A Conversation between Alex Blanchette and Gabriel N. Rosenberg
All photographs copyright and by courtesy of Sean Sprague. All rights reserved.
Alex Blanchette is an associate professor of anthropology at Tufts University. He recently published Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm (2020), an account of industrial pig production in the United States based on many years of ethnography in facilities where millions of swine are bred, raised, slaughtered, and processed. Porkopolis is unique in its attention to the verticality of this process of production: Blanchette chronicles every step, from genetic design to final processing, as corporations and their workforces labor to extract value from the totality of pig life and death. The result is a book that is a sweeping and vivid exploration of how capitalism, species, and labor interlock.
For Blanchette, the industrial pig is a world making creature: porcine life and death comes to reshape the lives and landscapes of the American Great Plains. Given recent attention to the relationship of livestock agriculture to zoonotic illness, as well as the specific role of meat processing in spreading Covid-19, it is also a timely and incisive book. In short, it offers readers a way to understand the present pandemic within the context of capitalist ecologies and, perhaps, as a predictable outcome of them.
Gabriel N. Rosenberg is an associate professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies and history at Duke University and is currently the Duke Endowment Fellow at the National Humanities Center. He writes about the history of livestock agriculture and how the emergence of cheap meat in American life remade intimacy—intimacy between and among humans, but also intimacy with and through animals. Rosenberg spoke with Blanchette about Porkopolis, capitalism, meat, pigs, ethics, intimacy, affect, work, and the pandemic.
Gabriel Rosenberg: Thank you for talking with me about your remarkable book, Alex. Many readers familiar with debates about the ethics of meat have probably already encountered the idea that slaughterhouses are the paradigmatic space where human domination of animals is violently enacted and reproduced. Your book pushes against this idea, both by adumbrating the spaces of meat production (not all spaces of meat production are spaces of slaughter) and by foregrounding how workers, managers, and pigs all come to be governed by the demands for the particular form of vital capital you call “the herd,” which you suggest is socially productive and world making. Given that the Covid-19 pandemic is zoonotic in origin and that many zoonotic illnesses are either directly or indirectly tied to agriculture, how would you extend your book’s argument in light of the pandemic? Put differently, what is “the herd” and how would you analyze it in light of Covid-19?
Alex Blanchette: Thanks Gabriel. I think this question really gets at what defines American capitalist meat today. Much writing does reduce this question to an iconic location: the confinement barn, the fast-paced slaughterhouse, or the corporate boardroom. But the industrial slaughterhouse is 150 years old at this point, marked by many decades of accumulated intensity. The warehousing of animals dates to the 1960s or so, albeit with differing degrees of confinement across species and regions. Porkopolis is about a qualitatively new phase of capitalist meat that begins in the 1980s and 1990s as corporations try to vertically integrate hogs’ and chickens’ entire life and death course. This marks a moment when operations are no longer specialized in growing or killing animals. They are plumbing what it means to treat the entirety of an industrialized species’ existence — from boar semen in genetics, to bone rendering facilities after the kill — as a single, unified object of production.
Full vertical integration of animals might appear to be a simple thing. Its technical definition is just that one corporation now controls or owns the genetic design of pigs, their conception, birth, raising, killing, cutting, and the value-added processing of their distinct body parts. From the outside it seems to be a matter of corporate domination, one of monopolizing all known capitalist value in the porcine species. That is not wrong. But what this can elide is that, within these companies, such direct control also opens qualitatively new capitalist ways of understanding pigs’ nature. After trying to engineer every moment of these animals’ lives and deaths, the companies I studied became dedicated to generating what amounts to a new kind of highly uniform pig — one that can overcome the low profit margin pressures that prior industrialization has wrought. This is a matter of creating standardized animals whose flesh receives a purchase premium from global wholesalers, enables more automation in slaughterhouses, and serves as a uniform biochemical basis for extracting 1,100 product codes from hog bodies — including meat products, but also organs-cum-drugs or fat-cum-biodiesel.
