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On Veganism and Consumerism

By Alessandra Seiter

originally published on the Farmer’s Market Vegan; republished with permission from author

A substantial number of radical activists (see my bibliography below the main text of this post) have offered up cogent, change-inspiring writings on the veganism and consumerism long before I even began to understand the issues embedded within the links between the two phenomena. As such, in this article I will not attempt to claim responsibility for the ideas or suggestions already in existence, nor will I – as an activist still very much in the early stages of investigating veganism and consumerism – introduce new theoretical formulations on the topic. Rather, I seek to present a summary – informed, as always, by my own positionality – of existing scholarship to an audience perhaps not normally exposed to such information. I should note, however, that I am as of now in complete agreement with the ideas that I am about to re-present.

To begin, existing scholarship on veganism and consumerism argues that the current animal movement revolves around vegan consumption practices – rather than on anti-speciesist politics (which I will expand upon below) – and that this consumerist focus serves to uphold the very structures that commodify all beings (though unevenly, of course: For example, capitalism commodifies Black and brown bodies significantly more than it does white bodies; trans bodies more than it does cis bodies; etc.). By devoting our energies to encouraging those who eat other animals to reduce or eliminate their consumption of other animals, we promote the “fundamental democratic myth” (Gelderloos) that we have full autonomy over the items we buy and consume, and therefore that our purchase of soy milk over cow’s milk functions as an effective way to challenge a violent system of animal exploitation.

However, quite contrary to this notion of consumer-as-autonomous-being is the fact that “consumer” constitutes “a role involuntarily imposed on all of us” (Gelderloos). Indeed, this myth of “purchasing power” and “voting with our dollar” operates well within the present political-economic order of capitalism, which by definition seeks to commodify anything and everything it can get its hands on – living or inanimate.  Without understanding the integral role that capitalism plays in destroying the environment and all of its inhabitants by reducing them to their imposed economic value in the name of unceasing profit accumulation, animal activists will continue to employ strategies that – by focusing on increasing demand for vegan products – ultimately result in the increased oppression of animals, both human and other.

Atlas and Gelderloos provide two rhetorical examples of what the future might entail if we merely replaced animal-based production with a vegan market, without challenging the violent logic of capitalism:

“What if everyone or nearly everyone in wealthy countries adopted a vegan diet? The meat industry would collapse, but other industries and capitalism as a whole would continue, leaving us with the contradiction of a vegan society liberating animals in the limited sense understood by the critique of factory farming, but destroying the environment nonetheless, and all the animals with it” (Gelderloos).

“…a world without slaughterhouses could still be a colonialist one, engaging in excessive consumerism that destroys the lives of non-captive animals through habitat destruction and pollution and other forms of environmental devastation” (qtd. Atlas in Hochschartner).

Assuming the truth of these future scenarios (and I am), then vegan consumerism upholds both a capitalist system that oppresses all but the rich white males who operate within it, and the very speciesism that the logic behind vegan consumerism aims to target. Indeed, if we understand speciesism as “the idea that human beings are superior to all of the other beings on earth, and that this superiority grants us a natural right to make use of the other beings however we like” (qtd. Sanbonmatsu in Rodriguez), then these projected realities suggest that vegan consumerism proves an ultimately speciesist project. By refusing to adopt a stance of radical humility needed to truly see beyond the violent frameworks most easily accessible to those of us with any sorts of privileges, vegan consumerism fails to challenge the internalized superiority held by humans over animals (speciesism), colonizers over colonized (colonialism), Westerners over “traditional” societies (imperialism), owners over consumers (capitalism), and the like.

A significant manifestation of the specifically speciesist form of this internalized superiority is vegan consumerism’s re-centering of the human experience; in other words, vegan consumerism becomes a project to benefit humans who eat a vegan diet rather than other animals oppressed by speciesism, and thereby proves completely ineffective in manifesting a world in which humans no longer view other animals (including other human animals) as commodities for our use. Kelly Atlas of the fantastic anti-speciesist organization Direct Action Everywhere explains that actively advocating for humans to engage in vegan consumer behavior – i.e., to demand vegan products over animals products, and to encourage others to do the same – focuses attention on the comfort and convenience of humans, while upholding a framing of other animals as commodities (undesirable ones, but still…).

So what would a humble, animal-centric, anarchistic veganism look like? Existing scholarship suggests that, rather than revolving around consumption, veganism should commit to combating the deeply embedded ideology of speciesism, as well as all other violent ideologies perpetuated by dominant logics (such as capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy). I’d like to quote directly from anti-speciesist activists in providing an outline for how to begin conceptualizing this radical veganism.

