by Dr. Steven Best
Proceedings of the 2nd International Meeting for Environmental Ethics in Athens, 2010
(watch video of presentation HERE)
Prologue to a Problem
We are winning many battles in the fight for freedom, rights, democracy, compassionate ethics, peace, interspecies justice, and ecology.
But we are losing the war.
The war against greed, violence, plunder, profits, and domination. The war against transnational corporations, world banks, the US Empire, and Western military machines. The war against metastasizing systems of economic growth, technological development, overproduction, overconsumption, and overpopulation.
Despite recent decades of intense social and environmental struggles, we are nevertheless losing ground in the battle for democracy and ecology.
In the last two decades, neoliberalism and globalization have destroyed social democracies, widened gaps between rich and poor, dispossessed farmers, and marketized the entire world. Alongside good-old fashioned imperialism and resource extraction, people now confront genetic engineering, biopiracy, the patenting of genes, and the control of the seed supply. McDonaldization swallows up diversity as agribusiness engulfs the world’s farmers. Corporate power is growing as people power is shrinking.
Signs of ecological distress are everywhere, from shrinking forests and depleted fisheries to vanishing wilderness and rising sea levels. Throughout history, societies have devastated local environments, but only in the last two decades has humanity upset the planetary ecology to bring about global climate change. Moreover, we now live in the era of the sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet, the last one occurring 65 million years ago in the age of the dinosaurs. Unlike the last five, this one is caused by human activity; we are the meteor crashing into the earth. Conservation biologists predict one third to one half of the world’s plant and animal species might vanish in the next few decades. By 2050, the world’s population will be nine billion, and the meat consumption in China will double; the spike in global meat consumption has prompted the United Nations to write that the only viable path for a sustainable future is a global shift toward a vegan diet.[i]
The global capitalist world system is inherently destructive to people, animals, and nature. It is unsustainable and the bills for three centuries of industrialization and market-growth are now due. This system cannot be humanized, civilized, or made green-friendly; rather, it must be transcended through revolution at all levels—economic, political, legal, cultural, technological, moral, and conceptual.
In the last three decades, there has been growing awareness that environmentalism cannot succeed without social justice and social justice cannot be realized without environmentalism. This wisdom informed the emergence of the US environmental justice movement, Earth First! alliances with timber workers, Zapatista coalition building, and the 1999 Battle of Seattle that united workers and environmentalists.
But something is still missing, the equation remains unbalanced, the strategy cannot work. The interests of one species alone are represented and millions of others go unrecognized except as resources to be preserved for human use. But in the last three decades a new social movement has emerged — animal liberation. The power and potential of the entire animal advocacy movement has yet to be understood, but it deserves equal representation in the politics of the 21st century. Despite its numerous limitations, moreover, it has revolutionary potential that must be grasped and integrated into the project of social transformation.
Progressives fighting for peace, justice, democracy, autonomy, and ecology must acknowledge the validity of and need for the animal liberation movement for two reasons. First, on a moral level, the brutalization, exploitation, and suffering of animals is so great, so massive in degree and scope, that it demands a profound moral and political response from anyone with pretence to values of compassion, justice, rights, and nonviolence. Every year humans butcher 70 billion land and marine animals for food; millions more die in experimental laboratories, fur farm, hunting preserves, and countless other killing zones.
Second, on a strategic level, the animal liberation movement is essential for the human and earth liberation movements. In numerous key ways, the domination of humans over animals underlies the domination of human over human and propels the global ecological crisis. There cannot be revolutionary changes in ethics, psychology, society, and ecology without engaging animal liberation.
It is becoming increasingly clear that human, animal, and earth liberation movements are inseparably linked, such that none can be free until all are free. This is not a new insight, but rather a lost wisdom and truth. Recall the words of Pythagoras, who 2500 years ago proclaimed: “For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.” A vital task of our time is to understand the full import of this insight.
Given their symbiotic, holistic, and interlocking relationship, it is imperative that we no longer speak of human liberation, animal liberation, or earth liberation as if they were independent struggles; rather, we need to speak of total liberation. By “total liberation” I do not mean a metaphysical utopia where all sentient beings reach a perfect state of freedom and happiness in their lives, Rather, I refer to the theoretical process of holistically understanding movements in relation to one another, to capitalism, and to other modes of oppression, and to the political process of synthetically forming alliances against common oppressors, across class, racial, gender, and national boundaries, as we link democracy to ecology and social justice to animal rights.
