Fragments of an Animalist Politics: Veganism and Liberation

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Both animal oppression[1] and liberation are embedded deep in the structures and habits of industrial society.  Its geographically, economically, and historically varied patterns do not easily lend themselves to generalization.  They require assessment that will account for differences in economic situation, balance of political power, inclinations of the people directly involved, and those comprising the more detached “public.”  The risk one runs in abstracting from significant contextual variables is that of becoming suspended in a vacuum of vague and practically useless concepts.

But today the capitalist world economy is strengthening its grip on the totality of social reproduction;  it brings almost every conceivable area of human activity under its aegis, promoting uniformity subjected to optimal rates of capital accumulation.  Increasingly subsumed into a singular structure, differences become ones of degree rather than of essence.  This makes big-picture analysis not only possible, but also necessary.  Therefore, I assume the following queries to be valid and reasonable under most contemporary conditions of liberationist activism:  Is it sufficient to advocate veganism—the personal practice whereby one forgoes the use of animal products whenever practicable—in order to effect lasting change in the relationship of humans vis-à-vis other animals?  Or are there structural forces underpinning individual choice that have the power to nullify the efficacy of vegan advocacy?  Is the focus on veganism inherently liberatory, or does it require allocation within a broader framework to have socially transformative effects?  More fundamentally still—and the first question to tackle—is this:  Is a radical-liberationist perspective indispensable, or does it suffice to work for animal well-being within the boundaries set by a moderate, liberal politics?  Because animal liberation is not an uncontested goal among activists, I proceed by offering a brief, critical outline of the context in which the liberationist/vegan current of the movement must at present operate.  In the process, it will be delineated from some of the other social forces concerned with animal well-being.

Three Degrees of Insufficiency

The moderates of the animalist movement (those who refrain from advocating an unmitigated abolitionist position regarding animal oppression) include the reformists and neo-reformists.[2]  The former, more conservative faction consists of a multitude of activists and enthusiasts who struggle for so-called animal welfare within the structural limits set by animal agriculture, breeding, experimentation, hunting, and so on.  The fundamental structure of animal exploitation is left unquestioned, unchallenged, untouched.  If these systems of exploitation can be likened to a room, reformists wish not to venture outside, or to smash its walls, but to rearrange the furniture.

Underlying the reformist project is a series of convictions.  Among these is that the evils of animal oppression ought not to be exaggerated.  Many reformists generally fail to see animal husbandry itself—behavioural and genetic manipulation, captivity, killing—as a form of oppression.  When face to face and pushed hard enough, they may confess to believing that it is possible to be both fundamentally unfree and “happy.”  Bigger cages, some pasture, less antibiotics, more daylight, and so on, make for a happy horse, pig, or hen.  Such a condition, however, amounts to a mere shadow of a fulfilled life.  One has a feeling that reformists are still somehow trapped in reductionist perceptual and conceptual schemes in which other animals are seen as reflex-driven, fairly one-dimensional beings.  This view is all the easier to assume because traces of countless captive animals’ resistance to oppression are routinely erased (Hribal 2011).  This erasure, combined with enforced docility, may give the wrong impression of animal contentment.

Even when reformists concede that institutionalized animal use constitutes oppression, they insist that the system is too pervasive to be abolished, and that unlike radicalism, which is dangerous, gradual change is safe.  Clearly, though, one is not doing activism for a sense of security;  the job involves significant risk.  However, if it is dangerous to struggle for liberation, that is an indication of how unfree other animals, and we ourselves, are.  Activists are being pushed into a corner, gradually stripped of their rights to protest a miserable condition.  It is fine to invoke Dr. King, remade into a harmless myth, but Trotsky is off limits.  Seen in light of the above, the next reformist thesis sounds ludicrous: “We all work towards the same end.”  There is clearly a major discrepancy between the goals professed and worked towards by the different strands of the movement, as indicated by the room analogy described above.  First, not everyone rejects oppression wholesale, and not everyone resigns him or herself to seeing it in practice as something to merely tinker with.  Disidentification from the reformists may be an important political and strategic step for liberationists, who, by definition, strive for paradigm-shifting emancipation.  By doing so, they may be able to pressure the reformists into explaining why they equivocate on matters of oppression, and persuade them to take a stronger stance.

Another faction on the confused animalist scene consists of the neo-reformists, who declare animal liberation as their goal, but whose actions diverge from it every step of the way.  Increasingly succumbing to co-optation by animal exploitation businesses, the substance of their self-definition is reduced to a hodgepodge of superficially radical slogans.  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is a quintessential example, with the main thrust of its activity exhibiting an attention-hungry attitude directed at mediatization, and neutralized through the loss of any kind of oppositional momentum beyond the sensationalist spectacle.  The spectacle is one of appearances of liberation in the very midst of slavery.  Meanwhile, deals are made, such as with KFC Canada, whereby exploiters transition to more efficient methods of killing chickens (PETA 2008).[3]  But it should not seem controversial to insist that “humane killing” of other animals en masse, destined from their birth to become chicken nuggets, is an oxymoron.  Pushing for reforms such as these allows PETA and its supporters to experience a soothing illusion of success;  such illusory success is almost fanatically desired as a panacea to counter real defeatism in the movement.  But it comes at the high price of confusing victory with a perpetuation of institutionalized misery.

Other organizations follow suit by conducting promotional campaigns in co-operation with industry’s corporate players.  The campaigns are aimed at negotiating a compromise with animal exploiters.  As with the PETA-KFC case, they result in win-win-lose situations.  The minor changes in exploitation they bring about are beneficial to the industry in that they introduce technological innovation that makes exploitation more profitable.  Just as importantly, animal products come to bear the stamp of a “radical” animal organization’s approval.  That is the first winner.  Next, the organization can boast success in bringing about “realistic change,” and use the argument to get donations from a concerned, yet largely ignorant, support base.  Here is another winner.  Who loses, then?  A multitude of objectified animals abandoned to the effectively uncontested grinding of the machine.

