By Jon Hochschartner
Ferdia O’Brien is a member of the Workers Solidarity Movement, an anarchist organization based in Ireland. He recently agreed to an interview with Species and Class, in which he discussed animal issues. If you are a member of the organized socialist or anarchist left, have progressive views of non-humans, and would like to be interviewed, please get in touch!
Species and Class: How would you describe your economic politics? Are you a socialist? Would you consider yourself a Marxist, anarchist, social democrat or something else? Can you describe what involvement, if any, you’ve had with organized socialist or anarchist left?
Ferdia O’Brien: I’m an anarchist or libertarian socialist. I’m open to many forms of anarchism, including communism and mutualism. I joined a Trotskyist party when I was 17, but left a year later because I found it too authoritarian, reformist, and self-unaware. Then I became an anarchist and I joined the Workers Solidarity Movement at 21. I’m a new member and have had only small involvement in the anarchist left.
SC: How have your views regarding animals been received on the socialist or anarchist left?
FO: My views regarding non-human animals have been received in the left in pretty much the same way as outside of it: some are sympathetic, some detached, some mocking. Although veganism is over-represented in the anarchist milieu, and is quite well facilitated (vegan meals at many events etc.).
SC: Does your organization have any official position on animal exploitation of any kind? If not, is this something you would like to change? If so, how might you do this?
FO: I don’t think the WSM has an official position on non-human exploitation. I think it would be good for the WSM to at least officially condemn it, as non-human suffering inflicted by humans is the greatest source of suffering on planet Earth, and has a blatant connection to the state and capitalism. However, considering that carnists are in the majority, it’s unlikely this will happen.
I think that the animal libertarian movement and the libertarian socialist movement are necessarily connected, and should work together. However, they remain divided for similar reasons to how the LGBT rights movement and the socialist movement didn’t integrate for so long (the prejudice of socialist campaigners themselves).
SC: Is there any way in which speciesism is used to further human class exploitation? If so, how?
FO: The idea that cruelty toward non-humans fosters cruelty toward humans is an old one. Bentham and Kant said this, among many others. Also, the concept of dehumanisation is critical to speciesism. As long as there is a zone outside ‘humanity’ which we deem fit for cruelty, murder, and exploitation, humans will suffer according to the same perverse psychology. Speciesism is about arbitrarily demarcating victims, so it naturally feeds into racism, misogyny, etc. However, I think this criticism is only a tiny part of the case against speciesism.
SC: How would you respond to the suggestion that personal veganism is an individualistic solution to a systemic problem? Or that insisting on personal veganism as a baseline for animal activism is the equivalent of saying anyone who drives a car can’t be opposed to fossil fuel economies, or anyone who wears Nike can’t be opposed to sweatshops?
FO: ‘Personal veganism’ in practice means not paying other humans to kill or torture sentient beings. Just because the problem is systemic, doesn’t mean the individual isn’t responsible for contributing to it, especially since murdering and being cruel to other animals is unnecessary to human survival. The fact is that we are responsible for what harm we contribute to, but it’s too hard in modern society to boycott everything. That’s where collective action comes in. However, my understanding of veganism is living a life which prevents as much suffering as possible, and that naturally includes fighting with others for systematic change.
But making such an argument against ‘personal veganism’ is making the perfect the enemy of the good. The fact is that being a ‘personal vegan’ prevents a huge amount of suffering compared to, for instance, boycotting corporations which use sweatshops. Boycotting Nike doesn’t necessarily help the child in the sweatshop, but not buying that chicken in a bag means that 1 less chicken is dead because of you.
Lastly, would these humans make the same argument if we were talking about humans being killed in the tens of billions, skinned alive, cramped into tiny cages, dragged from their mothers at birth, just so they could be eaten, etc? Obviously not. This is the role of speciesism.
SC: Is a vegan capitalism possible? Why or why not?
FO: I’m sure vegan capitalism is logically possible, but definitely not in this world. Non-radical vegans need to realise that the state and capitalism are two of the most inimical institutions for non-human animals. State subsidies artificially support meat, dairy, and leather producers, ban animal rights activists from documenting abuses, and use the police to prevent the same from directly stopping it (much like Nazi police accosted the Resistance). The profit motive is the greatest enemy of sentient life on Earth. Factory farms get larger and more hellish because capitalists want to extract more and more profit. The same inhumane logic of capital that puts human children in sweatshops puts pigs in slaughterhouses. This is why I see anarchism and veganism as one and the same, one fight against oppression.
SC: Jason Hribal has argued animals should be considered part of the proletariat. Bob Torres has said such a definition obscures the difference in revolutionary potential between animal and human laborers, and that animals are in fact superexploited living commodities. Where do you stand in the debate?
FO: I don’t think that considering non-humans to be part of the proletariat is particularly useful. I think it’s more appropriate to think of other animals as slaves. A donkey makes no contract with a human, and receives no wages. They have no property rights of their own. I agree that it’s important to note that non-humans have no potential to liberate themselves, and that we must think about them differently (much as we don’t expect human children to liberate themselves). In fact, I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘superexploited living commodities’ before, but I think it’s very apt. Many non-humans are in a category of their own; their labour isn’t the commodity, their flesh, skin, etc, is the commodity, and their sentience is often not even acknowledged (let alone heeded to).