Colonialism, Imperialism and Animal Liberation

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence. – Frantz Fanon [1]

It is, in theory, not necessary to point out the brutality and violence permeating the colonial and imperialist projects of various societies as they have come and gone throughout history. The arcs on which these events are documented are, as Marx said of capitalism, dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt. But in practice, the only danger lies in not retelling this story enough rather than in telling it too often.

Whether we are talking about Africans, enslaved and brought to the Americas as a tool for imperialist interests, native Americans robbed of their land, their freedom and ultimately their lives, the utter misery in Kongo under Belgian rule, or British imperialism in India, the underlying themes share a striking similarity. The bodies of the conquered were objectified as machines to do the work of their new masters, the land and riches were confiscated while the cultures and societies, in many cases, torn apart and destroyed. To accomplish this, an entire philosophy of domination was applied through a brutal and multilayered web of racism, sexism, religious persecution and cultural universalism strictly from the perspective of the conquerors. The cultures and practices of the natives were vilified and demonized (sometimes literally, as in the form of witch hunts), while atrocious behavior on the part of the invading empires – both at home and in their new colonies – was often explained as justified or even necessary.

It is no wonder, then, that anarchism is by very definition opposed to these practices of domination and that anarchists are among the foremost critics of this process and its lingering effects. This is very much the case also for anarchists engaged in the animal liberation struggle, as several parallels can be drawn in the way that the highly diminished status of non-human animals could be used as a platform to dehumanize and delegitimize the conquered populations and their cultures. With animals already neatly fit into the narrative of being mere tools and objects for human exploitation, labeling the colonized populations as animals immediately brought to life the desired associations.

Despite this, some would like to fit the animal liberation struggle into the imperialist project, as a form of cultural imperialism, turning such anarchists or other animal liberation activists into proponents of one of the things they abhor the most. It is often the strong advocacy for total abstention from animal exploitation – veganism – that results in accusations of racism and imperialism. How dare we force western values upon indigenous cultures and societies?

This is a serious accusation, and one understandably perceived as insulting for many engaged in the anti-speciesist struggle. But ultimately it is one worth dealing with, because doing so sheds some light on some of the implicit assumptions within the accusation itself. To start with, imperialism, and all its destructive tools, was a means of dominating others, and asserting one culture above another. Veganism, in this sense, is acultural. It doesn’t apply double standards by letting something slide in one place but not the other, it doesn’t try to establish cultural hierarchies and it is not looking to establish domination. On the contrary, it is the dismantling of domination, in all its forms, that vegan anarchists seek. We wouldn’t accept cultural expressions involving slavery, patriarchy or economic exploitation – no matter what culture we are talking about – so why should we accept any additional forms of domination in one place but not the other? Gary L. Francione, an animal liberation proponent, answers this accusation succinctly:

Those in this group beg the question and assume that speciesism is justified. That is, their position amounts to the view that it is racist or culturally insensitive to seek to protect the interests of another marginalized and particularly vulnerable group, nonhuman animals. I would imagine that most of those who have this view would not object if the marginalized beings were other humans. But this is just another way of asserting human supremacy and exceptionalism. I find that as objectionable as asserting racial supremacy. [2]

If anything, vegan anarchists espouse values that are strongly in conflict with contemporary western culture, and most efforts are rightly aimed at western societies because this is where a significant part of the severe exploitation of non-human animals takes place. Not only that, it is in many cases western influence that increases – or at least exerts a cultural and economical pressure to do so – levels of animal exploitation in societies that peruse no or relatively small amounts of animal products, such as is the case in India and among Jainists in particular. No vegan anarchists want to take away people’s means of subsistence. The claim is rather that whoever has the practical prerequisites – economic, environmental, social – ought to choose not to harm sentient beings for nearly arbitrary reasons such as old habits and taste preferences.