Though many supporters will deny it, reformist and neo-reformist organizations have largely become a part of the animal exploitation complex and need it just as much as it needs them.  Odds are, in any country where animal “protection” is an issue at all, there operates at least one such group.  On account of its moderate, modest postulates, that group is most probably positioned centrally, surrounded by smaller, more radical organizations and coalitions.  The workings of the system based on oppression turn moderate politics into a reactionary position.  The different strands of reformism gain influence by succumbing to what the Frankfurt school critical theorists, after Freud, called the reality principle—that is, by effectively resigning themselves to the contours of the status quo.  Within such a constellation, the related problems of human species-supremacy and the self-estrangement of the human being from its own animality scarcely ever arise;  thus animal liberation is completely marginalized.

We can now focus on the strand of animalism that is the proper subject of this chapter, namely those who more unequivocally subscribe to animal emancipation.  In recent years, for many of its proponents, veganism has become the be-all and end-all;  this can be traced back to the establishment of the Vegan Society in Britain in 1944.  It is significant that activists align their advocacy with personal practice; this sort of transformation has an implicitly political, prefigurative dimension.  But even Gandhi, with his assertion that you must “be the change you wish to see in the world,” would have to admit that a chasm separates the microcosm of the singular body from civilizational transformation.  The gap is and will be unbridgeable as long as vegans remain focused on the personal at the cost of the properly political.

Veganism is no more or less than a matter of interanimal decency necessary to refrain from all exploitation and needless suffering and killing.  Aggrandized into a full-blown life philosophy, however, it slips into a position of being expected to solve more problems than it is able to.  Meanwhile, it remains on the social margins, unable to disrupt the trademark liberal illusion of the mainstream, namely that all significant historical problems have essentially been solved.  Because many of us[4] want to make veganism an easy sell, it’s difficult to admit that vegan advocates suffer the same social alienation that is typical of other radicals.

As this pathological civilization soaks the soil and dyes the waters of the world with blood, we are stigmatized at once as malcontents and utopians, and pushed aside.  As a result, the movement is becoming inwardly rather than outwardly oriented.  A subculture emerges that, by its own admission, folds back on itself and leaves the ugliness of the world outside the door.  All this follows a trend of retreating from the “personal is political” into a belief that the personal will suffice to take care of the political.  Vegans thus join dumpster divers, urban gardeners, potluck organizers, “lifestyle” anarchists,[5] eco-villagers, and others who seem to turn their backs on the depressing political context of their milieux.  In the end, people who seem to know how bad things are get together, engage in pleasant, relaxing activities, and enjoy each other’s company.  In a sense, this is both understandable and precious, a development of new ways of relating in roughly egalitarian settings.  Also, for the animals we are, it is natural to befriend like-minded bodies.  It would not be objectionable, were it not for the apoliticism it engenders.

This situation is not without precedence.  Historical examples abound of attempts at kick-starting a pristine society by retreating from the drudgery of the old into communes, phalansteries, and so on.  By confining ourselves to our own ranks, we seem to think it acceptable to fiddle while Rome burns.  The isolation is not a strategic or tactical choice; it is a surrender, an easy way out of a pressing situation, and a symptom of a serious crisis whose dynamic begins to make sense with a simple realization:  the vegan movement sees animal exploitation not as a political matter, but as one of cultural and ethical misperception.  In other words, oppression can be traced back to wrong ideas, and it suffices to correct those in people’s minds.  It is a crisis of consciousness.

Gary Francione has become an activist celebrity noted for a face-to-face, case-by-case approach to combatting animal exploitation.  He thinks animals ought to be considered persons rather than property, and that this shift in status can be achieved outside of any sort of strict organizational discipline, without establishing mass organizations, through educational activity focused on the individual (Francione 2010).  Even though Francione might not truly believe this to the letter, most of his activities have been devoted to fostering this kind of approach.  Although his popularity has perhaps waned since the publication of his more original work (see, e.g., Francione [1995] 2007, [1996] 2007), I think of Francione as a one-man apogee of the veganism-centred position.  He has repeatedly admitted that many people cannot be reached through pro-vegan agitation.  On the other hand, he claims, there are enough ears willing to listen to keep us busy for the rest of our lives.  But that is not what we want, is it?  There are many potential vegans, of course—perhaps all individuals who are not yet vegan are vegan in potentia, and have resisted what is really a basic conversion.  Some will be reached but, for reasons to be discussed shortly, one more vegan will never be enough.  Meanwhile, the whole issue consumes a disturbingly large amount of our precious time.

Like the other activities that animal advocates have kept themselves occupied with, today’s focus on vegan education has an easy-to-miss cost attached to it.  It makes us persistently neglect the strategic-liberationist goals of the movement.  The discussion of how to translate the growing ranks of vegans into liberatory institutional change either goes unheard or fails to develop at all.  In the process, we tend to overestimate both the strength of our numbers and the impact of our actions.  Many vegans spend a considerable amount of time on websites that resonate with their interests and ethical preferences.  These, however, drown in a sea of other sites—those that are “neutral,” fostering pervasive liberal indifference, and those that are openly reactionary.  And then there is the real world of flesh and blood and systemic violence.  Despite all of our efforts, who runs the show?

