Bill Martin discusses animals, Maoism, and more

Photo by Kathleen League

Photo by Kathleen League

By Jon Hochschartner

Bill Martin, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University, emerged from the United States’ Maoist movement and is currently working with the Kasama Project. He is the author of ‘Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation,’ which among other things, addresses the treatment of animals.

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?

Bill Martin: I consider myself to be a communist, who is working for a world without classes and without exploitation and domination. To be very specific, though without explaining much of anything, I came through the Maoist movement, have been very influenced in recent years by Alain Badiou, and even more recently by Buddhism (and I practice Zen). I am working toward a synthesis that contains and brings together elements of all three.

SC: Can you describe what involvement, if any, you’ve had with organized socialist or anarchist left?

BM: I worked with organized Maoism, specifically the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, for about 26 years. I was never an actual member of that group, but at times I did work with them very closely, for example going to Peru when the leader of the Sendero Luminoso was captured and threatened with summary execution, and writing a book with the leader of that party, Bob Avakian (we drafted the book in 2002 and it was published in 2005, it’s called ‘Marxism and the call of the future‘). In the years 2003 to 2006 and beyond that group went through some changes that made it impossible for me to work with them anymore (though I did not know about many of these changes until early 2008, and some things I am still learning), and since then I have been working with the Kasama Project, which aims to reconcieve and to re-group around the idea of communism—for some of us this is “post-Maoist,” for others it is post-Trotskyist, and even post-anarchist.

SC: Tell us a little bit about your book ‘Ethical Marxism.’ Would anti-speciesist leftists be interested in it? If so, why?

BM: My main aim in the book was to show that Marxism needs to be motivated first of all by an “ethical moment,” one that is not generated on a merely utilitarian basis or by any conception of interest, including class interest. Although there are important differences, I think there are some ways in which my conception of the “ethical moment” is not so different from what Badiou means by “politics” as an “event.” For Badiou, however, politics does not seem to have anything to do with non-human animals (or even the human as an animal) or ecology, and here we are far apart. In the book I took Kant as the starting place for an ethics set against utility and interest, and I developed my argument on the basis of some twentieth-century Kantian thinkers (or thinkers who have a strong Kantian element), such as Sartre, Derrida, and Davidson.

At the center (literally) of the book is a chapter titled “The animal question,” where I try to show that the treatment of animals in the “global industrial food-animal production system” is a clear evil that cannot be fully understood in categories of human interest, and that, any philosophy (Marxism or whatever) that aims toward a world of mutual flourishment cannot avoid this question. I also argue that the assumption that animals are “natural commodities” because it has always been understood that animals are mere things is illegitimate, that many cultures have oral or written records of the traumatic passage into eating animals. I argue that this is the beginning of reification—”thingification” of the world, and that, ultimately, this state of animal reification has to be resolved. It would be highly speculative to claim to know exactly how this might happen, but, for sure, there will be no society of mutual flourishment that contains anything even remotely like the industrial food-animal production system. Ultimately it seems to me that a society that would deserve the name “communism” will not be one in which people eat or otherwise abuse or enslave animals; to put things more positively, communism will be a society in which humanity has a completely and radically re-worked relationship with animals and with our planet in general.

SC: How have your views regarding animals been received on the socialist or anarchist left?

BM: I really don’t know. As you probably know, in much of “the left” there is an aversion to theory and an aversion to vegetarianism. I don’t know that most of the people who have responded to my book, or to the animal chapter, have really taken the arguments seriously or tried to follow the arguments that I actually make. As usual, they just say the same bullshit about how meat tastes good and how vegans are jerks or whatnot … the usual stuff, that, as I say in the book, is dealt with quite brilliantly in the episode of The Simpsons where Lisa Simpson becomes a vegetarian.

On the other hand, I have a friend who gave a talk about the book, and she said that, initially, she planned to focus on her disagreement with the animal arguments, but that, in getting further into exploring the arguments, she found that not only did she agree with them, furthermore this caused her to become a vegetarian herself. So, this was very heartening.

As far as general reception on “the left,” I really did have large ambitions for the book (and, as you know, it is very long). I really wanted to re-cast some things. As for almost everything that calls itself “Marxism” of one sort or another, though, there is a great deal of imperviousness to re-casting, most of it, and I think just as much anarchism or “socialism” in some “softer” sense, is stuck in a deep rut or series of ruts. I would even give the name “hatred of philosophy” to one of these ruts, and at the same time I would reiterate something I said in the book, that, when it comes to the animal question (which is really an interrelated group of questions), and especially the challenge to make changes in one’s life in terms of what one eats, most philosophers are all too happy to revert to the usual bullshit, too.

