Anarchism and animal liberation: part 2

This continues a previous post, and is adapted from a work-in-progress.

Total liberation

Iris Young defines structural injustice as a condition that “exists when social processes put large categories of persons under a systematic threat of domination or deprivation of the means to develop and exercise their capacities, at the same time as they enable others to dominate or have a wide range of opportunities for developing and exercising capacities.” This is quite similar in spirit to the definition of ‘hierarchy’ that I offered in the previous post.

Young’s phrasing—“a systematic threat of domination”—is important. That someone occupies a lower position in a hierarchy does not necessarily entail that those above actually use their position to exploit or otherwise dominate that individual. But the latent possibility of domination, and its legitimation by the hierarchically structured norms of the social unit, is itself oppressive even if the possibility has not become actuality. A benign State, church, or capitalist still has power over their population, believers, or workers. Note too that there is no insider/outsider distinction made; the domination of an out-group by an in-group is not relevantly different from the domination of in-group members by other in-group members (which would best be understood as in- and out-groups within the larger in-group). As David Nibert writes,

The power of the state cannot be underestimated in its capacity to harness the vast majority of societal members into a system of laws that strongly favors the interests of the privileged. Throughout most of the past ten thousand years, that power has been used largely tyrannically and oppressively. In many instances, women, children, devalued males, and other animals have been viewed as personal property, and the full weight of the state has been used to protect the economic and utilitarian uses of these ‘others’.

Nibert is not an anarchist; he thinks that the State’s power can be a vehicle for social change serving the common good, provided that it is removed from the grip of capital. In other words, for Nibert it is the capitalist state, not the State per se, that is objectionable. Where anarchists part ways with his view is in their claim that the State is inherently hierarchical, and that the possibility or reality of tyranny is always present in the State.

Tbe sure, the anarchists best known to Anglophone philosophers did not seem to have animals in mind when they formulated their calls for revolution, expropriation, communal organization, and the satisfaction of the needs of all. Proudhon noted that humans were social animals, but dismissed as mere sentimentalism the idea that non-human animals had intrinsic worth. Although Kropotkin held that “[w]e must recognize, and loudly proclaim, that every one, whatever his grade in the old society, whether strong or weak, capable or incapable, has, before everything, THE RIGHT TO LIVE, and that society is bound to share amongst all, without exception, the means of existence it has at its disposal,” he was able to follow this assertion almost immediately with the hope that “none need perish with cold near shops full of furs….,” and to conclude that “[t]he ‘right to well-being’ means the possibility of living like human beings….” He imagined “the people of the insurgent cities” taking possession of not just the food warehouses, but the cattle markets as well, and discussed the apportionment of grazing lands. Clearly the subordination of animals to human beings seemed as acceptable to Kropotkin as it does to most who read these words in the 21st century.

That having been said, concern for the interests of animals was evinced even by anarchists at the turn of the twentieth century. Louise Michel not only advocated for animals and wrote critically about vivisection, but cited a lifelong hatred of the torture of animals as the origin point of her opposition to the powerful. Feminist anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre was known to those around her as a woman who was deeply attuned to the suffering of others, whose sensibilities extended beyond the human good:

Voltairine, as Emma Goldman noted, “would give shelter to every stray cat and dog,” something it would be hard to imagine Emma herself doing. As her friend George Brown remarked, “I have never known anyone who had so much sympathy for dumb animals. In fact, she made the house a hospital for misused cats and dogs,” and in keeping with her Tolstoyan precepts, she would not destroy life of any kind of she could avoid it, so that “when pests invaded her rooms she captured them and carried them out.”

In de Cleyre’s case, concern for animal suffering seems to have been connected to anarchist principles only inasmuch as an anarchist mentality is partly characterized by a sense of one’s co-existence with others whose well-being is part of the common good. She does not seem to have written or spoken about animals in connection with anarchism; her sensitivity to animal suffering appears to have been based more on personal temperament than on an explicit incorporation of animals into a principle of total liberation.

