Wednesday, April 23, 2014

'Man, Controller of the Universe' is Speciesist

Given the piece's title, it should come as little surprise that Diego Rivera's Marxist-inspired mural "Man, Controller of the Universe" is most likely speciesist. Among other things, but perhaps of primary concern for socialist animal liberationists, the 1934 composition features Charles Darwin resting his hand atop a lengthy measuring stick. At his feet sit a number of animals, including a monkey barely able to reach halfway up the straightedge, even with the help of an object upon which the primate is perched. While the painting is open to interpretation, to me this section is a rather clear endorsement of the anthropocentric Great Chain of Being, unscientifically wrapped in evolutionary garb.

"The Scala Naturae [also known as the Great Chain of Being] is a philosophical view of nature attributed to Aristotle in Ancient Greece," Lori Marino explained recently on the Huffington Post. "According to this view, nature is arranged on a kind of ladder or hierarchy of increasing 'advancement' and value, moving up from inorganic objects like stones, at the very bottom, to plants, through the 'lower' animals such as sponges, to vertebrates such as fish, then to 'higher' animals such as mammals, then to monkeys and apes, and finally humans." As Marino demonstrated, this view is simply false.

The story behind the creation of 'Man, Controller of the Universe' is interesting. Nelson Rockefeller, the capitalist and future vice-president of the United States, commissioned Rivera to paint a mural on the ground floor of the Rockefeller Center in New York City, titled 'Man at the Crossroads.' The Mexican artist, who was married to Frida Kahlo, did this, but included a sympathetic portrait of Vladimir Lenin surrounded by a multi-racial group of workers. Rockefeller demanded the image of the Russian Marxist be excised. Rivera refused, and much to the art world's dismay, the composition was subsequently destroyed. 'Man, Controller of the Universe,' which is often mistakenly referred to as 'Man at the Crossroads,' is Rivera's recreation of the latter based on photographs of his original work.

Kahlo and Rivera
Rivera's apparent suggestion that humanity is the pinnacle of evolution represents a misreading of Charles Darwin's work and just the kind religious-inspired superstition the painting glorified triumph over. "Darwin's discoveries showed conclusively that there is no ladder, but that all life is instead connected through branching evolutionary relationships - known as phylogeny," Marino said. "Even though he demonstrated that there is no 'up' and 'down,' Darwin's insights were relabeled as the 'phylogenetic scale,' which continued to preserve a hierarchical system in which 'higher' organisms were more 'evolutionarily advanced' than 'lower' ones."

Given the format of Rivera's painting, one could argue, with incredible implausibility, that 'Man, at the Crossroads' is a criticism of a reconstructed conception of the Great Chain of Being, rather than an endorsement of it. After all, Rivera's vision of regressive capitalism is pictured on the left side of the mural, while the artist's vision of progressive socialism is on the right. I'm not sure why Rivera placed Darwin in the context of the reactionary past. But that he meant the placement as criticism of anthropocentric science is laughably unlikely. More likely Darwin's location is a nod to the undeniable achievements of the capitalist era or how the naturalist's theories were used to justify cutthroat economic policies in the form of Social Darwinism.

As Marino pointed out, the Great Chain of Being, a version of which Rivera appeared to endorse, serves to ideologically justify human domination of other sentient species. "The Scala Naturae gives us license to exploit other animals because they are seen as being further down the ladder," Marino said. "It also helps us to view ourselves as not being fully part of nature, and therefore to disconnect from empathizing with other animals. It seems to give us a 'right' to treat them as commodities for our own use. Even seemingly well-intentioned ideas about stewardship and dominion are ultimately just manifestations of the same hierarchical view that leads to abuse and exploitation."

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. He is the author of Socialists and Animal Rights. Visit his website by clicking here

Editor's Note:  This mural is also undeniably androcentric!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I'm Scared of Networking with Pro-Animal Socialists

I'm vaguely fearful of connecting with the anti-speciesist left on social media like Facebook, as I am of connecting with other explicitly political contacts with different ideological focus. Because like all such subcultures there will no doubt be a high degree of personal point scoring, through call-outs that carry the implicit threat of excommunication, motivated less by sincere consciousness-raising than intragroup rivalries. And that's a problem.

