What the Slaughter of Ducks Taught Me About Capitalism & Worker Solidarity
When I talk about economics classes I’ve attended where we were led to calculate the monetary value of a person’s life in order to compare it to the tax revenue or other monetary benefits of a change in policy, most people with a soul respond in horrified shock that the math nerds making suggestions about global political and economic policy could be so cold and indifferent to human life.
But if I bring up the monetary value of a farm animal’s life, most of the same people will make all sorts of justifications for animal captivity, forced labor, and slaughter. This attitude isn’t unique to the soulful people creating worlds beyond capitalism, but it is an attitude we’ve inherited from this system we’re trying to move beyond.
The dominant culture has been selling us and our ancestors a steady diet of ethical exceptionalism and pseudoscientific nutritional standards to justify the captivity, enslavement, and slaughter of farm animals for more than a hundred years. They tell us that slaughtering animals is a physical necessity for people to be healthy, that raising livestock can be a gainful and even sustainable economic enterprise, and counter-intuitively, that micromanaging domesticated livestock from pregnancy to slaughter is key to both our species’ survival.
Last year, I watched my first duck slaughter, also termed ‘culling’ and ‘processing’ in the industry. For the past few years, I’ve gotten to know several small-scale farmers who raise meat animals, but this was my first time actually observing their process. Males were caught from a backyard pin and brought out of view of the others one at a time. Each was fitted into a suspended upside down traffic cone with his head pulled through the bottom, and he hung there for a minute or two adjusting to the situation he had to know was the end of his life. As his throat was slit and his blood gushed downward, the black bead of his eye focused on me until its life was extinguished. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
With ducks in particular, sometimes it’s easy to make an exception to an ethical heart string the proposed slaughter of animals like kids, puppies, or kittens may tug. In captivity, space and resource access are often limited. Even the USDA Agriculture Extension agrees that ducks respond by biting at each other, an activity which also seems to occur in what biologically could be termed sex, but what at least to me, looks indistinguishable from rape. Male ducks violently mount the females and bite down on their necks, leaving scars and pink patches of skin where the feathers have been entirely torn off from repeated rapes. Sometimes the female makes screeching sounds and attempts to fight off her attacker. Sometimes she bleeds. In situations where ducks of both sexes are housed together, she is forced to live–often in cramped quarters–with the males who rape her. For me at least, conceptualizing male ducks as rapists made it easier to observe their slaughter.
At the time, I also swallowed my nauseating discomfort because I had accepted that eating meat was a physical necessity, and I reasoned that raising and slaughtering my own meat animals would be ethically and economically better than contributing to the demand for large-scale industrial slaughter businesses. Like most people creating alternatives to our dominant culture, I bought into the myths we’ve been force-fed. And as a result, I found myself on the doorstep of an ‘alternative’ world with more in common to the world it rejects than it tends to realize.
The Need for Meat
A few years before, I was diagnosed severely diabetic and thrown on the maximum dosage of the go-to pill for managing blood sugar in adult-onset diabetics. Economically marginalized and having not seen a doctor since I was 17 nearly a decade earlier, I’d missed all the opportunities to identify the problem early on. My diagnosis was received at the emergency room after paralyzing chest pains and the most terrifying panic attacks I’d ever had superseded my concerns about not having the money to pay for care.
But how did I get there?
On and off since high school I’d practiced veganism, motivated by a concern for animal life and the environment, and a social desire to fit in with the activist kids I thought seemed really cool. Dietary preference aside, nutrition was never something I felt I really learned or had the economic power to think about. The only home-cooked meal I can think of from my childhood is the one time we tried to make a vegetable pizza and the result was terrible. With two working parents exhausted in their jobs, I grew up eating fast food and reheated pre-cooked frozen meals.
Like many Americans, we had to choose what was cheap and what could be prepared or picked up as quickly as possible. And there is a leviathan of advertising, institutionalized nutrition, urban planning, and commercial geography that normalizes this behavior into what’s sometimes now called the Western or American diet. My high school veganism was as much about animals, the environment, and activism as it was a search for something better than this, although at the time I misplaced our economic struggles in the ethical choices of what my parents were able to provide, and substantive dietary changes in a concern for simply not consuming certain ingredients.
After high school, my diet fluctuated between unhealthy extremes of animal-packed fast food and animal- and vegetable-devoid vegan junk food. My periods of veganism consisted mostly of oreos and chips. I drank artificially sweetened fruit juices and soda, ate soy ice cream, french fries, muffins, and everything topped with sugary salad dressings. I gained 100 lbs, but never felt full or healthy. Fast food would follow bouts of vegan junk food, which in my head equated to a sort of balance. Leading up to my diagnosis, I went through periods of eating nothing but rice and beans heated up in the microwave punctuated by fast food binges that left me feeling sluggish, bloated, and sick. Correctly, the nurse I spoke to about my diet identified this as a likely trigger for my failing pancreas. Incorrectly, she led me to believe I would never be able to continue as a vegan and a diabetic. You need to eat meat regularly to be healthy.
