Friday, June 17, 2011

Veganism without Vegetarianism: On Guilt, Disability, and Ex-Vegans

While attending the Thinking About Animals conference in the spring 2011, I stumbled upon an odd and heretical questions: Could someone practice veganism without being vegetarian?

The question is intended to be provocative in order to challenge vegans’ complicity or even dogmatic adherence to a particular understanding of veganism. That veganism is becoming mainstream through its assimilation into the capitalist economy as a lifestyle choice or a fashionable diet leaves a stale taste in my mouth. Veganism should be revolutionary, not marketable. This question also enabled me to experiment with creating a more productive tension between veganism and vegetarianism.*

So could someone practice veganism without being vegetarian? My answer is

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Socially-centered Veganism vs Consumption-centered Veganism

Owen (right) & Mzee (left) @ Haller Park (Malindi, Kenya)
The most fundamental difference between the veganism I advocate and that advocated by others is focus. Veganism as a purely vegetarian lifestyle typically focuses on consumption practices associated with the individual, abstention, and identity; however, I’m interested in veganism as a social practice, a mode of being with others, that is relational, affirmative, and transformative.

I understand veganism as a social modality, an affiliation and solidarity with others beyond (species) boundaries, in which animal others are regarded as someones, not somethings. The origin, the means, and the end of veganism are being in “conversations” with others. Veganism, in other words, is fundamentally an affirmation of and care for the “voices” of animal others through “listening” (i.e. receptive curiosity and regard). Since careful listening takes place between particular responsive beings, not abstract or inanimate ones, killing animals irreversibly terminates conversations, silencing animal others. Exploiting animals may not terminate conversations absolutely, but enables and is enabled by an emotional “deafness” to their resistance whenever it becomes inconvenient to using them. Like a good conversation, a vegan social modality is incompatible with asserting oneself onto and over others. If their singularity and agency are to be recognized, affirmed, and cared for in conversation, we must act least violently toward them. By baring us to the responsibility of our care for animal others, veganism is the practice of intersectional and interspecies participatory justice, not personal purity (i.e. cruelty-free, body-as-a-temple), moral pragmatism (i.e. “the best choice for our health, the environment, and animals”), or political protest (i.e. economic boycott).

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Critique of Consumption-Centered Veganism

INTRODUCTION: The mainstream discourse and practice of veganism as an individual’s (abstention from the) consumption of animal products, I believe, is problematic in three interrelated ways: practically as an economic boycott, socially as a privileged consumerism, and philosophically as an equivocation with a vegetarian lifestyle. I propose a new understanding of veganism as a social modality with and in regard to animal others which can be distinguished from and exist independently of vegetarian consumption. However, this distinction does not so much as invalidate vegetarian consumption so much as place it in a dialectic relationship with veganism, in which it can be regarded as a valuable means, but not an end.

PRACTICALLY, positioning veganism as an economic boycott is a very limited tactic given the prevalence of global capitalism. Mainstream veganism only addresses the content (i.e. animal products) and not the form/structure (i.e. capitalism) of the global market that facilitates the exploitation of animals as commodities and obstructs people from transforming society. This is evident in several ways.

First, many mainstream vegans tend to regard the very culprits of animal exploitation as the remedy. Veganism is now sold to people in the form of products (sometimes explicitly labeled “vegan”) by the very corporations (i.e. Kraft, Dean, Con-Agra, Burger King, etc.) that exist and profit off the exploitation of animals. While the availability and convenience of these products is celebrated as “victories,” their support only sediments the control these corporations have over the market and government. These agri-businesses that own, produce, and distribute most of our food supply have tremendous political power winning government subsidies and combating policy changes that would abolish animal exploitation practices..

Second, even if consumer vegans extend their boycott from the individual product consumed to the company who profits from it, without also challenging the present political-economic order of capitalism in which the interests of corporations persistently trump the interests of the general public, vegans remain complicit in the system that entitles businesses to exploit animal others (and human others as well). Besides, it’s not as if animal agribusiness is an isolated phenomenon; it is sustained by what Barbara Noske calls “the animal industrial complex”—an amalgamation of feed and chemical companies, the pharmaceutical industry, representatives and officers in government, public research and educational institutions etc. that are all mutually dependent upon one another through capital. Animal agribusiness will not be overthrown until these regimes and what gives them power are transformed. Even if consumer vegans were able to make significant dents in the national market, all this will be reversed by the rise of the affluent animal-eating class in the developing world to whom animals raised nationally will be exported, or—in “a race to the bottom”— to where the industry will be exported—displacing farmers and wildlife and externalizing production costs upon their communities.

Third, veganism as an economic boycott does not even universally enable people to practice veganism. Since wholesome food is regarded as a commodity rather than a socio-political right, large populations of disadvantaged people have little to no financial and/or geographic access to vegetarian food and goods, and thus are severely disadvantaged from living a secure vegan life. Food will continue to be grown for profits before people’s needs and preferences so long as food remains a commodity. A vegan world will not be brought about by the asocial, amoral market but by people in what Vandana Shiva calls “food democracy”—when food production and access is determined by people, not the imperialism of the market. In sum, mainstream vegan discourse and activism's focus on economic boycott is problematic not because it is ineffective, but because it is insufficient. Without challenging the political, economic, and social structure of society, veganism as a movement will make little progress reducing and abolishing animal exploitation.