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For anyone interested, I have posted a substantial revision of my essay, “How to Destroy Civilization: COVID-19 and the Exploitation of Animals and the Earth.” One can find the revised essay through the original link, posted May 21, 2020.

On the History of Critical Animal Studies: Setting the Record Straight

“Hitherto, philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Karl Marx

“The capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination is an integral part of the given society.” Herbert Marcuse

The essay attached just below — “The Rise (and Fall) of Critical Animal Studies” — is a 2012 revision of a controversial essay I originally published in 2007, entitled “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: Putting Theory Into Action and Animal Liberation Into Higher Education”. It was the first manifesto and detailed statement of a new subgenre of animal studies and radical theory generally which I co-founded and termed “critical animal studies” (CAS). View the essay here:

“The Rise (and Fall) of Critical Animal Studies”

In contrast to the tepid, abstract, and academic-bound nature of mainstream animal studies, CAS was meant to be a radical and politically charged theory/politics, which was resolutely anti-capitalist, explicitly supportive of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and other social liberation movements, in an uncompromising vision of total liberation. But this was too much for mainstream academics and seminar-room posers more concerned more about their academic careers than social revolution.

My first provisional definition of CAS in 2007 took the form of ten key theses (titled, “Introducing Critical Animal Studies”) which I subsequently fleshed out in my first statement of CAS, “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: Putting Theory Into Action and Animal Liberation Into Higher Education.” This latter essay has been scrubbed from many websites and is near impossible to find online. The revision of this essay was motivated by developments themselves. On my way out the door of the increasingly reformist institution I co-founded, I was told: “Social movements need plurality — you can be the Malcolm X of CAS and we will be the Martin Luther King, Jr.” To my dismay, but not surprise,  CAS immediately became co-opted by academics and its conferences and journals became platforms for launching boring academic careers. My initial optimism for the subversive possibilities of a truly systemic and radical philosophy were quickly quelled. Hence, the shift in title from “The Rise of Critical Animal Studies” to “The Rise and Fall of Critical Animal Studies” is significant and indicates my response to the co-optation of CAS by academic careerists on a promotional fast-track.

In particular, many academics interested in critical animal studies resisted the framework if it entailed a risky support for the Animal Liberation Front — a position perhaps as difficult to accept as another original commitment of CAS: clear, compelling, jargon-free writing! (It’s a skill and art form, folks.) This revised “Rise and Fall” essay, attached above, is also near impossible to find online and I include in this post for the historical record (that is ebbing and fading) and because so many internet searches for “critical animal studies” turn up “Introducing Critical Animal Studies,” which was only an initial sketch for what I later sketched out in fuller form and which others with their own ideas about CAS have used in countless books, essays, and conference talks. The essay discusses a key dynamic of capitalism and the inherently normalizing, disciplinary, and conservative institution of academia — the ability to subvert, co-opt, and defuse revolutionary ideas.

One key critique that emerged in response to my polemics — first against mainstream animal studies, then against critical animal studies itself — was that I was overly anti-theoretical and reductive, and failed to sufficiently appreciate the complex dialectic between theory and practice, and the true importance of theory to politics and social change. I consider myself anti-esotericism, not anti-theory, for theories (e.g., Marxism, feminism, anti-racism) at their best are tools with which to understand and change the world. The modern concept of animal rights was spawned and developed by philosophers, and theorists like Richard Ryder, Peter Singer, and Tom Regan, and have indeed changed the world. But of course, animal rights is not merely a theoretical or philosophical position, it is also — and above all — a practical imperative to liberate animals from human oppression and abolish the most destructive mentalities, practices, and institutions that humans have ever unleashed on this planet. In a world in deep social and ecological crisis, poised on the verge of collapse and unimaginable horrors, my problem is not with theory, but with theory-for-theory’s sake. I stand completely behind what I wrote in 2012, far more so as the global social and ecological crisis continues to rapidly accelerate.

