This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century argues that there are good reasons that human labour should be treated separately from capital. The most obvious is that:
Human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market.
Seeing as we do not live in a slave society anymore, it makes no sense to treat human labour as a form of “capital”.
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But what about animals as capital? Should animals be treated like other forms of property such as land, machinery and “stocks”? What role do animals that are owned by humans play in the concept of global wealth?
And does potentially owing animals ethical and political consideration contribute to the need for a different understanding of them and their relationship to wealth?
A matter of value?
We tend to take it for granted that animals can be owned as property and that animals cannot be said to “labour” like humans. Today, the reality for many of the animals that humans have direct contact with is that they are owned as property and are used as commodities.
Most would argue that there is no problem with owning animals as property. Some believe this helps to promote welfare. For example, animal welfare scientist John Webster suggests that markets are the only realistic way for humans to value the animals. The argument is premised on the idea that owning animals facilitates a self-interest in promoting their welfare.
This perspective can be seen in responses to PETA’s campaign to raise awareness about the use of sheep in the wool industry. Advocates for the wool industry have objected to PETA, arguing that the welfare of sheep is a priority for the industry.
In this view, property owners have an interest in the humane treatment of the animals they own.
Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm even proposed private ownership of native wildlife as a means to protect these animals from extinction.
These views differ dramatically from the sort of arguments that animal rights theorists have put forward. Gary Francione, renowned for his contribution to animal rights theory, challenges private ownership by highlighting how this relationship favours the rights of property owners rather than animals.
As in other areas of law, property owners demand a right to maximum enjoyment of their own property. This does not always lead to a neat fit between the interests of property owners and the interests of the animals they own. Francione argues that the interests of human owners will always prevail over the interests of their animals.
Regardless of individual views on this question, there is no doubt that animals as property are a growing feature of world economies. The most recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) figures estimate a world standing population of close to 30 billion livestock animals. This “standing stock” annual figure does not include food animals such as live fish that can be owned as property in aquaculture farms. Fish are some of the most intensively traded food commodities in the world.
The desire for efficiency in the production of animals for food has led to large increases in both the number of animals held in stocks and the number of animals that are killed each year. UNFAO observes that from 1980 to 2010, the world’s standing population of chickens increased by 272%, while the number of chickens slaughtered rose by 305% – from 18.4 billion to 56.2 billion.
The animals we use contribute significantly to global economies as a source of wealth.
Merit or theft?
Although Piketty does not directly address animals in his book, he provides us with the tools to consider the problem of owning animals as property in a different way.
One of the driving questions in Piketty’s book is the role of merit in democracies. Today’s democracies value the principles of earning power and resources from labour and skill, rather than gained through privilege.
Piketty makes the extraordinary claim that in:
… all societies, there are two ways of accumulating wealth: through work or inheritance.
Piketty goes on to explain that theft and pillage are excluded, “although these are not totally without historical significance”.
“Theft and pillage” might extend to a variety of circumstances of historical wealth generation, whether in the cases of slavery that have haunted human history, or in the European ransacking of resources (human and non-human) as part of the colonial project. Today, we can ask whether modern forms of low wage and bonded labour might fall into the category of “theft”.
However, we might equally ask if our property claims over non-human animals also represent a persistent form of “theft” in contemporary economies. Do we have a right to the wealth that we accumulate from animals? Is all of this wealth – value acquired from living beings – ours to take?
A different kind of debt
Recent perspectives in animal philosophy and ethics have suggested that we need to pay more attention to our relational obligations to animals. Others have argued that our ethics should recognise the way in which we are co-shaped by the animals that are around us. While others have stated that we have a “fundamental indebtedness” towards animals that must be acknowledged.
Quantifying our debt to animals need not be merely abstract. Some estimates suggest that global livestock industries are worth US$1.4 trillion. Wild fish capture and aquaculture are also significant global industries. In 2010, UNFAO estimated the value of wild-caught fish and aquaculture fish to be US$217.5 billion.
The industries and profits animals generate represent a great deal of human entrepreneurship, labour and investment. However, it would be pure arrogance to insist that animals themselves play no part in producing global wealth and that the full value of their lives and bodies belongs to us.
The growing interest in the role that the non-human may play in shaping the future of democracies raises important questions. Should we recognise some animals as having some of the legal statuses that we award humans? Or, should we go as far as to recognise domestic animals as citizens?
Such social justice proposals remain impossible to imagine in a world that is economically and socially invested in animals for food and resources. However, a different future could await us. If humans are no longer able to be defined as possessions in contemporary democracy, then further developments may force us to reconsider animals as property.
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