From that point on, I adopted a politic that veganism was an impossible goal for people like me. As I spent the next several months learning to count carbs and exercise regularly, I also spent time trying to reconcile my previous concerns for animal welfare with the meat-eating future I seemed resigned to. It was that process that brought me to witness my first and hopefully last duck slaughter.
The powerless yet accusatory eye of that first duck stuck with me. I saw myself through his eyes as indistinguishable from the other humans who caught, killed, and processed him. I believed I needed his life to sustain mine, I had the power to rob him of his, I had the capital to literally buy his life, and the monster of modernity embodied in all these capital and social ills coalesced on the tension between our eyes.
It turns out though that it’s hard to stop caring once you’ve seen the value in someone else’s life and once you’ve come face to the face with the suffering you cause them. I realized I loved animals so much that I couldn’t be part of the system that’s slaughtering them, even if it meant risking my own well-being. And so regardless of what I’d been told about my physical health, I made the jump back to veganism around Thanksgiving last year.
This transition hasn’t been without its hiccups. I’m still an individual economic actor in the gargantuan gullet of modernity. At the intersection of plummeting blood sugar, difficult to manage medications, and the ableist inconveniences of capitalism, stopping for a fast food meal on my way to or from work and school was sometimes my only safe option for the first few months.
Nevertheless, I’ve observed something truly phenomenal with my health. My blood sugar has decreased dramatically along with my blood pressure and weight (all things I need to manage as a diabetic). In February, I was able to halve the amount of medication I’ve been on since my diagnosis, and at this point it’s really just a waiting game to see if I can come off it entirely as my blood sugar has now stabilized at the low end of what is considered healthy for non-diabetics.
To some, it might seem like the vegan diet was key to this shift, but I want to emphasize that my lifestyle has also significantly changed over the last three years. I count carbs and calories at every meal to make efficient food choices every single day. My diet consists mostly of plants now, not just vegan junk food. I also exercise regularly throughout the week. Synergistically, these shifts have changed my health. And individually, they all run counter to the convenience culture and capitalist demands of the modern American lifestyle.
In the past when I’ve gone vegan, it’s primarily been about an abstract concept of ‘the animals,’ which is definitely a great reason to go vegan. What I’m experiencing now though is recognition that veganism can also be about health, specifically about health that challenges all of the myths and neuroses of the modernity we’ve been raised in. The plain truth is that our entire animal agriculture system is unhealthy—for people, for the animals, and most of all for the planet being partitioned and torn apart to enable it. And the health I’m finding in my own plant-based vegan journey now is the microcosm to a macrocosmic potential.
It is possible to be vegan if you’re diabetic. I’m not the kind of conspiracy theorist who believes there must be some direct monetary pay-off between doctors, nurses, and big agriculture, but I do think there is a cultural shield that has arisen around the Western diet to protect livestock business interests, and I’m over it.
So, what if consuming animal products is not necessary for healthy human life? The truth of my health allowed me to revisit the case for animal welfare and the supposed benefits of keeping animals as captive labor and food sources in the post-capitalist alternative societies many of us are building.
Exploiting Animal Labor
Among millennials, there is definitely a strong recognition that our entire economic system, capitalism, is a significant part of the problems faced by different groups of people. Our generation is able to look at something like industrial scale agriculture and point specifically to the plight of the human laborers, especially those raising animals for parent companies who pay on a tournament basis, as well as the health and environmental impact of agriculture-related pollution in drinking water and air quality. We recognize that cheap and occasionally undocumented immigrant labor is used to operate industrial scale agriculture, and that this causes additional issues like increased exposure to health hazards when safety protocols are only posted on site in English. Our generation sees how capitalism, the hording of profit skimmed from the outputs of labor, destroys community-level economies, creates immigration crises and exploitative work opportunities, and elevates the owning class beyond ethical and judicial reach.
Naturally, it follows that many of us have found our life’s work in creating alternatives to this on a smaller scale. And if we accept that meat is a physical necessity for health, it follows that these alternatives include small-scale animal captivity and slaughter. By not overcrowding cages, by allowing at least minimal foraging or access to living greens for food, and by adding at least a handful of days to the animal’s lifespan in captivity, we rebrand these small-scale alternatives as ‘ethical.’
