Monday 7 January 2008

Marxism and Chicken Sheds

The overwhelming majority of us are economically compelled to sell our labour power for a set period of time in return for a wage. The conditions under which we work are seldom of our choosing, and the things we produce do not belong to us. They remain the property of the employer. In advanced capitalist societies we are separated out in an ever more complex division of labour. The production of "useful things" is increasingly displaced by work with less tangible outcomes. To this sector belongs banking, finance, marketing, journalism, services, retail, education, etc. In these circumstances, the social distance between producer and product, established by the private ownership of the means of production, is widened even further as more and more sections of our class are drawn into "unproductive" activity. The process of and conditions under which commodity production takes place are probably more hidden and mysterious than has ever been the case.

What has this got to do with Hugh's Chicken Run? All will become apparent. Our eponymous crusading cook, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, has a bee in his bonnet about supermarkets. In Axminster, the home of his River Cottage restaurant, the high street has been emptied of butchers and grocers by the local Tesco. After asking around why so many people shop there, he discovers the obvious: convenience and low cost. To his mind, this is unfortunate for two reasons. It gives the supermarkets tremendous power to dictate our diets, and, being a small-scale free-range chicken farmer, the pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap ethos brings terrible suffering to animals who are a mainstay of British meat consumption. For example, the two for five pounds special offer on whole chickens is made possible by breeding large numbers of edible chickens in a very short period of time (egg to slaughter in 39 days). Consequently this method sees birds packed together in very large numbers - industry regulations allow for 17 chickens per square metre. They shuffle about in their own waste, never see daylight, and are known at times to turn to cannibalism, but these appalling conditions are necessary to keep the supermarkets supplied with vast quantities of cheap chicken.

Appalled by this abuse, Fearnley-Whittingstall wants to see intensive chicken farming replaced by free range production. Part of this involves weaning Axminster residents off their cheap chickens and getting them onto premium, free-range birds. He puts his favoured bird on the canteen menu at Axminster Power Tools, the town's largest employer. He claims the results are impressive: a normally empty room was full with workers, and the largest ever profit was turned in. Not bad, but it's more likely they came to see their celebrity chef rather than the "superior texture and taste" of free range. He also organises a group of residents off the working class Millway Estate to set up their own free range chicken run so they can understand how chickens end up on their dinner plates.

The second part of his scheme involves a close examination of factory farming. Unsurprisingly, no local farmer will grant him access to their own operations, so he decides to set up on his own to prove his point. The experiment proceeds with one side of the shed turned over to intensive techniques, and the other free range. The former sees 2,500 chicks exposed to lamp light for 23.5 hours a day (the industry recommendation) and confined indoors; while the 1,500 free-rangers can potter about in the run outside if they so fancy and enjoy more space. Very quickly he comes up against some of the brutal realities of the industry. When one chicken develops a swelling on its knee joint, it gets its neck broken. Cost/benefit analysis callously deems its continued existence an uneconomical waste of seed. To underline this, the programme ends with a shot of a small heap of dead days-old chicks, lying at the bottom of a wheelie bin. How the experiment develops will be screened tomorrow and Wednesday on Channel Four.

From the standpoint of the consumer, chicken appears as if by magic on the shelves because commodity production is "invisible". But Fearnley-Whittingstall is convinced if intensive farming of chickens is exposed, people will change their buying habits. He's not the first, and certainly not the last to travel this road. Exposing a commodity's "biography" is a standard tactic of activist groups, writers, NGOs, "concerned" celebrities, and so on. High profile examples in recent years would include Naomi Klein's exposure of highly exploitative sportswear production in China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and elsewhere for top brands like Nike, Adidas, Reebok, etc. NGOs and other activists have climbed on the bandwagon and forced these firms to demand certain standards of their suppliers, though adherence to them has been patchy. Although raising awareness of commodity biographies has caused some large corporations serious embarrassment and may have helped radicalise a few people here and there, nevertheless production continues under more or less similar conditions and sportswear continues to fly off the shelves.

So it will be with chickens. Even the shock value of Jamie Oliver's upcoming programme on slaughter and processing won't make much difference. True, some of the audience will be shocked into buying free range birds, and others might give up on meat altogether. But ultimately Fearnley-Whittingstall's on a hiding to nothing, and not only on grounds of cost (a couple of Millway chicken run project volunteers were quick to note a £7 chicken is not an option for most working class people, a point our Hugh is oblivious to, despite it being repeated on several occasions throughout the documentary). The problem comes back again to the nature of work in a capitalist society. The ensemble of commodities appear disembodied and ready-made not just because each worker occupies their particular niche within the division of labour and is only connected to commodities produced by others through the cash nexus; but also because of the private ownership of production. As a worker does not own and has no control over the fruits of their labour, more often than not they will be indifferent to its fate in so far as its subsequent trajectory does not impact upon them. If indifference exists here in the workplace, it is difficult to show anything but indifference toward the origins of commodities produced by others elsewhere unless, again,that impacts directly on the worker as a consumer.

