Q&A with Alex Blanchette

Alex Blanchette is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Tufts University and coeditor of How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet. In his newest book, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm, Blanchette explores how the daily lives of a Midwestern town that is home to a massive pork complex were reorganized around the life and death cycles of pigs while using the factory farm as a way to detail the state of contemporary American industrial capitalism.

How did this project start? What first led you to study the industrialized agrarian town you call Dixon in the book, which residents refer to as one of “the red meat capital[s] of the world?”

The gist is that I wanted to live in what is arguably the most “industrialized” of American industrial meat towns. Porkopolis started as a doctoral dissertation in the mid-2000s. At that time, the area where I grew up was seeing (in retrospect, relatively modest) growth in confinement animal agriculture. One impetus for the research was to inhabit a possible future for my home region. Agribusiness corporations in Dixon birthed and killed about 7,000,000 hogs per year through the labor of some 5,000 people. They were amongst the most vertically integrated meat production facilities—meaning that they control and derive profit from every stage of the species’ life and death, from genetics facilities all the way to bone-rendering plants. And they purported to be generating the world’s most uniform animal at scale. These companies appeared to be expressing a teleology for the future of agricultural capitalism. They were claiming viable paths for the renewed industrialization of an organism that already bears the weight of some 150 years of accumulated industrial engineering. This opened up the question of what labor with these overworked animals tells us about the very old yet ongoing intensification of industrial processes in swathes of a supposedly ‘post-industrial’ United States. And it is how I ultimately arrived at the ethnographic method and terms of critique that Porkopolis develops. Rather than a typical meat exposé that paints these places and the people who work within them as morally deviant or exceptional from American norms, the book moves across the modern hog’s life and death to examine fledgling workplace struggles and the consequences of trying to find new value in an intensely-valued organism. It takes hog life as an icon of our exhausted late industrial present.

Many studies of industrial farming focus on the harm caused to either the animals or the workers. You argue that the factory creates a “human-pig entanglement” with wide-reaching implications. How are humans in the factory managed in relation to pigs’ needs?

Ethnographic research taught me that centering analytical focus on either “human” or “animal” well-being has become a tough distinction to maintain. The states of human labor and hog bodies are intertwined in these agribusinesses. And though they are presently conjoined to mobilize projects for industrial growth, it also presents the possibility of political interventions that do not see human and animal interests as antithetical.  Most simply, making uniform hogs at scale—for branding purposes, or for increasing line speeds at the kill stage—has come to require a lot of specialized work. Whether it is someone who exclusively works on intensifying hog instincts in artificial insemination, or someone who makes 10,000 repetitive cuts of the left shoulder every day, realizing more standardized hog bodies requires some people to gain unique, intimate, and even potentially radical knowledge of particular dimensions of swine. 

Yet, further capitalizing on animal bodies—while maintaining existing scales of concentration—has also led to attempts to remake human life and labor. For instance, managers felt compelled to intervene in employees’ living arrangements outside of work to reduce the risk of hog diseases from the slaughterhouse transferring across human bodies and infecting barns of pigs. Taken-for-granted forms of nuclear kinship and household-making practices were becoming threats in terms of their effects on pig proliferation. This led companies to enact forms of social distancing ideals to protect hog growth, well before this practice became a common term to protect human health in the wake of COVID-19. Conversely, the very physical composition of the hog, I would argue, is inseparable from the state of rural labor. Using pig genetics that are very fecund but also biophysically fragile necessitates a lot of work to care for and regularize piglet bodies. The sustenance of these capitalist pigs requires low-paid (yet knowledgeable) labor. I do not think we can easily separate racial projects to further cheapen labor today from how industrial animals physically appear on farms. A constellation of things—precarity-making squads such as ICE, discourses that frame everyone working on farms as “unskilled,” or outdated policy that makes it difficult for farmworkers to unionize—can be seen to be manifesting within the very diminished qualities of pigs’ muscle fibers.

Modern capitalism assures that every part of the pig is used to create over 1,000 product codes. What are the ethical implications of this for people who object to the factory farming system?

By the end of Porkopolis, one of the points that I emphasize is that we have paid insufficient attention to the ways that capitalist slaughter, for a very long time, has built its margins and profit by developing commodities that arch far beyond food. A factor that underlies the remarkably cheap American meat of today is all of the other non-meat products made from hog bodies. These range from pet food flavorings, to various kinds of adhesives and infrastructural materials, to fat converted into biodiesel, and to a series of biomedical drugs derived from animal organs. Even though this is not new—the early 20th century Chicago meatpackers said they used “everything but the squeal”—it remains an ongoing process as companies try to achieve growth by disassembling hogs in more precise and diverse ways, creating new economic claims on animal biology. 