As a writer who goes by the pseudonym Saturnite points out on his socialist blog, Spread the Infestation, relationships are essential to the development of progressive movements. "A study by Doug McAdam of the University of Arizona focused on the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement," Saturnite said. "McAdam looked for different reasons why 75 percent of the participants stuck with it and 25 percent of them dropped out. The most important factors turned out to not be their level of political sophistication or their emotional commitment. The critical telling factor was, when participants were asked to write a list of all the people they personally knew in the movement, the dropouts had the shortest lists, and the holdouts had the longest. People stayed because they had a larger amount of real relationships with other people."

Obviously real-life relationships, as opposed to online ones, are preferable in the creation of sustainable movements. But in the absence of local networks of pro-animal socialists I will focus this article on community-building efforts on social media. Personally, I'm wary of connecting with activists on websites like Facebook, given the steam of consciousness nature of such outlets, because I fear I will be judged for inadvertently saying something reactionary or revealing similar backwardness or unexamined privilege in my past. If I worry about this, I suspect many others do to.

This is a problem. Movements cannot grow beyond cultish sects in environments where participants feel at constant risk of public shaming or expulsion by their comrades for saying or doing the wrong thing. Such environments stifle ideological or tactical innovation, which often require risk-taking. Perhaps worse, they discourage potential participants from involvement and disaffect current members. Who would want to exist in such toxic atmospheres, let alone long term, in which activists feel under siege by their nominal comrades?

Of course, this is not to say that within leftist movements we should stop trying to raise consciousness. All of our perspectives are reductionist to one degree or another, based on our life experience and emergence from various progressive traditions that view the world primarily through a singular lens — whether that lens be class, gender, race, sexuality, species or another category. Our liberatory theory will only be strengthened by incorporating other perspectives.

But we must raise consciousness without judging individuals, all of whose beliefs and behavior are the result of systemic forces. If we support excommunication for certain offenses we must consider what such a standard would mean for the potential growth of our movements if applied to the general public, who, it should go without saying, we are trying to win over. However impatient we are for change, and reactionary as they might be, we cannot bypass the human masses, as they are the primary agents of progressive change.

Using a metaphor of dental hygiene, radio personality Jay Smooth provided an insightful example of how to raise consciousness about race without turning the conversation into a judgement on individuals. The lesson should be applied to similar discussions about class, gender, sexuality, species and other categories.

"There's a tendency to assume that any conversation about race is a referendum on whether I am a bad person," Smooth said, according to a National Public Radio station website. "We usually think of race issues [as] if I'm not racist than that's a permanent state that I don't need to mind and do constant upkeep on...All of us as good people need to get more comfortable with telling each other that we've got something stuck in our teeth as it were, when it comes to these race issues."

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. He is the author of Socialists and Animal Rights. Visit his website by clicking here

Editor's Note:  Social movement research is quite clear that networks are one of the most important factors in sustaining involvement. In the vegan movement, research has shown that networks are the most important factor.  Readers may also be interested to read Roger Yates' critique of similar in-group boundary maintenance in the abolitionist animal rights movement. See also my review of Elizabeth Cherry's research on vegan networks.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sue Coe: Vegan-Socialist Illustrator

The contemporary British artist Sue Coe, whose work and public statements strongly condemn both capitalism and animal agriculture, is by all indications a vegan socialist. If an interview with the illustrator conducted in 2005 by Elin Slavick, now only available on an obscure blog, is to trusted, Coe was reluctant to define her class politics, leaving that to others. However, I believe it's quite safe to say she is a socialist, in the broadest possible sense of the word, meaning one who supports public ownership of the economy, whether emerging from an anarchist, Marxist or social-democratic tradition.