And while I speak of the “liberation” of the earth metaphorically, I mean it quite literally for nonhuman animals, for they are the oldest, largest, most exploited, and most neglected of all exploited groups and slave classes. Like their human counterparts, nonhuman animals are sentient, conscious, feeling, and thinking beings endowed with wills, desires, interests, and more. They have abilities and potentialities that demand satisfaction, and complex physical, psychological, and social needs that can only be fulfilled in their natural settings, apart from human interference. Nonhuman animals can and must be free from systems of human domination and exploitation — as unjustifiable in principle as they are destructive in consequence — in order to be free to live out their lives as the complex beings they have become over the course of natural evolution.
I assert the need for more expansive visions and politics on both sides of the human/animal liberation equation, and to call for new forms of dialogue, learning, and strategic alliances that are all-too rare. The kind of alliance politics one finds throughout the world remains weak and abstract so long as veganism and animal liberation are excluded. These issues can no longer be ignored, marginalized, mocked, and trivialized by dogmatic, ignorant, and speciesist Leftists. Similarly, vegans and animal rights advocates can no longer afford to be single-issue and isolationist, they must understand the need to transcend the capitalist system, they must confront their own biases such as elitism, sexism and racism; and they must overcome their extreme isolation by forging alliances with social justice and environmental movements. Each movement has much to learn from the other, and no movement can achieve its goals apart from the other.
A Multiperspectival Approach to Power
A diverse and comprehensive theory of power and domination is necessary for a politics of total liberation, for alliances cannot be formed without understanding how different modes of power emerge, evolve, converge, and reinforce one another. Power is diverse, complex, and interlocking, and it cannot be adequately illuminated from the standpoint of any single group or concern.
The core problem in our world is not simply class, for class is not the only manifestation of power nor is it the font or earliest source; rather, class is a symptom not a cause of a larger system of domination organized around hierarchy. Hierarchy is both an institution and mindset that organizes differences into a rank of superior and inferior, such that the latter has no value for the sake of the former. The mindset and institutions of hierarchical domination spring from numerous phenomena such as patriarchy, racism, the state, and social classes and private property.
The origins of hierarchy are shrouded in prehistory, and naturally there are different interpretations and sharp controversies over when, where, and how hierarchy first emerged in society. For example, did the domination of nature lead to the domination of human beings, as Marxists argue, or did the domination of human beings lead to the “domination” of nature, as claimed by anarchist Murray Bookchin?[ii] Some theorists attempt to reduce all modes of oppression to one, such as gender, race, or class, which they privilege as the font of power from which all others spring.
Most notoriously, classical Marxists subsumed all struggles to class. Other social concerns such as patriarchy and racism were reduced to “questions,” dismissed as divisive, and to be postponed until creating a post-revolutionary society where allegedly they would be moot anyway. The resurfacing of bureaucracies, sexism, and racism in state socialist societies such as China and Russia refuted this Procrustean outlook. Similarly, radical feminists claim that patriarchy is the fundamental hierarchy in history. But there is strong evidence that speciesism and the domination of humans over other animals are central to key structures of domination such as class, gender, and race.
The best approach is to advance a multiperspectival optic that sees both what is similar among various modes of oppression and what is specific to each. There are a plurality of modes and mechanisms of power that have evolved throughout history, and that often overlap with and reinforce one another – as capitalism feeds off racism and sexism to exploit labor power and to divide oppressed groups from one another. However, since hierarchy was already established in human society thousands of years before the emergence of private property, economic classes, and the state, and patriarchy emerged before class stratification, these are also independent power systems.
But while people have written history from the theological perspective, the humanist perspective, and the environmental determinism perspective, to date there has been little from the animal perspective. Marx once stated that the “riddle of history” (the origins of domination) is grasped in theory and resolved in practice by communism; in truth, however, the origin and evolution of hierarchy and dominator societies cannot be deciphered without the animal standpoint, for the ten thousand year reign of human domination over other animals is central to comprehending humanity’s most serious problems, as it is fundamental to resolving them.
Animal Standpoint Theory
According to feminist standpoint theory, each oppressed group has an important perspective or insight into the nature of society.[iii] People of color, for instance, can illuminate colonialism and the pathology of racism, while women can reveal the logic of patriarchy that has buttressed so many different modes of social power throughout history.