As a whole, Porkopolis is about corporate attempts to realize industrial growth in an organism already subject to almost 150 years of compounded industrialization. As such, I take the emergence of vertical integration as more than a reflection of agribusiness power. It can also be read as a symptom of animal capitalism’s precarity. The corporate employees I studied understood themselves to be running out of new avenues of development in pigs. To make more profitable pigs, managers were looking outside of the animal proper. They were turning their attention to not just engineering animals, but also animality: the total assemblage of things that could be seen to affect and shape hogs’ bodies. These might include disease build-up in regional ecologies or nutritional qualities of feedstuffs made elsewhere. Managers were coming to see taken-for-granted things such as workers’ living situations or regional wind patterns as affecting animals — and mundane aspects of rural life as inadequate for their model. The result was something of a company region re-built to accommodate ever-increasing quantities of fragile animals.
I do not think that “human domination” or even “anthropocentrism” are good analytic terms for thinking about this state of factory farms. Within these operations, this is a matter of remaking human (and hog) life to make it amenable to a model of industrial capitalist animality. Much of the book is about how human values, kinship, living arrangements, race and gender relations, and even human bodily integrity are engineered to accommodate the eternal growth of industrial pigs.
Your question on zoonotic disease makes me laugh at the blinders that I developed by virtue of living and working in these places. I never once heard zoonotic disease invoked as a serious concern. Or even invoked at all. I remember one particular day of artificially inseminating animals — which amounts to sitting on their backs all day, using your body weight to imitate a boar’s mounting pressure — when I worked in a breeding barn in 2010. I was asking the other people in the barn if they were worried about their tactile contact with hogs during the 2009 “Swine Flu” outbreak. No one could remember it being mentioned in the workplace. The only diseases that mattered were ones that affected hogs’ abilities to uniformly gain weight and reproduce. That is symptomatic of the totalizing way that factory farms see rural landscapes and labor: so much comes to be defined and reduced to its effects on proliferation across a population of animals. This might also be a way of reading the emergence of zoonoses globally, as this kind of model enters new geographies and comes to redefine surrounding fields, forest ecologies, and patterns of human conduct in relation to the growth of industrial animals. Factory farms are essentially projects of terraforming regions for the proliferation of a single non-human species.
GR: We now know that meat processing plants, alongside nursing homes and prisons, are leading hotspots for the transmission of Covid-19. Your book shows that the meat industry is quite concerned with the concept of “biosecurity” independent of Covid-19. This may confuse some readers—how is it that meat processing can be both a viral hotspot and a site of proliferating biosecurity protocols?
AB: One thing that I would emphasize, as above, is that agribusinesses are obsessed with biosecurity for pigs as industrial capital. Not biosecurity for the workforce of some 5,000 largely immigrant or refugee workers of color — and not really even biosecurity in terms individual hog well-being. An early part of my book discusses how managers felt compelled to ensure that workers in the slaughterhouse were not living in homes with people employed in breeding farms. They were worried that pig disease could be transferring across human bodies and novel pathogens entering relatively untainted swine barns. In hindsight, one could say that they were enacting, proto-coronavirus, human forms of physical distancing to maintain hogs. But this is not about relieving the suffering of individual animals wracked with illness so much as it is a matter of ensuring predictable litter sizes in breeding stock, and rates of weight gain in market hogs. Nor is biosecurity about monitoring for exposure to zoonotic disease or the human inhalation of fecal chemical gases in barns, so much as it is monitoring actions that might introduce swine disease. Even in the slaughterhouse, the pace of kill and cut line speeds are not regulated in terms of their repetitive motion effects on human musculoskeletal systems — but over concerns of food safety and reputational damage to companies that might sell pathogenically tainted meat.
