“Marx for Cats” – Leigh Claire La Berge – Sentientism Ep:204

Find our Sentientism Conversation on the Sentientism YouTube here and on the Sentientism podcast here.

Leigh Claire La Berge is Professor in City University of New York‘s English Department. Her work focuses on aesthetics and political economy. Her first book, “Scandals and Abstraction: Financial Fiction of the Long 1980s”, tracked the convergences of finance, realism and postmodernism in literature and culture throughout the 1980s in the United States. Her second book, “Wages Against Artwork:  Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art” explored the twin rise of new forms of socially engaged art alongside what she called “decommodified labor,” or labor that is not recompensed. Along with Alison Shonkwiler, Leigh Claire is the co-editor of the collection, “Reading Capitalist Realism”. She recently published a book about animality and economy entitled “Marx for Cats: A Radical Bestiary”. She is working on a new book called “Fake Work: How I Began to Suspect that Capitalism is a Joke” about her experience with corporate labor, Y2K, and management consultants.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the most important questions: “what’s real?”, “who matters?” and “how can we make a better future?”

Sentientism answers those questions with “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the YouTube video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

00:00 Clips!

00:58 Welcome

02:32 Leigh Claire’s Intro

– “In an English department you don’t just find people who read novels or who write novels… but also who do philosophy, critical theory…”

– “Relationship between economic forms and the constitution of reality”

– “… different cultural objects… artworks or films or TV shows or novels… mediate between what we perceive as economically real and what might be economically possible” #economics

– #philosophy major, working for a management consultant in Manhattan

– Seeing the corporate world… accounting… profiteering… record-keeping “I was genuinely surprised… this cannot be the way that capitalism works… but it is!”

– Studying #politicaleconomy “manifestly politicised understanding of economic forms and economic structures”

– “Scandals and Abstraction” on financial scandals represented in film & literature

– “Wages against artwork” on art, economy and also animals (e.g. an exhibit of live birds)

– Thinking about animals’ presence in the economy

– Explaining political economy to artists “What if you were talking to cats?”

– The  Marx For Cats  video series “The cats loved it!”

– Writing “Marx for Cats” – “A history of the capitalist world system… as told through cats, with cats and for cats”

– “Cats are also amazing anti-work creatures… anti-authoritarian creatures”

– “Cats have been understood to be anti-authority for at least 1200 years”

– Royal lions, wildcat strikes, sabotabbies…

– Animals that can be companion and work animals because “capitalism… it both structures our external reality and our most intimate, internal, familial realities.”

12:03 What’s Real?

– Growing up nominally #Presbyterian with a lapsed #Catholic father

– “By the time I was 6 or 7 it was clear that church was not going to be for me”

– A very academic household. Professor parents

– Rural Virginia 100 meters from a cow pasture “Every day… I was near or in the presence of cows”

– Dogs & cats at home

– “Why are the cows in this fenced in area… and the dogs & cats live with us and our members of our family… what is the cause of this?”

– At 11 yrs old seeing a cow give birth breech to a calf with a broken leg. Both mother cow and farmer left the calf to die in the snow “I friend and I called a local radio station” then a school project to look after the calf “really changed me… I did become a #vegetarian … one of the first times that I was able to break out the comfort of my family… and ask them to join me in thinking… helped me start to individuate…”

– Reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” at 11. Watch Peter Sentientism here

– “Who forms our most intimate communities and who do we want to be in our communities… and what would species have to do with it?”

– Family’s religion “it wasn’t robust enough to reject…”

– “What my parents wanted from a church was less a sense of religious community than just community”

– Presbyterian church active in South American solidarity, anti-apartheid movements

– “The household that I grew up in… was probably defined by a genuine secular #humanism “

– Feeling a sense of loss re: transcendence/spirituality “I imagine it would be nice”

– Seeing the positives and negatives of religious community

– “I do try to live collectively and intergenerationally”

– “I really value the sense of a structured community that religion seems to provide. I don’t so much value the religious aspect of it.”

– Dialectical epistemology. The risks of a completely positional epistemology losing touch with reality?