While animals cannot speak about their sufferings in human language, it is only from the animal standpoint – analyzing how humans have related to and exploited other animals — that we can grasp central aspects of the emergence and development of hierarchy. Without the animal standpoint, we cannot understand the core dynamics of the domination of humans over animals, the earth, and one another; the pathology of human violence, warfare, militarism, and genocide; the ongoing animal Holocaust; and the key causes of the current global ecological crisis. From the animal standpoint, we can see that the oppression of human over human and the human exploitation of nature have deep roots in the human domination over nonhuman animals.
Many anthropologists believe that the cruel forms of domesticating animals at the dawn of agricultural society ten thousand years ago created the conceptual model for hierarchy, statism, and the exploitation treatment of other human beings, as they implanted violence into the heart of human culture. Perhaps the most decisive revolution in human history occurred in the shift from hunter-gathering to agricultural society. In place of a nomadic lifestyle, humans began to root themselves in one area, and rather than consume what nature provided they began to cultivate plants and animals, and thereby to domesticate wild species. In the process of domesticating wild plants and animals, and producing food surpluses for the first time in their history, a number of crucial things resulted: agricultural societies experienced rapid population growth, they expanded their territories, they elaborated a division of labor which evolved into the first social hierarchies, they began to see themselves as independent from nature and superior to other animals, and they physical and living processes as subject to their manipulation and control.
As a direct result of hunting, herding, and animal domestication, humans developed a dominator worldview, and the domination of animals paved the way for the domination of humans, nature, and numerous hierarchies and pathologies. The control of animals, the manipulation of their biology and bodies, the chronic exercise of violence, the creation of a hierarchy over another form of life, the coercive manipulation of living processes, the emergence of the concept of property and ownership of animals, and the detachment from their suffering – these attitudes and practices and more came to define and dominate human culture and consciousness. They established systems of power, forms of socially acceptable violence, and the rudiments of hierarchy that expanded throughout society to alter every relation humans had with one another, whereby elites transformed difference into an order of rank and usurped nature, animals, members of their own society and the societies they invaded in order to expand wealth and power.
The domination of animals and the increasingly detailed, elaborated, and entrenched speciesist ideology it spawned, paved the way for the systems whereby some humans dominated others. It provided the prototype of hierarchical thinking, and thus an ideology, along with many tactics and technology of control. Animals were the first form of property, inherited wealth, and capital, as well as the first slaves. The domestication of animals provided the model for the sexual subjugation of women to hold as captives for breeding and labor, and predisposed ancient Mesopotamian city-states to manage their slaves in the same way they managed their livestock, to breed and exploit them for labor. Not coincidentally, slavery emerged in Sumer, a key region of the Middle East that spawned agriculture, and evolved as an extension of animal domestication practices. The exploitation of animals provided a model, metaphors, and technologies and practices for the dehumanization and enslavement of blacks. From castration and chaining to branding and ear cropping, breaking up families, and auctioning, whites drew on a long history of subjugating animals, and were used liberally throughout the international slave trade of the 15-19th centuries.
According to Jim Mason, farming emerged in many different regions but the Middle East distinguished itself from Egypt, Maya, Inca, Aztec, China, and India in its commitment to an expansionist and domineering way of life, rooted in and driven by the domestication of large animal animals such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep.[iv] The system of herding endowed farming cultures with wealth and power, as it drove them to war and invasions, given the inherently expansionistic needs of animal herding, and made them singularly arrogant and aggressive cultures. The descendents of the Middle East, those who continued the tradition of being the most ruthless and powerful dominators on the planet, were Europeans and Americans.
Dominating animals provided not only the technologies used for dominating other humans, but also the conceptual framework. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle formulated the first explicit hierarchical philosophy. He propounded a worldview based on the teleological principle that everything exist for a purpose, which is to fulfill the needs of higher beings in the scale of perfection. The purpose of plants was the food for animals, animals to be food for us, and our purpose is to think about God and the universe. Humans have the highest minds and beings with inferior or lower intellects did not count as fully human or as human at all. Thus Aristotle justified slavery as part of the natural order of things. Thus the philosophy of rationalism was born; this is a dualistic logic whereby humans used the category of rationality to radically distinguish themselves from animals, and from other humans as well.
