Animal Work: Metabolic, Ecological, Affective

From the Series: The Naturalization of Work

Photo by Louisa Hooven, licensed under CC BY SA.

What work does the naturalization of work do? What are its political-economic implications? Trajectories of bringing nature into the ambit of capitalist accumulation have been a longstanding concern in the social sciences. Yet how might one explain capitalist logics of accumulation without placing nature’s forces and potentials squarely on the side of capital—as political-economic straightjackets tend to do? After all, these are potentials that capital presupposes but does not itself produce. I address these questions by focusing on concepts of animal work and nonhuman labor (Barua 2017; see also Blanchette 2015; Porcher 2015) that offer crucial insights into how nature is constitutive of political-economic organization.

Animals are workers in the shadows of capitalism: their labors remain or are rendered invisible, but become pivotal when actual practices of value extraction are taken into consideration. Animals, however, are not self-directed creatures exchanging alienable labor in the marketplace of their own volition. “They are paws not hands” (Haraway 2007, 55). Conceptualizing animal work through humanist frameworks or anthropomorphic extension is misleading. Intention and functionality are immanent to the labor process, rather than the imposition of prior design upon an external substrate—the difference, Karl Marx (1976) argued, between the labors of the architect and those of the bee. Divisions between productive and reproductive labor are a moot point here, for animals are simultaneously bodily technologies and living commodities. Furthermore, animal work is porous, performed relationally with an entourage of actors that cross-cut animal–human divides.

Three examples highlight the political-economic import of animal work. The first is what one could term metabolic labor: the body-work of animals that is at the heart of contemporary biocapital, as commodities and modes of production. The transformation of commercial broiler chickens into creatures that grow to twice the size of their counterparts in the 1930s—in less than half the time—is a prominent example (Boyd 2001). Born to become meat, chickens are not simply raw material but laboring bodies that capital parasitizes and turns into an accumulation strategy. This ever-expanding dynamic of valorization has rendered chickens into the world’s most common bird, their bones now a defining feature of the Anthropocene’s stratigraphy. Metabolic labor thus points to an anatamo-politics of capital (see Negri 2017), albeit one that proceeds through nonhuman bodies.

Птичник (Ptichnik). Photo by Naim Miel, licensed under CC BY SA,

A second modality of animal work is ecological: a form of ecosocial reproduction necessary for the maintenance of ecosystems (see Coulter 2016a, 2016b). Work done by insect pollinators like bees is an exemplar. Often framed in terms of ecosystem services, a range of metrics, indices, and “willingness to pay” measures get deployed to bring ecological work into the realm of economic calculability as natural capital (Helm 2015). However, conceptualizing pollination as labor rather than service—and here I am not referring to trite divisions of nonhuman labor into the worker, queen, and drone—foregrounds a very different political entomology. Honeybee colonies in North America, for instance, have registered a 50 percent decline, triggering a pollinator-mediated food crisis (Ghazoul 2005). Costs for replacing the work of bees with human labor can run into billions of dollars for relatively small regions. As a consequence, rent-a-hive schemes have emerged: orchards pay up to US$200 per hive for bees’ labors. In India, on the other hand, weak regulation and a large informal market manifests in child laborers carrying out cross-pollination in cotton farms that are experiencing pollinator declines. “Willingness to pay” approaches espoused by neoclassical economics typically undervalue bees’ labors and marginalize ecosocial reproduction (Coulter 2016a, 2016b).

Beekeepers inspect their colonies in a California almond orchard. Photo by Louisa Hooven, licensed under CC BY SA,

A third, and no less important, dimension of animal work is affective labor. Corporeal, somatic, and intangible in its products, the affective work of animals becomes particularly visible in the entertainment industry and its regimes of spectacular accumulation. These include cat cafes —a retail phenomenon extending from San Diego to Singapore—where customers seek out forms of intimacy with felids to cope with stressful atmospheres in their daily lives. Yet cats are predominantly nocturnal animals that sleep long hours during the day. Being frequently woken up and placed on waiting customers’ laps requires cats to cope with their own physiological stress. Similarly, celebrity bull elephants in southern India are forced to interact with publics as they travel from one town to another, participating in over two hundred processions a year at lucrative rental fees exceeding US$1,000 per day. The micropolitical channeling of affect to foster spectacular consumption experiences is contingent upon significant disciplining of these proboscidean spect-actors: elephants are often bored and depressed in captivity. In moments of resistance, they are even known to kill their handlers (Barua 2016).

Cat cafe in Osaka. Photo by akaitori, licensed under CC BY SA,

In summary, animal work brings hidden geographies of exploitation and expropriation to the fore and points to new directions for analyzing the reproduction of capital. Metabolic, ecological, and affective labor carried out by animals not only highlights the violence in commodifying life, but also signifies the economic force of nonhuman potentials co-opted by capital. Animal work reorients our understandings of capitalism: it shows the latter to be not just a set of cultural and economic practices, but ecological ones as well.

Editors' Note

June 24, 2021—This essay has been corrected to reference Kendra Coulter's (2016a, 64, 2016b, 203) concept of ecosocial reproduction.


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_____. 2017. “Nonhuman Labour, Encounter Value, Spectacular Accumulation: The Geographies of a Lively Commodity.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 42, no. 2: 274–88.

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———. 2016b. “Beyond Human to Humane: A Multispecies Analysis of Care Work, Its Repression, and Its Potential.” Studies in Social Justice 10, no. 2: 199–219.

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