Our Animals, Ourselves

Sheep giving birth on red background
The Socialist Feminist Case for Animal Liberation

By Astra & Sunaura Taylor

Photos By Dylan Hausthor

Woodcuts By Sue Coe

During the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony, Joaquin Phoenix made an unusual speech as he accepted the Oscar for Best Actor. Dressed in the requisite tuxedo, he expressed gratitude and praised the competition before launching into a monologue that broke the internet. For his allotted three minutes, Phoenix held forth about the world’s problems. Environmentalism, anti-racism, indigenous rights, gender equality, queer liberation, and animal rights are not isolated campaigns, Phoenix insisted, but varying aspects of a common movement. Each is part of the “fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, or one species has the right to dominate, control, use, and exploit another with impunity.”

Social justice was having a moment in Hollywood, and the line above elicited cheers from an audience eager to signal their enlightenment. The rest of the address, however, was not greeted as warmly — particularly when Phoenix spelled out precisely the sort of interconnections he had in mind. “We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources,” Phoenix said in his halting, earnest style. His next statement was the one to put the room on edge: “We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. And then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.” Phoenix’s incrimination of beloved breakfast foods was met with bemused silence. The media, however, could not contain itself. “Joaquin Phoenix’s Heart Is in the Right Place, but That Speech Was Unhinged,” read a Vice headline. Vox called it a “sprawling sociopolitical epic.” USA Today declared his remarks “emotional, empowering, and batty.”

Indeed, if there is one thing that unites people across the political spectrum, it is a distaste for “batty” animal rights activists and vegans. At a 2019 press conference Republican Representative Rob Bishop of Utah denounced the Green New Deal while taking a theatrical bite of a cheeseburger: “If this goes through, this will be outlawed. I could no longer eat this type of thing.” In response, GND supporters tripped over themselves to insist that was not the case, affirming red meat’s sacrosanct status. 

Conservatives are terrified by the prospect of a society that truly values and decommodifies (non-fetal) life, which is why they promote an image of flesh-consuming masculinity. Unfortunately, it seems many socialists are not so different. Leftists rarely engage with the myriad problems of animal agriculture, and are often dismissive or contemptuous of those who do. In this, their views are utterly mainstream. A recent episode of the popular lefty podcast Citations Needed began with an analysis of representations of vegetarian characters in popular culture, and the result was hardly flattering — routinely played by women, they tend to be insufferable. 

Such gendered stereotyping will come as no surprise to readers of Carol Adam’s 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat, which weaves accounts of 19th century radicalism and examinations of 20th century marketing techniques into a pathbreaking work of “feminist vegetarian critical theory” (after reading Adams, you will never hear a woman say she felt treated as a “piece of meat” in the same way). Today we are often told that the animal rights movement came into being in the 1970s, birthed by the white male philosopher Peter Singer. In fact, many non-Western cultures and religions have eschewed animal products for millennia. As activist and author Aph Ko put it in a recent interview, “the power of white supremacy is that we imagine white people invented everything. White people, of course, did not invent veganism.” In the English-speaking world, many women abolitionists, suffragettes, and pacifists advocated for vegetarianism and made connections across movements and causes long before Singer (or Phoenix, for that matter) came on the scene, including the courageous abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who rejected meat in part because they thought it would hasten the “emancipation of woman from the toil of the kitchen.” Singer rode roughshod over these intellectual antecedents by distinguishing his supposedly rational arguments from all the emotional — that is, feminine — advocacy that came before it. In the 1800s, there was even a diagnosis, zoophilpsychosis, for the affliction of being overly concerned for animals, from which women were believed to disproportionately suffer. 

When Phoenix’s remarks entered our newsfeeds, we confess we cringed like countless others — but not because we thought his observations were hysterical or overwrought. We cringed because Phoenix violated an unstated precept we have spent decades trying our best to live by: to not be annoying vegans. By crashing a party of millions with talk of animal abuse, he did the very thing we have desperately attempted to avoid, albeit on a much humbler scale. While both of us have been public about our veganism, we have tried not to antagonize people lest we inadvertently hurt the cause. At countless social gatherings and restaurant outings people have asked us, “Do you mind if I eat this?” before chomping down on what was, until recently, someone else’s wing, leg, breast, or rump. Feeling it better to be disingenuous than discomfiting — lest we reinforce the stereotype that vegans are, in fact, insufferable and arrogant ascetics — we have always said no, choking back our honest thoughts to permit others to eat in peace.

