I needed a place to live while finishing my thesis, and Claudia needed someone to look after her dog, Wolsey. So I moved into her basement, and wrote.
Living with an animal changes your perception of the world. I learned how to navigate a city with a dog in tow: to pay attention to which places say No Dogs and which others (the philosophy library) silently insist that animals be left outside. My private map of Oxford shifted—its parks and meadows greedily expanded, its enclosed, paved spaces shriveled into threads between them. It started to feel strange, even contrived, to spend all day with a creature—to talk to them, feed them, play with them—and then to tie them up to a lamppost while buying bread and milk. What, I wondered, was so dreadful in the prospect of a dog in a shop?
This zoning of space is not, I think, the natural or inevitable result of species differences, but is rather a way of quietly insisting upon their moral and political import. Even flimsy distinctions can start to look deep when they inform social practice; give those practices something as robust as fur and four-leggedness to work with, and the appearance of depth is all but guaranteed. The idea is not that the human/nonhuman distinction is nothing more than pleasurable fiction, or the pure product of our insistent, patterned choices, but that our choices load the species line with a moral weight that it need not bear.
It’s difficult to talk about animals, hard to hit any note that sounds between a brisk, dispassionate utilitarianism and a sickly zoogenic kitsch. Perhaps as a result, leftist engagements with animals deal remarkably little with the animals themselves, preferring instead to deal with the animal-as-symbol (see Carol Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat) or “the ecological.” While projects that chart the ways in which the imagined animal both anchors and organizes more familiar oppressions get a lot right—women’s symbolic entanglement with animals does work to license their objectification, and racist violence (both local and structural) is both produced and legitimized by animalizing images and speech—they call to mind a mappa mundi: striking, intricate, but missing half the world.
Take, for example, the critical theorists who posit that fascist ideology is a residue of speciesism, and its associated violence a furious purging of disowned animality. It’s a neat package, and it comes with some good lines (“The possibility of pogroms is decided in the moment when the gaze of a fatally wounded animal falls on a human being,” Adorno tells us, grandly), but, as with so many prettily wrapped goods, it doesn’t travel well. European history may suggest that the role of the animal in intraspecies domination is that of contaminant—certain groups are animalized, and so marked as the legitimate targets of violence—but fascist rhetoric in contemporary India has a different structure. Animals—cows—do populate this rhetoric, but not as contaminants; instead, minority groups are cast as their butchers. In a context where the cow is venerated, and its slaughter often illegal, condemnations of beef eating can work to sanction gautankwad, or “cow terrorism,” whose victims are almost always Muslims or Dalits.
Even if we overlook this parochialism, there's something odd about an ostensibly Marxist politics in which animals enter only as semiotic lodes. The critical theorist John Sanbonmatsu is happy to call speciesism a “mode of production,” but he empties the term of material content: To call speciesism a mode of production is to say that it is “central to the constitution of human identity, purpose, political and social life,” that the “negation of the animal other is . . . the pivot around which our civilization itself has formed, the phenomenological ground upon which the figure of the human being continues to stand.”
Lofty claims, to be sure. But as far as I can tell, such claims—whether they are true or not—aren’t going to help us arrive at anything like a practically instructive or desirably fine-grained animal politics. I doubt that the main problem for the average sow is her symbolic conscription: how (as Marx might have put it) she is “narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived.” On the other hand, eco-Marxist approaches, which, by and large, treat animals as shaggy, buzzing nodes in a network, embedded in a mass of (productive) relations, have solid materialist credentials.
But they see animals as animals, as raw material or energy-source, part of the world to be remade by labor, rather than as sensuous, active beings in their own right. Where does this leave guide dogs, sniffer dogs, cart horses, or logging elephants? What space does it make for military dolphins, or for racehorses? Such creatures are not human, to be sure. But nor are they props, or tools, or a mute material substratum. They share in our projects, and work alongside us.
Astonishingly, for a discussion of animals as they really are (“real” and “active”) the place to go is the liberal tradition. In their remarkable book Zoopolis (Oxford, 2011), Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka take unease as their starting point, specifically their unease with the dominant “extinctionist” ideology in the animal-rights literature. For extinctionists, domestication is intrinsically exploitative and degrading; thus species that cannot be “re-wilded" should be eradicated. In this way of thinking, a host of delicate inflections are abruptly sanded down: Animals are either wild or domestic; my relationship with the boisterous, barking Wolsey and my relationship with a poor ragged chicken on a far-off farm are bundled together into a single analytic. And given such a bundling, it starts to look like all human-animal relationships are invariably oppressive or exploitative. The extinctionist does not see the particular I-Thou bonds many people share with particular animals as a source of moral insight (frail and sentimental, perhaps, but real). Instead, she sees these fragile bonds as the guilty, seeping conscience of an inherently exploitative system—domestication—which must be swept away, tender shoots of feeling and all.
Donaldson and Kymlicka’s radicalism is more subtle. They reject an ideal in which animals are simply “left alone,” as well as a conception of agency that opposes it to dependency. The best way to make sense of what it would be to live justly with “dependent animals” (think most cows, pet dogs, the poor aforementioned hen), they argue, is to envisage them as our co-citizens. It’s a rich and powerful approach. Citizenship theory lets us say something pleasantly precise about what is going on in the sort of case I started off thinking about, with Wolsey tied up outside the shop as I bought bread: “Accepting domestic animals as members of our community means accepting that they belong in the community, and have the prima facie right to share its public spaces”; similarly, denying a certain group of citizens access, (where this is not a matter of safety or public health) to private commercial spaces looks like a paradigm case of discrimination. Nevertheless, Donaldson and Kymlicka’s argument can’t help but inherit some characteristic frailties of the liberal framework.
