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Peter Singer and the Charity of Western Imperialism

Covert Capitalism and Western Benevolence

A current fad in social justice strategy is the concept of “effective altruism,” made popular in vegan circles by wealthy Princeton University professor and “father” of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, Peter Singer. Singer is involved in a number of outreach efforts designed to rationalize charity, notably “The Life You Can Save” giving project. Effective altruists (who tend to be monied, Western whites) first choose what they believe to be the best and most effective charities in collaboration with nonprofit strategists, and then encourage others to rationally share their wealth by donating to them. By “taking the pledge” to donate a certain percentage of income to charity, those with the means to do so can supposedly alleviate the world’s woes.

This essay argues that, while important, aid is not the answer to injustice.  This position is primarily based on the fact that aid has had a long sordid history in third world countries. Western elites usually only give aid to countries if there is an expectation of a return on their investment, such as creating a dependency on Western products, locking them under Western control with debt, and pressuring them to “free” their markets to Western capital. Some of the disastrous results have included forced sterilization projects, the spread of Western diseases of affluence, the infiltration of polluting and unsustainable industries, the destruction of traditional foodways, and a dependence on the West in general.  In short, aid has been a project of Western imperialism.

Effective For Who?

The fundamental problem with the concept of effective altruism is that it is predicated on elite-designed algorithms and the preferences of capitalists. In other words, how problems are identified, defined, and solved is left up to the very class of persons who benefit from the problems. Inevitably, some of the most vulnerable groups will be overlooked. For instance, Singer’s choice charities are problematic in that none, as of this writing, target Nonhuman Animals. If rational impact maximization truly shapes effective altruism, this omission is suspect. Not only do Nonhuman Animals lead in number of individuals impacted, but their suffering is directly linked to the suffering of humans and the environment.  Targeting the consumption of Nonhuman Animals (an activity that is especially linked to Western culture) would be the most utilitarian solution.

Singer does, however, support Project Healthy Children, a charity that pushes Western-approved foods on African children.  This includes cows’ milk, even though most Africans are lactose intolerant, milk is directly linked to a litany of deadly human diseases, milk production is notoriously destructive to the environment, and milk causes immense suffering for the cows and goats forced to produce it (see Greta Gaard’s research).

Effective altruism also overlooks serious structural problems that impede equality. Instead of demanding justice and disrupting the exploitative practices of corporations and the elites that manage them, it solicits a modest redistribution from a sympathetic few. Consider that Big Pharma could easily relieve victims of malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and other diseases ravaging the third world that effective altruists target.  Instead, the Western-led pharmaceutical industry inflates the prices of the drugs to many times the actual cost in regions where disease congregates.  It also heavily lobbies to protect “intellectual property” and prevent affordable generic alternatives from hitting the market. Introducing checks and balances into the structure of health and medicine could have monumentally positive impacts on the world’s poor, an impact that would far exceed the impact of donations.

Also suspect is Singer’s support for Population Services International, a charity designed to decrease the world’s population, or, more specifically, the population of third world countries. Anti-population groups are often responsible for forced and coerced sterilization projects on vulnerable women in poor regions of the world. Because poor people are a burden to the capitalist system,  “population control” in third world regions has become a top priority of Western governments and aid projects. Millions of women have been psychologically devastated, socially ostracized, violated, hurt, maimed, and killed due to these policies.

Most fundamentally, it is important to recognize that these large populations of poor and vulnerable persons do not emerge from happenstance; they are products of an exploitative global economic system. What Singer’s project overlooks is that the underlying problem here is not a lack of funds, it is the capitalist system that originates social inequalities and chronic destitution.  So long as this system remains in tact, there will always be need for charities and donations. And it will never be enough.

 

The NonProfit Industrial Complex

Lubricating this capitalist/charity system is the manifestation of the nonprofit regime. The nonprofitization of social change has positioned the state and the industries it serves in control over justice efforts, effectively nullifying radical liberatory politics. Notably, the public imagination for protest has been framed as deviant and replaced with the more rational, effective strategy of donating. This is decidedly a very pro-capitalist, neoliberal solution, but neoliberal capitalism has been identified as the root originator of inequality.


