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.

Re: The Neoliberal Appropriation of Veganism

gads, man, you are right on!

Thank you for posting this. Though I'm not knowledgable about markets and economies and even particularly the big political organizations, I think you articulated some of what I've just felt for a long time now to be true. It always bothered me that PeTA and other groups invest in groups like P&G in order to "have a voice" in the shareholders' meetings - a voice that, apparently, is as effective as the vote counters in the US 2000 & 2004 presidential elections were in recording citizens' votes. An accountant tried to explain it to me one time last year, and I said, "oh, I guess that makes sense," but now I can't remember what he told me, and the more I recognize that animal rights activists seem to be slipping backwards to appease rather than challenge the status quo - I can't see that it ever makes sense to invest donations in animal exploitation while trying to end it.