Fragments of an Animalist Politics: Veganism and Liberation

This is an essay developed from a post previously published here. It was solicited by George from Greece, to be made available there as a pamphlet for vegan activists. I will try to make a print-ready version available with the hope that anyone interested can proliferate the text wherever they see fit: animalist gatherings, conferences, protests, whatever. Meanwhile, it will also be published in an anthology of essays in Critical Animal Theory in Canada, edited by Professor John Sorenson from Brock University. Thanks George for encouraging me to write this, as well as to John for suggesting we get it published. Thanks also to Arianna Ferrari, Scott Hurley, John Sanbonmatsu, Federico Berghmans, and Loredana Loy for their invaluable suggestions, corrections, and criticism. The following should turn out to be the final version. Thank you for continuing to visit this archive. Keep coming back!

Fragments of an Animalist Politics: Veganism and Liberation

Both animal oppression 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 involved directly, 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 over 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 necessary. Therefore I assume the following query 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 nullifiy 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?

§Three Degrees of Insufficiency

Animal liberation is not an uncontested goal among activists. Many continue to struggle simply for so-called animal welfare. Some do so because they fail to see that animal husbandry−behavioral manipulation, breeding, captivity−constitutes abhorrent slavery. Face to face, pushed hard enough, they will confess to believing that it is possible to be both fundamentally unfree and “happy.” But isn’t this a mere shadow of a fulfilled life?

As reformists, they have no good reason either to be vegan or to promote veganism, settling instead for what amounts to a mere loosening of the proverbial shackles put on other animals. The fundamental structure of animal exploitation is left unquestioned, unchallenged, untouched. Underlying the reformist project is a series of convictions. To note only some, it is said that 1) the evils of animal oppression ought not to be exaggerated. Bigger cages, some pasture, less antibiotics, more daylight etc., et voilà−a happy horse, pig, hen. One has a feeling that reformists fail to see past the reductionist stereotypes of other animals as reflex-driven, one-dimensional feeding/breeding machines. Traces of their resistance to oppression are routinely erased.[1] But even numbed-down by ages of domestication, animals do not accept their oppressive condition other than through learned helplessness. Meanwhile, there is a frenzied, mechanized giant claiming the lives of billions upon billions of animals year by year. On the face of it, nothing is an exaggeration.

Next, it is claimed that 2) the system is too pervasive to be abolished. Perhaps, but no one can say so without profound, long-term experimentation with radical alternatives. Besides, there is something about radical activism that clearly transcends rational calculation. Radicalism has a distinctly wild side, borne out of outrage at oppression and, in a sense, bigger than life itself. It is deeply embedded in our animal natures which, unrepressed, cannot bear standing idly by and doing nothing in face of suffering.

Relatedly, it is held that 3) radicalism is dangerous, whereas gradual change is safe. I can only reiterate that one is not doing activism for a sense of security; the job involves significant risk. However, if it’s dangerous to struggle for liberation, it is only because of how unfree other animals, and we ourselves, are. We’re being pushed into a corner, gradually stripped of our rights to protest this lamentable condition. It’s fine to invoke Dr. King, remade into a harmless myth, but Trotsky is off limits. Seen in this light, the next thesis sounds as ludicrous as it should, namely that 4) we all work towards the same end. Clearly, we do not. We don’t all accept systematic animal exploitation as something to merely tinker with. In fact, it is important for liberationists who, by definition, strive for paradigm-shifting emancipation, to disidentify from the reformists. Only by doing so can we pressure them into explaining why they go bankrupt before oppression, and persuade them into taking a stronger stance.

Right after the traditional reformists on this confused scene come the neo-reformists,[2] 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, their self-description is reduced to a hodge-podge of superficially radical slogans. It is as if their operations are reflexively accompanied by a wink: “this is not for real.” Animal enterprises and the public seem to understand; activists often don’t. 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.[3] Before a counter-argument arises, let me insist on a simple truth: there is no humane routine killing of animal slaves destined from their birth to become a chicken nugget. To suggest otherwise is to confuse victory with 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 and make exploitation more profitable. Additionally, animal products now 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. Another winner. And who loses? A multitude of animal victims abandoned to the uncontested grinding of the machine.