So, that is what the book is up against, even as I have tried, and am working now, to go beyond the book in significant ways. Influenced more by Badiou, Plato, and Buddhism–rather than, just to be formulaic about it, Derrida, Kant, and Judaism/Christianity, I am going in directions that could be called more “ontological” rather than “epistemological.” And yet I still think the book is going in the right direction and could play a good role for whatever parts of the left, Marxism, or, even better, communism, that would open themselves to my arguments.

SC: If you belong to an anti-capitalist organization, does it 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?

BM: The Kasama Project at the present time is involved in the process of deciding what sort of organization it is going to be, and on what its official positions on different subjects will be. As a matter of fact, a national convention will take place this month (October 2014), and I think Kasama will be a different thing after that point, though I don’t know exactly what that will be. I know that there is a basic consensus to not just repeat the party-forms of the past.

Kasama has paid a good deal of attention to ecological questions, as of course anyone must in the world today. However, like most of “the left,” there is not the sense that these questions are intimately related to the animal question. And, indeed, there is the usual, I would say “macho,” posturing about how it is somehow “leftist” or “Marxist” or “working-class” to eat meat and to say obnoxious things about vegetarianism or “those horrible vegans.”

Even without the more general questions of ecological sustainability, there is simply the question of the horrible cruelty toward animals that is the daily workings of industrial food-animal production system (and that is not addressed by the less than one-percent of food-animal production that comes from “free-range,” which is usually not all that it claims to be anyway, or by some proposal for something that could be done in the distant future). I believe it is central to the very idea of “the ethical” that this question be understood in its own terms, apart from how this cruelty might rebound upon humanity. By the way, I argued in one of my other books (‘Humanism and its aftermath‘) that Ursula Le Guin’s novels ‘The Word for World is Forest’ and ‘The Dispossessed’ give us models for thinking ethical connection beyond the sorts of “material” connections that are forged through common interests. Or, to use other examples that involve humans (and that I discussed in ‘Ethical Marxism’), the fact that the horrible destruction that was wrought on the people of Vietnam has not rebounded upon most people in the United States (and certainly not upon the politicians and generals who prosecuted the war) does not make what was done to the people of Vietnam (and that is still being done to them in the form of all of the toxins, including massive amounts of carcinogens, dropped on that country) any less of a moral horror and a crime against humanity (and undoubtedly against nature and countless animals as well).

And yet, at the same time, these things are rebounding against humanity; the industrial food-animal production system is fundamentally unsustainable and is leading to fundamental ecological unsustainability. All of this points to a fundamental fact about capitalism, too—that the kinds of economic conversion that are necessary for even going forward with the capitalist system itself are not possible within the capitalist system. It is insane, really, that even people who believe that we need a new social system cannot address this side of capitalism—that at least one of the core forms of commodification is animals rendered horribly into “food.”

That Marx himself had a blind spot on this question, and on the question of what I am calling “the ethical moment in politics” (which, to give a Zizekian spin to it, might be quite similar to what we could call the “political moment in economics”) is no good reason to keep on with and even endorse inane statements about “loving bacon” and the like with a situation that is now many orders of magnitude worse.

SC: Is there any way in which speciesism is used to further human class exploitation? If so, how?

BM: Very simply, any economic process that reinforces commodification and that reinforces the view that everything is nothing more than a mere thing in a world of things rebounds upon humanity as well. The production of commodities goes back far into human pre-history. Perhaps the earlier forms of this production were not so terrible, though they already depend on divisions of labor, and therefore social divisions, that, as Marx demonstrated in ‘Capital,’ are the seeds of the vast division of labor and extreme commodification that we know today. However, what makes for the actual capitalist economic and social form is the commodification of labor-power. This commodification has immense consequences, one of which I like to characterize as the moment when “all bets are off”—or, as Marx and Engels put it, “everything solid melts into air.” In other words, this is the moment when the door is opened wide to the commodification of everything.

You would think this would have already happened with the commodification of animals, or the commodification of women, or the beginnings of prostitution. But every previous society had some sort of traditional or conventional set of limits, often represented in religious codes. Even capitalist societies have had to work with these limits up to a point, but perhaps it is definitive of our own era that any notion of moral limits just sounds sentimental–in the same way that a member of the G.W. Bush administration (was it the law professor who is now at Berkeley?) described any prohibition on the use of torture in interrogation as “quaint.”

