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On Worker-Centered Politics Amid Brutality: Author Response

Published onJul 25, 2023
On Worker-Centered Politics Amid Brutality: Author Response

In the three years since Porkopolis was published, somehow — at once — a lot has happened and very little has changed in American slaughterhouses. The COVID-19 pandemic’s early wave through factories exposed the cruel fragility of totalizing Taylorism. 120 years of continuous industrial engineering had removed unproductive motions from the animal dis-assembly line, pressing human bodies together in refrigerated warehouses in ways that made virus transmission equally fast and brutal. Yet, these killing factories stayed open as families and communities succumbed to illness, and late industrial capitalism’s sheer indifference to life — human or hog — should now be obvious. What became simultaneously clear is the teetering unsustainability of the mass-production of death, and the American incapacity to reform these institutions. Even the American president stepped in to keep plants open by insulating corporations from legal responsibility for hurting workers. Hundreds of people died, but in the years since the kill floor has only gotten faster and more violently efficient.

The four commentaries focus on the book’s efforts to sink into these kinds of counterintuitive outcomes. Or, as Usman frames it, they work through the constitutive and (hopefully, one day) destabilizing ironies that underpin schemes to extract yet more value using an already-overindustrialized creature. American agribusiness is predictable in that it always seeks to get faster and larger, but I was continuously surprised by the circuitous paths it takes towards renewed growth. Elliott flags how the mass-production of animals wears out species to the point where employees are required to exhibit profound empathy and care for pigs to sustain these operations. Others puzzle over managers who unendingly pursue perfectly uniform pigs even as their own manufacturing philosophies claim such an animal is impossible to sustain. Nayak comments on the many ways that life and happenstance still continually get in the way of corporations’ efforts to script every micro-interaction between humans and hogs, and these unsettling interruptions’ significance is ramified precisely because factory farms are premised on totalized control. We might further add that the factory farm is such a totalizing, powerful institution precisely — and oddly — because it is so fragile. As Simanjuntak notes, it requires endless subsidies, legislative interventions, and legal exceptions to keep churning. American agribusiness seems powerfully pathetic: constantly calling for social support as it teeters on the verge of collapse — and always getting the assistance it needs.

What these commentaries remind me is not only that late capitalist agribusinesses upend expectations. They remind me that I felt the need to adopt an ironic approach to the politics of labor to begin to write the book. Before I started this research, I figured I would offer a straightforwardly humanistic portrait of people’s ambitions and dreams from within the muck of barns and factories. To this tune, I remember asking meatpacking workers in an ESL class what they like about their jobs, and what would make them better. The dozen or so people gathered around the table hysterically laughed at the question. After the cacophony died down, a middle-aged man from Guatemala explained that there is nothing to like about the job of cutting up pigs. He hated it, he said that everyone hates it. And he had no desire to improve the place. All he wanted to do was get out.

How do we center workers in capitalist sites that we, and oftentimes they, think would be better off not existing at all? As I note in the introduction — but which is the animating quandary of the entire book — the trouble is that a safe, socialized, and remunerative factory farm would still be a site of unredeemable brutality. Each chapter churns through the question of how to write a labor-centered ethnography that is nonetheless skeptical of this kind of work. How does one engage capitalist sites whose baseline is rooted in the exploitation of workers, but where lessening this theft – if it ever could be done – is clearly not enough, including for many of the people who actually do the work?

As I finish this response, I am about to drive out to the Midwest to live for a period in a different meatpacking town. This pending research will try to come to better terms with some of the conundrum above, and with another irony: Porkopolis was a labor-centered ethnography, but many of the people I spoke to during that research were actually ex-workers. They had quit working for these firms, refusing to work in these operations any longer. Some were like that man in the ESL class, who no doubt would see the capacity to quit as a laudable achievement. In retrospect, however, my questions to these people always dealt with their former lives in barns and slaughterhouses — perhaps replicating some undigested productivism of my own by seeing the workplace as the site that matters – rather than focusing on their current and ongoing efforts to stay out of these places. Thinking with these commentaries, I am still trying to figure out what a positive politics of un-efficiency might mean in practice — and I thank these commentators for generously probing the contours of what that collective project might entail. My sense is that despite the totalizing omnipresence of industrial meat today, people from many walks of life are nonetheless searching ways to limit and cut their varied ties. Perhaps by centering the travails and achievements of quitters, we might glimpse a nascent labor politics that is adequate to things like factory farms.

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