Ida Hammer calls veganism a “revolutionary theoretical praxis […] that views the abolition of animal exploitation as part of a wider struggle for social justice” (qtd. in Adamas).

Kelly Atlas asserts that vegans “should focus our efforts on creating a culture that values non-discriminatory empathy, not on trying to sell [vegan] products of the consumerist (self-interested) machine.”

Steve Best notes that radical veganism – challenging vegan consumers’ common assertion that “going vegan is so easy!” – proves incredibly difficult, since it “seeks radical social transformation at the institutional level, rather than a lifestyle with occasional and perfunctory efforts at ‘education.'”

For John Sanbonmatsu, “what is at stake is not simply a set of eating guidelines, but a total critique of society – of a way of life that has become inimical to life” (qtd. in Rodriguez).

Though I certainly don’t consider myself an anti-speciesist scholar like those I’ve quoted here, I conceptualize my own veganism as one among many attempts to question the default ideologies – in this case, speciesism – under which I’ve operated since childhood, and that infringe upon my ability to coexist with others.

All of this is not to invalidate vegan consumption, which is distinct from vegan consumerism in that the latter promotes capitalism by actively advocating for an increased demand of vegan products. Vegan consumption, on the other hand, sees itself as an extension of anti-speciesist politics – a means rather than an end. As Gelderloos notes, “some people find it emotionally easier or more sensible to struggle for animal liberation if nothing they eat once had a face; some people do not want to put anything in their bodies that lived a tortured life, and veganism serves as an effective psychological barrier against some of the worst atrocities of capitalism, even if practically speaking it makes no difference in ending those atrocities or one’s material connection to them.”

We cannot continue to assume that anti-speciesist politics automatically follow vegan consumption practices. Instead, in order to hope for true collective liberation for all beings, we must regard our vegan consumption as a secondary manifestation of our anti-speciesist politics – politics that must include an analysis of capitalism, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and other oppressive dominant ideologies.


BIBLIOGRAPHY
Adamas. “A Critique of Consumption-Centered Veganism.” H.E.A.L.T.H: Humans, Earth, and Animals Living Together Harmoniously. 3 June 2011. H.E.A.L.T.H. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Atlas, Kelly. “Challenging Our Own Status Quo.” Direct Action Everywhere. Direct Action Everywhere. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
–. “How the ‘Go Vegan’ Message Perpetuates the Objectification of Nonhumans.” Direct Action Everywhere. December 2013. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
–. “Intrinsically Moved: The Main Reason Consumerist Advocacy Is the Wrong Approach.” Direct Action Everywhere. April 2014. Direct Action Everywhere. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Best, Dr. Steve. “The Degeneration of Veganism: From Politics, Science, and Ethics to Lifestyle Consumerism, Fundamentalism, and Religion.” 14 Sept. 2011. Dr. Steve Best. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Corman, Lauren. “Capitalism, Veganism, and the Animal Industrial Complex.” Species and Class. 6 Oct. 2014. Species and Class. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Direct Action Everywhere. “Reflections on Consumer Boycotts.” Direct Action Everywhere. November 2013. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
–. “Tension and Vegan Consumerism.” Direct Action Everywhere. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
–. “Veganism: Panacea or Pitfall?” Direct Action Everywhere. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Gauguin, Percy. “Communism as Veganism.” Species and Class. 23 Aug. 2014. Species and Class. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Gelderloos, Peter. “Veganism Is a Consumer Activity.” The Anarchist Library. 2008. The Anarchist Library. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
–. “Veganism: Why Not.” The Anarchist Library. 2011. The Anarchist Library. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Green, Chad. “Total Liberation: A Call for Direct Action, Radical Veganism, and Anarchy.” Vegan Warfare. 13 May 2013. Vegan Warfare. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Hochschartner, Jon. “DxE’s Kelly Atlas Talks Anarchism.” Species and Class. 17 Oct. 2014. Species and Class. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Hsiung, Wayne. “Buying Our Movement.” Direct Action Everywhere. November 2013. Direct Action Everywhere. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Rodriguez, Sartya. “Interview with John Sanbonmatsu, Associate Professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.” Direct Action Everywhere. Direct Action Everywhere. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
Wrenn, Corey Lee. “Why I am No Longer an Animal Rights Activist.” The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. 17 Dec. 2014. The Academic Abolitionist Vegan. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.
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