As I sat in my social theories class earlier this week, I listened to my professor introduce a theorist I was already familiar with, Karl Marx. Although I did find Marx intriguing when I first learned about him in a previous class, I did not find this particular lecture on early capitalism very engaging. That is until my professor began to explain a concept regarding the division of labor that sounded oddly similar to another subject I have been studying. The concept she described is referred to as the alienation of a species-being which is, the process of humans and animals alike no longer being able to relate to their own nature in the same way.
Essentially, it is the idea that estranged labor applies not only to human laborers but to animal laborers as well. I was immediately drawn to this concept and my interest grew as she went on. Although the lecture did not go into full detail about the exploitation of animal workers, I began to connect the dots myself.
The symbiotic relationship between humans and animals has been severed as a result of capitalism. Animals have alienated from relationships with humans as a consequence of only having instrumental value to humans; animals are used as a means to an end, the end being a greater capacity for production to meet human needs. Of course, this was not a ground-breaking discovery I had made, it was a fact that had been established by theorists, such as Marx, and animal rights activists several decades ago.
But, I might not have made this connection between animal and human relationships on my own if I had not been in this class. While I am not naïve to the inhumane conditions that animals among farm factories and the dairy industry endure, I was ignorant to the intolerable and cruel living conditions that animals in medical research labs endure to meet the never-ending needs of humans. In our class reading, The Emotional Lives of Animals (2007), Marc Bekoff sheds light on the painful physical modifications animals undergo in order to enhance their productivity.
Bekoff describes the inevitable stress reactions animals living in such conditions develop which are then combated with further physical modifications (Bekoff,pg.25). Jasper, the moon bear whom Bekoff had dedicated his book to, was previously a victim of repeated torture for his bile that was used in China for various medicines. Jasper was kept in a torturous devise known as a “crush cage”, designed to compress his body to maximize the amount of bile produced (Bekoff, pg.25). Deprived of the opportunity to live his life as he naturally would have either as an individual or as a member of his own species’ social group, Jasper was denied moral consideration and alienated from his species-being.
Not only did Jasper become estranged from his species-being and character, he also became estranged from the product of his labor. The bile that Jasper and other moon bears alike had worked to produce was no longer theirs, it was now a product for human consumerism. Unfortunately, early capitalism has taught laborers to view animals as machines, incapable of feeling pain, possessing only instrumental value to humans rather than intrinsic value. As a consequence, humans have fallen into an alienation of species-being, of product, of labor, and of man. These estrangements stem from the holistic relationship between humans, nature and animals being severed. In other words, humans are, to a degree, animals and when humans are alienated from nature and other animals, it is in turn damaging to themselves because they are being taken away from their species-being and natural character.
With that being said, it is clear that under capitalism, animals exist within social relations to humans and produce products of their own labor. Therefore, both animals and humans can be alienated from their labor, the products of their labor, themselves and others with whom they share a social circle. I think it is crucial to emphasize how my professor explained a worker’s labor producing not only commodities but how the labor produces the workers as a commodity in itself. As most of us already know, a producer’s labor embodies the object or product of their labor. Keeping that concept in mind, we can reasonably suggest that a worker places his life in the object; but as a result, their life no longer belongs to them, it belongs to the object. In other words, producers or laborers lives go into the production of commodities in that they spend a very real portion of their lives in producing these commodities.
My professor focused primarily on human laborers but I was able to make a parallel comparison with animals being laborers, putting the entirety of their lives into producing and becoming the commodity. If we understand that the labor process in a capitalist society turns the power and capacitates of the laborer against him or herself then it is easy to understand this concept by simply looking at the dairy industry. Dairy cows are alienated from the product of their labor because the cow puts her whole life and existence into the product and the milk no longer belongs to the cow or to her calf. The dairy cow is also alienated from the production activity in that the cow’s only purpose in existence is to produce milk and offspring to replace her in the production system.
Alienation from species-being and natural character comes from the estrangement from the cow’s natural habitat, suitable food, and basic life activities. Most importantly, to tie the labor back to humans, the cows are alienated from social relationships with members of their own species and of those in their social circle i.e. humans as they are increasingly becoming mechanically run in order to manage a large-scale production. Prior to learning about instrumental and intrinsic value in this class I may not have been able to make these connections between the roles of animals and humans within a capitalist society.
Bekoff furthered my understanding of the alienation of labor and species-being when describing the use of numbers rather than names for animals in a New York University Lab. This particular strategy is used as a way for researchers to distance themselves from the animals they exploit (Bekoff, pg.27). It was shocking for me to read about how researchers have acknowledged that the animals in their labs are sentient, meaning they are capable of feeling pain and suffering as well as other emotions, yet continue to mistreat and exploit them.
With how interconnected our lives are with animals I think there is a level of respect, compassion and moral consideration that needs to be met. As Bekoff so flawlessly explained, “compassion begets compassion, caring for and loving animals spills over into compassion and caring for humans” (Bekoff, pg.25), it is important to recognize this umbrella of compassion for each being especially when we live in a capitalist society. Without compassion, it is evident that the natural relationship between animals and humans will continue to be severed. This class has begun to expand my knowledge on more than just issues of animal rights, it has helped me understand the world around me and how our interactions with animals play a bigger role than I had thought in our political and social lives.