Beyond “Animal Rights”

This post was also featured on Species and Class.

Welcome to the week, everyone! A couple of months ago I put into writing some reflections upon the consumerist base of the mainstream “vegan” movement (I enclose vegan in quotation marks because I feel that its real meaning has been obscured, which I will expand upon below), and today I want to complicate the movement’s primary framing of its goal as achieving “animal rights.”

First, I’d like to lay out my understanding of veganism – built upon the work of other radical activists before me – as a radical politics steeped in anti-speciesism (if we define speciesism as the belief of the inherent superiority of human beings over all other beings on earth). As Ida Hammer notes, veganism is a social change movement “based on the […] ideal of non-exploitation,” and certain practices like eating an animal-free diet logically flow from this principle that we should not exploit others (November 2008). This view of veganism as a struggle for societal change rightly frames vegans as those “who seek out the root of a problem so that [they] may strike at it for a solution” (Dominick)—the definition of a radical. As radicals, vegans “base [their] choices on a radical understanding of what animal oppression really is, and [their] lifestyle is highly informed and politicized” (Dominick), rather than steeped in the mere refusal to consume the bodies of other animals.

To form a radical movement, activists must move beyond measures to reform existing structures of oppression, and instead demand a revolutionary dismantling and rebuilding of society. In the wise words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

However, the mainstream “vegan” movement focuses heavily on reforming oppressive structures, such as lobbying for legislation to ban gestation crates and other forms of cruelty found in animal agriculture, and shifting the animal-based market to a plant-based (but still capitalist) one. Generally, the movement takes the stance that human conceptions of other animals can shift to embrace anti-speciesism under the exploitative structures of capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy that have constructed our notions of being. Um, no.

Another exploitative structure that the mainstream “vegan” movement upholds is the nation-state, defined academically as “a form of political organization in which a group of people who share the same history, traditions, or language live in a particular area under one government” (Merriam-Webster). The modern world was founded upon the nation-state, and structures all dominant forms of political life today. Perceiving itself in a state of perpetual crisis under the “threat” of those who do not fit the standardized definition of a citizen (think of refugees, immigrants, “terrorists,” etc.), the nation-state “undertake[s] the management of the biological life of the nation directly as its own task” (Agamben). In other words, the nation-state controls the lives of all those within its jurisdiction (and often those beyond).

One integral aspect of the nation-state is the notion of rights. Though posited as a set of values by which the nation-state’s legislative body must abide in order to ensure the well-being of its citizens, rights truly function as another method of control by deeming certain bodies as worthy of political life, and others as lesser beings unable to function as fully political beings. As historian Faisal Devji notes, rights “can only be guaranteed by states and are thus never truly in the possession of those who bear them” (3099); indeed, it is only in forms of political organization in which power is concentrated in elite hands that rights come to hold any meaning (Fotopoulous & Sargis).

Thus, by advocating for the bestowal of rights upon other animals, “vegan” activists work to uphold the inherently violent and oppressive nation-state—a structure that must be challenged in order for the collective liberation of all beings to truly take form.

The “vegan” movement’s operation within a rights-based framework also works to more explicitly uphold speciesism, since it assumes that other animals desire to be indoctrinated into our anthropocentric institution of the nation-state. This framework therefore implies the superiority of human-created ideas and structures over those of other beings.

So if not rights, then for what should we as radical vegans strive? I definitely don’t purport to have all the answers here, but I would like to share with you some of Gandhi’s lesser-known ideas – as paraphrased by Devji and further interpreted by me – about how to reconceptualize what it might mean to act as a political being. Though abstract, these ideas have certainly opened up for me new possibilities of what form radical veganism might take.

Gandhi proposed and enacted a politics based on moral duties rather than rights, in which each individual would commit to their moral duties rather than fighting for their rights, such that we no longer have any dependence on the state. Our duties would question how one’s self ought relate to others, and in a way that does not prioritize one’s own needs. In this politics, we would think of ourselves as moral agents rather than victims whose rights are threatened. Even though the focus in this politics would be on the individual, this focus would not be a neoliberal one since it’s devoted to building relationships and community with others.

What do ya’ll think—do you find Gandhi’s framework helpful? What do you consider to be the goals of radical veganism? It’s questions like these that I ponder on a daily basis, so I’d really love to hear your thoughts.

In solidarity, Ali.


References

Agamben, Giorgio. Means without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.

Anonymous. “Animal Liberation: Devastate to Liberate, or Devastatingly Liberal?” The Anarchist Library. 8 May 2009. Web. 20 February 2015.

