SENTIENCE MATTERS: Zoöeconomics — A Call to Recognize Nonhuman Sentience in Political and Economic Thought

Zoöeconomics: A Call to Recognize Nonhuman Sentience in Political and Economic Thought

by Gabriel Gudding


The following is a small fantasy expressing the wish for the advent of a heterodox school of economic history and thought that sees economic systems as schemas expressly for creating, regulating, and satisfying the bodily habits of both human and nonhuman animals. Seeing economic systems in this light — as schemas for bringing realities to porches, goods to ports — will make, hopefully surprising, sense if you continue to read.

The approach I outline below is similar to the capabilities approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, but one expressly focusing on the body as a lens through which to view economic behavior. In Sen and Nussbaum’s view, markers of economic development are not limited to GDP and economic growth, but extend to whether political and economic conditions increase or decrease “substantial freedoms” and human dignity. A zoöpolitical adjustment to the capabilities approach, then, would extend the attribution of substantial freedoms and dignity beyond the realm of the human to include considerations of well-being for all sentient beings. A chief difficulty with this adjustment, obviously, is that billions of these beings are already directly implicated in markets by dint of their being commodities.[1]

Both neoclassical[2] and Marxist economics dismiss well-being and bodily desire as a means of understanding markets. For decades now post-Marxists following Bataille, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, as well as a host of contemporary feminist economists, have critiqued both the rationalist bias of neoclassical economics and the degree to which the value-labor bias in Marxist thought has exempted the desiring body from its theories as something exogenous to markets.[3] See in particular the work of Julie Nelson, Marianne Ferber, and Gillian Hewitson for the ways gendered constructions of the body have shaped conceptions of economics.

The wish here is for the advent of the view that economics and politics are the study of the enrichment and impoverishment of sentient life. In sum, a zoöpolitical approach to economics would be a sentience-centric reformulation of market analysis, economic history, and political rhetoric.

Obviously no current orthodox school approaches this model. The newest and nearest heterodox school to touch it is likely ecological economics, recently characterized by Gowdy and Erickson as a study of “the human economy both as a social system and as one imbedded in the biophysical universe, and thus both holistic and scientifically based.” Such an economics, they argue, “is poised to play a leading role in recasting the scope and method of economic science.”[4] Their definition however mirrors the broader problem of anthropocentrism in the history of ecological thought. (See, for example, a previous post on the troubled anthropocentric nature of eco-criticism and ecopoetics in literary thought since the 1970s).

But how would this work?

I’m guessing in one way this would be less a new methodology of economics than a return to some of the cardinal elements in the work of classical political economists like Smith, Ricardo, and Mill who all at some point categorized the dimensions of economic analysis in terms of the satisfaction of bodily desires and habits. There is, after all, no category of goods or behavior, economic or otherwise, that is not in some way connected with the satisfaction of bodily sensation.

The body of the nonhuman animal expressly has suffered as a body devoid of sapience, suffered by the failure of both orthodox and heterodox schools to consider the somatic realities of desire, the body-in-pain, the pleased animal (human and nonhuman), and affective labor as key dimensions of economic analysis. This disavowal has spread paradoxically to the study of being itself. We have even seen in recent years the advent of Object-Oriented Ontology, a reactionary philosophical movement that insists on classifying the sentient being (especially the nonhuman being) as just another object.[5] Significantly, this movement arrives at precisely the moment when feminist economics and veganic thought are trying to bring the bodily sovereignty of the subaltern to the forefront of economics, ecology, social justice, and ethics.

It seems axiomatic that the more economic history can be considered a monetary sublimate of a collection of specific bodily habits – categories and concepts about bodily desires and aversions in general (diet, methods of moving the body, thermal regulation) – the more clearly the sentient body and its propensity to suffer will be seen as central, and not exogenous, to markets.

At the moment, the suffering of the nonhuman body is, in both the neoclassical and Marxist views, disavowed, and as such it is rendered a kind of capital. Gillian Hewitson and many others have argued similarly that the disavowal of the sexed body in the neoclassical model allows women, specifically the womb, to become a kind of capital (see, for example, Hewitson’s “womb-as-capital”).

