In a previous post I tried to apply something I like about Marxism (the idea of successive stages which change the form of oppression without removing it, powered by technological change) to analysing changes in the structure of sexual oppression.
Now I want to do something similar with the structure of human oppression of animals. As before, my goal will not be any comprehensive account of the whole history of such changes (Marx’s claim to do that, for all countries and all time periods, is perhaps one of the weakest aspects of his work), but rather to focus on comparing what exists now with what preceded it in the West. Even in this regard it is likely to be incomplete.
So, what are the notable features of humanity’s current abuse of animals in developed countries?
The first thing to notice has to be industrial agriculture. The number of animals who are killed each year for food is several times higher than the entire human population – billions and billions of short, miserable lives snuffed out. When the scale of the thing is contemplated, it is almost inspiring, that such an efficient death-machine has been constructed. Maybe some observers would account it humanity’s most striking acheivement.
Secondly, there is the use of animals in drug development and medical research, which is comparatively much smaller.
Thirdly, though, there is the contrasting phenomenon of widespread pet-ownership, where the animals do not fulfil some useful task but are merely ‘companions’.
Fourthly, there is also the discourse of ‘conservation’, in which animals must be ‘saved’ from humans and ‘preserved’ – and where the stress is not on individual animals as beings with rights but on species, as natural phenomena. This discourse is scientific and fairly good at building up accurate information.
Fifthly, there are a number of smaller currents, which don’t (I think) have such prominence. Hunting continues to some extent. Animals are still exterminated as ‘vermin’. Etc.
Finally, there is the almost unconscious wiping out of animals through habitat destruction – without setting out to bring death, expanding human populations destroy forests and break up territories and drive more and more populations to extinction. The climatic changes and disorder from global warming, and the spread of toxic pollutants, produce similar results.
What, then, about the previous, now disappearing regime? Speaking in generalities about no specific area, but with the focus still on the West, as the are of most familiarity to me, it had the following features (to the best of my imperfect knowledge):
Agriculture using animals was widespread but not yet industrial or intensive. Animal products would not be consumed by the whole population but principally by the wealthy.
Hunting was of great cultural importance. The ruling class would often spend much of its time engaged in hunting, so as to train its knights and warriors outside of human-on-human warfare. The right to hunt animals in their special killing fields was restricted.
Vivisection was almost unknown – indeed even disection of dead bodies was often suspect.
The discourse on animals was largely religious and/or mythological, seeking to project symbolic meanings relevant to human affairs onto animals, often in the absence of any reliable information. It might be said to bear the same relation to zoology that alchemy bears to chemistry, or astrology to astronomy.
Already there was extermination of animals by habitat destruction – cutting down forests, or simply expanding into new areas and hunting down the large predators because they took livestock, or the herbivores because they damaged crops.
Although pets were owned, they were far more likely to be used for some purposes – guarding, herding sheep, etc.
So, having run through that, we might ask – what overall ideological systems oversaw these activities?
I think that compared with other periods, our ideology of animals now is principally characterised by, on the one hand, a sort of splitting, what has sometimes been called ‘moral schizophrenia’ (though with little regard for the meaning of the diagnosis), and on the other hand, a systematic rationalisation and indifference in the economic exploitation of animals.
By contrast, previous ideologies tended to have a more emotional attitude towards animals, and thus one which could feature both negative and positive feelings, entirely from a human perspective, of course. For example, the predator that could threaten someone’s liveliehood was an object of fear and hatred, while the animal hunted was associated with the intense emotions of aggression and domination expressed in hunting.
In the past, people had more contact with animals, and thus it was harder for their attitudes towards them to depart far from the realities of their conduct. It’s hard to be sentimental about animals that might kill you, or which you will almost certainly kill. But equally, that contact with animals in practical life often worked against an objective impression of them, because they were seen through the lens of human needs.
Nowadays, most people have very little direct contact with animals apart from pets, and so it’s easier to develop an affectionate and caring relationship to them – precisely because one is insulated from the unimaginable death machine from which one’s food and other commodities emerge.
The rise of science has had a double significance – on the one hand, it has allowed more extensive use of animals as resources, both through agricultural technology and through the emergence of vivisection. On the other hand, it has meant a more accurate and objective knowledge of animals and their wild behaviour, as well as the ways in which our actions are destroying their lives.
This has prompted a bizarre splitting in our ideas of animals – dogs, for example, a lovely animal who we care about, and tigers are beautiful animals we want to preserve, but rats and chickens can be manufactured and killed in their billions. Unlike other such splits (e.g. ‘hard working poor’ vs. ‘welfare queens and chavs’), the negative side isn’t actually disliked or hated – it is simply “dehumanised” (yes, animals can be dehumanised) and made the object of complete indifference.
This change, this splitting of animals into cuddly dogs, beautiful tigers, and worthless chickens, is a result of the advancing division of labour. As technology increases, dealing practically with animals shrinks to a speciality, while dealing theoretically with them opens up as a speciality. This is the objective basis of almost all of our ‘humaneness’ about animals, our anti-cruelty laws, our RSPCA, our Save the Whales – the division of labour that removes the mass of people (at least in developed countries) from the experience of involvement in killing animals.
Moreover, the most ‘ideological’ form of violence against animals, the one which involves the most aggression, and feelings of power, namely hunting, has diminished in importance. This is partly a result of urbanisation but I think also partly reflects the declining power of the military ruling class (aristocrats) and its replacement by an economic ruling class (businesspeople). The expression of violence against animals was needed as a safety valve when the ruling class had been trained from birth to think that their primary value and the point of their lives was to fight, kill, and die – if this was to be constantly expressed, to ensure their mental health, it would be disruptive to society. So animals were made the punching bag.
This function is to some extent retained but not for an economic class – rather, for a sexual class, men. It is overwhelmingly men who hunt, because it is overwhelmingly men who have been socialised to judge their worth by their capacity for violence. One of the stabilising by-products of this is hunting.
In general though the expansion of human power and urbanisation has made this less feasible, and so other means of pacification are needed – provided by various aspects of consumer society. Animals feature heavily in this too, as a source of commodities, but here we see perhaps one of the biggest shifts: over historical time, the phenomenon of humans going into animal habitats and killing them has declined, and been replaced with humans bringing animals into human habitats (farms, laboratories, factory-farms) and killing them.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, technological change is reflected in sociological and ideological change. It may be that these changes, such as the growth of ‘humaneness for fluffy animals’, can eventually turn around and remove the original basis, the ongoing massive oppression of animals, through the development of a revolutionary movement. Or it may not do that for centuries, until some further change has brought in new forces. I don’t know.