Image credit: “The United States is at war and the law will show no mercy to anyone who sells—or buys–black market food,” Alfred T. Palmer, photographer, 1943. / Library of Congress: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b08180
The most commonly remembered starting point for human-rat interactions in Western contexts is the fourteenth-century bubonic plague, or the Black Death, and the subsequent politics of extermination and control. For many contemporary rat-human interactions, the plague still offers a clearly narrativized guidepost: a past, in which rats were vectors of a deadly disease that killed nearly a quarter of the populations of Europe; an implied account of the present, in which modernized and scientifically knowledgeable communities have slowly pushed back against their deadly force via a technologically advancing policy of extermination; and an imagined future, in which rats are eradicated from cities and human health improves.
Rats have been associated with the plague in this way since at least the nineteenth century, when the links between rats and plague were discovered as part of the wider study of infectious diseases While most accounts of the plague at the time assumed that plague came through “miasmas,” it in fact came into Europe via “traders, rats, and fleas” along the Silk Road. As Robert Sullivan puts it, “the humans followed their long-established trading paths, the rats following their long-established habit of following humans,” carrying fleas and lice which in turn carried plague that jumped to humans. Although more recent research suggests that it may have been human fleas and body lice that were the main vector of death, rather than rat fleas, this plague association with rats remains the driver of an exterminative machine aimed at eradicating rats from cities. Cities spend tens of millions of dollars globally on rat extermination each year, comprising everything from redesigned garbage bins, to pesticides and dry ice, to public reporting of rat inspections by property—New York City put $32 million towards rat control in 2017, while Paris launched a 1.5 million euro rat control plan in 2016.
But rats as a vector of plague transmission was not discovered in Europe; rather, it was in India, where an early twentieth-century outbreak of bubonic plague killed ten million people, and another two million in China. In colonial Bombay, 200,000 rats were killed, collected, weighed, and dissected, then cataloged and studied. Curiously, the zoonotic capacity of plague to leap from rat to human was not investigated, as instead, colonial narratives of racial purity, urban cleanliness, and tropical environment filled the gap. What was called “contingent contagionism” highlighted multiple factors in causing plague, including rats alongside the “local conditions of poverty and filth.” Ironically, as Nicholas Evans notes, the very focus on the apparent agency of rats in producing plague was a way of assigning moral responsibility for the plague to the Indian population; similar cautions about the radical power of zoonosis to undermine human exceptionality and demonstrate ecological entanglement apply to contemporary COVID-19 politics, as already amply taken up in the “Asianisation” of coronavirus narratives by the nativist right, paired with the apparent origins of COVID-19 in forest habitat destruction.
The twentieth-century politics of urban rat extermination were not limited to killing rats, though. It also brought with it a wider knowledge apparatus and new forms of political control. In other words, rats do not only fill niches in an ecological sense, but they fill socioecological niches. As Dawn Day Biehler notes in her history of rat politics in the civil rights era in New York City, “Rats filled the niche created by the forces of racism and disinvestment,” appearing where public housing authorities were unwilling or unable to commit to providing adequate infrastructure. Ecology, here, means understanding along with Black neighborhood activists that rats are “part of a web that entangled the physical environment with racial injustice, urban politics, and even federal housing policy.” Biehler details how different affected communities perceived the rats: whereas government and public authorities often responded to demands for improved conditions with strategies of pest control, activists like Jesse Gray pointed out that treating rats as pests would do nothing to address failing heating systems, leaking toilets, and crumbling walls. Meanwhile, the federal program initiated by the Johnson administration, the Urban Rat Control Program, was only able to pass Congress by being put into a health-spending bill, given opposition from those who deemed the rat problem to be a problem generated by the disorderly and unsanitary actions of local communities. It came with its own strings attached. Communities received some funding for rat control, but these “came attached with a string of discipline, blame, and demands for physical work matched by limited new investment.” Others organized grassroots, “self-help” rat extermination efforts, but inadvertently exposed local communities to heightened levels of Warfarin pesticide. Warfarin, ironically, was selected as the pesticide of choice precisely because it did not harm “non-target species.” But because rats lived in an environmental context with lots of available food in the prolific amounts of city garbage, they often ingested only moderate amounts of the pesticide, making new, more resistant populations that were ultimately harder to control via pesticide.
These dynamics persist today in cities around the world: Paris, Jakarta, Chicago, New York. In New York City, where the main modes of rat control efforts involve continued extermination efforts via poison, a “name and shame” mapping campaign for rat violations (the Rat Information Portal (RIP) mapping tool) and a widespread public awareness and accountability campaign surrounding secure trash disposal. Targeted inspections regimes are routine, with a shaming regime making failed inspections public online to hold property owners accountable, in highly detailed, building-by-building maps of inspections and their outcomes.