A great deal of Coe's work, which is both horrifying and beautiful, focuses on the intersection of class and species politics. The cover image for her 2012 book, Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation, is a case in point. It features an emaciated animal, whose recently slit throat bleeds into a bag of money held by the stereotypical vision of a capitalist wearing a top hat. Beside him are equally large piles of money and what appear to be both animal and human skulls together. In a similar illustration by Coe, entitled "Butcher to the World," a bloated businessman emerges from a mountain of animal corpses gripping sacks of cash which are dripping blood. In her piece "Animals Are the 99%," which shows a number of animals suffering human violence, Coe appropriates the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement to suggest humans have a similarly exploitative relationship to animals as the rich have to the poor and middle class.

According to a 1996 feature in Eye Magazine, early in her career in New York, Coe was drawn to the American Communist Party. This involvement informed her art. "Funky English punk art does not work in a tenant/landlord struggle," Coe said. "The art school mentality is not effective with people who don’t have the luxury of trying out artistic styles, of breaking up a picture. What does work is a very realistic depiction of that struggle.’ In the same article, Coe described capitalism as an "economic crime."

In a 1993 article in the Baltimore Sun, during a conservative era when many believed there was no alternative to the free market, Coe offered an unapologetically stark choice. "There are only two economic systems known to human beings; one is socialism and one is capitalism," Coe said. "Capitalism will destroy itself — its contradictions will destroy it. Whether it will take all human beings off the face of the earth with it — that's the question." She went on to stress the importance of communal efforts, suggesting they were innate to human nature. "How come we've survived this long?" Coe said. "Because we cooperate. If we didn't cooperate with each other, the human race would have been dead centuries ago. In fact, and this is a peculiar thing, we're too good. That's how come we're exploited by a tiny minority of corporations who do what they want. We allow it to happen. We cooperate. That's our nature — it's not warlike."

More recently, in a 2012 interview for Bomb magazine, Coe struck a similar note regarding what she saw as the inevitability of capitalist collapse. "We now have over ten percent of people unemployed, which according to any economist—even Milton Friedman—is revolutionary conditions," Coe said. "That’s very unstable capitalism. Now capitalism, I don’t think can be fixed...But in its death throes, it’s extremely dangerous."

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. He is the author of Socialists and Animal Rights. Visit his website by clicking here

Friday, April 18, 2014

'Beasts of Burden' was an Influential Vegan-Socialist Text

Beasts of Burden was an influential vegan-socialist pamphlet, first published in late 1999 by Antagonism Press. It's authorship remains a mystery, so far as I'm aware. The text is written using the pronoun, 'we,' but of course that does not necessarily mean the pamphlet was a collaborative project. Antagonism Press, which one must assume is no longer active, barely boasts a web presence at all. For feedback, it requested mail be sent to a London address, in care of "BM Makhno," which one assumes is a pseudonym inspired by Russian anarchist Nestor Makhno.

The pamphlet was explicitly aimed at both socialists and animal advocates, in the hopes of beginning the process of unifying their respective struggles. "This is a text which, we hope, faces in two directions," the pamphlet stated. "On the one hand we hope that it will be read by people interested in animal liberation who want to consider why animal exploitation exists, as well as how. On the other hand, by those who define themselves as anarchists or communists who either dismiss animal liberation altogether or personally sympathise with it but don’t see how it relates to their broader political stance."

The pamphlet argued there was a close connection between human and animal liberation. "The development and maintenance of capitalism as a system that exploits humans is in some ways dependent upon the abuse of animals," the text stated. "Furthermore the movement that abolishes capitalism by changing the relations between humans - communism - also involves a fundamental transformation of the relations between humans and animals."

The pamphlet traced the changing historical relationship between humans and animals, and how that relationship effected each, while attempting to avoid reductionism. "We should avoid ascribing to agriculture the role of ‘original sin’, the singular cause of humanity’s misfortunes and of our expulsion from some primitive communist Eden," the text stated. "The development of states and classes were contradictory, complex and contested processes taking place over many millennia. While the domestication of plants and animals was an important part of this story, we do not want to suggest that it was the whole story."

