Factory Farms as Metaphor

In 2006 AETA (Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act) was passed by Congress to effectively crush any public expression of horror or disapprobation toward the factory farm system in America. Depending on one’s view of animals, the factory farm system is either an efficient mode of capitalist food production or a system of mass torture and exploitation of animals with precedence in Nazi concentration camps. Alternatively, what would your view be if people were farmed in the factory farm system?

Those familiar with the practices of “meat” production in America could be forgiven for assuming that any law relating animal enterprises to terrorism was intended to keep factory farmers from terrorizing animals. But in fact the law takes the side of the factory farmers’ right to terrorize animals as they see fit and redefines terrorism as non-violent protest against this system of terrorizing animals. And for readers who are thinking that they are on the safe side in this legal reasoning because they are human, the line is more ethereal than you imagine.

In his book Free Trade Doesn’t Work author Ian Fletcher spends a bit of time on the trade economics of agricultural production. According to Mr. Fletcher’s account, international trade has driven relentless price competition in agriculture. This has in turn led to the growing prominence of low cost agricultural producers who (my argument here) also happen to be those with the facilities that most effectively constrain, restrain and subdue animals to maximize the exact aspects of their being that are sent to market. In this world, efficient capitalist production of animals has two components (1) the limitation through restraint of any aspect of the animals’ life that doesn’t (2) promote growth of the animals’ marketable parts.

In this system the animals’ lives are made “modular” and the aspects that are suppressed or facilitated result from the capitalist calculus of what will make the most money for the “producer.” Producer is here in scare quotes to make the point that the product in this circumstance is in fact the ultimate producer.

Put another way, without the factory farm there is some reasonable likelihood that animals that are born will grow to “produce” what to the capitalist are marketable parts in the context of fuller lives. Without the animals, there is no possibility that the factory farm would exist, and with it the factory farm capitalist.

Without a broader economic system of domination and exploitation there would also be no factory farm capitalist. There undeniably exists a long history of people using animals in a wide variety of ways including killing and eating them. There is also a long history of people killing animals for entertainment. But the modern factory farms take domination, control, and to those who see it this way, systematic murder, into the context of global capitalist domination and control in a way that raises fundamental questions about that system.

To most who eat meat the social ontology that says that animals are not them assures that the cultural disgust with cannibalism is based on some metaphysical dividing line and that people are on the side of that line that says that animals aren’t us and that we are not to be eaten. But what if that dividing line is in fact a mere cultural preference as opposed to metaphysical fact? Put another way: show me the metaphysical dividing line. Where does it reside?

AETA (above) was put together by agribusiness lobbyists and was received by the legal graft recipients in Congress to eliminate a purported economic threat to the factory farm system posed by people who don’t share the view that animals are commodities. Most of the dissenters aren’t necessarily anti-capitalist, as evidenced by the narrow concerns expressed in written and spoken statements.

And as capitalists, even the dullest factory farmer knows that animal rights protesters pose a small economic threat compared with the diseases produced by the high concentration of animals resulting from the system, from international competitors and from input producers through rising input prices.

Protesters pose little economic threat to the entire factory farm system that is, unless they can convince enough people that animals aren’t commodities to be exploited. And success there would render the factory farm system the moral abomination that many see it as rather than as an industry deserving of protection. AETA is ultimately an argument over the status of animals.

While capitalist production has become very efficient at delivering increasingly specific products, the specificity of meat as is sold in retail stores requires a leap that is at the heart of capitalist fears over the question of the status of animals. Many people have relationships with animals that they would never consider as “meat.” Eating meat requires the commodification of what is intuitively to many not a commodity absent the radical dissociation created by the factory farm system. And the process of commodifying animals, once considered, calls into question the process of commodification more broadly. How exactly is a prospective friend converted into the commodity “meat” to be eaten?

Without a concrete social ontology that (externally) defines the social structure of the world, the distinction between people and animals (and everything else that can be inferred to be in the purview of this argument) is historically and culturally contingent. This neither diminishes historical and cultural contingency, nor does it put forward the absurdity that there is such an external social ontology on which meat eaters can derive assurance that (1) they aren’t cannibals and (2) that they aren’t what’s next for dinner.

Now, back to the factory farm system. This is a system of capitalist domination, exploitation and control. Without the ability to dominate, exploit and control there would be no factory farm system regardless of the status of animals. But neither would there be need for the (historically and culturally contingent) social hierarchy that in this epic places people, depending on their social power, on a spectrum from animals, fodder by degree for economic exploitation, to the ruling class.

The dividing line between people and animals posited in the domination, exploitation and killing of animals ultimately reflects alienation, a separation that hides the fact of connectedness that many of us experience toward animals The presentation of meat as commodity is one guide to this alienation and the implementation of absurd legislation like AETA is another.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.