Yet while this plague-driven narrative and practice of rat extermination remains powerful, it has also been widely unsuccessful. Rat populations in cities around the world remain robust, and in many ways impervious to current exterminative methods of rat control, which, while killing thousands of rats, cannot eradicate them. In short, while extermination itself continues to present itself as the desired outcome in cities, the reality is that coexistence with rats is now tacitly accepted at the species level, even while death is pursued at individual and sub-population levels. This violent minimization is pursued on health and sanitation grounds, and via efforts to create rules and structures for people to self-monitor their behavior in order to produce less of the food sources that are so desirable to rats. This is an odd détente, a move from the “war on rats” that was started in NYC, 1997, by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and more recently continued and doubled down on by [recent New York City] Mayor Bill De Blasio. Governments all over the world have drawn on the war metaphor, ranging from 1950s state campaigns against rats in the Philippines that were infused with both military and technocratic dimensions, to exterminative “war on rats” efforts on islands in New Zealand, to what can more broadly be called the “global war on the rat” between 1898–1948, which formed some of the early coordinates of what Christos Lynteris calls the “epistemic emergence of zoonosis.” The question, then, is why this discourse of an “war on rats” continues to be used, in light of an apparently unavoidable coexistence at a species level, and what its political effects are.
The ubiquity of rats in the trenches of the First World War, and in military campaigns around the world before and since, is one direct ecological link between intrahuman war and rats, as is the collection of data from rats who were the only form of life able to survive the atomic explosions on Bikini Atoll. But the links are more than ecological—they are biopolitical as well, a window into the changing nature of war, as it has proceeded from armies in fields, to totalitarian campaigns of extinguishing civilian populations, to nuclear standoff with proxy wars, to contemporary biopolitical wars that are based as much on minimizing threats and reorganizing societies, as they are aimed at direct victory on a battlefield. At the same time, contemporary rat campaigns draw on and meld war with the “plague town” famously used by Foucault to posit the paradigmatic, generative site of disciplinary power. The plague town did not know that rats were a cause, or indeed, that plague was a zoonotic disease; the lockdown society, fears of contagion, and forms of social sorting (including quarantines, closures, marking), and surveillance remain today. But if this was the seventeenth-century “political dream” of the plague, it shifted by the twentieth century, where the political dream of a rat extermination that is in fact impossible to achieve is an ongoing war society.
At another level, then, the shift away from pure extermination of species, towards individual killing and regimes of monitoring and control, opens doors for racial and other forms of hierarchical politics. Hierarchy in human society can regenerate itself through a long-term “war” on rats, associated with undesirable places and lesser communities, which is constantly fought but never won. Looking at interwar South Africa, Branwyn Polykett shows how a “sanitation syndrome” served to connect white settlement with the idea of sanitary cordon. Anti-rat campaigns, she writes, were powerful instruments for allying the health of the nation with whiteness and proposing white settlement as a prophylaxis against epidemic disease. As with other cities, the “war on the rat” in South Africa generated and drew on ecologically inflected tactics and discourses of public health, with state-imposed quarantine in the areas where “settler rats” had migrated (which were also racially mixed); and ultimately, creating “fire-belts” of rodent-free zones around the cities, ensured through war-like tactics of gassing, shooting, and poisoning rats, on the one hand, and creating “hygienic” white middle-class norms of living across the country.
A shift away from extermination was long foreshadowed by those on the front lines of rat control. In 1936, the Exterminators Association of NYC changed their name to the Pest Control Association, worried that “extermination” of rats set the bar too high for what they could actually achieve. In large part, this coexistence is thus also due to what rats are able to do in cities—work their way underground, find and take part in the plentiful food sources generated by societies of massive food waste, and frequently remain away from humans.
The extermination context, in short, is a site for generating war—not geopolitical war, but war in the sense of interspecies government of life with violence as a mode of ordering conduct. Most directly, extermination applied to rats can be moved directly onto humans who are cast as rats, as genocidal politics has done. But more broadly, it also shows how an exterminative orientation can be created that propels itself forward whether or not the promised violence occurs, rendering certain forms of life politically disposable and creating opportunities for discourses of perpetual wars. Similarly, the very failures of rat extermination are themselves politically instructive, as exterminative orientations come to be partially replaced with new modes of governance, knowledge projects, and control.
This article is an excerpt from Rafi Youatt, “Interspecies politics and the global rat: Ecology, extermination, experiment,” Review of International Studies, Volume 49, Special Issue 2: Multispecies International Politics, pp. 241–257. Reproduced with permission.
The essay is part of a spring 2023 Public Seminar special issue on rats, curated by senior managing editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham.
Rafi Youatt is Associate Professor of Global Politics and at The New School. He thanks Radhika Subramaniam for conversations on all of the above.