Animal Accumulation

By Brian Whitener |

It is a cliché of the U.S. mediatic imaginary of Cuba: 1950s automobiles in the streets of Havana. If one ventures outside the city into the countryside, however, a different surprise awaits—one a little less easily located as a quaint anachronism—namely, the scene of teams of oxen working agricultural land. During the special period of the 1990s, after the withdrawal of Soviet support, the Cuban economy was thrown into crisis and so was the system of mechanized agriculture created after the Revolution. With tractors, parts, and gas in short supply, the ox – a familiar, if slightly forgotten, creature – reappeared on the national scene. From 1960 to 1990 the number of oxen on the island had decreased from 500,000 to 163,000, but by the year 2000 there were again nearly 400,000 oxen in Cuba, tilling fields and taking goods to market. Farmers were rediscovering some of the ox’s productivity advantages such as being available for use year-round, even in the rainy season. [1] Oxen thus became part of a larger attempt to shift the framework of food production on the island to a cooperative agro-ecology based model. While high-input mono-crop farming persists, over 1 million hectares of land have been redistributed, and Cuba’s once heavy dependence on food imports has been dramatically lessened. [2]

Several years ago, I began reading and thinking about this part of the Cuban experience. On a practical level, it seemed completely logical: of course small farming has to make a global comeback against the mono-crop agri-businesses that are destroying the planet and creating poisonous food chains. But on the theoretical level, the idea of the labor of animals coming to substitute for that of oil and mechanization continued to feel surprising and challenging. I began to look for theorizations of the role of animal labor in capitalist production and accumulation. While there have been many points of contact between animal liberation, animal studies, and Marxist literatures, there have been few in-depth studies, specifically, of animal labor (the exceptions being the work of Kendra Coulter, Jason Hribal, and Barbara Noske). [3] Works that attempt a theoretical account of animals’ role in capital accumulation were in short supply. With an estimated 300 million laboring animals in the world today, upwards of 45 billion killed annually in various systems of food production globally, and many more animals performing in the role of caring companions, it would seem difficult to ignore the ways animals labor in the capitalist present. Looking back to the nineteenth century, it is not an exaggeration to argue that animals were critical to the rise of capitalism. In fact, according to energy and economic historian Roger Fouquet, the bulk of direct power of the first Industrial Revolution (between 1760 and 1830) was provided by animals, and, in Great Britain, the quantity of available animal power still outflanked steam up until 1850. [4]

This short piece is a first attempt to try to make sense of this perhaps too obvious importance of animal’s work to the functioning of capitalism, and to think about how animal labor has been articulated with that of humans and machines.

animal 8

To borrow a schema from Jason Hribal: current debates on the subject are defined by three positions—animals as technologies, as commodities, and as workers. Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet is representative, for Hribal, of the first position. He writes:

‘Working dogs’, she recognizes, ‘are tools that are part of the farm’s capital stock, and they are laborers who produce surplus value by giving more than they get in a market-driven economic system’. Dogs can be employed as sheep handlers, livestock guardians, sled dogs, and guide dogs. ‘Working dogs produce and they reproduce, [but] in neither process are they their own “self-directed” creatures in relation to lively capital …’. [5]

For Haraway, as Hribal also notes, self-direction marks what counts as work and, as such, dogs are not workers. It would be a “serious mistake”—says Haraway—to theorize the labor of dogs within either the frameworks of human slavery or wage labor, for dogs are “paws, not hands.” Instead, in Hribal’s admittedly somewhat reductive summary, Haraway theorizes animal labor under capitalism foremost as “living forms of technology: biotechnology.” [6]

The second position commonly found in the literature, and also sketched by Hribal, is to see animals as commodities. Hribal discusses Bob Torres’s Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights as articulating this position. One can find a similar approach, though with very different arguments, in Nicole Shukin’s Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Arguing against the speciesism she sees throughout most of the left, Shukin focuses on the animal as commodity, as “rendered,” as flesh slaughtered in the bowels of great factories and labs. Her approach separates humans as possessors and sellers of their labor power from animals, seen as flesh, as commodity, as what gets “rendered.”

Hribal’s own position, argued across many years and essays, is that animals engage in unwaged labor and, as such, form a part of the working class. The idea of animals as workers or laborers has also been developed by Barbara Noske, who centers the category of alienation, and Kendra Coulter, who has recently used a labor studies framework to provide a detailed examination of the kinds of work done by, for, and with animals. It is to these readings of animals as workers that I am ultimately most sympathetic.

At the same time, I think we need an account that doesn’t just justify the inclusion of animals into the working class or into notions of solidarity, but parses out how animal labor fits more generally into the circuits of capitalist accumulation and production. So, in this piece, I want to start thinking about value and animal labor theoretically in a Marxist way. I’m not only interested to know whether animals perform work – and, if so, are they alienated or oppressed? – even though these are important topics. Rather, I would like to develop a more general account of how animal’s capacity for labor is mobilized by capital: something we might call an animal labor theory of value.

