Why Socialism and Animal Welfare Are Compatible

Why the left needs to care about animals, and how we can do it while also fighting for humans.

Animals suffer. They feel pain. They feel fear. They don’t want to die. Unfortunately, an almost incomprehensible amount of them suffer and die in painful ways each and every day. 

According to one estimate, over 63 billion animals are slaughtered each year. Many of those animals are kept in horrific conditions before their deaths, but, even if an animal is allowed to go out to graze peacefully in a field before being slaughtered, death is still rather a cruel act. One cannot “humanely” kill a healthy living creature for the obvious reason that said creature does not want to die (at the very least, its consent in the matter cannot be meaningfully obtained).

At best, meat is a necessary evil. I am a white man who does not live in a food desert and who doesn’t have any particular health issues; I get by without eating animal products just fine. I can acknowledge that I am situated in a place of privilege, however, and that many, perhaps the majority of people, are not so secure. They are the ones who do live in food deserts, who do have health conditions that make a vegan or vegetarian diet unsustainable. I am fully committed to the belief that all human life has value, and that people need to get their sustenance wherever they can get it. It is not for the privileged to tell everyone else how to live.

With that said, it is still clear that animals are harmed when they are exploited and killed for meat and other products, and that this harm should be reduced whenever possible. I do not believe it is right for healthy, well-situated human beings to eat animal products that come from violence if they do it solely for the pleasure, for the taste, that comes from eating those products. A human’s life might rightly be said to come before the life of an animal—if I could only save one from a burning building, I’d save a human over a mouse—but a human’s desire for pleasure cannot trump an animal’s need for life, especially because pleasure can be gotten elsewhere. We don’t accept the notion that humans should be allowed to make dogs fight to the death because it brings those humans enjoyment, and we should similarly reject the idea that “bacon tastes good” is a reasonable justification for the torture and slaughter of billions of pigs.

So what is the answer? Not long ago, I saw a promising report that claimed that, by 2040, 60 percent of meat “will be either grown in vats or replaced by plant-based products that look and taste like meat.” Vegan alternatives are being normalized all the time; the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are now served at fast food restaurants and they’re growing ice cream in labs for goodness’ sake! These are all good signs, and I hope we see such trends continue until we arrive in a future where no animal has to be kept in horrid conditions, and no living creature has to suffer, in order to satisfy the human desire for pleasure.

My fear, however, is that, even in a future where it is technologically possible and practical to produce all of our meat without slaughter, animals will still be killed for food by human beings who live in areas of deprivation. Food deserts exist in the United States. In the Global South, where many struggle to live on the equivalent of less than $11 a day, the food system has been ravaged by imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. Capitalism is, after all, an incredibly cruel and wasteful system where, to name just one abuse, millions of dairy cows are kept in confined spaces, often unable to see the sun, and forced to have their newborn calves taken away, causing them psychological distress (moreover, the male calves are promptly killed). This cruel process might be justifiable if it resulted in the end of world hunger, but cows are tortured for their entire lives only for companies to dump millions of tons of milk in order to keep prices up while millions of Americans go hungry. Profit, not the well-being of people, nor that of workers, and certainly not that of animals, drives the production of food under capitalism; if a company will reap a larger profit by charging more money to fewer people, then that is the course it will take.

Widespread animal and human welfare are incompatible with capitalism because it is an economic system that prizes wealth for a few at the expense of the great many. As a species, we need to transition from capitalism into democratic socialism; we need an economic model that puts power into the hands of working people and continues to produce enough for everyone while at the same time ensuring that the goods produced are actually distributed to those who need them. We should ensure a decent standard of living for all humans because all humans deserve a decent standard of living, but also because this would create the conditions for the end of abusive animal farming practices and slaughterhouses. If everyone’s nutrition needs were met, and met with cell-/plant-based “meats,” then no longer would we need to cause billions of sentient creatures to suffer every year. This is not a world we can build overnight, but it is one that needs to be built. We cannot continue to justify the abuse and murder of animals if there are other viable avenues for feeding the world, but the world can only be fed if we prioritize people’s needs over private greed.