Though many supporters will deny it, reformist and neo-reformist organizations have become a part of the animal exploitation complex and need it every bit as much as it needs them. Odds are that 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, most probably that group is positioned centrally, surrounded by smaller, perhaps more radical organizations and coalitions. 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 is animal liberation completely marginalized.

The final current of activism to be discerned can more justifiably be called liberationist. For its proponents veganism has become the be-all and end-all, traced back to the establishment of the Vegan Society in Britain in 1944. It isn’t at all insignificant that activists align their advovacy with personal practice. This sort of transformation has an implicitly political,  prefigurative dimension to it. But even Gandhi with his “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 and no 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 social alienation 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 others’ 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 kickstarting a pristine society by retreating from the drudgery of the old into communes, phalansters etc. By confining ourselves to our own ranks, we seem to think it alright 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 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 heads. It is a crisis of consciousness.

Gary Francione has become an activist celebrity noted for a face-to-face, case-by-case approach to combating 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.[6] Although his popularity has perhaps waned since the publication of his more original work, I think of Francione as a one-man apogee of the veganism-centered 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? To have things to do? There are many potential vegans, of course. Who knows, maybe all those who are not yet vegan, are vegan in potentia and only resist 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 high amount of our precious time.

Like the other activities 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 on 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 tend to spend a considerable amount of time on web sites that resonate with their interests and ethical preferences. These, however, drown in a sea of other sites, either “neutral”−fostering pervasive liberal indifference−or 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 with the eyes of a realistic and pragmatic strategist, we will see ourselves as weak. This is the first step to take in order to awake 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.”[7] 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.”[8] We too secretly hope that serious change does not come. Or else, that once 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 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 such a bigger picture.[9] 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 day-to-day actions of individuals 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 the 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. In order to decipher links between oppression and liberation, we will have to see 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, 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.[10] Though occuring in pre-capitalist forms of society, under capitalism they come to constitute the universal form of society’s reproduction.[11] 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 where our vital needs are still satisfied are largely coincidental, or related to the continued and diminishing existence of extra-capitalist forms of distribution. But there is really no address to which to send complaints: the wealthy follow the rhythms of accumulation which 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.”[12]

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 sucked into a powerful whirlwind whereafter 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 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 like toothpaste or soap.[13] Within this approach, compassion thus joins the movement of commodities as 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 grow in influence and power. Tied into commodity-logic and ever more cognizant of its financial bottomline, that organization will turn into a profit-seeking corporation focused on increasing its market value. All of it long before any measure of success in reducing demand for animal flesh and labor 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 who profit from niche, lifestyle-based consumption. Oddly enough, it becomes fashionable to be vegan, if only the reasons are harmless enough 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.[14] 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.”[15] 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 positions 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 converges with technoscience[16] in an attempt at sweeping traces of ambivalence away as unacceptable. 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 a given, unquestioned structure, and not just in the way we think but also in how we act on a daily basis. Inseparable from ubiquity of technology is the social domination of instrumental rationality. Everything, including life itself,[17] becomes a matter of technique; everything becomes a question of rational management. Zygmunt Bauman observes the very accesibility of technology “redefines successive parts of human reality as problems clamouring for resolution.”[18] 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 one within ourselves which divides us into an analyzing, computer-like mind and a mechanical body; 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.

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 modes of knowing that make it possible. How is one to even conceive of the felt intelligence of a cow if one has scarcely ever been around one? How is one to appreciate the support of the earth under our 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?[19] 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. “Call the guy!” becomes the default response to a nuisance. Year by year technoscientific mediation deepens our estrangement from the life of our animal senses. We bump into one another as if on autopilot in the street, ear glued to the phone, eyes in a blank stare. Cell phones, smart phones, x-phones−who can remember life back when having none of these was “necessary?” Yet here we are, perceptually maimed and half-awake.

