Photo Credit: Lynda Bell
Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits (University of Michigan Press 2019) is the culmination of ten years of research covering four decades of Nonhuman Animal rights claimsmaking produced by grassroots, transitioning, and professionalized organizations. In general, I was interested in unpacking the influence of nonprofitization on social movements. As organizations professionalize, their claimsmaking deradicalizes considerably (for instance, they will avoid using the words ‘vegan’ or ‘liberation’ and shift towards ‘veg’ language and welfare reforms). More than this, they begin to utilize the power coalesced from this compromise to stifle the voices of radicals on the margins. This is a significant power dynamic in the movement which should be fully appreciated for its impact on goals, tactics, and outcomes.
I actually began my interest in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement as an activist. As I learned more about theory and began to move toward more radical activist strategies (such as feminism, abolitionism, and no kill), the level of resistance I experienced in the movement was quite striking. I was also taken aback by how uncritically most activists accepted the gospel of large nonprofits. I recognized that factionalism between different camps as well as the pressure enacted on all camps by the large nonprofits were two major influences on the movement’s trajectory, yet they have been largely understudied. For the most part, activists chalk this division up to interpersonal issues or individual organizations. As a sociologist, however, I recognized that there were structural issues at play that needed to be unpacked.
The bulk of my research was conducted in the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive in the North Carolina State University library. It was a purposive sampling in which I tracked organizations and collectives surviving from the 1980s or 1990s, looking specifically for clues as to how professionalization impacted claimsmaking. I spent hours sifting through hundreds of magazines, newsletters, correspondence, and the like, taking pictures with a digital camera to organize and analyse when I returned back to home. Since most communication now takes place on the internet, I also conducted a secondary content analysis of blogs and newsletters from the early 2000s onward. The most challenging aspect had to be the sheer volume of material and organizations from which to choose—it was an ambitious project to say the least. However, it is only with a longitudinal analysis of this kind that we can identify major trends in movement behaviors.
All social movements are factionalized, and this factionalism has been critiqued by some scholars as a drain on resources and solidarity, but, for the most part, this common variable is actually greatly overlooked in social movement theory. In this book, I argue that factionalism is not only normal for movements, but it can also be a healthy function. Factionalism can propel a movement forward in forcing dialogue related to tactics and goals. In the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, there are factional divides with regard to the appropriateness of direct action, reform and abolition, feminism, and the ethics of “euthanasia.” Unfortunately, those taking a radical position tend to be marginalized by larger nonprofits which form a hegemony in the movement and use that power and takent-for-granted authority to position radicals as unrealistic or dangerous. But, without factionalism (and without radicals), the RSPCA might still support hunting, we would not have the Humane Society of the United States (which is a splinter group which emerged over vivisection), and we would not have The Vegan Society (which is a splinter group from The Vegetarian Society). I would imagine, contemporary factionalism will, in the future, be credited for positioning veganism, adoption, nonviolence, and intersectionality/inclusivity as baselines for anti-speciesist activism.
It is highly unlikely that factionalism can ever be overcome, and, for that matter, I argue that it should be embraced. Activists often bemoan the infighting and plead for unity, but Piecemeal Protest demonstrates that unity is unrealistic and often code for obedience to hegemonic forces in the movement. For instance, who should be uniting with who? Should we unite with organizations that lethally inject or gas healthy dogs and cats? Should we unite with organizations, like the HSUS or Farm Sanctuary, which propose that it is acceptable to use and consume Nonhuman Animals (as long as this is done “humanely”)? Should we unite with organizations promoting reducitarianism over veganism and reform over abolition? I don’t think so. Rarely are the large nonprofits asked to unite with the radicals who are more likely to advocate for the real interests of Nonhuman Animals (which is the right to life and freedom from human oppression). Unity claimsmaking is usually engaged by the nonprofit hegemonic bloc to reign in deviant factions and shame them for engaging critique. When the lives of so many Nonhuman Animals are on the line, that critique is truly vital and should not be silenced.
I hope the book will remind activists that factionalism isn’t about interpersonal disagreement, but something structural. Factionalism has existed in the movement since its very inception—in fact, early meeting notes from the 1820s document disagreement over tactics and goals! However, with the professionalization of the movement in the 1980s-2000, factionalism really exploded as a result of the many compromises the nonprofits were undertaking in order to access more legitimacy with the state, funding, and power. It isn’t just that “we can’t all get along,” but instead, there are larger political and economic influences on social movements which leave them vulnerable to state and capitalist infiltration. Radical splinter groups predictably emerge to challenge this process, while radical groups themselves, are vulnerable to the temptation to professionalize in an effort to secure much needed funding, legitimacy, and stability.