Far too often, animal welfare advocates and socialists are framed as being fundamentally in opposition to each other. The former have a nasty habit of slipping into racist and/or classist modes of thought, blaming people in impoverished areas for their consumption practices while ignoring the underlying capitalist system that creates the conditions of impoverishment in the first place. Certainly, wherever possible, an individual should abstain from consuming animal products because of the horrendous treatment that animals experience under factory farming, but factory farming is not a problem caused by individuals. Rather, it is a symptom of the much larger disease that is capitalism, whose ruthless “efficiency” (read: desire and ability to maximize the profit of shareholders no matter the harm done to humans or animals) forces living beings into outrageously cruel conditions. Animal welfare activists miss a huge part of the picture when they protest the treatment of cows in slaughterhouses but not the treatment of workers in slaughterhouses. These are some of the most vulnerable people in the country, the working poor and immigrants, and the conditions they face on a daily basis are appalling. Beyond the violent and psychologically harmful experience of chopping up animals, slaughterhouse workers strain—and sometimes ruin—their bodies. As journalist Peggy Lowe writes:

[T]he furious pace of the work causes a set of chronic physical ailments called musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, an array of injuries to workers’ muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves, that cause sprains, strains, or inflammation…

[One worker] stuffed 7- to 10-pound hams in bags, at times up to 50 hams a minute. Starting with a wage of $11.50 an hour, she worked 12-hour shifts, sometimes seven days a week. She was awarded employee of the month four times.

Then, she started experiencing problems in her right shoulder. After reporting the pain to her supervisors, they told her that if she was injured, she should go home.

“The supervisors were very nasty,” she says. “They wanted everything fast, they wanted to produce a lot of quantity. They didn’t care about the people.”

And it would seem that conditions in slaughterhouses are only getting worse. The Trump administration has rolled back regulations that offered some protection for workers in pig slaughterhouses. The regulatory rollback now means that plants can order increases to “line speeds,” requiring more pigs be slaughtered per minute, which puts an increased strain on workers’ bodies and runs the risk of spreading disease because of the decrease in oversight. Kelsey Piper writes that in one plant, video evidence showed “obvious safety concerns, such as pigs with gaping wounds and dripping pus being sent down the slaughter line, as well as pigs covered in feces.”

The treatment of those pigs is heartbreakingly cruel, yet to have sympathy solely for the animals in slaughterhouses and not the workers who are living on the razor’s edge of poverty, and who must deal with conditions that are hazardous to their health, is to do a disservice to one’s fellow humans. Caring for animals should be a complement to caring for human beings, not a replacement, and animal welfare advocates are in the wrong when they ignore the human toll of meat production.

Socialists, however, can also be similarly dismissive of animal welfare concerns. As far back as the Communist Manifesto, leftists have portrayed advocates for animals as being frivolous and ignoring the “real” welfare issues in society (e.g., the aforementioned treatment of workers). This position, too, misses the mark; to be concerned with animal welfare is not frivolous because animal lives are not trivial. All sentient life—creatures that can think and feel, that can enjoy existence and fear death—deserves consideration and protection. This position is based off a simple moral intuition: that it is wrong to cause unnecessary pain and suffering. If that is true, it should not matter if suffering is inflicted on a pig or on a human; it is suffering all the same. To be confronted by a living thing in pain is to be confronted with something one recognizes to be wrong. Unfortunately, so much animal pain is hidden away from public view and, consequently, written off.

Ultimately, I believe that animal welfare advocates and socialists are, or ought to be, natural allies more than enemies. Both groups recognize that there is much unjust suffering in the world that can and should be brought to an end. The suffering that the two groups oppose are complementary—again, animals and workers suffer in the cruel conditions of the slaughterhouse, and resources that could go towards feeding human beings instead are inefficiently used to fatten livestock before slaughter—and, as that is the case, the efforts to combat them must also be complementary. We need to create a society that minimizes suffering, including the suffering of animals. To do that, we need human beings to have the security to walk away from dangerous working conditions, like slaughterhouses, and this necessitates a democratic socialism that ensures healthcare, housing, and good jobs for all. Furthermore, we need people to be able to get their nutrition, and their pleasure in food, from non-animal sources, and this means we need a society that prioritizes the general welfare of all people over profits for a small few. Animals should no longer be exploited and made to suffer by humans, and neither should humans be exploited and made to suffer by humans. Exploitation is the nature of the capitalist beast, and, until we get rid of it, both humans and animals will be seen as little more than pieces of meat.

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