“Helping others” is just that: help, not structural change.  Nonprofits, unfortunately, cannot prioritize radical restructuring because such an agenda is off-putting to the conservative foundations that issue their grant money (these foundations were created by wealthy elites who profit from the exploitation of the very oppressed persons nonprofits purport to help). Corporations and the state benefit from radical disempowerment, because radical claimsmaking is a threat to the capitalist agenda.  It disrupts the status-quo that benefits the elite and naturalizes the suffering of the oppressed.

Instead, nonprofits are in the business of social services, doing the work that is made necessary by the capitalist exploitation that the state facilitates but does not “pay” for itself.  Big industries become big by exploiting the poor and benefiting from state allocations. It becomes the responsibility of well-to-do altruists to relieve those damages when the state will not (or cannot). Of course, not everyone can afford to participate in this variation of social change work. As such, with the public convinced that financial participation is the only legitimate means of helping others, they become disempowered. Nonprofits find little use for the time, services, creativity, organizational skills, or leadership that public volunteers can offer. Primarily, they simply desire regular donations.

Furthermore, nonprofits are disproportionately staffed by wealthy, white educated men who invariably harbor privileged worldviews, and this will shape how they frame social problems and their solutions. By allocating charity work to nonprofits, the public forfeits control over social change to elites. This situation is likely to foster considerable bias.

 

Radicalize Your Giving

Donation is not completely useless, as some money does reach communities that can benefit considerably from it. However, for those who are determined to donate (and have the means to do so), it may be advisable to donate to grassroots efforts in areas of need. In doing so, money is placed directly into the hands of those who need it, not nonprofits that must accommodate the interests of elites.

Social change requires the collective effort of thousands, even millions of people. Not all will have the means to donate financially.  When social change is reduced to a series of financial transactions, its tie to social change weakens, but its tie to capitalist expansion is emboldened. Capitalism is full of holes that are regularly plugged with charity and other bailouts. As such, effective altruism is actually rather irrational in sustaining an economic system that necessitates inequality.

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on December 20, 2013.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the capitalist politics of Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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A Month of Vegan Research: The Political Economy of Animal Rights

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The following literature review is part of a series for World Vegan Month. Other essays can be accessed by visiting the essays catalog.


 

Bob Torres.  2006.  Making a Killing:  The Political Economy of Animal Rights.  Oakland, CA:  AK Press.

making-a-killingRemember Vegan Freak Radio?  Today’s vegan research is a publication by VFR host, Bob Torres. Torres takes a sociological, anti-capitalist approach to problematize speciesism.  The first part of the book situates Nonhuman Animal exploitation in the Marxian critique of capitalism, that is, the labor of other animals is exploited and their bodies commoditized.

The real value in the piece is his placement of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement within capitalism.  Advocacy groups become rather cozy with exploitative industries as they professionalize. As a result, they begin to craft reforms and abandon liberatory goals. This is a relationship that is mutually beneficial for non-profits and industries, but does nothing for Nonhuman Animals.

Torres calls this the animal rights industrial complex and argues that activists cannot “buy the revolution.” That is, activists cannot simply “vote” vegan with their dollars, buying vegan products or donating to large charities, and expect to create the structural shift needed to eradicate the root of oppression.

For that matter, Torres challenges the ideological control these large organizations have over “common sense” advocacy. Rather than determining if strategies are beneficial to Nonhuman Animals, the movement tends to judge their utility based on their ability to fundraise. Successful fundraising keeps organizations in business, but it is not likely to liberate, as it requires a substantial compromising of our values and goals. Torres takes an anarchist approach, insisting that an egalitarian social structure which does not delegate rule to a few privileged elites will be essential to achieving true liberation.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about the Nonhuman Animal rights industrial complex and its consequences for anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 28, 2013.

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Selling Cancer to Beat Cancer? When Nonvegan Foods Go Pink for Profit

Yoplait Breast Cancer Campaign logoVegan theory acknowledges not only the systematic violence imposed on vulnerable Nonhuman Animals, but also the tendency for this oppression to intersect with the suffering of vulnerable humans. One such instance occurs in the pink ribbon “find a cure” campaign.