There is the obvious point that people are often treated as animals, first of all working people who are treated as pack-animals or what-have-you, or simply as expendable without a thought. The pre-existing basis for this treatment, however, is the deeply-ingrained assumption that animals can be treated as “animals,” that is, as mere, expendable things.

I suppose a good Buddhist answer to this question, which ought to be embraced within a reconceived communist project, is that anything that deepens the commodification of anything, anything at all, brings harm to humanity, to working people, to all sentient beings, and to the fabric of all existence. Perhaps this harm is done first of all to some parts or nodes within this fabric, but it doesn’t stop spreading out. Indeed, this is why they call the academic discipline “ecology and systematics,” we are talking about the interconnectedness of things.

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?

BM: In some ways the first of these questions is just silly. (I’m not saying you’re silly to raise it, of course.) There are many obnoxious behaviors in the world that depend on individual decisions and that are not at all affected by the withdrawal of any given individual from any particular one of these behaviors. I could give many examples, though I am sure that readers of this interview know what I am talking about. And, just to be clear, this is not a matter of self-righteousness, and I will say that I am not innocent in all of this either. I just try my best, and I try to ask myself what went wrong when I know I didn’t do the right thing.

To go more directly to the point, and to appeal to Kant, if I know there is something that is the right thing to do, why would the question of how many other people are doing it matter one way or another? I feel like some old Sunday-school teacher saying this, but, you know, just because everybody does it doesn’t make it right and just because very few do it doesn’t make it wrong. It’s weird that this needs to be said.

The motivation for even raising this question, as anti-vegetarians do, is, on the one side, this hang-up about how some vegetarians seem either happy or even self-righteous about being vegetarians, and, on the other, surely some guilt that anti-vegetarians are feeling not only about what they are doing, but also the ridiculous things they present as supposed “arguments” against vegetarianism. In ‘Ethical Marxism’ I argued that the rabid carnivorism that is so endemic to many cultures in this world (and no less so in, say, France, than in the United States) goes so far as to warp reason, or at least the ability to reason, itself.

No doubt there are a few vegetarians who are overly self-righteous or happy about what they are doing. So what? I don’t see how that affects the arguments for vegetarianism either way. And people who find vegans “annoying” or “unbearable” or whatever might ask themselves why they find this particular thing so difficult for them to deal with—after all, there is no end of annoyance (and far worse) in this world.

What is especially annoying is when these anti-vegetarian screeds come from ostensible Marxists, anarchists, or other leftists. And this isn’t even so much because of the content of the claims, but rather the way it reveals a mind unable to think critically and self-critically. When I was in graduate school, as a somewhat self-righteous Marxist, there was a professor who seemed to me to be quite reactionary, and his specialization was the philosophy of William James. Now, in hindsight, I don’t know that this professor was all that reactionary so much as he was, in the narrow sense, reacting to me. However, at the time, I somehow thought this was a good reason to not study William James. That was a big, stupid mistake! (Just one of many big and/or stupid mistakes I’ve made in life, for sure.) What might be instructive here regarding the mind of the person who is otherwise politically radical is that we all have blind spots; we all have those moments where our thinking turns out to be just as conventional as everyone else’s, and where we fall into ridiculously reactive and defensive postures. (Again, if it needs to be said, I am not exempt from this, either.)

Not so long ago, in a little Facebook discussion that I allowed myself to get sucked into, someone said one of the usual things one hears, “No one is going to judge me for what I eat.” Now, perhaps there is a point here. One of the things I discuss in ‘Ethical Marxism’ is the fact that this question is so loaded for people because there is no activity more intimate than the bodily processes involved in eating. Nothing starts more as not a part of an individual, then a part of that individual in many different ways, and then not a part of that individual again in some of those ways, than the processes by which food is mixed with the individual body. So it is not surprising that one gets touchy or a bit verklimpt about all this, a bit defensive. After all, especially in daily life, is a person not entitled to at least draw a line where my body is concerned, over against your attempt to intrude?

To bring class back in (and we could run this argument through gender and race as well), in a sense Marx’s argument about “wage slavery” has to do with the disposition of bodies, the social form in which the capitalist appears to pay a fair price (according to the market) for renting bodies—bodies that are disassociated from ownership in the means of production. Just as a hypothesis, I would like to propose that people who already feel thoroughly “thingified” might feel a bit put upon to be pressed, perhaps sometimes by people they perceive to not be from the working class, to change something so fundamental about themselves.

