As well as doing research during my research leave, I have been reading Marx’s Capital, Volume 1 alongside David Harvey’s free online course (which I strongly recommend) – because this is what I count as fun these days. I’m only up to chapter seven, but I am already finding new angles on my own work. At the same time, my engagement with Animal Studies for my new project has meant that as I have been reading Capital I have been alert to how Marx distinguishes human and non-human animals.
In Animal Studies the reliance of philosophers on establishing differences with animals to define what is ‘human’ has been much discussed, very recently in a great book by Joanna Bourke. The capacity for reasoned speech is one commonly cited difference. As is the capacity to feel pain and to suffer. Under scrutiny, all these dividing lines do not hold up for all circumstances. In the chapter ‘The Labour Process and the Valorization Process’ Marx outlines the basis for his own distinction between human and non-human animals in the nature of their labour.
We are not dealing here with those first instinctive forms of labour which remain on the animal level… We presuppose labour in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally. Man not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; he also realises his own purpose in those materials.
Marx is arguing that making things according to a mental design is a uniquely human trait. This is an assumption that he makes in order to set the parameters for his discussion of how through the labour process additional value is generated. But it is not an assumption that is likely to hold up under a great deal of scrutiny. Animal behaviour is not always as instinctual as he suggests, and not all the human labour that he goes on to analyze is as deliberate and designed as he implies here. Nevertheless, I think that Marx’s wider conceptual framework laid out in Capital is helpful for understanding the division between humans and non-human animals as a historical division – one that is subject to change over time.
Marx argues that under capitalism the worker sells their labour-power. This is the most important commodity that they possess and must exchange in order to purchase the many other commodities that they need or want. Animal workers, however, are themselves commodities. They do not sell their labour-power. Others sell their bodies. This is also true of slavery. Human slaves are sold as commodities, they are not free to sell their labour-power. However, the struggle against slavery is about more than enabling slaves to sell their labour. It is about recognising slaves as human, something historically denied to slaves through racist ideologies. So, understood this way, the division between human and non-human animals is a political one bound up with labour rights under capitalism. Being ‘human’ has in part been defined by who has been allowed to sell their labour in history, and who has not. And on these grounds, labour rights have been contested. Comparing the conditions of human labour with that of animals remains a powerful critique.
[N.b. The quote I have used has been taken from: Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), pp. 283-4.]