Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres

The centrality of classifying animals as property should not be underestimated when it comes to considering the depths of animal exploitation woven into our society and economy. Having animals categorized as property gives us the ability to exploit them as a resource for even minor human wants.”

Anarchists disagree on a lot of issues but agree on others. Most would agree that hierarchy in this world–forced upon us at birth and ingrained through every aspect of culture is unacceptable. Most would agree society reinforces hierarchy through its many institutions, and that hand-in-hand with hierarchy comes unequal wealth and power distribution. And again, most anarchists would agree that capitalism has a huge role in oppressing and exploiting people; domination and hierarchy thrive in the fertile ground of an economic system that views people as units for production. But just how do animals fit into the capitalist equation? That’s a question asked by social anarchist Bob Torres in the book, Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. Torres takes a fresh and fascinating look at the way we treat animals, and in presenting his argument that animals are just as much a part of the corporate machine as humans, he argues that with a “baseline” of veganism:

“As a needless and unnecessary form of hierarchy, anarchists should reject the consumption, enslavement, and subjugation of animals for human ends, and identify it as yet another oppressive aspect of the relations of capital and a needless form of domination.”

Now to some, that statement–as we absorb it–makes perfect sense. But other anarchists will reject this position. Is it extreme to see that animals are simply tools in the capitalist machine? If we embrace this position, then surely the next thing is to reject the consumption of animal products, just as we reject other forms of capitalism that insidiously and persistently attempt to weave into every aspect of our lives.

Torres, a philosophy professor at St. Lawrence University presents his antispeciesist argument to the reader, and after finishing the book, I have to say that Making A Killing is one of the best books I read in 2007. Torres has managed to clarify many of the problems I had with issues connected to the animal rights movement, commodification of animals, and the animal agriculture industry. Torres presents irrefutable arguments regarding the treatment of animals, and he does this by combining Marxist economic theory with anarchist beliefs.

Arguing that there are “similarities with how humans are exploited as labor power” and “how animals are exploited as commodities,” Torres walks the reader through his belief that agriculture animals are members of the working class, with animals “mere ends towards the production of greater capital.” Holding absolute power and dominion over animals, we treat them in a range of ways–at best they are seen as property, at worst they are enslaved in the violence of the capitalist money making machine. Forced to labor and produce, “animals are nothing more than living machines, transformed from beings who live for themselves into beings that live for capital.”

But beyond examining animal agriculture, Torres also explores the exploitation of animals in vivisection. Citing some of the ridiculous and redundant aspects of animal experimentation, he notes that with a death toll of a “conservative estimate of 20 million animals per year in the United States alone” vivisection “is big business.”

Another issue covered in the book is the bizarre contrast in the way we treat animals. Torres argues that some species are granted special status, companion animals, for example. While they would seem to be higher on the hierarchal chain of worth assigned to them by humans, Torres notes that they still “seem to occupy a sort of nether-world between animal and human,” and that they are still fundamentally (legally) viewed as property. There’s a current trend afoot to encourage the ‘gentrification’ of companion animals by draping dogs and cats in designer jewelry. The capitalist system has undoubtedly seen the benefits of feeding the idea of companion animals as fashion accessories–there is–after all BIG money to be made on these consumerist trends.

Torres also blasts the animal rights groups who seem to have been effectively co-opted by capitalism (this should come as no great surprise to anarchists). While he acknowledges, “critiquing PETA is seen as a special form of heresy,” he cites several examples to back up his criticism; PETA’s granting the ‘Visionary” award, for example, to Temple Grandin for redesigning slaughterhouses “to decrease the amount of suffering that animals experience in their final hours.” According to Torres, this “defies rational comprehension” and is “at the very least contradictory.” Torres argues this is just one example of the many “Faustian bargains” mainstream organizations make with the animal agriculture industry in order to maintain “bureaucratic concerns.” He notes that we opt out of our responsibility by imagining that animal welfare groups are there in place to oversee the job for us. If the animal welfare groups are out there improving animal slaughter in order to ensure that happy animals end up on our dinner tables, then we can eat meat with a clear conscience.

Torres really hits some chords when he points out that in many ways, animal activist groups simple end up helping corporations develop great new business strategies and yuppie market niches. Citing the blatant example of Whole Foods, Torres notes that “they’ve been able to convince people that are supposedly opposed to animal exploitation to sign on to a business and marketing model that relies on the exploitation of animals, albeit in kinder, gentler ways.” Whole Foods, and other similar corporations “get to appear as the ‘ethical’ choice for consumers who care, but who don’t care enough to give up foods that exploit.” We’ve all seen the ads–ranging from Amish chickens to my personal favorite–‘tasty veal without the cruelty.’

One of the things I particularly like about Torres’s book is that there is no aim to make us wallow in guilt. Guilt as an issue comes up only in connection with sneaky marketing ploys used by corporations designed to ensnare us into guilt avoidance. Torres makes his arguments with clear concise rationality, and he offers facts and figures without emotional hyperbole. The book ends on a surprisingly optimistic note with suggestions for readers. I’ve long been troubled by animal commodification and exploitation and Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights synthesized these issues for me by placing animals “within the larger dynamics of capitalist exploitation.” The book includes an index (always appreciated by this reader), and scrupulous notes for further reading. Excellent.

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One response to “Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres

  1. Bea Elliott

    What a great review!… I intend to make this book next on my reading list. Coincidentally, “Making a Killing” is also mentioned here: ANIMAL PERSON There’s an excellent discussion in respose to a speech made to Animal Rights Africa by Steve Best. Best makes his case that human rights and environmental issues are inseparable from Animal Rights.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your post. Thanks for inviting comment…
    Go Vegan 🙂

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