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Jul 23, 2020
21 Min read time
In a world unraveled by COVID-19, the brutality of factory farming demands we rethink our relationship to animals.
Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm
Duke University Press, $27.95 (paper)
Communist Pigs: An Animal History of East Germany’s Rise and Fall
University of Washington Press, $40 (cloth)
“Never look a hog in the eyes,” an experienced hand told anthropologist Alex Blanchette as they prepared to artificially inseminate sows. “If the animals think you are looking at them, they will freeze.” Like a living, inverted panopticon, hundreds of pigs would watch their handlers from their pens with a petrifying gaze. “They have almost 360 degrees vision,” a former worker recollected. “Sometimes they look like they are not looking at you. . . . but if you look at their eyes, you will see that they are always following you.”
Like the bodies of the pigs it has engineered, the meat business has become a vast, fragile beast teetering on the brink of ecological and financial ruin.
Blanchette’s new ethnographic study of modern factory farming, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm, is in many ways a meditation on seeing—or what we fail to see. Often we struggle to detect the meat industry’s traces, be they fecal particles suspended in the air or the porcine pathogens that suffuse the environs of “concentrated feeding animal operations” (CAFOs), where thousands of animals are kept indoors for long periods to speed up production. CAFOs made up only a small share of farms as late as the 1970s but now produce the vast majority of America’s meat, eggs, and milk. Blanchette stresses that the factory farm he studied didn’t just make pork; it also produced the ingredients for gel-covered pills, yellow fizzy drinks, cosmetics, and computers. There might be gelatin in the book’s cover, he tells his readers, and dead pigs in its ink and paper. Perception also shapes the pig business in other significant, if less material, ways. Captains of industry rely on statistical modeling and price signals from the world market as they constantly reshape their herds. Workers guard against epidemics through elaborate biosafety procedures and encouragement to safely socialize in their free time. The hog factory farms prefigured the future it created and the present we now endure—a world locked down to preserve the industrial exploitation of animals.
Grisly exposés are as old as the meat industry itself, but Blanchette is not interested in scandal. The genre implies that the meat industry is a secretive outlier or that it can be redeemed through liberal reform. Books in this mode tend to steer between industrial horror and vegan asceticism to arrive at the safe harbor of the small farm, yet here too Blanchette departs from the norm. He does not believe that bucolic romanticism has anything to offer us now, an insight that was plain a century ago to the political economist Thorstein Veblen. Veblen ridiculed “the Independent Farmer of the poets” as a “holdover” from an “obsolete past” and predicted his doom “under the dominion of absentee ownership in its later developed phase.” Veblen also stressed that “the case of the American farmer is conspicuous; though it can scarcely be called singular.” In similar fashion, Blanchette recognizes that the meat industry isn’t a macabre exception but rather is typical of contemporary capitalism, even if its extremes make contemporary tendencies more readily apparent. Like the bodies of the pigs it has engineered, the meat business has become a vast, fragile beast teetering on the brink of ecological and financial ruin.
Blanchette admits that he too once believed in the Independent Farmer. He had grown up in a “tight-knit agrarian community” in southwestern Ontario made familiar by the tales of Alice Munro. As a young graduate student he had hoped his studies might allow him to see what his “childhood home could one day become and learn from those who have refused to acquiesce.” He quickly came to realize that the heroes from the 1990s “Hog Wars,” who fought against the expansion of CAFOs into their towns, were gone, defeated, or dead. Some dissidents were unwilling to talk to Blanchette because they remained financially dependent on erstwhile foes to buy their crops. The nearest he came to an interview was finding an apology taped to a former activist’s front door, along with some old Sierra Club pamphlets, and a $5 bill for his gas. The industry’s agnotological power—the sum of its efforts to prevent light from piercing its veil of ignorance—pervades the text. The reader never learns where the study takes place; Blanchette calls the town “Dixon” and the livestock firms he worked at are referred to by the alias of “Dover Foods” and “Berkamp Meats.” Given these obstacles, the clarity and analytical power of Porkopolis are impressive achievements. It helps that the reader is guided by the all-seeing Blanchette, a sort of an inverted Virgil, leading the blind through a sanguine hell as he takes the reader through the various stages of pork production. It is not surprising to learn that Blanchette’s peers consider him one of the finest ethnographers of his generation. The book is crafted with a perspicacity and empathy reminiscent of Munro’s short stories.
While it may not be surprising that Big Ag is opaque from the outside looking in, managers and workers themselves struggle to comprehend their workplace’s complex and fragmented operations.
