- Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America by J. L. Anderson, and: Communist Pigs: An Animal History of East Germany’s Rise and Fall by Thomas Fleischman
In recent years, industrial hog farms have made the news for a variety of bad reasons, including foul odors, groundwater pollution, and deadly spills from manure lagoons. In early 2020, a series of deadly COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants reminded Americans of the terrible working conditions and low wages at these industrial facilities. Fortuitously, two able historians—J. L. Anderson and Thomas Fleischman—have taken up the task of explaining how we came to this moment. Part of a growing literature on human-animal relationships, their books describe how a market system dedicated to production and profit led to industrial consolidation, animal confinement, factory farms awash in antibiotics, and landscapes overwhelmed by waste. Given the Midwest’s important role in the history of pigs and pork packing, these hog histories will be of interest to Ohio Valley History readers.
Anderson’s Capitalist Pigs tells the long story of swine in North America, from colonial settlement to factory farm. Anderson takes an encyclopedic approach, giving attention to [End Page 102] all the essential topics. The book includes thematically arranged, detailed chapters on, among other things, urban pork production, swine disease, and changing consumer meat preferences. Anderson is an agricultural historian, and so we learn how centuries of innovation altered pig farming, from a casual practice in which hogs were largely left to fend for themselves in forests and fields, and then gathered for slaughter, to the now common practice of lifelong confinement in large industrial sheds. Given its chronological and topical breadth, Anderson’s narrative supports no grand thesis, other than the undeniable claim that pigs have been important in American history, from the colonial era, when hogs were a critical component of the imperial conquest of North America, to the present, when a handful of large corporations wield considerable power over the marketplace and public policy. Capitalist Pigs is not nearly as critical of all this change as the title suggests, but Anderson makes clear that the creative force of capitalism and the achievement of remarkable efficiencies also “contained the seeds of failure” (5).
Capitalist Pigs derives from a career’s worth of research. Anderson uses a wide range of sources, seemingly everything that references pigs, with a liberal use of agricultural trade journals. West Virginia University Press has produced a well-illustrated book, with images ranging from a lovely pork meatloaf wrapped in bacon to the castration of a piglet.
Anderson is especially interested in the mid-1800s, and thus slavery and the Civil War. Not surprisingly, the Ohio Valley and Cincinnati’s role as Porkopolis gain considerable attention. Anderson describes regional hog drives, which lasted up to twenty days, moving pigs from Indiana to Cincinnati, where the quest for efficiency drove the development of the disassembly line. Cincinnati’s central place in the industry was fleeting, and throughout the book Anderson emphases the dispersed nature of hog farming, with production nearly everywhere in the country, facilitated by the adaptability of pigs and the importance of pork to American diets. Usually second to beef, in quantity and preference, pork was the working-class and working-poor meat, essential to the diets of enslaved people and to African American food-ways. As some Americans turned to healthier diets in the late twentieth century, the industry created “the Other White Meat,” a campaign that attempted to position pork as a healthier alternative to beef. Later, a niche market in high-end charcuterie improved pork’s culinary reputation, but pork fell behind both chicken and beef in American sales despite these marketing changes. Still, with a sizeable export market, especially to China, the twenty-first century pork industry suffers more from giantism than decline.
Although seemingly far afield...