After all, the ruling class for the far greater part are not only carnivores, they “eat up” the working class too. Indeed, they are nothing but parasites on the working people. And when some of the super-rich or “beautiful people” present themselves as vegans and animal activists, this can at the very least provoke a “what does this have to do with me” response from working people, and often something far more reactive.

I would venture, by the way, that quite often this perception of the vegetarian as not coming from the working class is incorrect. It can simply be a projection of one of the other things one hears, “I’m worried about people; I can’t get involved in these other issues.”

The thing is, a lot of what I said about how some Marxists cling to this “workerist” view of vegetarianism and the animal question more broadly is not so different from how many actual working people view Marxism and many Marxists themselves—as not really being of the working people or actually connected to their actual struggles, as being a luxury activity for the better-off classes, and so on. This might apply to anarchists even more, though I wonder if anarchists are statistically more likely to be vegetarians.

In any case, I would draw three conclusions. First, advocates for vegetarianism and for a radically reworked human relationship with animals need to address class questions and to be aware of what it means to advocate on these questions to working people. If we actually care about making a better world, as opposed to showing ourselves as somehow “better people” because of our eating practices, we need to show in both theory and in how we communicate that these are not “elite” matters. We also need to approach in a more practical and sympathetic way the actual hurdles that working people face in both opening these questions in their own minds, their own families, and their own social strata, and in actually obtaining and preparing good vegetarian food in an affordable way. One reason I wanted to develop the analysis that I did in ‘Ethical Marxism’ was to show the depth and breadth of carnivorism as a system, indeed an immense system, that is a very difficult nut to crack. It is a system that is very close to the core, and in important ways it is the core, of the commodity system itself—the same system that commodifies human beings.

The second point is not so different from the first, though perhaps it is less about the theoretical tie-ins with the mode of production and commodity system. Instead, this point is on the “public relations” side of things—I don’t feel very comfortable with this term, of course, and yet the fact is that there are better and worse ways of getting the message out, and the other side is working full-time with vast resources and literally thousands of years of ideological support. Not unlike patriarchy—this is something that requires further thought, even though a great deal has been done already, with an especially important moment being Carol J. Adams’s ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat.’

My point though, is that we have to be careful with the “judginess”—not because it isn’t justified, but because it is not effective and tends to backfire. Here the comparison with patriarchy breaks down; patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, ought to be condemned outright, there should be no putting up with it. And the same with racism, with homophobia, and bigotry in general. Sure, there are different ways of coming at this too, ways that are more or less effective. And, to follow the approach taken by Sartre (“Colonialism is a system”), these things are systems too, and fundamentally we need to be about changing systems. The same with the global industrial food-animal system, we should not spare the system itself from harsh—and systematic—critique. And yet, again, when it comes to the eating practices of ordinary people functioning within this system, again, there is a question of whether we are interested in the “pleasures” of being judgmental and feeling righteous, or are we instead interested in making real change. Again, we have to be mindful of the different living situations that people have, even while maintaining the universality of the value that it is simply wrong to participate in unjustified cruelty toward sentient beings.

I’m in no position to say that a more “positive message” would lead to large results, but I do think the judgmental approach is demonstrably backfiring.

Third, however, and this is more directed toward the Marxists and other supposed champions of the working class who clearly overreact to the fact of encountering a vegetarian, to be sure these “public relations” questions should not be allowed to obscure the ethical horror that is the global industrial food-animal production system. Indeed, there needs to be a deepening of this dimension to show that this system is a political horror as well, even a basic survival horror, for all who inhabit this planet. None of this should be obscured under some sort of “workerist” ideology or rhetoric.

All right, this is a long way around what would seem to be a simple question, this business about personal veganism being an individualistic solution. Suppose some people become vegans out of a simple desire to withdraw from at least one of the horrible ways in which the larger social system functions? Perhaps not everything is right with that that one would want, but it is hard to see what is wrong with it. It’s really hard to see why this would be a reason to not do it. Again, the anti-vegetarian types ought to think a little more deeply about what they think; they are showing here.

Having been a member of a continental European philosophy program for almost twenty-five years now, I have heard many times that there is a problem of the “beautiful soul.” The “problem” was framed by Hegel and some of his contemporaries—Novalis, Holderlin (significantly, it is not unrelated to the notion of “holy anorexia”), but is probably best known in texts by Nietzsche. Years ago, commenting on the fact that my partner and I are vegetarians, a colleague who is a well-known scholar of Nietzsche and Heidegger said he “was right with us, but was concerned about the problem of the beautiful soul.” Now, it seems to me that there is something of the “beautiful soul” itself about this response.