While it may not be surprising that Big Ag is opaque from the outside looking in, what is more striking is that managers and workers themselves struggle to comprehend their workplace’s complex and fragmented operations. As in other capitalist industries, there is a split between mental and physical work. At Dover managers “work on” an abstraction they call “the Herd” while employees “work with” the animals themselves. Managers rely on “statistical, sampling, tour-based inspection, or paper-based forms” to produce quantitative knowledge. A “pod manager,” whose job it is to oversee a lineage of pigs, explained to Blanchette that “the old farming mentality was to manage individual pigs. . . . But our mentality is that we manage the Herd.” Instead of favoring any particular animal as a traditional farmer might, Dover’s policy was to “cull and replace their genetic stock of breeding animals at regular intervals . . . regardless of a given animal’s history.” Still, most managers lack a synoptic perspective because such a view is split along pods or the division between the “live” side (where hogs are raised) and “plant” (where they are slaughtered).
Working-class knowledge may seem tactile and direct, yet it too is splintered by the division of labor. When Blanchette stood in the adolescent hogs’ pen for the first time he was surprised how unsteady he was. After spending months with pregnant sows and piglets, he had assumed that he “knew how to act around hogs pretty well,” but experience in the factory farm is not transferable across a pig’s life span. Taylorism is taken to an extreme on the “plant” side, where a thousand workers stick, hook, gut, and cut along the line. After two centuries of fine tuning, specialization is so extensive—and the pressure on the human body so great—that few gains in productivity remain. In this highly fragmented space, few workers can sense its immense industrial scale, where a hog is killed every three seconds. Workers speak in hushed tones of the “dead room,” where a machine grinds innumerable dead piglets for rendering and the chamber under the kill floor, where “a man is said to spend all day . . . watching for errant bits of flesh that could clog the drains that transport blood.”
The extreme division of labor in the meat industry is meant not only to squeeze an extra “penny per pound of pork,” but also to protect public health. A cordon sanitaire lies between and within firms. A single family cannot have members working in both the live and plant sides. Managers dread epidemics, called euphemistically “disease events”, which could be sparked by contamination picked up during a worker’s free time. “Microscopic particles of hog saliva, blood, feces, semen, or barn bacteria,” Blanchette explains, “might be lodged in workers’ ears, fingernails, and nostrils, despite worksite-mandated showering protocols.” By pushing pigs’ bodies to their limits, firms had created the conditions where their workers “sharing some wine or praying in a church pew” could become a matter of concern. Such elaborate protocols—and the focus on human error as the problem to be guarded against, rather than over-complexity of the system itself—reminds one of the precarious management of a nuclear power plant. At one point in the book Blanchette even cites Charles Perrow, the foremost theorist of nuclear accidents. And the pork industry’s epidemiological regimentation extends to white-collar workers, too. One slaughterhouse manager lamented that his colleagues on the live side were just names on a spreadsheet to him, just like the abstracted Herd itself. What surprised Blanchette most was that “people were, by and large, accommodating themselves to the stated nature and needs of this industrially incapacitated animal without much complaint.”
Taylorism is taken to an extreme on the “plant” side, where a thousand workers stick, hook, gut, and cut along the line. Few can sense its immense industrial scale, where a hog is killed every three seconds.
The only person at Dover who could see the Herd in its entirety was the executive Drew Collins. Charged with overseeing the firm’s vertical integration, “he is the only employee responsible for in-depth planning of production across every single phase of the pig’s (pre)life and (post)death cycle.” If being a pig farmer once meant rearing an animal from birth to slaughter, then Collins “is among the final farmers remaining in this system.” He grew up in the rural Midwest but could not afford to get into farming and instead he took a job at Dover. In an almost poetic demonstration of the delusion that underwrites mass meat consumption, Collins bought a small farm with a fortune gained from managing industrialized animal husbandry. As Veblen remarked, the U.S. farmer holds on “to the still surviving persuasion that he is on his way, by hard work and shrewd management, to acquire a ‘competence’; such as will enable him to some day to take his due place among the absentee owners of the land.”