Crowded into urban dwellings inhospitable to nonhuman others, we seem to see human faces wherever we turn but we’re scarcely able to relate. This is not due to a crisis of humanist values, nor to insufficient will to “do the right thing,” We seem to adapt to mass society only by “spacing out,” shutting off whatever world we live in, and thus becoming unable to relate to our immediate surroundings with the fullness of bodied attention. In the midst of this remoteness from the reality of the senses, we are desperate for experiences of more-than-human otherness and re-grounding 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.”[20]

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…[21]

A promising statement, unfortunately followed by the repetition of a familiar theme. Rather than a commodity, nature “is the one great common to which we all have an equal right but for which we also bear an immense equal responsibility.”[22] It can be supposed that wolves and cows and ravens are not part of the “we” but rather 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 re-immersion 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 regimentaton 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, 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 in which alternative ways of organizing society are expressed, they can rise up 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 there ever 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.[23]

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, with old ones being insufficient due to progressive market saturation. At the same time capitalists are continually fighting off a progressive, if occasionally interrupted, rise in costs of production.[24] 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, to a large degree, are South and South-east Asia and Africa.[25] 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.”[26] 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 bail-outs and other measures.[27] Crises of increasing magnitude are inherent in capital’s way of operation. Perhaps at this point capitalism is burning out already and ultimately nothing can save it; Immanuel Wallerstein 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.[28]

For capital to exist at all as capital, it must move in cycles of expanding investment. With each cycle a surplus is produced that must then be re-invested to establish an annual compound growth of about 3 per cent 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 in 2030.[29] One must ask: with no opportunities for 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 the dying machine with taxpayers’ money suffice?

Or 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.”[30] Whether or not Harvey is right on this point, clearly “the capitalist class will never willinglly surrender its power.” It most certainly “will have to be dispossessed.”[31] These increasingly turbulent times can turn out to be not only tragic but opportune for decisive political action. It will take a co-ordinated, focused, immense force to make a wobbly giant fall. The problem is what takes his place; the circumstances of practical life after capitalism will make for 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 from what the innumerable beings of the earth are suffering today.

Of course, the critique above 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 them originate within the priviliged 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 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, 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 in the cultural and institutional order of the West. Normalization of animal oppression is synchronized with family, school, peer-group, and professional life. This process consists of many familiar steps. It starts with the animal parts and secretions that children actually consume from early on. Then it proceeds with pictures of flesh and milk right next to cows in elementary school coursebooks that lecture kids on “what cows are for.” Somewhere along the way it acclimates one to established leisure-time patterns−fishing, hunting, the occasional grill party etc., 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 breast in case red “meat” really isn’t healthy. They will then take their seats on a sofa wrapped in cowskin and probably glimpse a KFC commercial on TV. All of us will also learn fairly quickly that there are “people” and then, far below, there are “animals.” What the average person ends up with at the outset of their adult life is a largely unspoken conviction of how “necessary” and “rational” it is for animal exploitation to continue. With animal use come civilization and progress, and who would dare to question these? 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 in the least guarantee victory. If history was 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 lured with 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 to it all of their talent and most of their energy.

There are some among us whose skills equal theirs, and whose dedication is altogether unparalleled. But our ranks are incomparably more modest, we have less time on our hands, complicated lives to navigate, critically limited access to invaluable resources, we are organizationally dispersed and ideologically confused. Against us stands an economic power 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 USA and Britain. And it will only intensify, taking full advantage of our strategic weaknesses. In addition to what has already been discussed, these  consist in 1) the currently prevalent model of animalist activism in the movement and 2) the apoliticism of the otherwise promising abolitionist veganism.

