2000s >> 2003 >> no-1188-august-2003

Animals for profit

Nearly two hundred years ago Percy Bysshe Shelley, famous for powerful, provocative poetry such as Queen Mab, The Masque of Anarchy, The Ode to Liberty, Prometheus Unbound as well as prose writings describing humans’ exploitation of their fellows, felt compelled to write of the cruelty inflicted on livestock:

“How unwarrantable is the injustice and barbarity which is exercised towards these miserable victims. They are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery” (quoted in R D Ryder Animal Revolution).

Shelley was not alone in recognising the plight of other animals, and in the year of his death, 1822, the Animal Protection Act was passed. It was the first such piece of legislation in the world and outlawed cruelty to horses, sheep and cattle. Soon afterwards, in 1824, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed, its inspectorate preceding the establishment of the British state police by two years.

Since those distant days, and despite the growth of vegetarianism, at first amongst the bourgeoisie, the explosion of animal rights groups, the passing of reams of related legislation, the cruelty which so shocked Shelley has evolved and today affects billions of animals in ways of which even Mary, his wife and author of Frankenstein, could not possibly have conceived.

The author of Animal Farm, George Orwell, commenting on the genesis of this work, stated: “Men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat”. But neither he nor the Shelleys envisaged a world in which humans and other animals are harvested for their organs – the plight of the poverty-stricken individual selling one of their kidneys or the transgenic pig. All three authors would have been familiar with the horrors of war and the use of cavalry, but what of specially-trained dolphins and sea lions being sent to the latest scene of mass murder in the Middle East? In Wales, Percy Shelley is reputed to have killed several sheep he found suffering terribly, much to the ire of local shepherds. No doubt he would have been shocked by the modern practice of winter shearing, which has been found to “provide farmers with fatter and, hence, more valuable sheep to take to market, it also allows them to squeeze more animals on the trucks that take them there” (Sunday Times, 6 December 1998).

Ruth Harrison, author of Animal Machines (1964), recognised that sheep and other livestock are raised in ways designed to cut production costs to the bone, with little or no regard for the consequent suffering. Commenting on animal farming methods, Harrison observed:

“The first instinct the farmer frustrates in all animals . . . is that of the newborn animal turning to its mother for protection and comfort and, in some cases, for food. The chick comes out of the incubator and never sees a hen; the calf which is to be fattened for veal or beef is taken from the cow at birth, or very soon after; and even the piglet is weaned far earlier now than it used to be. The factors controlling this are mainly economic” (our emphasis).

Capitalism: a system of mass butchery, whether feeding its workers or slaughtering them

Mulesing is just one specific example of a cruel practice carried out for reasons of profit and involves the use of sharp shears to remove the very wrinkled skin from around the anus of Merino sheep. This procedure, the purpose of which is make them less susceptible to fly-strike (maggots like warm, moist and food-rich conditions) is carried out as rapidly as possible. This is not to minimise suffering – an anaesthetic would be employed if that were the case – but because time is money. And let us not forget that Merino sheep have been bred this way on purpose: more wrinkles means more wool. Harrison, who died just three years ago, was a campaigner for animal welfare who exposed the horrors of intensive farming. As the Times (5 July 2002) put it in their obituary of her :

“Harrison drew attention to changes in breeding, feeding and housing that aimed at ever greater production at whatever cost to the animals’ well-being. As many as 20,000 broiler chickens could be kept in a shed together. Egg-laying hens were kept five to a cage, each with floorspace smaller than a sheet of A4 paper. Other poor creatures were kept in isolation, unable to turn around in their crates or cages. Furthermore, Harrison described the routine use of farm operations such as castration, tail-docking, beak-trimming and de-horning.”

By the time of Orwell’s death in 1950, more and more of the small farms in the UK were being consumed by the factory variety. For the animals and workers involved farming became even more unpleasant. Today, in the UK alone over 750 million cattle, sheep, pigs, turkeys, ducks, geese and rabbits are slaughtered annually. Pollution of the environment as a result of farming intensively for profit is massive: millions of tonnes of a potent, noxious cocktail containing nitrites, antibiotics, heavy metals, pesticides and parasites are washed into UK rivers each year. Farm animals are also the second largest source of the greenhouse gas methane. BSE and its human-variant CJD are just two of the diseases attributable to the production of animals as food items produced for sale with a view to profit.

How have the reformists reacted to these issues? Some, like the RSPCA for example, have of late pushed the concept of “freedom foods”. Essentially, this is the Orwellesque name for a marketing exercise in which products from certain farms are given the seal of approval if they offer slightly less intolerable conditions for the animals involved. But cut-throat competition does not guarantee animal machines even this basic standard.

