This piece was originally published on Chickpeas & Change.
I want to complicate the movement’s primary framing of its goal as achieving “animal rights.”
First, I’d like to lay out my understanding of veganism – built upon the work of other radical activists before me – as a radical politics steeped in anti-speciesism (if we define speciesism as the belief of the inherent superiority of human beings over all other beings on earth). As Ida Hammer notes, veganism is a social change movement “based on the […] ideal of non-exploitation,” and certain practices like eating an animal-free diet logically flow from this principle that we should not exploit others (November 2008). This view of veganism as a struggle for societal change rightly frames vegans as those “who seek out the root of a problem so that [they] may strike at it for a solution” (Dominick)—the definition of a radical. As radicals, vegans “base [their] choices on a radical understanding of what animal oppression really is, and [their] lifestyle is highly informed and politicized” (Dominick), rather than steeped in the mere refusal to consume the bodies of other animals.
To form a radical movement, activists must move beyond measures to reform existing structures of oppression, and instead demand a revolutionary dismantling and rebuilding of society. In the wise words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
However, the mainstream “vegan” movement focuses heavily on reforming oppressive structures, such as lobbying for legislation to ban gestation crates and other forms of cruelty found in animal agriculture, and shifting the animal-based market to a plant-based (but still capitalist) one. Generally, the movement takes the stance that human conceptions of other animals can shift to embrace anti-speciesism under the exploitative structures of capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy that have constructed our notions of being. Um, no.
Another exploitative structure that the mainstream “vegan” movement upholds is the nation-state, defined academically as “a form of political organization in which a group of people who share the same history, traditions, or language live in a particular area under one government” (Merriam-Webster). The modern world was founded upon the nation-state, and structures all dominant forms of political life today. Perceiving itself in a state of perpetual crisis under the “threat” of those who do not fit the standardized definition of a citizen (think of refugees, immigrants, “terrorists,” etc.), the nation-state “undertake[s] the management of the biological life of the nation directly as its own task” (Agamben). In other words, the nation-state controls the lives of all those within its jurisdiction (and often those beyond).
One integral aspect of the nation-state is the notion of rights. Though posited as a set of values by which the nation-state’s legislative body must abide in order to ensure the well-being of its citizens, rights truly function as another method of control by deeming certain bodies as worthy of political life, and others as lesser beings unable to function as fully political beings. As historian Faisal Devji notes, rights “can only be guaranteed by states and are thus never truly in the possession of those who bear them” (3099); indeed, it is only in forms of political organization in which power is concentrated in elite hands that rights come to hold any meaning (Fotopoulous & Sargis).
Thus, by advocating for the bestowal of rights upon other animals, “vegan” activists work to uphold the inherently violent and oppressive nation-state—a structure that must be challenged in order for the collective liberation of all beings to truly take form.
The “vegan” movement’s operation within a rights-based framework also works to more explicitly uphold speciesism, since it assumes that other animals desire to be indoctrinated into our anthropocentric institution of the nation-state. This framework therefore implies the superiority of human-created ideas and structures over those of other beings.
So if not rights, then for what should we as radical vegans strive? I definitely don’t purport to have all the answers here, but I would like to share with you some of Gandhi’s lesser-known ideas – as paraphrased by Devji and further interpreted by me – about how to reconceptualize what it might mean to act as a political being. Though abstract, these ideas have certainly opened up for me new possibilities of what form radical veganism might take.
Gandhi proposed and enacted a politics based on moral duties rather than rights, in which each individual would commit to their moral duties rather than fighting for their rights, such that we no longer have any dependence on the state. Our duties would question how one’s self ought relate to others, and in a way that does not prioritize one’s own needs. In this politics, we would think of ourselves as moral agents rather than victims whose rights are threatened. Even though the focus in this politics would be on the individual, this focus would not be a neoliberal one since it’s devoted to building relationships and community with others.
Whether or not we as radical vegans ultimately consider Gandhi’s framework to be helpful, I do think we need to determine the goals of radical veganism, and act from those principles.
Agamben, Giorgio. Means without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.
Devji, Faisal. The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Kindle file.