For an end to animal exploitation

August 13, 2013

WHEN I discovered the International Socialist Organization (ISO), it was as though the world finally made sense. Here was a group of passionate, funny, articulate activists who were further left than I had ever met before. It seemed natural to assume that when I eventually declared myself as a vegan, they would unfurl banners, confetti would fall from the ceiling and we would all hug and cry and have a sleepover with vegan cupcakes.

Alas, the reality was much less festive. The responses ranged from blank stares, to passive aggressive Facebook comments, to outright derision. "YOU DON'T EAT HONEY? That's completely stupid." As if not eating honey is the most radical thing this person--who advocates a complete transformation of human civilization--can imagine.

In hushed conversations with other vegan comrades, this appears to be the standard experience for vegans who encounter the ISO, or--perish the thought--ISO members who go vegan. And that is why I appreciated Jon Hochschartner's letter opening back up this much-needed conversation.

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The very least socialists can do when talking to people who care deeply about this issue is not be hostile or dismissive. We know that recycling or biking to work will not save the environment, but we don't introduce our politics to environmental activists by telling them their reusable shopping bags aren't worth the effort.

As Lenin taught, we must patiently explain that an end to the environmental destruction of Earth is not possible without the end of capitalism. In the same way, we must patiently explain to vegans that an end to the exploitation of animals--human and non-human--is not possible without the end of capitalism. They won't be inclined to listen if you've already scoffed at their soy burrito.

But once we're all agreed that we're socialists, what do we have to say about our relationship to non-human animals, as socialists? Is it simply that we can't settle this question until after the revolution, and any effort to make changes under capitalism is a waste of time? Is it, as Paul D'Amato contends, that calling what we do to non-human animals "oppression" trivializes the oppression of people? Is there any place at all for animal rights or animal liberation in Marxism? To answer these questions, we should start with a historical materialist analysis.

HUMANS BEGAN herding other animals at the same time as the division of societies into classes, and for the same reason. By herding animals, particularly animals that could pull a plow, we were able for the first time in history to produce a surplus of food, and the surplus had to be controlled by a minority ruling class. It is no accident that the root of the word "capital" means "head," for the original measure of wealth was head of cattle. In fact, "cattle" simply means "property," which is why African slaves were called "chattel."

It was as a result of the same process that men were elevated socially over women. Sharon Smith writes:

According to the sexual division of labor, men tended to take charge of heavier agricultural jobs, like plowing, since it was more difficult for pregnant or nursing women and might endanger small children to be carried along. Moreover, since men traditionally took care of big-game hunting (though not exclusively), again, it made sense for them to oversee the domestication of cattle.

It didn't just make sense because of tradition--physical force was required to control large animals and protect them from predators and other people, and that labor fell primarily to men. The status of women eroded until they were treated largely, often explicitly, as property.

Brutal treatment of animals who are considered property--human and non-human--has been an immutable feature of class society from its inception, and has only accelerated under capitalism. It is therefore not racist opportunism on the part of animal activists to draw connections between human slavery and animal exploitation. Nor is it sexist grasping at straws to protest the exceptionally inhuman treatment of female animals on feminist grounds. Angela Davis writes in Women, Race and Class:

Since slave women were classified as "breeders" as opposed to "mothers," their infant children could be sold away from them like calves from cows...children could be sold away from their mothers at any age because "the young of slaves...stand on the same footing as other animals."

When animal rights activists talk about "animal liberation," we're not talking about tossing our companion animals out on the street, or granting cows voting rights (absurd assertions I've heard no vegan actually make). We're talking about an end to the treatment of animals--human and non-human--as property.

This of course begs the question: is our treatment of animals as property really a problem? For many thousands of years, the existence and progress of civilization depended on our exploitation of animals for food, clothing and transportation. Few vegans will deny that.

However, just as capitalism has raised the level of production to a point where there is enough to go around and a ruling class is no longer necessary, capitalism has also produced the conditions necessary to feed the world healthfully without exploiting animals at all. I contend that there will be no justification for treating animals as property for food, with the unavoidable suffering involved (to say nothing of fashion and entertainment), in a world where starvation and want have been eradicated.

Furthermore, even though it is not exactly the same as the oppression of humans, what we do to non-human animals for no defensible reason is clearly a violent system of oppression that operates in the same way as any other:

1. A dominant ideology justifies the status quo as normal, natural and necessary, and dismisses challenges to it (veganism) as abnormal, unnatural, and unnecessary.

2. The most egregious suffering, violence and death is physically segregated and hidden as much as possible (very few large, remote factory farms and slaughterhouses).

3. The victims (farm animals, slaughterhouse workers) are blamed for their victimization.

4. The system and its ideology are perpetuated by the dominant culture (virtually any food ad, bacon-worship) and reinforced by the state (farm subsidies).

To think that we can carry on with this violent system of oppression unchallenged through the revolution, and only then deal with it--because it's "different"--is not a thoughtful, strategic abstention in the interest of furthering the class struggle. Rather, it is a justification for inaction that supports the dominant ideology. Capitalist oppression is expressed in many ways. Oppression of non-human animals is one of them, and socialists should fight it.

That non-human animals cannot emancipate themselves should be all the more reason we should fight for them in the here and now. To be sure, our strategy should not be to demand that all members of revolutionary organizations become vegan (I know of no vegan comrades making such a demand).

But we should demand an end to the most cruel and environmentally destructive farming practices. We should demand the repeal of the fascist Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. We should demand an end to massive subsidies for animal agriculture. And we should demand that all people have access to an affordable, healthy plant-based diet.

We should, as we always have, agitate for reforms today while we argue the need for revolution. We should fight for a future free from exploitation and oppression, not only for humans, but all animals.
Alan Peck, San Diego

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