Sadly for Fearnley-Whittingstall and chums, consciousness raising will not have the desired mass effect. Theirs ultimately is a pious wish, to make humane the inhumane character of capitalist production. This is not to say propaganda of this character does not have its place, indeed it does - as part of a mass movement aimed at fundamentally changing the nature of the system - but by itself, it becomes yet another good cause whose price puts it beyond the means of most working class people.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

Phil, I was thinking a review of this would be good in the Socialist to make these points (isn't a year since the bird flu outbreak at bernard matthews too!). I didn't in the end watch the programme, but it seems like what I was expecting. Reminds me a bit of the attention given to the small town called Modbury when it went plastic carrier bag free - I had a short piece on that in the paper and it's also on my blog here

Anonymous said...

Phil, you could have saved yourself alot of time and effort and just written "Chickens: the answer is socialism". Untill the Socialist Party have won the majority in Parliament and imposed socialism by decree we need some more immediate stratagies.

Aside from offering no practical thoughts on how socialists should deal with animal welfare issues your claim that "consciousness raising will not have the desired mass effect" is questionable. Take the issue of laying hens for example, most eggs purchased in the UK are now free range and this is a result of similiar consumer pressure campiagns of the past.

I truely belive the tide is about turn against intensive farming, this is not just a concern of upper class hippies and celeb chefs but is of interest to the working class. Is it really in the proletarian interest to eat cheap meat pumped full of hormones regardless of the health, enviromental and ethical issues? See Eddie Fords article:

I also don't accept your claim that £7 for a chicken is out of most peoples price range. £7 for a whole fucking bird - that's what it should cost. This is a creature that has to be raised, slaughted, plucked and packaged. It only seems expensive because capitalist intsensive farming has reduced animals to mere commodities that are cheap enough to eat everyday. Eating good quality meat less frequently is in everybodies interest and socialists shouldn't be afraid to point this out!

Anonymous said...

volunteers were quick to note a £7 chicken is not an option for most working class people

According to HM Revenue and Customs:

“There are three levels of minimum wage, and the rates from 1st October 2007 are:
 £5.52 per hour for workers aged 22 years and older
 A development rate of £4.60 per hour for workers aged 18-21 inclusive
 £3.40 per hour for all workers under the age of 18, who are no longer of compulsory school age.”

The problem comes back again to the nature of work in a capitalist society. The ensemble of commodities appear disembodied and ready-made not just because each worker occupies their particular niche within the division of labour and is only connected to commodities produced by others through the cash nexus; but also because of the private ownership of production. As a worker does not own and has no control over the fruits of their labour…

Do you believe things to be different for employees of the State or the Co-op? In what way?

Anonymous said...

An excellent piece Phil.

Anonymous said...

crikey - a veritable feast of marxoid boilerplate.

The division of labour and job specialisation are the very things that have enabled the developed world to develop, and the very poorest among us to have a quality of life undreamt of by our great-grandparents.

You can carry on railing against whatever you think capitalism is; meanwhile, private enterprise, the profit motive and the market will lift millions out of grinding poverty and want in the developing world as they have already done in the developed world.

Socialism by decree? And it's worked so well in the past, hasn't it?

Derek Wall said...

Hi Phil,

looks like ecosocialism, watch out or you will find yourself in the Alliance for Green Socialism, Green Left, Socialist Resistance or one of the 14 other eco Marxist organisations in Britain.

The left and animal liberation discuss?

brother_f said...

I see 3 options here.

1. go vegan
2. world socialist revolution
3. world socialist revolution and going vegan.

I'd like to see option 3 happen

Anonymous said...

USe your book vouchers you got for Xmas on this!! Oh the goddess it horrified me.

I try only to eat meat at the weekend though if I was disciplined I would be a vegan but it just aint happening!

I think the consumer can have an effect.

I give money to animal charities as I think we are very cruel to animals and I don't agree with it.

A Marxist Vegan I know explains his veganism as an act of solidarity with sentient beings who cannot collectivise against their oppression.

Cat xx

Seán said...

I watched these programmes with interest and believe that our attitudes toward eating meat (with an emphasis on being raised without cruelty) needs to change. The price we pay for intensely farmed food is a decrease in quality and a degraded environment.

Also I've always thought the battery raised broiler to be an apt metaphor for capitalism. And in the end we turn against one another and peck the living bejesus out of each other. While the free-rangers live in a sort of idyllic New Lanark type utopia.

Btw, Hugh double-barrelled posh twat is also a chum of Davie Cameron. I think he shares his paternalist views towards the working class and a yearning for a pastoral England which is one notch below Arcadia.