In contrast to de Cleyre, anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus made explicit his commitment to the good of animals on principled grounds in a 1901 essay entitled “On Vegetarianism,” which is remarkable for its location of similarities between, and mutual reinforcement of, domination of animals and the atrocities of aggressive war. Of the dehumanizing crimes committed by Allied forces during the Boxer Rebellion, Reclus wrote:

But is there not some direct relation of cause and effect between the food of these executioners, who call themselves “agents of civilization,” and their ferocious deeds? They, too, are in the habit of praising the bleeding flesh as a generator of health, strength, and intelligence. They, too, enter without repugnance the slaughter house, where the pavement is red and slippery, and where one breathes the sickly sweet odour of blood. Is there then so much difference between the dead body of a bullock and that of a man? The dissevered limbs, the entrails mingling one with the other, are very much alike: the slaughter of the first makes easy the murder of the second, especially when a leader’s order rings out, or from afar comes the word of the crowned master, “Be pitiless.”

For Reclus, systemic harm to animals was both wrong in itself and also a corrupting influence on human nature, which he viewed as bound up with the non-human natural world. His vegetarianism was based partly on a lifelong sympathy with animals sparked by a childhood glimpse of a slaughterhouse, but also on anarchist praxis—living so as to embody the peace and non-domination that characterize the anarchist society.

This tradition leads to the landmark 1997 pamphlet by Brian Dominick, “Animal Liberation and Social Revolution,” which explicitly links the project of animal liberation to anarchism’s opposition to all hierarchy. Dominick’s essay could be seen as the catalyst for the development of critical animal studies and an interdisciplinary anarchist animal liberation literature.

If anarchism’s foundational commitment is to the dismantling of hierarchies, then in order to bring animals within the fold of anarchist politics we must view human-animal relations in terms of stabilized and systemic power relations defined by domination. Seeing animals as relevant to an anarchist political project means seeing them as situated within and outside of, but in all cases affected by, human social institutions. Furthermore, it means seeing these institutions as serving and reinforcing an ideology of human supremacy.

Humans inflict numerous structural harms on animals. Their legal status as property, their genetic manipulation to produce “food” and to serve as experimental subjects, their minimal protection under the law, the use of animals as entertainment props: all of these aspects of human-animal relations are normalized and systematized. The human-animal binary is a socially constructed one, as I argued in section 3, and serves a means to human self-definition and the elevation of the human over the non-human and of some humans over others. Human supremacy is the ideology that normalizes these practices and produces an epistemology of domination (or what I have called “dominionism”).

Erika Cudworth summarizes the structural character of animal oppression:

Nonhuman species are not ‘less’ than humans, rather, this hierarchy is constantly reproduced by the active dehumanization of animals and the reinforcement of separation. This hierarchy is political, and anarchists sensitive to the naturalization of categories of oppression (in terms of gender or ‘race’ or ability and so on) should be attuned to those generated by the politics of species domination.

The State and capitalism are deeply implicated in animals’ oppression, and all three are entangled with other modes of oppression such as racism, patriarchy, ableism, and heterosexism. Therefore, animal liberationists have good reasons to embrace anarchist commitments. And anarchists, committed as they are to opposing all forms of hierarchy, have good reasons to be animal liberationists. The only possible liberation is total liberation.

Animals in human societies

One might object that since animals are not members of human societies—whether structured by state capitalism, democratic socialism, authoritarian communism, or anarchism—they are outside the scope of structural injustice. They can be wronged, but they cannot be regarded as having a stake in the structure of a human society, and in particular an anarchist society founded on the principle that all affected by a decision should have some input into the making of that decision. Animals, after all, do not seem to be able to engage in political expression or contribute to decision-making processes involving the structure of institutions or the distribution of labor or social goods. And they are not recognized as members of political units, membership in which is limited to human beings.

Taking the latter point first, the assumption that animals cannot offer their perspective on our choices is a dubious one, as Donaldson and Kymlicka point out. They vote with their feet, cry out in pain, alter their behaviors, and attempt to escape confinement. They express preferences in ways that should call into question vast patterns of human-animal interactions. These patterns have political significance, since they are stabilized, conventional, normalized, and politically and legally enabled and enforced.