An account that doesn’t just justify the inclusion of animals into the working class, but parses out how animal labor fits more generally into the circuits of capitalist accumulation and production…

If we are concerned with animals not only as commodities, “living machines” or technology, but as potential workers, we have to turn first to the late Marx, the Marx of Capital, with his theorization of labor power. [7] Poking around in the later Marx, particularly in the first volume of Capital, it becomes apparent that Marx was, in many ways, very open to thinking continuities between the “human” and the “animal”, at times even blurring, moving, unsettling the boundary altogether. [8] For example, humans are described as a “tool-making animal” throughout the opening sections of Capital. If tool making, unlike language or cognition, becomes our boundaries for inclusion into “species-being,” we can imagine a fairly large set of beings that would fit into this “species.” Another place we could invoke these continuities is in Marx’s frequent mention of “animal-spirits” and associated concepts, particularly in the passages describing the subjectivizing effects of group work in a factory; the pleasures of being together, of working alongside one’s fellow beings (pleasures which capital then exploits to increase efficiency). [9]

What is difficult about thinking animals and labor from the position of late Marx is that animals occupy a doubled, paradoxical position: they both labor and are commodities; things. For Marx, as we know, humans by definition are the possessors of that which generates all value and which capitalists have struggled for centuries (via violent enclosures, legal measures, colonization) to force them to sell on the open market for a wage: their labor power. Animals, on the other hand, appear on the face of things to occupy a radically different position. No animal has ever received a wage in return for its work.


But perhaps received Marxist thought is limiting here. A horse in the mine is not only or simply a machine. While food and water are not a wage, they are – in a sense – the horse’s payment. Moreover, if the ability to go on strike is to count for something, it matters that stories of animals’ resistance to and refusal of work are legion (see Hribal’s Fear of the Animal Planet for a plethora of compelling accounts).

My sense is that animals do labor in massively and historically important ways, and that these labors are distinct from human labors. Any discussion must (and could, quite easily, in fact) simultaneously preserve this difference and recognize how nonhuman labor has always been integrated into the supposedly human realm of capitalist accumulation.

One way this can be done is by rethinking, i.e., expanding, the range of the concept of labor power. Marxian labor power has traditionally been linked to “work” and to production (i.e., human labor in productive processes), but we can see in Chapter 6 of Capital volume 1 that Marx’s conceptualization is actually quite a bit broader than that. The definition he offers of Arbeitskraft (labor power), remember, has to do with the capacity for labour (Arbeitsvermögen). [10] In other words, the emphasis is not just on work per se, but on the quality of potentiality (vermögen) that produces a use-value. Consequently, if we remove the productivist bias inherent in much Marxist thought (a bias roundly critiqued by Marxist feminists and autonomist feminists), we can perhaps learn to see animal labor, in both its production and reproductive forms, in a new light.

Cleaving to the definition of labor power as capacity, I’d postulate two modalities of animal labor that are readily identifiable in their relevance to the present capitalist conjuncture. [11] First, there is the role such labor plays in increasing productivity: from the grunt work of agricultural ‘beasts of burden’ (a function that is largely superseded in advanced capitalist countries) to the affective labor of companion animals, who reproduce the preparedness of human workers to exit the house and enter the abode of production for yet another day. Secondly, and which is much more critical to contemporary capitalist economies, there is the appropriation of animals’ capacity for biological reproduction: that is, their ability to reproduce the young of their species and themselves individually at a physical level in the context of the egg, milk, and meat industries.


Animals in these “production” facilities are exercising their vermögen – their innate capacity not for work or productive labor but rather for self-reproduction – which results in the creation of a use-value for capitalists. This aspect of labor power has, for Marxists, been difficult to see as a form of labor because it falls more on the side of reproduction than of production.

It does not require much deep consideration to see that, aside from the monetary dimension of the wage, animal labor under capitalism is subject to similar dynamics to human labor. When mills, reapers and gins, and urban transportation systems were powered by horses, their labor, too, became subject to additional exploitation with the lengthening of the working day. [12] In Cuba, in the early phase of the introduction of railways into sugar plantations, draft animals, instead of locomotives, were used to pull the “cars,” which is an example of a technological reorganization of animal labor. [13] Amanda Armstrong has recently noted how “the early growth of railway transit in Britain resulted in a significant expansion of the horse-drawn carriage transport industry” [14] and that this bricolage between the most advanced industrial systems and ones that appear to be “out of date” is common throughout capitalist development. Animal labor has been subject to automation, as the history of the internal combustion engine shows, but working animals have equally stepped in to replace human labor at different points in history; for example, in the case of the pit ponies in Great Britain in the mid-eighteenth century, who replaced the women and children transporting coal up to the surface of the mines. [15]

