American Abattoirs




The American abattoir paved the road to Auschwitz.  The industrialization of death developed at the turn of the century in the US stockyards was adopted by the Nazi Concentration camps, where sectors of humanity relegated into the realm of ‘subhuman’ were slaughtered.  History repeats itself with the algorithms of domination shifting not in construct but in context. The assembly-line technology and eugenic ideology that buttresses the mechanized mass murder of animals share the rationalized cruelty that has historically been used in the Western context against humans in the ‘state of exception’.  Branded inferior, crammed into railcars, forced into labor and killed when no longer of use, the victims of the Holocaust experienced the same fate as the chattel of slaughterhouses do today.  The justification for this brutality is hinged on the ‘biological inferiority’ of the victims who are dehumanized and denigrated as animals. The “anthropological machine” distinguishing humans from animals collapses when man is stripped down to ‘bare life’ (Agamben). Thus, as long as the exploitation and violent slaughter of animals occurs unrefuted, the potential for genocide remains.  As history has shown us time and time again: the realm of nonhuman is not solely occupied by animals.

Historical Context:


Patriarchy, slavery and the social matrix of speciesism emerged in tandem to one another from the same region that fathered agriculture in the Middle East during the Chalcolithic Age.  Sumer, now modern Iraq, was the first civilization to engage in core agricultural practices such as organized irrigation and specialized labor with slaves and animals.  They raised cattle, sheep and pigs, used ox for draught their beast of burden and equids for transport (Sayce 99). The knowledge to store food as standing reserve meant migration was no longer necessary to survive. The population density bred social hierarchies supported at its base by slaves (Kramer 47).  In Sumer, there were only two social strata’s to belong to: lu the free man and arad the slave (Kramer 47).  Technologies such as branding irons, chains and cages that were developed to dominate animals paved way for the domination over humans too. The “human rule over the lower creatures provided the mental analogue in which many political and social arrangements are based” (Patterson 280). Caged and castrated, slaves were treated no different from chattel.

Thousands of years later, the tools developed in the Middle East for domestication were used by the Europeans during colonization to shackle slaves. “When the European settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1772, the indigenous people seem not to have noticed them…By 1830 their numbers had been reduced from around five hundred to seventy-two. In their intervening years they had been used for slave labour and sexual pleasure, tortured and mutilated. They had been hunted like vermin and their skins had been sold for a government bounty. When the males were killed, female survivors were turned loose with the heads of their husbands tied around their necks. Males who were not killed were usually castrated. Children were clubbed to death.” (Gray 91).

This horrific account illustrates how the indigenous people of Tasmania were enslaved, skinned and slaughtered by the Europeans. Meanwhile across the globe, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was at its peak in the 18th century.  Africans were taken from their native land, branded, bred, and sold as property.  Linguistically these acts of violence and exploitation are tied to animals- branded, skinned, slaughtered, sold.  Be that as it may, “as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other” (Pythagoras in Patterson 210).   Racism, colonialism, anti-Semitism and sexism all stem from the same systems of domination that initially subjugated animals. Until we cease to exploit living beings as resources, the threat of man being stripped of his humanity looms.  Although we cringe at the inhumane actions of our ancestors, the scale and efficiency of murder and oppression has only advanced, while the notion of ‘human’ remains increasingly obscured.

“Progress and mass murder run in tandem” (Gray 96).  At the turn of the twentieth century, German biologist Ernst Haeckel claimed that non-western races were “psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans” (Patterson 241).  By then, the hegemonic hierarchy that secured white supremacy was solidified by the emergence of eugenics. The disdain for difference blinded the backward minded to believe the human gene pool needed to be “reformed” through the extermination of “undesirable” populations.  This ideology guised as science shares striking similarities with the agricultural practice of breeding stronger animals while castrating the weak in order to produce desirable offsprings. At the turn of the twentieth century, sixty-thousand ‘defective’ citizens were sterilized in the United States.  The implementation of eugenic legislation in America came in tandem to the industrialization of abattoirs.  Inspired, Adolf Hitler praised the US as pioneers of modernity. Yet, the influence America had on the Nazi Regime both ideologically (eugenics) and technologically (Fordism) ran deeper.

