Veganism and Prison Abolition

I've noticed that whenever people talk about "humane treatment" they're usually referring to either nonhuman animals or humans who are imprisoned or otherwise institutionally confined and controlled. I guess this makes sense since keeping people in cages and under complete control resembles how nonhuman animals are general treated in our society. Similarly, the term "cruelty" is usually applied to the treatment of nonhuman animals, human children, and human prisoners. In fact, "humane treatment" and "cruelty" are really paired terms, with the former suggested as the remedy to the latter. (Read more...)

Backlash and Name Calling

Some activists and organizations co-opting "vegan" use a number of misrepresentations in the form of labels, stereotypes, mockery, and caricatures against those who resist the co-option of veganism. An example is VO, an organization that favors two pejorative misrepresentations of vegans: "symbolic vegan" and "vegan police." Both of these labels are examples of a backlash against veganism by an organization explicitly attempting to co-opt the vegan movement.

Co-opting 'Vegan'

This revisionist approach is used by organizations and activists working, both covertly and overtly, to co-opt veganism and redefine it in accordance with Singer's implicit claim that veganism is unreasonable and indefensible. Attention is restricted to the "worst abuses" and specific "horrors" at the expense of challenging the structure of human supremacy and the ideology that supports it. (Read more...)

Veganism and Opposing the Status Quo

The vegan movement was formed in opposition to the fact that "our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals." In order to remain relevant, veganism must remain in opposition to a society built on the exploitation of animals. Veganism can never be "legitimate" in a society based on human supremacy. (Read more...)

The Personal is Political

Veganism is a good example of how consciousness-raising about our everyday actions is important to challenging the structure of oppression and exploitation. Veganism takes everyday "personal" actions (e.g., eating, dressing, and recreating) and calls out the political dimensions of these actions. It reveals how eating, wearing, and otherwise using nonhuman animals is not a mere "personal" act, but a dimension of exploitation and human privilege. It makes a connection between the personal action and the political structure of our society. (Read more...)

Veganism and Creating a Shift in Power

Today, Frances Moore Lappé was interviewed on Democracy Now! about her new book Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity & Courage in a World Gone Mad. I recommend checking out the interview; a lot of the things that Lappé talks about are relevant to veganism.

Lappé discusses how the global food crisis is ideological and how this ideology has lead us to "accept a power-centralizing, power-concentrating economy" against our "food-sharing instinct." She also talks about models throughout the world where people are ending hunger, and the shift from things that make us dependent to the empowerment of ourselves and community. (Read more...)

Veganism: It's No Accident

As a social movement that seeks to radically transform the structure of society, veganism requires forethought, reflection, and critical thinking. When "accidental" or "accidentally" is added to "vegan" it misrepresents veganism as a mindless act; it disregards the moral, social, and political substance of veganism.

In her cookbook, The Accidental Vegan, Devra Gartenstein writes, "Over time I drew a considerable vegan clientele and saw that the more dairy-free choices I offered, the more food I sold." She openly admits that her decision to prepare only animal-free food was "mercenary" – that is, motivated by a desire for monetary gain – as opposed to being based on vegan principles.

I'm sure this seems unproblematic to many people. After all, she's not using animal-derived ingredients in her recipes, right? Well, if she just called it "animal-free" cooking I might feel the same, but I think it's careless to label something "vegan" just because it's animal-free, especially if it's only "accidental." The problem has to do with how veganism is reduced from an active social movement working to produce social change to a passive consumer base that is dependent on markets.

This is more explicit with PETA's "accidentally vegan" website. It starts with an introduction that argues how vegans can easily assimilate into existing consumer patterns and includes this a disclaimer:

Items listed may contain trace amounts of animal-derived ingredients. While PETA supports a strict adherence to veganism, we put the task of vigorously reducing animal suffering ahead of personal purity. Boycotting products that are 99.9 percent vegan sends the message to manufacturers that there is no market for this food, which ends up hurting more animals.

This site is yet another example of the neoliberal assault on veganism. We're told that unless we assimilate to the marketplace and become careless consumers who don't read labels, ask questions, or make a fuss, we'll "end up hurting more animals." Ironically, PETA blames individual vegans who refuse to cooperate with the systemic exploitation of nonhuman animals for "hurting" those animals. Implicit in their claim is that the multinational corporations listed on their website, all of which are major exploiters of nonhuman (and human) animals, are the saviors of those same animals.

PETA's entire premise is completely absurd. It is silly to claim that not purchasing "accidentally vegan" products (which in fact are not even really animal-free) "sends the message to manufacturers that there is no market for this food." First, how can not buying products not even intentionally marketed as animal-free send the message that there isn't a market for animal-free products? And second, if we did buy these products when they aren't even 100 percent animal-free, wouldn't that just send the message that we don't really desire products that are 100 percent animal-free?

Of course, my problem is that I'm interested in the vegan ideal of non-exploitation, and PETA is obviously more concerned about the capitalist ideal of "free" markets. So we're talking about two different things. Rather than promoting social change, PETA wants us to conform and assimilate to the existing social order.

The vegan ideal is not going to be realized by accident or by the "invisible hand" of "free" markets. Eliminating exploitation is going to require us to consciously challenge and transform the structure of our society. Capitalism is part of the problem, not the solution.

More On Neoliberal Appropriation

A key element of neoliberalism that I didn't mention in my previous post is "personal responsibility." The focus on personal responsibility by neoliberals leads to over-personalization and ignores the structure of oppression. Neoliberals (re)define veganism and other social movements "as more a matter of personal responsibility – a private, primarily economic matter," to quote Lisa Duggan. We see this in Bruce Friedrich's essay on "Effective Advocacy."

