Category: Animal Liberation


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.

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.

Continue reading

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

My most recent book, “The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century,” hitherto available only in German, is now available in English for purchase (PDF download or hardcopy book), on the Palgrave Macmillan site, and other sites such as Amazon.com.

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I am honored that celebrated animal rights author, Norm Phelps, wrote the Foreword to the book, and here is the critical praise on the back cover:

“This is an extraordinary book that shatters all safe spaces found among the debris, torture, genocide, and despair scattered throughout history by the so-called march towards progress.” –Peter McLaren, Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Chapman University, USA, Author of Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution

“For at least the last half century, a biocentric revolution has been unfolding against the destructive tyranny of anthropocentrism — a revolution guided by the natural laws of ecology against the unnatural diminishment of nature at the hands of “civilized” man. In this bold and timely book, Steven Best writes from, and has documented, the evolution of this universal revolution, as he gives us a glimpse into the catastrophic consequences should this revolution fail.” –Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

“The Politics of Total Liberation is groundbreaking with an innovative new approach to understanding the ills of our society. Best makes is clear that we are losing the battle to save the environment and animals because of greed, domination, control, and war mongering created by humans. Best obviously did not write this to be popular, safe, or political; rather, he wrote because his conscience told him that it is right.” –Chris DeRose, President, Last Chance for Animals

“Steven Best gets it: if we are to stop destructive human conditions and habits, we will need `the most uncompromising, militant form of politics we can muster.’” –Jim Mason, author of An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature.

“I have no argument with Norm Phelps when he states that `this may be the most important book of the 21st century’.” –Ronnie Lee, founder of the Animal Liberation Front

Gina Simmons is a good friend of mine who lives in Luxembourg, and she leads a great and fun-spirited band, Gina Simmons and the nobodies. They play original material which is always entertaining and rocking, and features animal rights/liberation themes and other important social commentary.

Here is their newest video, “Justice Maker,” a controversial depiction of an animal liberation raid, which was played many times on Luxembourg TV (probably by functionaries who never even watched it!), and which I would like to share with my readers:

 

 

Like all their songs, this rocks and must be entered into the catalogue of great animal liberation videos.

For more information on Gina and the nobodies, see their Facebook, ITunes, and Amazon pages.

Enjoy and share!

This is a video recording of the talk I gave in the opening plenary panel at the US National Animal Rights Conference, on July 10, 2014. I was asked to speak on the meaning of animal rights, and I contrasted it to animal welfare, contextualized both in the setting of modern capitalism, and underscored the subversive and revolutionary nature of animal rights. I hope you enjoy it.

 

This new, short, militant animal rights movie is a moody, brooding, provocative, bold, and brilliant film about a woman who comes to an awakening about the radical extent of speciesism and the unremitting war on the animals. A snippet of my words, from a September 2011 speech in Germany, appear about 5 minutes into a film dominated by action and image. The ending may shock some, but I praise the filmmakers for the courage to dramatize what I call “extensional self defense” — the defense of animals under attack, by any means necessary, as they would defend themselves were they capable (and sometimes they are). This is “One” hell of a film by Devi Rose and brilliantly acted by Samrina Sabri. Let us hope for more like it.

See the film, “One,” here:

 

I recently sat down with Sybelle Foxcroft of Cee4Life to talk about my forthcoming book, The Politics of Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century. Here is that video interview:

 

 

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century. This concise, jargon-free, and highly readable work is soon to be published in three different languages: first, next month, in German, by Echo Verlag publishers; second, by mid-year, in Italian, by Ortica Editrice; and third, in English toward the end of 2014, by the major American academic press, Palgrave-MacMillan.

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Below is the Table of Contents and the Introduction to the work. Please look for the book soon in German, Italian, or English versions and I will post additional details regarding these and possibly other translated editions of the book as they become available.

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Total Liberation: Revolution for the 21st Century

By

Steven Best

Table of Contents

Introduction: Crisis and the Crossroads of History

 Chapter 1: The Animal Standpoint

Chapter 2: The New Abolitionism: Capitalism, Slavery, and Animal Liberation

Chapter 3: The Paralysis of Pacifism: In Defense of Militant Direct Action

Chapter 4: Rethinking Revolution: Veganism, Animal Liberation, Ecology, and the Left

Chapter 5: Minding the Animals: Cognitive Ethology and the Obsolescence of Left Humanism

Chapter 6: Moral Progress and the Struggle for Human Evolution

Conclusion: Reflections on Activism and Hope in a Dying World and Suicidal Culture

 

Introduction: Crisis and the Crossroads of History

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu, sixth century BCE philosopher

In dystopian and apocalyptic times such as ours, one of accelerating global social and ecological crisis, these essays attempt to articulate a revolutionary politics of total liberation for the 21st century.

All political approaches and social movements to date have been fragmentary, weak, and non-inclusive, and regressive in their views toward nonhuman animals. In the last three decades, there have been initial and tentative alliances between social justice and environmental causes, with growing recognition that the assault on people and the environment have common roots in a growth-oriented capitalist system. But, due to neglect on all sides, these alliances did not include vegan and animal rights/liberation movements, which overflow with potential for advancing progressive values (such as peace, justice, rights, equality, and community), creating ecological societies, and overcoming human alienation from other animal species and the earth as a whole.

