BOOK REVIEW: Facist Pigs

By on October 20th, 2017 in Book Reviews, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism.
By Tiago Saraiva. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2016.


It’s an exciting time to write about authoritarianism, populism, and nationalism. The Brexit referendum fell in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union; Marine Le Pen made gains in the 2015 regional elections; and of course the United States recently elected Donald Trump to the office of President. In today’s world of climate denial and vaccine skepticism, one would be forgiven for assuming that an anti-intellectual, anti-expertise, anti-truth wave is sweeping the globe, and that the rise of the far right necessarily spells an end for science-informed policy.

Tiago Saraiva’s Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism however, shows that this assumption is — for better or worse — misplaced. Saraiva argues that agricultural science came to promote and embody fascist ideals in Portugal, Italy, and Germany in the early twentieth century. As a tool for engineering livestock and crops that would sustain and secure these aspiring empires, Saraiva demonstrates how the organisms produced by scientists served to shape the narratives and politics of these regimes.


Fascist Pigs begins with an introduction to the central premise of the book, which Saraiva attributes to Canguilhem and Foucault: that bio-politics, the management and control of life, were central to fascism. He then expands this account to encompass how new “techno-scientific organisms,” such as purpose-bred crops and animals, themselves interacted to promote and produce fascism. While biopolitics has understandably focused on human biopolitics in action under fascist rule, most infamously the Nazi’s experiment in human eugenics, Saraiva develops an inquiry into the way that plants and animals informed and reinforced social change.

The book is laid out in two primary sections. Section one, “Nation,” describes the national programs for wheat in Mussolini’s Italy and Salazar’s Portugal, and potatoes and the eponymous “fascist pigs” in the German Reich. The first chapter interrogates the “Battle of Wheat” in Italy, an attempt to render the country secure by eliminating the need to import wheat from other nations. Saraiva details how the breeding of wheat strains, the construction of national laboratories, and the dissemination of wheat strains to farmers coincided with the rise of fascist policies to enforce shareholder farming, the violent destruction of unions, and the control of commodities as a means to cement fascism’s hold on the nation.

Chapter 2 is perhaps the most novel in terms of its contribution to thinking about fascism and technoscience. In treating Portugal’s own battle for wheat in parallel to the Italian experience, Saraiva draws out the history of the Salazar regime, arguably eclipsed by the German regime that, for understandable reasons, dominates public discourse on fascism. Saraiva details how the interaction between the Italian and Portuguese regimes involved the transfer of the Italian “elite races” of wheat (p. 54), particularly the Ardito strain that was proliferated across the Italian countryside.

As geneticists in Portugal wrestled with the challenge of modifying the strain for use in the different soil and climate of Portugal, Saraiva chronicles how the centralization of agriculture through genetics enabled the larger corporatist ambitions of the Salazar regime. These ambitions included, but were not limited to, centralizing seed distribution, destroying small landholdings in favor of large estates, and building the corporatist welfare state. The argument Saraiva puts forward is that Portuguese genetics was not simply an artifact of this development, but a causal contributor. The scientific challenges of building the perfect seed were informed by the Salazar regime’s ideal of the agricultural estate, and what resulted were seeds designed specifically for those estates. Along the way, dissent and unrest was quelled by building “Houses of the People” that combined health and social services, but were ultimately overseen by the institutions that ensured large landholder power, and distributed seed for agriculture. In this way, the scientific activities interacted strongly with the larger political context, producing and securing a fascist regime through the use of technoscience.

Chapters 3 and 4 offer a novel depiction of the Nazi state’s preoccupation with genetic purity, through the lens of potatoes and pigs. Saraiva notes that the infamous “Blut und Boden” (“Blood and Soil”) of the Nazi regime that celebrated German heredity and relation to their territory was intimately linked to the literal and metaphorical products of the soil, namely potatoes and pigs. Potatoes held similar attraction to Germany as wheat to Italy and Portugal — as a means of food security, held to be a deciding factor in German losses in World War One. Stable potato supplies also promised a plentiful resource for growing the key source of German protein, pigs. Throughout the technological innovation that allowed for the development of these agricultural products was also used to justify the expansion of the Nazi state.

The second section, “Empire,” focuses on the relationship between fascist techno-science and the imperial ambitions of each regime. In Chapter 5, Saraiva uses the growth of coffee, rubber, and cotton crops in the colonies of Italy, Germany, and Portugal respectively. By “colony” in Germany’s case, Saraiva presents an engaging reinterpretation of the occupied territories on the Eastern front through the lens of colonial theory. In each case, the picture sketched is that of the molding of crops and places in the image of the empire, a process Saraiva describes “the most brutal face” of the fascist regimes.

Chapter 6 concludes the body of the book with a focus on the breeding of Karakul sheep by each regime. The focus on Karakul sheep, a source of valuable furs prized by the regime’s elites, is a unifying element for the three nations and their ambitions. Importantly, Saraiva characterizes the dual nature of the Karakul as animal model and industrial organism. The Karakul’s reproduction was industrialized to increase profits from its production, but in doing so it served as a scientific model organism for better understanding heredity and breeding in other animals. This dual nature, Saraiva argues, cemented the relationship between the science and the state.