In fact, by trying to apply imperialist connotations to proponents of veganism, one unwittingly positions western cultures as the subject, and indigenous cultures as the object. As if the western culture is dynamic, always changing and open to questioning, while the indigenous cultures are static and confined to the state in which colonial powers found them hundreds of years ago, unable to evolve and unable to challenge their own norms and thus develop. Indeed, as Margaret Robinson, a vegan of indigenous background, points out:

When veganism is constructed as white, First Nations people who choose a meatless diet are portrayed as sacrificing cultural authenticity. This presents a challenge for those of us who see our vegan diets as ethically, spiritually and culturally compatible with our indigenous traditions. [3]

The push against speciesist thinking should transcend cultural boundaries, as should any global struggle against oppression, thus uniting the participants across such divides. Questioning part of cultures on grounds of oppression – from within or without – is only hypocritical when done in the traditional guise of ignoring the same issues at home. But here vegans and anarchists are adamant, and emphasize the injustice in western culture as one of the large causes for the problem in the first place. In many of the indigenous legends, the use of animals was seen as a sacrifice, which was done out of necessity, not out of the ability to dominate. Many of these cultures have been pushed beyond such a relationship with nature, and as such can within their own spiritual and cultural heritage find arguments for moving beyond the objectified relationship with animals often imposed by imperialist conquest. In other words, when the material conditions no longer necessitate the exploitation of non-human animals for survival, the indigenous traditions can in many cases be seen as an argument for veganism, and not against it.

When people single out veganism for this type of critique, typically also calling it a form of consumerism, they mistake it for being promoted as the one and only solution to a problem. But I don’t have to think that abstaining from buying slaves, by itself, would stop the slave trade, to think that it would be unethical for me to participate in trading slaves. Consequently, activism and veganism are two components to reach one goal – the end of human domination of non-human animals.

While the activist component of animal liberation promotes agitation, direct action and similar activities, veganism is a way of already living in the now without being complicit in the perpetuation of the exploitation, which, besides showing that our ends can be our means, also shows that it is a viable alternative, and as such paves the way for others to follow suit. The burden of proof should be on the participants in the animal exploitation cycle to show that despite their participation, their choices have no negative net effect whatsoever on the well-being of sentient creatures. Because if their choices do have such consequences, and there is a practical alternative that doesn’t, then clearly that alternative is a better choice. This is especially true if said alternative synergizes with the wider struggle against domination.

There is a difference here between on the one hand anti-capitalist struggle and on the other hand anti-speciesist struggle. While capitalism permeates our entire society, and can be very hard or even counter-productive to fully distance oneself from, our domination of other animals is literally advertising its own presence wherever we face it and is often readily avoidable, so we don’t have to marginalize ourselves in society or act in highly impractical ways in order to withdraw from its perpetuation. Instead, a sharp critique of capitalist practices such as industrialized animal farming can be used as a launching point for a wholesale attack on capitalism as a system. There are synergies abound, comrades, and we should all support each other in building a strong, multi-faceted and vibrant movement that challenges the dominant ideologies of present society on all fronts on which they conflict with freedom and well-being.

Veganism, as an ethical choice, is thus a consistent complement to activism in the quest to end human domination over and exploitation of non-human animals. It transcends cultures, in the same way that other forms of oppression should be resisted no matter where they persist. All cultures are living and constantly evolving, and can from within their own cultural understanding find the tools and means through which speciesism, racism, sexism, capitalism or any other form of domination can be opposed. Everyone who opposes domination should find it within their interest to engage in or at least support the anti-speciesist struggle, for what more severe form of domination could we imagine than the notion that it is acceptable to harm and kill sentient beings because one likes their taste?

[1] The Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon [PDF]

[2] Racism Versus Speciesism: A Moral Battleground? – Katrina Fox [link]

[3] Indigenous Veganism: Feminist Natives Do Eat Tofu – Margaret Robinson [link]

Love Your Life, Fuck Your Work

The late polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem who, alongside Ursula Le Guin, is one of my personal favorites in the genre, once wrote a short story in which the protagonist astronaut crashes on a planet inhabited by robots. To fit in, the astronaut disguises himself as a robot, but is eventually exposed. In an unexpected plot twist, it turns out that everyone on the planet was performing the same act – they were all humans pretending to be robots. This is a powerful statement concerning how ideology can be so strong that it is hard to penetrate, but when someone or something breaks the spell, it seems at once both empty and absurd. In many ways this resembles our relation to work today, or, even more profoundly, our very definition of what work is. And it doesn’t end there, as our concept of work necessarily spills over to our concept of free time.