– “Marxist understanding of forms of knowledge… They’re not random… they’re based in our material and our economic structures… develops a clearer understanding of the confines of our reality… where it comes from and what is able to be changed”

– “As unchangeable as reality may seem to be at any one moment… if one studies history one realises how much it has changed”

Frederic Jameson ~“The only unchanging aspect of human nature is the constant change”

– Philosophy major: “Without the materialist angle, without the economic angle, the conversations that you’re able to have as a philosopher did seem to me to be somewhat random and abstract… ethical examples without any real world consequence or import”

– “Things change… that can be both an emancipatory lesson and a frightening lesson… because they don’t always change for the better”

– Progress narratives vs. “history puts its worst food forward”… “that’s always a struggle… rights… it’s a struggle to get them and it’s a struggle to maintain them”

– Economic perspectives tend to be more deterministic… more of a driver e.g. “The poorer sections of the rural south (USA) are completely immersed in these different logics of animal farming…”

– Farmer: “What do I care if the calf dies… I’m raising these animals to kill them”… “These are all economic logics that were guiding us but perhaps were not evident at the time”.

29:15 What Matters?

– Marx, social struggle “to each should come a potential for self-development. That self-development can take a lot of different forms because people are radically different.”

– “Play, joy, creativity, learning, freedom from constraint…”

– “The things that seem to encumber… in terms of people… it’s primarily economic – lack of access to resources… education or housing or food”

– “Providing a space for consistent and unique self-development is crucial… it’s also crucial to me to be able to do that for animals… I don’t yet have the language, the vocabulary, the schemes that I think would enable animals to do that – although I certainly know what would enable them not to do that – for instance factory farming. That’s not a scene of self-development”

– Different scales of thinking: planetary, community, household questions?

– Freedom and autonomy as enablers for flourishing and self-development rather than as ends in themselves?

33:57 Who Matters?

– “I sort of imagine a community”

– Going vegan in 2017 after “a dream in which my recently deceased cat came to me… interrogating me… ‘how is it you have this meaningful relationship with me but not with all these other animals’”

– “It enabled me to see other animals… I want to see these animals as part of my community… a scene of reciprocal potential for self-development”

– “It’s not religious… but there was a sense of a common spirituality which I had actually never experienced before in my few years at church…”

– “We could have an inter-species community… we already do… but certain of our species are not acknowledged”

– Everyone cares about whales (where we’re not involved directly in harming them) “but what do we sense and feel about the animals who are actually in our daily lives… in a park… subway station… in a pet store… on a grocery shelf? How can we expand our sense of community… to include other species?”

– “The process of doing so for me has been an amazing creative and intellectual journey… it’s been very motivating”

– “It’s very easy to be appalled… outraged… disgusted even… but what kind of community do we live in that would have an allowance for relation to different animals that would be on the register of disgust?”

– “Everyone agrees – no one should suffer… find me the person who says ‘I want to see animals suffer’… but what is the community that would allow for more of us to realise that?… a very difficult question.”

– “They say ‘of course it’s horrible… I want nothing to do with it… Now I am going to eat a chicken sandwich… that’s not a political position it’s just something I just happen to be doing’”

– The challenge: “Find an effective and open space… to allow for more people to develop a concern that becomes a practice… not just a reflex of disgust or sympathy”

– JW: The ancient, even pre-human roots of compassion and sentiocentric compassion / moral consideration

– “Marx for Cats – it tries to collect a series of forgotten stories and forgotten histories in which… for better and worse… these social and political and economic alliances have been formed or have been attempted… between human and non-human actors”

– “One would hope that in a political space that what brings people together is a longing for forms of freedom and self-development… there would be more of an opening towards including other species”

– Being asked about Marx for Cats “is this a joke?”… “In a way it is a joke”

– “The joke is… 95… maybe 99… a high percentage of Marxists… if you said ‘we should include… non-human animals in the political pantheon of those who are entitled to freedom…’ they would laugh… they would say that’s a joke”

– “You think it’s a joke? I’ll make it a joke. You can tell a 1200 year history of domestic and wild felines as political actors… one of the fundamentals of human reality has been the presence of non-human animals and the way that we imagine and intercept them and deal with them as members of our community”

– The middle-ages “animals were absolutely considered economic and political actors… the consequence was far from good for them… a pig… put on trial for infanticide… a dog who stole some meat put on trial and hung… a rat who broke into a grain depot… put on trial… they really were considered juridical subjects… taken seriously as actors”

– Mid-18th Century “animals have been desacralised” by democratic capitalism in favour of “pets”/working animals/animals as commodities distinctions

– “The vestiges of radical animal otherness have been disappeared. Part of what the book wants to do is to resuscitate the possibility of a radical animal otherness as a kind of agency”

– We don’t know what that would look like “but it would not look like factory farms… it would not look like pet ownership”

– “One of the incredible things about studying history is you get to appreciate how much change is possible” (e.g. how modern pets are almost treated as children)

– “What will the presence of animals look like in another 200 years… I don’t think we can imagine what it could be”

– Marx for Cats: “Showing just how much relationality with animals has been possible and is possible and has been forcibly excluded from different leftist political archives”

Rosa Luxemburg “had an absolutely intimate and comradely relationship with her cat Mimi… She was horribly criticised by her comrades… ‘how could you give meat to these cats when so many humans are so hungry.”

