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Hitlerian or Vegetarian slaughterhouses?

Khadija Sharife
By Khadija Sharife

Khadija Sharife is a correspondent for African Business magazine, among others, and a commissioning investigative editor at Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR). Affiliations include researcher for the Environment Justice Trade and Liabilities (EJOLT) project at the Center for Civil Society (CCS) based in South Africa; researcher with the Tax Justice Network; Africa project fellow at the US-based World Policy Institute; assistant Africa editor of "Capitalism, Nature, Socialism", and author of Tax Us If You Can (Africa), among co-authored works. Her work has appeared in African Banker, New African, Al Jazeera, Forbes, BBC, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Economist, Harvard International Review, London Review of Books, and others.

Posted on Thursday, 22 December 2011 18:07

Jam-packed bathrooms are a constant feature of any big event. During the COP17- Climate Change conference in Durban, South Africa, I found myself waiting in a queue outside a particularly pungent but functioning facility.

In front of me, a heated conversation took place about climate solutions, led by a young woman wearing a ‘Go-Redd Go-Earth’ bandanna. After spotting my COP17 accreditation, and seemingly at the peak of her vocal range, she placed her hand on my shoulder and proceeded to inform me that REDD was the best solution on offer because it would, ‘save the forests of the world by putting a price on it and make them pay!’

The only thing more important than REDD and other solutions, she claimed, was vegetarianism, because it was ‘inhuman and cruel for us to sacrifice an animal life for dinner.’

The frequency with which she quoted celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs indicated, at least in part, a considerable foundation for her beliefs in the commodification of ecosystems. She believed capitalism could be reformed for the better and that financialising the problem to profit from the solution would provide an incentive for corporations to take the ‘green’ lead.

When I asked whether she supported Sachs’s logic of sweatshops, she claimed some jobs were better than ‘no jobs’.

It was, undoubtedly the logic of the Market, perceived by many, including the young activist, as a self-evident truth. On the one hand, she rightly removed her (biologically omnivorous) self from a position of known criminality ie: buying the slaughterhouse tragedy.

But by misdiagnosing the problem (the perceived inhumanity of eating cattle that has been cultivated historically by peoples for consumption, rather than the character of animal husbandry – incidentally, 9000 years old in Africa), she also criminalised indigenous communities, and conscious people, who consumed in ways that were respectful of the intrinsic life of animals, and sustainable in their practice. It is a sustainability that can, and has, been replicated globally in the slow food, and localised, movements.

I had to inquire whether she viewed Native Americans (and many indigenous communities globally from the Maasai to the Sami) who appreciated the life of the sustenance-providing animal, as evil; and Hitler, with his vehemently strong animal rights legislation and vegetarianism, as an innocent?

According to Hitler’s close friend, “he could not bear to eat meat, because it meant the death of a living creature. He refused to have so much as a rabbit or a trout sacrificed to provide his food.” But her response was that Hitler was probably not a real vegetarian and that everyone, including the indigenous peoples, had to come on board the ‘climate train’ and cease consuming life as dinner.

But this common misdiagnosis opposed only the act, not the system underpinning production, and pulling out, as a society, or as individuals, refers to a solution that glosses over fundamental gaps.

Adolf Hitler: A devout animal protector who hated rats

Hitler’s vegetarianism is often limply used to discredit animal rights movements and vegetarianism.

It should not be: the concept and realisation of factory-farming chicken, for instance, is a brutally violent and criminal act: in under 40 days, chickens are ‘intensively reared’ in immensely crowded conditions; beaks are cut for easier force-feeding; the air is ammonia-intensive; the bodies are stained with shit and pumped with hormones and medication that transform the chicken’s body – and that of human consumer, as a carcinogenic chemically-loaded paradise.

What ends up as KFC-crumbed chicken, Mc-Happy Nuggets, or even mother’s wholesome roasted chicken, are gruesomely diseased, abused, broken bodies. Every year, over 60 billion animals are born, raised, fed, killed and ‘processed’ by the corporate meat-maker treadmill – with a great deal of suffering, methane and waste produced in the process. And the sight is devastating.

In many ways, Hitler established the world’s most progressive (if neurotically so) animal rights charter in 1933, forbidding everything from boiling a lobster to force-feeding fowl, experimenting on animals for any purpose (including medication), and neglecting a pet, all of which carried a considerable prison sentence.

