Merck on Anderson, 'Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America'

J. L. Anderson
Ashton W. Merck

J. L. Anderson. Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019. Illustrations. xiii + 285 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-946684-72-1; $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-946684-73-8

Reviewed by Ashton W. Merck (North Carolina State University) Published on H-Labor (September, 2021) Commissioned by David Marquis (The College of William & Mary)

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American farmers rely on the “corn-hog ratio,” or the relationship between the price of corn and the price of hogs, to make decisions about livestock in a capitalist economy. Having written an entire book on the “corn” half of this ratio (Industrializing the Cornbelt: Agriculture, Technology, and Environment, 1945-1972 [2009]), J. L. Anderson logically turns his attention to the “hog” part of the equation. In Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America, Anderson offers a compelling synthesis of American history that places the humble pig at the center of the story. To accomplish this task, Anderson draws on literature from almost every relevant historical subfield—agricultural history, environmental history, food history, legal history, animal studies, the history of technology, and, of course, labor history—along with his own archival finds and primary source investigations.

It is tempting to draw comparisons between Capitalist Pigs and two other recent analyses of the political economy of pork: Tiago Saraiva’s Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism (2017) and Thomas Fleischmann’s Communist Pigs: An Animal History of East Germany's Rise and Fall (2020). But the difference between one’s first and second book is palpable in making such a comparison. The format and tone of Capitalist Pigs offers a kind of historical charcuterie board: most historians will find something tasty to chew on, regardless of their discipline or subfield. And with over fifty illustrations depicting the evolving relationship between pigs and people, in a format recalling a coffee-table book or museum exhibition catalogue, the text is inviting for non-historians as well. In the introduction, Anderson gestures to the historiographic and theoretical implications of his work, noting that “the answers to these questions are all about power” (p. 3). Yet Anderson seems reluctant to answer the “so what?” lurking behind this otherwise impressive and highly readable synthesis. As a result, the response to the question “what is the place of swine in American history?” seems to be: “Everywhere.”

What the book may lack in analytical heft, it more than makes up for in savory narrative detail—such as “the Great Hog Swindle” during the Civil War or the short-lived history of lard oil as a replacement fuel for whale oil. Capitalist Pigs employs a thematic approach, which gives the reader multiple points of entry into the text. In spite of the title, Anderson begins with an account of the place of hogs in America’s pre-capitalist days. He exposes how hogs invaded indigenous spaces, further exacerbating the violence and destruction of imperial conquest (chapters 1 and 2). Anderson describes the effort to confine and contain hogs as part of a larger pattern of enclosing the range during this period. Crucially, those efforts were often piecemeal: hogs broke through fences, they resisted the yoke and the ring, and their voracious appetite could destroy farmland if they did not obtain enough food on the open range. In one vivid anecdote, Anderson notes that hogs “consumed freshly amputated arms and legs” near field hospitals in the Civil War (p. 35).

Labor historians will probably be most drawn to chapters 3 and 5. In “Working People’s Food” (chapter 3), workers make their appearance primarily as consumers of pork, which is branded an affordable, portable protein that fuels the labor of working people in a capitalist society. “To Market, to Market” (chapter 5) vividly depicts the growth and expansion of major meatpacking centers like Cincinnati, or “Porkopolis,” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In general, however, this text pays closer attention to the labor of farmers and farming than to the workers in meatpacking and processing. Anderson is particularly interested in how pigs and their keepers moved from the urban centers to the rural periphery. In both cases, urban refuse was often repurposed as feed for the pigs, which is described in some detail in chapter 4, “Pigs and the Urban Slop Bucket.”

One of the strengths of this text is its up-to-date analysis of the shifting role of science in animal agriculture. In chapters 6-8 (“Swine Plagues,” “Making Bacon and White Meat,” and “Science and the Swineherd”), Anderson outlines a trajectory of scientific intervention in pork production, from the land-grant institutions’ responses to hog cholera, to the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs). Along the way, he explores the double-edged sword of the application of science in animal agriculture: science has enabled more production, faster growth, and, at least initially, healthier pigs. Yet, in the last several decades, the use of advanced science and technology has also created novel problems, such as antibiotic resistance and environmental pollution.

Much of the book focuses on Americans’ efforts to control or manage hogs: the use of yokes and rings to reduce rooting and destruction, early urban regulations about pigs in city streets, animal husbandry and efforts at disease control, and the use of CAFOs to raise hogs in confinement. Yet I noticed an unexpected through line in this “gehography” of power and control: the persistence of feral hogs. Feral hogs have thwarted human efforts at confinement from the colonial era into the present day. By the end of the book, I found myself wondering whether we shaped pigs to suit the needs of capitalist production or, if all along, it was the pigs that were shaping us.

Citation: Ashton W. Merck. Review of Anderson, J. L., Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America. H-Labor, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL:

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