. 17 April 2020. At: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52311877; and Joel Dryden. “What led to Alberta’s biggest outbreak? Cargill meat plant’s hundreds of COVID-19 cases.” CBC Online. 19 April 2020. At: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/cargill-alberta-covid-19-deena-hinshaw-1.5537377.