• • •
The environmental historian Thomas Fleischman’s Communist Pigs: An Animal History of East Germany’s Rise and Fall provides a fruitful countervailing narrative to Blanchette’s Porkopolis. East Germany’s industrialized pork industry, Fleischman reasons, shows that the factory farm was not the result of a specific economic system but rather a “modernist” impulse that spanned the Cold War divide. After all, the East German pork industry was plagued by toxic pig-shit lagoons and epidemics that bear more than a passing resemblance to what we see in present-day Iowa and North Carolina. In this way, Communist Pigs fits into the broader literature that studies how capitalist technologies were employed in a socialist context. In Magnetic Mountain (1995), for example, Stephen Kotkin studies how the Soviet Union built a steel mill in Magnitogorsk inspired by what was then the cutting edge foundries of Gary, Indiana. Eastern Bloc cars were often knock-offs of Western models; politburo members were chauffeured in the ZIL-111, a copy of the 1961 Cadillac Fleetwood Seventy-Five. Fleishman, however, goes further than commenting on Eastern Bloc mimicry and instead asserts that socialist states were actually capitalist. Employing the literary conceit of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), in which porcine leaders become just as cruel and corrupt as their overthrown human oppressors, Fleischman uses factory farming as an example to show how the Eastern Bloc’s “state capitalism” converged with capitalism, the two becoming nearly “indistinguishable.”
Although Fleischman does not delve into the debate over “state capitalism,” one can see in the endnotes that the ur-source of the idea is British Trotskyist Tony Cliff, who came up with the term in the 1940s to interpret Stalinism as an economy where the state bureaucracy played the role of the absent bourgeoise. While state socialism lacked the mechanism of profit, the drive for accumulation was propelled by the need to keep up militarily with rival states. Given the importance of Cliff’s concept to the main argument of Communist Pigs, it is a shame that Fleischman does not give the reader more background on this debate, especially as it represents a minority view in the historiography of the Soviet Union. Indeed, there are good reasons to stress rather than minimize the differences between socialist economies like East Germany’s and their capitalist competitors.
Fleischman’s intelligent study convincingly demonstrates how the pork industry was integral to the rise and fall of East German socialism.
Communist Pigs is centered on the town of Eberswalde (the “boar woods”), which for a time hosted the largest industrial pork facility in the world. Quoting East German planners themselves, Fleischman explains that during the first couple decades of socialism they sought national self-sufficiency in food, by the 1960s they wanted to turn East Germany from “an import land to an export land” and factory farming was seen as the most viable route to this goal. Needing an “industrial pig” that could withstand the cramped, unsanitary conditions of CAFOs, East German planners turned to Yugoslavia, whose factory farms already used hardy American breeds. East Germany’s own domestic swine were still bucolic creatures who lacked the “vigor” necessary to survive on a factory farm long enough to reach slaughter weight. Construction at Eberswalde began in 1967 with Yugoslav support and ended in the mid-1970s with the construction of a turnkey slaughterhouse and processing plant built by a West German consultancy. At first, East Germany’s bet paid off handsomely, especially after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of international currency management in 1971. Cheap money allowed planners to borrow heavily and expand facilities across the country, and in 1981 East Germany surpassed Denmark and the UK as a pork producer—an impressive accomplishment. For a while it was possible to use factory farms to transform foreign grain into exported pork to pay off Western loans. Yet already by the early 1980s this model was battered by a series of shocks: hiked interest rates in the United States, two epidemics that wiped out much of the East German herd, and the birth of the country’s environmental movement.
While the rise and fall of the communist “industrial pig” is the heart of Fleischman’s narrative, he also follows the fortunes of two other pigs, the “garden pig” and the wild boar. The former was a popular animal tended by private citizens on their allotment plots. On this score Fleischman rhapsodizes the Independent Farmer east of the Elbe, presenting the wholesome counterpart to the industrial pig. The other pig was the shaggy, sharp-tusked Sus scrofa, whose population exploded after the 1960s as the turn to factory farming (which relied on imported grain) allowed the countryside to reforest. The most intriguing character in Communist Pigs is amateur naturalist Heinz Meynhardt, a self-styled Jane Goodall of boars. With his documentaries, books, and radio shows Meynhardt tried to recast the Wildschwein from a “plague” to the local charismatic fauna. Despite his efforts the animals were generally despised for spreading disease to domesticated pigs and for ravaging beloved garden plots. An insightful ecologist, Meynhardt recognized that these unwanted interactions were not the animals’ fault but rather resulted from human degradation of their habitats. In his modest way, Meynhardt perhaps represents a more ecologically centered socialism amidst the ravaged, industrial countryside.
Just because a socialist society transplants capitalist forms doesn’t mean that it has become capitalist. Socialism, after all, lacked capitalism’s main mechanisms: unemployment, markets, and profits.
