The premise of making animals active participants in the market actually hits a much deeper meridian line of modernity than mere capitalism. It brings to the fore the entire project of categorizing life, human and otherwise, into binaries of “people” and “property,” a project going back to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. These two categories (and who/what falls into each one) have shaped capitalism, chattel slavery, settler colonialism, scientific racism, and the premise of nation-states as we live with them today.
There is certainly precedent for giving nonhuman life the kind of agency typically afforded to people in law. Scholars and historians often cite Christopher Stone’s 1972 paper “Should Trees Have Standing?” as the foundational text for the concept known as “the rights of nature,” which affords nonhuman life legal standing to defend its right to exist (or really, to have a human lawyer defend its right to exist). In 2008, Ecuador ratified a new constitution that included a chapter recognizing the Rights of Nature; courts in Colombia, New Zealand, and Bangladesh have granted rights to national parks, mountains, and rivers.
Of course, the origins of industrial capitalism lie in humans declaring the parameters of personhood for other humans: Enslaved people weren’t people, they were property. That capacity to claim property (and declare who is or is not property) is one measure of personhood within capitalism.
I think this piece makes a good introduction to the broad arguments that inform the “rights of nature” movement and the expanding inclusivity of legal personhood. I hope to see more legal action undertaken to protect ecologies and natural systems in the coming years.
But there‘s tension when advocating for expanding legal personhood to nonhuman life at the same moment when the established protections for women and trans people are being eroded. ”Environmental justice” is a powerful shared vision of a more equal and equitable future that protects human and nonhuman life.
Expanding parameters of legal personhood and access to market participation are more harm reduction for living under capitalism than they are building an alternative to it. To be clear, capitalism has a lot of harms and reducing them is good, but these approaches can easily be subsumed into maintaining existing structures.
Even taken as good-faith harm reduction, something is lost when the pursuit of otherness-in-connection gets flattened into transactional, financialized charity.