Hating Animals or Capitalism?

Antonio Gramsci once wrote that the type of ethics exhibited by some bourgeois philanthropic and benevolent associations was “akin to the morals of the societies for the protection of animals” or similar language (I am quoting from memory).

In an interesting piece Jon Hochschartner raises a large number of issues about the relations of class-struggle, struggle for socialism and/or against capitalism and that for the rights of non-human living organisms, by attacking Paul Lafargue’s scepticism about some anti-vivisectionism organizations in his time. Let me immediately state that I share an opposition to vivisectionism, unless scientists/researchers can/could demonstrate unequivocally this is the only way to obtain a specific kind of information, and its practice limited to such circumstances. For “anatomical” and similar training there are innumerable other resources from simulations to existing specimens (dead) that can be used instead of vivisection. However it is the many broader areas where human existence impinges on animal rights (or more broadly those of living organisms) that I find more urgent, and interesting.

While I do agree with Hochschartner that the merits of policy proposals should be judged on these alone and not the practices of its proponents, I don’t agree that these are off limits or completely irrelevant to understanding the basis of support for such proposals or their intellectual and political genesis. In any case I believe an ad hominem is something more like what Hochschartner subjects the (deceased!) Lafargue to, than the type of criticism Lafargue was engaging in: he was targeting certain organizations and groups of people, not individuals. I also don’t quite know why the fact that Lafargue died in a suicide pact is relevant to the argument: I actually believe that suicide is really a matter that is up to an individual and his/her ethical universe (including how it may affect family, friends, associates, loved ones, etc.), but just like abortion, the choice of a partner, and a number of other issues that mainly impact that individual’s life:interference by the state or outside parties is really uncalled for (this is premised on the hope that the individual is making the choice in as rational a state of mind as possible, and under as minimal pressure and duress as possible: obviously under capitalism that is not always easy…), and Hochschartner’s aside just seems to be intended as demeaning. The sorely missed George Carlin made this point, indirectly, in one of his last superlative albums “Life is Worth Losing”… (my aside: while Bill Maher exploits his memory, he has become nothing but a corporate media shill, in practice rather an insult to Carlin’s legacy…).

In any case back to the class-struggle, capitalism and the rights of non-human organisms. Hochschartner’s argument seems to be premised on the assumption that differences in historical time periods or philosophical perspective (between Lafargue, his time and his philosophical persuasion(s) and the present and Hoschartner’s own). Historically vivisection was closely tied to scientific exploration in both physiology and biology, though occasionally (as in Leonardo’s secretive escapades) some did manage to use human cadavers as well. So the argument is also closely tied to issues about advances in scientific knowledge, as Hochschartner admits, though he talks about “anthropocentric science”. Maybe Hochschartner can explain what non- “anthropocentric science” would look like: all science, since it is engaged in and pursued by human beings, is, by definition, anthropocentric… Though some ruling-class ideologists try to enhance its status by adding terms like ‘neutrality’, etc. the fact is it remains a product of the classes and times engaging in it: the extent to which it ‘explains’ reality can only be judged by practice and experiment.

Even the quotes taken from Lafargue seem to indicate that his animus was in the class-bias exhibited by legislators, not always or necessarily in a “hatred” for all animals regardless, otherwise why the example about the aristocrats and the pigeons? He hardly would have cared about the pigeons…

In any case the vivisection issue clearly also was related and relates to arguments about natural science(s) vs. religion. Once again it seems to me that Lafargue was probably concerned about what the impact might be (rightly or wrongly) on the capabilities to engage in scientific research. There seems to be little appreciation in Hochschartner’s article for the fact that Lafargue lived well over a century ago. Capitalism’s impact on the environment, while already obvious to the Victorians just even only in terms of industrial and energy (coal) pollution, had not yet reached nearly as catastrophic proportions as today. Analogously the extent to which animals were (ab)used in animal laboratories, both research and/or commercial had not approximated the levels it was to reach in the last 50 years or so. Similarly where today, given the incredible variety of software, computer, simulation, virtual reality, etc. resources available, vivisection is infinitely less defensible even in practical and scientific terms than it was then, the level of knowledge about non-human organisms in our environment has also increased enormously compared to Lafargue’s times.

