Hi, all! So I talk a lot about how vegan consumption habits constitute a mere extension of my broader politics of radical anti-capitalism, anti-speciesism, anti-racism, and feminism. Consuming vegan goods hardly constitutes a revolutionary act in and of itself; in fact, I think that believing it does plays right into a capitalist discourse of “purchasing power” and individualism. It’s this belief — which we can call “lifestyle politics” — that I want to discuss and challenge in this post.
What is lifestyle politics? As I understand the term, it stems from an anarchist philosophy of “prefigurative politics”: a belief that in order to work toward the society in which we want to live, we must “build forms of organization today that prefigure the future society” (D’Amato, Feb. 2009). Taking a page from the second-wave feminist book, proponents of lifestyle politics uphold the assertion that “the personal is political,” and attempt “to incorporate their political philosophy into the minute activities of everyday life” (Portwood-Stacer). As you can probably tell, vegan consumption certainly fits under the banner of lifestyle politics, along with environmentally-minded actions like taking shorter showers, and the oft-encouraged process of “checking one’s privilege.”
Of course, nothing is wrong with any of these actions, and they almost always come with positive intent. However, basing one’s politics upon these individual lifestyle actions does a couple of things: 1.) Obscures the necessity of revolutionary organizing. 2.) Perpetuates an individualistic understanding of the world. 3.) Upholds the capitalist rhetoric of “consumer power.”
From a radical socialist perspective, societal change can only come when the workers of the world unite and rise up against the ruling class that systemically exploits the earth and all of its inhabitants in the name of constant profit accumulation. Organizing toward this goal constitutes a political strategy that will bring about the collective liberation we all want to see, and depends upon collaboration with fellow members of the working class.
In contrast, lifestyle politics — instead of calling for exploited peoples to unite against systemic oppression — encourages individuals to opt out (or rather, attempt to opt out) of those systems rather than confronting them, to distance themselves from those around them who are still engaging in “problematic behaviors.” Far from fostering solidarity among oppressed peoples, lifestyle politics can easily animate a “holier than thou,” “me vs. the world” understanding of society in which we begin to demonize individuals as moral failures for acting in certain ways (mostly in ways related to consumption habits), instead of realizing and confronting the larger power structures and systems that condition people’s actions. Indeed, as Poelker notes, within a “personal is political” rhetoric, “[w]e seem to have forgotten that the structural is also political” (emphasis in original).
So, instead of necessitating a collectively determined — based upon a systemic analysis of society’s ills — the best strategy for rising up and winning a struggle against the ruling classes, lifestyle politics concerns itself primarily with “commodity activism” and making “ethical” consumer decisions. Under lifestyle politics, we believe that by buying or boycotting certain goods — an individualized and capitalistic tactic — we can solve a collective problem.
But this is exactly how those in power want us to think. Williams explains further: “If we subscribe to lifestyle politics we then see ourselves exactly as corporate and political elites want us to see ourselves—as consumers. This is not where our power lies. It allows capitalism to go on as before, with more and more environmental damage and pollution, while we are lulled into believing we’re actually doing something.” In fact, lifestyle activism developed specifically to function within the confines of neoliberal capitalism, as the more revolutionary-minded movements of the 1960s and ’70s were on the decline (Poelker). Lifestyle politics, in other words, is designed precisely to not dismantle the very power structures that we fool ourselves into thinking we’re fighting against.
This is all absolutely not to say that I don’t think that every human who is logistically able to do so should practice vegan consumption habits. That would certainly be a enormous shift in the right direction. However, taking that step cannot be where our activism ends. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that getting more vegan options at restaurants, crowdfunding the next innovative vegan company, or buying a new brand of vegan cheese will even make a dent in the capitalist system that constantly infringes upon the bodily autonomy of all beings, human and non. As I’ve asserted many times before, vegan consumption is a mere outgrowth, what I see as a logical extension, of a radical politics that includes anti-speciesism.
So yeah, let’s keep buying our vegan cheese (if we can), but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that doing so is a revolutionary act. Let’s be real revolutionaries. Let’s organize. Let’s undertake a systemic analysis of society’s ills. Let’s learn about the history of struggle for labor, women’s rights, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, indigenous rights, and beyond. Let’s understand that anti-speciesism and all other forms of oppression won’t be eradicated until we move beyond capitalism. Let’s do this all and more, and let’s do it collectively, united, together.
In solidarity, Ali.
Allen, Emma. “Lifestyle politics, good intentions, and the road to hell.” Freedom Socialist: Voice of Revolutionary Feminism. December 2010. Web. 18 August 2015.
Bennett, W. Lance. “Branded Political Communication: Lifestyle Politics, Logo Campaigns, and the Rise of Global Citizenship.” Chapter in Michele Micheletti, Andreas Follesdal, and Dietlind Stolle. The Politics Behind Products. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, forthcoming.
D’Amato, Paul. “How do anarchists see change happening?” SocialistWorker.org. 26 March 2009, Issue 693. Web. 18 August 2015.
–. “Refusing to be ruled over.” SocialistWorker.org. 27 February 2009, Issue 691. Web. 18 August 2015.
International Socialist Review. “Anarchism: How Not to Make a Revolution.” International Socialist Review. N. dat., n. pag. Web. 18 August 2015.
Lewis, Tom. “Empire strikes out.” International Socialist Review 24 (July-August 2002): n. pag. Web. 18 August 2015.
Muldoon, Amy. “Let them eat (organic) cake.” SocialistWorker.org. 31 August 2009. Web. 18 August 2015.
Poelker, Ryne. “Does it help to ‘check privilege’?” SocialistWorker.org. 15 October 2013. Web. 18 August 2015.
Portwood-Stacer, Laura. Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Web. 18 August 2015.
Williams, Chris. “Marxism and the environment.” International Socialist Review 72 (July 2010): n. pag. Web. 18 August 2015.
Z, Mickey. “Lifestyle Changes (Like Going Vegan) Won’t End Capitalism.” World News Trust. 12 April 2015. Web. 20 August 2015.