Instead of being polite, Phoenix was an unabashed vegan killjoy, taking his audience on an uncomfortable journey not simply to the slaughterhouse, but to the insemination room. He was talking about milk and the reproductive and gendered violence it always entails. What made the speech so unsettling and memorable, in other words, was its latent feminist analysis. It was an analysis that spoke to the animal rights movement’s forgotten feminist roots, and — we hope — to its socialist-feminist future. We believe that the role of animal consumption has been misunderstood and that a feminist lens can help us place animal rights within a broad socialist critique of capitalism. 

Capitalism turns bodies into machines. Like their predecessors on the earliest factory lines, today’s workers are compelled to perform like robots, whether packing shipments in Amazon’s warehouses or driving for UPS or Uber. This process of mechanization and standardization affects not only the bodies of human laborers but also unwaged women, as well as cows, chickens, and pigs. If the sadistic capitalists of the world can exercise control over the minute movements of a human being stacking boxes, imagine the control that might be exerted over a rightsless creature that just wants to graze in peace. 

Silvia Federici’s 2004 feminist classic, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, exposes this fundamental dynamic. Her history of the enclosure movement emphasizes its gendered dimensions, describing the process by which capitalism slowly turned each woman into a “machine for the production of new workers.” The privatization of land by the wealthy meant denying peasants what had long been customary: communal rights to access fields and forests for subsistence. Unable to pay the exorbitant rents landowners demanded, people left the countryside to seek waged work. Family relations were restructured to serve the evolving needs of capital, with men elevated as wage-earners and other family members subordinated as dependents. Women who resisted their increased subjugation and servitude were punished with organized sexual violence, tortured as heretics and witches, and relegated to increased surveillance and regulation of their sexual and reproductive choices. In other words, the enclosure movement was not just about controlling land, but about controlling bodies and their regenerative capacities — a process, we argue, that extends to non-human animals.

Consider a pig. 

You can see the centrality of reproduction to farm life up close in Gunda, a documentary released in early 2021, from the celebrated Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky and executive produced by Phoenix. (They made contact after the actor’s Oscar speech.) Shot in black and white, without voice over or musical score, the film is restrained and observational. The opening scene shows a mother pig, Gunda, giving birth to a litter of piglets in a straw-filled barn. We witness their growth, while briefly encountering other creatures of the farm—a herd of cows eager to be let out to pasture, a flock of chickens exploring the yard. We watch Gunda as she watches her offspring, and see how much effort and patience is required to nurse and nurture them. She snuggles, sniffs, and suckles her young and they become stronger and more playful. Toward the end, the inevitable happens. A truck drives up and her babies, loaded into a crate, suddenly disappear. We don’t see the humans or what happens to the piglets. Instead we spend the remainder of the film with Gunda as she struggles to come to terms with her loss. As she races around her pen, checking and re-checking, we see an animal robbed of something that never actually belonged to her. She is a piece of property and so are her progeny. Nothing was given or taken, only owned and sold.

We are sold a sanitized and idealized image of farm life. As is the case with human labor, the reproductive dimensions of meat, milk, and egg production too often go ignored.

Objectively, Gunda has a good life for a pig, though the film shows that’s not saying much. The vast majority of sows, or female pigs, whose sole role in life it is to reproduce a continual supply of new pigs, live in a space no bigger than a refrigerator, which is all the more disturbing when you realize some industry pigs are easily over 500 lb. A sow will spend most of her pregnancy in a gestation crate, too small for her to take more than a few steps in. She will then be moved to a farrowing crate, praised by industry rather sadistically for its “comfort” — a nursing sow in a farrowing crate is able only to stand or lie down, her teats protruding into a separate section where her piglets are kept. After five weeks, when her young are unceremoniously taken, she will be artificially inseminated, and the cycle will begin again. Along with whatever emotional suffering she is undoubtedly experiencing, she will continually experience urinary and vaginal infections, increased susceptibility to disease (thus the antibiotics in her feed), and physical disability due to inactivity. A sow, in other words, lives in a sort of disabling dystopia of reproductive violence, where her capacities to grow and nurture young are reduced to mechanical processes and mere profit margin. 

