Of Fences and Agony

DSC00002Save perhaps for those who cut it, and maybe the occasional cat, no one sets foot on this grass lawn.  Ten years ago you could come here to leave the noise of lawnmowers, cars, and crowds behind.  Now it’s a place defined by lawn-mowing and absence, and marked out by a fence, a place where–unless you can and want to own it–you are no longer allowed to be.

It is telling how the change came to pass.  This piece of land was owned, or “owned,” by a few hobos occupying a makeshift hut and probably in the dark about what they were sitting on.  They mostly left the land alone.  But when given the chance, they sold the land for millions, to be razed and fenced off and covered over with concrete and grass turf and conceit.  In all likelihood the hobos are dead by now–It takes a rotten soul to survive the kind of money they got.

Though we are furless and frail, we were meant, by an unspoken decree still running through our veins, to dwell in the calm flux of meadows and listen to the music of the wind.  Ever more contracted and constrained, we instead go on to write our own decrees, fencing ourselves in and out at the mercy of the engine roar.  This piece of land shows in miniature the agony of our collective condition.  This is what we are: seldom cold or hungry, and almost never really alive.

Hot Dogs of Dissent

zenkuwntjvzpmbwdapwwbemlwccebghxbgmntckkgtjyfryrronznijnqcjr 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.


OrlenOn 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.


hot-dogOtwarte 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.


maxresdefaultThe 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.

420836If 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

Confessions of a Closet Anarchist #1

green_anarchy_by_xfenrisulfrx-d5gkwlx“On Anarchy and Individual Responsibility” (working title):

Anarchy does issue a moral injunction to action, as is often assumed, but one which we are able not to take up without an ensuing paralyzing guilt. On the whole, therefore, we may take it up far more often because we do not feel terribly compelled, and compulsion–we know all too well–breeds resistance; and sometimes, as in this case, a “bad” sort of resistance (in the sense of “bad faith”) dialectically related to our natural fear of risky activity. Grasped dialectically, anarchy may help us go beyond both compulsion and resistance, and free us finally to act. In a word, it can get us off our butts, and out a sense of freedom already exercised, and not compulsion pushing us towards a freedom posited in the future.

Final title: “On What I Say When I Feel I’m not Doing Enough and my Sentences are Going on Too Long”

§ Beard to Beard with William James: Truth as a Practical Notion

images4From Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking, William James on the practical nature of truth:

“[T]here can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen.”

What we hold to be true works for us–somehow–up to the most abstract and seemingly inconsequential products of the imagination. Or it doesn’t work for us anymore but remains as an obdurate sedimentation of some past mode of conduct that did once work. That is, truth (remember, lowercase “t”) is subordinated to the contingencies of broader life. These comprise some of the more acceptable and basic pragmatist notions which James vigorously helped shape.

Now, we can only presume that these notions themselves become validated because “truth-as-what-works-for-us” is a notion that at this juncture itself works for us. Can we know this given that life is not and cannot be structured like an experiment with an observer behind it? Even more so if we are asked to perform a meta-experiment!

If we pursue this line, what are we left with but an arch-contingency where truth annihilates itself? What lies beyond? Is it release? Or further entanglement? Is it just chaos? Or is it some kind of fluid structure of reality itself? Bah, how unbearably abstract!

I’m not sure how such a notion might work for anybody, though. Oh, wait. It could be lingering as a shadow of metaphysics, which seems to always inform philosophy. In this case, a shadow of pragmatism: nothing but a question about the contingency of the notion of contingent truth.

Some quietism, implied in much pragmatist thought, would certainly work this morning. Instead, this.

2014 (Sept 2-6) Leipzig Degrowth Conference—Some Animalist Remarks


A 2,500-strong conference with vegan catering sounded promising. And indeed, on many points, it did deliver. Diversity, color, animated surroundings—these were all there at the downtown location where the events to come took place. I’d been hoping that with degrowth’s turn to the local and the real, the blindfold precluding notice of horrendous conditions of life and death in animal exploitation would come to some prominence. But my optimism was premature.