There is a tendency for companies that peddle carcinogenic products to go pink to increase sales. Caring about cancer is commodified, with the well-being of both women and other animals undermined. For instance, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) was, at one time, donating proceeds from every bucket purchased of deep-fried chicken parts to fund cancer research. That is, KFC encouraged the consumption of chickens to fight cancer, although the consumption of these body parts are known to cause cancer.

In another example, dairy consumption is linked with increased breast cancer occurrence, recurrence, and mortality, but Yoplait brands its yogurt products as cancer friendly with its “Save Lids to Save Lives” marketing scheme:

The goal of Save Lids to Save Lives is to support the millions of people who have been impacted by breast cancer by raising awareness and funding to fight the disease.

If Yoplait’s goal really is to save lives (and not to bandwagon on a serious disease to profit from public fear and sympathy), then Yoplait might consider changing out its animal ingredients.

Instead, Yoplait works to make their carcinogenic product “synonymous” with fighting cancer:

For many, Yoplait has become as synonymous with breast cancer research as we are with yogurt. We are proud that over the last 15 years, our commitment to the cause has resulted in nearly $35 million from all our donation programs. Because of this, programs like Save Lids to Save Lives have given many women the support they need when they need it most. However, we can still do more.

I agree, we can still do more. How? First, there is a need to prioritize prevention over “cures.” Cure research is an extremely profitable enterprise, and for the amount of resources it entails, offers very few beneficial results. Much of this research is conducted through vivisection, a speciesist, archaic, and scientifically unsound approach (which also happens to be an extremely profitable enterprise).

Prevention programs require just a fraction of the billions expended on cure research. Importantly, these programs could aid vulnerable human demographics in avoiding suffering and death. They could also spare billions of Nonhuman Animals exploited to both create these dangerous products and test their toxicity.

Prioritizing cure research and trumpeting more consumption to support it is conducive to corporate interests, but a truly effective strategy for combating cancer would entail a focus on prevention. This must begin with structural support for food choices not shown to be carcinogenic (meaning there will be no place for fried chickens or dairy-based yogurt). For those who also wish to support cancer research, they might consider donating directly to animal-friendly cancer foundations, a much more efficient strategy than collecting yogurt lids.

 

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

 

Readers can learn more about the intersections of capitalism and speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


A version of this essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on March 20, 2013.

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Unnecessarily Gendered Vegan Food

50_50__5clam“Organic Girl Good Clean Greens,” because only women eat organic?

Perhaps because it challenges a controlling and hierarchical relationship with the environment, organic consumption and food products are often feminized. Men dominate the environment, force it to comply, and destroy threats to this control. Women harmonize with nature instead. Men need their meat, and are willing to hurt others to get it. Women, however, just eat salads, not unlike the vulnerable herbivores men desire for their dinner.

The emphasis on vulnerability is reinforced by referring to female consumers as “girls.” Infantalizing women with “girl” rhetoric is a common practice, one that disempowers women and reaffirms male dominance. Grown men are infrequently referred to as “boys,” with the important exception of African American men, who have historically been called “boys” by whites seeking to reinforce Black men’s relative powerlessness in a racial hierarchy.

Feminizing food has the potential to reinforce inequality. The process links plant-based eating with marginalized social groups, and stereotypes women as weak. Ironically, while consuming animal flesh is a privileged act as it rests on human supremacy and control over other animals, eating green is privileged as well, despite its bad rap. Plant-based foods promote health and longevity, but they are sometimes difficult to obtain given poor food accessibility in many parts of society. Eating “clean” and “green,” as this product champions, should be accessible to anyone, regardless of gender.

Why does food gendering happen? As with any product for sale, considerable resources are invested in its marketing. Nothing happens by accident in this process. Advertisers are aware that gendering products can increase the number of products a household must purchase (this item is for her, that item is for him), and the amount paid (products advertised for her tend to be marked up in price). Food and gender is “the perfect mix” for profit-minded corporations.

 

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the intersections of veganism and gender  in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on March 8, 2013.

