Abolition, Liberation and Veganism

I'm glad The Vegan Police has a post discussing "Abolitionist History 101: Animal Abolition and Racism." In the post, The Vegan Police challenge the post-racial appropriation of "abolition." The post seeks to challenge readers ignorance and encourage us to dig deeper and learn something about the past and present abolitionist movements with regard to the historical and ongoing captivity of Blacks and other people of color in the United States. According to The Vegan Police:

[The nonhuman animal advocacy] movement has ... gone out of its way to intentionally disregard, ignore and dismiss critical thinking that also finds power out of this [abolitionist] history. In all of my searches you will be lucky to find 1 so-called animal abolitionist out of a 1000 who align themselves with a critique of the prison industrial complex or are aware of such writers as W. E. B. Dubois or the work of Angela Davis. For a movement that pays lip service to intersectionality and oppression this is absurd. Not only do we refuse to investigate that history, we defiantly refuse to investigate other contemporary uses. It is the animal “abolitionist approach” or nothing.

Below I'll give you The Vegan Police's list of question on abolitionist history. But I first want to add to the conversation that The Vegan Police is encouraging with an email I sent on April 27, 2010, to another activist who asked my opinion on Michael John Phillips' article, "Not Abolitionist... We're Liberationists."

Abolition and White Supremacy: Then and Now

As you might recall, in my post on "Animal Rights and the Humane Treatment Principle" I offer a critical challenge to the limitation of "abolition" as Francione has framed the concept. I specifically refer to the incompleteness and failure of 19th century abolition to fully end the captivity of Black people in the United States.

Generally, we think of the abolition of slavery as one of the United States greatest social justice triumphs. Yet the system of White supremacy didn't die with the formal system of slavery. As W.E.B. DuBois says, "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back into slavery."

Reconstruction was attacked and defeated, and the Black Codes and Jim Crow ensured that Black people in the United States would continue to be exploited and oppressed. The Civil Rights Movement sought to abolish the Black Codes and Jim Crow, segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, but these too have simply been replaced with the "War on Drugs" and the growing prison-industrial complex.

A reason why the previous abolition of the captive exploitation of Black people in the US failed to bring about comprehensive abolition is because it focused exclusively on a negative — that is, it sought only to end the existing captivity without promoting racial equity. (It's important to note that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution expressly allows slavery and involuntary servitude in cases of "punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.") Too better understand the problems with a negative approach to abolition I suggest reading Are Prisons Obsolete? and Abolition Democracy, both by Angela Y. Davis. In Abolition Democracy, Davis says:

DuBois argued that the abolition of slavery was accomplished only in the negative sense. In order to achieve the comprehensive abolition of slavery — after the institution was rendered illegal and black people were released from their chains — new institutions should have been created to incorporate black people into the social order. ... They [former slaves] needed access to educational institutions and needed to claim voting and other political rights, a process that had begun, but remained incomplete, during the short period of radical reconstruction that ended in 1877. DuBois thus argues that a host of democratic institutions are needed to fully achieve abolition — thus abolition democracy.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains how prisons and the criminal (in)justice system, in general, functions to maintain White supremacy by criminalizing Black men and therefore denying Black people as a group access to educational and democratic institutions. According to Alexander, "More African Americans are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began." She goes on to say, "More black men are imprisoned today than at any other moment in our nations history. More are disenfranchised today than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws the explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race."

The Need for Nonexploitative Institutions

There are a couple reason why I point out all the above. One is in order to acknowledge that abolition in a negative sense is limited and destine for failure. This is something that I think Michael John Phillips seems to be aware of when saying, "'Liberation' entails 'abolition' and more; the concept entails both 'freedom from' (abolition) and 'freedom to' — a positive norm entirely missing in 'abolition.'"

I think this has always been a part of the true sense of veganism. For example, the Vegan Society in its "Articles of Association" says, "the word 'veganism' denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of ... animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, [nonhuman] animals and the environment" (emphasis added).

My understanding of this is that not only do vegans as a movement need to believe that if we are to be true emancipators of other animals we must abolish absolutely our exploitation of those other animals, but we must also create a transformative shift towards non-exploitative institutions in order to achieved any sort of comprehensive abolition — institutions that are also socially and environmentally equitable.

I want to be clear that I'm talking about collective and institutional change on a structural level, not individual or consumer change. Adding animal-free alternatives to the already existing consumer market will not bring about comprehensive abolition. Comprehensive abolition will require revolutionary shifts in our existing social structures, which, I believe, would necessitate a restructuring of global economy away from exploitative, capitalist-based consumer markets.

In "Veganism: Not to be Confused with Animal Rights," I question Francione's individualistic and consumer-oriented approach to veganism as "a moral and political commitment to abolition on the individual level and extends not only to matters of food, but to clothing and other products."

Maintaining Historical Continuity

The other reason that I go to length to point out the limitations of 19th century abolitionists is because I think that Phillips fall into the same mistake as Francione when evoking the abolition of the captive exploitation of Black people in the United States without acknowledging the current structure of White supremacy and the continuing need for antiracism. In my post on "Veganism and Anti-Oppression," I ask:

How can veganism possess historical continuity with the movement to free enslaved peoples and not, at the same time, be actively anti-racist and anti-colonialist? How can veganism come to an uncompromising recognition that the relationship between human and non-human animals is one of 'master and slave' and not recognize that the relationship of Whites and people of color, of the North and the Global South, in which the former benefits and is privileged by the exploitation and oppression of the later, are also ones of 'master and slave'?

