Dead (organic) chicken and the late capitalism. Humanimal relations in the age of consumerism

by Gabriela Jarzebowska

When Henry Ford as a young man visited a Chicago slaughterhouse he probably didn’t realize the global consequences it would entail. He was only looking for effective solutions which could made his factory more productive and, as a consequence, make more money in a shorter time span. The procedure of killing, skinning, cutting up and, finally, packaging of dead animal bodies, which followed several strictly rigorous phases of production, where specific workers dealt only with specific tasks, seemed to provide a perfect answer to his needs. What if he could divert this process and, instead of dismantling the whole to pieces, put the separate parts together, using the same methods as butchers do? He followed through with his plan. This is how assembly line was invented – a groundbreaking moment for the development of global capitalism.

The entanglement of contemporary meat production with neoliberal discourse was widely recognized by activists and academics. But there is more to it than just drawing comparisons based on the assembly line metaphor, which in fact may be far-fetched and accidental. The inspiration given by meat industry to the father of 20th century capitalism can be seen as pivotal for animal condition in the neoliberal world. And this is definitely more than just an apt metaphor. The system makes it quite explicit that animals are not just like commodities. They literally are commodities. Their bodies are situated at the very center of capitalist logic, which strives to make ‘the best’ of them, which in fact means providing only enough sanitary and welfare conditions for the animals so that they remain alive before the time to be slaughtered comes. The comparison of contemporary meat and dairy production to Nazi concentration camps, developed by Patterson in his influential book, may seem controversial. However, if we scrutinize the logic of both phenomena, we will realize they seem strikingly parallel. The extreme objectification of animal bodies means that they are only allowed to live on condition that they serve the purpose, which is a final product that people consume. And the logic of consumerism assumes that the product must be ready to use at all times, immediately, with no delay and, last but not least, cheap. The restraints of animals’ bodily conditions are not a problem anymore. They can be overcome by selective breeding and genetic modifications, which create trans-animal hybrids: milk cows with huge udders, chickens with breasts so overgrown that the bird can hardly move or ‘Schwarzenegger-like’ bulls. Animal welfare conditions are improved rarely and reluctantly. Wellbeing of a commodity sounds absurd in capitalist logic where the profit plays the most significant, if not the only truly respected  role in the values’ checklist.

Richard Bulliet in Hunters, herders and hamburgers. The past and future of human-animals relations presents three phases in which human civilization developed: predomesticity, domesticity and postdomesticity. The second phase, which is crucial as regards to the relations between humans and animals, began after Neolithic revolution which is when agriculture and pasteralism appeared. This moment or, to be precise, process marks a groundbreaking change in human-animal relations. Cows, sheep, goats and chickens became a part of humanimal community. Serving people’s needs as suppliers of meat and dairy products at the same time they were held in some degree of respect. This situation changed sweepingly in the age of industrialization. The  growth of cities and decrease in rural population made it harder for most people, at least in Europe and the US, to sustain meaningful and respectful relations with farm animals. In fact, many people nowadays have never seen any of them in a form other than ready-to-use, packaged food, almost entirely devoid of any traces of corporeality. That makes it difficult not only to form any kind of relation with the animal, but even to fully realize that the meatball on our plate was ever alive.

The dichotomy of traditional (extensive, humane and respect-based) versus factory farming (intensive, inhumane and based on profit-driven urges) in animal production seems to be challenged by a recent trend of organic meat and dairy products. On the one hand, it can be seen as a humane alternative to atrocities of industrialized meat production. Most ‘organic’ farmers claim that the animals are raised with care and love, and die quickly and with dignity. On the other hand, one can ask whether anything like ‘killing with love’ is possible. This question may seem problematic or, perhaps, even naive when related to traditional pastoral and hunter-gatherer societies. However, it can have far-reaching consequences in the context of Western capitalist societies. When we imagine global capitalism as an ever-changing, tentacular and all-absorbing system, we can clearly see how a discourse of care is gradually being appropriated by its logic. The organic meat is not just humane. The ethical, sustainable way it is produced makes it tastier and healthier. As a consequence, it is better  for us. Concluding that this ‘peace-and-love’ narrative aims to gloss over the hard realities of life-and-death interspecies dependency would be stopping halfway. In fact, it covers much more than this. It can be seen as the avant-garde of capitalist logic – smart, ever changing and flexible, possessing the ability to internalize the trends and tendencies seemingly contradictory to its core values.

This is not to say that the phenomenon of organic meat production should not be appreciated. On the contrary. Free-range animals kept in good sanitary conditions, able to behave in their natural way and not suffering unnecessary pain – all these issues make a significant shift in humanimal relations away from extreme forms of objectification seen in factory farming. The questions that arise, though, are as follows: can capitalism ever be amended? If so, can it  truly internalize values other than maximizing profit? Is the return to the values of ‘domesticity’ possible when it comes to humanimal relations? Or perhaps we should follow the opposite direction, prioritizing the production of in-vitro meat whose logic can be seen as a hybrid of animal welfare (we would not have to kill ‘real’ animals any more) and radical commoditization of their bodies (but ‘whose’ bodies?). The ontology of a semi-living chicken breast is another fascinating (and yet, ethically challenging) topic when it comes to the future of our relations with other species.  But this is a different story.

Further reading

Bulliet  W. R.,  Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers. The Past and Future of Human-animals Relations, New York 2005

Patterson, Ch., Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, New York 2002

Shukin N., Animal Capital. Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times, Minneapolis 2009

Twine R., Animals as Biotechnology. Ethics, Sustainability and Critical Animal Studies, Washington 2010

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