1) The model is characterized above all by a split into the reformist organization and the covert direct action cell scattered among the others in the underground. The top tier of aboveground activists tends to become professionalized, and 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 underground activists, dedicated and skillful, are on the whole fairly quickly incapacitated by the far more powerful law ennforcement agencies. Instead of a lifetime of action, their active “careers” probably span no more than a few years. Therefore radicalism is neutralized in two ways: by state-repression underground and financial/bureaucratic incorporation into the mainstream aboveground. 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 accounts. First, it makes repression by law enforcement agencies more difficult by substituting “open rescue”[32] tactics for sabotage. Second, it becomes harder for corporate businesses to co-opt such abolitionist organizations due to their non-negotiable moral baseline.

2) The vegan platform’s weakness lies in its failure to grasp its own broader meaning, potential, and place. For we are facing a challenge 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 façade of tolerance there lurks a perpetual, behind-the-scenes holocaust. Saul Bellow writes poignantly in Herzog,

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.[33]

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 incudes and deepens the foundations of past radical movements. It should be obvious by now that veganism cannot become an end in itself, 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 tear society out of liberal apoliticism.

It is in the interest of the wealthy and against the interest of the rest of us that the majority feels disgusted with politics. And yet here we are, shooting ourselves in the knee. 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. Furthermore, the liberal civil society has been the guarantor of the freedoms of “a minority perpetually en route−says Wallerstein−to becoming everyone.”[34] Being a speciesist and class-based construct, it never did and never would stand for everyone. It diffuses its overarching hegemony beneath a fake 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, struggle against capital on which cultural and political formations are highly dependent.[35] A bunch of scattered activists will not be able to take advantage of political and ideological momentum. Only a vibrant political movement might, and only if it is able to use the weaknesses of the system against it as soon as it reveals them.

There is a concretness to grassroots political action that will help re-ground theory and orient the otherwise confused practice. It’s a potent tool for all 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.

One can drop bombs from a safe distance but not effect social change. Detachment is what enables oppression in the first place, be it physical, ontological, 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 chances 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 to plain sight. The first ones to see it ought to be other Left radicals, already sensitive to the suffering of fellow humans, and 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 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 which undergirds them all, and all opposition as such. Therefore, the mode in which veganism ought to function is one of permeation, one of going beneath. That is, it should move through and across the entire Left, helping to found a basis for the struggle against all oppression. It will thus begin to unite the innumerable local and piecemeal struggles already underway and scattered across the face of the earth. Animal liberation is both a germ of and movement toward an emergent, post-capitalist form of human life. It will not be centrally planned. It need not be jumpstarted with a name. What it does require is that our animal desire be reforged into political will and determination, and sustained over generations to come.

 

 


[1] See J. Hribal, Fear of Animal Planet. The Hidden History of Animal Resistance. Oakland: Counterpunch/AK Press 2011.

[2] I use the term “neo-reformism” instead of the popular “new welfarism” to indicate the provenance of this current of activism with historical tendencies of other movements. The history of socialism, feminism, black liberation, environmental, and other movements provides telling examples of co-optation of the opposition by the establishment. New-welfarists are precisely the neo-reformists of the animalist movement−radicals turned collaborators. Within a few years the “neo-” in “neo-reformism” might become altogether obsolete as even the rhetorical remnants of once-radical positions are abandoned. For an analysis of new-welfarism see G. Francione, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement. Philadelphia: Temple UP 1996 (2007).

[3] Historic Victory! PETA Settles with KFC Canada: http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/media/links/p144/agreement.pdf. For more information on PETA’s campaign for “controlled atmosphere killing” (CAK) of chickens and turkeys, see: http://www.peta.org/features/the-case-for-controlled-atmosphere-killing.aspx. Notice how the organization openly identifies with the exploiters’ economic interest 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 re-formulation to incorporate the liberation of human animality.

[5] See M. Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. Oakland: AK Press 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 essay, although it would follow from the line of argument presented here.)

[6] G. Francione, Effective Animal Rights Advocacy−In Three Easy Steps, http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/effective-animal-rights-advocacy-in-three-steps/, accessed Oct 5 2012. Even though Francione might not truly believe this to the letter, the gros of his activity has been devoted to fostering this kind of approach.