For example, their discussion of the commercial exploitation of labor feels instructively quaint:
Imagine the town of Sheepville, in which a flock of sheep are full citizens of the community they share with humans. Their basic rights are protected. They enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. They roam freely in various large pastures with lots of shelter.
Donaldson and Kymlicka argue that the picture-book humans of Sheepville should be able to use wool from the sheep when it is, for example, a by-product of shearing undertaken to keep the sheep cool during the warm summer months.
Of course, Donaldson and Kymlicka recognize that this answer comes with risks: When the profit motive is introduced, they note blandly, there is “strong pressure toward exploitation.” But there is nothing distinctively animal about this dynamic: Similar pressure is routinely applied to human workers, but in a suitably regulated society they can “resist the slippery slope.” The idea here is that we help ourselves to a familiar package—regulated capitalism—add animals, and stir. But with familiar packages come familiar problems, and there are obvious limitations to what the regulations of a nation-state can achieve in a world of global capital: Happy sheep in Sheepville may just mean some very sad sheep indeed over in, say, Sheepville’s former colonies.
The real problem runs deeper. The idea of a citizen, the political theorist Seyla Benhabib notes, in her “Borders, Boundaries, and Citizenship,” works by knotting together “the ideals of self-governance and territorially circumscribed nation-state.” Contemporary capitalism pulls the two apart. We are living through a “crisis” of the territorially circumscribed nation-state formation, in which invisible, tentaculate corporate bodies excrete “law which is self-generating and self-regulating but which does not originate though the legislative or deliberative activity of national legislators.” Global law, says Benhabib, is “transterritorial law.” The worry, then, is not that large-scale collective-action problems are really hard but that global capitalism hollows out the categories of liberal political theory. Put differently, if citizenship is dead under a globalized neoliberal regime, who cares whether dogs get to be citizens or not?
Can we do better? I think we can. Rather than (or perhaps as well as) a politics of citizenship, animals require a politics of labor: Animals should be recognized as our fellow workers. Like the status of “citizen,” the status of “worker” comes with a tradition of protest and solidarity (“wages for housework,” “sex work is work”); unlike the status of citizen, globalized capital does not hollow it out, but gives it a fresh charge. Like the eco-Marxist tradition, it promises attentiveness to the living matter that makes up the material grounding of politics; unlike that tradition, it makes space for the recognition of animals as fellow agents—dependent and dominated, to be sure, but then, who isn’t?—to whom special duties of care and justice are owed: To recognize a fellow creature as a worker is to recognize them as a creature who is exploitable and (most likely) exploited, and with whom I might be called upon to stand in solidarity.
Nor is the proposal entirely utopian: Some actual practices, piecemeal and flickering, are already moored by a sense of the animal as worker, at least in the UK. Guide dogs are granted retirement at 10 or 11, and in the Calf at Foot Dairy in Suffolk, when cows become too old to calve, they retire and continue to live, as matriarchs, among the rest of the herd. These are benefits that the human citizens of many a nation-state, some of them very rich, are still denied.
This talk of pensioned cows might make you nervous. It’s one thing to think of a guide dog as working: Such creatures are highly intelligent, look to be engaged in skillful, purposeful activity, and routinely join with humans to pursue shared projects. None of these things seem to be true of cows: Gestating calves and producing milk are not intelligently directed activities, we might think, but rather the mere effluent of instinct; here, the eco-Marxists have the right of it: Cows are raw (uncooked!) material. But a cow who cares for her young has more, to my mind, in common with a human mother tending to a child than with a tree making its leaves or shedding its seeds on the wind, more in common with the reproductive labor performed by women across the world than with the spontaneous, untutored unfurling of a leaf.
And the suckling cow and the nursing mother share a social function: The reproduction of human labor power. The ability to labor, as Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa insist, is itself a product of social relations: The worker must be gestated, nursed, weaned, trained; once “it” starts to work “its bed must be made, its floor is swept, its lunchbox prepared.” For Marx, women’s domestic activity was relegated to the material substratum; James and Dalla Costa drag it from this sunken zone—labor power may be consumed in the office or the factory, but it is “produced and reproduced” in the home, by women. Quite right. But it is also produced and reproduced by the cow who tends her calf, and ends up in the lunchbox.
But where does all this leave Wolsey? In her 1975 essay Wages Against Housework, Silvia Federci writes that it is the task of the housewife not only to raise her husband’s children or to “mend his socks.” It is also her task to patch up his ego when it is crushed by work, to line the loneliness imposed on him by capital with her downy, feminine softness. So it is that her reproductive labor incorporates emotional labor. And this was the work that Wolsey performed for me: soothing my ego, muffling my fears, blunting my loneliness. When I wrote, he was at my side. When I was anxious, his wet, inquisitive nose would nudge my hand; when I panicked, I clung to his rough fur. When I curled in bed, exhausted, he was a warm bulk at my back. Wolsey’s docility and playful solicitude—the tools of his labor—are no more “spontaneous” than those of the housewife. Like all domestic animals, his personality is a grooved clay, hatched with accreted ancestral whims; he bears the imprint of selective breeding, as well as a haphazard training. Complex social forces have conspired to produce the pet's ability to soothe just as they connive to ensure the housewife will darn socks.
None of this comes with an easy moral. Emotional labor is neither the opposite of true affection nor its untutored expression, and genuine companionship need not preclude, or guard against, exploitation. “They say it is love,” writes Federici, in the extraordinary, poetical epigram of her 1975 essay. “We say it is unwaged work.” The real trick, as Federici knew, is learning to see both at once.