Of the three magazines that brandish “Review of Books” in their title, Los Angeles’s (http://lareviewofbooks.org/) leads the pack, at least from the standpoint of serving as a critic of capitalist society. In an epoch of imperial decay, that’s the most important criterion after all. At the bottom of the pile is New York’s (http://www.nybooks.com/), a publication that was pretty edgy in its early days, to the point of publishing Noam Chomsky and putting a David Levine drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the front page. Nowadays it is a snoozefest for elderly professionals, the print counterpart to PBS. In the center of the pack is the London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/), a journal that was distinguished by a takedown of Christopher Hitchens that was both laugh out loud and politically cogent. While it still is a source of trenchant social criticism, the LRB has a blind spot on Syria, offering its readers Seymour Hersh’s conspiracy theories about rebels gassing their families. It was up to the good people at the LARB to publish Muhammad Idrees Ahmed’s devastating critique of Hersh, a sign that it was not in thrall to pack journalism.
In the most recent issue of LARB, there’s an article by Jedediah Purdy titled “Killing It” that is accompanied by a drawing of an aproned Karl Marx holding up a bleeding chicken in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other. With such an image, it is no surprise that the article claims:
Writing 20 years before the first volume of Das Kapital appeared, Marx imagined desultory killing as one of the joys of human liberation. In a passage that became a touchstone for parts of the 1960’s New Left, he urged that a free person should be able to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner […] without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” This was the ideal of unalienated labor, spontaneous and expressive, exercising all human powers without ever turning the worker into the tool of her task.
To start with, I am not sure how much of a grasp that Purdy has of the 1960s New Left since he was born in 1974. In fact the New Left—strictly speaking—was much more into Marcuse than Marx.
Furthermore, like most people with a casual interest in Marx no matter their academic credentials, Purdy leaves out the rest of Marx’s sentence that can be found in the German Ideology:
He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
In other words, Marx was not writing a paean to killing animals but rather making an observation about how a future communist society would allow the full development of human beings rather than the current state that forces them into limited economic roles. Indeed, rearing cattle is not exactly what most people would choose to do on a vacation as opposed to recreational hunting or fishing.
Jedediah Purdy, by David Levine in the NY Review of Books
Just a few words about Jedediah Purdy. He is a law professor at Duke University, where misinterpretations of Karl Marx are rampant even if well-intentioned. A cursory look at Michael Hardt’s oeuvre should bear that out.
If Zizek, another celebrity given to misinterpretations of Marx, is the Elvis super-star of Marxism, Jedediah Purdy basks in the glow of being rather super himself. An article in the April 10, 2006 Washington Post refers to him as “A Super-Scholar, All Grown Up and Still Theorizing”. A portrait of a wunderkind emerges:
When we reached him, Jedediah Purdy, now 31, was in his office at Duke University’s law school where he is an assistant professor, counseling a student in the throes of the seemingly inevitable “first year of law school crisis.” In his mid-twenties, though, Purdy was one of Washington’s intellectual darlings: ensconced at the New America Foundation — a think tank that bills itself as featuring “exceptionally promising new voices” — and named by Esquire magazine as one of the nation’s “best and brightest.”
Ensconced at the New America Foundation, Purdy made sure that nobody would confuse him with some kind of bomb-throwing anarchist: “Just let me echo about five million other progressives and say, Bring us someone who can do every night for a year what Barack Obama did in his keynote address to the DNC.”
Turning our attention now to Purdy’s “Killing It”, we learn that it is a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the “food movement”, for lack of a better term, that includes Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman at its helm. Purdy notes that Pollan went out hunting wild pigs with a .290 rifle and was pleased to have bagged a 190-pound creature.
In something that amounts to a sleight of hand, Purdy makes Karl Marx into a 19th century precursor of Michael Pollan as if communism, hunting and meat-eating were part of the same overall project of human emancipation:
Doing violence seems to force the doer either to celebrate it or to recoil in a futile effort to get the feeling out of one’s own nerves. Without much warrant, I suspect all of this informs the idea behind many ritual sacrifices: that the priests, or the community, either take the power of the animal into themselves or expel its pollution. Either way, the transaction is intimate, metabolic: the killer comes right up against the “specific expression” of life and powers that Marx was after.