Much as capitalists in the twentieth century were keenly interested in the “efficient” social reproduction of workers, animal reproduction became a critical branch of practical science during the years in which economies were physically powered by animals. One might venture to say, in fact, that the science of husbandry was to animal social reproduction of that era what public schools were to “human capital” (as it later came to be called). It is worth remembering that one of the missions of the land-grant universities founded in the mid- to late nineteenth century in the United States was to spread and innovate practices of animal husbandry and that during the nineteenth century, as a result of breeding practices, draft horses doubled in size from 900-1,000 to 1,800-2000 lbs. [16]

Biodiversity has been in freefall for some decades now even as – no, in part because – the sheer scale of animal production and social reproduction as a whole has grown exponentially. Species are irreversibly collapsing and disappearing from history, in part, for want of the lands and habitats occupied by the roughly 10 billion animals capitalist enterprises raise and slaughter each year in factory farms in the United States, not to mention the 45 billion or so produced and killed globally. [17] Moreover, while animal laborers are singularly exposed to dynamics of mass death, extinction and cruelty, they, just like their human counterparts, have a long, well-documented history of resistance and refusal to enslavement and work.

Animals will have to be thought about seriously as co-laborers from a theoretical position that articulates an animal labor theory of value…

Perhaps, then, it is not Marx’s remarks on the intelligence of bees that should strike us surprising, but rather, the fact that they are so few. [18] For it has to be said that his work generally overlooked the massive nineteenth-century presence of animal labor, use, and exploitation. Similarily, Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital, which is devoted to an explication of the battle between in water and steam power, does not center the overall importance of animals as a source of labor and energy in the nineteenth century. The question remains, for us, of how best to remedy the oversight, and grapple, in particular in the twenty-first century, with the intimate articulation between the production and reproduction of humans, machines, and animals.

Image result for riot dog

Harry Harootunian has recently argued for a re-reading of Marx that stresses the idea of formal subsumption as “the general form of every capitalist process of production” [19], by which he means capital’s subsumption of economies and social formations on its peripheries. Against teleological progress narratives and vulgar Marxist universalisms, Harootunian wants us to attend to the uneven and overlapping articulations between social formations:

What the appeal to Marx’s conceptualization of formal subsumption offers is a way out of both the vulgate Marxian and modernizing bourgeois historical narratives constrained to fulfilling teleologically determined agendas of capitalism that have claimed the unfolding of a singular trajectory everywhere….The very unevenness shared by different presents put into question the illusory claim of capitalism’s inevitable completion everywhere and its claims to sameness and supplied inducements to consider instances attesting to successful resistances to the prevailing forms of capitalism beyond Euro-America. [20]

Here, I suspect, we can extrapolate an approach to the uneven, yet important, conjunctures between human, machine, and animal under capitalism that really works. Such an approach to animal labor power would provide us with a way of understanding in a detailed, historically precise, yet flexible form how animals support and are integrated into capitalist production. [21]The notion of the labor power of non-human others would be mobilized, not to demonstrate how this undoes all of Marxism, but rather, to show how, similar to pre-capitalist forms of production, capitalism uses these other forms of labor power in the pursuit of accumulation and profit.

While the exploitation of animal labor power is not isomorphic with that of humans, animals, both historically and in the present, have labored and died in ways that have been incredibly critical to the development, form, and maintenance of capitalist accumulation. A theory of animal labor which takes animals seriously – and which seeks to track their articulation with human and machine forms of production – must recognize their differing forms of exploitation and not subsume them to an anthro-centric paradigm of productive labor and needs.

As such, taking the labor of animals seriously would mean, as many previous authors have done, taking exploitation seriously, and it would mean the development of a politics against such exploitation that moves beyond the merely ethical. If the Cuban path is one possible future for food production and energy sourcing, animals will have to be thought about seriously as co-laborers from a theoretical position that articulates an animal labor theory of value combined with an analysis of different modes of human, machine, and animal production and power. Such a theory might be able to point to futures beyond the crises of capital, beyond the multispecies reality of ruthless exploitation, and beyond the mass death – not to mention the mass forced and tortured birth – of living creatures.

animal 1

Thanks to Kate Jenckes, Juliana Spahr, and Cassandra Troyan for engaging with prior versions of this essay and to Sophie Lewis for comments on the present version – and critical editorial work.