“Free time is a euphemism for the peculiar way labor as a factor of production not only transports itself at its own expense to and from the workplace but assumes primary responsibility for its own maintenance and repair. Coal and steel don’t do that. Lathes and typewriters don’t do that. But workers do.” – Bob Black, The Abolition of Work

But since the workplace is such an important aspect of our lives under capitalism, it is a natural arena for struggle and organization against the system – by no means the only one, but rather one of many. We spend much of our time working, and the places we work at will be what we inherit when the capitalist class finally steps into the halls of extinction. That does not, however, necessitate an endorsement of the conditions or form that work or more specifically wage labor currently takes on. We want the abolition of capitalism, the end of states and hierarchies, equality and well-being for all. In that vision, there is no room for work as we find it today, and therefore our relation to this type of work must always remain one of antagonism. Seeing and understanding it for what it is can be an important step in liberating ourselves spatially, physically and temporally, and allowing ourselves to push on with the things necessary for a complete liberation. In taking action in the present world, we must never let go of our objectives, and we must never be tricked into accepting as ours values of the very system we wish to overthrow. As such, a critique of wage labor is not just a critique of the formal relations in the workplace, but also of the resulting conditions those relations lead to – internalizing the boss, alienating work, long work hours and ultimately the many ways in which our ideas, thoughts and expectations about life and work have been shaped by the rise and development of capitalism. The systems at play are so sophisticated that they often turn us into the guardians and overseers of our own exploitation. The chains we wear today are as much mental as they are material, and breaking them must begin in our minds.

“The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.” – Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

All of this can be seen as a synthesis. We can be actively pro-worker and anti-work at the same time, and as our struggles bear fruit, the apparent contradiction dissolves as the new social relations reshape the society – no more workers, and no more work as we know it.

Some of us, like those working in the manufacturing industries, feel the full force of the system’s effects. As appendages to machines, we have ourselves become machines in a modern Cartesian nightmare, where the advances of science have, in uniting the body and the mind, expelled the latter. We are all increasingly playing the roles of robots. We are being monitored, analyzed and picked apart. Every second, every step is scrutinized in the quest for increased productivity and, in the end, profits. Utilizing modern technology, workers in factories are often recorded on video. The video is then analyzed, and broken down into small fragments. Each movement is documented, each sub-task measured and ultimately, like a puzzle, fit into a time frame between the monotonous motions of machines. Time study, they call it. No wonder that we feel, as Marx said, only as ourselves outside our work, and in our work as outside ourselves.

For those of us lucky enough to work with things that interest us, this alienation is often hidden under the appearance of partial work satisfaction. But it cannot hide the fact that we might be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. It cannot hide the fact that behind the veil, the same system lurks, working us for the sake of perpetual growth and profits. We risk our health, we get burned out due to too many work assignments, while outside our windows others can’t even find a job to sustain themselves. We don’t make the decisions in our work places and communities and are, at best, blissfully unaware of the system that uses us and that our work perpetuates.

To add insult to injury, many of the tasks we perform today fill no real purpose other than the accumulation of capital, they are often in themselves a means to pacify the public, and cause externalities such as environmental degradation or immense suffering for non-human animals. Since most of us depend on jobs, on any job really, those offered need not be the least appealing, and the more desperate one’s situation, the more alienated and appalling the working conditions. All of this is sold to us as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of the splendid process of progress. But what is that never-ending progress for, anyway, if those contributing to it work too hard to enjoy it and feel themselves out of place in the midst of it? How easy it is to forget that, at the time of its large scale introduction, wage labor was seen as a horrible fate.

