PKN Orlen is the player on the Polish oil refinery and petroleum retail markets. Its operations extend to the neighboring countries, including Germany, Czech Republic, and the Baltic States. Orlen has been noted among the world’s 50 largest oil companies by publications like Fortune 500. The recent introduction of in-house coffee and fast food to its gas stations has been like putting a cherry on top of a nationwide hegemony plugged into the global oil empire.
Enter Otwarte Klatki (“Open Cages”), a Polish animal protection organization founded in 2012. I’ve been rather optimistic about them before, on account of their early and much needed work in documenting exploitation on so-called fur farms around the country.
But my previous support for Otwarte Klatki itches for hard qualification with the campaign they have embarked upon, a campaign that would have their paths cross with Orlen’s. I have kept my reservations to myself before. But when warning signs loom and eyebrows cannot but be raised, one better voice one’s concerns in the open.
On Otwarte Klatki’s estimation, the next step on the way to a fairer world is through advocacy at Orlen’s doorstep. You may wonder what it is that an oppositional organization would demand here. Is it elimination of animal flesh and other animal products from their menus? Is it abolition of a business enormously detrimental to ecological sanity? Is it the toppling of the whole industrial complex in which animal exploitation intersects with myriad other socioecological pathologies? These problems are now something we must deal with.
No. Taking cue from who-knows-what neo-reformist, PETAesque sharade, Otwarte Klatki are jumping on a lowest-common-denominator tactic to both promote themselves and inadvertently further commodification of food, support a huge oil business in Poland, and make a nod to junk food-loving monads locked in metal boxes, a.k.a. drivers. Otwarte Klatki are encouraging the introduction of plant-based hot dogs at Orlen’s gas stations around the country. This being part of their “restaurant campaign,” a petition promptly followed:
Dear PKN Orlen Board,
Among the many trends in the food industry, one especially distinguishes itself—ever more people choose plant-based meals.
This way of eating gains popularity across age barriers. There are many reasons for this: from health concerns through empathy for the animals to wanting to lead an ecologically-sound lifestyle.
We encourage you to introduce healthier, plant-based hot dogs to your Stop Cafe menu at Orlen gas stations. This decision will increase your customer base and will help protect animals and the environment. (Otwarte Klatki, emphasis added)
Baby steps? Perhaps. But the bigger picture of the interlocking crises we’re facing has not only vanished, the petition actually falsifies it: the authors suggest that leading an ecologically-sound lifestyle and protecting other animals is compatible with the existence of hot dogs and highways and gas stations all around us, and of capitalism to frame it all.
Some of my animalist compatriots advise the industry instead of putting pressure on its oppressive conditions. Doing business a favor, they connect it to new customers and help give it a good name. The fundamentally rotten relations in which other animals are caught in our societies, much less the need to abolish them, are nowhere indicated. Instead, the focus is on “making a better Orlen,” as Otwarte Klatki have put it.
Something’s very wrong with this situation, set as it is against a background of marketization of activism. The tendency to adapt activism to market logics is nothing new, and certainly not a Polish invention. It’s doing here what it did in the US and Western Europe before: it tames people’s concern instead of rousing it; it pacifies instead of fomenting discontent. Under the weight of Otwarte Klatki’s tactical choices, not only does an intersectional politics become impossible; any kind of participatory politics is rendered unlikely as well.
But how else could you be doing things, anyway?
Off the top of a long list, we have the likes of DxE openly contesting “meat”-peddling establishments like Chipotle and flagship US fast food chains. We have activists in China and elsewhere intercepting transports of animals sent to slaughter. In Israel and other places, 269Life are coming out with increasingly bold, uncompromising, iconoclastic actions. Not without their own problems, all of them speak truth to power.
Against this backdrop, the timidity with which Otwarte Klatki approach things in this case is inexcusable. Plurality of tactics is both welcome and necessary, but some of them are downright reactionary and ought to be abandoned without regret.
Otwarte Klatki’s recent actions comprise a brand of neo-reformism within the animal protection movement. I’ve described neo-reformism elsewhere as a mix of surface radicalism and practical collusion with industry (Forkasiewicz 2014), but with repeated attacks on the neo-reformist approach, various arguments have been raised to defend it, and some of them warrant mention here.
One argument goes that bolder activism alienates the public and so is counterproductive. Now if we were taking part in a popularity contest on a par with establishmentarian elections, and nothing controversial was to publicly be argued at all, maybe that would be a different ballgame. Meanwhile, our popularity, if you want to call it that, requires mediation through dissent. We are here precisely to awaken an already-alienated public so that it ceases to be a crowd of bystanders. To that end a certain dose of communicative straightforwardness is a must.
In neo-reformism, the broader spectrum of social and material forces operating on the narrow field of pragmatic calculation is excluded from the get-go, oftentimes to make the chosen tactic look good. Hence there’s no critical mention of capitalism or even the oil industry in the petition, written as it must have been for both Orlen’s Board and potential signatories. Lowering the standard to whatever gets us and the cause at hand any attention certainly helps to make such narrowing of perspective plausible. A careful look at this might reveal the limitations of petitioning as a form of real dissent. For it would make no sense to indict capitalism through a petition.
