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.

SOCIALLY, what is so troublesome about understanding veganism as primarily an abstention from the consumption of animal products is that it facilitates a number of objectionable social practices: self-righteousness, identity politics, militancy, colonialism, classism, and privileged consumerism. These objections to veganism, however, are not universal to all vegan practices. That veganism has been a medium for such unfavorable sociality is due to veganism being understood as a single-issue to which all other social movements are subordinated, backgrounded, or separated. Mainstream vegans like to practice veganism as only a matter of what people do to nonhuman animal bodies (i.e. whether they kill, consume, or exploit them) and insist that veganism has nothing to do with what people say or do to other people and their bodies. For instance, consumer vegans are often content calling their food or products “cruelty-free,” even as human animals are exploited and tormented during the production.

While I do think most mainstream vegans have very good intentions, the effects of some of their actions and discourse alienate potential allies. Many potential allies dismiss veganism as a middle-class white people’s pre-occupation with exercising their privilege through being humanitarians for “voiceless,” defenseless, and innocent animals without ever having to address their privilege that comes at the expense people of color and the working class. Examples of class privilege are popular vegan sound bites like “every time you sit down to eat, you can choose cruelty over compassion” and “vote with your dollars/fork.” In the former, one assumes one has any choice in what one eats. In the latter, consumption and purchasing power are equated with political power (and vice versa), which suggest those with less purchasing power do not (and cannot) exercise as much political power.

The consequences of this discourse becomes evident when mainstream vegans alienate people because they cannot afford to pay for dinner or a drink at a meetup, or when they judge others for using animal products they received for free in a precarious financial situation. (The same can be said about vegans traveling abroad and those who believe they must consume animal products for their health, like pregnant vegans). Mainstream vegan privilege leads some to interpret others’ imperfect vegan consumption habits as demonstrating a lack of commitment to animals, as not exercising personal moral responsibility. Although, “abolitionists” believe consumption-based veganism is the “moral baseline”—the minimal obligation one has toward animals—, how often do they assist underserved people achieve their “moral baseline” rather than judging them for failing to meet it on their own? If vegans are sincere about creating a vegan society, veganism ought to be a social space to which people are generously provided access. Veganism will have limited success so long as it remains a luxury reserved for those with privilege, independent of human liberation movements.

PHILOSOPHICALLY, when veganism is reduced to personal consumption or political action it becomes an instrument of morality rather than an ethics itself. If veganism is primarily a lifestyle that concerns nothing other than (an abstention from) consumption, then veganism is nothing more than an extension or purification of vegetarianism: veganism is simply a vegetarian lifestyle. It logically follows that, if veganism is the moral baseline, that one’s consumption is the only qualification for being vegan, then one can very well be a speciesist vegan. This may sound peculiar because it is. The reason is that veganism is not merely a lifestyle or tactic, but a theoretical practice.

According to Ida Hammer, veganism is no “accident.” Veganism is a revolutionary praxis: “an anti-oppression framework that views the abolition of animal exploitation as part of a wider struggle for social justice” and “leads to a way of life (or lifestyle) that is based on noncooperation with, and divestment from, exploitation.”

Hammer’s liberation and anti-oppression discourse is notably different from Singer
and Francione’s discourse on suffering and equality. While veganism for Leslie Cross, an original member of the Vegan Society, was “the principle from which certain practices logically follow," Francione “replaces veganism as the reason for these practices with what he calls ‘the rights position.’" Francione fails to recognize how the principles and rights he advocates have not even stopped humans from being oppressed. For instance, Afro-Americans may have been emancipated from slavery, however a new institution was created, the prison-industrial-complex, to place them back into bondage. Hammer explains that “[t]he property status of other animals… is just one piece of the structure of human supremacy, just as human slavery was just one piece of the structure of White supremacy.”

The theoretical discrepancies and historical failure of these principles can be traversed by focusing on renouncing human privilege and the corresponding institution of speciesism. “[S]ince speciesism is an ideology of oppression that legitimates the existing social order, we need to see veganism as a counter-ideology of liberation.” Removing the “-ism” from veganism, risks alienating veganism—an anti-oppression framework—from being a vegan, a “consumptive pattern that is increasingly self-interested and individualized” in contemporary discourse. Actions may speak louder than words, but veganism cannot be reduced to one's (consumptive) actions alone.The fetishization of consumption practices misplaces the potential of veganism as a transformative social and ecological justice practice.

