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BOOKS An exercise in needless cruelty

STEVEN ANDREW recommends a thought-provoking critique of our reliance on animal agriculture

Cruel
by Sue Coe
(O/R Books, £31)

DISTURBING, yet in many ways appropriately horrific, Sue Coe’s latest book is a series of short essays and graphic artwork which forcefully argue that needless cruelty lies at the heart of the meat and dairy industry.

Not only is it intrinsically abusive, it also has devastating effects on human health and the global ecology.

An unashamedly propagandistic work, it’s sustained, well-argued and provocative with Coe’s stark and relentless painting, owing much to the style of Chaim Soutine, Kathe Kollwitz and Francisco de Goya, pulling no punches.

Politically, Coe is no sentimental romantic and her earlier works have covered areas such as apartheid, trade unionism and the struggle for prisoners’ rights. Coe grew up near a slaughterhouse and has been a vegan since the early 1970s, long before it became fashionably hipster to do so and it’s something of a surprise that this book has been so long in coming.

Coe emphasises the commodifying role of capitalism and it’s certainly true that the profit system has played a key role in the  emergence of the contemporary horrors of factory farming on a mass industrial scale.

But it would surely be wrong to portray it as a capitalist  enterprise per se, since it significantly predates the emergence of  a  market-based economy and Coe’s argument that there is a key and ever-evolving relationship between animal farming and human oppression needs to be presented much more substantively.

Coe has little time for free range, welfare-guaranteed and “sustainably produced” meat and dairy produce, viewing it as bad if not actually worse than is claimed. For her, bigger and longer chains of food production are effectively just a way of repackaging slavery.

Her solution — nothing less that the adoption of a vegan diet as soon as is possible and the subsequent end to all forms of animal farming — is a difficult issue for many on  the left.

Many Marxists, questioning the whole notion of animal rights and viewing it at best as an irrelevant distraction, struggle to recognise it as a form of exploitation comparable to class-based forms. Critics have also been often keen to depict the movement as a largely irrelevant lifestyle fad, appealing only to the better-off.

Yet those more sympathetic have pointed towards to a neglected  and hidden tradition within socialism that was willing to take on board such arguments.

Pointing towards the centrality of “shared sentience,” they have  made parallels with how earlier movements around racism and the fight for women’s liberation were likewise mocked by the so-called revolutionary left, with legendary US communist and vegan advocate Angela Davis very much being an influential figure in this respect.

Many find it hard to see why compassion should be defined as somehow counter-revolutionary, even more so when those who would intervene to stop a dog being kicked do not appear to have the same reaction to the debeaking and the gassing of chicks, the terror of a playful and sociable pig as it enters the slaughterhouse, or the painful cries of mother and baby cows as they are forcibly separated.   

This  emotionally charged and haunting book is not an easy read by any means. But as Coe would surely argue, why on Earth should it be ?

Highly recommended.

Available in Britain from late May.

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