But in not totally restricting the captive animal to leg-breaking housing conditions, small-scale alternatives also incorporate animal labor into their overall agriculture project, a system which then gets translated into the buzzwords ‘sustainable’ or ‘closed-loop.’ For instance, the manure of animals in captivity is re-purposed by these operations as a fertilizer for gardens. Mobile cages called ‘tractors’ sometimes house animals like chickens who clear an area of bugs and greens which can later be more easily transformed into a garden by their captors. These types of animal labor certainly cut down the mileage and acreage otherwise required to produce and deliver fertilizers from off-site. And the labor of the chickens for example certainly decreases necessary human labor inputs.
One thing that’s missing from this equation however is the same critique industrial scale animal agriculture justifies itself with: human demand is beyond planetary capacity. Modernity has dramatically increased our animal product consumption, and capitalism has enabled it. So where family farms once could provide for animal consumption on a community level, industrial agriculture—along with all its overcrowded cages and broken-legged captives—is now required to meet human demand. We can feed communities on small scale alternatives, but we cannot feed humanity as a whole, and if demand is not decreased, I’ll wager these alternative projects find themselves in the same position as the industrial projects they hate in the not-far-off future. Ethical shortcuts will have to be taken if demand remains extraordinary. And none of that is even considering the devastating impact of land-clearing and pollution to our planet.
For true believers in a post-capitalist world, we need to go back further than family farm size animal agriculture. And we have all the ethical reasoning to understand why already, we just need to tune in to what these projects are actually doing. There is nothing innovative about deriving profit from exploited laborers, whether they are humans or non-human animals. The economic gains ‘discovered’ in small scale or alternative livestock ventures are simply down-sized mirrors of an already existent economic model. In other words, we’ve just rediscovered capitalism.
For me, work towards greater cooperation, respect, and coexistence with non-human animals is one piece of a larger, revolutionary, post-capitalist shift in our global economic philosophy that naturally also must include the liberation of all exploited human workers around the globe–the liberation from life-destroying work itself and all the beasts of time and pride and loathing that emerge from it. Today and tomorrow’s post-capitalist leaders are in the unique position to conceptualize futures where neither human nor non-human animal laborer are exploited.
The Value of Life
I think there’s an argument to make that when capitalists put a monetary value on a laborer’s life, that life is already being devalued. That’s really the game of capitalism, right? Undervalue labor in order to maximize profit. We’re doing this when we decide that an animal’s life is dependent on the labor it can produce outweighing the value of the profit we can derive from its carcass. With the value of its existence and autonomy as an individual removed from the equation, we, like other capitalists, have already entered a game of ethical exceptions before we even talk about cage size, access to resources, or lifespan.
And this game is being played all over the globe where humans and non-human animal laborers are exploited for the duration of their lifetimes to maximize profit for the people who own the means of production. Human and non-human animal laborers live in squalor, lack access to clean water and air, lack the ability to choose a nutritionally diverse and healthy diet, are denied freedom of movement, and are forced to contribute labor to the system or die. By some utilitarian logic, our survival in this world could be understood as mutually beneficial, but I wouldn’t term it ethical, sustainable, or ideal.
Nevertheless, an end to this trauma is possible. Many of us are already conceptualizing worlds where we own the means of production, where we can destroy, re-work, and create new lifestyle possibilities in conditions that aren’t oppressive and exploitative. Why not involve non-human animals and animal laborers in this process too? With exceptions for extreme circumstances of survival needs or perhaps some health issues that truly cannot be survived on a vegan diet, consumption of animal products is not necessary in the long-run. Our alternative worlds do not need to recreate it. Our alternative worlds can be just as liberating and visionary for animals as they are for us.
It haunts me that I bought into myths about human health long enough to find myself standing motionless before a duck slaughter. But it haunts me more to think about all the animals I’ve eaten over the course of my lifetime and haven’t gotten to know. People talk about how giving an animal a name makes it more difficult to kill them. And this reminds me of an anti-sweatshop campaign I worked on where the party we were challenging refused to meet actual sweatshop workers who produced the goods they sold. An ethical fading occurs when we can’t put a name and a face to the exploitative choices we make.
If you can’t kill an animal yourself, especially if you can’t kill an animal who has a name, then don’t do it. With few exceptions, you probably don’t even need to.
I can’t erase the image of the ducks’ eyes staring into mine, nor do I want to. I hope that image stays with me and inspires me to do better for every other animal and devalued worker I encounter. We can create better worlds. We have that power. And we don’t have to devalue the life or sovereignty of any other animal to use it.
Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is facing down the existential void with his animal friends. He works as a massage therapist and farmer, and is almost finished earning an economics degree from a well-known business school too. He sees all these interests as deeply connected in the art of human ecology and the need for interdisciplinary action in response to climate change.