Once we look at our situation through the eyes of a realistic and pragmatic strategist, we will see ourselves as weak.  This is the first step we must take to awaken from our rather blissful slumber.  To the degree that vegan abolitionism is motivated by so-called humanitarian concerns, Marx’s criticism applies to it.  Isaiah Berlin wrote that as Marx looked at the reformers and radicals of his day, it seemed to him that “under the guise of earnest philanthropic feeling there throve, undetected, seeds of weakness and treachery, due to a fundamental desire to come to terms with reaction, a secret horror of revolution based on fear of loss of comfort and privilege and, at a deep level, fear of reality itself, of the full light of day” (Berlin 1978, p. 9).  He saw that “humanitarianism was but a softened, face-saving form of compromise, due to a desire to avoid the perils of an open fight and, even more, the risks and responsibilities of victory” (ibid.).  We too secretly hope that serious change does not come, or that when there are enough vegans, things will just straighten themselves out.  The problems are exacerbated by the fact that the “animal question” is far broader in scope than it is usually taken to be; it lies at the core not only of why and how one animal species ruthlessly exploits a myriad of others and itself, but also of what that species is and what place it occupies on earth.  No one has the whole answer, and perhaps we will forever have to rely on fragments pointing to a totality beyond reach.  What is worrisome is that vegans are, on the whole, uninterested in this bigger picture.[6]  But what if the foundations of the modern social order, i.e., the totality, form powerful currents that overwhelm our local, narrowly conceived struggles, and make our efforts futile?  What if it crystallizes in most individual, day-to-day actions as well as in structural transformations of tectonic proportions?  Once we have awakened to this as a problem, the next step is to turn theory right side up:  animal oppression is not primarily a matter of wrongheaded thinking, but a historical expression of a mode of practical, material human life.  To decipher the links between oppression and liberation, we will have to examine more of what makes us tick.

What Is in the Way

For centuries, animal oppression has been entrenched in capitalist structures.  The significance of this observation cannot be overestimated: animal bodies are sucked into, and processed in, the heart of capitalism, the commodity form.  Capitalism is based on capital accumulation, an inherently expansive process of incremental growth achieved through the transformation of the world’s richness into quantifiable, uniform, and exchangeable units.  Although commodities seem to be just plain things of more or less use, they are in fact—as Marx noted—endowed with seemingly magical powers (1976).[7]  Though occurring in precapitalist forms of society, under capitalism they come to constitute the universal form of society’s reproduction (Lukács [1968] 1971).[8]  To the enormous extent that production for exchange value predominates, considerations of social usefulness are eclipsed by the profit motive.  Bearers of exchange value, commodities move along lines of profitable exchange wherever these lines can be established.  Instances in which our vital needs are still satisfied are largely coincidental, or related to the continued and diminishing existence of extracapitalist forms of distribution.  But there is really no address to which to send complaints: the wealthy follow rhythms of accumulation that they did not set up.  Through the domination of the commodity form, human animals become the products of their own products.  This is where the magic lies.  The movement of commodities presents itself to us not as a relationship between producers, but as “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Marx 1976, p. 165).

Sadly, social activists and movements also give in to the domination of commodity form, and to the degree that they do, they lose the edge of being a meaningful opposition.  This is precisely what happens to those segments of the animalist movement that seek to work “with capitalism” for animal protection.  They end up being sucked into a powerful whirlwind, and thereafter they follow the rules of the game that turns the bodies of animals into conduits for capital flows.  Collaborationist organizations may choose to ignore the power of the commodity form but—due to this self-deceit—it will digest them all the more thoroughly.  PETA, which owes much of its high profile to an embrace of capitalism, is a case in point.  In an interview with Susan Finsen, co-founder Alex Pacheco made it clear that he was trying to market compassion, which, he thought, could be sold to the consumer in much the same way as toothpaste or soap (Finsen 1997, p. ii).Within this approach, compassion thus joins the movement of commodities and becomes one of them, its qualitative features of resistance to exploitation subordinated to exchange relationships.  It now has a price, and when sold skillfully, it will enable an organization to grow in influence and power.  Tied into commodity logic and ever more cognizant of its financial bottom line, that organization will turn into a profit-seeking corporation focused on increasing its market value.  All of this will occur long before any measure of success in reducing demand for animal flesh and labour is achieved.  No matter how firm an ethical position veganism is, it is not immune to processes of commodification.  Easily turned into a fad, it is welcomed by businesses that profit from niche, lifestyle-based consumption.  Oddly enough, it becomes fashionable to be vegan, if only the reasons for doing so are harmless to the rhythms of economic activity.

From the predominance of the commodity form it follows that capitalism is much more than a set of institutional arrangements; it constitutes a prevalent form of experience of reality, that of an atomized, monadic, isolated, disembodied self.[9]  It overwhelmingly uproots moral pleas for compassion from a sphere of bodily feeling and into a context of reification;  because capitalism implicitly yet forcefully teaches us to comprehend the world as a series of useful or useless objects, the suffering body is usually already an “It” instead of a “Thou.”[10]  This is not to say that all experience is mediated this way.  There are still places to hide from the commodity form, but they are disappearing with the flow of time, and it is not possible to struggle for civilizational transformation from a position of political withdrawal.  The commodity form penetrates into our most intimate perceptions of each other and the world, making capitalism far more difficult to abolish than an enemy who could be tracked down and beheaded.  The commodity demands that the world be remolded in its image, and this is, in fact, happening.