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Rebuilding and Reusing Rescue Dogs

Rebuilding Dogs

Anti-speciesism theorist Norm Phelps once noted that cat and dog “overpopulation” is a product of capitalism. That is, human society breeds these animals as designer products for purchase. The capitalist system relies on constant production and consumption. Regular disposal to accommodate these requirements is the unfortunate consequence of a capitalist system working as it should be. “Shelters,” then, become the landfill at the end of this production line, artificially sustaining this ultimately unsustainable consumer system.

I have noticed that many well-meaning rescue programs designed to intervene in this system to save lives also run on some rather problematic pro-capitalist ideologies (the Australian show “Give a Dog a Home” is especially relevant here).

First, these are reform-focused social services, and thus do little to challenge the system as it is. The companion animal production line churns on, while rescuers at the end of the line scramble to save the discards.

Second, survivors are extremely vulnerable, as they are frequently valued primarily in their utility to humans. Take many rescue shows, for instance, which boast their ability to “rebuild” “discarded” animals who were “tossed on the scrap heap” and make them useful, working animals. They may be assigned as “truffle dogs,” personal assistants, or entertainers trained to perform demeaning tricks on command. All of this “work” is unpaid and forced without consent, of course.

These survivors are framed as grateful to be both alive and “useful,” and no one questions the system that created their violent circumstances in the first place. Nor can anyone seem to imagine a future where other animals have a right to life independent of human wants. In this way, rescue animals remain products in a pro-capitalist system. To me, these programs are disturbingly similar to “trash-to-treasure” home makeover shows.

Why not allow cats and dogs to exist (in the words of animal law scholar Lee hall) on their own terms? Only in a capitalist society is one’s right to exist wholly dependent upon one’s productivity in the economy. This is a fundamentally problematic and unjust approach. Switching out designer dogs for “shabby chic” mutts and reject pure-breds who have been successfully “retrained” supports a post-speciesist ideology. Our goal should not be to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” Nonhuman Animals, but rather to liberate them from systems of human oppression.

 


 

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What is Post-Speciesism?

Goat in a grassy meadow, "Atlantic Happy Hogs" brand

Photo from Atlantic Hogs, a “free range” institution in Ireland

 

Speciesism  is institutional discrimination and, to a lesser extent, individual prejudice against Nonhuman Animals based on their species. Speciesism is violence against Nonhuman Animals that is perpetuated by the privileged human species,1 usually for the benefit of humans. It is conducted based on the belief that nonhuman species are lesser in some way. Speciesism relies on the understanding that there is an “us” and a “them,” that humans are at the top, and other animals are below.2

Post-speciesism is an ideology which suggests that species does not matter and/or that speciesism is either a thing of the past or that it is currently being adequately attended to. Post-speciesism relies on the belief that we are “all one” and that we all have an equal place on earth or in the “circle of life.” Violence against other animals continues on to the benefit of humans, but this is no longer interpreted as a form of oppression or domination. In other words, differences in life opportunity that are based on species identification are erased from the narrative.

This erasure is essential to upholding oppression in a society where social justice ideology has been gaining momentum. For instance, Ireland’s commitment to a “green” economy commodifies humanity’s concern with speciesism, rebrands speciesist institutions, and sells essentially the same products for a much higher price because humans are paying for the symbolic value that has been attributed by post-speciesism. “Humane” labeling is the Nike swoosh that differentiates one t-shirt or tennis shoe from the next and justifies the higher price. These labels denote quality and rely on consumer trust to extort the higher price. Post-speciesist ideology facilitates this trust.

Top image shows a skewered pig's corpse charred and sliced, while bottom image shows a happy piglet in clover. Reads, "Atlantic Spit: Amazing Taste for Exciting Part. Our mission is to breed and produce happy animals that will be mouth watering, when they reach they table..."