Broader Contexts, Darker Lessons

Fascist Pigs provides an engaging look into the development of fascist science from a novel perspective — that of agriculture. Readers may already be familiar with, for example, the relationships between modern physics and the Nazis, or between Nazi medicine and their eugenics programs. They will nonetheless benefit from the fresh insight of Saraiva’s account, which importantly provides a two-way connection between techno-scientific advances and their embeddedness in broader political contexts.

It is this broader context that is perhaps most striking. Despite current strains of nationalism emerging in liberal democracies, Saraiva’s interpretation of fascist techno-science paints a much broader context for the interaction between scientific inquiry and political change. Throughout, I was struck by way that concepts such as food security and resource independence motivated techno-scientific mobilization, which in turned informed those securitized policies. Savaira’s account of the “Battle of Wheat,” for example, holds a dark mirror to the “wars” on drugs, HIV/AIDS, or terror that have dotted the post-war liberal west. While modern narratives may place less emphasis on nationalist myths than in fascist regimes, they are all framed in terms of utilizing techno-scientific innovations as a means to solve complex social and political problems.

It is, moreover, the synthesis of nationalist priorities with scientific advances described in Saraiva’s work that informs and sustains the fascist worldview. Saraiva notes that the Reich Food Estate (RNS) was “designed to relieve the farmer of the uncertainties of a capitalist market economy so he could serve his nation better both as food producer and culture bearer.” The central problem here was uncertainty in food production produced by market economies utilizing allegedly inferior crops. The use of techno-science to create “pure” German lines of crops that were linked to German soil, promulgated by the Reich, would guarantee German security while also promoting the worldview of the German people’s prior connection to their land.

These ideas were not coupled together in the United States, to call on just one example, as they were in Germany. Rather they are two interrelated strands of the modern American experience. The farmer as culture bearer, on the one hand, develops and promotes the myth of the “true” American that has been politicized in recent years as the alleged ultimate victim of neoliberal and globalizing policies enacted by political elites. At the same time, American academia and capital have championed the idea of techno-scientific organisms in the form of genetically modified (GM) crops as integral to food security strategies, and securing farmers economically through higher crop yields.

Concerns persist, however, over market capture by existing firms promoting the use of GM crops. This could exacerbate, rather than reduce global economic stratification within and beyond the agricultural sector. In this way, existing techno-scientific solutions to pressing social issues bootstrap onto existing political institutions — solving problems, but only within the confines of an existing ideology.

This is not to say that the presence of these two themes in the liberal democratic American system of the twenty-first century is itself evidence of emerging fascism. Rather, Saraiva illuminates the way that scientists and their findings serve to promote institutional ends, and in turn are shaped by those ends, using three fascist regimes as case studies in this effect. Saraiva’s account details how institutional ends and scientific processes can be symbiotic, and how science can serve the oppressor.

One of the striking absences in Fascist Pigs that would secure this kind of account is the variance of the scientific institutional response to fascist regimes. Most if not all of the scientists Saraiva mentions were clearly complicit in the regime in some way, but this complicity is not all of a kind. In Chapter 4, for example, head of Race and Settlement Office Richard Darré was not only complicit in the promotion of pigs as techno-scientific organisms in the Reich, but was an active part of their policies geared towards German ethnic purity. The Italian scientists that participated in the “Battle of the Wheat,” aimed at ensuring independence from foreign imports of the crop on the other hand, seem more opportunistic than “true believers.” At one point, Saraiva describes the censure of Aurélio Quintanilha by the Salazar regime, and his later return to the regime through its colonial cotton projects, but this is a rare illustration of scientific persecution in the book.

This is a significant gap that I hope, in future works, Saraiva resolves. One of the contemporary founding myths of modern science is that unrestricted research promotes (appropriate) human values, while central control of science not only — to paraphrase Ken Adler, whose review of Fascist Pigs lines its dust jackets — deforms scientific know-how, but fails to promote values. This myth is built from, inter alia, German eugenics, a combination of “bad science and bad policy,” and the terror brought about by Trofim Lysenko in Soviet biology. Saraiva’s work demonstrates, rather, how otherwise promising techno-science served fascist regimes in both domestic and international oppression. While we know that nuclear physics’ nationalization in the Cold War superpowers, and biology’s in the clandestine Soviet bioweapons program of the twentieth century, can see good science put to problematic purpose, Fascist Pigs offers an altogether more subtle reading of the relationship between techno’science and oppression.

Fascist Pigs offers more questions of science and politics than it answers, but in a style reminiscent of the opening book of a saga. This is an accessible and important book that I would recommend for students of science, technology, and society as well as political science, and to philosophers of science and historians.


Philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Massachusetts
Nicholas G. Evans is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.