Alliance politics generally is a challenging issue, as people prefer to focus on their own causes rather than supporting other movements, especially ones they disdain out of ignorance. This has to change and new political ideologies, tactics, and groupings must be formulated, for everything else has failed and the stakes could not be higher. At risk is nothing less than the future of life on a planet that has been pushed beyond all limits to adapt to human existence and is prepared to shake us off entirely and allow the evolutionary process to continue without us. This century, the next decades or even the next years, is decisive, for what we do or fail to do now will determine the fate of species, our own fates, and evolutionary history on this planet for millennia to come. The urgency could not be greater, there is no time to waste, it is now do-or-die.

Although diverse in theme, the essays collected in this book form a coherent whole and address my core concerns as they relate to current crisis conditions. The most promising and relevant politics for this century, I believe, will not focus on class struggle or the fragmented identity politics pursued along single-issue lines concerning race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. It will be, rather, a politics of total liberation that grasps commonalities among various forms of oppression, that recognizes the interdependence and common goals of various liberation movements, and that forges appropriate political alliances.

By “total liberation” I do not mean a metaphysical utopia to be realized in perfect form. I refer, rather, to the process of understanding human, animal, and earth liberation movements in relation to one another and forming alliances around interrelated issues such as democracy and ecology, sustainability and veganism, and social justice and animal rights. To be sure, total liberation is an ideal, a vision, and a goal to strive for, invoking visions of freedom and harmony. But the struggle ahead is a continuous one, conducted within the constraints of human nature and the limits imposed by ecology. Human, animal, and earth liberation movements are different components of one inseparable struggle — against hierarchy, domination, and unsustainable social forms — none of which is possible without the others.

Through predatory behaviors, systems of exploitation, and growth-oriented societies, we have lived in contradiction to one another, other species, and the planet for so long, that we have brought about a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene Era – whose name recognizes our global dominance and severe impact of Homo sapiens on the planet. In this era of runaway climate change, the sixth great extinction crisis in earth’s history, increasing centralization of power, aggressive neoliberalism, global capitalism, rampant militarism, resource scarcity, chronic warfare, economic crashes, and suffering and struggle everywhere, we have come to a historical crossroads where momentous choices have to be made and implemented into action.

The omnicidal regimes of “civilization” and global capitalism have reached their zenith and will end — whether through an ascendant global resistance stronger than this dying world system, or through the cataclysmic adjustments the planet already has initiated, such as ensure its evolution for billions of years to come but create conditions utterly hostile to supporting humans and countless other species.

Anything short of a radical, systemic, and comprehensive change, of a formidable revolutionary movement against global capitalism and hierarchical domination of all kinds will yield useless reforms, pseudo-solutions, false hopes, and protracted suffering. The time for partial visions, separate struggles, and fragmented resistance is over, and the hour of total liberation and revolutionary alliance politics has arrived.

Yet, alarmingly, we have not yet as a species or critical mass awoken to the true gravity of the situation and the magnitude of the challenges we face. The big picture proves elusive, antiquated paradigms prevail, and dogmatism and complacency strangle possibilities from all angles and quarters. Although few realize it, the human, animal, and earth liberation movements desperately need one another, and the weaknesses and limitations of each can only be overcome through the strengths and contributions of the others.

If revolt can mature into revolution, the starting point for social transformation is to join hands across the barricades; to engage in respectful critical dialogue; to communicate, educate, and learn as equals; to overcome partial histories, critiques, and battles for a systemic struggle. A politics of total liberation could forge alliances more powerful than anything yet created. It seeks to emancipate not just one class, interest group, or even the entire human species from the grip of a nihilistic power elite, but also animal communities everywhere, ecosystems worldwide, and the dynamic energies of evolution and speciation currently strangled.

Listening and learning, working united not divided, a unity in difference and a differentiated unity, forging a plurality of critiques and tactics that attack at all points and mobilize resistance from all social quarters – through a politics of total revolution, a politics for the 21st century, a flank of militant groups and positions can drive a battering ram into the structures of domination, unlock every cell and cage, and open the doors to a myriad of possible futures.

But humans will awake, if ever, late in the process of advanced crisis and decay. Nothing guarantees we will succeed rather than fail. But pessimism is suicide, despair is surrender, the stakes are too high, and our responsibilities are too great. Despite our violent history as a predatory and colonizing species, what humanity can and cannot achieve is still unknown. Our capacities and limits are still being worked out in the laboratory of history and political struggle, as this evolutionary experiment nonetheless might soon end in extinction. Let us not only hope, but also struggle, for a different outcome.

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“For at least the last half century, a biocentric revolution has been unfolding against the destructive tyranny of anthropocentrism — a revolution guided by the natural laws of ecology against the unnatural diminishment of nature at the hands of “civilized” man. In this bold, brilliant, and timely book, Steven Best writes from, and has documented, the evolution of this universal revolution, as he gives us a glimpse into the catastrophic consequences should this revolution fail.”  —  Captain Paul Watson

This is the second talk I gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg, on September 14 2013, regarding the need for an alliance politics that transcends the rigid divisions among the animal/human/environmental liberation movements.

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