Atlantic Hogs advertisement in Galway, Ireland

 

Post-speciesism obscures systems of oppression and relationships of domination. It makes human supremacy invisible. It allows a smiling piglet like the one above to be juxtaposed with a burned and bloodied dismembered corpse dripping body fluids and then interpreted as “mouth watering” for an “exciting party.” Species doesn’t matter here: we’re all happy. This isn’t like the old days of speciesism where violence was out, open, and celebrated. In the post-speciesist world, hurting other animals is a thing of the past because these are “happy animals” and the party is exciting.3

This post-speciesist rebranding helps speciesist industries to stand out in a heavily competitive marketplace. As with all capitalist endeavors, ideologies are necessary to obscure exploitation, to make consumption pleasurable, and to encourage the fetishization of the product.

This fetishization process is especially poignant in LUSH Cosmetic’s consumer base. While the company relies heavily on the exploitation of Nonhuman Animals in its mostly non-vegan product line, it appeals to post-speciesist ideology to stand out among the thousands of bath & body chains and create a strong customer loyalty. For instance, LUSH enjoys a faithful following from the majority of the vegan community and even funds some advocacy projects, despite its continued commitment to violence against animals. Post-speciesism thus becomes a diversion.

Screen capture of LUSH's online statement about their "Fresh Organic Free Range Eggs"

 

Consider Lush’s ingredient description for eggs:

Our organic free range eggs come from a farm that’s around 50 miles away from Lush headquarters in Poole. The farmers adhere to strict organic animal welfare standards, so the chickens are well looked after and are given plenty of space to roam outside. They eat quality organic food and are happy and stress-free in their sheds. These are the high standards of care that we expect, and demand, when animals are making such an important contribution to our products.

Notice that the inherent violence of domestication is obscured from the narrative, as is the fate of male chicks who will be killed as part of the process of egg production. The hens are also framed as consenting workers who “make contributions” to the corporation. Everyone is happy and has their place. No one is being hurt. Differences based on species identification are not relevant.

But we know that they are.

As with post-racism and post-feminism, post-speciesism is an ideology that obscures differences in experience based on identity and the very real and very violent consequences of those differences. In doing so, systems of oppression are also obscured to the benefit of society’s most privileged. Post-speciesism, as with many ideologies, is also integral to the smooth operation of the capitalist system, the system from which all oppression originates.

 

This essay was originally published on July 29th, 2015 on The Academic Activist Vegan.

 


Notes

1. Violence here is used interchangeably with oppression. Practically all human uses of other animals involve violence. Importantly, domestication itself is an act of violence. This violence can also be indirect, such as human-created pollution and ecological destruction that threaten free-living species.

2. Just as women can engage sexism against other women, Nonhuman Animals can engage speciesism against other Nonhuman Animals. Importantly, this discrimination must take place within the context of a human institution for the ultimate benefit of anthroparchy. For instance, horses and dogs are often used by humans to hurt or kill other animals and women are sometimes used by men to traffic prostituted girls and women or to produce or cast pornography. Otherwise, violence engaged by Nonhuman Animals exists as a strategy of survival. Nonhuman Animals that are biologically carnivorous would not be said to engage speciesism, as this is relegated to survival. The actions of lions, wolves, dolphins, etc. do not occur within institutions of speciesism as that of humans do. Nonhuman Animals that harm humans are not engaging speciesism for this same reason. 

3. Atlantic Hogs further facilitates this non-violent idyll by informing customers that veterinarians are present in the abattoir. Of course, veterinarians are associated with healing, nurturing, and life, which obscures the reality of suffering and violence that is taking place for human benefit.
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Professor Wrenn Interviewed by Feminist Magazine on KPFK radio 90.7 FM

Feminist Magazine

In an interview hosted by Cherise Charleswell and Valecia Phillips, I will be discussing my forthcoming book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory, as well as how veganism and the Nonhuman Animal rights movement falls into the scope of a feminist framework. Specifically I unpack the relevance of speciesism to feminism, the Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s problems with sexism and racism, and the corrupting effect that capitalism has on social justice efforts.

Feminist Magazine on KPFK is the weekly Southern California radio show of news, views, politics and culture with an intersectional feminist perspective.

You can access the stream by clicking here or pressing play below.

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Review in Between the Species

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My review of David Nibert’s Animal Oppression & Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict (Columbia University Press) has been published in Between the Species 18 (1): 112-115.

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