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MARX FOR CATS

Are humans and felines allies in the class struggle?

  • Feb 17 2022
  • Leigh Claire La Berge
    currently a Humboldt fellow at the Free University of Berlin, is an associate professor at the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming book Marx for Cats: A Radical Bestiary (Duke University Press, 2022). Previously, she has published on the abstraction of finance in fiction (Oxford University Press, 2014), as well as on the decommodification of labour in contemporary art (Duke University Press, 2019).

In Marx for Cats I explore the often-secret history of cats, cat-lovers, and cat-haters, and what each of these groups has taught us about labor, money, and class struggle: The gambit of the book is that the history of Western capitalism can be told through the cat and that doing so reveals a heretofore unrecognized animality at the heart of Marx’s critique and that of Western Marxism more generally. That animality has most often been feline. It has been present in how Marxists have represented what constitutes the economy and imagined how the economy could be transformed from a site of exploitation into one of equality. 

From capitalism’s feudal pre-history to its contemporary moment of financialization, those seeking to maintain economic power as well as those seeking to challenge it have recruited cats into their efforts. Medieval kings and lords styled themselves as lions; dissidents from the medieval order were identified through their relationships with domestic cats, who likewise were considered dissidents.

Capitalist empire Great Britain adopted a leonine symbol while some of the most powerful worker actions against capitalism have been known as wildcat strikes. In the eighteenth century, French and Haitian revolutionaries were denigrated as tigers by conservatives who opposed them; in the twentieth century, the Black Panther Party insisted that capitalism was a fundamentally racist system and demanded its overthrow.

This feline narrative of our economic past reveals that Marxism not only has the potential to be an interspecies project but that it already is one. And in using that knowledge and those histories presented here in cat-form, Marx for Cats suggests that we may collectively plot a new future together, one which recognizes the work that cats have always done for Marxists and one which wonders: what political commitments can Marxists make to cats?

Humanity’s relationships with non-human animals is exploitative and unsustainable. Yet many inhabitants of the global north, and most Marxists, continue on as before... As if non-human animals warrant exploitation; as if industrial animal agriculture constitutes an acceptable social practice; as if Marxism need not develop to include new populations, including other species.

Unfortunately, capitalism’s tragic direction and the sense of urgency it awakens encourages us to turn away from the needs and agency of other animals, to see them as our to do with as we like. But we must reject this invitation and we must criticize it. The mass slaughter of animals for profit, in conditions that can give rise to zoonotic diseases, are clearly a threat. How many more deaths, or “animal culls” or factory farms   must we see before we can theorize and embrace a different history of animals, and thus a different future?

Marxism needs more modesty towards and equality with the many plants and animals that compose that abstraction we call “nature.” Non-human animals and Marxists need each other if each is to endure, let alone flourish, within and beyond a capitalist world. Argentine Marxist Che Guevara once made the haunting observation that: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” For too long, cats, and indeed all animals, have been excluded from the reach of that loving, revolutionary embrace.

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This text was published in the Extrablatt of ISSUE 19: ANTICRISTOS, a dialogue between AWC and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), in the frame of the exhibition Karl Marx und der Kapitalismus, opening on February 10, 2022.