The field of animal studies generally has made important contributions to the history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and psychology of human-nonhuman animal relations, but typically betrays the true interests of its subject — suffering animals. I leave it an open question where one might draw the line between (1) a self-indulgent, rhetorically elitist, hyper-abstract, jargon-addicted, non-committal, politically-useless theoretical position on something so brutally concrete — animal exploitation, human supremacism, speciesism, species extinction, and the destruction of ecosystems — now unfolding in a world of runaway climate change, and (2) an analysis which is truly informative, communicative, comprehensible, and facilitates rebellion and radical social transformation.

Note: This is the REVISED version  (June 23, 2020) of an essay written for an international cyber-conference on the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

How To Destroy Civilization: COVID-19 and the Exploitation of Animals and the Earth

Steve Best

“Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.”  ― Jean Baudrillard

  1. Apocalypse

Many past cultures have thought that they lived in apocalyptic times and expressed a foreboding sense of doom and ending. From the Book of Revelations to cyberpunk, apocalyptic visions have been a mainstay of human culture. In contemporary 21st century conditions, the signs of apocalypse are everywhere, from collapsing ice shelves in the Arctic to wildfires raging in California, Australia, and Brazil; from superstorms pummeling coastal towns and island communities to millions of refugees fleeing the ravages of drought, poverty, famine, and conflict; from lingering specters of nuclear annihilation and (bio)terrorist attacks to species extinction and runaway climate change. And now, on the heels of numerous recent viral outbreaks, we are witness to the scourge of a global pandemic inflicting suffering and death around the globe, a massive economic meltdown, and cities turned into ghost towns or petri dishes when not in flames over systemic racism and police brutality. All the while, authoritarianism rises, democracy wanes, and power concentrates into ever fewer hands, as promising signs of resistance emerge.

Whereas all past apocalyptic visions were rooted in fear, paranoia, fantasy, and superstition, visions of chaos and collapse today find grounding in mathematical projections and scientific facts. In our current era, apocalypse is an immanently unfolding objective reality that we are accelerating toward at breakneck speed. For the last 50 years or so, postmodern forms of culture and theory have articulated pronounced feelings of exhaustion and endings. We have heard much about the death of metanarratives; the end of history; the disappearance of the social; the demise of truth, reality, and the subject; and of course, the passing of postmodernism itself.[1] Postmodernism arises amidst paradigm shifts that register across the disciplines. but these changes barely scratched the surface of seismic changes unfolding in society and the objective world that had allegedly disappeared into the text or impenetrable fog of hyperreality. For what we are witnessing is not the end of modernism or modernity, but rather the immanent collapse of the expansionistic, growth-oriented enterprise we call civilization — the dominant institutional structures and ideologies that human beings have built over the last 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch.

Our present moment is so radically novel and extreme we have to think of it in geological, not merely historical terms, for we have created a new geological epoch — we are transitioning from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.[2] Humans have expanded their technological and world-altering prowess to such an extent they have disrupted every living system on the planet – most evidently in the emergence of a sixth (human-caused) mass extinction (right now, 150 species go extinct every day) and with the rise of fossil capitalism and its causal effect in global warming and climate change, thus creating  a radical break in the history of humanity and the earth itself. Since the 1970s, in just the last half-century, humans have reduced wild animal populations 60%, and within the next few decades we will obliterate an additional million plant and animal species.[3] To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, humans have hitherto destroyed 83% of all wild animals and half of all plant species, such that 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and their cattle.[4] Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact, the rest have been cut down, fragmented, and degraded, as grasslands and wetlands suffer a similar fate. View full article »

The essay below is a draft prepared for a forthcoming volume edited by Natalie Khazaal and Núria Almiron, entitled, Like an Animal: Critical Animal Studies Approaches to Borders, Displacement, and Othering (Brill Publishers 2020).

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The Costs of a Wall: The Impact of Pseudo-Security Policies on Communities, Wildlife, and Ecosystems

Steve Best

 As the world moves into the third decade of the twenty-first century, some of the most contentious global politics involve the issues of migration, refugees, borders, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia. These issues deeply affect Europe, for instance, and threaten to divide nations, pull apart the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and facilitate the rise of toxic nationalism and neo-fascism. There are also intense ideological and political struggles over these issues in the US, which is now possibly more divided than any time since the days of slavery and the civil war (Fredrick 2019). The question of whether to seal US borders from the flow of immigrants both illegal and legal has polarized the country, sharply splitting conservatives and liberals into warring camps. It was decisive in electing a notoriously racist and xenophobic president, Donald Trump, who has in turn inflamed and exploited fear of the Other for his own political agenda and to appeal to a white nationalist and Republican base.[1] A shocking mass murder targeting Latinx in El Paso Texas, in August 2019, put the issues of migration, borders, and race into stark relief.