The pamphlet made the case that animal-exploitation industries were critical to the development of capitalism. "The historical evidence suggests that not only is capitalism dependent on ruthless primitive accumulation, but primitive accumulation relies upon the animal industry," the text stated. "Marx is clear that it was ‘the rise in the price of the wool,' which made it profitable to transform ‘arable land into sheep walks.' People were driven from their homes to make way for sheep."

The pamphlet argued that in practical terms there could be no such thing as vegan capitalism. "Of course it is possible to imagine a theoretical model of capitalism that does not depend on animals, but this is to confuse an abstraction with the actually existing capitalism that has emerged as a result of real historical processes," the text said. "Similarly we could imagine a capitalism without racism or women’s oppression, yet both of these have played a crucial role in maintaining capital’s domination and continue to exist despite superficial changes to the contrary."

The pamphlet argued that anti-speciesist thought enriched socialist theory. "Animal liberation perspectives enable us to see that if the reconciliation of humans and nature is to be more than an empty wish, concrete measures have to be taken to change the way humans relate to animals, such as dismantling the technology of factory farming," the text stated. "They also raise the question of extending the notion of community beyond humans to embrace other species - the fact that animals may not be able to participate in the community as active subjects does not mean they have to be simply objects for human use."

For the author or authors of the pamphlet, prefigurative veganism was important. "Total abstention is more or less impossible, and to moralistically condemn others for not going far enough only limits the scope for a movement to develop," the text stated. "Nevertheless, vegetarianism/veganism is not just a matter of sanctimonious handwashing...Not eating animals brings about qualitative improvement in the well-being of animals (as well as quantitative reduction in animals killed), even if as an isolated act it can be commodified and turned into another lifestyle marketing niche."

And yet, the pamphlet conceded that while the advent of socialism would mean positive change for animals, it would not necessarily mean the overall abolition of their use. "Disagreements would continue even in the society that would emerge as the communist movement developed to a stage where capitalism was in the process of being abolished across large parts of the world," the text stated. "Communism is not the application of a universal moral code, or the creation of a uniform society, and there would be no state or similar mechanism to impose, say, veganism, even if many people thought it desirable. The question of how to live with animals might be resolved in different ways in different times and places. The animal liberation movement would form one pole of the debate."

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. He is the author of Socialists and Animal Rights. Visit his website by clicking here

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Are Animals Part of the Working Class?

Horses so often died from exhaustion, their bodies were left to rot in the streets of major cities

Vegan socialist Jason Hribal's challenge to anthropocentric leftism, from a 2003 issue of the academic journal Labor History, in which Hribal attempted to redefine the proletariat to include animals, is admirably ambitious in its goals. Unfortunately, in its execution the challenge was woefully under-theorized, with Hribal merely asserting that non-humans should be considered part of the working class, and to the extremely limited degree he attempted to back up his argument, Hribal relied on a source that many socialists will not take seriously.

In his 20-page article, only the last five pages broached the question of whether animals should be considered part of the working class, and within that section the topic was touched on surprisingly briefly given the implications Hribal's claim would presumably have on socialist theory. To defend his position, so far as I can tell, Hribal primarily leaned on two quotations from the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon — and not much else. "Thus," Hribal quoted the Frenchman saying, "the horse, who draws our coaches, and the ox who draws our carts produce with us, but are not associated with us; we take their product, but do not share it with them." In another passage, Hribal quoted Proudhon saying, "The animals and laborers whom we employ hold the same relation to us. Whatever we do for them, we do, not from a sense of justice, but out of pure benevolence."

Pit ponies, once lowered to their fate in the mines, would labor and die deep below the surface and would never see sunshine or grass again. Many were intentionally blinded to keep them from spooking and ensure efficient work.

Needless to say, this is pretty-thin vegan gruel, especially given it's supposed to upend a century or more of socialist theory. Further, even if relying on a single, long-dead leftist's words were convincing, relying on a couple of quotes from Proudhon to win anthropocentric socialists to Hribal's view was a poor choice, since many hold the anarchist in low regard. Among other things, as Todd Chretien pointed out, Proudhon was opposed to strikes, ridiculously stating, "It is impossible, I declare, for strikes followed by an increase in wages not to culminate in a general rise in prices: this is as certain as two and two make four."