Capital’s intolerance of boundaries to accumulation can bear no ambiguity, and so capital converges with technoscience[11] in an attempt to sweep away traces of ambivalence in the vast gray zone between the “+” and the “-“, the “yes” and the “no”.  To that end, nature is conceptualized, processed, and subjugated as a dissectible and fully knowable object.  This enables and reinforces the modern addiction to, and overreliance on, science and technology.  Technoscientific mediation intensifies at the pace of commodification.  Complex commodities require some form of technological processing.  In turn, technoscientific operations must assume a commodified form;  they are developed solely within the dynamic of capital circulation.  Due to the near-universality of both, every conceivable problem is reduced to a matter of administrative, technocratic manipulation within an arbitrarily set but unquestioned structure—thinking is uprooted from its natural context of somatic embeddedness, reduced to the juggling of abstract symbols, and entrusted to a clique of experts.  Inseparable from the ubiquity of technology is the social domination of instrumental rationality. Everything, including life itself,[12] becomes a matter of technique;  everything becomes a question of rational management.  Zygmunt Bauman observes that the very accessibility of technology “redefines successive parts of human reality as problems clamouring for resolution” (1991b, p. 220, emphasis in original).  What follows is a profound disenchantment of life—now reduced to manipulation of quantifiables—that breaks down the dynamic unity of our bodies and the earth.  A dual schism results: one within ourselves, which divides us into an analyzing, computer-like mind and a mechanical body;  and the other between the dynamic, non-material human essence and the inert matter of nature.  These make for a comprehensive, materially and practically dominant trend of de-animalization and de-naturalization, which translates into a pervasive alienation of daily life.

Buried under piles of techno-junk, slabs of concrete, and layers of scientistic discourse, we find ourselves unable to enact any semblance of egalitarian interanimal kinship.  We are deprived of a concrete, experiential basis that would make this possible.  How is one even to conceive of the felt intelligence of a cow if one has scarcely ever been around a cow?  How is one to appreciate the support of the earth under one’s feet when the land has been rendered mute to the senses, and the senses have become far more familiar with endless little black rows on a flatscreen?[13]  In the process of this forced domestication we become deskilled and ever more dependent on the abstract apparatus of production of which the average person can comprehend little.  Reliance on professionals becomes the default response to a nuisance.  Year by year, technoscientific mediation deepens our estrangement from the life of our animal senses.  People bump into one another as if on autopilot in the street, guided into places fixed in busy schedules, ear glued to the phone, eyes in a blank stare, efficiency on everyone’s lips.  Cellphones and smartphones, combined with a lack of sensorial rootedness, make it difficult to remember a time when gadgetry was not viewed as indispensable.

Crowded into urban dwellings inhospitable to non-human others, we seem to see human faces wherever we turn but, perceptually maimed and half-awake, we are scarcely able to relate.  This is not due to a crisis of humanist values, nor to insufficient will to take “appropriate” action.  For the most part, adaptation to mass society requires “spacing out”—shutting off whatever world we live in, and shunning a relationship to our immediate surroundings based on the fullness of bodied attention.  In the midst of this remoteness from the reality of the senses, a hunger grows for experiences of more-than-human otherness and regrounding in the corporeal, but these are increasingly rare.  The human has mistakenly been made the locus of philosophical explanation and, I would add, political praxis.  Mistakenly, says Maurice Merleau-Ponty, because

 one explains nothing by man, since he is not a force but a weakness at the heart of being.…  His existence extends to too many things, in fact to all, for him to become the object of his own delight, or for the authorization of what we can now reasonably call a “human chauvinism.” (1963, p. 43)

Whether in a liberal guise or not, contemporary humanism reproduces the chasm between the human and the rest of the natural world as if Darwin had never done his work.  The anthropocentrist sentiment reappears within the otherwise admirable Marxist critique.  Of the necessity of mending natural relations, David Harvey writes that nature should

no longer be viewed as “one vast gasoline station,” as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger complained in the 1950s, but a teeming source of life forms to be preserved, nourished, respected and intrinsically valued.  Our relation to nature should not be guided by rendering it a commodity like any other. (Harvey 2010, p. 234)

A promising statement that is, unfortunately, followed by the repetition of a familiar theme.  Rather than a commodity, to Harvey nature “is the one great common to which we all have an equal right but for which we also bear an immense equal responsibility” (ibid., 234–35, emphasis added).  It can be supposed that wolves and cows and ravens are not part of the “we,” but rather part of that to which the human “we” is entitled.  Though it is not stated explicitly, nature is clearly external to the human, something with reference to which we are a visitor with claims of access from the outside, and to that end something alien.  From a gasoline station nature is turned into a city park, a place people visit but to which they do not belong, of which they are not part.  Animal liberation deepens the Marxist critique of commodification of nature by reclaiming nature as the very ground of human sociality, simultaneously reclaiming us as natural beings.  It is therefore a movement toward reimmersion of self-repressed, but still entirely natural, humanity into the surrounding earthly ecology.  It is a movement of homecoming.

Death Throes

Modern civilization lives and dies with the proliferation of a host of interrelated oppressive practices throughout the totality of human activity.  Animal oppression and liberation are virtually inseparable from questions of (1) human de-animalization and technical regimentation of human life;  (2) capitalist-produced vast spaces of immiseration and economic destabilization;  (3) human overpopulation, encroachment into and destruction of the habitats of other animals worldwide, and general ecological devastation;  and (4) militarism and war.  The list could go on, leading to a single conclusion: we are collectively invested in oppression.  In this situation, no matter how noble the ideas and values of alternative ways of organizing society, they can rise up only to a certain marginal role in social discourse and practice, but no further.  The dense material reality of social practice stands in the way.  One cannot help using theological language at this point: this is the Fall, if ever there was one.  Elites may still be able to watch it from their remote enclaves of privilege, but their lower strata gradually roll down and join the oppressed.  In fact, a careful observer may be convinced that, due to internal contradictions, the capitalist formula is finally in its death throes.[14]

As a historical form of society, capitalism has a developmental trajectory and, therefore, an end, too.  Depending entirely on the existence of attractive avenues of accumulation, capital is running out of fresh investment opportunities, and the old ones are insufficient due to progressive market saturation.  At the same time, capitalists are continually fighting off a progressive, if occasionally interrupted, rise in the costs of production.[15]  Looking at things from a long-term perspective, one comes to understand that opportunities for capitalists are shrinking.  China and the former Eastern bloc are already integrated into the system.  So too, to a large degree, are South and Southeast Asia and Africa.[16]  Scarcely anyone remains outside of the capitalist economy, so there are not many more open spaces left to fill. In a finite world, a system with insatiable hunger sooner or later runs out of places to go.  While it is true that state-backed capitalism proves more flexible and resilient than its most acute critics could imagine, its flexibility should be attributed to ad hoc extra-economic solutions that, with time, only lead to more serious trouble.

