Multi-Species Metropolis: Rethinking the Rural Factory Farm as a City

Multi-layered collage: At its height, around 1865, the stockyard pens covered a square mile of Chicago; today’s intensive livestock production in the countryside, giving rise to factory farms; the grid of the globe: the symbol of colonial capitalist modernity’s project to subsume the planet under calculative control; hazardous materials worker. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Even when labor-intensive industries locate outside metropolitan areas, they tend to reproduce a kind of urban centralization in rural areas, attracting (and often housing) masses of workers and creating a kind of communal living environment as we know it from the big city. Examples abound in the mining, automotive, and logistics sectors. Factory farming is another case, and it is particularly worth looking at because, as Dinesh Wadiwel argues in his contribution to the “Kin City” text series, it urges us to rethink the multi-species metropolis.

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The commonly narrated story of the relationship between the city and the slaughterhouse goes something like this. At one time, tied to agrarian models of production, animal slaughter was carried out in village and backyard contexts. However, the rationalization of production methods, the emergence of the capitalist economic system, and industrialization, created pressures to centralize the business of slaughter. This led to a transition in production. Animal slaughter was urbanized, and brought into reach of human labor forces within the bounds of the city. In many cities, large stockyards and co-located slaughterhouses were centrally positioned; this is iconically remembered in the Chicago Union Stockyards.

However, a range of different pressures, including community sensitivities, and the practical problems posed by millions of animals entering the city alive (and leaving dead), eventually forced the slaughterhouse out of the city again. This also happened to helpfully place slaughter out of range of the sight (and smell) of many citizens; as Amy J. Fitzgerald observes, the movements of stockyards out of urban spaces “were designed and sited to reduce contemplation and questioning of them by workers and consumers.”

Reengineering human communities”

The shift of the factory farm away from urban to the country reinforces a conceptual separation between animal life used for food, and the city which consumes these products. This conceptual narrative conforms with a point of view, advanced by Karl Marx, of a break or ‘rift’ between city and country. Here, in this story, the movement of (human) populations from country to city, and with this the development of a system of landed property, alter the ‘natural laws of life itself’ and foretell the environmental crisis to come. This rift is central to many green Marxist accounts, such as John Bellamy Foster’s theory of the expropriation of nature.

Arguably Alex Blanchette’s important book, “Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life and the Factory Farm,” offers us a different perspective on this history. Studying the life and death processes of a large vertically integrated hog production facility in the mid-western United States, Blanchette observes a vision of a densely populated space which brings together and co-shapes animals and human lives within capitalist animal agriculture. Of course, here to understand the factory farm as a ‘city’ we need to alter our view of what makes an urban space.

The hog farm studied by Blanchette brings together many thousands of human workers with millions of hogs (5.6 million in 2010); most of the latter will be birthed and slaughtered there in a year. As Blanchette notes, this “porkopolis” involves mapping the human labor process to the hog production cycle: “the American factory farm is not a project of detached human mastery over hogs so much as it is one of reengineering human communities and embedding their labor in novel ways through the porcine species’ changing life-and- death cycle.”

Between human, animal, and dead labor

I would add that this polis of the factory farm, is not merely the site of human labor, but also animal labor. In my book, “Animals and Capital,” I argue that in capitalist animal agriculture, the metabolic labor of animals is subsumed and transformed into a value producing activity. This effectively means that animals are positioned as a hybrid of constant and variable capital, entering production as raw materials, being asked to labor upon themselves in order to produce a final product that will be the consumption commodity. Importantly, in so far as the tendency of the development of the factory farm is to reduce relative human labor time through the use of fixed capital (machines, enclosures, technologies etc), while expanding the volume of the animal labor force, there is a constant dynamic tension between human labor time, animal labor and the mechanization of production. In other words, this is a space where humans, animals and machines are brought into an intense antagonistic relation with each other in order to generate surplus money as part of capitalist exchange.