I think it is problematic to evoke the 19th century abolition movement (as well as the Civil Rights and Black Power/Liberation movements) without also acknowledging the ongoing structure of White supremacy. That is, failure to acknowledge and challenge the current system of White supremacy while mentioning the past anti-slavery movement breaks the historical continuity with the movement to free enslaved peoples; it becomes an appropriation of the struggle of Black people, which is exactly what I warn against in my post on "Why 'Vegan Oppression' Cannot Exist."

Avoiding False Liberation

I believe there are pitfalls to appropriating "liberation," just as there are with appropriating "abolition." History is filled with false liberation movements that claimed to be for the liberation of the people but simply sought to install the self-proclaimed "liberationists" as the new masters over the people. I think false liberation is an extremely easy role for nonhuman animal advocates to slip into — since it is not our liberation that we are advocating for, but that of other animals. Will the liberationists truly dismantle human supremacy, or will we refashion human supremacy to our own design?

In "The Assimilationist Appropriation of 'Liberation'," I question Peter Singer's appropriation of "liberation" from 1970s Black and women's liberation movements:

The term "liberation" in the title of Singer's first book was appropriated in a very colonialist fashion from the Black liberation and women's liberation movements [not to mention Third World/postcolonial liberation movements]. While Singer bases this appropriation on comparisons between speciesism with racism and sexism, his definition of "speciesism," "racism," and "sexism" are all based on an ineffectual liberal, psychological-based concept of "prejudice" (e.g., "Speciesism ... is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species."). This "attitude"-based approach is rejected by the women's liberation and Black liberation movements, which define sexism and racism as power-based and socially constructed ideologies.

I'm suspicious of those who claim the label "liberationists" as an identity. Rather, I believe in "liberation" as a process that requires us to strive to sustain a high level of self criticism. The real question we need to ask ourselves is, are we willing to recognize that it is all of us who are humans, every one of us, who are benefiting from the oppression and exploitation of other animals? Are we willing to fully acknowledge that we are the ones that other animals need liberation from?

Similar to my concerns with Francione work, I'm also concerned that Phillips' essay fails to acknowledge how both Phillips and Francione are as implicated in the system of human supremacy as any other human being. I believe that if we don't recognize how "vegan abolitionists" and "vegan liberationists" benefit from human supremacy, then we are well on our way to incomplete abolition, false liberation and the perpetuation of human supremacy.

'A Process of Social Transformation'

In the statement "Veganism Defined," the early members of the Vegan Society say, "veganism is not so much welfare as liberation, for the creatures and for the mind and heart of [humanity]; not so much an effort to make the present relationship bearable, as an uncompromising recognition that because it is in the main one of master and slave, it has to be abolished before something better and finer can be built." In this statement from 1951 we see that veganism is framed as liberation and abolish in the same sentence.

Abolition is only a part of the process of social transformation that requires that "something better and finer can be built." Abolition is not an end in and of itself. And liberation without self criticism of our social status as "masters" within the structure of human supremacy is false. Abolition and liberation are both part of a process of social transformation towards a world that is based on nonexploitation of all animals — humans and nonhumans alike.

Here are the abolitionist history questions asked by The Vegan Police:

  • What does Abolitionism Mean?
  • Name 5 Abolitionists:
  • Name 10 Black Abolitionists:
  • What is Non-Resistance?
  • What was the Underground Railroad?
  • What was the concept of No-Organization?
  • What was Moral Suasion?
  • What is the Prison Industrial Complex?
  • What is White Washing?
  • What is White Normativity?
  • Define "Appropriation"?
  • Name at least 1 use of the term "abolitionist" by the animal rights movement prior to 1990.
  • Who was Amos Alcott?

Re: Abolition, Liberation and Veganism

first off i'm not an academic so I'm not going to sound as intellectual as you... that said, i think most social justice movements be they lgbt, latino/immigrant rights, african dyspora movement... often fail to see the connection between their own movement and all others. I think there's this idea that "my people" or "my movement" is somehow unique and deserves more attention than all the rest. Of course the most intelligent people will always see the connection. i wish it was popular at this time in history to see the connection, but it's not.

I think one reason the vegan/animal rights movement has not connected itself to other social justice movements is that alot of "progressives" do not understand or subscribe to the tenants of veganism, much less so the abolition of animal slavery. It's our responsibility as activists to connect the dots for them. Not all of us understand the need for this connection. We risk being labeled as upper middle class white people who have nothing better to worry about than kitties and doggies. uggh i hate that stereotype so much, but there it is. yes we need to focus on how our movement is exactly like all other liberation movements at it's core.

I am producing an animal rights show on a community radio station that represents many peoples & liberation movements. i take it upon myself and it is my stated purpose to make the connections between animal slavery and all other types of slavery past and present. If you don't make the connection between animal abolition and the abolition and oppression of other people then you are really missing out on alot of lessons, strategy and wisdom! Furthermore we need the entire progressive community on our side - we need to make them all see how exploiting animals is contrary to everything else they believe.