Tag Archives: Non-Profit Industrial Complex

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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The Politics of the Pure Vegan Myth

Veganism as a Symbol

Social movements are not only concerned with identifying a social problem and prescribing solutions, but also with maintaining boundaries. Movements must delineate themselves from the mainstream that has been identified as problematic, but they must avoid constructing boundaries that are so rigid that they deter potential recruits and allies. Social movement theorist James Jasper refers to this balancing act as the “Janus Dilemma” as movements must be simultaneously inwardly and outwardly oriented. As a movement grows, differences inevitably arise in how problems should be defined and how best to solve them. Factions emerge as a result, and bring with them a new set of boundaries that activists must negotiate.

In my research of factionalism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I have identified a number of symbols that are heavily politicized and contested in the social movement space. Symbols are ammunition in the crossfire between competing groups as they seek to define, protect, and breach boundaries. Veganism is one of the most vulnerable concepts in this intramovement battle for jurisdiction. What does it mean to be vegan? How important is veganism? Who is really a vegan, and who is not?

“Pure” Veganism

What I have found is that professionalized organizations expend considerable effort in denouncing veganism, what they generally refer to as a practice of “purity.” Oftentimes, they will frame this in individualist and ableist terms, describing “pure vegans” as “obsessive,” “angry,” or “self-absorbed.” Out of tune with reality, these “pure vegans” are alien from the more “practical” activist majority. As an alternative, large nonprofits advocate a variety of carnivorous diets that arbitrarily omit various animal bodies or products (vegeterianism, pescatarianism, veg*anism, plant-based, veggie, etc.).

Radical collectives are thus portrayed as unrealistic and self-righteous by contrast. Their relative powerlessness in the social movement space inhibits their ability to challenge the denigration of veganism or to defend their continued promotion of it.

Sociological thought acknowledges that social meanings do not necessarily correlate with objective reality. Instead, meaning is political in that it is constructed to serve particular interests. In this particular case, “vegan purity” is a a myth. It is not grounded in the daily reality of vegan life. The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Notice that this definition emphasizes exclusion of animal products as far as is possible and practicable. No practicing vegan actually believes that purity is achievable. Most vegans take medicine, drive cars, use computers, eat vegetables grown in animal waste, or shop in nonvegan grocery stores. Because speciesism is systemic, a human cannot exist in this society without indirectly benefiting from nonhuman oppression (this is the same reason why all whites who live in a white supremacy are “racist” even if they actively reject racism).

Nonprofit and Radical Applications

If real-world vegans recognize these common sense limitations, then where does the pure vegan myth come from? My research supports that the myth is constructed to invisibilize radical discourse that threatens hegemonic power structures in the movement. As an organization abandons the grassroots model in favor of professionalization, it turns on veganism by reframing it as impractical. In short, veganism interferes with access to grants. Even organizations that avidly touted the importance of veganism as a grassroots group would come to view it as a matter of “personal purity” after incorporating as a nonprofit and becoming dependent on fundraising.

Nonprofits are not the only players. I have sometimes observed radical activists feign an adherence to impossibly pure veganism. Among radicals, the pure vegan myth is employed most frequently to advance one’s own status or to undermine that of others. Purity is employed not to advocate for the interests of animals, but to protect boundaries and subdue contenders.

For instance, an American vegan society not long ago recommended Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in its vegan starter guide, innocently unaware that most commercial cereal products are fortified with vitamins sourced from animal bodies. A fact of vegan life is that “going vegan” is a lifelong process. Nonhuman oppression is so thoroughly saturated in our social worlds, we must be diligent in checking ingredients and challenging habitual consumer trust. It was an honest mistake and a real a shame, too, since corn flakes were invented in the 19th century to transition flesh-eaters into vegetarianism. The offending organization was roundly criticized for the accident by other radical collectives, but the assault had nothing to do with Nonhuman Animals, and everything to do with destroying the organization’s legitimacy as a contender in the radical space.

