In a war between humans and bears. I’d take the side of the bears.” John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club

by Steven Best, Ph.D

The most interesting front in the multifaceted war of position to influence the outcome of the future for the planet – in the most tempestuous and consequential struggles of the day involving the politics of nature — as it becomes ever-clearer to elephants, primates, and birds that human aggression and invasion has reached crisis proportion, awakening survival instincts and precipitating vengeance.

Giving this dynamic the sustained attention it merits, Jason Hribal’s essays and recent book, Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, chronicle acts of rebellion, defiance, resistance, and revolt within the animal kingdom against their human oppressors.[1] A systematic study of anecdotal reports, Hribal goes beyond the established facts of mental, emotional, and social complexity among animals to argue that they have agency. One finds numerous accounts of animal personhood and agency in the field of animal studies, but Hribal takes this disciple to task as well for its abstract and one-dimensional treatments that ignore the political dimension of animal action and the pervasive phenomena of resistance to oppression and slave rebellion.

In an earlier essay, “Animals, Agency and Class: Writing the History of Animals from Below,” Hribal describes the various forms of slavery nonhuman animals are subjected to, such as endured by urban transport animals:[2]

In the cities, the production situation was even more precarious. Animal-powered carts, wagons, carriages, cabs, street-cars, and omnibuses filled the streets of the 19th century … For urban horses and mules, it took two years to become properly trained for this type of work. For coachmen, it took three years. Shifts lasted on average eight to 14 hours per day. The work week ranged from six to seven days. As populations continued to grow, traffic and congestion increased. By the early 20th century, the number of horses and mules working in American cities stood at approximately 35 million — an increase of six-fold from the beginning of the previous century. There were more and more vehicles on the road. The intensity and volume of work continued to accrue — more emphasis on speed, more night-work, greater distances, more routes, fewer breaks, longer shifts, heavier loads, and more starts and stops.

In the 17-19th centuries, with the agricultural and urban exploitation of animals, humans could see domination of animals in its sordid tyranny and ubiquitous evil:

Over the course of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, an ever increasing number of animals were working. Humans witnessed this agency everyday. Some participated in it — as fellow laborers. Some profited from it — as farm, factory, or market owners. Few, if any, could ever avoid dealing with it. Oxen, bulls, cows, and goats were producing the leather industry. Sheep were producing the wool industry. Cows were the ones who produced the milk, cheese, and butter industries. Chickens produced the egg industry. Pigs and cattle produced the flesh industry. This was the labor of reproduction: feeding, clothing, and reproducing a continuously growing number of humans with their skin, hair, milk, eggs, and flesh.

On the agricultural farms, it was oxen, horses, mules, and donkeys, as well as the occasional cow, ewe, or large dog, which pulled and powered the plows, harrows, seed-drills, threshers, binders, presses, reapers, mowers, and harvesters. In the mines, they towed the gold, silver, iron-ore, lead, and coal. On the cotton plantations and in the spinning factories, they turned the mechanical mills that cleaned, pressed, carded, and spun the cotton. On the sugar plantations, they crushed and transported the cane. On the docks, roads, and canals, they moved the carts, wagons, and barges of mail, commodities, and people. In the cities, they powered the carriages, trams, buses, and ferries. On the battlefields, they deployed the artillery and supplies, they provided the reconnaissance, and they charged the lines. This was the labor of production: producing the power necessary to propel the instruments of capitalism. Indeed, the modern agricultural, industrial, commercial, and urban transformations were not just human enterprises.

The history of capitalist accumulation is so much more than a history of humanity. Who built America, the textbook asks? Animals did.[3]

As political agents, animals did not just labor and suffer mindlessly and helplessly, rather they frequently refused work and exploitation, at least past a given limit, and subsequent labor had to be negotiated in some way and to varying degrees. Increased production only meant increased resistance, especially notoriously stubborn and rebellion-prone animals such as donkeys. Hribal adds to an already rich account of animal resistance to human oppression, describing a wide range of animal resistance tactics from intentional sabotage and property destruction to revenge killing and popular violence.[4]

Faking ignorance, rejection of commands, the slowdown, foot-dragging, no work without adequate food, refusal to work in the heat of the day, taking breaks without permission, rejection of overtime, vocal complaints, open pilfering, secret pilfering, rebuffing new tasks, false compliance, breaking equipment, escape, and direct confrontation, these are all actions of what the anthropologist James C. Scott has termed “weapons of the weak”…Hence, while rarely organized in their conception or performance, these actions were nevertheless quite active in their confrontation and occasionally successful in their desired effects. For our purposes, these everyday forms of resistance have not been historically limited to humankind — as each of the above listed methods have been used by other animals.

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