The Capitalist Commodification of Animals: Volume 35

Cover of The Capitalist Commodification of Animals

Table of contents

(11 chapters)


Pages i-xiii
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Part I Theoretical Approaches to the Commodification of Animals


It is widely accepted among critical human–animal scholars that an absolute ontological distinction between humans and animals, the human–animal dualism, is an ideological construction. However, even some of the most radical animalists make use of a softer version of it when they explain animal exploitation and domination in capitalism. By criticizing the reintroduction of the human–animal dualism through the back door, I reopen the terrain for a historical–materialist explanation of bourgeois animal exploitation and domination that does not conceptualize them as a matter of species in the first place. Rather, with reference and in analogy to ecosocialist arguments on the greenhouse effect, it is demonstrated that a specific faction of capital – animal capital – which uses animals and animal products as means of production, is the root cause, key agent, and main profiteer of animal exploitation and domination in the current mode of production. Thus, the reworked concept of animal capital presented here differs from the original, postoperaist notion introduced by Nicole Shukin since it is based on a classic sociorelational and value theoretical understanding of capitalism. According to this approach, animals are integrated socioeconomically into the capitalist class society via a relation of superexploitation to capital, which can be called the capital–animal relation.


From an interdisciplinary position, I discuss the historical and epistemological roots of the objectification and commodification of nature, which emerged from the hegemony of instrumental rationality. This rationality—synthetically, a technological, political, social, ethical, and esthetical universe of thought and action—has created both wealth and environmental destruction due to the progressive domination of nature through science and technology. The objectification of nature and nonhuman animals is associated with the legacy of René Descartes based on some excerpts of his famous Discourse on the Method in which the idea of animals as machines established a powerful and pervasive metaphor that remains today. Speciesism, which involves forms of discrimination practiced by humans against other animal species, also dominates Western perspectives. However, studies reveal that nonhuman animal sentience and conscience is a scientific fact. While there is no ethical or scientific ground to support speciesism, the colossal number of animals commodified in a myriad of contexts, especially in animal agriculture, proves that our society is very far from overcoming this issue. A possible path to change is education. Nevertheless, profound transformations are mandatory as formal education—even “environmental education”—carries in its philosophical foundations the Cartesian, instrumental paradigm that favors the objectification and commodification of nature. I present how the concept of instrumental rationality, especially as proposed by Herbert Marcuse, establishes as a unifying and solid ground to address the roots of the objectification and commodification of nature (including nonhuman animals), as well as to confront the epistemological bedrock of our speciesist nonenvironmental, traditional education.


Drawing upon Alfred Sohn-Rethel's work, we argue that, just as capitalism produces abstract labor, it coproduces both abstract mind and abstract life. Abstract mind is the split between mind and nature and between subject/observer and observed object that characterizes scientific epistemology. Abstract mind reflects an abstracted objectified world of nature as a means to be exploited. Biological life is rendered as abstract life by capitalist exploitation and by the reification and technologization of organisms by contemporary technoscience. What Alberto Toscano has called “the culture of abstraction” imposes market rationality onto nature and the living world, disrupting biotic communities and transforming organisms into what Finn Bowring calls “functional bio-machines.”


Human–animal economic relations range from exploitative objectification and mass killing of animals in industrial livestock to species-appropriate husbandry or collaboration of humans and animals in therapy or rescue work. Should they be abolished or are there options for their moral permissibility? I propose using a three-level model to distinguish between morally impermissible and acceptable economic relations of humans and animals. A further step explores how an animal-oriented economy can be implemented on existing markets against the background of a philosophical theory for acceptable use of animals in the economy. Rather than developing a theory, it suggests research projects for an animal friendly economy. Market sociology reveals that sophisticated markets are a potential platform for animal welfare and that they allow a countermovement against animal exploitation. This understanding of markets also connects animals to value theory or to the idea of social cost. This way a consistent theoretical frame for animal welfare in economy is imaginable and suggested for further research.