With nowhere else to expand, capitalism has gone virtual, with difficulties “in part resolved by the creation of fictitious markets where speculation in asset values could take off unchecked by any regulatory apparatus” (Harvey 2010, p. 217).  Having inflated a financial bubble over a period of more than 30 years, capitalism stumbled in 2009 in a property-led crisis, from which it has been able to bounce back only with massive worldwide bailouts and other measures.[17]  Crises of increasing magnitude are inherent in capital’s way of operation.  Perhaps at this point capitalism is burning out and, ultimately, nothing can save it.  Immanuel Wallerstein (2012) thus comments on one of the most fundamental contradictions of the system:

What maximizes income for the most efficient players in the short run (increased profit margins) squeezes out buyers in the longer run.  As more and more people and zones are fully engaged in the world-economy, there is less and less margin for “adjustments” or “renewal” and more and more impossible choices faced by investors, consumers, and governments.

For capital to exist as capital at all, it must move in cycles of expanding investment.  With each cycle, a surplus is produced that must then be reinvested to establish an annual compound growth of about 3 percent, at which capitalism tends to achieve optimal systemic balance.  Resuming this level of growth meant finding profitable avenues of investment globally of 1.6 trillion dollars in 2010.  The figure will reach about 3 trillion dollars in 2030.[18]  One must ask:  With no opportunities for a profitable rate of return on investment on the whole, where will that money go?  What will prevent the system from coming to a halt?  Will state interventions that pump taxpayers’ money into the dying machine suffice?

Perhaps critics like Harvey are right to say that “capitalism will never fall on its own.  It will have to be pushed.  The accumulation of capital will never cease. It will have to be stopped” (2010, p. 260).  Whether or not Harvey is right on this point, clearly “the capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power.”  It most certainly “will have to be dispossessed” (ibid.).  These increasingly turbulent times may turn out to be not entirely tragic, but may present opportunities for decisive political action.  It will take a coordinated, focused, immense force to make a wobbly giant fall.  The problem is what takes his place.  The circumstances of practical life after capitalism will form the background of our relatedness to others and the world: the post-capitalist form of experience.  It is in the vital interest of the vast majority of animalkind that the basis of this experience is not barbarism, although it is difficult to see how it could be much worse than what innumerable beings of the earth suffer today.

Of course, the above critique runs contrary to liberal proclamations of “progress,” of spreading democracy, of technological optimism, and of superficial environmentalism, all of which tend to trivialize the seriousness of the situation.  Nearly all of these proclamations originate within the privileged strata of the human population, either in the Global North or among elites of the South.  They are bent on changing everything so that nothing changes.  These voices of powerful propaganda use mainstream media channels that are inaccessible to radical, that is to say actual, opposition.  This has enormous consequences for animal liberation prospects.

To begin with, animal exploiters and their associations lead an onslaught of disinformation campaigns through hired public relations agencies, and are relentless in their attempts to tighten their grip over the public.  They incessantly mingle with legislators through intermediate councils and committees on which they buy seats and craft their bill proposals.  They hire security firms to investigate activists and infiltrate groups.  They quickly expand to countries where consumption of animal-derived products has heretofore been limited, such as the emerging industrial powers of China and India.  But they still feel more at home within the cultural and institutional order of the West.  Normalization of animal oppression is synchronized with family, school, peer group, and professional life.  This process of normalization consists of many familiar steps.  It starts with the animal parts and secretions that children consume from an early age.  It proceeds with pictures of flesh and milk right next to cows in elementary school coursebooks that describe to kids “what cows are for.”  Somewhere along the way, it acclimates individuals to established leisure-time patterns—fishing, hunting, the occasional grill party, and so on—that are typically tied into socially accepted models of masculinity.  A protein-heavy diet of steak for the man of the house is a must.  The wife will settle for chicken breasts, in case red “meat” really isn’t healthy.  They will then take their seats on a sofa wrapped in cowskin, and will probably glimpse a KFC commercial on TV.  We also learn fairly quickly that there are “people” and then, far below, there are “animals.”  By the onset of adulthood, the average person ends up with a largely unspoken conviction of how “necessary” and “rational” it is for animal exploitation to continue.  With animal use comes civilization and progress, and who would dare to question this?  Exploiters spend hundreds of millions of dollars to plunge the majority of the population into a lifetime of reactionary ideology, conformity, and bad habits.

Being on the right side of the barricade does not guarantee victory. If history were to teach us one thing only, it would perhaps be that truth is pushed aside by empires.  The truth of animal oppression is systematically twisted by many of society’s most talented professionals, who have been lured by wealth, comfort, and prestige.  These scientists, public relations specialists, law enforcers and security experts, lawyers, doctors, engineers, economists, business executives, IT specialists, and others, systematically support animal exploitation;  they devote all of their talent and most of their energy to it.

There are some among us whose skills are equal to these professionals, and whose dedication is altogether unparalleled.  But our ranks are much more modest, we have less time on our hands, limited access to invaluable resources, and complicated lives to navigate, and we are organizationally dispersed and ideologically confused.  Against us stands an economic power that is legally, politically, and ideologically supported by a bureaucratic state apparatus bent on protecting its private property and profits as sacrosanct.  It would seem to have all it needs to put activists out of play.  The crackdown has already begun, especially in the United States and Britain, and it will only intensify, taking full advantage of our strategic weaknesses.  In addition to what has already been discussed, these consist of (1) the current prevalent model of animalist activism in the movement, and (2) the apoliticism of otherwise promising abolitionist veganism.