This process is officially known as commodity animal production. “Consolidation and ever-tightening margins drove the meat industry to discover new efficiencies and untapped profits in the bodies of livestock animals,” write Gabriel N. Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz in a 2020 essay for the New Republic. Artificial insemination was a key breakthrough, and became widespread after World War II to improve the productivity of dairy cattle. Today, thousands of low-wage laborers spend their days forcibly inserting objects into female animals’ genitals to impregnate them; for cattle the process involves technicians inserting an arm into a cow’s anus to manually flatten the bovine cervix prior to insertion of a so-called breeding gun. The practice allows farmers “to guarantee that animals breed on the market’s clock rather than their own biological one,” Rosenberg and Dutkiewicz explain. Labor is induced so animals give birth during regular working hours, literally laboring on the clock. Under the commodity system, the estrous cycles of entire barns of animals can be synced in a standardized process that yields standardized results. 

Alex Blanchette’s exhaustive and harrowing ethnographic study of modern factory farming, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm documents the human labor that mass artificial insemination requires, including the “imitative substitution of boar presence and behavior.” Managers call this process “stimulation;” some pig production textbooks refer to the extensive human-animal contact required on industrial farms as “courtship.” In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams, who despises euphemisms, calls these kinds of encounters “rape.” 

Blanchette also explores the industry’s dependence on a pharmaceutical compound known as pregnant mare serum gonadotropin (PMSG), “an indispensable tool in the artificial insemination of pigs on North American factory farms.” Companies populate privately owned South American forests with thousands of semi-wild horses, known as blood mares, a cost-effective method of keeping them that does not involve food or veterinary care. “On these blood-and-timber plantations, there are only three direct stages of human intervention: impregnation, weekly blood extractions over the initial few months of pregnancy, and then abortion,” Blanchette writes. Long brown hoses bleed the gaunt horses, a process, Blanchette reports, only 70 percent survive, after which they are “returned to the woods to begin the cycle anew.” A serum made from their processed blood, injected into sow necks, shaves off a handful of what the pork industry calls “un-productive days,” jumpstarting gestation so humans can get to work imitating boars and violating sows on a tightly controlled schedule. 

The genteel phrase “animal husbandry” is thus surprisingly apt when one recognizes the sexual, reproductive, and economic exploitation animals are forced to endure. Marriage, after all, emerged as both a patriarchal system and a way of transferring property — land, livestock, wealth, and women. A “husband” was a “master” who had a right to do with his possessions what he willed, a power dynamic that still holds when a husband’s partners and property are unconsenting creatures. Yet somehow consumers of all political persuasions still believe that animals “give” us meat, milk, and eggs, and that the relationship between domesticated animal and farmer is natural, and can be justified when built around care and love. 

Narratives of emotional attachment are central to our myths about our consumption of animal products, just as they are to our myths about marriage and the home. Feel-good stories told to children, and clung to by countless adults, imply that animals painlessly and instinctually bestow meat, milk, and eggs on farmers in return for care and protection, conjuring a semblance of a fair exchange. While there are no doubt farmers who care for and even love their animals, love is not an apolitical feeling, particularly when the one who is loved is a commodity. As political theorist Claire Jean Kim has poignantly observed, “With respect to animals, it is far too easy for us to confuse what feels good to us emotionally” — or, we might add, what benefits us economically — with honoring or acting in accordance with their “needs, desires, and interests.”

As Federici once told us, her scholarly work emerged from her activism, theory following practice. In the 1970s — around the time Peter Singer was elaborating his theories of animal rights — Federici was part of a movement called Wages for Housework in New York City. Practically, they were an international alliance of feminists who, in various ways, demanded to be compensated for their work in the home. Philosophically, they sought to augment classical Marxism, revealing the centrality of gendered labor to capitalism, specifically reproductive labor and also care work that generally goes unvalued and unpaid. The Marxist focus on waged labor, they insisted, ignores all the forms of unwaged labor that keep our society and economy going. Yes, the worker earns wages, and then buys commodities. But who gives birth to and cares for the worker? Who cooks the commodities? As the Wages for Housework movement exposed, women and wives have long been denied compensation because feminine nature meant selfless devotion to the nurturance of others, they were allegedly laboring out of love. 