In any case, I would like to understand better exactly what this problem is, what kind of problem it is, and who it is a problem for. Here is what I think I understand thus far. As a cultural phenomenon, a kind of skeptical refusal of politics, there is something like a “problem,” or, better, “problematic,” to use Althusser’s term.

As an “individual” issue, I see this more as, at most, an annoyance, and, as I said before, not an especially big one—perhaps because, even if a person who approaches veganism primarily or even only as a form of “withdrawal” is a bit annoying about it, usually such people are tucked away from others anyway. Whatever is annoying about them to others only comes out on occasions such as a family Thanksgiving dinner or the like. Of course, the “beautiful, annoying soul” does not want to be involved in such occasions in the first place, but attends for the sake of peace with friends and family—only to be treated as a pariah and to be submitted to idiotic discourses about meat. Probably every vegetarian reading this will recognize this scene and be familiar with how our friends and relatives want to choose such an occasion to interrogate us about vegetarianism—and being upset when we either respond with an argument or a simple response to the effect that eating animals is wrong or, as I have done for some time now, the response that a dinner table where animals are being served is not a good place to have this discussion.

I suppose that the question of the beautiful soul who is reclusively tucked away is different now in the age of the internet—some of the most “tucked away” are among the most present in this medium. But again, so what? There’s obviously no end to all kinds of stuff out there. Anti-vegetarians might want to consult a psychoanalyst to determine exactly why they specifically and continually seek out this thing that annoys them.

There is probably something “Christian,” and even “Protestant,” going on with the beautiful soul phenomenon, something that bypasses humanity on the road to salvation. And, for sure, there are people who are doing their best just to withdraw from certain evil pathways in this world. But we might do more investigation into the kind of society that enables withdrawal as the only realistic option for some people. Badiou often points out that this withdrawal from politics (in his sense of the masses being seized by an idea) leads in a “theological and ethical” direction. I would say that, in the case of the beautiful soul, this even takes the form of some secret, hidden, “recording angel” who is marking the hermit’s path of self-improvement and purification. I practice a form of Buddhism where monastic life is not stressed (and I don’t know that I could practice any other kind), but I’m not in a position to say that these forms of withdrawal or hermitage do not help the world. Again, it is hard for me to see how they hurt the world or society, other than that some don’t want to even hear about it on the internet. At the least, for all of us, there certainly ought to be moments to back up and reassess, or just to open our minds a bit without all the distraction of postmodern capitalist society and to let go of accumulated crap or even of things that are in some sense “true” but that are keeping us from seeing something that we need to see.

As for these “baseline” questions, the veganism/animal activism question is, I think, different from the other examples mentioned, one of these at a something of an extreme. Activist or not, it undermines and should undermine the credibility of someone who claims to “love animals” if they also eat animals. Again, I don’t see the efficacy of judginess toward individuals, but I also don’t see that it hurts to point out that one person’s beloved cat or dog is what’s for dinner in some parts of the world. Unfortunately, I don’t know that such inconvenient truths have so much efficacy in this society, either, because one thing that postmodern capitalism does is to undermine a sense of universality—people are more than willing to just spin the wheel and take their chances, at least insomuch as they think about something like John Rawls’s “original position” (a thought experiment where one does not know in what circumstances and with what attributes–race, gender, class, etc.—one will come into the world). In other words, they are fine with “taking their chances” in the abstract, when in the world they are in a comfortable position. Still, I don’t quite understand how a person can work in a rescue shelter by day and then go home and eat an animal for dinner. I suppose it requires a kind of compartmentalization that I don’t experience—generally whatever mess is going on in one part of my life spreads to every other part!

I don’t see quite that kind of contradiction in something like energy and ecology activism. In general it’s good, of course, to take alternative transportation. But a good bit of the time that is either quite impractical or almost impossible–and it’s no accident that things are this way. All power and respect to those working to change that. But if they have to sometimes drive or ride in a car as part of this work (or in their day jobs or whatever), I find that far more understandable than the person who stops for a Big Mac on the way to the animal shelter or whatnot.

At the same time, I think it is good if we are appreciative and encouraging every time anyone starts to move in the right direction—for example, the person who begins by not eating meat on Mondays, that sort of thing. Of course there have to be refusals, great and small, but if all of that is without affirmation, I don’t think we’ll change the world in the ways we need to. This isn’t to say that we should be uncritical in our thinking, such that we don’t see the difference between a “positive step” and a “fatal compromise” (though there really are many cases where that is a difference that is hard to see, perhaps even where the distinction is, as Derrida used to put it, undecidable, and we just have to make a leap in the dark and hope for the best), but, again, we have to do more than just say “no” to the world all the time.