Nick said...

"Take the issue of laying hens for example, most eggs purchased in the UK are now free range and this is a result of similiar consumer pressure campiagns of the past."

Are you taking the piss? I work on the tills for Tesco and there's no way most eggs purchased are free range! The only people in our shop who buy free range eggs are a couple of students, the vast majority buy battery. Admittedly that's only anecdotal evidence, but it's more evidence than you're willing to provide.

Anonymous said...

I just checked and I stand corrected. It turns out that 59% of eggs in the UK are battery. However, my point still stands that there has been a major shift towards free range see:

The days of battery eggs are well and truely numbered:

Leftwing Criminologist said...

"The left and animal liberation discuss?"

Actually we had a rather good lead off last year at the branch in Huddersfield on that.

What I find quite interesting is that many people feel a kind of need to include meat in a meal, otherwise they don't feel like they've eaten properly. has anyone else noticed/experienced this?

Anonymous said...

Does CPGB stand for the Chickens Party of Great Britain?

Seriously, doesn't the argument come down to whether it is acceptable to kill animals for food or it isn't? Gordon Ramsay lovingly looked after Trinny and Susannah before turning them into sausages and barbecuing the in the back garden. I've heard people say that some plantation owners treated their slaves quite well. It doesn't make it right though!

Anonymous said...

trot carnivore:

"Does CPGB stand for the Chickens Party of Great Britain?"


"Seriously, doesn't the argument come down to whether it is acceptable to kill animals for food or it isn't?"


Besides, this is no yoking matter.

JRD168 said...


Anonymous said...

This is indeed the perfect example of the Socialist Party / CWI's 'Just say Socialism' approach but more verbose than the usual hackery because Phil is an academic and knows how to pad things out with pseudo intellectual verbiage.

Anonymous said...

Verbiage,indeed. I had to look that one up in the dictionary. Still, 17 comments on chickens and Marxism and cluck all for Foucalt.

Phil said...

Crossed the road: read some of the grey beards lately? They're fall of "pseudo-intellectual verbiage", as you put it. Guess that means their theories and those who try to apply them can be safely marked down as bullshitters.

Comrade Cluck: The delicious irony of being told by a cpgb to develop immediate strategies to connect with the working class! Physician, heal thyself!

I think the point still stands. You want to fundamentally alter the conditions under which all livestock are raised in capitalist agriculture, ultimately, it has to be part and parcel of a wider mass movement aimed at changing society as a whole. This doesn't preclude fighting for animal welfare or any other progressive reform in the here and now, it's just a sober recognition of the prospects of winning workers over to that perspective and pattern of consumer behaviour. For example, suppose free range supplants intensive farming (it will not do so completely). That industry is still subject to the laws of capitalist competition, of having to churn out ever more birds to compete with other producers. Corners will be cut here and there, pressure from owners will be on to water down the definition of 'free range', etc. Capital will, of necessity, try and claw back any animal welfare gains because its chief concern is self-expansion. To make sure it "behaves" requires tough regulatory mechanisms, which immediately puts social change back in the frame.

LC: we've often thought about having a debate of this character in our branch. Brother Big D often gets a bit of ribbing for being a vegan, but food production is and will increasingly be a political hot potato, and one the left needs to take up without being preachy. Despite my polemical haughtiness toward comrade cluck, I do have a lot of time for Eddie Ford's articles on a number of issues and, rarely for a cpgb, is known to talk sense from time to time ;)

Anonymous - there was no need to check your brain in prior to commenting on here! Socialism isn't about returning to the stone age, it's about building an alternative kind of industrial society. One that doesn't grind people down, poison our planet, and put private wealth before the needs of the many. If you want to argue with socialists in the future, at least have a clue about what we stand for.

To the first anonymous, whether working for the state or the co-op (not your small co-op), the relationship workers have to their work is similar in character to private firms.

Anonymous said...

The immediate socialist part of this issue relates to the fact the a large part of the population cannot afford to buy chicken produced in a humane way even if they want to. Part of the oppression of Capitalism is the fact we must accept injustices if we are to participate in social norms such as eating chicken, or accpt pollution if we wish to travel.

The production issues relate to the capitalist profit motive overidding our basic humanity.

scott redding said...

The reason there is so much broiler chicken bought is not cost. Non-organic commercially produced free range chicken can be had for £5. Yet, free range birds are less than 3% of all chicken sold in the UK. In France, it's 40% of all fresh chicken sold in supermarkets and butchers shops. Without waiting for the revolution, we can quickly get to that level at least. Further, as other people have pointed out, we need to go more vegetarian/vegan. If people still want to eat meat for a few meals out of the 21 per week, then we'll be able to afford birds that are organic and free-range.