The roots of Fordism are often misconstrued to stem from Taylorism, yet this could not be further from the truth.  Scientific management had little influence on the assembly line paradigm perfected by Ford.  In his memoir, he declares that his inspiration stemmed from a childhood visit to the meatpacking district of Chicago (Crowther 23). In 1865, conveyor belts were introduced into slaughterhouses to expedite the rate animals were gutted.  Impressed by the efficiency of this industrialized slaughter,  Ford constructed his factories in mimesis. Thus, the concept for the assembly line originated in factories of dis-assembly.  The mass production model behind abattoirs and automobiles manufacture proved to be an effective technology regardless the sphere, so much as to inspire Ford to later share this with the Nazi party.

As an outspoken anti-Semite, Henry Ford’s newspaper ‘Dearborn Independent’ ran for eight years (1920-1927) reaching 700,000 readers a month. Later, he published ‘The International Jew’, a compilation of pamphlets incorporating the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Grider 2010). Aside from equipping the German army with vehicles, Ford also funneled funds to the Nazi Regime.  Adolph Hitler, a longtime admirer of Ford, praised the American Industrialist in Mein Kampf and awarded him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle for his “humanitarian ideals” (Patterson 23). I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration” (Grider 2010), Hitler once said with portrait of the automobile manufacture on the wall of his Munich office.  Although, “Henry Ford gave America and the world the mass-produced automobile. He also inspired Hitler to mass-produce hate and genocide on a level never seen before in human history. The efficiency in which Hitler killed his victims happened at a rate akin to Ford’s cars being produced on the assembly line” (Grider 2010).  The efficient methodology of Fordism was employed as an apparatus for industrialized mass murder.  After all, the idea for the assembly line came from slaughterhouses and proved to be just as effective on living beings.  In the end, there is a thin line differentiating humans from nonhumans. Once stripped down to bare life, man is no different from animal.

Zoe and Bio


From Aristotle to Auschwitz, law has harnessed the power to distinguish citizen from body. Antiquity unveils that the original political moment was also the original human one. In Ancient Greece, there were two words for life to express what we’ve come to articulate in one: zoe and bios (Agamben 2000: 130). Bios is qualified, political and codified life.  Filtered through the state, it is the conditioned mode of life specific to a single individual or group.  Zoe, on the other hand, is ‘bare life’.  It represents the raw biological make-up and simple fact of living common to all beings.  Classical politics distinguished “clearly between zoe and bios, between bare life and political life, between human beings as simply living being, whose place was in the home, and human being as political subjects, whose place was in the polis” (Agamben 2000: 138).  The anthropological machine has two historic expressions: the anthro-machine of antiquity humanized the animal, while the modern apparatus animalizes the human- the total humanization of the animal coincides with a total animalization of man.

According to the contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, politics is structured by the inclusion and exclusion of ‘bare life’ or sacred life (Homo Sacer).  It is a life unprotected by law, a life susceptible to being stripped of all rights and taken without remorse.  Without bios, humans are no different from animals.  The power to dictate who’s to be incorporated within the political apparatus and who’s to be excluded is a form of biopolitical social control that rest in the hands of the sovereign.  It is when bios is estranged from zoe that the grounds for ethnic genocide finds justification in the ‘state of exception’.  Bare life is the determining factor of whether a certain body should be kept alive or abandoned. The failure of democracy and threat of ethnic cleansing sleep in the disjuncture between bios and zoe, which invites the horrors that awake with bare life. The strength of the sovereign rests on this self-serving dialectic that creates this zone of in-distinction obscured by the anthropological machine.  “Concentration and extermination camps are an experiment of this sort, an extreme and monstrous attempt to decide between the human and the inhuman, which has ended up dragging the very possibility of the distinction to its ruin” (Agamben, 2000: 13).

State of Exception


Biopolitics cannibalizes ‘form of life’- a term coined by Agamben to describe the fusion of zoe and bios that seizes the sovereign’s power over life and power to dictate bare life. Yet ‘form of life’ is a mere illusion, as the constitutive power structure is fundamentally un-constituted.  “Biopower’s supreme ambition is to produce, in a human body, the absolute separation of the living being and the speaking being, zoe and bios, the inhuman and the human” (Agamben, 1999: 156).  In Modern thanatopolitics, the abrogation of juridical order exercised by the government in the state of exception is the rule. The dominance of the sovereign lies not in the responsibility to uphold the legal system, but rather in its ability to suspend the law.  “In every case, the state of exception marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur with each other and a pure violence without logos claims to realize an enunciation without any real reference” (Agamben, 2000: 40).  The always present possibility of judicial suspension aligns itself with the discourse of ‘potentiality’ that fuels the sociopolitical neurosis of our ‘risk society’.  Thus, collective compliance is secured through the deeply ingrained fear that at any given moment a citizen can be denationalized and stripped of all rights.