The Covid-19 outbreaks across nearly all large slaughterhouses made explicit something that has long been implicit: American meat has evolved to a scale where the human body is itself a major problem of production. This is true in towns that concentrate so many uniform, fragile animals that the bodies of workers become carriers of swine disease. It is also true within the meatpacking plants, which have become unendingly faster over the past few decades to the point where even some managers acknowledge they operate at the limits of average human physiology. From workers denied bathroom breaks because these plants cannot “accommodate” the human bladder, to repetitive injury compensation claims becoming a liability, so-called efficiency is out-of-control. And to state the obvious, what has upheld this unending search for more labor productivity is racism. This ranges from societal blind eyes turned to injury rates, to the racialized cheapness of labor that has resulted in little impetus for investment to automate farms or plants. Indeed, it continues to prop up this system right now — after the president of the United States ordered, with relatively minimal pushback, that workers must risk exposure to keep it afloat.
GR: Your reference to the embodied impacts of this labor reminds me that as much as your book is an ethnography of animality, it is also very much an ethnography of work. In fact, the book documents both the incredible diversity of work that occurs in these spaces and the widely varying experiences and perspectives of the workers. It really gives a level of social granularity and specificity to spaces that meat “exposés” tends to treat as fairly uniform, if sensationally so. You spend time in several chapters, for example, detailing the complex relations workers must forge with different kinds of animals that would probably surprise readers: emotional investment in the survival of a runts for bottle-feeding workers and a tactile and sensuous knowledge of sows’ bodies for workers who do artificial insemination. Could you talk about the affective ambivalence and ambiguity of the labor you observed? If workers have complicated relationships to pigs, do they also have complicated relationships to meat? And does it depend on what kind of work they do?
AB: Thanks for pulling this out. I would underline that Porkopolis is not a study of pigs — as generic biological organisms — but instead an ethnography of the 2010s industrial hog, along with the human livelihoods and subjectivities required to maintain this being’s existence. This animal has been shaped by shifting forms of commodification, and its body is quite literally made for labor exploitation. The very uniformity of contemporary hogs’ bodies is inseparable from increasing line speeds in slaughterhouses — and, in turn, extracting more effort from workers. This is an animal that is disproportionately known and made through wage labor.
Vertical integration has not solely affected managers’ epistemologies of capitalist animality. It also organizes working-class experience of animals. Integration across worksites entails its opposite: a conjoined division of labor and animality that results in workers becoming ever-more-specialized in one life or death stage. There are so many different worksites that underlie the so-called “meat” pig. There are boar studs, feed mills, pharmaceutical facilities, insemination farms, growing barns, slaughterhouses, or things like organ-cooking plants. They all affect both the capitalist value of these organisms, and their very physical manifestations. A way of interpreting these industrial animal complexes is that they are a project of stretching out, or extending, the lives and deaths of these animals to have more aspects of their lived biology or dead physiology mediated by labor. A result is that workers increasingly specialize on one aspect of the species. Someone might exclusively work on artificial insemination, caring for one-day-old piglets, making a slice in the left shoulder, or injecting sows with hormones. In the process, some workers gain deep knowledge and intimacy of one — and yet often only one — aspect of porcine life (or death). One result is that people, including workers and managers, come to have distinct impressions of what it means to mass-produce life and death. There is a particularly capitalist kind of intimacy at play in these operations, and the specialized yet partial worker knowledge that emerges from the process is part of what helps keep these fragile operations running.
As such, it is also hard to generalize across these sites. We are talking about 5,000 different people — with distinct backgrounds, communities, and workplace experiences. But I will say that I was consistently struck by how most non-managerial employees on the “live” side of the operation cared about pigs. Some worked ardently to care for animals. And, given the weak state of these organisms, one could argue that this kind of dedication is necessary. At the same time, that division of labor likely has affective and ideological consequences. Many people who work with breeding sows or piglets will never set foot in a slaughterhouse, and conversely those who cut loins into pieces may never see a living pig. During a celebratory barbecue on a breeding farm I was surprised to learn that many of my co-workers on the “live” side did not consume pork — though they did cook other animals such as cows. We could speculate about some of the ethical ambiguities at play there. They might range from sympathy with the specific animal species that one knows most profoundly, to the ambivalent rejection of the value of one’s own labor.