The Vegan Society is a great example of this—it began as a very radical, very resource-poor group in the 1940s after several decades of discord with The Vegetarian Society. It struggled to survive throughout the 20th century, but following gradual steps toward professionalization from 1980 onward (whereby organizers from other nonprofits took over leadership of the society and strategically worked to professionalize it), the hardcore anti-speciesist roots to the group gradually decayed. Today, the organization focuses on product consumption and environmentalism. I just received the newest issue of The Vegan, for instance, and there wasn’t a single Nonhuman Animal pictured! Nonhuman Animals, thanks to the pressures of professionalization, have now become absent referents in The Vegan Society. This I find to be truly remarkable. Yes, this professionalization has allowed it to grow and stabilize, but who can Nonhuman Animals rely upon if even The Vegan Society has abandoned them in its claimsmaking?
Activists are better served in recognizing factionalism as a vital and fundamental part of organizing. I also want them to recognize that radicals aren’t simply on the margins because their ideas are somehow less practical or realistic, but more accurately, they are marginalized because they are more threatening to the established social order. The state relies on nonprofits to actively squash out radicals; nonprofits do the policing of their own movement. Beyond this state influence, the nonprofit system itself (as evidenced in the story of The Vegan Society) is an extension of capitalism, such that activists and organizations are in real danger of being swept in and commodified. Indeed, the charity sector is one of the largest economic sectors in the world. Social movements are good for business, and this should be cause for concern given that capitalism is the root cause of the inequality we are battling.
What surprised me from this research was just how dramatic nonprofitization was for the claimsmaking of an organization; it was just night and day for some of them. Compassion Over Killing, for instance, a DC based group which started as from a student collective, went from being very radical with an explicit ethos of veganism, direct action, and abolition over reform. After professionalizing, COK replaced its vegan language with “veg” language, changed its newsletter title from The Abolitionist to Compassionate Action, and dropped its abolitionist mission statement which clearly rejected reform to one that clearly embraced it! COK, of course, grew considerably in size and wealth following this shift, but at what cost to the movement’s integrity and our obligation to Nonhuman Animals?
The other shocking bit was how silent most organizations were on this transition. It was as though the bid to get larger, glossier, wealthier, and more corporate was simply expected—and likely, this emerged from the economic logic of growth we’ve all been socialized by in a capitalist society. More sinister, however, was the quiet work behind the scenes to silence and marginalize radicals, such is the case with Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) which hosts the annual National Animal Rights Conference. FARM has, in its requirements for conference participation, a ban on criticizing other organizations (a means to maintain the nonprofit hegemony). But the criticism of organizational compromise is the modus operandi for radicals, such that the no-criticism rule effectively prohibits radical participation. In the past, FARM has also sought to invisibilize factionalism—claiming it doesn’t exist in newsletters when it clearly was reaching crisis levels (as was the case in 1996). More recently, it has co-opted feminist tactics for inclusion by using a so-called “safe space policy” to justify radical exclusion at the conference (claiming that, for instance, Nathan Winograd—leader of the National No Kill Center—would be in violation as his work is critical of PETA’s kill policy). I don’t think many activists recognize how very powerful these organizations have become by cooperating with the state and how the state’s interests infiltrate through non-profit channels. Conferences are important spaces for reaching the major decision-makers in the movement and giving platform to various ideas—radicals truly suffer from exclusion. Some have attempted to create their own conferences, but, obviously, the reach and impact of these splinter conferences are much less.
Are we closer to a vegan world today because of professionalization or in spite of it? I feel it is the latter. Radicals, although greatly burdened by two fronts of activism (the public and the big nonprofits) are able to influence movement dialogue, inspire the public, and create important shifts in cultural meaning. The internet has been one important means for levelling the playing field in discourse politics—official newsletters and conferences may silence radicals, but nonprofits are not able to prevent activist attraction to podcasts, websites, social media, and other digital channels where critical discourse thrives. This has forced some nonprofits to acknowledge factional critique and, in some cases, alter organizational practices. I find it frustrating that radicals are facing active marginalization from their own movement, but it is heartening that their efforts are having an impact on the nonprofits to some extent. Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), for instance, is now far more radical in its claimsmaking than it once was. Even the name indicates this, as it was once called Farm Animal Reform Movement!
Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.
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