Under capitalism, humans are exploited as workers. Capitalists hire workers to produce for them, but never pay workers the full value of their efforts. Instead, the capitalists use their position as owners of the means of production to skim off a part of the value we produce. This is how they make profits.
Capitalists also treat animals as a means to an end; as things to be squeezed for as much profit as possible. Animals are not considered as beings that are able to think or experience feelings. They are only useful to capitalists if they help produce something that can be sold or if they themselves can be turned into a product for sale.
Capitalists also view animals as something that is supplied endlessly and for free by nature.
The capitalists that run the meat industry earn billions from killing animals. Every year in Australia, 520-620 million animals are killed while the beef industry alone makes almost $17 billion.
Animal agriculture has reached this scale because capitalism is driven by profit, not by need. It could not have reached this level of production if the profit motive was absent. The existence of overproduction demonstrates this.
Capitalism’s endless crusade for profit means, today, so many animals are killed that 26% of all meats that enter the United States retail market end up in landfills. This corresponds to roughly more than 25 billion fish, 15 billion shellfish, 1 billion chickens and 100 million other land animals ending up in garbage bins.
Harmful to all
Animals on factory farms are packed together by the thousands in confined spaces, where they are deprived of fresh air, sunlight and any kind of joy. But factory farms are not only harmful to animals — they are damaging to workers and the environment.
Farm factory workers are forced to work extremely quickly and slaughter hundreds, sometimes thousands, of animals each day. These factories smell like warm blood and bleach. Many workers throw up on their first day; others simply leave. There is a high level of alienation needed for workers to be able to harm and kill creatures capable of suffering.
Writing in Metro in 2017, British journalist Ashitha Nagesh explained: “The psychological toll this takes on a person cannot be underestimated. Slaughterhouse work has been linked to a variety of disorders, including PTSD and the lesser-known PITS (perpetration-induced traumatic stress). It has also been connected to an increase in crime rates, including higher incidents of domestic abuse, as well as alcohol and drug abuse.”
Studies have also shown higher than average levels of child abuse and domestic violence in communities with abattoirs.
Animal products not only lead to the death of animals, they sometimes contribute to human deaths. In the drive to minimise the cost of production, unsafe feeding methods have led to widespread outbreaks of diseases such as salmonella, listeria and E.coli. Numerous health reports state that meat consumption is not healthy for humans.
Capitalism centralises and monopolises food production. It allows individuals to use up huge amounts of resources and facilitates the privatisation of land, water and other resources, all in the name of profits.
Animal agriculture has displaced entire communities — one-third of the Earth’s land is now devoted to it. It has led to deforestation, pollution, the disappearance of wildlife and diminished water reserves.
Smithfield Foods is the world's largest pork producer. Its huge operations have wiped out small farmers in the US, Eastern Europe and Africa. In 1997, it was fined $12.6 million for a toxic waste spill at a Virginia, US, facility that was twice as big as the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, US.
The animal industry’s huge ecological devastation is irrational. Moreover, it is directly contributing to environmental catastrophe.
The environmental crisis has reached such a scale that, today, it threatens the survival of the planet and all species on it. The carbon footprint of the meat industry and its huge consumption of natural resources is another compelling reason for Marxists to take up this issue.
A Marxist critique of society remains incomplete if it does not consider the fact that, to make profits, capitalists have to not only exploited workers but also nature and animals. At the same time, the current level of development of production and technology provides us with the opportunity to end all human-produced exploitation.
Many animal liberationists have written moving accounts in which they explain how the debasement of animals is legitimised or hidden to protect those harming them. But they do not explain why animals are exploited. They provide descriptions of the existing relationship between humans and animals but cannot explain why this relationship exists.
Some activists consider the main problem to be people’s mistaken ideas on animals. Yet this does not explain how their status as property came to be or why animal exploitation took on the highly technological, industrialised form it has. There is also no clarity as to in whose interests animals are being exploited.
Marxists say that animals are not exploited because they are deemed them to be inferior, but rather that animals are deemed to be inferior because they are exploited. Saying animals are inferior is used as a justification for maltreatment.
According to Karl Marx: “The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for and practical debasement of nature.” This contempt extends to animals as well.
Capitalists have degraded nature and animals, converting them into tools for production at their disposal. This debased view of animals is enshrined in law. Consequently, it is lawful for humans to treat animals as their property.
As with all industries, the main beneficiaries of all this are the small group of corporate monopolies that take home all the profit.
Taking the individual choice to change one’s diet cannot solve this issue. While there are more vegan products today than 30 years ago, approximately 75% more animals are being slaughtered.
Substituting one’s diets from one reliant on capitalist meat production to one reliant on capitalist plant production is not enough to end the destruction of the planet. We need to dismantle the engine of the system causing animal suffering and deaths.
German Marxist animal liberation group, Dawn Association argues: “Society has arrived at a stage where there is no longer a necessity for socially produced suffering. We know that suffering is something that humans share with animals and that we have the possibility to abolish it.
“Capitalism produces false needs and meat consumption nowadays, at least in the capitalist centres, is one of these false needs. The movement for liberation must include the liberation of animals.”
Today, more than ever, humans have the choice not to cause harm or suffering to other species. What we do to animals is unnecessary, intolerable and avoidable, but to end these practices requires challenging the system that is at the heart of the cruelty.