Veganism is not just a strategy for the emancipation of other animals, but a means of protecting jurisdiction. Professionalized organizations engage myths of vegan purity with hopes of appealing to elite-run foundations that are obviously less likely to award grants to nonprofits determined to undermine elite-run speciesist industries. Nonprofits thus distance themselves from radical collectives and their vegan agenda. As nonprofits trade ideals for resources, their power grows and reduces resources available for others. As a result, radicals disingenuously double down on the vegan myth in their struggle for survival in a movement that is increasingly dominated by large nonprofits.

 


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

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

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A Month of Vegan Research: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights

victorian-women-and-animal-activism

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


Diane Beers.  2006.  For the Prevention of Cruelty:  The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States.  Athens, OH:  Ohio University Press.

animal-rights-historyThere are several historical accounts of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement available, but this is perhaps the book I cite most frequently.  Beers’ exploration begins with the pre-World War II era where advocate organizations were (not unlike today) “predominantly white, male, urban elites led groups, while a middle- and upper-class constituency dominated by women supplied the rank and file” (8).  Before 1945, she reports, “most women asserted their voice through their impressive financial support and extensive volunteerism as members, not leaders” (9).

Many advocates were simultaneously involved in other social justice causes, with many from the ranks of abolitionists and suffragists.  Beers reports that England was several decades ahead of the United States in spearheading anti-speciesist efforts.  She cites America’s growing pains as one reason for the slow growth, but the abolitionist mobilization around the Civil War era did inspire an anti-slavery imagination.  Indeed, early  Nonhuman Animal activists relied heavily on slavery analogies.  “Back to the land” movements of the same era also inspired vegan ethics.

Humanitarian efforts of the Progressive era pushed for animal issues alongside other reform efforts.  Gender stereotypes and elitism continued to plague the movement, however, typing women as natural caregivers gave them the leverage to become active outside the home.  At this time, organizations were also under fire for their preference for conservative agendas.  Critics called these organizations a serious barrier to anti-speciesist progress.  Beers explains:

In part, evidence supported their charges.  As the national organization’s reputation and influence as apolitical insider spread, its policies increasingly reflected the interests of the opponents, and conventions increasingly ousted radical delegations.  Furthermore, industrialists generously funded the association, and that patronage created inherent limitations for campaign strategies and reforms.  More radical groups might simultaneously publish explicit exposés, prosecute companies for violations, admonish consumers for eating cruelly produced meat, and even endorse vegetarianism, but the AHA carefully avoided any tactics that would antagonize its proindustry beneficiaries.  (71)

Predictably, organizations defended this compromise as both a pragmatic necessity given political and economic realities and a benefit to the movement overall.   They also charged that abolitionist goals were utopian and only served to make the movement look fanatical, thus alienating the public. Sound familiar? Following World War II, the welfare movement and the animal rights movement had, for all intents and purposes, split ways.

This era also saw the rise in humane education, with activists hoping to reach young people with messages of social justice and compassion before they could be indoctrinated with the oppressive ideologies of the state. All was quiet on the animal rights front in the strained years surrounding World War I, but the movement grew alongside the growth of Nonhuman Animal exploitation following the war.  Post-war consumption practices made advocating concern for Nonhuman Animals especially difficult. Though successes were marginal, this period did pave the way for the radical activism of the post-1975 period.

Of course, the wave of social justice activism of the 1960s breathed new life into the movement:

Just as the abolition and suffrage movements of the nineteenth century created precedents for the ethical consideration of all creatures, the civil rights and feminist struggles of the late twentieth century blazed a trail of liberation ideology that animal defenders inevitably walked. (149)

A history of  moderate tactics in tandem with anti-communist sentiment would stifle radical advocacy to some extent, although key publications in anti-speciesism in the late 20th century would popularize the goal for liberating other animals.

 

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

 

Readers can learn more about the history of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement 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 16, 2013.

