Towards a Marxist understanding of animal exploitation

Image sequence of a pig reportedly escaping from a slaughterhouse truck in China that went viral this week.

Jon Hochschartner | June 12, 2014

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To develop a Marxist animalism, we must situate non-humans within the labor theory of value

The vegetarian socialist George Bernard Shaw reportedly argued, "I don't need a theory of value to tell me the poor are exploited."

I'm sympathetic to Shaw's moralism, but the truth is that for animalists to effect the species politics of Marxists, who have a disproportionate ideological influence on the far left, we must learn to speak their language. While I am very far from an expert on the minutiae of communist theory, this is what I have attempted to begin doing here.

Domesticated animals, like slaves, are distinct from proletarians in that they do not sell their labor power under the pretense of free choice. Rather, they themselves are commodities. Their labor power is sold all at once, unlike proletarians' whose labor power is sold in increments. "The slave did not sell his labour-power to the slave-owner, any more than the ox sells his labour to the farmer," Karl Marx said. "The slave, together with his labour-power, was sold to his owner once for all. He is a commodity that can pass from the hand of one owner to that of another. He himself is a commodity, but his labour-power is not his commodity."

Within Marxism, necessary labor is that work needed to reproduce the exploited's labor power. In the human context, it's the work slaves or proletarians perform to create the equivalent of their livelihood. All work over and above this is surplus labor, unremunerated toiling which creates profits for the slave master or capitalist. Domesticated animals also perform necessary and surplus labor for their owners. When an animal exploiter purchases a non-human, he is not only purchasing the animal herself, but a lifetime of her labor power, which is used to create commodities that include — among others — her offspring, her secretions, and her own flesh. Her necessary labor would be that required to create the equivalent of her food and shelter. Her surplus labor would be all that beyond this, which is used to enrich her owner.

Within Marxism, there are two different methods with which slave masters or capitalists can increase the surplus value their laborers produce. Absolute surplus value is obtained by increasing the overall amount of time laborers work in a particular period. For instance, a slavemaster or capitalist might increase the length of the working day or allow fewer days off a year. Meanwhile, relative surplus value is created by the lowering the amount of work dedicated to necessary labor in proportion to that dedicated to surplus labor. For instance, a slave master or capitalist might reduce what constitutes their laborers' livelihood or increase their laborers' productivity.

Domesticated animals' surplus labor can also be divided into the generation of absolute and relative surplus value. For instance, when a carriage horse's working day is increased from six to nine hours, absolute surplus value is produced for the animal exploiter. In contrast, relative surplus value is created when chickens' productivity is increased through genetic manipulation and the introduction of growth drugs. Similarly, relative surplus value is produced by lowering the cost of chickens' livelihood through intensive confinement.

Of course, what constitutes liberation for slaves or proletarians is different than what constitutes liberation for domesticated animals. Whereas the ultimate economic goal for human laborers is social control of the means of production, domesticated animals, were they able, would presumably not want to seize, say, a factory farm and run it for themselves. They would want to be removed from the production process entirely.