In a similar vein, we are sold a sanitized and idealized image of farm life. As is the case with human labor, the reproductive dimensions of meat, milk, and egg production too often go ignored — likely because the torment endured by these animals contradicts the bucolic and serene images consumers take comfort in. 

But let’s be real. You don’t get a constant supply of fresh meat, milk, or eggs without new animals constantly being born. There are well over 20 billion cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens in the world today, and each of them came out of an egg or a vagina. The importance of female reproductive cycles to this endless supply chain of living creatures is perhaps most evident in the dairy and egg industries. Though commercial packaging suggests otherwise, eggs and milk are not simply products, they are key components of a reproductive, life-generating process, or what Adams called “feminized protein.”  Egg production is of course dependent on birds with ovaries. And female cows do not just spontaneously lactate — babies must be born for a cow to produce milk. When cows can no longer give birth, or in the case of hens, lay a profitable number of eggs a day, they are killed. All of this holds true whether we are talking about the most “humanely” run small farm or a massive industrial facility that holds hundreds of thousands of animals.

By the time a typical dairy cow is sent to slaughter in this country she will have produced on average 7.5 gallons of milk a day — about 2.5 times more than she would have 50 years ago. This milk will be sucked out of nipples not by her baby, who would only require a fraction of the amount, but by machines. A dairy cow produces so much milk that the odds are she will become lame from bone disorders. She will also most likely live with bouts of mastitis, an infection any human who has ever lactated before knows to fear the unique horrors of. 

Shortly after entering the world, all farmed animals are sexed. In hatcheries chicks are sorted by the thousands by workers who are some of the most likely to experience repetitive stress injury. Females, valued for the eggs that they create during their reproductive cycle, will be sent to an egg-laying facility to live out their short and debilitated lives in a space smaller than a laptop screen. Males, on the other hand, are simply considered waste and will immediately be discarded through methods including suffocation, electrocution, or maceration (being put in a large grinder). For cows, the inconvenient birth of male babies, has led to the creation of the veal industry — a way for producers to create profit off of an endless supply of otherwise useless infant animals. 

What would it mean to respect and honor animals as Kim challenges us to do? While socialist feminists make their point by fighting for wages for housework, we are obviously not arguing that animals should be regarded as laborers deserving of wages and benefits like their human counterparts. There is no way to compensate Gunda or the cow whose “cries of anguish” we have learned not to hear. Rather, following Marx, we believe all creatures possess a species-being, one that capitalist modes of production alienate in various ways. First and foremost, respecting a cow or a sow’s or a hen’s species-being would require fashioning a legal and economic regime that recognizes her as a living entity and not a thing.

“Milk” is both a noun and a verb that means to exploit for profit.

Socialist feminism, we argue, offers a valuable — and thus far underutilized — framework for understanding the cruel and destructive nature of animal industries. Only by broadening a socialist feminist analysis beyond the human can we fully grasp the depth of capitalism’s dependence upon the enclosure, control, and privatization of life’s regenerative capacities — and grasp why conservatives, and the alt right in particular, see vegans as such an existential threat. “Milk” is both a noun — “an opaque white fluid rich in fat and protein, secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary — and a verb that means to exploit for profit. Coercing and commodifying the reproduction of human and non-human animals is how capitalism reproduces itself. As Federici has explained, “The capitalist class always needs a population without rights, in the colonies, in the kitchen, in the plantation,” and, as these examples show, on the farm and in the slaughterhouse. 

As socialist feminists like Federici have shown, capitalism developed by encouraging, and coercing, women to accept their role as selfless nurturers as natural, inevitable, and eternal. Over the centuries people rose up and demanded a different set of possibilities and expectations for those designated as female — something more than a lifetime of dishes, diapers, and intercourse on demand. Women have insisted on having control of how and if we choose to engage in sex, pregnancy, abortion, birth, and lactation. Yet capitalism has persuaded us to lower the expectations we have for our fellow creatures. A socialist feminist perspective urges us to ask how it is that we have come to see the violent mechanization and profit-driven control of other animals’ uteruses, breasts, and reproductive capacities — and the vast inequity and devastation it enables — as par for the course. 