Another long-established organisation, the League Against Cruel Sports, hoped Labour would listen to its plea to, as Wilde put it, stop the unspeakable chasing the uneatable. In a letter to the Times (24 May 1997) the Chairman, John Cooper, wrote: “The Labour Government, which has at its heart the development of a moral, caring, compassionate society, instinctively rejects any activity which results in the needless and gratuitous carnage that is the hallmark of the hunt.”

This display of breathtaking ignorance was followed more recently by a contribution of just over £1 million from the International Fund for Animal Welfare to Labour Party coffers as an inducement to have more animal-friendly laws. But such legislation is slow to come, rarely enforced and often ineffective. The battery cages which Harrison wrote about will not be banned in Europe before 2012. Veal crates, banned in the UK in 1990, continue elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, for some concerned groups this legal approach is frustratingly slow. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the largest group of its kind in the world with over 350,000 members and a multi-million dollar yearly budget, has undertaken a variety of propaganda activities that its older cousins would be unlikely to consider – one campaign involved naked women – but it is still on the reformist misery-go-round: writing, for instance, to the Ministry of Defence with the suggestion that the Grenadier Guards use fake fur in their helmets.

More worryingly, PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, is on record as stating “mankind is the biggest blight on the face of the earth”. Such misanthropy is not uncommon amongst animal “rights” activists. Many would never support giving poultry workers, for example, a few more crumbs or better conditions. One wonders how such misanthropes reacted to the news that in March 1992 twenty-five people, mostly female immigrants, died when a North Carolina chicken “processing plant” burned. The owners of the plant had blocked the fire exits to ensure that the workers did not try to steal any chickens. But twenty-five deaths are nowhere near enough for Ronnie Lee, founder of the Animal Liberation Front:

“True animal liberation would mean massive changes in society. You would have to have deindustrialisation. The problem is the extent of the human population together with industrialisation. The impact of those two things together means that other animal species are oppressed. The human population needs to be drastically reduced” (Guardian Weekend, December 5 1998).

Truly a dystopia worthy of Orwell. Little surprise then that such groups are attracting the attention of fascists. But what is the socialist response? Well, in our literature we regularly expose the futility of reformism and counter such nonsense as overpopulation. A huge task indeed, but sometimes help comes from unexpected sources. The Meat and Livestock Commission, in reply to the question of whether eating meat deprives the Third World of grain, stated:

“There is already a world surplus of grain and so if it was simply a matter of availability of grain supplies then there would not be a problem. The problem of hunger lies in poverty and not availability” (their emphasis, quoted in the Socialist Standard, January 1993).

Further, we contend that humans and other animals do not have rights (see “Do Animals Have Rights?”, Socialist Standard, April 1995), but this does not stop some socialists responding to the cruelty that the profit system inflicts on the vast majority by becoming vegetarian or vegan. The Socialist Party, however, does not have a position on this but would agree with William Morris that “a man can hardly be a sound Socialist who puts forward vegetarianism as a solution of the difficulties between labour and capital, as some people do” (Commonweal, 25 September 1886).

Those who advocate animal rather than human liberation put the cart before the horse! Marjorie Spiegel in The Dreaded Comparison Human and Animal Slavery draws many emotive comparisons between the way animals past and present are used and the lives of slaves in, largely, pre-civil war USA. She has nothing to say about wage slavery. In the global capitalist system which robs, slaughters and degrades, we, as socialists, are the Human Defence Society. We say:

“Cruelty to animals will go the way of all forms of cruelty, when a real civilised existence becomes a possibility to everyone” (Socialist Standard, February 1926, in an article on the Animal Defence Society).


Clarification from Socialist Standard, October 2003

In the article “Animals for Profit” (August) we stated that the International Fund for Animal Welfare had made a donation of £1 million to the Labour Party. The IFAW have asked us to make clear that this donation was made not by them but by the Political Animal Lobby. In their email they explain the position as follows:

In 1997, our Chief Executive Officer, Mr Brian Davies, decided to leave IFAW to set up an alternative animal welfare organisation called the Political Animal Lobby (PAL). As a consequence Mr Fred O’Regan became the IFAW Chief Executive Officer.

In 1997 PAL made a donation of £1 million to the Labour Party, as well as to other political parties, and unfortunately this was reported in the Press as being a donation from IFAW.

We would like to take this opportunity to stress that IFAW and PAL are two separate organisations and therefore one does not have any influence or connection with the other.

As a matter of policy, IFAW UK does not donate to any political party. Nickie Mann (IFAW).

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