GR: I wonder if those details and ambivalences might surprise the authors of some of those exposés. Which raises another question: what do the workers and managers think about the exposés to the extent that they pay them any mind? Do they have any sympathy for abolitionist and reformist critiques of industrial meat production?
AB: I can say that I expected to encounter people who were desensitized to the well-being of animals based on working in barns that house many thousands of expendable hogs. And perhaps I was semi-consciously prepped to think that way because of how confinement farms are described in the public sphere. But I also think that narratives of people striving to do their best in these conditions — and despite the harsh outcomes that nonetheless ensue — can be equally troubling as is recounting stories of direct abuse and lack of sympathy.
Again, I am nervous about generalizing here. I’ve met managers who ignore critical meat writing. They might dispute its legitimacy for reasons ranging from their beliefs of animal (non-) sentience, to faith in Christian visions of dominion over animals. Others acknowledged critiques but drew a circle around their own operations, as if to say, “You think this is bad? Go look at what this-or-that company is doing.” Managers in different segments of the operation might also be critical of other stages, such as breeding managers commenting on the grueling pace of labor in slaughter. I even met older managers in slaughterhouses who remember the 1970s as a more equitable period and were hoping for the return of union power. I remember one senior manager who was uncomfortable with the sight of sows locked in gestation crates. He hoped for national legislation that would outlaw them — as he did not feel he could do it alone without losing competitive advantage. If I had to make a sweeping statement, I would say that this kind of affective orientation was fairly common. I met rather few managers and executives who felt these operations were unmitigated “good things,” but they struggled with how to change them given pressures of ever-cheapening meat.
GR: Your book really forces readers to face some very harrowing ambivalences. I suspect it will challenge readers’ preconceptions about the moral treatment of animals, regardless of where they started: whether indifferent to pigs, for example, or a radical liberationist. I would even say that, by avoiding a kind of moralistic critique, you manage to provide a profoundly ethical inquiry. I am reminded of Lesley Sharp’s Animal Ethos (2018). She writes about how laboratory animals function as pedagogic objects through which people practically and relationally formulate ethical practices, concepts of value, and the things that make life worth living. She describes the book as being an effort to understand, to borrow the hostile term from animal liberationists, “how people sleep at night” when they regularly do violence to animals. Part of what I take from that is that many people assume that the contradictions imminent in places where violence is done to animals must be so heavy that workers must struggle to maintain ethical senses of self, but, in fact, those contradictions are actually quite integral and productive of how people come to understand themselves and their ethical commitments. Do you think that’s true of the spaces that you studied?
AB: Yes, that is helpful. I am uncomfortable with moralistic critiques of the people who occupy these operations. I met few people who worked there — including people in senior positions — who entered the industry entirely of their own choosing. For most migrants of color in the region, working in farms and slaughterhouses was the only employment available to them. It is also fair to say that the companies featured in Porkopolis are not moral outliers or bad apples. Indeed, one thing that the Covid-19 crisis has reminded me is that these corporations are probably “better” than some others in terms of worker, animal, and environmental treatment. Granted, I do not think this can be reduced to an idealist matter of elevated moral values. Instead, these corporations’ business model was to produce the relatively highest quality industrial pork — and to get a price premium — which might have given them more flexibility on profit margins than others whose selling point is nothing but raw cheapness. Many managers and workers had been employed in some of these companies, and so could point to how much better things were in this place, or now relative to ten years ago. That kind of sense of incremental improvement in the face of capital’s grind seemed ethically generative to some people. This ethic of improvement is likely an instance of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism — and, to be certain, it saturates discourse in places well beyond farms, factories, and labs. Many self-described critical agriculture scholars that I know who are pursuing “solutions” to these issues seem to express a similar affect. They decide that they cannot alter the system as a whole, so they invest their ethical worth into making a relative improvement of one discrete part of the process. In the wake of hurricanes in North Carolina drenching communities in manure, I have previously tried to write about this as a kind of exuberant fatalism.
