Base, Superstructure and Cultivated Meat

Presentation of the world’s first cultured hamburger being fried at a news conference in London on 5 August 2013. Photograph Source: World Economic Forum – CC BY 3.0

I’m not an academic, so my understanding of the details of Marxist theory are shaky. Still, I wonder if the concepts of base and superstructure might be useful in making the case for the priority I urge other animal activists to adopt. That would be agitating for increased public funding for cultivated meat research.

For those who don’t know, cultivated meat is grown from animal cells, without slaughter. The technology faces a number of hurdles. Perhaps the most significant of these is achieving price parity with slaughtered options. This is crucial for widespread adoption, which could save countless creatures.

Within Marxism, base refers to the productive forces of society, like tools, materials and factories. Superstructure refers to a society’s ideological system, such as laws, religion and art. Marxists generally believe base influences superstructure to a far greater degree than superstructure influences base.

“Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces,” Karl Marx wrote. “In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.”

An overly-determinative view of the relationship between base and superstructure is typically dismissed as vulgar Marxism. After all, if superstructure couldn’t influence base, why would Marx dedicate so much time to constructing an elaborate ideology which now bears his name? However, the point stands.

So what does this have to do with my belief animal activists should prioritize increased public funding for cultivated-meat research? Because in accelerating the development of cellular agriculture, we are potentially changing society’s base, which in turn impacts law, religion, art and so much else.

Just as Marx said “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord,” one could convincingly argue the advent of cultivated meat that is cheaper and indistinguishable in taste to slaughtered options creates the preconditions for animal liberation. I should make clear we’re still a long way off from price parity and undoubtedly taste needs further work as well.

As a further example, I recently read a beautifully-illustrated nonfiction work called Thing: Inside the Struggle for Nonhuman Personhood. It’s a collaborative effort by artists Cynthia Sousa Machado and Sam Machado, and lawyer Steven M. Wise, founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project. The book explains NhRP’s work to win legal personhood for animals.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to this work. If Wise manages to convince a court to recognize an animal here or there as a legal person, or perhaps even a whole category of animals, it would be an immense milestone I’d celebrate. But I believe base influences superstructure far more than superstructure influences base.

In order to achieve widespread legal personhood for animals of the kind that would necessitate the end of animal agriculture, the base of our current society must change. I believe cellular agriculture has the potential to do this in the long run. That’s why I think accelerating its development should be animal activists’ top priority.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at