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The Price of Meat

America’s obsession with beef was born of conquest and exploitation.

Illustration by Joel Kimmel

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats launched the Green New Deal in February, its enemies had a cow. The policies proposed would not just regulate beef production, Donald Trump complained in one of his barely coherent tweets, but would “permanently eliminate” the animals themselves. “They want to take away your hamburgers,” far-right buffoon Sebastian Gorka told the Conservative Political Action Conference. “This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”

by Joshua Specht

Princeton University Press, 368 pp., $27.95

Of course, none of that was quite true. There was no talk of banning beef. But the aim of reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions would entail rethinking food production to some extent: Agriculture is responsible for roughly one-tenth of America’s emissions. More important, the estimated 95 million cattle in the United States burp methane into the atmosphere, a gas that has a more intense warming effect than carbon dioxide. Scaling back the amount of beef Americans consume would be an obvious solution, as AOC suggested when she remarked that “maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Her opponents’ insistence on equating red meat with freedom and American identity, however, shows how difficult it would be to implement even the slightest reforms to the institutions that make beef so abundant.

As Joshua Specht shows in Red Meat Republic, the wide availability of beef has long been deeply entwined with the expansion of American commerce and power. As cattle ranching and meat-packing transformed the economy in the late nineteenth century, the United States acquired new territories, the apparatus of the state grew, and Americans came to expect cheap and plentiful meat. Our desire for hamburgers is inseparable from the economic system we have set up. It follows that only a broader challenge to the system could alter our patterns of consumption, even if your main beef with those patterns is concerns with how cows are treated or what humans ought to eat. 

Understanding the structures and practices that promote beef in this country requires an uncommonly wide vision. In Red Meat Republic, Specht has brought to the story of American beef the kind of attention to commodity chains that is becoming increasingly fashionable in history, and for good reason. The most seemingly individual and intimate choice to consume something presupposes a far-flung story of the factors that produced it and the labor that went into it. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, which told of how the American South’s most famous product made and remade global capitalism, is probably the best known; after in-depth studies of bananas, chocolate, cocaine, guano, sugar, and ostrich plumes, there is even a whole web site on “commodity histories.” Explaining how Americans came to eat so much beef and to pay so little for it turns out to be an especially gargantuan enterprise, which Specht pulls off with aplomb, in accessible and sprightly prose.

Red Meat Republic begins with the history of ranching in the American West, where eventually massive throngs, sometimes numbering 100,000 steer, were to be herded across the plains. Those lands were not empty when the ranchers arrived. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, hordes of white settlers poured into the Great Plains, carrying out the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, restricting them to reservations, and appropriating their lands. At the same time as hunters cleared the land of bison, ranchers repopulated it with cattle. Comanche and Kiowa had reserved the right to travel far and wide in pursuit of buffalo. But when they attacked hunters, as they did in the Red River War of 1874–1875, the U.S. military responded in kind, laying the foundation for an economy of new humans and new nonhumans. Dispossession and violence were essential to the rise of beef.

Ranching established an enduring American myth about the West and beef, as if the connection between the two was age-old, “noncapitalist or even premodern,” and based on hardy and manly freedom rather than on market forces. In fact, for all the ranchers’ symbolic power, they were upstarts on the make, and it was as they lost their own bid for control that an economy built by victorious Chicago slaughterers emerged. Corporate ranchers had made a serious attempt to establish their own market hegemony, but fell prey to a series of blizzards in the 1880s and to the new difficulties of management that grazing herds over vast expanses involved. At the end of the process, small ranches could survive, but only within the economic orbit of the more powerful slaughterhouses, which dictated the rules governing the commodity chain, and reduced cowboys to laborers in “an integrated national system.” Ranch hands worked long hours for low wages, sang of their systemic oppression, and sometimes went on strike. Indeed, Specht contends that the oppression of cowboys themselves—one of whom, Bill Haywood, went on to found the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”—got lost in the shuffle of American mythology precisely because the slaughterhouses prevailed and played on the “idyllic western scenes” of a false mythology.

The great Chicago meatpacking and slaughterhouse companies like Armour & Co. were central to the development of American capitalism. Specht points out that these companies “were some of the first large, integrated corporations,” which pioneered the assembly line, and mastered complex supply chains and networks of global distribution. In Chicago, scientific management organized the steps in the dismemberment of cattle and used new modes of refrigeration to keep the meat fresh for delivery. In his sensational novel The Jungle, published in 1906, Upton Sinclair described men toiling in the vast zones of cattle death in Chicago. Without bargaining power, men in the slaughterhouse’s miasma were assigned simplified, repetitive tasks, to ensure their constant fungibility and low value, which in turn reinforced their powerlessness.

Sinclair emphasized not just the brutal overwork, but also the low standards of hygiene that inevitably resulted. He complained memorably, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Many who read the novel simply selected the cause that most benefited themselves, choosing to be most outraged by the idea that the big slaughterhouses were unsanitary. As a result, calls for government intervention focused on food safety in meat production, without interfering with low prices and rising consumption. As Specht chronicles, the expansion of the American state in these years is unthinkable without the need for muscular regulation of meat production through newly founded bureaucracies, such as the Bureau of Animal Industry and the Food and Drug Administration. Beef also conditioned the role the state played. Antitrust legislation did not break up the centralized power of meatpacking, as it did in oil and other industries. The FDA regulated for consumer welfare, but the larger systemic features of the rise of beef—for cattle, ecology, and laborers—were occluded.

