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The Totality of Agribusiness

Published onJul 25, 2023
The Totality of Agribusiness

I read Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis while waiting to conduct my dissertation fieldwork in Indonesia’s oil palm plantation zone. As I progressed through this intimate ethnography of Dover Food’s vertically integrated pork operation, I found myself gradually engulfed in a similar harrowing feeling when thinking about the plantation system. Perhaps it is the same unease and terror of being in and confronting a giant. The set of relations that both agribusinesses fix in place, their life-encroaching effects, and the future they foreclose all point to the same question: What does it mean for an agribusiness to be “total?”

Through the book, Blanchette shows that the totality of large-scale agribusiness is a fragile endeavor. While the factory farm requires a “massive amount of social knowledge, energy, and resource” (p.245) to keep their everyday operations afloat, it is their “impossible desire to embed humanity in strictly regimented porcine worlds” (p.69) that makes drives towards a standardized life never-quite complete. A paradox of late industrialism. But this is where Porkopolis makes its most salient intervention. Rather than viewing standardized interspecies life as a “finished project, with fixed logic, at the end of an era” (p.199), Blanchette suggests a view of industrialization as a social relation “that is continually being (re)enacted between species” (p.90).

This view results in a processual and relational ethnography of what first seems to be a straightforward production machine. Dover Food’s “total” might be a fantasy. However, as they attempt to “standardize the vital” (p.196), the continuous socio-technical readjustments towards their ideal pig-human relationality engender variegated and unpredictable effects. Existing unequal relations of class, gender, and race within the workplace are adapted and reinscribed around the imperatives of total pig usage, effectively continuing the distribution of precariousness. Concurrently, these capitalist pigs' spatial and scalar politics forced our everyday actions “to provide value to industrial animality” (p.213), furthering the expropriation and ecological ruins within Dixon and around the planet.

Such politics also reshape how pigs live and die to be more invisibly intertwined with humans’ routine lives. As new consumer pools are enlisted into the porcine supply chain, the project of alienating “formerly autonomous porcine quality” (p.136) from pigs' biology becomes more rampant. How pigs are slaughtered is a matter of capitalist surplus. So much so that “no worldly manifestation of the species is left unslaughtered” (p.235).

The Porkopolis’ “total” is political primarily because it “necessitates ever-growing corporate consolidation and scales of killing” (p.213). It is important to note that the current organization of the factory farm is a political choice made repeatedly and sustained under the pretext of continuous industrial growth. It is a deliberately violent choice rooted in an ever-expanding system of exploitation and accumulation. The persistence of the factory farm model over space and time hints that such a choice is favored and protected as it continues the distribution of benefits to a network of actors at ever-greater costs for animals and humans, albeit unequally.

For Blanchette, to choose otherwise is to commit to building “a positive politics of inefficiency” (p.236) that rejects the subsumption of animal and human lives into subsidies and stimulants for the meat industrial complex. Indeed “choice” is a slippery term and one that we must treat critically in the face of false technocratic and pro-market consensus on “sustainable development” and “green growth.” Porkopolis does not present any easy pathway to abolish the ideology of growthism. Nor is there any. It does, however, provoke creative imaginings of how to organize our economy differently and help identify the requisites that must be met.

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