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PORKOPOLIS: The brutality of factory farming demands we rethink our relationship to animals

Like a living, inverted panopticon, hundreds of pigs would watch their handlers from their pens with a petrifying gaze. 'They look like they are not looking at you, but if you look at their eyes, you will see that they are always following you.'

TROY VETTESE: “Never look a hog in the eyes,” an experienced hand told anthropologist Alex Blanchette as they prepared to artificially inseminate sows. “If the animals think you are looking at them, they will freeze.” Like a living, inverted panopticon, hundreds of pigs would watch their handlers from their pens with a petrifying gaze. “They have almost 360 degrees vision,” a former worker recollected. “Sometimes they look like they are not looking at you. . . . but if you look at their eyes, you will see that they are always following you.”

Blanchette’s new ethnographic study of modern factory farming, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm, is in many ways a meditation on seeing—or what we fail to see. Often we struggle to detect the meat industry’s traces, be they fecal particles suspended in the air or the porcine pathogens that suffuse the environs of “concentrated feeding animal operations” (CAFOs), where thousands of animals are kept indoors for long periods to speed up production. CAFOs made up only a small share of farms as late as the 1970s but now produce the vast majority of America’s meat, eggs, and milk.

Blanchette stresses that the factory farm he studied didn’t just make pork; it also produced the ingredients for gel-covered pills, yellow fizzy drinks, cosmetics, and computers. There might be gelatin in the book’s cover, he tells his readers, and dead pigs in its ink and paper. Perception also shapes the pig business in other significant, if less material, ways. Captains of industry rely on statistical modeling and price signals from the world market as they constantly reshape their herds… The hog factory farms prefigured the future it created and the present we now endure—a world locked down to preserve the industrial exploitation of animals…

Blanchette recognizes that the meat industry isn’t a macabre exception but rather is typical of contemporary capitalism, even if its extremes make contemporary tendencies more readily apparent. Like the bodies of the pigs it has engineered, the meat business has become a vast, fragile beast teetering on the brink of ecological and financial ruin…

The environmental historian Thomas Fleischman’s Communist Pigs: An Animal History of East Germany’s Rise and Fall provides a fruitful countervailing narrative to Blanchette’s Porkopolis. East Germany’s industrialized pork industry, Fleischman reasons, shows that the factory farm was not the result of a specific economic system but rather a “modernist” impulse that spanned the Cold War divide. After all, the East German pork industry was plagued by toxic pig-shit lagoons and epidemics that bear more than a passing resemblance to what we see in present-day Iowa and North Carolina. In this way, Communist Pigs fits into the broader literature that studies how capitalist technologies were employed in a socialist context…

Although Fleischman does not delve into the debate over “state capitalism,” one can see in the endnotes that the ur-source of the idea is British Trotskyist Tony Cliff, who came up with the term in the 1940s to interpret Stalinism as an economy where the state bureaucracy played the role of the absent bourgeoise. While state socialism lacked the mechanism of profit, the drive for accumulation was propelled by the need to keep up militarily with rival states… Fleischman’s enjoyable and intelligent study convincingly demonstrates how the pork industry was integral to the rise and fall of East German socialism…

Thirty years separate Blanchette’s and Fleischman’s stories, and the strides made by the meat industry in that time are astonishing… The capitalist meat industry may be balanced on a tightrope, but its socialist imitator would fall soon enough on a rope that could never quite get taut enough. That is not to say that capitalist firms cannot fall too, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear. Their hyper-efficiency has left firms with little slack in their operations, leading the whole enterprise simply to collapse.

Unable to run their finely tuned machines as more and more slaughterhouse workers get sick at what have become the pandemic’s hotspots, livestock firms will simply have to “euthanize” millions of animals. The pandemic marks a rare instance when global meat consumption has fallen, albeit by only 3 percent. Especially now, when we live in a world unraveled by zoonotic illness, it should be clear that inter-species solidarity is essential to any vision of a just society. SOURCE…

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