Such disavowals are of course central to markets that function to control and police and profit from the bodies of other beings, whether they are teens and women, men or nonhuman mothers, whether calves, goslings, chicks, piglets, bulls, sows, boars, roosters, hens, and the countless other nonhuman persons who are not farmed animals but who instead live in and near our houses and cities and are subject to traps, poisons, guns, nets, slingshots, and clubs: crows, migrating song birds, mice, rats, raccoons, fishes, et al.

How then in this new model are goods framed? Consider that in a very real sense all modern and antiquated economic systems are built explicitly on the trade and sale of items that (a) are either sentient themselves, or (b) alter somatic perception and aid in the regulation of somatic expectation: from the Neolithic spice trade along the Silk Road to the 15th century rise of mercantile capital and the later advent of food multinationals such as the Dutch East India Company (1602) and the British East India Company (1707). Even the mineral interests of industrial capital and the conspiracy of labor and government in neo-capitalist markets and the impulse toward service economies are driven by somatic expectation. The economy of thermal regulation, for instance, was certainly part of the incentive behind the formation of the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670, which, by the way, is still in operation, being one of the oldest corporations in the history of commerce. The wish to extend the active use of eyesight past sundown drove the harvest of trees and the hunting of whales. All industries are expressly, not incidentally, somatic. Each of these industries tries to entrain and control bodily habit, and their activities are functions of how we expect and wish our bodies to feel.

In short, the formerly heterodox, and now entirely orthodox, focus on economic history as a struggle to control the means of production doesn’t get at the real economy: the struggle is more precisely to control the means by which our bodies are consciously and unconsciously provided certain feelings. This isn’t a matter of the anomic production and consumption of goods so much as it is a deeper matter of the satisfaction of desire and aversion.

Consider that just as mercantile spice trade’s unprecedented movement of vegetation over the globe was built on a valuation of mouth taste and the use of spices as a medicine[6] whose purpose was and remains to increase our appetite, much of today’s economy serves a systematized, and nearly unconscious, valuation of muscular ease relative to bodily movements, and the felt, if non-conscious, bodily expectation of ease arising from that relation. The movement of horse culture to motorized culture marks a radically increased expense of money and effort to acquire and maintain a particular kind of easeful movement. An array of vehicles is used, fitted with interior furnitures (small doors, dashboards, seats, buttons, lights, rails, handles, levers, knobs, dials, mirrors, windows, accelerators, motion meters) to augment the movement of the body horizontally (train, automobile, bicyclic locomotion, boat) and vertically (elevator, air travel, escalator, stairwell). So widespread is this new culture of vehicular engagement that we can reasonably speak of a wish for a supranational union of ease.

Even furniture is a variety of static machine that facilitates the adoption of a range of postures and patterns of blood flow in order to ease the musculature and augment cognition. Furniture’s effect on one’s expectation of bodily and relational ease is mostly non-conscious, yet it is precisely the phenomenon that drives this industry. Any argument to determine whether we evaluate the exchange-value of furniture through its aesthetic rather than kinesthetic dimensions misses the point that both satisfy bodily expectation: aesthetic satisfaction is merely a subtler form of pleasure than postural ease.

Moreover, common expectations of bodily position induced by furniture become a part of a larger system of dispositions concerning bodily movement across landscape, making the outdoors an assemblage of surfaces and obstructions over which human ease is carried as a freight.

These ergonomically induced dispositions themselves join an otherwise larger economy of impassivity, indifference, and even aversion concerning the impediments constituted by waters, trees, nonhuman animals, etc., meaning in a sense that this economy of dispositions actuated by furniture is confederated with an even larger system of indifference toward both landscape and animal. This systematic indifference is evident by the general ubiquity of the body parts of animals exploded and frozen everywhere throughout our world – supermarkets, homes, restaurants, even on highways, jets and trains.