“Such was the hatred that workers felt for waged labor that Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, declared that it did not make any difference whether one lived under the enemy or under one’s brother, if one worked for a wage. This explains the growth, in the wake of the enclosures […] of the number of ‘vagabonds’ and ‘masterless’ men, who preferred to take to the road and risk enslavement or death – as prescribed by the ‘bloody’ legislation passed against them – rather than work for a wage.” – Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch

If there is one thing I want to highlight in this text, it is the following. The social construct that puts shackles on us, that binds us to workplaces we don’t want and jobs we feel alienated from – you owe it nothing. It, in fact, owes its entire existence to you, your work and your energy, which it slowly siphons out of you. Don’t blame yourself for not complying or for cheating it. Don’t stress yourself out satisfying a system that knows no human feelings or needs. Don’t feel bad for always looking after your interests as well as those of your fellow beings first. This is one of the reasons the status quo should fear us. Because if we can break that spell, we can empower ourselves and be examples for others. If enough people no longer find themselves within the constraints imposed upon us, the powers that be have no choice but to admit defeat or expose their true colors by resorting to increased coercion and violence. Should that mask of civilized appearance fall, the dance of revolution can begin in earnest.

In our jobs, as in any social environment, we should generally be respectful towards the people we meet, unless given good reason otherwise. As much is granted. But for all of us there are fragments or sometimes entire episodes of our jobs that are not concerned with human relations or human well-being. Fragments when, simply put, we’re up against the system, in a more or less pure form. In these circumstances, where no other beings can suffer from it, when our decisions don’t directly affect others negatively, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to cut every corner we can. There is no point in performing these jobs the way they are intended, because they are not intended for the world we want. We should take every opportunity to prioritize ourselves and our co-workers or other people we meet in our professional roles, to the degree we feel we can do that without harming others or jeopardizing our own sustenance. But in doing this, we should never feel bad, never feel like we owe anything, because we are merely reasserting our humanity.

What could this mean, practically? Don’t get dragged into internalizing capitalist value systems. You are not a part of your workplace. Don’t work harder than you have to, don’t worry about business as if it was personal, as if it was a person. Distance yourself – not from the people, but from the system. Encourage, subtly, your co-workers to do the same. Think of your well-being first, just do what you need to do to get by. Naturally, it is hard to be specific here, because every job has its own characteristics, and only those performing a specific one know the intricate details. But the bottom line is, whenever you can identify those moments when it is you against the system, always pick yourself and don’t feel bad about it, because it is the right thing to do. How far you want to take it is also something that must be determined on a personal basis, from quiet everyday protests like slowing down the pace of work, to outright sabotage. But always remember, the point is not the hasty demise of your particular workplace (or more likely, just your employment there), but to subvert the system so that it works as much as possible in our own favor, while we organize and struggle towards its eventual abolition. To leech back a bit of what it takes from us in the first place.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t lose ourselves in activities or ambitiously pursue tasks for long hours. But if we do, those should be tasks we set aside for ourselves freely, tasks in which we feel ourselves as our own masters, and in which we find our own purpose, alone or in free associations with others. Given the opportunity to shape our own world, we should shape it in a way that makes the tasks necessary for our well-being as convenient and as playful as possible. When we then do these things, we no longer really work, as much as we express ourselves and fulfill ourselves. We become the animal, the being, which is currently caged inside a robot’s body under the false pretense of reason and discipline. As a cog in the capitalist machine.

In freeing our minds and our bodies from some of the stress of our current jobs, in freeing ourselves from those internalized value systems that make us physically and mentally exhausted, we save energy, nurture our health and make space for other projects. We must never forget that our struggle is not meant to devour us, and that we must try to live as full and free lives already under the present condition. By doing this, we fill our lives with more joy and harmony, and our struggles with determination and energy. We shouldn’t feel bad for refusing to become machines, for breaking laws that break us, ignoring regulations we haven’t agreed to or deviating from norms we find objectionable. We shouldn’t be proud of our wage labor, or love our wage labor. We should be proud of ourselves and love ourselves and each other. Thus the title, and mantra of this text: Love your life, fuck your work.