Animalist issues were not only severely underrepresented. The animal theme was often an object of scorn and ridicule, attesting to a sorry status quo dominated by an exclusionary focus on human/nature affairs. This dialectic, itself dubious, has left no place for other animals to even be noticed beyond some rather insignificant gestures à la “let’s drop a sentence on ‘the animals’ so we can finally move on to more substantial matters.”

francois_bordeau2Continued animal use seems to be part of an overwhelming majority of degrowth visions for the future. For instance, Growl, a pan-European project aimed at creating a network of degrowth trainers, and founded by François Schneider, is now offering what they call “donkey tours” or “caravans,” where the animals are once again instrumentalized as “beasts of burden.” Talk about the good old days!

Reactionary? You bet.

We didn’t fail to show up to one of the conference’s biggest sessions (“Décroissance, Postwachstum, decreixement, decrescita—all degrowth but different?”), a panel frequented by the movements leading intellectuals, such as Joan Martinez-Alier, Schneider, Niko Paech, and Mauro Bonaiuti. “No-animal zone,” we thought. For a while this prediction held. And then came the evening’s comedic moment, a breath of fresh air many dull panels like this could use. Except it was, as usual, the ridiculed figure of the animal that resonated with the now-booming audience of 500. The moderator, Dr. Elisabeth von Thadden, feeling star-like and full of herself, had hilariously—so she thought—confused Schneider‘s use of the donkey (in his walking trips) with “monkey,” whom, as far as I’m aware, he hasn’t yet used. So, monkey-donkey. See how the two rhyme? Loads of fun, right? And now, immediately, came the moderator’s own convulsions of laughter, keeping us waiting for an interval that seemed all but sinister, and keeping both donkeys and monkeys (sheesh!) safely subjugated in the heads of many an audience member.

All in all, the cows, chickens, or pigs condemned to industrial exploitation were either referred to as “meat” or, when the time came to criticize the suffering inflicted on them in these large-scale facilities, got framed (pun intended) in the usual discourse of “care without freedom”—clearly a position the most horrible industries now capitalize on. For degrowthers, it was not the misery but the scale that was relevant.

hand+shakeThe scope of speciesism at Degrowth 2014 was blatant. The originally planned session on Animal Liberation was in the end cancelled, to be replaced by a more vaguely titled session on the “Crisis of the Human and Nonhuman World.” But a bunch of us were there as animalists to the bone. Arianna Ferrari, Anne Fremaux, and I presented our papers to a warm reaction from the audience in one of the more remote lecture rooms, and Friederike Schmitz led a successful animal liberation workshop. All of this took place on a day devoted to “Building Alliances.” Ironically, for all their face-value inclusiveness, degrowthers turn out not to be easy to build an alliance with.

On Friday we attended another big session where we were (un)fortunate enough to hear yet more panelists equivocate on issues of animal rearing and small-scale agriculture which, we showed, reproduces the dynamic of domination culminating in factory farming and represents a of defense for the “meat,” dairy, and egg industries’ rationale in a time when it is officially no longer OK to wantonly maim and kill. Eric Holt-Giménez, the executive director of Food First, would keep cows and sheep etc. bound to farms because of how they “enrich farm biodiversity” (???) and help “create corridors connecting farms to forests.” I’m sure I got this last point wrong. Then again what Eric said had nothing to do with the questions we asked or comments we made.

In turn,  Christiana Schuler, a small-scale dairy farmer and former shepherd, said she “didn’t mind us not wanting to raise and kill the animals ourselves.” Once again, capitivity and killing become issues of mere opinion. Smells like speciesism: I cannot hear anybody at Leipzig making arguments for reinstatement of human slavery or feudal subjection. In the end, farmed animals own interests (don’t mention freedom from domination to environmentally psyched degrowth folks!) not only do not matter to degrowthers, they do not compute. The discussed session, “The Food Challenge. Struggling for Just and Ecological Food Systems,” had been badly mistitled.