This is an industry of the distribution of indifference toward the suffering of other beings, such that we neither notice nor care that they also, each of them, once too were living with the difficult wish to be happy.

We could also, setting aside musculature, contemplate the economies of dermal comfort vis-à-vis heat and cold, humidity, specifically as they relate to air conditioning and thermal regulation. In this sense we might consider that blankets are thermal tarps. Or that cars are the means by which we carry conditioned air from building to building.

If these are somatic economies devoted to the satisfaction and maintenance of bodily expectations, the dominant supranational economy at present is based on the denial of the bodily expectations of other species, the farming of nonhuman animals. This global economy – 64 billion land animals killed per annum, trillions in the water – functions precisely by the disavowal of the suffering of conscious creatures.

The animal-industrial complex (which includes the transportation and service industries as well as agriculture and the pharmaceutical industries) is an empire of animal suffering – an economy built expressly on the suffering of nonhuman bodies and the pleasures of human convenience and leisure – and it is the most dominant economy, in terms of planetary ecology, in the history of human commerce. It is the single most impactful driver of global climate change since the advent of the Holocene. But its global dimensions are not limited to the planetary scale: even at the minute level of thoughts and convictions held by individual human persons and communities, the consumption of animals has markedly damaging ethical effects on the worlds of humans and nonhumans alike.

This economy of animal ablation is, remarkably, characterized by the simultaneous controlling and ignoring of nonhumans. The animal-industrial system functions as the epitome of what Robert Proctor might call an agnotologic economy – one that works by actively inducing an ignorance in both consumers and producers. We can intimately as consumers desecrate the bodies of nonhuman beings by eating them while at the same time remain unaware that we are eating a body. We can intimately gain mouth-pleasure from their bodies while at once remaining ignorant of the pain and sorrow that the nonhuman animal endured so that we could steal this pleasure. We can feel comfort and love while eating a turkey while collectively denying the turkey’s wish for comfort and love, her desire to play and live. We can do this despite knowing that they have the same neurotransmitters and hormones we do and that the vertebrate brain is remarkably consistent in its anatomy, such that it is a sure bet the Umwelt of the turkey is similar to that of the pig and that of the human.

A zoöpolitical economy would necessarily involve a zoöpolitical ecology and a zoöpolitical ethics, the common notion being that the thoughts and feelings, the worlds and families, of other vertebrates and invertebrates should actually be of consequence to our sense of who (and here an animal and an insect is a who) we should love, how we should eat and build, and with what we should make our clothing and our music, our food and our shelter. Empathy and love are not enough when it comes to the bodies of our most other Others. Justice must sit at the heart of an economics that recognizes the imperatives of bodily and mental sovereignty for those whose nerves obligate them to turn away from pain.



[1] In addition to Nussbaum and Sen’s The Quality of Life (Oxford UP 1993), see in particular Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice (Belknap 2007), in which she exposes Rawls’ theory of natural law to criticism for its failings to provide clarity to matters of justice in three areas where justice cannot be derived from self-interest: namely in obligations toward people with disabilities, toward transnational peoples, and toward nonhuman animals.

[2] It’s generally considered there are three major tenets of neoclassical economics: the economic behavior of people and corporations is composed of rational choices; people and corporations strive to maximize their ability to satisfy needs and increase profit; and decisions are made independently based on perfect information.

[3] For a succinct history of this phenomenon, see Jack Amariglio and David Ruccio’s “Modern Economics: The Case of the Missing Body,” in Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2002.

[4] Gowdy, John and Jon D. Erickson. “The Approach of Ecological Economics.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 2005, 29, 207–222

[5] For example, and typical of other writers in this mode, Levi Bryant, in his The Democracy of Objects, classifies animals as “asignifying entities” and insists, as is the habit among members of this school, that the category “nonhumans” doesn’t expressly refer to nonhuman animals, but conveniently includes wires, boxes, dolls, hammers, and cork. It’s an interesting democracy that reinscribes its most basic chauvinisms and ignores the suffering and exploitation of mothers.

[6] A spice is a medicine taken to increase the appetite.

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