But once Western patriarchal norms of rationality were defined as the essence of humanity and social normality, by first using non-human animals as the measure of alterity, it was a short step to begin viewing different, exotic, and dark-skinned peoples and types as non- or sub-human. Thus, the same criterion created to exclude animals from the human community was also used to ostracize blacks, women, “madmen,” the disabled, and numerous other stigmatized groups.
The domination of human over human and its exercise through slavery, warfare, and genocide typically begins with the denigration of victims. But the means and methods of dehumanization are derivative, for speciesism provided the conceptual paradigm that encouraged, sustained, and justified western brutality toward other peoples. Throughout history our victimization of animals has served as the model and foundation for our victimization of each other. History reveals a pattern whereby first humans exploit and slaughter animals; then, they treat other people like animals and do the same to them. Whether the conquerors are European imperialists, American colonialists, or German Nazis, western aggressors engaged in wordplay before swordplay, vilifying their victims as “rats,” “pigs,” “swine,” “monkeys,” “beasts,” and “filthy animals.”
Once perceived as brute beasts or sub-humans occupying a lower evolutionary rung than white westerners, subjugated peoples were treated accordingly; once characterized as animals, they could be literally hunted down like animals. The first exiles from the moral community, animals provided a convenient discard bin for oppressors to dispose the oppressed. Colonialism was a “natural extension of human supremacy over the animal kingdom.”[v] “It seemed clear to many Europeans,” Charles Patterson writes, “that the white race had proved itself superior to the lower races of man by bringing them under its sway, just as the human species as a whole had proved itself superior to the other animals by dominating and subduing them.”[vi] Big-game hunting expeditions in Africa, India, and European colonies was the perfect symbol of European domination of land, animals, and peoples, and for millennia hunting has been a ritual of domination and vehicle for asserting male power over animals and women.
It has escaped the attention of the entire Left that the arguments they use to justify human domination over animals – that animals allegedly lack reason and language – were the same arguments used by imperialists when they slaughtered native peoples and male oppressors when they exploited women. Humanists upholding speciesist views, therefore, ironically reinforce their own domination and cannot access the animal standpoint to understand the origins of domination, and so are in no position to advance a viable politics of liberation.
In addition to sexism, racism, ablism, and other hierarchies, speciesism is directly implicated in anti-Semitism and Nazism. The Nazi vilification of Jews and all others deemed intellectually and physically “unfit” relied on identifying pariahs with animals and invoking eugenics – derived from breeding animals – to create a “pure” or “superior” race that was not “polluted” by “lower” forms of life. Moreover, the “Might is Right” ideology that humans employ to justify their brutality against animals was central to Nazi ideology. Hitler’s basic outlook was that nature is ruled by the law of struggle, and he summarized his worldview in this way: “He who does not possess power loses the right to life.” The origins of this outlook lie in the human domination of animals.
Finally, it is interesting to note that the industrialized killing employed in Nazi concentration camps was modeled on techniques that originated in US slaughterhouses in the late nineteenth century.[vii] Holocaust victims were shipped in stockcars using the same rail lines worn from transporting animals to slaughter, the prisoners were confined like battery hens, and killing zones such as Auschwitz had their own slaughterhouses on site. The total objectification of nonhuman animals, and the mechanized murder of innocent beings should have sounded a loud warning to humanity that the very technologies and bureaucratic administration of mass murder could easily be applied to them. Thus, Theodor Adorno poignantly quipped: “Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks `they’re only animals.'”
A Critique of Left Speciesism
The (Marxist/socialist/communist/progressive) Left traditionally has been behind the curve in their ability to understand and address forms of oppression not directly related to economics. It took decades for them to recognize racism, sexism, nationalism, religion, culture and everyday life, ideology and media, ecology, and other issues into their anti-capitalist framework, and they did so only under the pressure of various liberation movements. In addition to this economic reductionist framework, the entire spectrum of Leftists has uncritically absorbed the anthropocentrist, speciesist, and humanist ideologies of Western culture. Far from an alternative, radical, or liberatory framework, Leftism emerged as just another form of oppression, institutionalized violence, and dominator culture.
