Dinesh Wadiwel on Labour, Dominance and Animal Agriculture

SEI Editor Liberty Lawson sits down with Dr Dinesh Wadiwel, who will be presenting the Iain McCalman Lecture in February 2020.

Image by Anita Austvika, via Unsplash

Liberty: Could you tell us about your background and previous research?

Dr Wadiwel: I teach and research in the Department of Sociology at the University of Sydney. I have been at Sydney for about 8 years, and have had the privilege of being part of a team that contributes to the Master of Human Rights.

I have a background as a political and social theorist. My doctoral research, conducted at Western Sydney University, was largely on philosophies of state power, and the ways in which contemporary states use violence as a tool of governance.

However, I didn’t travel in a straight line from PhD to a position at The University of Sydney. Instead, after completing my doctorate, I spent several years within civil society organisations. I did anti-poverty policy work at the Council of Social Service of NSW, and I was employed as the CEO of the National Ethnic Disability Alliance, an organisation that defends the rights of persons with disability from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

These experiences have shaped me in a number of ways. In particular, they have highlighted the need to stay alive to the links between theory and practice.

As researcher, I am best known for my work on situating animals within political theory. My 2015 monograph The War against Animals theoretically explored the systematic forms of violence which shape human relationships with animals. I am super excited that my book has recently been released in Japanese translation– it is such a wonderful experience to see different people pick up my work and make use of it.  I remain engaged with the disability rights movement, including as an advisor for an organisation I helped to found, Diversity and Disability Alliance.

What are the key issues your current work is focussing on?

I have recently finished a draft book manuscript on the relation of animals used for food to capitalism – a work I have been tinkering with for seven years. The book manuscript engages with the work of Karl Marx, and the implications of his labour theory of value for thinking about animals within food production.

Marx of course was not hugely interested in animals. Yet what I find curious is that animals are everywhere in his work and pop up in fascinating places in the three volumes of Capital. However, one of the main reasons I have turned to Marx is that he allows us to think about the possibility of animal labour in a very distinct and useful way, and also he allows us to see capitalism as not merely an economic relation, but as a system of domination.

“Marx […] allows us to see capitalism as not merely an economic relation, but as a system of domination”.

Recent theorists, such as Jason Moore, have stressed the interaction between capitalism and nature as one where capitalist processes seek to capture value from all life, and not just human workers. In my view this gives us one useful way to explain the current crisis that faces our planet: our prevailing economic relation demands endless accumulation as its goal, and all life – humans, animals, environments – is sucked into the machine of capital for this purpose, regardless of the consequences.

Although my book is a little way away from being published, I have a few articles out there on Marx’s value theory and animals in production – one published last year in South Atlantic Quarterly, and an essay which is due out soon in a new collection on Animal Labour.

When we think of justice in terms of the animal agriculture industry, we often assume that this primarily concerns the welfare of the animals themselves, but really we need to be thinking about impacts to other species and humans as well – could you speak a little to how this industry is linked with current public health crises, biodiversity loss and the climate crisis?

I think it is fair to say that we have reached a turning point in relation to public awareness of industrial animal agriculture. For much of the last four decades, it seemed that only animal welfare and rights advocates were concerned about animal agriculture. However today we see an extraordinary array of challenges facing industrialised animal agriculture from a range of different perspectives, and a growing awareness of the problems that circulate animal based foods.

Perhaps the most pressing concern relates to the links between meat production and the climate emergency. This is something highlighted by the recent declaration authored by a number of experts, including Sydney’s Thomas Newsome, and subsequently endorsed by 11,000 other scientists. This year’s IPCC report also noted the connections between expanding animal agriculture, deforestation and biodiversity loss. In perhaps the strongest language yet, the IPCC stressed the benefit in transitioning away from meat-based diets as a realistic strategy for reducing the emissions associated with livestock production.

We are also seeing emerging concern from health experts on the links between some animal based foods and cancer. Some experts have further argued that the public costs of meat consumption are significant, and have suggested policy makers should be pursuing strategies such as consumption based taxes.

“My main focus remains on the violence associated with industrial animal agriculture, and not just for animals, but for humans too”.

However, for me, my main focus remains on the violence associated with industrial animal agriculture, and not just for animals, but for humans too. For example, currently the US Government is seeking to increase line speeds in pork production, a move that will undoubtedly lead to higher rates of work related injuries for already precarious human workers in slaughterhouses. Within industrial fisheries, we find endemic forms of low paid and forced labour in wild fish capture and sea food processing. One lesson from my research is that industrialised food production within market systems has a tendency to make all labour cheap, whether this is in the form of human or non-human work.

But I do feel cautiously optimistic that change is possible. The alignment of different voices and concerns that have been raised about animal agriculture present a powerful opportunity for transformation. And I don’t think is just about what whether we personally choose to eat animal products or not. Instead, I think this reflects an opportunity for a consideration of what justice towards animals and environments might look like, and the kinds of society wide transformations that will be required to respond to the immense challenges facing all life at this present moment.

The 2020 Iain McCalman Lecture will be held on February 6, with keynote speaker Dr Dinesh Wadiwel presenting Swinging the Pendulum Towards the Politics of Production: Animal-Based Food and Environmental Justice. Dr Wadiwel will explore the impact of animal agriculture on climate, planetary health and justice, and the issues with focussing on individualised responsibility, rather than structural and institutional reform. The lecture is free to all. Registration and more information is available here.

Dinesh Wadiwel is a lecturer in human rights and socio-legal studies in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy and Director of the Master of Human Rights. Dr Wadiwel is also a research affiliate of the Sydney Environment Institute and a researcher on the SEI/FASS Multispecies Justice Initiative. He is currently writing a book exploring the relationship between animals and capitalism, building on his 2015 monograph, The War Against Animals.