Fleischman’s enjoyable and intelligent study convincingly demonstrates how the pork industry was integral to the rise and fall of East German socialism. This has implications for how we understand the Eastern Bloc, but also for environmental history itself, as Fleischman challenges his peers to care more about economics, animals, and life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Fellow historians of the Cold War, too, will have to reckon with Fleischman’s portrayal of East Germany as an unstable but formidable competitor in industrial agriculture. Its early success in converting cheap imported grains to pig flesh and hard currency should be understood as a gambit on the part of East Berlin’s leadership to turn the country into an industrial powerhouse able to meet citizens’ demands for a consumerist good life. In the end, though, the oversized dung heaps that blighted the countryside (so-called “mossy giants”) and the nitrate contamination of the country’s drinking water catalyzed the East German environmentalist movement, a gravedigger of the regime.
Although Communist Pigs stakes out new intellectual territory with great originality, the book reproduces certain flaws of contemporary U.S. historiography, especially those found in environmental history. Like others in this field, Flesichman’s book is rich in detail and based on impressive archival research, but its theoretical apparatus is less robust. He vaguely alludes to “ideology” and “capitalism” without defining either. His admiration for Orwell is typical in a profession that only cursorily engages with Marxism even, as here, when its subject is a socialist country. These theoretical decisions lead to the book’s contestable conclusions, especially its argument that there is no meaningful distinction between socialism and capitalism. Fleischman’s intellectually risqué gesture is a popular one among U.S. historians. Kate Brown, for instance, made a similar argument in Plutopia: Nuclear Families Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (2013), her study on U.S. and Soviet plutonium factory towns.
There are both idealistic and empirical reasons to be wary of generalizing from the surface appearances in particular economic spheres. Just because a socialist society transplants capitalist technology and methods doesn’t mean that it has become capitalist. Socialism, after all, lacked capitalism’s main mechanisms: unemployment, markets, and profits. Social theorist Christopher Arthur has called state socialism “a clock without a spring,” imitating capitalist development but lacking those conditions that would enable capital to act as “self-expanding value.” Fleischman overlooks that socialist societies operated with drivers and constraints quite distinct from capitalist ones, as Robert Allen showed brilliantly in his study of Soviet economic development, From Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution (2003). There is good reason to think that structural differences in socialist and capitalist economic systems lead to divergent environmental outcomes. Compared to capitalist countries, socialist ones often have few cars and good public transportation and thus avoid the plagues of urban sprawl and auto exhaust. Yet socialist enterprises tend to be extremely wasteful in terms of resources and energy because they do not face competitive pressures. Moreover, Marxism’s ingrained Prometheanism leads it to catastrophic endeavors like the destruction of the Aral Sea.
Fleischman’s study forces one to recognize that whatever form a new post-capitalist society takes, imitating capitalism only leads to catastrophe.
This is true of factory farming, too—as one can surmise this from Fleischman’s own evidence. Compared to the highly efficient and innovative enterprises Blanchette studies, Fleischman’s socialist firms were plagued by even greater blindness because they lacked a price mechanism to guide their decisions. The East German State Planning Commission and Ministry of Agriculture couldn’t agree whether the pig industry was profitable. Nor were planners under the same pressure to constantly innovate—to “find new money in our pigs,” as Collins of Dover Foods puts it. Bottlenecks in fodder production and hoarding by competing factory managers meant that “industrial pigs” had to forage outdoors, were fed unbalanced diets, or failed to reach ideal slaughter weights. Socialism often tried to copy capitalism, but it lacked the structural conditions that created entities like CAFOs in the first place.
These points might seem like academic quibbling, but they matter politically. By suggesting that socialism was doomed to degenerate into capitalism and even reproduced its ugliest manifestation—the factory farm—Fleischmann may lead a reader to wonder whether there is any point in trying to get beyond capitalism today. Blanchette, by contrast, makes clear that capital’s progress is synonymous with the deepening enslavement of nature. And Fleischman’s own study forces one to recognize that whatever form a new post-capitalist society takes, imitating capitalism only leads to catastrophe.
• • •
Thirty years separate Blanchette’s and Fleischman’s stories, and the strides made by the meat industry in that time are astonishing. Next to the global, ruthless, and hyper-technical industry studied by Blanchette, Eberswalde seems quaint. Take Merck PG 600, a serum used to prepare sows for insemination. Its main ingredient is the hormone gonadotropin, which is harvested from the blood of mares. South American “blood and timber plantations” keep feral horses to be periodically captured, impregnated, and released only to be recaptured to induce abortions, where “only 70 percent of the bony mares survive being drained by long brown hoses.” Once harvested, the hormone is injected by workers like Blanchette to reset a sow’s estrous cycle, shaving off a few “unproductive days” between pregnancies. Karl Marx may have written that “capital . . . vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour,” but Blanchette shows that this is no metaphor in the case of the livestock industry.