The problem with such myopic Leftism stems not only from Karl Marx himself, but the traditions that spawned him — modern humanism and the Enlightenment To be sure, the move from a medieval world dominated by a violent, repress, patriarchal, Catholic Church to a modern world based on science, enlightenment, and a movement toward democracy, egalitarianism, and rights was progressive. But unable to carry enlightenment in deeper directions, humanism merely perpetuated the Greco-Roman and Christian anthropocentric tradition that defines humans as separate from and superior to other animals, declares the world to exist for their purposes, and seeks to domesticate the wild. Under the spell of humanism, Western humanity elevated itself to a divine status and embarked on the reckless and hubristic project of mastering nature and advancing its empire. Humanism emphasized the separation of humanity from animals and nature, and reaffirmed the orthodox Christian concept that our goal is to dominate and conquer our natural surroundings. Humanism is a dysfunctional and violent worldview premised upon the catastrophic illusion of human separation from nature, a fallacy that has all-too-real consequences for animals and the earth, especially when driven by rapacious market logic and advanced technologies and science.
No different than the industrials and capitalists, the Left in unison championed growth, industrialization, and the domination of nature. Although Marx and Engels showed some sensitivity to ecological issues, they lumped animal welfarists, vegetarians, and anti-vivisectionists into the same petite-bourgeoisie category comprised of charity organizers, temperance fanatics, and naïve reformists.[viii] Neither had the slightest understanding of the importance of these movements for promoting health, sound science, compassionate ethics, and moral progress in general. While they appropriated Darwin’s theory of natural selection they ignored his emphasis on the continuity of life and the intelligence of animals and instead adopted mechanistic Cartesian models that reduced animals to simple instinct-governed organisms.[ix]
Anarchists are adept in analyzing hierarchy as a plurality of systems, and for criticizing Marxists for reproducing social power dynamics in their centralized systems and elite organizations. But in relation to the animal question, anarchists were and are no better than the rest of the Left. Murray Bookchin, for instance, sharply attacked anthropocentric ideologies in order to fuse radical politics with ecology, but he clung to the same speciesist views that reduce animals to brute beasts. Oblivious to scientific studies that document reason, language, culture, and technology among various animal species, Bookchin rehearses the Cartesian-Marxist mechanistic view of animals as dumb creatures devoid of reason and language. Animals therefore belong to “first nature,” rather than the effervescently creative “second nature” world of human culture. Bookchin was pioneering in linking democracy to ecology, but he ignored one of the most important causes of global crisis today – the agribusiness industry.[x]
His category of ecological crisis is therefore rather thin and empty. No society can achieve ecological sustainability if it exploits animals on the scale of current capitalist societies. Factory farming is a principle cause of major problems such as water pollution, rainforest destruction, desertification, and global warming. Moreover, it is a highly inefficient use of water, land, and crops; it therefore exacerbates world hunger and the scarcities that lead to resource wars. The global meat culture also aggravates inequality and poverty among the world’s peoples, as cattle barons and agribusiness displaces peasants and farmers from their land and communities, and resources from impoverished Southern nations flow to wealthy Northern nations. Leftists of all stripes ultimately espouse the same welfarist views that permit factory farms, fur farms, and vivisectors to sanctify the most unspeakable forms of violence and to promote the pseudo-humane code of treating slaves kindly, without recognizing the evil of slavery itself.
As with most environmentalists, the Left concern is with fisheries, not fish; with forests, not its nonhuman inhabitants; with “resources” for human use, not animals with intrinsic value. Left ecological concerns stem not from any kind of deep respect for the natural world, but rather from a position of “enlightened anthropocentrism” (a clear oxymoron) that understands the importance of a sustainable environment for the future of human existence. However promising, critiques of human alienation from and arrogance toward nature, calls for a “re-harmonization” (Bookchin) of society with ecology, and emphases on a “new ethics” that focus solely on the physical environment apart from the millions of sentient species it contains are speciesist, myopic, and inadequate.
The limitations, chauvinism, and hypocrisy of humanism are evident in the formulaic complaints of human victims of violence and oppression, who shriek that they were “treated like animals,” as if exploitation and torture are acceptable so long as inflicted on other animal species. The problem with humanism — however extensive, universal, and “progressive” — is that its bigotry renders it radically incomplete as a liberatory project, being a form of hierarchy and domination by other means. Just as anarchists saw the Marxist workers’ state as political domination under a new name, so animal liberationists view humanism of any kind – whether liberal, Marxist, or anarchist – as another vicious system of domination and control.