The model is characterized above all by a split between the reformist organization and the covert direct action cell scattered among the others in the underground.  The top tier of above-ground activists tends to become professionalized, and they are thus constrained by the dynamic of their organization’s dependence on donations from a moderate general public.  They become quite conservative themselves, losing whatever oppositional momentum the organization might otherwise develop.  In turn, the dedicated and skillful underground activists are, on the whole, fairly quickly incapacitated by the far more powerful law enforcement agencies.  Instead of a lifetime of action, their active “careers” likely span no more than a few years.  Radicalism is therefore neutralized in two ways: by financial/bureaucratic incorporation into the mainstream above ground and state repression underground.  The vast void in between needs to be filled by anti-systemic and popular resistance.  In view of the first weakness, the abolitionist vegan platform is a promising development within the movement on two counts.  First, it makes repression by law enforcement agencies more difficult by substituting “open rescue” tactics for sabotage.[19]   Secondly, it becomes harder for corporate businesses to co-opt such abolitionist organizations due to their non-negotiable moral baseline.

The vegan platform’s weakness lies in its failure to grasp its own broader meaning, potential, and place.  For we are facing a challenge that we have yet to find the guts to accept: that of an arduous, potentially perilous cultural and political war against the foundation of this oppressive civilization.  Witness the order that devours the earth upon which it rests; can any leniency be expected of it?  Will there be mercy for the dissenter?  Beneath the facade of tolerance lurks a perpetual, behind-the-scenes holocaust.  In Herzog, Saul Bellow poignantly writes:

 You think history is the history of loving hearts? You fool! Look at these millions of dead. Can you pity them, feel for them? You can nothing! There were too many. We burned them to ashes, we buried them with bulldozers. History is the history of cruelty, not love as soft men think. (2003, p. 315)

Not millions, Mr. Bellow—billions.

The Politicized Animal

Whether it is efficacious to foster opposition to animal oppression with vegan advocacy rests on a few conditions.  First of all, veganism must fit into a broader movement back to our animal roots and toward civilizational transformation.  For the re-animalized human being, it is a simple outcome of interanimal kinship, of belonging to the same order of existence as other sentient, vulnerable, mortal beings of the earth.  There is an animalist politics that has yet to be clarified, but that includes and deepens the foundations of past radical movements.  It should be obvious by now that veganism cannot become an end in itself, nor a reflexive response to every encountered problem relating to animal oppression or exploitation.  Instead, it must be tied into the development of a popular, lasting, consolidated movement, international in scope but able to intervene locally and regionally, and to tear society out of liberal apoliticism.

It is in the interest of the wealthy, and against the interests of the rest of us, that the majority feels disgusted with politics.  Yet here we are, shooting ourselves in the foot.  Many activists seem to believe that animal liberation can be won over and above the dirt of politics by exerting external pressure on the ruling classes.  That is not possible, since the very system of highly bureaucratized liberal government, the cherry on the political pie of modernity, constitutes the negation of the animal.  It safeguards the non-stop functioning of the productivist capitalist order that subordinates human and other bodies to continuous alienated performances.  Liberal civil society has guaranteed and protected the freedoms of “a minority perpetually en route to becoming everyone” (Wallerstein 1995, p. 2).  As a speciesist and class exclusive construct, it never did and never would stand for everyone.  It diffuses its overarching hegemony beneath a layer of superficial diversity, peddling its philosophy, common sense, and everything in between to the very masses that become dispossessed under its reign.  Since it dictates the conditions of our social existence, we cannot change it unless we engage it.  This involves, at the same time, struggling against capital on which cultural and political formations are highly dependent (Chibber, 2007).  A bunch of scattered activists will not be able to take advantage of political and ideological momentum.  Only a vibrant political movement might do so, and only if it is able to use the weaknesses of the system against it as soon as it reveals them.

There is a concreteness to grassroots political action that will help reground theory and orient the otherwise confused practice.  It’s a potent tool for those human animals who still haven’t been domesticated enough to unfeelingly accept their miserable separation from earthly rhythms, whether in a filthy slum or on the top floor of an office building.  This much we should understand:  This is a war to give up our species’ dominion.  It is a war to overcome the mechanical standardization of life.  The echo of our once-wild and still-beating hearts reminds us to fight it to the end.  The Hegelian notion of freedom as recognition of necessity is in fact an animal realization that things need to be done, and we are already in the midst of processes that are remaking human and other bodies in the image of senseless drones.  Our animal nature rebels against the juggernaut of human invention.  Most vegan advocates have yet to see through its ideological veil and the pervasiveness of its practical domination.

It has been necessary to shed light on the limitations of veganism seen as individual protest.  Vegan individualism and subcultural isolationism are unfortunate consequences of disenchantment with the corruption of mainstream, parliamentary, lobbyist, professionalized, expert-based, corporate-activist politics.  But the divorce of veganism from politics on the one hand, and the corrupt formula of political life on the other are forms of alienation; they can and must be overcome with a more direct, participatory approach.  Veganism will assume a truly liberatory dimension only once it has been grounded in a broader political framework of collective grassroots action.  Setting ethical, ideological, and political limits that stem from radical critique can go a long way toward making liberationist organizations insusceptible to collaborationism.  Radicalism−which is, at bottom, a faithfulness to the truth of bodily suffering−is necessary insofar as it constitutes an indispensable precondition for uprooting the system as it stands today—a critical oppositional edge.