In February 2017, the Twitter hashtag #MilkTwitter went viral following an incident known as the “milk party,” which involved a group of men descending on an anti-Trump art installation, many of them shirtless, carrying cartons of milk, shouting racist slurs. At least one uttered the phrase, “Down with the vegan agenda!” while insisting he and his pals were not “pussies.”  Soon, sympathizers began carrying milk cartons to Trump’s rallies and milk bottle emojis were added to Twitter profiles. The slur “soy boy” became a popular insult, lobbed at men whose alleged weakness is epitomized by a preference for plant-based beverages. As Iselin Gambert and Tobias Linné show in a study of the anti-vegetarian obsessions of the far right, these tropes build on the colonial, imperialist, and specifically anti-Asian racist legacies of yore, which held the “effeminate rice-eaters of India and China” in contempt. (In 1902, the American Federation of Labor published a report in support of the Chinese Exclusion Act entitled “Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood vs. Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?”) 

Despite its image as the quintessential American beverage, milk’s ubiquity is not the result of venerable cultural tradition or of deep biological need. Human beings do not need to nurse beyond infancy, on human bosoms or bovine ones. Rather, the prevalence of milk is the result of post-World War II industrial policy designed to encourage farmers to boost production so shelf stable processed dairy products could be shipped to feed soldiers overseas. Unwitting schoolchildren were made to drink milk in order to gin up and then maintain demand, saving farmers from having to reorganize their operations. Baseless marketing campaigns made the case for milk as essential to health, sometimes using racist and ableist imagery. (“The short stature of the Japanese, their bowed legs, their frequent poor eyesight are all blamed on inadequate diet—particularly lack of milk!”). In reality, milk is not particularly nutrient- or even calcium-rich, and the majority of people can’t properly digest it. Over 65 percent of the world is estimated to be lactose intolerant; in some countries the number reaches 100 percent. Most human beings stop producing lactase, the enzyme needed to digest milk, after being weaned. Somehow, the alt right has turned the fact that, thanks to a genetic mutation, many white adults have the stomach chemistry of babies into a symbol of racial superiority and hyper-masculinity. 

Perhaps this is not so surprising given the central position of mammary glands in our scientific self-understanding. In 1758 the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus introduced the word Mammalia into the zoological taxonomy, a term that literally means “of the breast.” By doing so, Linnaeus broke with 2000 years of tradition, abandoning Aristotle’s canonical word Quadrupedia, and, even more radically, by including human beings within the category alongside other animals. Yet, as science historian Londa Schiebinger has suggested, humans were only brought into the animal family through a specifically gendered, and at that time also deeply racialized, body part. As Schiebinger notes, milk-producing mammae are functional in only half of animals in this group, and other potentially more universal distinctions could have been highlighted (we could have just as easily been Pilosa, the hairy ones, or Aurecaviga, the hollow-eared ones.)

The breast held particular political and social power, and importantly through its ability to produce milk and nourish young, was already understood as animal-like. In other words, it was a body part that could link humans to animals in an acceptable way, while preserving male superiority. Men’s bodies were not explicitly tied to animals; instead, their brains supposedly set our kind apart. (Linnaeus’ term for our own species was Homo sapiens, “man of reason.”) As Schiebinger shows, the term mammal also cannot be understood without a broader understanding of the anxieties over women seeking full citizenship and power outside the home that were shaping political and economic dynamics of the period. Mammal was a reminder to all women of their rightful place in nature and society: as lactating baby producers.

Mammal was a reminder to all women of their rightful place in nature and society: as lactating baby producers.

The term mammal can thus be seen as a reminder of a capitalist, patriarchal, racist, and speciesist pecking order that places white masculinity above all else — the same subtexts that saturate the milk that right wingers so proudly drink. But as socialist feminists we can also hear within the term a call for comradery. Other species deserve not only our sympathy because they suffer, but our solidarity because they too are exploited and dispossessed. Our status as mammals can remind us of our shared animality and the fact our economy depends on milking humans and countless other species for all they’ve got.