In response to Hribal, the vegan socialist Bob Torres upheld the conventionally anthropocentric definition of the proletariat. "Thinking more critically about what [Karl] Marx saw as the revolutionary potential of the working class, it seems that using 'working class' to describe non-human laborers can obscure some key differences between humans and animals and the forms of exploitation each experiences," Torres said. "While Hribal argues that animals do indeed struggle against capital, their struggle is necessarily qualitatively different than the global proletarian revolution that Marx hoped for in his understanding of the working class. Animals cannot unite and break the chains that compel them to labor; their resistance to capital is necessarily more limited, if only by the singular and absolute power that humans wield over animals."

To me, the appeal to what Marx intended or meant rings rather hollow. If Marxism is a living ideology, and not a dead dogma, it must be open to the kind of bold reinterpretation which Hribal attempts but ultimately fails to deliver. Torres is correct however when he argues Hribal's definition of the proletariat obscures the difference in revolutionary potential between human and  animal laborers. Perhaps Torres' placement of animals within Marxism comes closest to the mark: "As neither exactly like human slaves or exactly like human wage laborers, animals occupy a different position within capitalism: they are superexploited living commodities."

Unfortunately, I don't have the in-depth knowledge of socialist theory necessary to contribute to this conversation in a meaningful way. I was recently introduced to an aphorism by the socialist "Big Bill" Haywood that — while I don't have the scar tissue implied, and have in fact blindly trudged through the first volume of Marx's magnum opus — sums up the common-sense, verging on anti-intellectual approach to socialism I find most appealing. "I've never read Marx's 'Capital,' but I have the marks of capital all over me," the Wobbly leader quipped, upholding the value of experiential education. However, in this case, to redefine animals in an anti-speciesist manner within socialist theory, I'm afraid an encyclopedic knowledge of the ins-and-outs of Marxism will be required to be taken seriously by anthropocentric socialists.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. He is the author of Socialists and Animal Rights. Visit his website by clicking here

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Carpenter was Fabian Animal Advocate

Edward Carpenter was a socialist and early gay-rights activist, who practiced prefigurative vegetarianism and advocated on behalf of animals. It should be said that Carpenter's brand of socialism, Fabianism, was despised by many revolutionaries of his era, such as Leon Trotsky, who regarded it as overly reformist.

"The reformists who are fighting against a proletarian class consciousness are, in the final reckoning, a tool of the ruling class," Trotsky said in 1925. "The day that the British proletariat cleanses itself of the spiritual abomination of Fabianism, mankind, especially in Europe, will increase its stature by a head." Whether Carpenter's gradual approach was, in the final analysis, worse for the working class than Trotsky's Bolshevism, which I would argue inadvertently laid the groundwork for Stalinism, I'm unsure.

Writing in 1889, Carpenter admirably condemned capitalism and vivisection in the same breath. In doing so, however, he seemed to take a problematically condescending view toward non-European people, and made presumptions about ancient Egyptian attitudes toward animal welfare for which I'm unsure there is any basis. "On the whole we pride ourselves (and justly I believe) on the general advance in humanity," Carpenter said. "Yet we know that to-day the merest savages can only shudder at a civilisation whose public opinion allows—as among us—the rich to wallow in their wealth, while the poor are systematically starving; and it is certain that the vivisection of animals—which on the whole is approved by our educated classes (though not by the healthier sentiment of the uneducated)—would have been stigmatised as one of the most abominable crimes by the ancient Egyptians—if, that is, they could have conceived such a practice possible at all."

It should be noted that Carpenter was not particularly strict in his prefigurative vegetarianism. Writing in 1899, he confessed, "I have yet never made any absolute rule against flesh-eating, and have as a matter of fact eaten a very little every now and then - just, as it were, to see how it tasted, or to avoid giving trouble in Philistine households, and so forth."

