Exploitation is a phenomenon of subordination, control, and brutality that plays out in the thick of materiality: bodies relating to other bodies, immersed for the most part in their daily routines with a certain inertia. In a sense, it keeps itself going just through continually renewed acts that agents are simply well accustomed to. However, that in itself would not be enough in face of occasional flashes of critical recognition that perhaps things could be done differently, or not at all. There are other factors to keep an exploitative system in motion. These invariably involve some kind of gratification for a at least a number of bodies involved.
This much, I think, can be said without historical qualification. I wouldn’t like to have Marx rolling in his grave more than he already needs to, so perhaps I should have restrained myself even more. In any case, modern animal exploitation as a total phenomenon in its many guises seems to function this way: it does not originate in ideology, or social thought. It is not a result of an a priori worldview. It is not a matter of “yes, if we can do anything, how about we do this?” Not a consequence of a mental impulse that somehow embodies itself in the world, having descended to it from an ethereal realm of reason. How, then, or what happens? A properly open-ended, phenomenologically sensitive materialism — one operating on probabilities and approximations rather than apodictic dogma — promises to offer a more coherent picture than the idealism I have just aimed to discredit.
Thinking is a form of acting, it is not “mental”, but as real-world as it gets. The “content” of this form of activity often stands in blatant contradiction to the other things we do. A parent beating her child thinks of herself as a loving mother. In the absence of such active rationalization, life would become extremely difficult or impossible to her. The reality of being a hateful, violent child-beater is hard to swallow. When observers have sufficient knowledge of the situation, and are asked whether they think she is a good parent, what do they say? Without trouble they should be able to ascertain that she is horrible, despite all the things she says about her love for the kid. We look at what actually happens between and among living bodies beneath the layer of discourse. It is just as true for collective, i.e., social life. Here, I’m after just one instance of this.
Equipped, perhaps inexplicably, with a primal sense of intercorporeal sympathy for other animals, we have developed an intricate ideological complex to cover up the reprehensible actuality of animal exploitation. There are perks to animal exploitation, at least so it seems at first glance: cheap, good quality resources of food, clothing, entertainment and more, a feeling of species superiority, of belonging to “something better”, of having built personal and collective identity over and above the heads and backs of “lower beings” etc. To most, these are all worth having. Just as the mother contradicts herself claiming to love the the child who’s now in the hospital ER, we need to counterbalance the brutality of exploitation with storytelling. The story folks have written for just this purpose is entitled “Animal Welfare.”
Scarcely anybody todaydenies that other animals, say, pigs or cows, are conscious, have needs that can be frustrated, and so on. But there is no agreement as to what those needs are and what that entails for our ruptured relationships with them. Science tends to be mired in reactionary debates on things obvious to a curious child. Crucially for the complex of exploitation, freedom — the ability to develop one’s potentialities through encounter with the challenges of one’s natural environment — is not in the welfarist’s vocabulary. Now that this is out of the way, the welfarist and exploiter can sit down to discuss how to best have the cake and eat it, too. The animal bodies stigmatized by the industries’ relentless profit-seeking can be both exploited and cared for. It is now finally possible to use — hold captive in confined spaces, invade and kill bodies — and “defend”, i.e., find ways to “reduce harm.” For instance, limiting the field of vision of the pig led to slaughter is said to both lower her stress levels before death (increased “welfare”) and make her resist the march less (facilitated extermination). You see, there is well-being in hell!
The Animal Welfare paradigm provides the meeting space for softened-up animal activists and representatives of the flesh, skin, zoo incarceration, and other businesses. By now it is not easy to say unambiguously just who told the story first. But a good story is not bad, no matter if an animal protection platform is hi-jacked in the process of its writing and proliferation. It is just a story, none the less, contradicting the reality of animal slavery. And business is business, both for industry and, all claims to the contrary notwithstanding, to large bureaucratized animal protection organizations. All of them, like the monster-mother, live in contradiction that is overwhelming, but not nearly enough to paralyze and make them stop. Drawn into a whirlpool of habitual violence, which to them is like breathing, they must be stopped from without.
Insofar as we need one, the story of animal liberation must write itself anew over and through our actions aimed at finding weak spots in the operations of a relentless, lethal juggernaut. It is fundamental to realize, and this may come as a kind of materialism-inspired epiphany, that stories are dangerously efficient when reactionary; they have the power of a strong sedative. But they do not suffice to change the terms of social practice. Countering the collaborationist tendency among advocates, we ought to go full tilt in challenging and erasing their dubious narrative. That is but one element of the struggle. Not much in the world has been won by throwing words at one’s adversary. And ours has a magnificent PA system, now assisted by ceaseless welfarist chatter of our former friends turned collaborationists. It is crucial to actually disrupt the horror visited upon myriad animal victims. Otherwise the weighty dynamic of this dense material world will play out in the form of consequences we have heretofore known.
** photos used without permission.