Frankly, I doubt that bagging a wild pig with a .290 rifle is what “Marx was after”. Purdy, who grew up and was home-schooled in rural West Virginia, was into hunting as a youth. I suspect that he is capitalizing once again on his “good old boy” credentials that clearly sets him apart from the other faculty members at Duke who if given a choice would prefer tofu to shooting a wild animal.
The shortcomings to Purdy’s approach can be more obvious when you have a look at a scholarly article he wrote titled “Our Place in the World: a New Relationship for Environmental Ethics and Law”. It’s main concern was to identify some kind of ethical basis for the proper treatment of animals within the overall need for reproducing our species:
These situations—we can take the factory farm as just one example—are thoroughly artificial: we made them. We create and control the suffering of animals in these settings, and that fact is the prompt for ethical reflection. To call whatever we do to these animals “natural” would be to give up on ethical reflection altogether; and to imagine that reflecting on our own behavior must mean condemning lions and predatory insects would be far too quick and casual.
While I think that the ethical treatment of animals is fundamental and that both factory farming and hunting both involve unnecessary cruelty, there are more important issues for Marxists and even people like Jedediah Purdy. (In terms of hunting, since Purdy invokes the example of American Indians, perhaps the only “ethical” way to kill animals is with a bow and arrow since this puts hunter and hunted on a more equal footing.)
The real issue is how humanity can survive, something that the food movement barely recognizes, nor for that matter law professors with a smattering of Marxism under their belt. In my review of a rather good documentary titled “Food Inc.” that was based to a large degree on Pollan’s writings, I noted:
Although I strongly urge my readers to see this movie, I do feel obligated to offer some criticisms that get to the heart of my differences with Schlosser and Pollan, no matter how much I applaud their work. A significant part of the movie is devoted to an examination of Stonyfield yogurt, a product that is always in my refrigerator especially since yogurt is a staple of the Turkish dishes I enjoy preparing. The CEO of Stonyfield is one Gary Hirshberg who is seen conferring with Walmart representatives who were about to introduce his products to their vile stores. Hirshfield justifies dealing with Walmart because he believes that there is no alternative to capitalism, even though he doesn’t quite use those words. If we are going to make wholesome food grown in conditions respectful to the environment and to animals, you need retailers like Walmart to make the organic sector grow.
The press notes for “Food, Inc.” quotes Walmart on this score:
“Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.”
– Tony Airosa, chief dairy purchaser for the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which recently began carrying organically-produced food in its store. Wal-Mart has since stopped carrying milk containing growth hormone.
In my view, it is utopian to think that the factory food system will be transformed incrementally in this fashion. The Monsantos, Purdues, Tysons and Smithfields of this world are not going to be displaced by organic farming for the simple reason that they were produced by the forces of production that have taken a century to mature. American society is under enormous pressure to compete with other capitalist powers in an epoch of stagnating profits. As such, factory farming is geared to the economic imperatives of a nation that is being forced to attack the living standards of workers and farmers alike.
If any evidence of the bankruptcy of the system is needed, as well as its talent for self-deception, you can start with the White House itself—a symbol of American corporate power and its strategy for continued world domination.
When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, Michael Pollan hailed the move in the Huffington Post:
Perhaps the most encouraging action so far has come from the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has been speaking out about the importance of real, fresh food, home cooking and gardening. By planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, she launched a thousand victory gardens (vegetables seed is suddenly in short supply), gave conniptions to the pesticide industry (which wrote urging her to use some of their “crop protection products” whether she needed them or not), and at a stroke raised the profile and prestige of real food in America.
He also was encouraged by Obama’s appointments:
Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer — Kathleen Merrigan — as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department’s nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.
I wonder if Michael Pollan watched the movie he appeared in, since Monsanto was rightfully pilloried as using its control over genetically modified soybean seeds as a way of maintaining a monopoly over farmers, who once had the right to reuse seeds. (Monsanto patented the seeds and sues any farmer its detectives find in violation.)
In the final analysis, we need a socialist movement, not a food movement. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, there is a call for overcoming the breach between city and countryside: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Unless this is accomplished, the conditions for sustainable food production will diminish to the point of no return. It is not too hard to imagine that in a more rational human social environment, animals will be raised in humane conditions and only be turned into produce under the strictest and most humane conditions, which will almost certainly not entail bullets from a high-powered rifle equipped with a scope. Furthermore, by that point in our social evolution, we may have learned that beans cooked properly taste a whole lot better. I’ve had steak and I’ve had Indian dals. And if I had to choose a last meal, it would be a dal.