The spectacle of Left speciesism is evident in the dearth of given to animal exploitation by “progressive” journals, magazines, and online sites. In the early 1990s, for example, the US Left magazine, The Nation, wrote a scathing essay that condemned the treatment of workers at a factory farm, but said nothing about the brutal exploitation of chickens confined in battery cages. In bold contrast, Gale Eisnitz’s book, Slaughterhouse, documents the exploitation of both human and nonhuman animals, showing how the violence workers inflict on animals in the killing floors spills poisons the workers’ psyches and carries over into domestic abuse as well[xi].
Consider the case of noted anarchist writer, Michael Albert, who confessed the following in a 2006 interview with an animal rights magazine: “when I talk about social movements to make the world better, animal rights does not come into my mind. I honestly don’t see animal rights in anything like the way I see women’s movements, Latino movements, youth movements, and so on … a large-scale discussion of animal rights and ensuing action is probably more than needed … but it just honestly doesn’t strike me as being remotely as urgent as preventing war in Iraq or winning a 30-hour work week.”[xii]
It is hard to fathom privileging a work reduction for humans who live relatively comfortable lives to ameliorating the obscene suffering of tens of billion of animals who are confined, tortured, and killed each year in the most unspeakable ways. Like most within the Left, Albert betrays a shocking insensitivity to the suffering of billions of sentient individuals and he lacks the holistic vision to grasp the profound connections among the most serious problems afflicting humans, animals, and the environment.
Amidst the violence, racism, war, and social turbulence of the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a future “world house.” In this cosmopolitan utopia, all peoples around the globe would live in peace and harmony, such that religion fulfils their spiritual needs and capitalism satisfies their material needs. But even if this sentiment could possibly be realizable within an economic system that breeds violence, war, destitution, extinction, and ecocide, until humanity radically alters its relation to animals King’s worldhouse is still a goddamn slaughterhouse — a concentration camp and extermination factory operated by and for the top predators. King’s “dream” for the human species is a nightmare for the billions of animals butchered each year for food, clothing, “science,” and other exploitative purposes.
The humanist nonviolent utopia will always remain a violent dystopia and hypocritical lie until society extends equality and just and equal treatment to other animals. Humanist “revolutions” are superficial by definition. Humanist “democracy” is speciesist hypocrisy. Humanism is just tribalism writ large.
Thus, from the animal standpoint, Leftism is in no way a liberating philosophy or revolutionary politics; it is rather Nazism or Stalinism toward animals and part and parcel of the most ancient and reactionary thinking that spawned the dominator culture that has been reproduced throughout history in numerous variations and permutations.[xiii]
Talk of Total Liberation or Don’t Talk at All
Human and animal liberation movements are inseparable, such that none can be free until all are free. Whereas people cannot develop peaceful, humane, and sustainable societies so long as they violently exploit animals (and thereby disrupt the environment in profound ways), so animals cannot be emancipated without profound psychological and institutional changes in societies.
Since the fates of all species on this planet are intricately interrelated, the exploitation of animals cannot but have a major impact on the human world itself – psychologically, socially, and ecologically. When human beings exterminate animals, they devastate habitats and ecosystems necessary for their own lives. When they butcher farmed animals by the billions, they ravage rainforests, turn grasslands into deserts, exacerbate global warming, and spew toxic wastes into the environment. When they construct a global system of factory farming they squander prodigious amounts of land, crops, water, energy, and crops and aggravate the problem of world hunger. When humans are violent toward fellow sentient beings, they often are violent toward one another, a tragic truism validated time and time again by serial killers who grow up abusing animals and violent men who beat the women, children, and animals of their family. When they instrumentalize animals as mere resources for their own consumption, they stunt their own psychological growth and capacities for compassion. When vivisectors torture and kill a hundred million animals a year, the injure and kill thousands of people with government approved drugs and block medical progress to cling to antiquated but profitable research paradigms. The connections go far deeper, as evident in the scholarship on the conceptual and technological relations between the domestication of animals and the emergence of patriarchy, state power, slavery, and hierarchy and domination of all kinds.
Understanding the relationship between human and animal oppression blocks the tired objection used to berate every animal advocate: “But what about human suffering?” This question assumes a zero-sum game whereby helping animals undermines human, and completely fails to grasp what Martin Luther Ling identified (in his narrow speciesist framework) as the “garment of mutual entanglement.” Whether they realize it or not, activists who promote veganism and animal rights are ipso facto engaging a vast complex of problems in the human world.