The contemporary logic of control is typified by the indeterminacy of inclusion and exclusion.  The concentration camps is the ‘state of exception’ horrifically realized.  The Third Reich in Nazi Germany ruled under “a state of exception that lasted twelve years. In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system” (Agamben, 2000: 2).  The concentration camp is the arena of suffering where the state of exception is the rule, where humans are stripped down to bare life.  The incarcerated are subject to conditions outside the realm of law, morality, dignity or justice.  The suffering they experience is inhumane, or as the word suggest: unfit for humans. As victims of violence decry that “they were treated like animals”, the myopic paradox of humanism is revealed.

The Need to Dehumanize Victims


Historically, domination over humans begins with the dehumanization and denigration of its victims.  In the era of imperialism and colonization: Native Americans, Africans and Filipinos were characterized as monkeys, beasts and swine. In perceiving their victims as animals, or nonhuman, colonists could enslave, slaughter and hunt people down without remorse.  Through this perverse rationalization people of ‘inferior race’ suffer the same cruel fate of animals.  During the Nazi regime, Jews and gypsies were vilified “inferior” as rats, insects, vermin and pigs.  Stripped down to bare life, citizens were transformed into bodies- hollowed flesh as soulless as a beast. The “Might is Right” ideology that justifies animal slaughter buttressed fascist propaganda.  In the words of the Fuhrer: “man owes everything that is of importance to the principle of struggle and to one race [Aryan race] which has carried itself forward successfully. Take away the Nordic Germans and nothing remains but the dance of apes. He who does not possess power loses the right to life.”

Disparity between Animals and Humans


Species supremacy is reinforced by the destructive dogmas of humanism. According to German philosopher Martin Heidegger: stone has no world, animal is poor in world and human is world forming- a ‘Shepard of Being’.  Heidegger saw “everything that lives solely from the standpoint of its relation with humans” (Gray 50), yet his notion of ‘human‘ was infiltrated by a deep rooted racism. An enthusiast of eugenics, Heidegger believed “mankind needed to rid itself of the nomadic gene, with its asocial and anarchic components, in the human chromosome” (Gray 93).  His loyalty to the Nazi party was disparate from “cowardice and power worship” (Gray 51).  He saw the fate of Jews as an extreme case of ‘being-towards-death’ where mass murder was “premeditated for the sake of a vast project of world improvement” (Gray 96).  The sick rationale behind the extermination was perversely packaged as the ‘final solution’.  This incomprehensible notion was as real as the black smoke darkening the white winter sky over the constellation of concentration camps ultimately responsible for murdering millions.

In a speech given ensuing the War, Martin Heidegger states: “Hundreds of thousands die en masse. Do they die? They succumb. They are done in. Do they die? They become mere quanta, items in an inventory in the business of manufacturing corpses. Do they die? They are liquidated inconspicuously in extermination camps. And even apart from that, right now millions of impoverished people are perishing from hunger in China. But to die is to endure death in its essence. To be able to die means to be capable of this endurance. We are capable of this only if the essence of death makes our own essence possible” (Sheehan 48).  Here Heidegger argues that the victims were not only deprived of their existence, but were denied the dignity of a respectful death.  They were eradicated like animals in an abattoir, as if surplus inventory, standing reserve, a body emptied of any true agency or identity.

When the distinction between animal and human life blur, ethics collapse.  Yet, what is man if not the result of ceaseless caesurae? Irreducibly divided between animality and humanity to the point of obscurity, the chasm of separation is “the endless identity crisis known as humanity” (Pettman 151).  Yet, how can human rights be fastened if the notion of human is not fixed? Identity is built on binaries. Humans live in the space of the question: what is it to be human?  The fragile separation between animals and humans isn’t built on biological justifications, but on a socially conceived lack that is shattered by the enfants sauvages found at the edge of Medieval villages living ‘like animals’.  Stripped of language, clothing, currency and social conditioning, the line dividing human from nonhuman is completely obscured. It is in this in-distinction that danger lies.