In his 1920 criticism of the Catholic Church, Carpenter again returned to the issues of capitalism and animal testing. "The Church," he said, "which has hardly ever spoken a generous word in favor or defence of the animals; which in modern times has supported vivisection as against the latter; Capitalism and Commercialism as against the poorer classes of mankind...such a Church can hardly claim to have established the angelic character of its mission among mankind! [sic]"

In an essay published the next year, titled "A New Morality," Carpenter outlined his own, more inclusive, worldview. "Make this the basis of all teaching," Carpenter said. "Let them learn as they grow up, to regard all human beings, of whatever race or class, as ends in themselves—never to be looked upon as mere things or chattels to be made use of. Let them also learn to look upon the animals in the same light—as beings, they too, who are climbing the great ladder of creation—beings with whom also we humans have a common spirit and interest."

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. He is the author of Socialists and Animal Rights. Visit his website by clicking here

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Make Your Reservations! Vegan Cuisine in Jeffery Dahmer's Murder House

No, you can't actually eat vegan cuisine in Dahmer's home . . . but yes, this is for real.  And, I'm sure no one is surprised to learn that PETA is behind the stunt.

Per usual, PETA cashes in on horrific human tragedies to draw attention to violence against animals.  In doing so, they effectively alienate veganism from the general public and embarrass vegans everywhere.  Though zoning restrictions thankfully prevented the project from getting off the ground, PETA apparently sought to turn one of the sites of Dahmer's serial killings into a vegan restaurant.

PETA has a long history of offending vulnerable groups and destroying any hope for movement alliances with various ridiculous tactics.  These have included having volunteers dressed as the Ku Klux Klan hand out fliers to dog show attendees, posting billboards of Holocaust victims, posting billboards of overweight women referring to them as "whales," running a series of ads mocking overweight people by photo shopping them to resemble pigs, and of course, blasting the public with thousands upon thousands of images of sexually objectified women--many of whom are depicted as victims of graphic violence.  All in the name of animal rights.

There is nothing cute or ironic about making a metaphor of Dahmer's violence and veganism.  Dahmer raped, killed, dismembered (and sometimes consumed) 17 boys and men, many of whom were children, gay, prostituted, and persons of color.  Indeed, local authorities have been criticized for not acting sooner by heeding the missing person reports of the victims' family and friends--as the victims were "low priority" minorities.

Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel reports:
The discovery of Dahmer's acts widened racial divisions in the city. He was white and many of his victims were black, though he also killed white, Latino, American Indian and Asian men and boys. There was a sense that Dahmer was able to get away with it for so long because of the perception that the missing males were marginalized because of race or sexual orientation. 
Many Americans have a very strange fascination with serial killers, and there has been considerable taboo over the sales of "murderbilia," as this is seen as as extremely hurtful to the family and friends of victims.  The Dahmer murders happened between 1978 and 1991, meaning that many, if not most, of the victims' loved ones are very much still alive and would likely be devastated by PETA's tasteless project.  Indeed, they are hoping for a memorial to be erected:
 . . . but not at the 25th and State site where the Oxford Apartments building, where Dahmer rented unit 213, was razed. That spot is forever marred by the memory of a freezer, a blue acid barrel and boxes of God-knows-what being carried out by police and the medical examiner on July 23, 1991. 
Murderers are prevented by law from profiting from the hype over their crimes, but third parties, unfortunately, are still free to do so.  The morality of cashing in on the fascination over Dahmer's crime to bring attention to veganism is suspect nonetheless.

The family and friends of Dahmer's victims at a candlelight memorial service

The Milwaukee Drum, a news resource for African Americans living in metro Milwaukee, reports:
For twenty years we watched the news and saw the local media make these families relive (or recreate in some cases), the pain they have lived with for the sake of ratings. Even though the local media has trivialized this tragic event, there are many in the community who continue to care and pray with these families as they felt the torment the families have been left to deal with. 
Veganism must be a message of peace and non-violence.  Yes, unimaginable violence is enacted against billions of animals every year, but associating veganism with a horrific American tragedy is in terrible taste.  PETA's project capitalizes on the suffering of vulnerable people, specifically, they are exploiting racialized violence.  This is antithetical to our position.