Blanchette sees one worker’s self-professed “love” for her charges as “an ethical practice of being open and attuned to new expressions of animal life.”
Indeed, Porkopolis shows that you can damn factory farms for many reasons, but you can’t call them inefficient. Firms have a splintered view of their operations but remain sensitive to fluctuations in the market, able to calibrate the chemical mix of a thousand different products made from millions of pigs’ bodies. It is hard to imagine socialist factory farms able to meticulously regulate such vast operations. Blanchette was shocked to find out that firms like Dover didn’t send “piles of bones” to the dump. As Dixon’s sanitation engineer explained to him, “there’s nothing really that ever really comes out of that plant that resembles a hog. Or, well . . . unless maybe . . . some blood, but mostly grease.” The capitalist meat industry may be balanced on a tightrope, but its socialist imitator would fall soon enough on a rope that could never quite get taut enough. That is not to say that capitalist firms cannot fall too, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear. Their hyper-efficiency has left firms with little slack in their operations, leading the whole enterprise simply to collapse. Unable to run their finely tuned machines as more and more slaughterhouse workers get sick at what have become the pandemic’s hotspots, livestock firms will simply have to “euthanize” millions of animals. The pandemic marks a rare instance when global meat consumption has fallen, albeit by only 3 percent.
Especially now, when we live in a world unraveled by zoonotic illness, it should be clear that inter-species solidarity is essential to any vision of a just society. The industry’s sangfroid precision—Merck PG 600 being perhaps its clearest expression—leads Blanchette to conclude that “it has come to feel radical to advocate merely leaving something unworked . . . the right to be ‘un-efficient’ creatures.” To frame this another way, socialism’s lack of a “spring” may well be its greatest virtue. A return to the Independent Farmer, however, can’t be the end point of history. A socialist society can only flourish when it learns sympathy for other creatures, including the humble pig. Surprisingly, one can find reason for optimism even in Blanchette’s brilliant but brutal book, for he found that industrial cruelty had engendered a heroic proletarian ethic of care.
Especially now, when we live in a world unravelled by zoonotic illness, it should be clear that inter-species solidarity is essential to any vision of a just society.
This ethic has emerged partially because of the industry’s drive to double the size of average litter, leading to universal runting. Instead of one in fifty piglets being too weak to sustain themselves, nearly all pigs born now need human assistance. (The ever narrow margins of life afforded to domesticated animals as a means to increase profits has been analyzed with great depth by Sunaura Taylor in her 2017 book Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation.) During his field work, Blanchette nursed piglets alongside Robin, a “skilled archivist of the rare bodies and oddities” able to keep alive animals that others could not. Her craft could only be honed at a factory farm because of the sheer numbers of piglets produced; her experience is the fruit of caring for hundreds of thousands of animals. To cite one example of her many craft secrets, she could make body-casts from duct tape to support a piglet’s musculature, allowing it to make its first steps and hopefully survive for a time. Robin was determined to save every pig, no matter how hopeless it seemed and even though her efforts only would buy a pig several months’ respite before they were sent “plant side.” Rather than dismissing her efforts as irrational, Blanchette sees Robin’s self-professed “love” for her charges as “an ethical practice of being open and attuned to new expressions of animal life” created by the conditions of the factory farm itself.
One day Blanchette found his colleagues discussing what to do with a pregnant sow, whose prolapse blocked her birth canal. Francisco, the foreman, explained to Blanchette that “we have to give her a C-section or her pigs will die.” Blanchette and three other workers held the sow’s legs steady, another held a bolt gun to her head, and the sixth, Felipe, lay by her side gripping a bolt cutter. The moment she was killed, Felipe worked feverishly to cleave a path to the piglets. Bathed in blood, he lost his grip on the bolt cutters and began to tear a path to the womb with his hands. Francisco counted aloud the seconds and a minute after their mother’s death, Felipe prised free the first, unmoving piglet. Following the factory’s gendered division of life and death, Blanchette saw “the women blowing into the piglets’ tiny mouths, flexing the piglets’ front and hind legs together to resuscitate them, their hands covered in the sow’s blood.” Finally, as the seventh infant came out, Robin shouted “It’s alive!” and a piglet began to squirm in her hands: “There were more cheers as piglets emerged with a sliver of life remaining, a sense of relief settling in the hallway.” Moments such as this hint at the new society waiting in utero.
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