What is interesting is the role played by his active animal rights stance – with ‘rights’ in this context representing that curiously subversive lens of anthropocentric humanism, deifying mankind as the center of the world – and the rights-deprivation of peoples perceived as a threat to the ideological motor of his empire.

While Hitler located certain animals, like dogs, are the top of the moral ‘rights’ economy, other peoples, like gypsies and Jews, became ‘rats’. In one swift move, he animalised peoples and humanised creatures.

Humans, wrote Hal Herzog, a leading anthrozoologists, in his book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, have an affinity – are biophilic – to animals that appear ‘babyfied’ or armed with the cuteness factor; human-like in the emotions; ‘pets’; and other easier-to-empathise-with characteristics such as loyalty, bravery, and devotion. Society has also armed humans with ‘biophobic’ tendencies, against snakes, rats and other threatening creatures perceived as vicious, cold and cunning, in addition to those that are unattractive, or who do not easily express loyalty to humans.

Consequently, Hitler’s moral economy was itself layered with a value hierarchy legitimised as logical on the basis of politically authorised rights.

Animalising the human being

The framing of unwanted minorities or peoples distinct from the majority (by ethnicity, religion, culture, race, etc) whether in Rwanda (cockroaches) or Nazi Germany (rats) often occurs through animalisation, which removes the criminality from the act through two means: invisibilisation and justification.

Thinker Jacques Derrida tells us that the process of deconstruction ie: investigating the naturalised conditions of history and reality assumed by governments, institutions, among others as rational and self-evident, lies in the system of construction ‘already at work in the work.’ That is, the system contains its own seeds of destruction, if the mind (or memory) can identify how the process came about and is sustained.

The commodification of bodies in the capitalist logic, through the market, renders those beings with the least political and financial capital, as the easiest to exploit.

The slaughterhouse cannot exist without the sweatshop, and vice versa as the process (and the means) has been naturalised as part and parcel of life.

For animalisation to occur, deliberate and systemic dehumanisation must take place. And for animals themselves, Derrida states, “to put all animals into one category is a stupid gesture that is theoretically ridiculous, and partakes in the very real violence that humans exercise towards animals, that leads to slaughterhouses, the industrial treatment…’

This, of course, refers to commodified animals, but even as refers to animals of ‘pleasure’, like pets, the intrinsic value of the animal’s life is of no value to the owner (or the system of control), except as said owner interprets and deems rewarding.

And what of Hitler?

As writer J. M Coetzee stated in his speech Exposing the Beast: Factory Farming must be called to the Slaughterhouse: “In the 20th century, a group of powerful and bloody-minded men in Germany hit on the idea of adapting the methods of the industrial stockyard, as pioneered and perfected in Chicago, to the slaughter – or what they preferred to call the processing – of human beings.”

The anthropocentric socio-political lens interpreting animal-related rights is usually a ’cause’ of the middle and upper classes in developed nations, who have domesticated animals for their pleasure – whether on TV, in aquariums and zoos, or at home; and whose interests are directly interlocked with economies where the inverse occurs too: laborers treated as animals, commodified at a cheapened value, until death, by the same corporate machine that motors the slaughterhouse.

This unnaturality is not only justified but invisibilised by capitalism (and socialism which has historically operated on the same production system). Thinker Giorgio Agamben describes, ‘states of exception’ such as sweatshops, prisons, concentration camps, and so on, as spaces where life (rights, value and citizenship etc) is diminished, suspended, superceded by, or via, political government structures that legitimise it.

Such spaces exist and are routinely ignored by that thing we call ‘common sense’ which advises us not to get involved.

Coetzee goes on to say of the sickened and queasy public, “they arrange their lives in such a way that they need be reminded of farms and abattoirs as little as possible, and they do their best to ensure their children are kept in the dark too.”

Coetzee aptly notes the strangeness of the framed narrative, that however well-meaning the benefactors are, “the animal rights campaign remains a human project from beginning to end,” ever reflecting the anthropocentric drama: how man chooses to receive the other in his world.

The rights movement itself, we may add, is self-defeating so long as the system in which rights are located is designed as is. Because plainly speaking, rights are only valued by the authorisers or ‘source of sovereignty’, if the one exercising the right reinscribes the system, reinforcing the authoriser’s power.

Both abused cow and labourer are two sides of the same slaughterhouse coin. For a change to be made, the system must go, not just the steak.

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