This is often greeted as a neutral matter of economic rationality, or even as a laudable act of stewardship by limiting “waste.” Yet, efforts to find more “sustainable” ways to transform excess biological material into commodities also have the effect of sustaining this system of corralling and taking life, making society as a whole more dependent on these facilities. A consequence is that it has become difficult to go about one’s everyday activities without being in contact with processed hog particles in infrastructure and the built environment. Amidst discussions that exalt the market as a space where we can (and must!) make ethical choices, there have been parallel efforts to turn the conduct of our everyday lives into a minor subsidy to meat. I think that it is important to at least politicize these kinds of processes. Minimally, it would reveal how much science and knowledge is expended to develop this unending array of products—the sheer amount of human creativity diverted to maintain industrial animal growth.

Slaughterhouses have become hotspots for COVID-19 across the United States. Does your research on human-animal relations have anything to add to our current moment?

The moral, economic, and biophysical pressures being foisted onto people who work in slaughterhouses across the United States are unfathomable. Not only does Donald Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act mark an attempt to limit corporations’ legal liability for sickening workers. We even see governors going further to deflect moral culpability from agribusiness by making absurd racist claims that outbreaks across slaughterhouses result from the social lives of immigrants rather than cramped, refrigerated warehouses where 150 years of obsessive industrial refinement ensure that every square inch is dedicated to maximizing output and labor productivity. From workers being denied bathroom breaks on the line because these systems cannot “accommodate” the bladder, to companies compelled to include the cost of injuries in their profit model, the human body was a (largely ignored) problem of production for this system long before COVID-19 threatened to make meat less plentiful. One of the points of Porkopolis is that so-called efficiency itself has long been out of control on American meatpacking lines. Increased efficiency is synonymous with physical violence. Hogs’ bodies are standardized across their lifetimes through quasi-invasive labor to intensify line speeds via simplified repetitive motions at their death—leading to harmful and painful burdens on the tendons of workers as they make thousands of cuts.

 But this new moment has also started to expose the vulnerabilities of unending productivity, and we are witnessing things that were rare in the 2010s. There are protests in packinghouse parking lots, and calls for boycotts of meat from worker advocacy organizations. Children of people who work in slaughterhouses are coming together to refuse the idea that their parents should risk their lives for a livelihood—or for meat. Our analyses should try to follow the lead of these emerging voices, activists, and demands.  

So I will just make a narrow point for further context on why the use of the Defense Production Act for meat is so troubling. These models have evolved to the point where agribusinesses deploy (and exploit) labor to monopolize all known money in the porcine species. We might say that these companies are totalizing because they are fragile: they are trying to realize value under low profit margins (that they helped create). But they are also fragile because they are so totalizing: they require so many distinct labor processes to create new niches of profitable pork and animal products, and maintain their model. The sheer quantity of people working in modern slaughterhouses is a reflection of this totalization, as people carve animals into ever-finer sale-ready pieces in acts of labor that would have, a couple generations ago, been done by urban butchers in a less concentrated value chain. Loins injected with flavoring. Shoulders sliced thinly for higher-margin export. The working and reworking of skeletons. The issue is not only that slaughterhouses have become so large that single plants ship 5% of the national pork supply. It is also how the unending search for more value and value-added products packs more people into refrigerated rooms. Invoking the Defense Production Act naturalizes and renders indistinguishable a wide array of labor processes under the label “meat.” I have read little state guidance—let alone regulatory force—on a host of things that could conceivably create space in these plants: mandating reduced daily slaughter capacity, slowing disassembly line speeds, barring certain value-added tasks, or even just cutting up animals less. Some of those things are happening due to a sheer shortage of labor, but the question is whether this industry can sustain them indefinitely. 

We should be questioning whether meat itself is essential, in this moment or otherwise. I do not believe it is. But what the DPA and its oppression of workers appears to be about is an effort to sustain cheap meat—and, further, a refusal to grant us even a moment of pause to question the social value and racial logics of industrial “efficiency.”

What is something you hope readers will take away from this in-depth account of factory farming in the United States? What kind of future research do you hope it might inspire?

This is an extension of what I said above. Despite the fact that I have encountered few people who think that contemporary animal agribusiness is a socio-ecological ideal or even a good thing, I am always struck by the social resources and imagination that is being marshalled every day to keep these institutions in the world. It is almost paradoxical: their late industrial vulnerability seems to call out for and invite people to help them. When these animal assemblages near collapse due to their own scale and concentration—during this pandemic, but also in many other moments such as when a hurricane event buries a community in manure—we tend to instantly see even ostensible critics proposing new inventions, fixes, or schemes to make them more tolerable. If we keep performing these institutions as indispensable, then the cumulative ideological effect is to block our ability to believe that there really are other viable and desirable ways of doing things. I hope that Porkopolis is a contribution to ongoing conversations on experimenting with alternative ways of more equitably working, living, and eating—but also of learning to effectively insist on the need to let some things go. 

Read the introduction to Porkopolis free online. Save 50% off this and all in-stock titles with coupon SPRING50 until May 25, 2020.

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