Certainly, there is great positivity in saying no to the global industrial food-animal system, and to the eating of animals. But I think we can go forward a lot more by stressing compassion for sentient beings.

It might be useful to go a little further in framing something fundamental here in Buddhist terms. Everything we do in this world displaces something else, on many levels. If we live in a building—and I think most of us live in buildings of one kind or another—then something else that used to live on that land doesn’t live there anymore. Perhaps this was “just” bugs and worms, but, as we understand better every day, the ecological system of at least the dry land on earth depends on bugs and worms.

You most likely know the story of Sidhartha Guatama, how he was raised in a setting where everything was pleasure and nothing indicative of pain or decay was allowed to enter his sphere of awareness. Supposedly, the first instance of death that the young Siddhartha saw was a worm being cut in half by a farmer’s plow. Another version of the story has a bird flying off with a worm that has been turned up by the plow. There is no easy way to render the Sanskrit term “dukkha,” and it is perhaps not the most relevant way in Buddhist thought to render it as “displacement,” but this translation might be helpful in the present case. In other words, the most basic translation of the first Noble Truth, “dukkha,” is “life is suffering.” Many, many generations of scholars and monks have reflected on both the simplicity and complexity of “dukkha” and the idea of beginning there. To give a Badiouean twist to this idea, I would suggest that bodily life is a series of displacements (within any given body as well) where nothing can ever really “work out” to full satisfaction. Hence the need for mindfulness. We cannot avoid displacement entirely, but we can be mindful about it.

Lately, “mindfulness” has been promoted as a New-Age corporate practice, in a way disconnected from Buddhism, which is to say disconnected from the questions of attachment, compassion, and the path of right living represented by the Eightfold Path and the Bodhisattva vows and precepts. Instead, this model of mindfulness is being taken up into the corporate and capitalist theme of “corporate sustainability.” Of course there is no discourse that cannot be abused and even turned into its opposite (including, most outstandingly, discourses of Marxism, socialism, and communism). But leave it for now that this “corporate mindfulness” is not what I am getting at here.

Indeed, we need to take real mindfulness further than most Buddhists do, toward a mindfulness of systems. In Buddhism there is the idea of the “three poisons,” greed, hatred, and ignorance. Sometimes these are also called the “three unwholesome roots.” Now, it could be said that the “roots” of capitalism are the ever-expanding development of commodity production in general and the commodification of labor-power in particular. Which of the three unwholesome roots does commodity production fit under? It might be argued that the cruel outcomes of this commodity system, never seen in any more horrible form than in the global industrial food-animal system, come under one or all of these poisons, but even that is unclear. I suppose, up to a point, some carnivorous humans can plead ignorance, and we can see the profiteers from this system as motivated by greed, but these just don’t go far enough in helping us to understand a system, and therefore they don’t go far enough in helping us to overturn this system. (The focus on “greed” was one of the weaknesses of the Occupy movement as well, though on the whole I think Occupy was a great thing.) So perhaps we need a further turning of the dharma wheel, something that addresses what might be called “systemic karma” with another category of mindfulness.

There is a point to thinking further about karma here, if “karma” is properly understood not as something one wants to either “store up” in the case of “good karma,” or to avoid, as in the case of “bad karma.” Karma simply means “action,” and the basic idea is that actions have consequences. The point is to break with the mode of simply continuing in some chain of cause and effect without being mindful of the consequences of one’s actions. This goes back to the “no one is going to judge me for what I eat” question. It’s not a matter of judging, at least not primarily. Meat-eating practices perpetuate themselves and are perpetuated (through great effort on many levels) through the absence and even negation of mindfulness. In Buddhism, the saying is to “live by vow rather than karma.” By “vow” is meant principle. Is it simply an “individual question” or “individual solution” for a person to ask her or himself, “What am I a part of, how do my actions and practices fit into some larger scheme? And what should I do about this?” There is a point to doing some things and not doing other things after all, even if there is always more to be done.

And, as for ostensible Marxists or leftists who just sneer at principle, I don’t really mean to be quite as “nice” as I might have come across as earlier, when I said what I did about “judginess.” Again, this isn’t really about judging, but, if anything, there is a real problem with someone claiming to be a Marxist or leftist or anarchist and then sneering at someone who is trying to live by certain principles–especially when these are precisely the people who cannot claim simple ignorance of what is going on. Unfortunately, the dismissal of principle and the refusal to think has an all-too-rich history in leftism–and we’ll never change the world in any good way if we keep on with this sort of thing.