As to the issue of membership, it is clear that domesticated animals, whether used for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or companionship, do inhabit human societies. They are dependent on humans for the provision of life’s necessities, and they dwell in human-made structures—in the case of companion animals, in humans’ homes. Domesticated animals are under human control or supervision all or most of the time. It is no use to claim that they somehow exist “outside” of human societies.

More to the point, however, is the fact that social connections are morally prior to political structures. As Iris Young has argued, the view that political institutions set moral boundaries gets things backwards; it is more accurate to say that social connections necessitate political institutions because those connections potentially bring various commitments and interests into conflict. Therefore, the question is not whether animals do or can participate in political institutions and processes, but instead whether human beings and animals stand in social relations—particularly relations that can generate violence, exploitation, and domination—that elevate the issue of human-animal interaction to the level of second-order principles that constitute social and political norms.

The intersectionality thesis helps to make these social connections more vivid. No animal is simply an “animal” in relation to humans; the human/animal binary is used to subordinate, but it does so partly by erasing the (mostly oppressive) complexity of interspecies relations. As I’ve said,

[A]nimals that share some feature may have their subordination constructed differently along some other dimension—the guard dog, the seeing-eye dog, the show dog, and the sled dog occupy different roles in the human social world. Some of these roles centre on economic exploitation, some centre on use with incidental economic benefits, some produce social benefits (e.g., prestige) that others do not. But ‘dog-hood’, for lack of a more elegant expression, cannot be detached from these other relations.

Similarly, horses are used by humans for various purposes: sport, transportation, labor. And some ways of categorizing animals erase animal oppression by directing our focus to the animals we view as companions or even family members. Thus, one can be an “animal lover” because one loves dogs—or at least those dogs we categorize as “pets”—while also eating or wearing the flesh of other animals. Animality is subordination, but the subordination of different animals is constructed differently depending on how groupings of animals are socially situated in relation to humans.

Animals that are not domesticated, whether wild or “liminal” animals, may not be tightly integrated into human societies but they are nonetheless affected by human practices and the operations of human social institutions—just as human beings who are not members of a national political community may still have claims of justice against the community and its members. That one is not a member of some social group does not entail that one’s interests are irrelevant to the design of the group’s institutions or the performance of its practices.

Structural change

Total liberation requires activity on multiple fronts. The economic supremacy of the ownership class, and the political supremacy of its protective ruling class, must be challenged by a labor movement that looks beyond short-term gains for workers within the existing capitalist system (though those are important as well) to the long-term goal of replacing that system with one in which goods are produced to satisfy needs rather than to generate profits for an idle ownership class. White supremacy and patriarchy, with all of their social, political, and economic dimensions, must be systematically dismantled. Human supremacy and the systemic domination of animals, which are wrong in themselves and because they enable the dehumanization of vulnerable human populations, must be eliminated. And the State, enabler and enforcer of elites’ capability to dominate others both within and outside of its territory, must be scrapped in favor of organizational structures that recognize the equal claims of all affected parties to flourish and coexist on terms of genuine peace rather than a forcibly maintained order. And given the intersectionality of the construction of all these categories of domination, they must be dismantled simultaneously.

Of course, these are monumental tasks. They require the formation of coalitions whose activist members stand in solidarity with those whose energies are directed primarily at different but overlapping modes of oppression. They require the construction of new vocabularies to name and undermine the ideologies that sustain existing power disparities, as well as tactics that refuse conformity with prevailing norms of interaction that favor elites while having the symbolic resonance of propaganda by the deed. We have recently seen social movements, including the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and more recently Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, that aspire to and often realize these ideals. Sadly, the animal welfare, rights, and liberation movements have been slow to develop the same aspirations, and are still often characterized by whiteness, cultural insensitivity, and a bourgeois focus on consumption of vegan products. An anarchist sensibility is far less likely to generate such problematic tendencies, and it is not far-fetched to believe that this sensibility can be fostered. Indeed, Occupy Wall Street was strongly influenced by anarchism, and Black Lives Matter, though its activists generally do not identify as anarchists, has successfully employed strategies and tactics that are consistent with anarchism, such as confrontation and resistance rather than negotiation within prevailing institutional parameters, public disruption of events and business-as-usual consumer activity, and demand for structural change rather than mere reform.

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