The desperate and tragic migration of oppressed people throughout the world, involves not only a humanitarian crisis testing the moral resolve of developed nations, but also a calamity for wildlife and ecological systems. The most simplistic response to immigration is to seal borders, while never addressing the root causes of human movement. But barriers, fences, and walls not only thwart human traffic, they impede the natural flow of nonhuman animals and plants and directly affect their migration routes and reproduction.[2] This threatens the survival of nonhuman communities and contributes to the growing problems of habitat destruction and species extinction. This in turn affects human interests in crucial ways, and the erection of barriers along borders has a systemic impact on all communities of life – humans, animals, and ecosystems.

To a large degree, under the all-absolving rubric of “national security,” the US-Mexico border wall is being erected for the purpose of stopping our neighbors from seeking a better way of life, but it doesn’t even accomplish that.[3] While no deterrent to desperate people, the wall does impede animal migration and degrade the environment, becoming a contributing factor to the sixth great extinction crisis unfolding on the planet (Kolbert 2014). Already, the southern border wall has had a severe impact on wildlife and ecosystems and its proposed completion will be a death blow to numerous animal and plant species. While real in its effects, the wall also stands as a symbol of division and a totem to appease racism, white supremacism, and xenophobia, while draconian security policies, intensive surveillance, and policing of the borders create a vast migrant detention-industrial complex that commodifies human suffering.[4]

The wall is a pseudo-solution to much bigger problems than migration and security fears. US border policy for the last few decades – from Clinton to Trump – has been an unmitigated disaster for human beings, nonhuman animals, and the environment alike. Yet the border crisis usefully underscores the interconnectedness of interests among humans, animals, and the earth, in ways to which refugee/border studies are normally oblivious. To illustrate the full array of intersecting problems that arise with militarizing the border, I will discuss the impacts of building walls and barriers in areas such as the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the El Paso, Texas-Juarez, Mexico border. In contradistinction to the faulty model of “security” that has informed US policy for the last few decades, I contrast a more holistic and ecological model of security that emphasizes the crucial importance of flourishing wildlife and ecological systems to human societies. Against prevailing humanist biases that inform academic studies as well as the state and everyday life, I foreground the impact of security policies and the migrant-industrial complex on nonhuman animals and stress the rights of animals to lives and habitat free of human interference. We begin with relevant historical context.

View full article »

Attached at the bottom of this post is a link to the Table of Contents and the full, comprehensive introduction (virtually a book in itself) I wrote for the book, Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic-Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2010). Published a decade ago, the book is a bit dated, but its themes — repression of free speech, conservative hegemony, suppression of radical viewpoints in academia, the corporatization of universities, the dismantling of the tenure system and exploitation of cheap labor  — certainly are not. Academic repression is alive and well today. The full text of the book is available here.

Academic RepressionAcademic Repression Book Introduction

 

In recent years, I worked in close collaboration with my friend and colleague, Takis Fotopoulos, who without question is one of the leading anarchist theories today, and is the founder of Inclusive Democracy and the journal, The International Journal for Inclusive Democracy, in which I published numerous articles. About this radical project, Takis says:

“This is the project for direct political democracy, economic democracy (beyond the confines of the market economy and state planning), as well as democracy in the social realm and ecological democracy. In short, Inclusive Democracy is a form of social organisation which re-integrates society with economy, polity and nature.

The concept of Inclusive Democracy is derived from a synthesis of two major historical traditions: the classical democratic and the socialist. It also encompasses radical green, feminist, indigenous and liberation movements in the South.

From the Inclusive Democracy perspective the world is in a multidimensional crisis, caused by the concentration of power in the hands of various elites, as a result of the establishment of the system of market/growth economy, representative democracy and the related forms of hierarchical structures. Inclusive Democracy is therefore not seen as a utopia but as probably the only way out of the present crisis.”