I did want to say that there is nothing in this entire interview, and especially on this point, where I haven’t been deeply influenced by my life-partner, Kathleen League. She is a vegan, utopian philosopher who has done some important work on the philosophy of Theodor Adorno and also a good deal on questions of class, and she comes from the lower part of the working class herself (and grew up below the poverty line). I don’t have the patience or stomach for this most of the time myself, but Kathleen will get into debates with some of these leftist or Marxist anti-vegetarians, especially on Facebook and other social media. I’m sure it’s not at all unknown to people who will read this how quickly these anti-vegetarians turn into mindless jerks–there is just something about this particular subject that brings it out of them. This is very disturbing, because these are people who are not ordinarily mindless jerks, it almost seems that the dynamic is that these leftists are frustrated at not having had much effect in the world, and so they take that frustration out on someone–and how strange it is that the people they pick as targets in this regard are vegetarians and animal activists. Stated more positively, and this goes to your last set of questions, there is much to be gained in sorting all of this out.

SC: Is a vegan capitalism possible? Why or why not?

BM: The question would seem to hinge on whether it is possible to have a system of food production that is both vegan and profitable for capitalists.

Now, why would the food-production system in a capitalist society become vegan? Would it be because of some sort of regulation, or some sort of (pretty much inconceivable) moment where capitalists as a set of global classes (I agree with Marx that there is no “trans-national bourgeoisie) became ethically-repulsed by the system and its horrors? Can capitalists really reach the point where they say, to paraphrase the popular song, “I would do anything for profit, but I won’t do that?” We know that everything in capitalism runs in the opposite direction. Capitalists are not even constrained by what Marx called “bourgeois right;” they don’t even have any reason, apart from some countervailing force, to stay within the supposed principles of their own system.

Just to press the point, we now live in a world enveloped in capitalist social relations–and yet this world contains a sector (analytically speaking; in geographical or geo-political terms, many sectors) of slavery-based production that is by all accounts larger than ever. There are more people who have been pressed into slavery now than there ever have been. And by this I do not mean the far larger sector of working people whose conditions of work are not in effect any different from slavery.

As for regulation, from time to time there are measures taken regarding cruelty toward animals, but, as most anyone reading this will know, facilities of food-animal production are generally exempt. Even beyond the slavery (de jure or de facto) point, the “free market” will go where it goes, it is exceedingly difficult to just deal with part of it. There are global markets in heroin and cocaine, and, qua market, they aren’t any different from any other markets. As such markets become articulated over space and time, they become integral to the overall market system. I’m writing this in Mexico City (where I am spending a month teaching at Universidad Iberoamericana), and there is absolutely no ignorance here whatsoever about the fact that the “drug economy” is no different from some other thing that could be called the “Mexican economy.”

Just to go back to Marxist basics, it seems the only thing that can really place a constraint on capitalist profit-seeking and accumulation is the conscious activism of the people. If we somehow got to the point where this conscious activism–on a large, mass scale–included a very central concern for our fellow creatures in this world, then it doesn’t seem likely that achieving a vegan capitalist society would be the horizon of this struggle. I certainly hope it wouldn’t be. As for what would be the basis of such a solidarity between the people and other animals, or whether “solidarity” is really the proper term for some sort of “alliance,” that comes under the purview more of the next set of questions, so I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Could a vegan capitalism emerge from a breakdown of food-animal production, something on a cataclysmic level such that this system could no longer function? This is highly-speculative territory, but it is hard to imagine this sort of cataclysm being contained in such a way that it doesn’t lead to a complete civilizational collapse. Economic conversion is not a strong suit of capitalism, at least in terms of the displacement and redeployment of “the workforce,” but we might ask if, on a less apocalyptic level, capitalism could convert food production from animals to plants in a way similar to how it has converted from typewriters to personal computers.

There is probably no purely analytical way to say that a vegan capitalism is simply impossible, even given, as I’ve argued, the central role that the making of animals into commodities plays in the emergence and spread of commodity production more generally.