[1] Reinaldo Funes Monzote, “Animal Labor and Protection in Cuba: Changes in Relationshipsvwith Animals in the Nineteenth Century” in Centering Animals in Latin American History, ed. Zeb Tortorici and Martha Few. Durham: Duke University Press. 209-10

[2] Miguel A. Altieri and Fernando R. Funes-Monzote, “The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture.” The Monthly Review (2012):

[3] In this piece I bracket the work from critical animal studies and animal liberation movements which have tended to focus on the ideas of animal sentience, oppression, and liberation (Noske 2004). I do so not to dismiss this work but only to make possible the thought experiment of thinking of animal labor. A recent selection of some of this work can be found in Animal Oppression and Capitalism (Vol 1 and 2) edited by David Nibert. Critiques and discussions of the field of animal studies from more radical positions can be found in Weisberg (2009) and Giraud (2013). It is also beyond the scope of this piece to summarize the ensemble of engagements with non-labor aspects of the animal question from positions sympathetic to Marxism. Important contributions, other than the ones cited in this essay, include Benton (1993); Benton (2003); Cochrane (2010); Perlo (2002); Sztybel (1997); Torres (2007); and Wilde (2000). It is also worth noting that in the field of history we can find partial accounts of animal labor, see for instance Anderson (2004), Bankoff and Swart (2004), Clutton-Brock (1999), Crosby (2004), and McShane and Tarr (2007).

[4] “For most of the first Industrial Revolution, broadly between 1760 and 1830, the largest provider of direct power was still animal muscles. Human labor was second…. In fact, it could be argued that the Industrial Revolution was powered not so much by steam, water or even humans, but by horses.” Roger Fouquet, Heat, Power and Light: Revolutions in Energy Services. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publications, 2008. 124-5

[5] Jason Hribal, “Animals are Part of the Working Class Reviewed,” Borderlands 11.2 (2012): 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Occasionally it is said that species-being does appear in Capital; however as far as I have been able to determine the term used there is Gattungsvermögen (species capacity) and not Gattungswesen (species being). See Karl Marx, Capital, p. 447 and Basso (2015). I will discuss Vermögen more below; most readers of Marx would agree that the alienation/species-being couplet plays a much smaller role in Capital.

[8] Macdonald (2016) offers another account of this relationship built around a reading of what he calls the “human/animal dialectic” in Marx’s work, while Peterson (2013) argues that nonhuman activities meet Marx’s conditions for un-alienated labor (168).

[9] See for example Karl Marx, Capital, p. 443.

[10] Marx expands: “We mean by labour-power, or labour-capacity, the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind.” 270.

[11] There has been excellent work done on the mobilization of “life” as energetic or informational resource under biopolitical capital, in particular in the work of Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (2008). The approach that I am taking here is not so capacious and is focused on thinking specifically about certain forms of animal labor. My hunch is that while biopolitical resource extraction is a key frontier of capitalism, it is worth trying to focus some attention on the vast quotidian zone of animal reproductive labor that underpins so much of our contemporary food systems.

[12] Clay McShane and Joel Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 57

[13] Reinaldo Funes Monzote, “Animal Labor and Protection in Cuba: Changes in Relationships with Animals in the Nineteenth Century” in Centering Animals in Latin American History, ed. Zeb Tortorici and Martha Few. Durham: Duke University Press. 218.

[14] Amanda Armstrong, “The Wooden Brain: Organizing Untimeliness in Marx’s Capital.” Mediations 31.1.

[15] Patricia Penn Hilden, “The Rhetoric and Iconography of Reform: Women Coal Miners in Belgium 1840-1914,” in Fiona Montgomery and Christine Collette (eds), The European Women’s History Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002. 141.

[16] Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. New York: Perseus Book, 2017. 13 and Joanna Dean and Lucas Wilson. “Horse Power in the Modern City” in R.W. Sandwell (ed.) Powering Up Canada: The History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600. Toronto: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016. 112.

[17] Dale Jamieson, Ethics and the Environment: An Introduction. New York: New York UP, 2008. 121.

[18] Jocelyne Porcher, “Animal Work” in Linda Kalof (ed). The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. 306.

[19] Harry Harootunian, Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 9.

[20] Ibid. 19.

[21] See also the Amanda Armstrong piece cited above: “Along similar lines, the early growth of railway transit in Britain resulted in a significant expansion of the horse-drawn carriage transport industry. The railways’ massive increase in carrying capacity relative to existing road systems translated into an economy-wide spike in demand for connecting trips between railway stations and other sites. In other words, the nineteenth-century industrialization of production and distribution processes was linked inextricably to the expansion of technologies and labor processes that, from the perspective of stage-based theories, appeared to be ‘out-of-date.’ Industrialization involved the grafting of these seemingly anachronistic processes and technologies onto capital’s supply chains. And Marx was more than conscious of such bricolage – the third volume of Capital was devoted in part to analyzing the complex flows of investment into unevenly capitalized industries.”


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