What if we take seriously the idea that the vertically integrated factory farm, arguably developed in the United States, but now seen as a model for production elsewhere, is a city? That is, the factory farm as a dense, nightmarish, urban site? These are cities, despite their apparently ‘rural’ location, where labor, production and the problem of reproduction all meet, and where pressures of space and resources, and the movement of circulating capital into (and waste out of) its boundaries remain constant tensions. These spaces are composed of a mass of bodies in co-relation with each other, not just human labor, but animal labor as well, in production processes that are simultaneously life and death making.

Clearly this view of the factory farm as a city would not satisfy some contemporary scholarship, which after Saskia Sassen, would see the global city shift away from industrial production to services, and see in growing metropolises the prioritization of their role as a headquarters for global economic control. Nor is this understanding of the city necessarily in conformity with important animal studies and posthumanist scholarship, such as Jennifer Wolch, Maan Barua or (in the “Kin City”-series) Guillem Rubio Ramon and Krithika Srinivasan, which has drawn attention to the fact that the bustling metropolis is, and always has been, a multispecies space.

Cities, despite their apparently ‘rural’ location

However, there is no reason why this understanding of the factory farm as the city might not be in conformity with the classical outlines provided by Max Weber. Here there are a number of shared features:

a) Density; impersonality: The factory farm is a space where human (and non-human) lives are densely packed together, where the familiarity of the village is replaced by relations of ‘impersonality.’ As Blanchette’s book highlights, the depersonalization and alienation of relations is intensified through processes of standardization of labor and life: human workers are as replaceable and substitutable as non-human workers. Fixed capital (machines, enclosures and technologies) feature prominently in this locality, commanding the rhythm of its internality, segmenting and sequestering from sight.

b) Economic exchange; the market: The factory farm has an internal relation of ‘economic’ exchanges which are dominated by an enveloping market logic. Highly exploited human labor is motivated by a low monetary wage; animal labor is efficiently calculated by maximizing ‘yield’ and minimizing the time that animals live for a given set of inputs. The exchanges of these labor forces, amidst the heat, friction, and intensity of machinic relations, produces value. This internal market communicates with a broader economy which enables flows of money, raw materials, commodities and labor between the factory farm and the world outside. More, the factory farm becomes the center of life for the rural space it inhabits; its presence dominates the environments in which it is located; the human labor force make up a significant portion of the inhabitants of the locality, while services, food provisioning, health, community activities and education are oriented, and pay homage, to the factory that assumes its center.

c) Central authority structure; ‘principality’: The factory farm constitutes within its ecology an autonomous downwards system of authority which consolidates and monopolizes exchange, and determines the uniquely austere and brutal conditions of labor, injury and death for human and non-human lives inside. In many respects, the factory farm is a site of juridical exception. Bespoke rules, norms and codes of conduct shape the life-worlds of those within, which bear little comparison to life outside. The vertically integrated operation commands all life within as a source of internal rules and rationality.

d) Fortress market: The factory farm establishes a consolidated set of external borders which seal the operations of the city, effectively creating, in the words of Weber, a “fusion of fortress and market.” This city seals its internality; it establishes a system of production and a market of labor and capital within, while carefully controlling movement and vision from the outside world. The borders must be permeable to flows of money, raw materials, commodities, labor and waste, while maintaining ruthless control over movements in and out. The fortress form remains powerful in the way it can capture activity within: it achieves a complete ‘real subsumption’ of labor within the factory; all life is choreographed to move in tempo with the song of production. Escapes, either of the labor force, or of pathogens, or intrusion by activists, are however seemingly inevitable.

Globalizing the sunless hell

Considering the factory farm as a city has a number of implications. At least one is that we can trouble the classical distinction between the city and the country, the urban and the rural. The relocation of the factory farm outside of the traditional city has been a project of creating new cities with their own unique structures of authority, relations of production, modes of fortification and labor forces (human and non-human).

But it is also a reminder that in our contemporary era the most prominent model for the multispecies city has been the “sunless hell” of the factory farm. This city is now being replicated in earnest around the world. The larger challenge before us is to imagine a very different kind of city, where the terms of exchange between humans and animals (and nature at large) are not based on a fundamentally violent and antagonistic relationship.

Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the “Kin City” series of the Berliner Gazette. More information: https://berlinergazette.de/kin-city-urban-ecologies-and-internationalism-call-for-papers

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