Human, animal, and environmental exploitation are tightly interconnected, such that no one form of exploitation can be abolished without ending the other. It is well understood, for instance, that human population rates drop where people are more educated and women have more rights. Also, where people are not desperately poor, they have no economic need to cut down trees or poach animals. If poaching animals in Africa is the only way poor villagers can survive, we need to eliminate economic incentives to kill by addressing the root causes of poverty.
An effective struggle for animal liberation, then, means tackling issues such as poverty, class, political corruption, and ultimately the inequalities created by transnational corporations and globalization. One cannot change destructive policies without changing the economic, political, and legal institutions and global power relations that produce and reproduce them. One cannot abolish animal exploitation without abolishing capitalism which thrives by commodifying, objectifying, transforming, and consuming the entire earth and all its prodigious life forms. And given the dismally small number of vegans and animal liberationists who militate for change, their only hope lies in building bridges with revolutionary social and environmental movements.
Any viable approach to save animals must also promote greater democracy such that decisions are not made by a corrupt few in positions of power, but by entire communities using democratic decision making procedures. The crisis in the natural world reflects a crisis in the social world, whereby corporate elites and their servants in government have centralized power, monopolized wealth, destroyed democratic institutions, and unleashed a brutal and violent war against dissent. Corporate destruction of nature and nonhuman animals is enabled by asymmetrical and hierarchical social relations, whereby capitalists commandeer the political, legal, and military system on the service of colonizing society, nature, and biodiversity. To the extent that animal and earth exploitation problems stem from or relate to social problems, they thereby require social solutions.
Lacking a sophisticated social, political, economic, and historical analysis of capitalist societies, and seeking reforms in one sector of society in order to alleviate the suffering of animals, much of the animal advocacy movement is well-deserving of the Left critique that it is a reformist, single issue movement whose demands – which potentially are radical to the extent that animal liberation threatens an economy and society deeply rooted in animal slavery – are easily contained within a totalizing global system that exploits all life and the earth for imperatives of profit, accumulation, growth, and domination.
Attacking the new slave economy, the animal liberation movement is a significant threat to global capital; it is not a revolutionary force on its own, but it is hardly reducible to a “petite bourgeois” parlor game. In their universal spread and growth, and frontal attack on capital logic and on the various slaves trades – meat, dairy, and egg; breeding and vivisecting; leather and fur; “entertainment” and so on — animal liberationists have evolved into a significant enough threat to capitalism to bear the brunt of the “eco-terrorist” label and the fiercest state repression doled out to anyone during the last decade.
Most generally, animal liberation has the potential to affect a cultural paradigm shift, away from predatory and pathological humanism and toward a new ethic, identity, and culture rooted in respect for life and harmonizing society with nature and biodiversity. Animal liberation is the culmination of a vast historical learning process whereby human beings gradually realize that arguments justifying hierarchy, inequality, and discrimination of any kind are arbitrary, baseless, and fallacious. Animal liberation builds on the most progressive ethical and political advances human beings have made in the last 200 years and carries them to their logical conclusions. It takes the struggle for rights, equality, and nonviolence to the next level, beyond the artificial moral and legal boundaries of humanism, in order to challenge all prejudices and hierarchies including speciesism.[xiv]
But social, political, and economic changes by themselves are inadequate, unless accompanied by equally deep ethical psychological changes, such as demand a Copernican revolution in human identities, whereby people realize that they belong to the earth, and the earth does not belong to them. Vegans and animal liberationist have the potential to advance rights, democratic consciousness, psychological growth, and awareness of biological interconnectedness to higher levels than previously achieved in history. Moreover, animal liberation is a dynamic social movement that challenges large sectors of the capitalist growth economy by attacking corporate agriculture and pharmaceutical giants and their suppliers.
The challenge of animal rights to Left movements that decry exploitation, inequality, and injustice; promote ecological sustainability; and advocate holistic models of social analysis is to recognize the deep interrelations between human and animal liberation. The emancipation of one species on the backs of others flouts all ethical principles of a liberation movement. Animal liberation requires that the Left transcend the comfortable boundaries of humanism in order to make a qualitative leap in ethical consideration, thereby moving the moral bar from reason and language to sentience and subjectivity. As the confrontation with ecology infinitely deepened and enriched Leftist theory and politics, so should the encounter with animal liberation.