As the example of the far right shows, speciesism ultimately harms human beings, because it inevitably pervades our relationships with each other and justifies oppression and exploitation (not unlike the way racism has been shown to have devastating and even deadly consequences for white people or the way misogyny damages men). According to the political theorist Will Kymlika, at least 10 peer-reviewed sociology and psychology studies show that belief in species hierarchy is “consistently associated with greater dehumanization of disadvantaged or marginalized human groups.” You can see this finding directly reflected in the repulsive milk party antics, but it also manifests in the quotidian practices of industrial animal agriculture and its ruthless treatment of human beings. Poor Black, brown, immigrant, and disabled communities are disproportionately subjected to the negative health impacts of meat production and the sector’s notorious labor abuses. While the trauma inflicted on people and animals by these industries isn’t the same, it is interconnected. We are all caught in the same racist, sexist, colonial, and ecologically catastrophic capitalist system. 

The famed Black liberation activist and author Angela Davis made a related observation last year. “The prioritizing of humans also leads to restrictive definitions of who counts as human, and the brutalization of animals is related to the brutalization of human animals,” Davis said, making clear her veganism is connected to an expansive and transformative anti-racist, feminist, anti-carceral, anti-capitalist, and radically democratic vision. “If we are to engage in ongoing struggles for freedom and democracy, we have to recognize that the issues will become ever more expansive,” she continued. “I’m not suggesting that the trajectory of history is automatic. But we have witnessed an ever-expansive notion of the nature of democracy. And I do not see how we can exclude our non-human companions with whom we share this planet.” Davis predicted that the question of cross-species solidarity “will be a very important arena of struggle during the coming period.”

A growing body of scholarship examining the complex entanglements of human hierarchies based on race, sex, and disability with the degradation of animals bolsters Davis’ radical view. According to Syl Ko, who with her sister Aph Ko has written about the intersections of anti-Blackness and speciesism, Western ideas of the human and the animal are “race terms” — they are ideas that have been shaped by racial hierarchy for over five centuries. Oppressed people have long been compared to animals in opposition to a privileged and idealized image of white masculinity upheld as an apex of humanity. In the words of Claire Jean Kim, “Race has been articulated in part as a metric of animality, a classification system that orders human bodies according to how animal they are and how human they are not, with all the entailments that follow.” Thus, as Aph Ko suggested in a recent interview, recognizing species hierarchy is not about adding a whole new oppression to an already long litany of social inequalities, but rather of recognizing how human categories of difference have been shaped by ideas of animality — specifically by a demeaned and reviled animality. Because of this entangled history, the Ko sisters argue, animal advocates would do well to understand racial justice as central to their work, and vice versa, a perspective they call “Black veganism.” It is an ethos that exists in stark contrast to milk-guzzling, misogynist ideology of white supremacists. 

Human liberation and animal liberation are bound together; the brutalization of all beings is connected.

Human liberation and animal liberation are thus bound together; the brutalization of all beings, as Davis proclaimed, is connected. Just as we call on the left to expand its circle of concern, animal advocates need to adopt a broad analysis that understands the interconnections of seemingly disparate issues, from the gross mistreatment of the often-immigrant agricultural workers who grow our food, to this country’s racist criminal punishment system that cages millions of people, to the obscene concentration of wealth and power our imperial economy enables. While we believe eating more plants is essential if we want to reduce suffering and mitigate the worst effects of climate, we also know that simply changing what’s on our plate is insufficient, which is why veganism has never really only been about food. Big business is happy to sell us organic produce and new-and-improved veggie burgers and fancy nut “mylks” alongside the traditional, bodily sourced varieties, as long as they can pay poverty wages, control the supply chains, own the intellectual property, and reap the profits. We need more than vegan products to consume; we need a paradigm shift. 

Some leftists are fond of quoting Percy Shelley’s poem “The Masque of Anarchy.”

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.

It’s worth recalling that, like a surprising number of early romantic radicals and utopian socialists, the “many’’ Shelley expressed concern for included animals. Shelley wrote two influential essays denouncing carnivory, beginning with “A Vindication of Natural Diet” published in 1813, followed soon after by “On the Vegetable System of Diet” (the word “vegetarian” would not be coined for two decades). While the arguments draw on ancient Greek and Hindu sources, the title of the first treatise notably echoes the famous A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, penned by feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Percy’s partner, the author Mary Shelley, who held similar views (the protagonist of her beloved novel Frankenstein refuses to consume flesh). Both Shelleys understood that meat-eating was connected to a power structure that caused immense, avoidable pain. Meat production, Percy Shelley noted, contributes to the mismanagement of natural resources, food scarcity (since grain that could be used to feed humans goes to animals), and economic inequality. 