[7] I. Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. New York: Oxford UP 1978 (4th edition), 9.

[8] ibid.

[9] 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 which 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 all these reasons, and possibly more, activists prefer to plow their little plot rather than engage in research into processes that underlie the existence of seemingly separate issues.

[10] K. Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy.Vol. I. Trans. by Ben Fowkes. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books 1976. On page 163 Marx writes that analysis of the commodity “brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtelties and theological niceties.” 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.

[11] G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness. Trans. R. Livingstone. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press 1968 (1971). On page 86 György 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” (italics in original).

[12] K. Marx, Capital…165.

[13] Quoted in D. Nibert, Animal Rights, Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation. New York & Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2002, 244.

[14] See Michael Steinberg’s discussion of capitalism as a factor engendering the experience of this sense of self in his Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press 2005, ch. 9.

[15] Compare with M. Buber, I and Thou. Trans. R. G. Smith. Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark 1937. I don’t hesitate to broaden the humanistic and theological basis of Buber’s dichotomy of I-Thou and I-It relationships to include interspecies 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 would epitomizes the mutual alienation of the oppressor and the oppressed.

[16] For the purposes of this essay I assume the term “technoscience” to refer to a complex of processes of production that form a crucial aspect of the modern worldview. Matters of technical manipulation, bureaucratic administration, replicability, and quantifiability assume in it a paramount importance. 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 science-technology 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 left-over 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.” See Z. Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press 1991, 7-8. Modernity and capitalism cannot be reduced to one another but are mutually reinforcing and intimately related phenomena.

[17] For a discussion of the inclusion of life “as such” into the capitalist dynamic under the neo-liberal regime, see e.g. M. Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: University of Washington Press 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.” Z. Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence… 9.

[18] Z. Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge and Maldon: Polity Press 1991, 220, italics in original.

[19] See David Abram’s eco-phenomenological analysis in Spell of the Sensuous.Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Vintage Books 1996 and Becoming Animal. An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books 2011.

[20] M. Merleau-Ponty, In Praise of Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans J. Wild and J. E. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern UP 1963, 43, quoted in M. Jay, Marxism and Totality. Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1984, 376.

[21] D. Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. New York: Oxford UP 2010, 234.

[22] ibid., 234-5, italics mine.

[23] I. Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis. An Introduction. Durham and London: Duke UP 2004, ch. 5, where 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” (76-7). Wallerstein goes on to elaborate on the contradictions of the system in detail, something I cannot afford to do here.

[24] Wallerstein calls neoliberal globalization just such a “massive political attempt [by capitalists - KF] 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−says Wallerstein−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.” See I. Wallerstein, After Developmentalism and Globalization, What? [in:] Social Forces, vol. 83, no. 3 (Mar 2005), 1272-3

[25] 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.

[26] D. Harvey, The Enigma of Capital…, 217.

[27] For analysis see Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital where he says that bail-out amounts 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” (30-1).

[28] I. Wallerstein, The Economic Recovery That Isn’t Happening, http://www.iwallerstein.com/economic-recovery-happening/, accessed Oct 5 2012.

[29] ibid., 216. Harvey compares these figures to the $0.15 trillion surplus which it was necessary to invest in 1950 and $0.42 trillion in 1973. The figures are adjusted for inflation.

[30] D. Harvey, Enigma of Capital…, 260.

[31] ibid.

[32] The tactic of open rescue generally assumes that activists remain mask-free, unless avoiding health-hazards requires 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 harder to label them “terrorists.” See, for example, http://www.nzopenrescue.org.nz/index.html. The method is not without critics. Some maintain that it is more resorce-intensive than clandestine direct action; it becomes necessary to pay fines and damages, and sometimes the legal costs of court trials as well.

[33] S. Bellow, Herzog, London: Penguin: New York 2003, 315.

[34] I. Wallerstein, After Liberalism. New York: The New Press 1995, 2.

[35] V. Chibber, Capitalism and the State. Lecture at the New York Marxist School 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5R-9X_BtP4, accessed Oct 8 2012.

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

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