Recently Idaho became the seventh state in the US to pass an ag-gag law. The bill, approved by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor C.L. Otter with a rarely seen lightning speed, makes it illegal to record video or investigate inside farms for the purpose of exposing animal cruelty. The new law comes in the wake of a disturbing film shot and released by the non-profit Mercy for Animals following an under cover investigation it conducted at a large Idaho dairy farm. The penalties for violating the new law are stricter than the penalties for the illegal acts of animal cruelty that animal rights activists and undercover investigators hope to expose.
According to Mercy for Animals, which sends agents to secure evidence of animal cruelty, nearly every investigation at factory farm sites reveals some form of animal cruelty or illegal animal abuse. Idaho’s new ag-gag law criminalizes such investigations in the state.
One might be led to believe that Mercy for Animals, which dedicates private resources to exposing illegal activity in the factory farm industry, would be celebrated and thanked for its efforts by state governments. Yet this belief fails to take into account the bourgeois nature of the state, which is ultimately a mediator for divergent bourgeois interests and an expression of their collective rule. Though Mercy for Animals may draw resources from an affluent minority which desires some moral assuagement, it itself is not an industry or ruling class in places like Idaho. The rapidity at which the state government moved to initiate the industry-backed ag-gag law displays in open fashion the nature of the bourgeois state: to maintain and advance the interests of an economic ruling-class.
Animal cruelty and factory farming under capitalism
Animal cruelty is an intractable fact in a system which prefaces the production of use-values on the accumulation of capital. For farms centered on profit in the modern era of capitalist-imperialism, consideration of the living, feeling, intelligent nature of non-human animals (which are part of the constant component of capital in farm industries) might ruin a particular firm in the realm of competition. If farm A but not farm B provides for some small measure of comfort for its stock of animals yet it does not find a way to offset the additional associated costs, farm A’s profitability will decline relative to farm B, and eventually the latter will overcome the former. Thus, sentient non-human lifeforms – cows, pigs, chickens, etc – are treated as a commodity whose value is positively transformed via labor-power in the production process.
In standard practice, this amounts to large warehouses where animals can barely move, often restricted in a cage barely larger than themselves, the air thick with ammonia and feces. Disease, suffocation, and trampling being prevalent, many animals die in these horrid conditions. Additionally, as the lives of the animals are regulated by industry costs, various practices are carried out with little regard for their well being – castrating piglets in a rough fashion without anesthesia, for example. In cases were surplus animals are generated, such as male chicks in the egg industry, they are killed with ruthless efficiency – in one revealed case, by being picked up from a conveyor belt and tossed into a wood-chipper.
Additionally, workers in factory farms are often from the lowest rungs of US society – migrants and immigrants – and thus have little of the legal protection enjoyed by most members of the US workforce. This has a two-fold result. First, the workers receive little incentive or reward for themselves exposing or standing against abuse and cruelty toward the industry’s sentient resources. Second, as these highly oppressed workers are themselves subject to a highly stressful (and dangerous) workplace environment and without a positive outlet for a truly progressive recourse in their class interest, this creates the perfect conditions in which workers themselves become the active agents of abuse and cruelty against animals, some of which is unnecessary even by industry standards. Unfortunately yet congruent to the function of the state, existing animal cruelty laws largely fall on such oppressed workers and rarely (except in cases of public health) penalize farm owners themselves. In all senses, capitalism is incompatible with the humane treatment of humans.
Animal rights under capitalism, a loosing battle
Though one wouldn’t realize it from today’s discourse, the concept of animal rights and humane ethics is not new. In the US, vegetarianism and veganism witnessed a boom of interest following the bloody years of the Civil War. In 1877, the American Humane Society was founded. In England, the tradition goes back further to late 18th century and the founding of several ‘royal societies’ for advocacy against animal cruelty. In all the years since and despite their efforts, cruelty toward animals has grown to industrial proportions.
The concept of ‘animal rights’ is a slippery slope. ‘Rights’ themselves are not innate, intrinsic, god-given, natural, or otherwise fixed in history. Rights, as we know them, require for their articulation, advocacy, and enforcement the movements of classes whose interests correspond with them in the context of class struggle.
Within the world-system created and centered around people, non-human animals have no independent agency and hence require advocacy on their behalf by people. That is, it is unforeseeable that whales or ocean life (for example) will engage in activity designed to alter human society in the former’s favor. Moreover, what might the affording of ‘rights’ to non-human animals mean when so-called ‘human rights’ are routinely abrogated when deemed necessary by those in power?
Thus, under capitalism, we see in law and elsewhere the supremacy of the right to accumulate, i. e. the right for factory farms to operate without interference by animal rights advocates, over the rights of non-human animals to live in conditions without cruelty and abuse.
A revolution for animal rights?
The normal solutions to animal cruelty are things like boycotting specific farm companies, adopting ‘cruelty-free’ vegan lifestyles, engagement in guilt-free employment, or petitioning elected officials to sway them in favor of legislation favoring animal rights. None of these political focuses address the root of the problem: capitalism. Those who are engaged in such politics under the belief they are somehow contributing to social change are fighting a losing battle. For the system itself, these are the ideal solutions because they exist as solutions only in the minds of people without power. As such, those in power tolerate and even promote a whole network of ‘progressive’ non-profit organizations which never question of the central features of the capitalist-imperialist system.
A realistic systemic resolution to animal cruelty can only come through a revolution against capitalism itself. No doubt, any revolution which strives to do away with oppression and classes would also seek to eliminate the projection of oppression onto non-human animals. Yet a revolution against capitalist-imperialism can not be carried out for the sole purpose of eliminating systemic non-human animal abuse and cruelty. Rather, it must address the fundamental interests of the world’s oppressed and exploited masses via the struggle against capitalist-imperialism. Only out of the struggle to eliminate oppression and exploitation of humans can a world be built without the projection of aggression and hostility onto non-human animals.
The imperialist state and state governments in the US will not be instruments for the destruction of capitalist-imperialism. Instead, capitalism will be destroyed only through the independent movement of people, in rejecting capitalist-imperialism, for the seizure of power away from the imperialist state. Before ‘animal rights’ have any more meaning beyond petty-bourgeois rhetoric, a substantive new conception of human rights must be imposed through revolution.