Devji, Faisal. The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Kindle file.

Dominick, Brian A. “Animal Liberation and Social Revolution.” The Anarchist Library. 1997. Web. 20 February 2015.

Fotopoulos, Takis and John Sargis. “Human Liberation vs. Animal Liberation.” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy 2.3 (June 2006): n. pag. Web. 20 February 2015.

Hammer, Ida. “Reclaiming Veganism from the Margins.” The Vegan Ideal. 21 June 2008. Web. 20 February 2015.

—. “Veganism: Not to be Confused with Animal Rights.” The Vegan Ideal. 19 November 2008. Web. 20 February 2015.

“Nation-state.” Merriam Webster. Web. 20 February 2015.

Staudenmeier, Peter. “Ambiguities of Animal Rights.” Institute for Social Ecology. 1 January 2005. Institute for Social Ecology. Web. 20 February 2015.

Subversive Energy. “Beyond Animal Liberation.” The Anarchist Library. 27 May 2012. Web. 20 February 2015.

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11 thoughts on “Beyond “Animal Rights”

  1. Laurie Johnston says:

    Very interesting Ali, a lot to think about here. I am curious what system would be preferable to capitalism? I am reading Conscious Capitalism right now and it is shifting my ideas about the system itself being inherently bad. As pointed out in the book, crony capitalism has created a hugely unfair system but that is not the same as capitalism in its truest form. Just thinking out loud here!

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Hey, Laurie! Thanks for the comment. I haven’t read that text, but from my understandings of the origins and definition of capitalism, it’s a system that depends upon the continued accumulation of natural resources. Since resources are not infinitely renewable, capitalism is doomed to implode, and I have a hard time seeing how it can be done in a “conscious” way (unless we’re all just masochistic…?). Would be interested to hear how the book defines the differences between “crony capitalism” and “true capitalism” — will have to look into it! 🙂

  2. James says:

    This article had me thinking all morning about how to reframe “animal rights” without using statist language. My best attempt so far is “non-human animal autonomy”, which is admittedly a bit of a mouthful.

  3. veganelder says:

    I was steered to your blog by a long-time reader since she noticed that the some of my more recent writings were similar to some of the issues you address in your blog. I’m very appreciative of the references you provide with your posts.

    It has seemed to me for some time that moving to a way of human living that avoided exploiting the other Earthlings (and avoiding human exploitation of other humans as well as moving away from exploiting Earth) was going to necessitate profoundly more change than is immediately apparent (at least it worked that way for me) when someone first comes to a vegan stance.

    Capitalism (and I know this isn’t the dictionary definition of that system) essentially means…insofar as I can tell…getting more out of something than you put into it…at least that’s what it has come to mean currently. That’s simply absurd and cannot continue.

    But where to go from here…jeez…it’s one thing to say that the current way of doing things has to change…it’s quite another to apprehend what’s a more just (by just I mean fair) replacement.

    A woman named Anne Bishop ( http://www.becominganally.ca/Becoming_an_Ally/Home.html) and a fellow by the name of Chris Crass (http://www.chriscrass.org/) have both been struggling with issues of social change and equality and fairness for a number of years and I’m finding that there is much substance (and maybe even wisdom) in some of their works. I tend to lend more weight to the thoughts of those who are immersed in struggles for social change simply because I’m more trusting of the observations of those who’ve been smacked around by life than I am of the thoughts of those who’ve mostly been hanging out around the library.

    Mr. Crass suggests (my understanding of his ideas, anyway) that activist groups must struggle not only with avoiding recreating systems of oppression that operate in the larger society within their own configuration but must…via necessity…arrange themselves in ways that mimic the structure that they strive to bring to the society at large. Ms. Bishop has many observations about these same sorts of things. Since there are no model societies to which we can look at for guidance, it seem sensible to me to consider the ways in which activist groups arrange themselves.

    I’m in the midst of trying to wrap my mind around the plethora of structural oppressions that permeate the large social systems that currently exist. I confess that being immersed in such occludes my being able to see much beyond that at this time. But…one of the benefits of being in such an overwhelming morass is that it offers the opportunity of being able to identify what is not acceptable and sometimes that helps point toward a better direction.

    I appreciate that you’re pondering the issues you raise and I look forward to becoming better acquainted with your efforts.

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Wow, thank you for this thoughtful and thorough comment! I really appreciate the work that you do, as well. I’m a huge fan of Chris Crass’ work, and will have to check out Anne Bishop.

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