Lifestyle Politics Won’t Bring Revolution: Veganism is Not Nearly Enough

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.


Resources

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.

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21 thoughts on “Lifestyle Politics Won’t Bring Revolution: Veganism is Not Nearly Enough

  1. Justin Van Kleeck says:

    Great post. So, taking this all as true, do we push hard on a truly revolutionary message for veganism (which is what a lot radical vegans in the straight edge community are doing, for example), or do we drop veganism completely and relegate to the realm of personal lifestyle choice (which is what DxE is doing)?

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Thanks, Justin! I struggle with this question, too, and would really love to hear your thoughts on it. I worry that by taking the straight-edge route, we over-emphasize diet in our anti-speciesist efforts, suggesting to both ourselves and non-vegans that anti-speciesism is just about not eating non-human animals or their secretions. However, I’m not ready to drop veganism completely, as I think that understanding the bodily autonomy of all beings who have interests that can be infringed upon is an important part of anti-speciesism. I know that’s not really an answer, but hey, I’m still working through this, too. I hope it’s helpful in some way. :/

      • Pax Ahimsa Gethen says:

        Straight edge to my understanding eschews alcohol and other mind-altering substances in addition to animal products.

      • Justin Van Kleeck says:

        I mention the straight edge thing simply because I see that community engaging a lot in anarchist/anticapitalist discussion and activism as well, not as a primary model or anything (I personally am not straight edge, so…). I agree that capitalism is way too caught up with mainstream veganism these days, and in many cases it falls short of a broader impact. That said, “boycotting” veganism leaves a lot of questions to be asked and confusion in messaging, as well as leaving out an established ethical framework that has been corrupted by capitalism in recent years.

        I would think that many other models of intersectional veganism that *ARE* worth supporting exist, but the mainstream is not seeing them. That was the entire point of Aph Ko’s recent #BlackVegansRock post at Striving with Systems. And we very clearly see our microsanctuary work as active veganism, even if it does not involve holding up signs in public spaces.

        I think we need to reconsider how “activism” occurs, and how veganism (as an ETHICAL framework and modus vivendi) can be enacted. It is far too easy to simplify things. But the last place we should be looking is the mainstream.

  2. Pax Ahimsa Gethen says:

    I’ve come more and more to realize that total animal liberation – including human and non-human – will be impossible under capitalism. Though from talking with animal liberationists from Denmark, I see that socialist-leaning countries still treat many humans as well as non-humans quite badly. I’ve investigated anarchism but I’m honestly not sure what the best solution is.

    • Gerben says:

      Sorry, but that’s something that can be said about almost anything. It’s the same as saying ‘the best way to cure this disease is to die’. It doesn’t get us anywhere.

  3. Ray Zeed Eyebrow says:

    This is all well and good if one believes that the human endeavor is actually salvageable. In that context, of course nothing is ever ‘enough’. As long as humans are the endpoint (as with the bent of this article), veganism is just another ‘boost’ along that bumpy road.

    But, some of us don’t buy it the societal resurrection myth. With what’s left, we still believe animal lives matter and that the point of veganism is for THEM, entirely independent of whatever we’re trying to do to prop up our own faltering society. In that context, veganism IS enough, because its for them and not for us (ultimately).

  4. N says:

    Thank you so much for this and all of your posts. Yours is one of the few vegan blogs I still love. Many others are way too commercial or only focused on recipes. These are the types of discussions our movement so desperately needs right now.

    I am embarrassed to say that until quite recently I thought my being vegan was enough. That my consumption habits were activism. I want to become more active and involved but am struggling with where to start. What is your opinion of Toronto pig save? Work like that appeals to me, but I would be curious to know what you think is the most efficacious use of time for the movement for someone just getting started in moving away from individualist, capitalist, lifestyle veganism.

    Thanks so much!

    • Ali Seiter says:

      hey, n! thanks for the super kind words, they mean a lot. i think toronto pig save is great, as they make a very real difference in the lives of exploited non-human animals (same thing with sanctuaries). however, that type of activism definitely falls into the reformist — rather than revolutionary — camp, as it doesn’t challenge the systemic nature of capitalist oppression that plagues humans and non-humans alike. it’s not that these reforms aren’t good in the short-term, but in addition to them, we need a systemic analysis, a broad-based organizing platform in solidarity with the rest of the working class.

  5. Madeleine says:

    Great post, thank you. I’ve been struggling very much recently with the idea of a vegan lifestyle as more inaction (simple refusal to take part in certain forms of exploitation) than action, and taking this time to find more effective and active ways to be a stronger activist and ally. I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis.

    I have a question re: the end of your post: “Let’s understand that anti-speciesism and all other forms of oppression won’t be eradicated until we move beyond capitalism.” Do you believe that the goal of the animal liberation movement is to eradicate speciesism all together, to abolish legal nonhuman oppression (e.g. see Nonhuman Rights Project’s work), or something else?

  6. Ali Seiter says:

    thanks, madeleine! it’s definitely a tough realization. i think that the nonhuman rights project and eradicating anti-speciesism can go hand-in-hand, but i think they function in different ways. i mentioned in a comment above the notion of reform vs. revolution. i think that the nonhuman rights project functions as a helpful reform, but one that shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the more systemic goal: revolution against the capitalist ruling class that enforces species-based and all other forms of oppression.

  7. Fran says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post! (I found your blog through Our Hen House, by the way! 🙂 )

    I’ve never considered “personal choice” (and, by extension, “voting with one’s dollars”) to be an acceptable excuse from non-vegans to continue exploiting nonhuman animals. After all, the animals (and poorest human workers) that these non-vegans exploit have no choice but to be subsumed into a system of horrendous suffering.

    As such, I’ve always aspired to change the SYSTEMS that foist environmentally or ethically damning options upon the individual, rather than try to guilt the individual into making a less-convenient “right choice.” I believe that any activist working to change their government’s laws probably has the most direct impact upon society as a whole, surpassing the individual consumer dilemma you raise in this post.

    And yet, laws do not change until enough people’s thoughts and perspectives change to sway the vote in their favor–which is why influencing individuals to go vegan (or become feminists, or stop being racist, or adopt more ecologically sound lifestyles) is still a very worthwhile cause. We can’t change our entire culture (or body of laws) without first swaying a certain percentage of individuals who operate within that system. This is why influencing an individual “consumer’s” actions can ultimately be as valid in the long-term as changing the entire system of oppression that these individuals operate within.

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