In any case it seems to me that a much greater sense of historical awareness and relativity is called for. Most of the ‘left’ in the time of Lafargue was concerned with forms of ‘progress’ that were measured in terms of material welfare, life-conditions, etc. that were often (all too simplistically, as we now with the aid of a lot of hindsight can see all too clearly) then reduced to levels of (then mostly industrial) production and consumption. In absolute terms this may be much less defensible today, but that was the reality back then. There were socialists (in fact Marxists) like William Morris, who in works like News from Nowhere, clearly showed that their idea of “quality of life” extended much beyond the rather crude positivistic measures mentioned above, and focused on the quality of the actual labor-process itself, its environment and its results (in this I believe understanding Marx much more deeply than many other ‘followers’), but they were at best a very small and scarcely influential minority.

Second while there certainly do seem to be valid ways in which religious sensibilities can advocate for non-human rights on ethical grounds, at the time Lafargue (like Engels for instance) was strongly emphasizing the connection between advances in human knowledge (science) and advances in human emancipation from the bondage of capitalism. The extent to which ‘science’ itself was shaped and to a certain extent even biased by class realities of the time (or more generally the mode of production), though I am absolutely not a relativist, or a postmodernist in this regard, was also something that was much less ‘on the radar’ at that time.

One should remember that historically religion (i.e. especially a religious world-view) has almost always been used as a prop and an ally of ruling-class exploitation, the maintenance of superstition and ignorance etc. But realities change historically. Where atheism once could have been a very ‘advanced’ and revolutionary intellectual position, today, as in the case of Christopher Hitchens and others, it can actually be an ally of extremely reactionary and exploitative forces (because it is aimed at destroying any concern for ethics, morals and values, whether based in religion or not, and, when practiced in the manner of Hitchens or Dawkins, it exhibits many of the characteristics of an, inverted, non-religious, fundamentalism). In any case historically Christian doctrines like that of the exclusivity of the ‘human soul’ can be seen to have contributed in very perverse ways to the legitimation and justification of views (mostly unexamined, arrogant, beliefs in automatic entitlement) that the human species is above, if not that it actually ‘owns,’ all non-human nature. Of course different religions have expressed differing degrees of respect for and awe of nature, but even in ‘sacrifice’ rituals that seem to want, at some level, to acknowledge the violence being exerted by humans, ultimately they are used as legitimations for the human species living off or using what is living and non-human.

Obviously certain scientific theories, beliefs and practices have also enabled such exploitation, and the US has been particularly prolific in this area: from behaviorism to sociobiology. Ethology (or the study of animal behavior) has only relatively recently become interested in the behavior of individuals in other species, rather than in that of the species as a whole. In fact much of the knowledge that any relatively enlightened pet-owner had of their relationship with that pet was until not too long ago considered “anthropomorphic” and “non-scientific” by much of this ‘scientific’ community, who fetishised soft-wired models of ‘truth’ from the “hard” sciences…

While I certainly agree with Hochschartner that one should be aware of, and, as far as possible, engaged in a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” where class-struggle and non-human rights are concerned, I believe he scarcely touches on how complex the issue of inter-species relationships actually is.

Hochschartner does not seem to want to discuss the fact that is only because the dominance of the human species over non-human ones on planet earth has become so overwhelming that both the awareness and the political issue of non-human rights has been able to arise. If humans were still fighting for survival in Neolithic times, that would hardly be the case…

The idea of “rights” itself is of course a legally very complex one, since non-human species don’t have systems of (encoded, transmitted) laws that they could enforce or dialogue with us about. These are or would be rights that humans themselves endow non-human species with. So the issue of relative power remains. And the issue of power also raises the issue of autonomy.