As a symptom of our neurosis, man has over the centuries needed to assert his difference from animals to secure his hierarchical superiority in the ‘Great Chain of Beings’. “Once again, the human is animal plus or minus n, in either case, an exception that proves the rule” (Pettman 142).  It is true that there are characteristics distinctly human, like reason, misery, self-doubt and boredom. Yet “they carry within themselves the power and the violence to jolt us into a nonhuman zone. (“I felt like a piece of meat” or “I was trapped like an animal” or “I was sick as a dog”)” (Pettman 139). Outside of emotive expressions, man is defined by specific social characteristics that are arguably byproducts of our neurotic condition.  Humans are promise-making species plagued with the existential anxiety of “being towards death”.  Money is species specific, as is our technological dependency, our capacity for language and the shame that spawns the need for clothing.  The self-regulating awareness innate to humans is “partly in virtue of the way that their consciousness is structured by biopower, by its language and technique of self making” (Youatt 395).  With that said, everything that makes us ‘human’ is learned through social conditioning.  A child does not know shame or boredom, it does not fear death or understand reason.  Sociability is contingent on conditioning. If not culturally acclimated, children are no different from animals.

So is the freedom to consciously choose one’s ‘life activity’ the only thing that sets humans apart from animals?  Like Heidegger, Karl Marx aligns with the belief that animals only understand the singularity of survival- their life-activity, whereas man creates his own life activity, producing in concert what is needed to survive.  “Physically man lives only on products of nature, whether they appear in the form of food, heating, clothes, a dwelling. The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body” (Marx 31).  Although man may “treat himself as a universal and therefore a free being…as a natural, corporeal, sensuous objective being, he is a suffering, conditioned and limited creature- like animals and plants”  (Marx 31).  Disillusioned, man fails to move beyond the understanding of self to realize that he too is processed and captive. Furthermore, the ability to consciously engage in one’s life activity is contingent on class and circumstance.  In the case of Holocaust and other horrific forms of violence and oppression, the victims are stripped of this right.  Like animals, their life activity is reduced to sheer survival.

Animal Domination, Human Domination


The conceit of anthropocentrism is rooted in the inability to recognize the role non-humans play in shaping history.  Humanity does not exist, only humans, who “bear within themselves the mark of the inhuman” (Agamben, 1999: 77).  This hybridization obscures fixed notions of civil rights. The modern anthropological machine differentiates citizen from body, man from human. The justification for cruelty is constructed on the dismissal of the victim being primitive, barbarian, savage and akin to animals.  Yet, the fate of human beings is not far off from the fate of animals. “In terms of human- animal relations, it is the former that hoard “sovereign jouissance” for themselves, by virtue of assumed authority and ownership. But when it comes to human-human relations, the question of “who wears the pants”—in its most nuanced and metaphysical sense—becomes harder to identify with any certainty” (Pettman 140).  Heidegger’s theory of “enframing” buttresses the notion that human’s relationship with nature influences how we relate to one another (Zimmerman 23). The power apparatus that allows for human domination over animals emerges from the same violent pathology that subjugates humans to suffering.

Isaac Bashevis Singer argues that “everything the Nazis did to Jews we are today practicing on animals” (Patterson 221). “The very same mindset that made the Holocaust possible – that we can do anything we want to those we decide are ‘different or inferior’ – is what allows us to commit atrocities against animals every single day. The fact is, all animals feel pain, fear and loneliness. We’re asking people to recognize that what Jews and others went through in the Holocaust is what animals go through every day in factory farms” (Prescott 2003).

In the United States today, we’re all aware (to various degrees) of the brutality that takes place to satisfy our hunger for cheap meat- yet few call for reform. During WWII the “good Germans” lived in denial of the Holocaust even as outside the crematoriums ash fell from the sky.  The cruel experimentation conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele on Jewish prisoners was also met with silent indifference.  Stripped down to bare life, the victims of these tests were met with the same disregard as the 50-100 million animals experimented on annually today. It is significant to mention that Mengele’s father founded the slaughterhouse machinery company, Karl Mengele & Sons, which may have planted the seed of cruelty exercised first on animals.  Also during WWII, lampshades were made from human skin and sold as highly coveted commodities in Germany.  Similarly today, fur coat and alligator skin are fetishized objects of seduction stripped of the stigma of sporting another specie’s skin.

In tracing the trajectory of exploitation, it is clear that the atrocities inflicted on humans have been rehearsed on animals. We are surrounded by “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (Coetzee 21).   Descartes’ notion Cognito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) aligns animals with machines- facilitating cruelty sans the sting of remorse.  This perverse perception is applicable to a spectrum of suffering.  “The oppression of human over human has deep roots in the oppression of human over animal” (Best 23).  As long as ethical responsibility fails to embrace all living creatures, these moral limitations are as much a threat to humanity as they are to animals.

