Socialism and “animal rights”

October 26, 2009

To compare the condition of animals to groups of humans that are oppressed is to view the latter through a paternalistic lens, rather than a lens of human liberation.

OUR SOCIETY engages in practices that are cruel toward animals. The spread of capitalism worldwide has seriously shrunk or destroyed the natural habitat of thousands of species, and the routine mistreatment of animals that are raised and used for testing or for food is well-documented.

Capitalism treats animals as a means to an end--as things to be squeezed for as much value as can be gotten out of them. Animals on factory farms are packed together by the thousands, confined in spaces that allow them little movement, and deprived of fresh air and sunlight. Animal waste falls through slats into a collection area below, creating noxious gases. The conditions in these compounds are so toxic that if the exhaust system shuts down, animals quickly begin to die off.

These factory farms are not only harmful to non-human animals. Workers at processing plants labor at breakneck speeds slaughtering animals. One worker at Smithfield Foods' Tar Heel, N.C., plant complained that he is routinely splashed with backed-up hog feces and urine, and that "the human beings are treated like machines."

According to the Web Site Sustainable Table, "Man-made lagoons on industrial farms hold millions of gallons of liquid waste, from which contaminants can leach into groundwater." Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, whose massive hog operations have wiped out small farmers in the U.S., Eastern Europe and Africa, was fined $12.6 million for a toxic spill at a Virginia facility that was twice as big as the Exxon Valdez.

These are all practices that many of us would like to see changed. There is a clear connection between how a rapacious capitalism mistreats animals, how capitalism degrades the environment, and how capitalism cruelly exploits human beings.

Nevertheless, seeking more humane treatment of animals is not the same as calling for "animal rights" or "animal liberation."

WHEN I hear the terms "animal rights" and "animal liberation," some pretty strange scenarios run through my head. Does a mountain lion that kills a deer have a right to a trial by a jury of its peers? Should cows have freedom of assembly, speech and religion? Would my cat be liberated if I tossed him out of the house and stopped feeding him?

An animal rights activist might dismiss my attempt at humor, but there is a point to it. Non-human animals don't possess the biological and physical attributes that would allow them to engage in the activities and behaviors we associate with "liberation" and "rights."

Ben Dalbey, in an unpublished essay, describes a video, produced by an organization concerned with protecting farm animals, that depicts "Maxine's Dash for Freedom":

"Maxine" is described in this Farm Sanctuary having "escaped" from a New York City slaughterhouse. She was then "rescued" by police and firefighters, who found her wandering the streets, taken to an animal shelter, and then taken by the Farm Sanctuary to greener pastures.

In reality, we don't know whether "Maxine" escaped, got lost, was let go by a human, or fell off the truck, because she can't tell us. All she does in the video is sit in her cage and chew straw. It is the humans from the Farm Sanctuary who have imparted to "Maxine" a human name, a "will to live," and an ability to "escape" from the slaughterhouse, which she does not have.

What is clear in the video is that "Maxine" demonstrates a "will" not to get onto the truck that will take her to the farm sanctuary. Here, because it is a human who always has and always will decide what is best for Maxine, her "will" is ignored. She--like all cows--must be pulled by ropes, prodded and enticed with food to go where the humans want her to be, whether that is the slaughterhouse or the Farm Sanctuary.

Though there is a basic biological continuity between all living things, there is also a qualitative difference that separates humans from other animals.

Animals have evolved and adapted to particular ecological niches, each possessing certain physical and behavioral attributes that allow them to survive in a particular habitat. Human beings have evolved certain attributes--a large brain, upright gait, dexterous hands, and, along with that, language and technology--that allow them to adapt to different environments by making those environments adapt to their needs. All species evolve and change, biologically speaking; only humans evolve culturally and socially.

Indeed, the only reason we can have this discussion about animals is because we have something they don't have--language. The fact is that dogs cannot domesticate us. By extension, they cannot "liberate" themselves or demand "rights" from us, either; they can't even formulate what a right or a demand is, Chicken Run notwithstanding.

Hence, realistically, when anyone speaks of rights or liberation for other animals, what they are really talking about is how humans behave toward animals. Human beings are, to a large extent, arbiters of the fate of other animals (for good or ill), a fact that sets us sharply apart from them.

I SAW a poster the other day that read: "racism=speciesism=sexism."

Speciesism is "a prejudice or attitude of bias towards the interests of members of one's own species, and against those of members of other species," says Australian animal rights activist Peter Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation is credited with starting the modern animal rights movement. Those who believe that the needs and interests of the human species take precedence over those of other species is a "speciesist."

Animal "equality," in this scenario, is not equality between other animals and humans (obviously, we could grant cows the right to vote and to bear arms, but it wouldn't matter much), but "equal" treatment by humans of humans and animals.

All living things are "speciesist." The web of life on our planet consists of different species struggling to survive, many by eating other species. The fact that human beings have the capacity, unlike any other species, to create a hierarchy of being, and make decisions about what living thing is legitimate or not legitimate to eat, is itself proof that there is a qualitative divide between human beings and other animals.

In his essay "All Animals are Equal," Peter Singer urges "that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species."

The equation of racism and sexism with the treatment of animals is to trivialize the former.

Consider some of the campaigns organized by the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Its 2008 "Wrong Meeting" video shows a hooded Klansman attending a kennel club meeting to talk about "breeding to achieve a master race"--equating the breeding of dogs with the Klan's white supremacism. A few years earlier, the group ran a "Holocaust on your plate" campaign that compared the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War to the slaughter of animals for food.

Non-human animals are helpless and, as I pointed out earlier, incapable of organizing and fighting for their rights. To compare the condition of animals to that of women, Blacks and other groups for freedom and equality is to view the latter through a paternalistic lens, rather than a lens of human liberation.

The astonishing logic of the idea that "all animals are equal" is revealed in a statement by Susan Rich, PETA's outreach coordinator. When questioned about who she would rescue in a lifeboat if the choice were between a baby and a dog, she answered: "I might choose the human baby or I might choose the dog."

Sometimes, the peculiar "speciesism" of the animal rights advocates comes through--that is, the elevation of other species over humans. For example, PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk said in 1990, "Humans have grown like a cancer. We're the biggest blight on the face of the earth."

EarthFirst! co-founder Dave Foreman made a similar point in a 1991 interview for Sports Illustrated: "If it came down to a confrontation between a grizzly and a friend, I'm not sure whose side I would be on. But I do know humans are a disease, a cancer on nature. And I also know I am far more interested in the plight of the spotted owl than I am in a logger in Oregon. I have a problem with glorifying the downtrodden worker."

Hitler and his closest associates were also very concerned with the welfare of animals. He personally ushered through a Law on Animal Protection in 1933 that read in part, "It is forbidden to unnecessarily torment or roughly mishandle an animal." Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering, who was head of the German Humane Society (!), issued a ban on vivisection (later modified), announcing that violators would be placed in concentration camps. Goering also restricted hunting, and forbid the boiling of live lobsters.

His concern for killing living things did not extend to Jews, Gypsies, gays, communists and Slavs.

Of course, many young activists who gravitate to animal rights activism don't do so because they elevate animals above people, or have contempt for the working class, but because they are concerned about how capitalism degrades all living things. Such a concern is not to be pooh-poohed.

But in order to put that concern in the right perspective, we need to insist on the essential differences between human beings and other animals, and reject the idea of "animal liberation."

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