But the broader consequences of our actions don’t disappear for not having been tabulated in a campaign planner’s sheet. They are hard to evaluate, and yet, like summer drizzle in which we get soaked little by little, after a while they become evident. By then they will have joined the odds we have to face in our next campaign, for we have made it seem like they’re benign or non-existent. Our ill-advised actions will have turned against us.
The division into specialized advocacy organizations and a hypnotized, pampered audience is conducive to social decay. Society is sedated with “Passive monitoring of electronic news and information [that] allows citizens to feel involved while dampening the desire to take an active part” (Winner 1986, 111). Otwarte Klatki’s neo-reformism feeds into this process by failing to go beyond its bounds. Making symbolic choices from a distance becomes the social norm as the decline of bold activism, including bold critique, corrodes the tissue of public life.
It might not know it, misled by the look of ski masks and such, but the public has no reason to fear the ALF or 269Life. It never did. The industries, on the other hand, know well enough to fear direct action tactics and activists ready to roll up their sleeves, whether this fear be fact-based or not. The reason why bolder tactics are demonized so feverishly is because they have at least the chance to open a space of contestation that exploitative industries must close down immediately in order to run smoothly. They can’t let their rationale be questioned openly in society. Direct action tactics and abolitionist activism put pressure on power, and power does not stand idly by in face of even gestures of the sort.
If real opposition dissolved altogether, the industry would have nothing to fear. To bring about this prospect, industry reps welcome an activist alternative that remains palatable to the status quo: they seek out a tameable element within the opposition, someone they can work with (LaVeck 2006). They are looking for a pet, and they usually find one.
Geared to market signals despite knowing better, Otwarte Klatki are on the way to filling another page in the history of failed activism. They are fostering a clientelist, hierarchical relation between themselves, an audience entrenched by commodity culture, and a bottom line-driven business.
Instead of condemning hot dogs as junk food and a way of concealing animal misery in suspiciously phallic form, they sign up for the fast food game. Instead of deploring Orlen and other petro-conglomerates for helping subordinate the land to car culture, they want to help them improve. What we need is not a better Orlen, but a better Otwarte Klatki.
We cannot engage in idle theorizing at a time like this, it will be said. We must deal with what’s in front of us in a struggle that won’t wait for us to join in. But many have already taken up the challenge, looking for ways to avoid myopic tactics whose outcome would come back to haunt the animals caught up in the system, with or without soy hot dogs at a nearby gas station, in a world yet more commodified and bleeding from untended wounds.
Nietzsche remarked that “Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth, because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” The energy that goes into maintaining our innumerable illusions is enormous. In themselves, illusions may even be a condition of survival, as per Nietzsche.
But we are facing a state of affairs where some of people’s illusions are being exploited to make life hell for scores of animal others, and we have grown all too comfortable with letting them off the hook for it. The illusions of human species supremacy, of the indifference of other animals to freedom in life, and the countless other excuses we have for domesticating, exploiting, and killing them—these must be combated so as to illuminate the misery beneath.
We can’t forget that this is a battle for souls, so to speak, not consumer votes. If you solicit consumers, you get what Otwarte Klatki got: vegans acting as customers, demanding their hot dogs to be heated up in separate ovens, and other such distractions. This is the kind of vegans and the kind of movement we get with a clientelist approach that fails to penetrate the surface of the commodity world. If the souls at stake are in something of a narcotic state, anaesthetized to the point of indifference or expressing discontent in meaningless ways, the thing to do is wake them up, not drug them further.
The neo-reformist timidity described here, fixated on technical efficiency of incremental change, can go only so far before it becomes self-defeating. As Langdon Winner points out in The Whale and the Reactor,
Because the idea of efficiency attracts a wide consensus, it is sometimes used as a Trojan horse by those who have more challenging agendas they hope to smuggle in. But victories won in this way are in other respects great losses. For they affirm in our words and out methodologies that there are certain human ends that no longer dare be spoken in public. Lingering in that stuffy Trojan horse too long, even soldiers of virtue eventually suffocate. (1986, 54)
How long might it take Otwarte Klatki to become industry consultants? This sort of dynamic has already played out on a serious scale in the US and Western Europe, and now we see it gain momentum in the ex-Eastern bloc countries. It makes some sense for the organization in general and for its leadership in particular: it keeps things running day to day, keeps some donations flowing, and secures some public presence. But on animal liberation its effects are dubious at best. And to developing a broad alliance of social movements capable of acting across purposes, an alliance so urgently needed today (Sanbonmatsu 2004), it is downright detrimental.
For Otwarte Klatki to partake in nourishing such an alliance—as they certainly should—hot dog-style campaigns must be relegated to the past.
Forkasiewicz, Kris. 2014. “Fragments of an Animalist Politics: Veganism and Liberation.” In Critical Animal Studies: Thinking the Unthinkable, edited by John Sorenson. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
LaVeck, James. 2006. “Invasion of the Movement Snatchers: A Social Justice Cause Falls Prey to the Doctrine of ‘Necessary Evil’” Satya, October. http://www.satyamag.com/oct06/laveck.html
Otwarte Klatki. n.d. “Petycja do Orlenu” (Petition to Orlen). Translated by KF. http://www.otwarteklatki.pl/petycja-do-orlenu/#.VB7PtPl_tqU
Winner, Langdon. 1986. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Sanbonmatsu, John. 2004. The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy, and the Making of a New Political Subject. New York: Monthly Review Press.
* photos used without permission