Hammer excellently articulates the problem of consumption-based vegan identity her latest essay, "Abolition, Liberation, and Veganism:"
[A]bolition in a negative sense is limited and destine for failure...we must also create a transformative shift towards non-exploitative institutions in order to achieved any sort of comprehensive abolition — institutions that are also socially and environmentally equitable...I'm talking about collective and institutional change on a structural level, not individual or consumer change. Adding animal-free alternatives to the already existing consumer market will not bring about comprehensive abolition. Comprehensive abolition will require revolutionary shifts in our existing social structures, which, I believe, would necessitate a restructuring of global economy away from exploitative, capitalist-based consumer markets. [my emphasis]

ADDENDUM: In this essay I alternate between critiquing consumer and consumption-based veganism. Although these are similar in that their focus is on market reform and individual lifestyle, they are not to be conflated. Many vegan critical theorists such as Bob Torres and Ida Hammer have critiqued the appropriation of the vegan movement by the logic of capitalist markets via corporations and even vegan companies (i.e. Veg News) and non-profits (i.e. PETA & HSUS). What I am arguing goes beyond this critique of consumerism and the structure of society that facilitates it. I am critiquing also veganism as an identity of consumption.

As I have previously explored, I would like to experiment with thinking about veganism as something more fundamental than abstaining from animal exploitation, as something affirmative about human-animal relationships that pre-conditions people's motivation to become vegan. In a future post, I would like to suggest, that we think about veganism without vegetarianism--which is not the same as advocating the killing or exploitation of animals. The point in doing so is to make a distinction for understanding the relationship between the two. Could someone practice veganism without being vegetarian? I think so. If this is the case, then we must understand veganism as something more and less than (vegetarian) consumption. Veganism would become fundamentally a social position or modality in regards to animal others, one in which we are bonded to them through attentive care, curiosity.

This is not to say vegetariaism is unimportant, only that it is unessential. Far from being trivial, vegetarianism is an invaluable performance especially as a critical praxis. If morality is post-hoc--"after the fact," a response to cognitive dissonance--, then a diet free of the consumption of animal bodies, their  labor, their products, and products tested on them is less likely to facilitate our rationalization of their exploitation. Vegetarian consumption practice facilitates a de-subjectification of a human identity based upon an opposition, negation, and domination of animality and animal others. Further, privileging vegetarian consumption over animal-based consumption enables the positive re-construction of our world away from one in which speciesism is institutionalized.

Therefore, I am not saying vegetarian consumption is impractical or supererogatory. Rather, vegetarainism consumption ought to be seen as distinguished from veganism--not as a logically defective kind as Francione would have it--, because vegetarian consumption and vegan social modality are in a dialectical relationship. In other words, a vegan modality motivates  vegetarian practice and vegetarian practice facilitates a maturer veganism. Vegetarianism is a means to the transformative practice that is veganism.

* NOTE: By "vegetarian consumption" I mean primarily a consumption practice free of all animal bodies and products, however, this critique applies also to lacto-ovo vegetarians.


bigmax722 said...

I love the phrase "transformative practice" because that is what veganism has meant for me.

Brandon Becker said...

You list "militancy" among classism and colonialism which you label "objectionable social practices." I ask: what's wrong with militancy? You give no explanation.

I think it's class privilege (and also human privilege if you are talking about militancy in animal liberation) that allows pacifists to sit back and condemn militants for resisting their own oppression and working in solidarity with others to overthrow all oppression.

Adamas said...

Brandon, you raise a very good point. I'm still experimenting with this conception of veganism and I acknowledge how reservations about "militarism"--which has a range of meanings and degrees--can stem from privilege. Maybe I shouldn't list militancy as objectionable.

I do not, however, agree with your false dichotomy of militancy and pacifism. I've known many a militant pacifist, some of whom were by no means class privileged. Plus, I do not believe animal emancipation is analogous to women, queer, black etc liberation, because nonhumans are not political actors. I think it is naive to think that the same tactics will work for veganism, and I have major reservations that physical and mental violence against humans are justified by "the ends," and, even if they were, that they would create more backlash than allies. If this type of violence is what people mean by militancy, then I do not withdraw my opposition to it.