If a vegan capitalism were possible, should we hope for such a thing–even if most of us hope, ultimately, for a post-capitalist society? Should we work for such a thing? I suppose one could say that it is right to work for a society that does not have the present food-animal production system, regardless of what happens with capitalism. This is probably similar to the way that it is right, for instance, to work for a society that has gender equality and full reproductive rights and freedoms for women, regardless of what happens with capitalism. I tend to think that neither a vegan food system nor the full liberation of women is possible in a capitalist framework, but I am not entirely sure how to argue this point. Furthermore, while I tend to think that true liberation involves interconnections and a kind of “comprehensive” struggle that addresses all of the root questions of exploitation, domination, and oppression, I also have no doubt that people who struggle in these “separate” spheres, for women’s liberation, or for the end of racism and race domination, and so on, are on the side of the angels.

For now, though, I think I have more questions than answers on this point. I hope that I have helped to develop some of these questions, at least.

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?

BM: In terms of the specific sources you cite, first of all I see some homework I need to do. At the moment, though, let me explore a few things about these two positions, as you state them.

There are two basic questions I have about these positions. First, if animals were to be considered to be “part of the proletariat,” what would be the meaning of this term, “part of?” Second, what is the relationship between “revolutionary potential” and forms of exploitation and forms of commodification?

Certainly I am willing to think further on the position I set out in ‘Ethical Marxism,’ but I have a concern about the idea that somehow animals need to somehow be made a “part of” the proletariat in order to enter the realm of political consideration. There is very little that can be done to really cover over the endless horror that is the food-animal production system—unlike, say, capitalism itself. Many of the covers have been ripped off from capitalism, too, though generally without getting to the heart of the matter (this is the business about “greed” again). But with the food-animal system, there is very little that can be done to make it look good—that’s why people, many philosophers included, are willing to make the most ridiculous claims in order to continue their participation in this system.

Rather than fold animals into the proletariat in some way, I think there is still something to be said for extending the idea, which we have from Marx, that it is the proletariat’s historical task to liberate itself, and all humankind–and all sentient beings.

We can talk about the way that class works today, how we understand the proletariat and working people more generally. However, I tend to agree with Alain Badiou that the part of this analysis that is more or less sociology should not be taken as some sort of “calculus” that will show us how a radical transformation will emerge. There is no reason in principle why the animal question could not turn out to be the leading factor in cracking the world open, as unlikely as that might seem from the standpoint of the present time.

How this might work in terms of the matrix of social classes and the possibilities for solidarity, however, is another matter. After all, it is hard enough to figure the bases of human solidarity, especially if one hopes to move beyond the narrowly-motivating factor of “interest.” Having said that, a big part of my argument on the animal question in ‘Ethical Marxism’ was to show (or to try to show, but in the Kantian sense that “trying” counts for a lot!) that the animal question provides the outstanding example of an ethical question that cannot be assimilated to human interests. Of course we have a human interest in not undermining the ecosystem of the whole planet or even of regions, but I am talking about the vast cruelty of the food-animal system and how it would be, or should be (in the ethical sense of “should”), simply unimaginable in any society that could even be called “decent,” much less “good.” And I also mean the cruelty that effects the animals in this system individually, and, to be simplistic about it, this can be understood well enough on the model of what would be called “animal cruelty” when someone does it to a cat or a dog but somehow is not animal cruelty when it happens within the food-animal system.

To use this term, “cruelty,” is to perhaps separate what happens to animals in the food-animal system and what happens to humans in the labor-exploitation system. Even on a “non-interest”-based argument for solidarity, such as what I try to supply in ‘Ethical Marxism,’ or such as what Sartre supplies in the ‘Critique of Dialectical Reason’ with his notion of the “group-in-fusion,” I think there is a significant gap between the basis of human or “human-class” solidarity and whatever term we might use for how the “collectivity” of animals might be considered.

Perhaps we could develop a distinction between what might be called “collectivity” in the sense we see in Sartre or Badiou, for instance, and what we can call “mutuality.”

I’m skirting a certain issue here, because it seems that it could lead to the kind of debate that gets very contentious very quickly, but also because it would only be worth exploring in the case that the proletariat and animals could truly combine in something that would truly be a “political formation.” I take it this would be quite different from saying that any just polity would include animals, not base its food system on eating animals, would do the best it could to not displace different species of animals such that species sustainability is endangered. All of this, however, is a matter of human polity.

So, without going much further in the issue that I am skirting, I think that the animal-friendly human polity that is possible actually entails the gap that I mentioned previously, because the gap is necessary to taking the animal question as a question of justice in its own right. This is a plenty good enough reason for not collapsing the distinction between animals and humanity (or the proletariat), as appealing as this move, toward a supposedly-larger solidarity, appears on first reading.


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