Part II Case Studies of the Commodification of Animals


The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fur trade in the United States and Canada that sent hundreds of thousands of furs to Europe and China relied on “Cheap Labor” and the abundance of “Cheap Raw Materials,” that is to say, living beings such as sea otter, land otter, beaver, and seals. Native American labor, procured by and paid through trade goods in a kind of “putting out” piece-rate system, was cheap partially because their lives were maintained/reproduced through traditional agricultural or hunting and gathering economies. The commodification of fur-bearing animals led to their sharp decline and in some cases near extinction. Cheap labor and cheap living beings interacted dynamically in unison to enable capital accumulation under mercantile capitalism. At the very end of the nineteenth century, fur farming as a petty capitalist enterprise became common in Canada and the United States, and more recently has expanded greatly in China.


Human presence tends to decrease biodiversity and often results in the local extinction or even global extinction of megafauna. The focus here is on how humans have affected wolf populations in what are now known as the contiguous 48 United States. While the arrival of indigenous peoples to the region produced the extinction of some species and a reduction in wolf populations, the cultural values and economic system, i.e., capitalism, utilized by the European invaders led to anthropogenic decimation of wildlife species on an unprecedented scale and the near local extinction of wolves. Although capitalism almost led to the local extinction of wolves in the contiguous 48 US states, it also produced an educated, affluent urban class concerned with protecting endangered species. Unlike farmers and ranchers, this urbanized class does not view wildlife as a potential economic threat. The vast majority of contemporary Americans, i.e., 96%, do not engage in sport hunting, so most do not view apex predators as unwanted competitors for game species. Moreover, many individuals who belong to the urban affluent class, even those who do not engage in wildlife viewing or other forms of outdoor recreation, value biodiversity. Since the late twentieth century, this has resulted in the preservation of existing wolf populations and reintroducing wolves to some of their historical ranges. These trends are likely to continue in the coming decades. However, capitalism should not be viewed as a system that initially decimated wolf populations and eventually created an economic class that saved them. It is argued that, due to its growth imperative, if left unchecked, capitalism will ultimately destroy wolves and many other species that have been granted temporary reprieves from extinction.


Aldo Leopold's idea of a land ethic was inspired by his work in game management. The land ethic merged ecology with an aesthetic and ethical sensibility. This chapter traces the origins of the idea to Leopold's efforts to devise incentives for private landowners to share their land with wildlife. Scholars have failed to account for how Leopold's affection for the institution of private property shaped his ethical philosophy. Although the land ethic is conventionally understood as a defense of the rights of animals, plants, and the environment they inhabit, it was also a defense of property rights. The limitations of the land ethic as philosophical basis of wildlife management and conservation stem from these contradictory purposes. Although Leopold's ecological aesthetic may help people to visualize an alternative to the violent simplification and diminished biodiversity of the modern form of capitalist agricultural commodity production, his emphasis on voluntary mechanisms has detracted from the objective of liberating wildlife and the land they inhabit from human exploitation.

Part III Argentina's Working Class


This chapter aims to contribute to the study of social protests around the world and particularly in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, with a focus on an Argentinean case. Throughout these years, Argentina like many other Latin American societies witnessed the growth and development of intense social and political struggles in concert with the armed insurgency. Did workers or other popular social sectors support guerrilla organizations in Argentina? What was the interconnection between working-class and armed insurgent struggle? This chapter examines these liaisons by studying the case of an industrial city that has been identified to be a paradigm of labor radicalization and political violence in Argentina—Villa Constitución. Through the reanalysis of documents and sources as well as interviews, we discuss established interpretations on armed and labor struggles that reveal a broader heterogeneity in the forms of social support to revolutionary violence. Solidarity among workers and armed militants appears in (1) the actions of militant workers at their workplaces, and (2) the armed actions organized by militants in support of worker’s fights.” These two groups reinforced each other's activism. But, by no means can we directly deduct from this that rank and file workers immediately identified their strikes with ideologically revolutionary objectives.


Pages 205-212
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Cover of The Capitalist Commodification of Animals
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Research in Political Economy
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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