In the tracks of William Cronon’s classic Nature’s Metropolis, which put Chicago at the heart of a beef empire with the West as its colonial hinterland, Specht adds a great deal of detail about the economy of the slaughterhouse. One reason for its great success was the supply of cheap labor—“In the slaughterhouse, someone was always willing to take your place,” Specht observes—and the difficulty of challenging the industry’s captains in the last gilded age when capital could rely on the government to side with it against labor. Needless to say, when workers began to organize, they were met by violent strikebreaking in response.

In the late nineteenth century, as a result of these struggles, a system locked into place that is not much different than the one that exists now. Between the 1860s and the turn of the century, a tiny number of firms came to serve a vast number of American consumers, with “democracy” increasingly defined—as with the automobile or cell phone in later decades—as a universal entitlement to eat beef, even if consumers had little other power in life. Today, the Chicago slaughterhouse is a thing of the past, but many of its features persist in the globalized trade in beef, which has reproduced them around the world. Cattle are still herded across vast stretches of land, and workers without other options (today including many migrants) are conscripted into driving them to slaughter and into operating the tools of extermination. Meantime, the U.S. government helps keep consumers healthy and happy, and looking away from mass death for cattle and coercive labor for people.

About a year ago, I stopped eating land animals, after reading ethnographer Timothy Pachirat’s account of conditions inside a mass production slaughterhouse operating in the Midwest, where a cow dies every twelve seconds. By contrast, Specht promises a “hoof-to-table” history of how beef changed America, leaving the lives and deaths of the cows themselves at the periphery of his book. He offers a glimpse of them now and then as he follows the commodity chain, including a lively account of the way cattlemen figured out how to make the animals walk in the right direction. But Specht’s focus is unerringly on people. For him, the most egregious aspect of the system is the way that humans in it are treated, and he is most interested in the struggles humans have with one another over how to organize themselves—especially their economic systems.

Specht’s profoundest contention for readers today is that a consumer-oriented activism, playing on concerns for animals (or even the health of our own bodies), is bound to fail. The revolutionary transformation in the American diet occurred because the availability of cheap beef so powerfully impelled it. For this reason, Specht suspects, “Questions about how to reform food production—or even whether it needs reform—must start from questions of political economy.” Whatever the entitlements of nonhuman animals, it is ultimately the interests and needs of humans and the economy they build to serve themselves that will determine what food is eaten and where it comes from.

To that end, Specht believes that the best way to bring about change is to show how closely beef-eating is connected to the flaws of our economic system, with its catastrophic effects on all of nature and its unfairness to human beings. As a historian, Specht says little about what he considers the best set of reforms today. His point, instead, seems to be that there is no saving animals (or the planet) without shaking the foundations of the overall economy. One day, Specht is saying, protecting humans at work could place beef out of reach, and serve other reforms indirectly. In tune with Specht’s argument, groups like the think tank Food First want a “social contract for justice” that would be fair to farmers and workers, and would ensure access to healthy food for all. “Food justice” will require attention to class stratification, gender subordination, and racialized work, if activists are to build a consensus around the harmful effects of beef-eating and their distribution through society.

At the same time, however, it seems wrong to drop out the nonhuman animals themselves from our descriptions of the vast systems humans create to rule over one another, as if the one were largely incidental to the other. Strategically, broader projects of systemic change can’t afford to dispense with the variety of ethical reasons people might have to join them. Especially since challenging capitalism over the years has mostly omitted challenging food production, today’s projects of systemic reform can make use of the centuries of work activists have done spotlighting the horrors of the treatment of animals. The Green New Deal could even find a whole new set of supporters if it promises to make less red blood flow.

Breaking the power of the cattle-beef complex will be far from easy. Cheap prices for beef are so ingrained in American expectations that, even if squeamish consumers today would rather avoid the details of mass death, confronting industrial slaughter is hard to imagine. Specht even gives examples of consumers turning to violence when they have not been able to access cheap beef, telling how in May 1902 a group of women in New York stormed into the butcher shops, angry that prices were on the rise. In the course of smashing windows, they poured carbolic acid and kerosene oil on the meat before 500 policemen arrived to disperse them. Even though fishmongers appealed to consumers in a time of need, Specht writes, “red meat was king.”

The lesson from the meat riot is, Specht argues, that consumer politics will generally serve a rage for cheap prices and tasty beef, rather than a broader vision of social justice. And fair enough. But systemic change is equally elusive, and consumer politics can coexist with calls for it. Given the enduring strength of the cattle-beef complex, whose empire expands daily as economic growth in China and around the world brings about greater and greater demand, there is no alternative to a holistic response. Human reform never occurs unless it appeals and makes sense to human beings. But humans can also come to imagine their ideals and live out their interests in a less anthropocentric fashion. Indeed they must, since the democratization of beef has left our fellow creatures and our natural environment with a dark past and no future.