Words are funny in many ways, aren’t they? They can say a lot about ourselves just by the way they affect us. Combining a couple of them might cause an even greater upset. Animal Liberation is one such combination. Many wince when they hear it in a conversation or read it somewhere, and have a distinct preconception regarding what this phrase means. Oh, that. Which brings us to the funny part, because, why would anyone react with suspicion towards the notion of their own liberation? Humans are, after all, just another animal. Then again, many live their physically and mentally sheltered lives under the impression that no liberation is needed. Anarchists usually know better, but despite this fact, our initial reaction would often subconsciously construct the same dichotomy; animals, that’s them. We, we are humans.
We are, however, but one of many animals on this planet. We haven’t been around the longest, we’re not the most numerous, and we’re far from the most skilled at many things. We don’t know what it feels like to soar through the blue vastness of the the sky, with the strength of our wings and our skills in using them being the only things stopping us from plunging to the ground. We have no idea what it means to dive into the depths of the ocean for long periods of time, unaided but for a sleek and sturdy body. We can’t even begin to imagine the scenery so self-evident to a nocturnal being that sees with sound waves. Yet, ironically, one of our most notable features, is exactly to proclaim how special we are. We have much more in common with certain animals than they have with others, still we are part of one world and they of another. While many other animals fill an important niche in the ecosystem, we’re not only quite irrelevant, but actually the only species that threatens the well-being of the entire planet. Still, we continue to measure other animals by our own yardstick, and congratulate ourselves to our superiority. But what is sophisticated reasoning and modern technology worth if we cannot value a life?
We are of course also capable of doing good things. Anarchists know that it is not a new, better, human being we need, but a society that enables us to nourish our tendencies towards mutual aid, cooperation and individual autonomy. A society that doesn’t hide the consequences of our actions from us, doesn’t alienate us from ourselves and one another, doesn’t pit us against each other, and above all, a society that isn’t contingent on the perpetual oppression of some by others. This is the liberation we should strive for. The liberation of all those oppressed beings, all animals. This is the Animal Liberation.
The interconnectedness of our social lives today is mirrored in the interconnectedness of our struggles and the different forms of oppression we face. The capitalist mode of production, with its ability to hide the social relations behind its ruthless, commodified and mechanical search for profits, in this way hides the suffering and exploitation of both non-human and human animals. To see this connection makes us stronger, and our cause the more important. In the same way that women have been objectified, not only culturally but also as a tool to control the reproduction of the working class, the bodies of non-human animals have been objectified to forward the interests of capital. By analyzing these things separately, we miss the bigger picture. There are synergies between all forms of oppression, and a strike at one is incomplete without a strike at the other. When white Europeans traveled the world and discovered other cultures, and people of color, what was one of the main justifications for the brutal subjugation of these new-found societies? “They are not human. They are animals.” By devaluing the lives of non-human animals, the road was paved towards doing the same to anyone that was different from the narrow norm. It is also a well known fact that violence towards other animals is often a precursor of violence towards humans. This is true on an individual level, as is often the case for women stuck in violent relationships, but also in the way governments have fine tuned methods of warfare on non-human animals in laboratories or military facilities before unleashing them on other nations. In other words, we have all the reasons to look at the big picture because it helps us to form the best tactics going forward. The boundary we usually draw between ourselves and other animals misses the point, because it has nothing to do with their ability to suffer. In that, they are just like us, and as anarchists we should recognize their suffering and make sure it is recognized as a form of oppression that we need to dismantle.
At this point usually a few concerns are raised. Even though few, if any, anarchists would disagree with the notion that factory farming is an atrocity, various forms of the “class first” argument are brought forward to signal that this is not the time to particularly think about other animals. This largely used to be the case with feminism as well, but it is decreasingly so, and that for several good reasons. First, these different struggles rarely stand in any sort of practical opposition to each other. It is possible to engage in both of them, and the same is true regarding the issue of non-human animals. From the simplest things, such as making sure the food is vegan when hosting functions, to supporting activists involved in the animal liberation struggle and seriously engaging with these ideas theoretically.
Secondly, the various forms of oppression will affect different people in different ways. Often they will intersect. We cannot set aside the plight of others because in making such priorities we often presume too much and are biased towards our own perceived grievances. This not only shows a lack of solidarity, but even worse so, tends to divide us instead of giving us strength in numbers. Sure enough, we cannot expect non-human animals to partake actively in the process of liberation, but this is also true for groups of humans, which would never lead us to think they do not deserve our solidarity. There are also significant numbers of anarchists already engaged in animal liberation in various ways, and in that sense the divisiveness of such argumentation is as real here as in the case of feminism or racism. Besides, the suffering caused to non-human animals, largely through factory farming and other capitalist institutions, is of staggering proportions. Forgoing all but the end to capitalism itself in the struggle for the abolition of it seems like a very narrow-minded and far-fetched approach to an acute issue of great consequences here and now. Although state capitalism utilizes many forms of oppression to divide and conquer its subjects, most of those are not unique to this system, and as such we have no reason to assume they would resolve with the end of it without a deliberate effort.
The revolution cannot be some distant and abstract mirage on the horizon. It must start within us, before it can happen on a large scale in the material world. Our means must be our ends, because we will reap what we have sown. Of course, lifestylism by itself will never bring about a social revolution, but at the same time the social revolution will never happen unless we act it out in our everyday lives – or it will come and go, leaving those marginalized forms of oppression intact. Just like refraining from owning slaves didn’t really forward the abolitionist cause, it also didn’t in any way justify doing the opposite. And using animals for our own benefit – when not necessary, which it rarely is for most of us – is in the same way not a personal lifestyle choice; it is not like picking which shirt to wear. It has direct negative consequences, death and suffering, which to a large extent can be avoided.
Another thing that needs to be pointed out is that this is not aimed at those remote cultures dependent on traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles for their survival. The absolute majority of the oppression of non-human animals takes place in industrial facilities where domesticated animals are exploited for food, clothing and vivisection. This is where our efforts should be aimed. The difference between us and those traditional cultures is also that we, willingly or not, have been pushed beyond such a relationship with nature. From here, we can only go forward, and with what we know, with what we can do, there is no reason to revert back to a way of life that in any way harms other animals. We already have an immense debt towards nature, and we can live immersed in its beauty without causing any more suffering.
Despite all this, it would be unrealistic to expect everyone – or even just all anarchists for that matter – to become vegans tomorrow. Everyone has their own capabilities and constraints, and only they can know how to best turn theory into practice. This is also not the aim of this text. Rather, it is a plea to take that first step by recognizing veganism as a natural extension of anarchism, to start engaging with the idea of a society free from all animal exploitation and to start finding ways to take steps in that direction in practice. We can draw experience, strength and courage from our overlapping struggles, instead of letting them divide us. But to do that, we must be uncompromising in our questioning of unjustified hierarchies, authority and violence, and be prepared to also listen to those whose voice is otherwise not heard. There is nothing unique about human suffering. There is nothing necessary about our exploitation of other animals.