The American Abattoir


The facility “to manage vast assemblies of nonhumans“ (Latour 181) with exceptional efficiency emerges from a myriad of technological advancements.  In the mid-twentieth century, Dr. Temple Grandin redesigned the corrals of the slaughterhouse to shield chattel from seeing what lies ahead- thus thwarting the animal’s survival instincts to reverse directions.  Similarly, when prisoners were sent to the gas chamber in Auschwitz, they were told they’d be taking a shower to prevent panic.  In his 1949 lecture “Das Gestell”, Martin Heidegger claimed that “agriculture is now a motorized food-industry — in essence, the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps” (Sheehan 41).  In the sixty years ago that have passed since that statement was made, the top four beef companies in the US went from controlling 20 percent of the market to 80 percent.  In the United States alone, nine billion animals are killed annually- twenty-seven million a day, nineteen-thousand a minute.  According to interviews conducted by HFA (Humane Farming Association) with countless slaughterhouse workers: animals are beaten, boiled and dismembered alive. Yet the conditions for those employed in these abattoirs is also alarming, as it is neither humane nor inhumane, a blurring of distinction that obscures the human, subhuman and animal binaries.

The meat industry is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. The ‘sociotechnical assemblage’ of the labor force produces ‘imbroglios’ of humans and animals.  Workers must gut the carcasses coming down the line at an unprecedented pace- their flesh as vulnerable as that of the cadaver passing by.  The U.S. Labor Department reported that “29.3 percent of meat-workers suffer from injury or illness, compared to 9.7 percent for the rest of manufacturing” (Prescott 2003).  However, this statistic may be greatly underestimated. Due to the competitive nature of the industry, meatpackers tend to hire the cheapest labor possible: immigrants or “denizens” – a term referring to non-citizen residents, bio’s bodies used until no longer in need. Lured over the border by radio advertisements paid for by U.S. meat companies, these migrant workers are denied the rights of citizens, zoe. The language barrier also plays a tremendous role, as it’s the barrier “between the living being and the speaking being, the inhuman and the human” (Agamben, 1999: 135). Communicability bestows the right to cry out in the face of injustice, when this is taken away man is reduced to a form of bare life.  ‘If there is no articulation between the living being and language, if the ‘I’ stands suspended in this disjunction, then there can be no testimony” (Agamben, 1999: 130).

With xenophobia on the rise, forms of work take on a political character.   The fragility of human rights and the rights of citizens is due to the marked disparity between the human and the citizen, bio and zoe, people and People.  “In the American Constitution one reads without any sort of distinction: ‘We the People of the United States’ but when Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address invokes: ‘a government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ a repetition implicitly sets another people against the first” ( Agamben, 2000: 30). Yet this evolution in rhetoric is nothing new- from Antiquity to Modernity there has been a distinction between citizens (political beings) and bodies (bare life).  The notion of life mutates as it moves through different formulations of sovereignty.   These networks of industrial power and control obscure the internalized ecology and subdivision between nonhumans and humans.  As social relations extend their reach through the mega-machine, humans are economically entangled with an increasingly large number of nonhumans. Marx describes this obscured myriad of labor and material relations in factories as “circles of hell”.  Yet unlike Dante’s journey to God, there is no salvation in slaughterhouses, only a dead-end blanketed in blood.



Historically, any form of domination over humans begins with the dehumanization and denigration of its victims. The ideology and justification that buttresses the industrialized killing of animals threatens humanity with the prospect that they too may be at the mercy of such cruelty. The technologies developed in the American abattoirs of the early twentieth century served as a blueprint for the Nazi death machine.  Until speciesism is dismantled, the myth of progress will continue to perpetuate inequality, oppression and violence.  It “is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler and concentration camps a la Stalin.  There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is” (Patterson 199).  Animals liberation goes hand and hand with human libration.  These factories for disassembly have become an intrinsic mode of production in Biocapitalism. Yet in this arena of social production an opaque zone of in-distinction grows out from a failure of consciousness and consequence.  As the question of human becomes increasingly obscured, this flexible set of ethics threatens to turn back on us.  There is no truth to search for, but an illusion to deconstruct.  What’s needed is a psychological change, not socio-institutional change.  Without this awareness, the moral progress and egalitarian inclusivity that human liberation is hinged on is impossible to conceive.



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