The hard groundwork needs to be done in communities, emphasizing local, grassroots activity.  To this end, animal liberation would have to become more firmly based as a set of values and actions in concrete social relations: work, neighborhood, and more.  In the process, the animalist community could drop its largely defensive position, open up organizationally, and broaden its social base.  So far, the animal movement has been peculiarly unrooted in society, a scattered multitude lacking a major, animalist-liberationist ethos.  If it is to prevail as a major social movement, animal liberation propaganda will ultimately face the task of pervading existing networks of activists engaged in other liberation struggles and demonstrating how the liberation of other animals and the liberation of human animality are two sides of the same coin.  Animalism ought to struggle to infuse the long-term goals of different movements with that central message.  Animal liberation is thus an already present, if unacknowledged, element of any liberatory struggle.  The bodily presence of activists in their communities—not only in homogenized urban centres, but also more evenly distributed across the political and geographical landscape—would create prospects for revitalizing direct political participation.  This would help to build the foundation for a true carnal politics, and assist in overcoming the ongoing spectacularization of society and the power of the flat, mediatized image.

Relatedly, when approaching other radical activists, animal liberationists should be ready to learn about the limits the liberal (a)political formula sets for liberation struggles and the inherently oppressive nature of capitalist society.  This alone would fundamentally change the prevailing loyalties of the mainstream of the animalists, which, at the moment, opportunistically flirts with the liberal-capitalist agenda, and consequently falls prey to its systemic dynamics.  Bureaucratization, elitism, and a deficit of democracy inevitably follow from this attitude.  Meanwhile, activism as a meaning-making and meaning-giving way of life must be connected to a sense of agency and power at every level of engagement and for every participant.  This move away from professionalization among the cadres and the debilitating hierarchization within organizations (the “just do as you’re told” orientation), as well as from spectatorship among the public (the “we will do it for you” attitude), will sustain, invigorate, and help expand the movement.  It will enable a convergence of the locality, direct participation, and elements of DYI, with a broader decommodification of life.

Obviously, much more specificity is required to formulate guidelines for organization and action;  however, as indicated in the introduction, this requires accounting for local and regional conditions in their dynamic configurations, something that cannot be done here, and calls for analyses formulated by engaged grassroots activists.  One can drop bombs from a safe distance, but will not effect social change.  Detachment is what enables oppression in the first place, be it ontological, physical, or political.  There is absolutely no substitute for co-presence to make us realize the truth of another’s suffering.  No amount of moral reasoning, imagination, and conceptual abstraction will suffice.  The manufactured eclipse of lived proximity with other sentient bodies deprives us of the opportunity for frequent empathic encounters and the development of interspecies solidarity.  It must be steadfastly opposed and reversed;  what is hidden behind walls of concrete and electric fences must be brought into plain sight.  The first ones to see it ought to be other Left radicals, who are already sensitive to the suffering of fellow humans and are natural allies for political action.  We must all reclaim ourselves as sentient, sensing bodies to be able to appreciate the extent to which we are being duped, and to feel what gruesome exploitation of other bodies really means.  We must empower ourselves as political animals, active participants in a historical shift for which there is no blueprint and no precedent.

Animal liberation is not simply just another movement amongst the others. Its proper place is actually beneath all of them.  Contrary to anthropocentrist rhetoric, it is animal indignation that moves the workers to strike, only post hoc reinterpreted as an ideal of strictly human dignity.  It is the animal that is sedated with the empty promises of liberal progress, and it is the animal that cannot stand this repressive civilization.  Animal liberation can no longer be reduced to just another facet of the struggle.  It is the basis that undergirds all struggles, and all opposition as such; therefore, the mode in which veganism ought to function is one of permeation, of going beneath.  That is, it should move through and across the entire Left, helping to form a basis for the struggle against all oppression.  It will thus begin to unite the innumerable local and piecemeal struggles scattered across the face of the earth that are already underway.  Animal liberation is both a germ of and a movement toward an emergent, post-capitalist form of human life.  It will not be centrally planned.  It need not be jump-started with a name.  It requires that our animal desire be reforged into political will and determination, and sustained over generations to come.

Endnotes

[1] Even though the terms oppression and exploitation do not always overlap (the former connoting deprivation of freedom and imposition of suffering and death, and the latter referring to an instrumentalist-economic relation), I use them largely interchangeably for the purposes of this chapter.  If the context of a given paragraph requires more precision, however, the terms are appropriately differentiated.

[2] I use the terms reformism and neo-reformism, instead of the popular welfarism and new welfarism, to indicate the provenance of these currents of activism with similar historical tendencies discernible in other social movements.  The history of socialism, feminism, black liberation, environmental, and other movements provides telling examples of co-optation of the opposition by the establishment.  Welfarists are the reformists, and the new welfarists precisely the neo-reformists, of the animalist movement—the former being traditional moderates, and the latter radicals-turned-collaborators.  Within a few years, the two strands might in fact merge, making the prefix neo- in neo-reformism altogether obsolete, as even the rhetorical remnants of once-radical positions are abandoned.  For an analysis of new welfarism, see Francione, Rain Without Thunder ([1996] 2007).

[3] For more information on PETA’s campaign for “controlled-atmosphere killing” (CAK) of chickens and turkeys, see PETA, “The Case for Controlled-Atmosphere Killing,” n.d.  Notice how the organization openly identifies with the exploiters’ economic interests by calling CAK “more profitable.”

[4] Although I am critical of this segment of the movement, I do not hesitate to include myself in it.  My concern, however, lies with the development of animal liberation into a broader political and antisystemic opposition, as well as with its thematic reformulation to incorporate the liberation of human animality.

[5] See Bookchin 2001 for an analysis of differences between subcultural identity preservation and social and political involvement.  (A refutation of anthropocentrist and speciesist elements of Bookchin’s social ecology is not the topic of this chapter, although it would logically follow from the argument presented here.)