Instead of challenging the structure of human privilege and nonhuman exploitation, Friedrich focuses purely on personalization and guilt-laden accusations. He defines veganism not as challenging human supremacy and speciesism, but as a diet to be assimilated and mainstreamed into the dominant social order. As he explains thing, what matters is how vegans dress and interact with others, as if this is what really "helps" or "hurts" nonhuman animals.

Personal responsibility is used to blame those who are most oppressed for oppression. For instance, Friedrich claims, "If you are frequently sick, drop dead from a heart attack, or end up in the chemotherapy ward, you're making veganism look bad, and you're no longer able to help animals!" This statement suggests that you can't be vegan if you're disabled or suffer from chronic illness.

Friedrich claims in the first line of his essay, "I've been involved in social justice advocacy for more than 20 years." However, later in the essay he calls social justice advocacy a "mistake" that "ultimately hurts animals." He writes, "If we make veganism and animal rights a package deal that includes other issues, it will be easier for others to dismiss us." By "others" read: straight white middle/upper-class able-bodied male citizens. (Friedrich claims "the best advocates for animals" are reactionary politicians like Bob Dornan, who, while campaigning against a female opponent, proudly proclaimed, "Every lesbian spear-chucker in this country is hoping I get defeated.")

As the tag line for the Vegans of Color blog makes clear, not everyone has the luxury of being single-issue. In claiming that we shouldn't link veganism with other social justice issues, Friedrich is excluding all oppressed people from being a part of the vegan movement. He perpetuates their oppression and privileges of the dominant groups. Oppressed people can't be full participants in a movement where they are expected to view their own liberation as competing with the liberation of nonhuman animals.

Of course, Friedrich's essay is not really about effective vegan advocacy at all, rather, it's about effective neoliberal advocacy. From the start, as explained in the founding statement of the Vegan Society, the aims of the vegan movement include honoring the efforts of all who are striving to achieve liberation for human and nonhuman animals.

Other social justice issues don't distract or compete with veganism, but, rather, strengthen the vegan movement. As Suzanne Phar points out:

It is virtually impossible to view one oppression ... in isolation because they are all connected. ... They are linked by a common origin – economic power and control – and by common methods of limiting, controlling and destroying lives. There is not hierarchy of oppressions. Each is terrible and destructive. To eliminate one oppression successfully, a movement has to include work to eliminate them all or else success will be limited and incomplete.

The Neoliberal Appropriation of Veganism

In Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights, Bob Torres claims, "Veganism can be deeply political and meaningful, but as an historical and social practice, it has failed to live up to the political possibilities it offers." The problem with this statement is that Torres takes veganism out of the historical and social context. As such, he fails to realize that veganism hasn't failed, but, rather, it has been appropriated and misrepresented.

Unfortunately, Torres does more to obscure this appropriation and misrepresentation than to challenge it. He makes no reference to the theory and history of veganism as a social movement. So how can he meaningfully say veganism has "failed" without first recognizing the theory and history of veganism and considering that theory and history in the current historical context?

I think a significant problems is the misunderstanding of veganism as some sort of consumer- or market-based concept. The idea that veganism is "voting with your dollars" is a classic example of "economic imperialism." That is, applying economics to non-economic (e.g., moral, social, or political) aspects of life. In the current historical context, this economic imperialism is epitomized by the neoliberal appropriation of veganism.

A transparent example of this neoliberal appropriation is "Effective Advocacy: Stealing from the Corporate Playbook," an essay by Bruce Friedrich, a vice-president for a nonprofit corporation. This essay uses the received wisdom that what is "effective" in business terms is also effective in terms of "advocacy."

We need to work as hard—and, more important, as smart—as the people on Wall Street work to sell stocks and as hard as advertisers work to sell the latest SUV. Although our goals are different, the mechanisms of reaching other people and selling the message (in our case, of animal liberation) are well established.

Neoliberalism is a historically specific form of liberal (capitalist) ideology where markets are seen as the framework for all political, social, and economic decisions. Thus, when Friedrich makes the stock market and marketing the "mechanisms," and standard of, advocacy effectiveness he is invoking neolibralism.

Since about 1975, neoliberalism has risen to dominance in Western society. Not so incidentally, the emergence of neoliberalism coincides with the publication of Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, and what is termed "the birth of the modern animal rights movement." Singer is in fact a neoliberal philosopher who enthusiastically promotes "free" markets and pro-business activism. These events add context to the undermining of veganism starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It is only in the last decade, however, that the neoliberal appropriation of veganism has really managed to solidify itself. Over the last few years neoliberals have succeeded in promoting their ideology to the point that many people don't know anything about the history, politics, or philosophy of veganism. One of the most prominent events in this solidification of the neoliberal assault on veganism took place in 2002 with the promotion of Burger King's BK VEGGIE© as a "vegan" product. (Subtle reference to the significance of this event is made in Friedrich's essay when he writes about vegans refusing to eat "a veggie burger because of the bun.")

This neoliberal appropriation is why veganism is increasingly misidentified with the consumer-based lifestyle promoted in VegNews magazine. And why, in Making a Killing, Torres uncritical refers to John Mackey's "latter-day conversion to veganism." In fact, the promotion of Mackey, the CEO and president of Whole Foods Market, as a "vegan" is yet another key example of the appropriation of veganism for a neoliberal agenda. By repeating this misrepresentation of Mackey as a "vegan," and ignoring the historical roots of veganism as a liberation movement, Torres obscures the assault on veganism and helps to perpetuate its appropriation.

Veganism and Backlash

As long as human supremacy exists, veganism will engender backlash. Veganism puts pressure on the system of human supremacy, and backlash represents speciesist resistance to loss of privilege and human supremacy.

I'm sure most of us vegans experience some form of backlash on a regular basis. And backlash can take any number of forms – from labels, stereotypes, and mockery to outright verbal and physical abuse. (Read more...)