Indeed, the hunger for animal products and for profits have been intertwined since capitalism’s origin. In the 16th century it was the booming wool trade that drove the enclosure movement. Before the patrician elite filled the countryside with cattle and began to produce meat on a significant scale, they converted arable land into pasture for sheep. As the 16th century philosopher Sir Thomas Moore put it, “sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said to now devour men and unpeople, not only villages but towns.”  

Soon enough, goats, pigs, and cattle were put to use devouring and enclosing the so-called “new world.” In Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, Virginia Anderson reveals how colonists consciously conscripted the creatures they dubbed livestock into the cause of colonial expansion and capitalist enclosure, transporting them across the Atlantic to help “civilize” the continent. Imported animals were pawns in the imperialist seizure and destruction of Native land and lifeways. Settlers built a system of land ownership that privileged the movement of their animals and grazing rights over Indigenous territorial claims and hunting rights. Beef became an icon of American culture and an instrument of manifest destiny, with besieged communities relocated to reservations and buffalos hunted nearly to extinction to make room for cattle. (Animal domestication was also the original source of the zoonotic diseases spread by Europeans, which ravaged Indigenous populations who lacked immunity.) 

“The view of nature which has grown up under the regime of private property and of money is an actual contempt for and practical degradation of nature,” Marx observed in 1843. Though he failed to follow that insight through in a systematic way, he went on to approvingly quote Thomas Müntzer, the radical 16th century German minister: “All creatures have been made into property, the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth—all living things must also become free.” Of course, Marx was no proponent of animal rights. His most famous descriptions of what communism might look like — you could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner” — hardly describes a vegan paradise. With the striking exception of Cuba, actually existing socialist countries have generally been as rapacious towards animals and exploitive of the natural world as their market-driven counterparts. Nevertheless, we believe our fellow creatures will never be emancipated within a capitalist paradigm. We also believe the same holds true for humans under an anthropocentric, speciesist one.

Two centuries after Shelley penned his missives, the case for abstention is even more compelling. Between farming, ranching, and feed crops, the livestock industry now devours 40 percent of the world’s habitable surface. Not only is industrial agriculture a leading cause of deforestation and climate changes (a recent study predicts that the largest meat and dairy companies’ greenhouse gas emissions will soon overtake those of the largest oil companies), it also puts us at increased risk of future pandemics, as new zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistant bacteria are bred on crowded factory farms — including pathogens that could one day make Covid-19 look like the common cold. (In April, two months after Phoenix’s speech, the Los Angeles Times theater critic issued a stark reassessment of his remarks: while his “speech about cows…had many in the bejeweled audience writhing in embarrassment,” it “doesn’t seem so crazy in our coronavirus times.”) Animal industries are thus prime drivers of mass extinction, with up to 150 species vanishing daily while humans and livestock now make up more than 96 percent of the earth’s mammalian biomass. Replacing wild creatures with billions of genetically similar beings radically diminishes biodiversity while increasing our epidemiological vulnerability, all to boost corporate bottom lines. The treatment and fate of domesticated animals is inseparable from the survival of both wild animals and ourselves. 

These are urgent issues that should concern every leftist, particularly those who consider themselves socialists and feminists. And yet, while about one in 20 Americans is vegetarian, and many vegans supported Bernie Sanders (while sometimes protesting his meat eating), the organized left is a laggard on the issue. Socialists quick to question private property rarely interrogate the ownership of animals or call attention to the destructive consequences of animal industries. Currently, liberals and progressives are pushing hardest to end industrialized animal agriculture, as with a recent bill sponsored by Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Sanders that would phase out large-scale factory farming by 2040. We believe leftists should at minimum join the fight to break up Big Meat and Big Milk — though ideally we’d like to see the left leading the charge to abolish the sectors. These corporate behemoths concentrate wealth and intensify ecological and biological destruction, slurping up government subsidies while pushing their products on the public with misinformation and promoting the image of abundant animal products being synonymous with a middle-class lifestyle, a mythology they are busy exporting to emerging markets around the world. As our feminist forebears taught us, the personal is always political. No one chooses to eat meat in a vacuum, particularly not in a world where animal agriculture is a $2 trillion business globally and one of the most heavily subsidized and advertised sectors in existence.