[6] This lack of interest may be simultaneously a sign of (1) a sense of being overwhelmed and understaffed, itself an expression of insufficient mobilization and attraction of new blood into the movement;  (2) separation from other social movements that are resistant to abandoning anthropocentrist ideology: and, perhaps most interestingly, (3) a reflection of late-capitalist over-specialization and compartmentalization of both knowledge and practice.  For these reasons, and possibly more, activists prefer to plow their little plot rather than engage in research into the processes that underlie the existence of seemingly separate issues.

[7] In volume 1 of Capital, Marx writes that analysis of the commodity “brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (1976, p. 163).  On the following pages of the section it becomes clear that its “mystical character” can be traced to its very form.  The form of the commodity as commodity—a quantifiable item designed for exchange—is constituted as the externalization of social relations between producers into a relation between products, which then imposes itself upon producers.

[8] Lukács writes that “this development of the commodity to the point where it becomes the dominant form in society did not take place until the advent of modern capitalism” ([1968] 1971, p. 86, emphasis in original).

[9] See Steinberg, Fiction of a Thinkable World, 2005, pp. 167–183 for a discussion of capitalism as a factor engendering the experience of this sense of self.

[10] Compare with Buber, I and Thou (1937). I do not hesitate to broaden the humanistic and theological basis of Buber’s dichotomy of I-Thou and I-It relationships to include interspecific animal encounters.  Thus reinterpreted, the I-Thou becomes the quintessentially full-bodied, face-to-face relation, the essence of Mitsein, or being-with.  In turn, the I-It epitomizes the mutual alienation of the oppressor and the oppressed.

[11] For the purposes of this chapter, I assume the term “technoscience“ to refer to a complex of processes of production that form a crucial aspect of the modern worldview.  In technoscience, matters of technical manipulation, bureaucratic administration, replicability, and quantifiability are of paramount importance.  As I am interested primarily in how it translates into individual experience of the world, I have opted to disregard the more specialized uses of the term.  Suffice it to say, I take theoretical research and its practical application to be so intertwined as to be most usefully analyzed as a functional whole.  Hence, there is no technology-science opposition.  Instead, a technology-science complex exists that remakes the world into an artifice, supremely antagonistic to that which is wild, non-standardized, and resistant to incorporation into a pre-ordained, super-imposed order.  Thus characterized, technoscience bears all the marks of modernity.  Existence is modern, Zygmunt Bauman writes, “in as far as it is administered by resourceful (that is, possessing knowledge, skill, and technology) sovereign agencies.…  Agencies … define order and, by implication, lay aside chaos, as that leftover that escapes the definition.  The typically modern practice, the substance of modern politics, of modern intellect, of modern life, is the effort to exterminate ambivalence … it is the modern practice, not nature that truly suffers no void” (1991a, pp. 7–8).  Modernity and capitalism cannot be reduced to one another but are mutually reinforcing and intimately related phenomena.

[12] For a discussion of the inclusion of life “as such” into the capitalist dynamic under the neo-liberal regime, see Cooper, Life as Surplus (2008).  Human-generated manipulation of life reaches way back to the transition to agricultural economies, but only in modernity and under capitalism does it come to be incorporated into a totalizing project of “design, manipulation, management, engineering” (Bauman 1991a, p. 9).

[13] See David Abram’s eco-phenomenological analysis in Abram 1996 and 2010.

[14] See Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis (2004), in which the author says, “Whenever a difficulty can be solved in some way, then there is not a true crisis but simply a difficulty built into the system.  True crises are those difficulties that cannot be resolved within the framework of the system but instead can be overcome only by going outside of and beyond the historical system of which the difficulties are part.…  The modern world-system in which we are living, which is that of a capitalist world-economy, is currently in precisely such a crisis, and has been for a while.  The crisis may go on another twenty-five to fifty years” (pp. 76–77).  Wallerstein goes on to elaborate on the contradictions of the system in detail, something I cannot afford to do here.

[15] Wallerstein calls neoliberal globalization just such a “massive political attempt [by capitalists] to roll back remuneration costs, to counter demands for internalization of costs, and of course to reduce levels of taxation.…  As with every previous such counteroffensive against rising costs, it has succeeded partially, but only very partially… the costs of production in the first decade of the twenty-first century are markedly higher than they were in 1945.”  He concludes that the “underlying structures of the capitalist world-economy have been moving in the direction of reaching an asymptote which makes it increasingly difficult to accumulate capital” (2005, pp. 1272–73).

[16] Despite geographical and historical fluctuation of varying significance, including the waning of the US political and economic hegemony, the modern capitalist world economy remains a global and virtually universal system today.  Even nominal opposition in the form of national socialist-style experimentation is tied back into it and fulfills a largely supportive role in its perpetuation.

[17] For analysis, see Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010), in which the author says that bailouts amount to “taxpayers simply buying out the banks, the capitalist class, forgiving them their debts, their transgressions, but only theirs.…  And the banks are using the money, not to lend to anybody but to reduce their leveraging and to buy other banks.  They are busy consolidating their power” (pp. 30–31).

[18] Harvey (2010, p. 216) compares these figures to the $150 billion surplus that it was necessary to invest in 1950 and $420 billion in 1973.  The figures are adjusted for inflation.

[19] The tactic of open rescue generally assumes that activists remain mask-free, unless avoiding health hazards requires them to do otherwise.  Liberated animals are given veterinary care, and placed in safe homes or sanctuaries.  The conditions of exploitation are documented and publicized.  Attention is drawn to the horrors perpetuated by the exploiters.  With activists’ identities revealed, it becomes more difficult to label them as “terrorists.”  However, the method is not without critics.  Some maintain that it is more resource-intensive than clandestine direct action, as it becomes necessary to pay fines and damages, and sometimes cover the legal costs of court trials as well.

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3 thoughts on “Fragments of an Animalist Politics: Veganism and Liberation

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