My most significant work with Takis and associates was assembling a collection of essays on the nature and application of the Inclusive Democracy perspective, which was published in both Greek and English in, respectively, 2008 and 2009. The book, which I edited and introduced, is entitled Global Capitalism and the Demise of the Left: Renewing Radicalism Through Inclusive Democracy.

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I include here the link to the entire manuscript, which offers much to anyone interested in direct democracy, anarchism, social ecology, education, and capitalist crisis theories. Hard copies of the book are available here.

I also enthusiastically recommend other books by Takis, including Towards an Inclusive Democracy: The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project (1998), and The New World Order in Action: Globalization, The Brexit Revolution, and the “Left” (2016).

 

Attached is the complete manuscript to a compelling book I co-edited and introduced: The Global Industrial Complex: Systems of Domination (Lexington Books, 2011). Hard copies are available here. 

GIC

GIC COMPLETE MANUSCRIPT FINAL

Attached is the complete manuscript to the groundbreaking anthology I co-edited and introduced, Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (AK Press: 2006). Read and disseminate widely. Hardcopies are available here.

IAR

Total Liberation In the Age of the Anthropocene And Climate Emergency

Steve Best[i]

The Global Crisis

I want to impress upon everyone just how serious the planetary crisis is at this moment in time, and what this likely means for the global struggle for animal liberation. We need to grasp the frightening novelty and uniqueness of the current era. There are two great facts with which we must reckon.

The Sixth Great Extinction Crisis

First, we are bringing about a sixth great extinction crisis: the last one 65 million years ago, caused by a huge asteroid strike in the Gulf of Mexico, which wiped out all the dinosaurs and 76% of all species. All the last 5 extinction events were caused by natural events, this one is being caused by human activity – by deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, road building, mining, poaching, overfishing, growth-based economies, and climate change. Now we are the asteroid striking the planet. But we keep smashing it, over and over again, with ever-greater force and accelerating speed, so that it never has a chance to recover, it just keeps reeling from our impact.

The roots of this extinction crisis go back 100,000 years ago, when humans migrated out of Africa to colonize every continent except Antarctica. Everywhere humans went species went extinct. From the marsupial lions and giant kangaroos of Australia the saber-toothed tigers and wooly mammoths in North America large, charismatic species died from causes attributable to human overhunting, not, as many argue, to climate change. After annihilating animal species, Homo sapiens turned on another Homo species, and likely slaughtered the Neanderthals within ten thousand years of first encountering them in Europe.

The past reveals our dark history of genocide, overkill, and boundless plunder, and we are now pushing countless other species to oblivion at an alarming rate. Since the 1970s, in just the last half-century, humans have reduced wild animal populations 60%, and within the next few decades we will obliterate an additional million plant and animal species. To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and cattle.

It is not just the large charismatic animals such as the African elephant, the rhino, and whales who are threatened with extinction. Bees, ants, and beetles are vanishing eight times faster than mammals, birds or reptiles. Insect populations have declined by over 75% over the past 25 years. The “insect apocalypse” is enormously consequential as insects provide food sources for other animals such as birds, bats, reptiles, small mammals, and fish; they pollinate three-quarters of the world’s food crops; and they recycle wastes and replenish soils. Clearly, humans are systematically destroying the life support systems upon which they and other life forms depend. Clearly, our fates are intertwined, and what we do the animals, we do to ourselves. Because nature is in trouble, we are in trouble. The planetary ecosystem is breaking down.

A principle cause of extinction is a global meat-based agricultural system, which destroys habitats, consumes rainforests, creates monocultures, and spreads poisonous chemicals on land and sea. Climate change is another key driver of extinction, thereby linking the twin threats of species extinction and human-induced global warming. View full article »

I recently sat down with three associates of Animal Rights Zone — Carolyn Bailey, Tim Gier, and Ronnie Lee — to discuss my new book, The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century, and the concept of total liberation generally. You can listen to the interview here. With my new book now out, I will be doing more interviews about it and will post here.

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