For degrowth in general it is OK to make other animals part and parcel of human technical apparatuses. From there, it takes a single step to the humans/nature dialectic mentioned near the beginning of the article, where cows, chickens, and other sentient beings are conflated with “nature” and come to be seen as exploitable within certain sustainable boundaries. It is here that terms like “overhunting,” “overfishing,” or “overexploitation” are born. As if exploitation of sentient life was itself fine in the first place. To argue these finer points against degrowth’s negligence would take a separate text. But these are already out there, and more are coming.

We challenged the speakers on the many points raised and not raised, in the Q&A, whereafter we left the room feeling like our words were not really heard at all. It is amazing how unintelligent otherise incisive theorists and professional thinkers become once challenged on an inconvenient matter of what’s on their place. While we all know this, we at the conference had enough at this point.

On the same day, we improvised an extra-programmatic Animal Liberation Open Space, during which we co-authored a statement to the organizers expressive of our discontent:

                                                                                                                        Leipzig, September 5, 2014

Dear Degrowth,

As participants of the Leipzig Degrowth Conference 2014, we feel it is our responsibility to point out a serious blind spot in the discussion.

The concrete suffering and exploitation of animals has to be addressed—not only in industrialized but also in small-scale practices.

Opposing only factory farming without questioning power relations between sentient species is a gross omission.

The question of the good life, so central to degrowth, must not be limited to the human species alone.

The ethical and political aspects of neglected animal interests require space for articulation.

The undersigned…”

This followed by a bunch of last-minute signatures. Pretty mild, no? We were, mind you, way angrier than this.

Of course, the conference was more than what we managed to take in amidst the mass of events jam-packed into an otherwise wonderfully organized event. But what we did catch offered a lesson: We need to go on the offensive, to participate in and skillfully disrupt the egregious consipracy of silence and ridicule at events where are not welcome—either rejected outright or reluctantly tolerated—silence and ridicule that would have animal liberation relegated to a peripheral, easily dismissed, and frivolous interest.

To Be Mindless

Really_Big_WaveTo be mindless can mean widely divergent things: either to be être-en-soi, being in itself, like a stone that perfectly coincides with itself and thus is devoid of subjectivity and concern; or to be a sentient creature so proficient at a certain activity as to perform it without stopping to think. Such seemingly effortless activity corresponds to the Chinese-Taoist notion of wu-wei, natural or uncontrived action; or to the related Japanese ideal of mushin, performance unfettered by analysis, especially in and around martial arts. 

The apparent simplicity of the mindlessness that comes with such (non-)action should not fool us. Performative mindlessness has very little to do with mechanical reproduction of previously inculcated behavioral patterns, and requires that the body be sensitive and awake to its surroundings, and not react “automatically.” If a behaviorist can see in it but the analogue of the machine, well, this says about his inability to relate to this sort of experience beyond narrow mechanistic presuppositions that a priori reduce the live body to a machine. Performative mindlessness deserves all the ethical consideration currently given to thematized consciousness, to deliberation and reflection, in the animals that exhibit them most profusely. It stands beneath and upholds the thin layer of reflective thinking (much current cognitive science admits this, if you need the claim to be validated by this sort of apparatus).Nor does the sort of visceral intelligence exist, enmeshed in the world around it, in order to uphold consciousness. To think so would be to have it upside down.

Reflection is sign of a sort of emergency in the interface between body and world, a dialectic which, when animated through skilled practical activity, stabilizes a rhythmic fluidity. Its discursive metastatis notwithstanding, mind is strictly related to activity. Beyond it, in idleness, it constitutes our prior activities’ echoing residue.

leopard_2244916kWould you confuse a mindless surfer, who receptively gears his whole body into the wave beneath him, with the wave itself? Would you confuse the mindlessness of a leaping leopard, whom a break to deliberate would unnecessarily slow down, with the immobility of the stone from which he leaps? Thematized thought is, and ought to be seen as, the servant, not the master, of the live body. It has its place, but there is no need to cherish mind at the expense of that on which it rests.

*I hold no rights to these beautiful photos. I hope the rights-holders will take no offence at my putting them here.