GR: Between slaughterhouses as viral hotspots, the mass “depopulation” of livestock that cannot be processed, and the rising costs of meat, the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a flurry of recent essays calling for massive overhauls to the food system and the American diet. Many of these takes come from the usual suspects who have been making similar cases since long before the pandemic: Jonathan Safran Foer in the New York Times and Michael Pollan in the New York Review of Books, for example. Pollan offers a sweeping and persuasive indictment of the situation but lands on the conclusion that we need to “deindustrializ[e] and decentraliz[e] the American food system,” a case he has been making since at least the publication of Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006. Do you think smaller, local, and decentralized is either a realistic or desirable solution to the violence of meat production?
AB: There is a lot we could talk about here, from agricultural exceptionalism to the question of what new futures for rural life could be opened by reducing meat production. We are confronting a 150-year process of the gradual “meatification” of society, to borrow Tony Weis’s term, and I do not think the politics of this moment call for purism even if I am personally skeptical of many contemporary American visions of ethical meat. I can see the utility of pursuing a whole host of things — from breaking up corporate oligopolies over species, to proposed just transition phase-outs of animal confinement, to new attempts to rebuild worker power in slaughterhouses, to experiments with things like cellular agriculture.
My point of intervention here would be to ask what we mean by “deindustrialization”? In most newspaper discussions, deindustrialization seems to be a matter of reducing individual farm scale, along with the relative use of fossil fuels and machines at play. Instead, I would like to see more arguments for a de-industrial ideal in terms of industrial capital— as a specific form of accumulation that disproportionately locates value in human labor. At the most basic level, my book argues that hogs have been wildly remade and annihilated in this country because of the ways human labor exploitation ripples through every aspect of their being. Scale and technology are tools for intensifying that exploitation. As such, actual de-industrialization means, for me, a call to work both hogs and humans less. It is about a process of de-commodification. I would not dismiss “alternative” agricultures. I am just unconvinced that they are ends in and of themselves. I would make the case for them based not on the resilience of the food supply, or some kind of voracious rationality like that, but instead because they do not reduce everything — and, really, every gram of animal substance — to economic dictates and labor processes.
GR: Since part of the reason we’re engaged in this conversation is because of the unusual politics of meat at the moment, I suppose it’s unavoidable that my questions are dwelling on meat. But do you think this is part of the problem? Do food reform people worry too much about meat and not enough about, say, capitalism? Put differently, would solving “the problem of meat” actually solve the problem of “capitalist animality” as your book describes it?
AB: Let’s first underline that even the industrial systems of raising and killing animals themselves cannot be reduced to meat. The risk is that we end up accepting at face value that American factory farms exist in order to “feed people.” They are more than that. In the long term, what is being refined in these places is a model of generating animal life/death. The speculative value of factory farms is not just in mass-producing and selling pig parts. It is working out a system that can be offshored, emulated, and replicated in other places. In the shorter term, they are projects of cheap product exportation that strive to make other places dependent on American agricultural output. Some people were stunned that companies were exporting massive amounts of meat in the midst of the pandemic. But vertical integration did not emerge with the aim of feeding people who live in the United States. It was hinged on producing far beyond national demand, and that very overproduction is part of what has enabled these systems to control 99% of pigs and chickens. Finally, industrial slaughter has long been a matter of commodifying substances outside of fat and muscles, to partly offset the cheap price of meat. To reduce these places to “meat” is to miss that constantly building new products from inedible things like bones or blood is what underpins this process and arguably makes the current scale of killing possible.
More broadly, I would say that treating food as a special or unique domain — or, taking agricultural exceptionalism as a premise — is limiting. I am also not convinced that, in the long run, it is sustainable to separate out the food system as a distinct domain for reform. What makes animal agribusiness a unique expression of industrial capitalism, to me, is not just that it revolves around the production of biological organisms. It is the ways that its intensity has been built and compounded over decades, if not centuries: these are old and highly refined processes of extraction. I think factory farms are illustrations not just of “unnatural” matters of industrializing life/death. They reflect and even iconize a state of exhausted late industrialism more generally.
GR: Thank you so much, Alex, for this conversation and for writing such a beautiful and timely book. It’s always a pleasure to think with you.