The fight for animal liberation demands radical transformations in the habits, practices, values, and mindset of all human beings as it also entails a fundamental restructuring of social institutions and economic systems predicated on exploitative practices. Animal liberation is by no means a sufficient condition for democracy and ecology, but it is for many reasons a necessary condition of economic, social, cultural, and psychological change. Animal rights advocates promote compassionate relations toward animals, but their general politics and worldview can otherwise be capitalist, exploitative, sexist, racist, or captive to any other psychological fallacy. Uncritical of the capitalist economy and state, however, they hardly foster the broader kinds of critical consciousness that needs to take root far and wide. Just as Leftists rarely acknowledge their own speciesism, so many animal advocates reproduce capitalist and statist ideologies, to name just some ideological flaws.
The human/animal liberation movements have much to learn from one another, no movement can achieve its goals apart from the other. It is truly one struggle, one fight. There is a desperate need for more expansive visions and politics on both sides of the human/animal liberation equation, and for new forms of dialogue, learning, and strategic alliances.
A truly revolutionary social theory and movement will not just emancipate members of one species, but rather all species and the earth itself. A future revolutionary movement worthy of its name will grasp the ancient conceptual roots of hierarchy and domination, such as emerge in the animal husbandry practices of early agricultural societies, and incorporate a new ethics (ecology and animal liberation) and politics of nature that overcomes instrumentalism and hierarchical thinking and institutions in every pernicious form possible. It will grasp the incompatibility of capitalism with the most profound values and goals of humanity. It will build on the achievements of democratic, libertarian socialist, and anarchist traditions. It will incorporate radical green, feminist, and indigenous struggles.
It will merge animal, earth, and human liberation in a total liberation struggle against global capitalism and domination of all kinds. It must dismantle all asymmetrical power relations and structures of hierarchy, including that of humans over animals and the earth. It must eliminate every vicious form of prejudice and discrimination — not only racism, sexism, homophobia, and ablism, but also the scientifically false and morally repugnant lies of speciesism and humanism. It must reverse the growing power of the state, mass media, and global corporations in order to promote decentralization and democratization at all levels of society, and only then can society possibly be reconstituted in harmony with the natural world and other species.
But as they hopefully mature as a social movement, animal advocates are a powerful reminder that “social justice” is a limited political concept and that no species is free until all species are free. The slogan of the future must not be “We are all one race, the human race,” but rather: “We are one community, the biocommunity…. Gaia.”
Albert, Michael, “Progressives: Outreach is the Key. The Satya Interview with Michael Albert,” 2002 (http://satyamag.com/sept02/albert.html).
Best, Steven, Animal Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Books, forthcoming, 2011).
Bookchin, Murray, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, revised edition. Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books, 1991.
Eisnitz, Gale, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. New York: Prometheus Books, 2006.
Hartsock, Nancy, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism,” in Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (eds.), Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Springer Publications, (283-310).
Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978.
Mason, Jim Mason, An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature. New York: Lantern Books, 2006.
Patterson, Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York: Lantern Books, 2002.
U.N. Report, “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production,” http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/documents/pdf/PriorityProductsAndMaterials_Report_Full.pdf.
[i] “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production,”
[ii] See Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy, revised edition. Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books, 1991.
[iii] On feminist standpoint theory, see Nancy Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism,” in Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (eds.), Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Springer Publications, (283-310).
[iv] Jim Mason, An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature. New York: Lantern Books, 2006.
[v] Charles Patterson, Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York: Lantern Books, 2002.
[viii] See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978.
[ix] See Steven Best, Animal Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Books, forthcoming, 2011).
[x] See Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom.
[xi] Gale Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. New York: Prometheus Books, 2006.
[xiii] In the last two decades in Europe and the US, Green parties have emphasized progressive social concerns in conjunction with environmental values. But Greens, the Sierra Club, and major environmental champions such as Al Gore and Bill McKibben support hunting and meat-eating and completely ignore animal rights and veganism, and thus fail to grasp the profound connections between meat consumption, factory farming, and environmental destruction. In 2007, Greenpeace called a press conference on the connection between meat production and global warming, emphasizing how methane gas from cattle is a major ozone destroying gas. But instead of advocating vegetarianism they called for consuming non-ruminant animals such as kangaroos, which they reviled as a pest that should be eliminated!
[xiv] See Best, Animal Liberation and Moral Progress.