Clearly there are issues of the extent to which humans will be willing to assign rights to other non-human species. This area I believe is a continuum. Let me invoke what one could call the Albert Schweitzer paradox. As most readers probably know, Schweitzer believed that the killing of any other life form was essentially evil or sinful. So where do humans start or stop? With viruses (biologists still don’t really agree if these are actually life-forms or not)? Bacteria? Amoebas? Insect parasites?Moulds? Or, as seems to often be the tacit case, are non-human species advocates really actually thinking about a very small portion of the spectrum of life, in rather anthropomorphic terms, namely mostly ‘higher’ forms, pluricellular organisms, especially ones that physiologically tend to have some or many of our own characteristics?

While Darwinian evolution and many evolutionary (natural historical) phenomena are being rethought, the fact is that just as there is a class-struggle, whether non-human species advocates like it or not, there is also an inter-species struggle (and this would be the case even if there was no human species). Nature is just simply not a reality in which life forms survive without preying on one another. That is just a fact of material reality. So the issue is where/how do we draw the balance? And this is of course only as an almost ideal thought-experiment, not considering for a moment the horrific, ever more totalitarian, super-imperialist system of ever more degenerate class and ecological exploitation we actually have to deal with.

But let me return to the issue of autonomy. All species interact in a more or less extended environment. But given the ever more horrific human impact on that environment, clearly apart from vivisection, there are a myriad of other ways humans are impacting non-human rights negatively. Not only destroying those very species, but destroying their environment, and thereby spaces in which they could live exercising a certain degree of autonomy. Vivisection is certainly an issue, but it seems to pale when confronted with industrial farming and slaughter for instance…

Then there is the issue of animal husbandry and humanly induced ‘artificial’ selection. Think of all the pets (especially dogs and cats, but also fish, birds, etc.) people own, and how the overwhelming majority of them are the result of breeding (or later mongrelization among breeds). So all these varieties of non-human species already exist because of human intervention and shaping. I won’t mention agriculture where the ‘shaping’ is closely tied to goals about production, nutrition, etc. Today let us think of the enormous issues of biotechnology, genetic engineering and manipulation, Monsanto, corporations giving themselves proprietary title to pre-existing natural organisms, etc.

Then there is the issue of inter-specific contact, behavior, communication, etc. Owning a pet is something that many humans do and often seems to fulfill very important emotional, contact and other needs. But obviously pets are individuals of species whose autonomy we are restricting in many ways (there are analogies here obviously with the education of infants and young children). So where do we draw the line in a continuum here? Since we were talking about the relation of these issues to the class-struggle and capitalism, what about pet manicures, pet gourmet food, pet salons, etc. etc.? What about the “acquired class” of pets?

Finally (in the interests of ‘greater’ disclosure, let me say that I consider myself philosophically a materialist, and in terms of belief an agnostic, since I think this position is logically most compatible with the provisional nature of scientific knowledge) what about the fact that to such an overwhelming degree humans repress or in so many different ways deny, distort, are embarassed by, etc,, the fact that they themselves are… (historically cultivated, socialized, etc.)… animals? As Sebastiano Timpanaro has emphasized indirectly in works such as On materialism.

So I think that rather than an ad hominem against a, deceased (therefore unable to reply or respond), relative of Marx’s, one should perhaps acknowledge some of the immensely complex network of issues involved.
Since in many ways the issues themselves relate to debates about capitalism, growth, sustainability, ecology and so forth, the same complexity should be acknowledged in these areas.

I greatly admire Michael Hudson’s CP contributions on the economy, and the brilliant ones by Jack Rasmus on the economic issues in Ukraine, as well as many of Mike Whitney’s pieces. And in the short term I certainly agree with their criticisms of austerity, and at least partially with some aspects of their more or less Keynesian (or at least ‘stimulatory’) remedies.

