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How to Profit from a Virus (or, The Financial Life of the Capitalist Pig)

Between 2013 and 2014, PED virus (PEDv) swept through American pig farms, killing over 10 million animals and causing a market panic that drove the prices of both physical pork and lean hog futures to all-time highs. This, however, allowed some producers to feed surviving pigs to supra-standard slaughter weights to capitalize on fear-driven price fluctuations via a unique form of biological arbitrage. Seemingly paradoxically, the most deadly virus to ever strike the American pork industry led to the most profitable year in its history. How did this happen and what does it tell us about contemporary animal agriculture?

This talk, rooted in extensive market research and ethnographic fieldwork at both farms and commodity brokerages, lays out the role and functions of finance capital in animal agriculture, examining the modern pig as a financialized commodity. First, it traces the historical relationship between agricultural capital and financial capital, and then shows the impacts of the emergence of futures markets for pork bellies, live hogs, and lean hogs on animal production, animal producers, and financial markets themselves. It then turns to the more structural role that finance plays in shaping the operation of American agriculture, casting it as both a disciplinary tool and a method for transferring power within value chains to financial actors. Throughout, it foregrounds the place and function of mass-produced animals in financial markets, drawing attention to the relationship between finance and life itself. While much work on finance focuses on understanding financial derivatives (like futures), the case of hog farming draws attention to the effects of financialization on the underlier itself (in this case a flesh-and-blood animal). Third, returning to the case of PEDv, this talk argues that, on the one hand, finance dictates the meaning and value of animal life and death, but also, on the other hand, that animal life allows financial capital to overcome its contradictions by monetizing its frictions and failures. This talk concludes with a reflection on the forms opposition to animal exploitation can take under contemporary financial capitalism.


Jan Dutkiewicz is the Connie Caplan Post-Doctoral Fellow in American Politics in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His current research focuses on the political economy of meat, including both large-scale animal agriculture and the emergent meat alternative industry. His research has been published in peer-reviewed journals including Gastronomica and Society & Animals, and he has written about the politics of food for The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Jacobin