Unfortunately, the mainstream animal rights movement has contributed to the cause’s isolation from other social justice movements on the left. The elevation of celebrity spokespeople, the often-offensive antics of PETA, and the controversial and flawed utilitarian logic of Peter Singer have all contributed to the problem. 

The focus on personal health may also prove to be a political miscalculation. Reflecting on the immense success of The Jungle, his novel exposing the horrors of the meatpacking industry, the socialist writer Upton Sinclair famously remarked, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” A similar formulation applies to contemporary activists who, determined not to appear as scolds, have chosen to emphasize the physical benefits of vegetarianism, in the hopes that targeting the stomach might offer a roundabout way to open the mind. By offering a literal carrot (ideally organic and attractively spiralized) instead of a stick in their quest to convert people to a plant-based diet, reformers hoping to inspire cross-species solidarity have merely appealed to people’s vanity — hardly a stable foundation for a powerful or durable political movement. This tactic has also contributed to veganism’s image as the domain of privileged white people who are not facing more urgent threats to their survival. (In reality, the vast majority of the world’s vegetarians are not white, and within North America, white people are somewhat less likely to embrace vegetarianism than other groups.) As author and food scholar A. Breeze Harper exposed in her brilliant Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society, mainstream popular vegan books and magazines relentlessly present racist, heteronormative, and ableist representations of what an ethical eater should look like. A vegan, in the language of the bestselling diet book series, should be a “skinny bitch” — white, affluent, and thin. Veganism’s association with beauty and wellness has also damaged its reputation by reinforcing the idea that what we eat is merely a matter of personal preference. “Going vegan” is seen as yet another consumer lifestyle on offer in a crowded marketplace. 

Nevertheless, the fact that some vegans can be annoying, misguided, or worse, is not a reason for people on the left to dismiss the question of animal liberation or to grant some of the world’s largest corporations a free pass. (If being annoying were the litmus test for leftists, we’d have a small cohort indeed.) In addition to relentlessly critiquing and combating objectionable business practices, we believe that feminists and anti-capitalists have a duty to ask an even more profound question: What grounds our species’ right to commodify and dispossess other sentient beings? What gives our species the right to violently exploit another animal’s sexual and reproductive capacities in the service of capital?

In an 1875 letter, Friedrich Engels mused that the struggle of the working class could be facilitated by an expanded notion of solidarity. It could “grow to a point where it will embrace all mankind and oppose it, as a society of brothers living in solidarity, to the rest of the world — the world of minerals, plants, and animals.” Today, many leftists remain committed to the idea of dominating nature in the name of social progress. They would do well to reflect on the colonial mindset this destructive antagonism emerged from. Indigenous societies and political philosophies have long pursued a different approach: Land is not a resource to be used up, but something humans are a part of and in relationship with. In many Native communities, local ecologies and species are considered as nations with rights to which humans have responsibilities. While Indigenous worldviews and Western vegan precepts can sometimes be in tension, they both challenge the idea that nature — and animals — are mere property, and thus could be powerful allies against industrial animal agriculture. Anthropocentric attempts to conquer the earth have landed us in a climate emergency, the sixth extinction, intensified wealth concentration, and put everyone at risk of new virulent pandemics. There is no way to be in solidarity against the world if we still want to exist within it. 

Like Carol Adams, we see veganism as “an act of the imagination,” a beginning and not an end in itself. It is an aspirational category, an acknowledgement of values that cannot be fully manifested in the world as it currently exists. Refusing to consume animal products is not an act of negation, but a proactive commitment to working to usher in a more emancipatory, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable society. This process of structural transformation can be aided by a shift in self-understanding. Identifying with other creatures — recognizing Gunda and her piglets as fellow creatures not commodities — while still honoring our myriad differences, is one way to challenge capitalism’s perennial politics of divide and conquer.    

Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, writer, and political organizer. She is the director of multiple documentaries including What Is Democracy? and her latest book is Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions.

Sunaura Taylor is an artist, writer, and an assistant professor in the department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation (The New Press, 2017).