Brandon Becker said...

Other animals may not be organizing politically, but their cries of pain and suffering and fighting back against their human oppressors show they want freedom. We ought to stand in solidarity with them in supporting their "by any means necessary" resistance by not only voicing our support for abolition but also refusing to condemn those in the underground animal liberation movement who break speciesist laws to help them get free.

"Nonhumans are political prisoners. The politics is speciesism." – Joan Dunayer (Speciesism, pg xiii)

Adamas said...

Brandon, I overall agree with you. I don't necessarily oppose (on ethical and tactical grounds) underground activity that breaks laws. What I do oppose is the "by any means necessary" attitude that has justified countless atrocities in the name of "freedom."

I'd also be more cautious of ethnopomorphism: ascribing (modern) human aspirations to those of other species as if these were universally shared across time, cultures, and species. What you mean by "freedom" may mean something very different to a cow or dog, if in fact, that concept could mean anything at all to other species. (It’s one thing to say animals ought to be free from exploitation and another to say that they desire freedom). If you consider yourself an ally of animal others, then I'd be careful not to speak for them.

javiervgn said...

Very good points indeed. I've been vegan for some time and I've came to the conclusión that in the current social-monetary system (capitalism as the predominant) it is more of a symbolic act.

If I may, I would like to take some of your point a little further and derive some questions from them.

You said, Veganism as an economic boycot is insufficient. I totally agree. I actually think it is also inefficient, but anyway by proposing "food democracy" as a way to transform the political, social and economic structure of society you fall very short in my opinion. We have to remember that "democracy" is over rated and associated with positive outcomes, but what democracy really is, is the majority's opinion.

Democracy is 9 wolves and a sheep deciding what they are going to eat --Anonymous

If we believe we are going achieve a vegan world by "democracy" we are not being realistic.

I think you are right on the money when you say "Comprehensive abolition will require revolutionary shifts in our existing social structures, which, I believe, would necessitate a restructuring of global economy away from exploitative, capitalist-based consumer markets." So my question would be, what is the global economic transformation you propose? Basically you are saying that animal liberation is not achievable in the social-monetary system we have, right? Well I agree, that's why I started to look into different alternatives that are being proposed. I came across the Zeitgeist Movement, which basically proposes a new economic system called the "Resources Based Economy" where money is obsolete and no longer an incentive for society.

This system also proposes declaring all resources in the planet as a common heritage of everyone. And using the scientific method to arrive to decisions that solve our common problems. It is not based on opinions, because as I said, the majority may have the same opinion but it doesn't necessarily mean it is the best decision for the common well being.

I came to the conclusion that a system like this would indirectly achieve animal liberation, and here is shortly why. If you see world food consumption as a technical problem rather than a moral issue, and then you trying to solve this problem by finding the best possible way to feed the entire population using the scientific method. And just with the basic principle of self-preservation where we want to feed everyone in a sustainable way, with the minimum impact to the environment and the intelligent use of resources available, (even if society morally still sees other animals as resources). The consumption of animals and animal products would be discarded right away, by logical conclusion. We know is not nutritionally imprescindible, and it would be unsustainable. A plant based diet would be by default the best solution to this problem.

Would you care if animal liberation and a vegan world achieve a consequence of a logical and scientific conclusion, rather than by a moral transformation of society? This doesn't mean society would have no moral standards, I believe they would exist but in other matters where the scientific method is not able to be as conclusive as in this example.

I invite you to explore this concept, if you want to know more about this check out

Gordon Kelley said...

Veganism may be a symbolic act with little strength as an economic boycott.....but it's better than nothing and is personally meaningful. Even if not particularly effective at Changing The World, it is important to act in ways that are true to ourself and provide an example to those around us.

Brandon Becker said...

This essay explains how refusing to buy animal flesh is not just symbolic and can actually contribute to real harm:

Unknown said...

This is such a wonderful piece and quite provocative! Please please PLEASE fix the spelling of the title, though - this post deserves it :)