But in the medium to long term, as other contributors on ecological and energy issues to CP have also pointed out, these do not seem to be viable solutions. As Michael Ruppert has pointed out (and changed his lifestyle as a consequence) in Crossing the Rubicon as regards the underlying reasons for the Empire’s aggressions in the ‘Eurasian continent’ (Brzezinski), the elite is quite cognizant of the coming energy and resource limits (the material finiteness of planet Earth). Many institutional signs related to the increasing rate of totalitarian control (NSA, elimination of habeas corpus, Patriot Act, etc.) after 9/11 seem to point to elites who have no intention of dealing with ever more drastic real ecological and economic crises, but instead want to resort to this totalitarian escalation to grab what’s left and disregard all other consequences and issues. Given the fact that inevitably even the most just and rational social, political, and economic system/arrangement possible will have to come to terms with these limits and finiteness of resource issues, and given the tack taken by the elites, historically this seems to be leading to a situation in which the only solution will be in terms of drastic redistribution (and rearrangement): that is if there is to be any solution that is minimally rational and just whatsoever. This in turn fundamentally also regards the balance betweent the human and non-human species. But the fact is that most “population growth” groups actually don’t take class issues, and issues of education, knowledge and resource availability into account. They just look at the issue quantitatively, and therefore as simply a reduction in numbers. But this overwhelmingly affects poorer nations, ones where by and large the peasant and working class components are dominant. Of course in terms of benefits for the planet from all points of view, most on the left know where it would be best for the population reduction to occur: the elites. However unfortunately their number is very small, though the benefits of their not perverting policy any longer would of course be immense…

In any case as with the ecological issues, where many poorer nations rightly point out that the advanced capitalist West (North), which spent centuries despoliating and polluting the planet, hoarded the spoils, and is now calling (when it is calling) for the South (and East) to implement ‘ecological remedies,’ is enormously hypocritical, and should at the very least be transferring technologies and donating capital and resources to the South/East if it is minimally serious about confronting those ecological issues, I believe a similar historical awareness and sensitivity is called for with the issue of non-human species rights. Only if humans (obviously class and its privileges have to be taken into account here) are willing to address the full spectrum of these issues in their complexity will a more rational and just order of inter-species relations emerge from our current devolving barbarity. And this does indeed have to to with educating and enlarging or “level of consciousness”…

Speaking of which, exactly how can Hochschartner know what the “level of consciousness” of the “other animals” Lafargue refers to (one doesn’t even know which animals…) is, or whether it is higher or lower than that of human infants: this is a mystery to me, and seems highly invidious and speculative at best (what exactly are the ‘criteria’ by which he measures these ‘levels’, when the best cognitive scientists around can still not explain most of what goes on in human cognition, and/or language use, let alone the complexities of cognition in other species such as dolphins, whales, many primates, etc.)…

Although I agree with Hochschartner that it is indeed an issue of “both/and” when it comes to class and the rights of non-human species, I also believe that his overall perspective is influenced by what I like to call postmodern identitarianism, which has increasingly tried to marginalize or suppress issues of class and generally a Marxian and materialist framework, philosophical foundation and method for analyzing reality. It is this same postmodernist foundation that often allows the “emoticon” ‘left’ to function as such a completely supine, hypocritical and uninformed chorus in all the latest aggressions of “humanitarian imperialism,” (Ukraine, Syria, Lybia, Yugoslavia, etc.), and to engage in the rather arrogant types of criticism one often sees on “Democracy Now” (one of the principle venues for said chorus to “humanitarian imperialism”), for instance regarding the ‘insufficient’ ecological standards adhered to by countries in Latin America (Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, etc.), where the issue of how/where they are to get the resources and/or address models of development, when they are inserted in a super-imperialist global economy, and after having been pillaged for centuries, are still having to survive by whatever means possible at the periphery, is essentially barely if ever addressed. This is where the difference between ‘absolute’ or completely abstract criticism, and materially based criticism (that takes actual conditions and possibilities into account) is so essential.

In any case let me conclude by adding that the (early) Marx talked about (wo)men as species-beings. So taking the incomplete work of Capital and historical materialism into consideration, as I have done elsewhere, let me again suggest that humans think about their “species-interests,” reflect on what their species-interests are, not let them by hijacked and determined by the most perverse, autho-totalitarian elites ever (i.e. where “species-interests” are in reality actually defined by very specific class interests), and instead reflect on how fundamental a truly diverse, sustainable, hopefully expanding, and, to the extent that it is ‘harmoniously’ possible, also autonomous, non-human environment (and its components’ species) is both to the survival, happyness and fulfillment of the human species.

Mark Epstein can be reached at: mwepstein@verizon.net.