– The IWW labour union, the Chicago stockyards and Upton Sinclair “I refuse to consider that chickens and pigs are my brothers” (in the sense of socialism)

– “Many of the socialists and the radicals who organised with the IWW in the stockyards did start to see that there is a connection between the brute force with which we as workers treat these animals and the brute force with which the owners of these factories treat us… we are all in a gruesome scene”

– “There has for centuries been… a liberatory current that moves between humans’ political freedom and the desire for animal political freedom… that has, it’s true, been ignored, been exiled, been quashed… it keeps coming back. There is an absolute genealogy.”

– “There’s always been a conversation about it… the French revolution, the Haitian revolution, the queer and communist revolutions… the spectre of animal liberation has been a consistent interlocutor in this sense of becoming”

58:11 A Better World?

– “It’s a hard question to answer individually especially for somebody interested in traditions that privilege collectivity and collective actions – I would say those should include animals”

– “In the spirit of a discrete podcast answer… 2 suggestions: 1) The end of factory farming and 2) The end of pet ownership… let’s just start with those – easy to accomplish… Let’s just see what our imaginations and relations with animals… would look like if those two contemporary strictures… were to disappear… how might we start again anew?”

– “I don’t think anybody will say ‘we need to keep factory farming’… but people will get very upset about pet ownership… but to me these are two sides of the same coin.”

– “The book is in part dedicated to my cat, his name was The Mitten, he passed in 2016… a dream where he invites me to think about his life and the life of other animals… an intellectual turning point”

– Doing in-depth research: “You surprise yourself and you change your own mind… if someone had told me… ‘by the end of this you will have no desire to own a cat ever again’ I don’t think I would have believed you.”

– “People do genuinely love and care for their companion animals… but it’s the wrong relationship to animals… the overly sentimental attachment to the particular”

– “Marx himself was against anti-vivisection societies… anti-cruelty societies… he thought ‘this is just another case of bourgeois moralism… I’ll take care of my own cat… what do I care if the world is overrun with feral cats?… I’ll take care of this one poor street urchin… what do I care if my factory is filled with poor street urchins… it’s a privileging of the individual over the structure that produces that instance of individualism”

– “Even my own family… they genuinely love their animals but they also genuinely love to eat other animals.”

– “I’ve actually come to think that ‘pet’ ownership or ‘pet’ relationality actually inhibits an ability to form other types of relationships to animals with whom we don’t live in proximity… that are not ours”

– “I love animals, I love being in community with them… I can imagine a cat, a dog… making a decision to join certain human households… but I really do think that the pet ownership construct and the pet ownership industry… it really is part and parcel of industrial animal agriculture”

– Having our hypocrisy pointed out (e.g. dog companions vs. pigs in farms) “I don’t think that’s enough… I don’t know what is enough…”

Troy Vettese Sentientism episode on Half Earth Socialism

– JW: “By creating the companion animal category it enables people to still say ‘I care about animals’”…LC: “Absolutely… and they do!”

John Sanbonmatsu on Sentientism

– Human aesthetics and randomness “The taste for animal fat and animal muscle… dairy and eggs and meat… is random… there’s nothing essential about it… if it all disappeared and we had all plant-based food products… we would have just as many and just as enjoyable and just as intense tastes”

– Many examples of radical overturnings “I feel very optimistic about it… excited about it”

– “So much of the really creative work that’s being done… is in the realm of animal studies”

– Living in Berlin: “Germany… there’s a land of pork and butter… [but] Berlin now is one of the vegan capitals of the world… if Germany can change… so many people can.”

01:13:22 Follow Leigh Claire

@marxforcats on Twitter
@marxforcats on Instagram
Marx for Cats book

Leigh Claire at CUNY

Marx for Cats video series

– Watch out for forthcoming book “Fake Work”

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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