A Marxist Analysis of Animal Exploitation

I am here republishing an essay that I originally wrote 2 years ago. What follows is a Marxist analysis of the material origins of animal exploitation and the ideology which reinforces it, as well as the specific character animal exploitation assumes in modern capitalist society. The article concludes with a critique of mainstream consumerist veganism and a call for vegans to embrace an anti-capitalist perspective.

Around 10,000 BC our species began to shift from nomadic hunting-and-gathering to a sedentary lifestyle supported by agriculture which made it possible to produce a surplus of food beyond that necessary for immediate consumption. This development enabled social stratification and the struggle for control and ownership of that surplus became the basis of all class oppression between human beings.

At the same time, animal domestication began to flourish, and humans — predominantly the ruling classes parasitically subsisting on the labour of other humans — sought to exploit animals for the purpose of utility and later for their value as exchangeable commodities. Like land, natural resources and human slaves during this period, non-human animals were converted into the property of others: the property of the ruling classes.

But “property” is meaningless without legal and political recognition. A public power claiming to stand above all classes and antagonistic interests whilst in reality defending the interests of propertied classes became a necessity. The sanctity of the right of some to rule over and enslave other humans and other species had to be given a juridical basis and be propped up by means of violence. Thus we see the rise and role of the state in human history.

Further, such imbalanced social relations among humans and between humans and non-human animals produced by necessity an ideological superstructure which purported to explain and justify the status quo. That man had converted animals into tools of human utility was either an inevitable consequence of the “laws of nature” or the will of God himself.

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

The specific forms of class oppression amidst human society have evolved over several millennia but such oppression — today in the form of the exploitation of wage labourers by the capitalist class for surplus value — no doubt remains. Our domination of animals has likewise changed its specific forms but still permeates society nonetheless. Despite the fact that sufficient evidence indicates human beings in the modern era do not need to consume animal products to be healthy, whole industries devoted to raising, raping, and slaughtering animals have been constructed.

In modern capitalist society animals are predominantly exploited for the purpose of acquiring profit. Sentient beings are reduced to mere units of production, comparable to machinery and natural resources. Animals are valued not for the degree of their consciousness and individuality but by their usefulness in satisfying human needs — their use-value, to use an expression from Marx — and for the ratio at which animals, animal flesh and animal secretions can be exchanged for other commodities and money; their “exchange-value” and their price. It is for the purpose of exchange with the intent of realising a profit that animals are utilised within the capitalist production process. Investment in animals is an investment in capital and nothing more; the industries founded on animal exploitation have no regard for animal wellbeing to any extent more than that to which it effects their revenue. This, as tragic as it is, is the political economy of animal exploitation.

The chief defect of liberal vegan critiques of speciesism [1] is self-confinement to the realm of ideology. The exploitation of animals has material causes of the kind I have discussed; speciesist and carnist ideology merely arises to rationalise, normalise, and perpetuate the status quo; it is not the cause of the status quo.

Nevertheless, an anthropocentric ideological narrative deeply embedded within our culture reinforces animal exploitation at every step. Just as psuedo-scientific theories and “common sense” ideas arose to rationalise the oppression of people of colour and non-men, the myth of human supremacy over nature and non-human animals in particular is to be found everywhere. Humankind is perceived to be superior to all other species on account of our intelligence, our natural physiology and what it enables, our capacity to reason, or even — in a circular fashion — on account of the fact that we able to dominate, control and enslave other species; as though “might means right” has ever been a valid argument.

Another defence mechanism utilised by many meat apologists is denial that there’s even a problem. Oxymoronic appeals to the supposed “humaneness” of slaughter are commonplace, largely due to widespread lack of knowledge about the reality of seemingly invisible animal exploitation which the industries predicated on it would be foolish and suicidal to dispel.

To quote Angela Davis:

“The food we eat masks so much cruelty. The fact that we can sit down and eat a piece of chicken without thinking about the horrendous conditions under which chickens are industrially bred in this country is a sign of the dangers of capitalism, how capitalism has colonized our minds. The fact that we look no further than the commodity itself, the fact that we refuse to understand the relationships that underly the commodities that we use on a daily basis.” [2]

This phenomenon is but one manifestation of what Marx described as commodity fetishism; the way in which commodities under capitalism appear to be autonomous things-in-themselves, and the social relations that lay behind their production are quietly ignored. In the case of animal exploitation a whole mirage of smoke and mirrors is constructed to conceal these social relations from the eyes of the consumer and the soothing fantasy picturesque family farm masks the bitter truth of industrial factory farming and the suffering it inflicts.

Problematically it is common in liberal vegan communities to pin the blame on the consumer for animal suffering through a reductive and naive conception of the laws of market exchange. Yet it is the animal exploitation industries and their state backers which artificially create and inflate demand through psychologically manipulative advertising campaigns and the dissemination of false information about nutrition. The notion that capitalists are simply “satisfying consumer demand” is an absurd lie that serves only to absolve the corporations actually subjecting animals to brutal conditions in the pursuit of profit from responsibility for their actions.

Moreover. we live in a monopoly capitalist society where a handful of tycoon corporations control vast swathes of national and international markets. Many of the most popular vegan alternatives to animal products are owned and sold by the same companies that offer popular non-vegan brands; thus whatever you buy your money ends up in the hands of the same capitalists.

Capitalism and capitalist ideology and degrades social movements which pose a challenge to the status quo and redirects them into reformist and consumerist channels which do not threaten the structural foundations of oppression innate to capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist and cis/hetero normative society. Veganism is presented and perceived as an ethical consumerist lifestyle choice; a shopping list for predominantly white and wealthy middle class yuppies. Vegan restaurants with exorbitant prices are amongst the first arrivals to newly gentrified area, and privileged liberal vegans often treat anti-speciesism as a single-issue cause; demonising precarious immigrant slaughterhouse workers and ignoring and even perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism and sexism in the process. [3] Our perspective of veganism must be altered. Veganism must be conceived as an anti-capitalist and intersectional political stance which rejects the status of animals as commodities and property.

Veganism will be practiced by different people with different privileges or the lack thereof in different ways — those that castigate others who lack the disposable income to convert to a plant-based diet in capitalist society must be ferociously criticised. While vegans should no doubt encourage everyone that has the financial means to embrace a plant-based diet this is not a litmus test of an individual’s commitment to the cause of animal liberation.

And while the elimination of capitalist society is conceivable without the overthrow of animal exploitation, the elimination of animal exploitation is not conceivable without the overthrow of capitalism. A radical socialist vegan perspective is thus a necessity.

“The struggle against the rule of capital and its expropriation are necessary preconditions in order to enable people to collectively cast the decision: we will liberate the animals!” [4]


[1] Speciesism is defined as “institutional discrimination and, to a lesser extent, individual prejudice against non-human animals based on their species. Speciesism is violence against non-human animals that is perpetuated by the privileged human species, usually for the benefit of humans.” [(Corey Lee Wrenn)] (http://www.coreyleewrenn.com/what-is-post-speciesism/)

[2] Source can be found here.

[4] “Dismantling White Veganism” is a highly recommended article which contains examples of liberal vegans contributing to and reinforcing racism. “A Gallery of Sexism in Animal Rights” provides countless examples of liberal vegan organisations perpetuating sexism and misogyny whilst campaigning in favour of animal liberation.

[5] From “18 Theses on Marxism & Animal Liberation”.

Individualist. Socialist. Satanist. Plant-Based. “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” (Mikhail Bakunin, 1842.)

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