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A Month of Vegan Research: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation

pet-overpopulation

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


 

Nathan Winograd.  2007.  Redemption:  The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America.  Almaden Books.

winograd

I first learned of Nathan Winograd’s work from a Vegan Freaks Radio interview many years ago.  Like most, I had been indoctrinated with the “common sense” of “euthanasia.”  Too many dogs and cats, not enough homes, what else can be done?

Well, a lot, actually.  Redemption demonstrates that “overpopulation” is a misnomer.  The problem is not a lack of homes, the problem is shelter management.  Bureaucracy and out-dated procedures have created a pathway dependency. There is an ethos of, “This is how it has always been done; this is how it will continue to be done.” Change is perceived as “risky” or otherwise unattractive.

Winograd outlines a practical solution to “overpopulation,” including working to make shelters more inviting to the public (instead of sad houses of death that we all avoid because we don’t want to feel sad and guilty), lengthening hours of operation, emphasizing adoption, and coming up with creative solutions to overcrowding.

My own personal experiences with shelters exemplify this irrationality. One of my cats once went missing in Fort Collins, Colorado (one of the biggest cities in the state).  The shelter would not allow citizens to phone in to check to see if their companion was there and its online records were not kept up to date.  I had to get up very early before work and drive 30 minutes into the prairie to the outskirts of town, only to find out that the shelter didn’t open until 11 A.M. I had to drive 30 minutes back home, then repeat the procedure after work.

Having previously volunteered at the shelter, I also knew that unclaimed animals were put on the kill list after five days.

Redemption asks readers to consider how these structural issues could be altered for efficiency. Lives would be saved if this shelter was located where people could easily access it, accepted phone calls about missing animals, had an updated online listing, was open during regular hours, and housed animals long enough to give them a legitimate chance for rescue or adoption.

Redemption is an “Ah ha!” book the challenges speciesist ideologies that we’ve taken for granted as true and necessary.  For that matter, PETA can’t stand him, often labeling him a radical–so you know he must be on to something!  You can also sign up for his newsletter and follow him on Twitter and Facebook for more information.

 

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 25, 2013.

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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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A Month of Vegan Research: The Significance of Animal Suffering

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


 

Elizabeth DeCoux.  2009.  “Speaking for the Modern Prometheus:  The Significance of Animal Suffering to the Abolition Movement.”  Animal Law 16 (1):  9-64.

This Article reviews the theories and methods of Abolitionists and Welfarists and suggests one reason that they have failed to relieve animal suffering and death: Welfarists use the right tool in the service of the wrong goal; Abolitionists work toward the right goal but expressly decline to use the right tool. Specifically, Welfarists accurately portray the appalling conditions in which animals live and die, but they inaccurately claim that welfare measures can remedy those appalling conditions without any challenge to the property status of animals. Abolitionists correctly assert that the exploitation of animals must end, and they depict the astonishing rate at which animals are killed and eaten, but they typically spare their audience the unpleasant subject of animal suffering. The thesis of this Article is that the tide of animal suffering and death will turn only when Abolitionists employ the tool used to achieve social change throughout the history of the United States: accurately depicting the suffering of the oppressed, in image and narrative.

DeCoux’s article critiques the Nonhuman Animal rights movement as a failure, with vegan numbers stagnated because of our stubborn refusal to engage images of suffering.  She outlines a rich history of human abolitionist work that utilized suffering, which is not only extremely interesting but offers a learning experience for abolitionists still at work today.

sad-puppy

I respond to this article in my own publication, where I charge that anti-reform activists do indeed rely quite heavily on images of suffering.  The issue is that images of suffering have long been used as fundraising tools, prompting many activists to engage reasoned argument with hopes of highlighting a vegan anti-speciesist solution.

Audiences have been primed by decades of “humane”-centered welfare discourse. This has groomed concerned viewers to react to intense emotions by supporting reform, or more specifically, by financially supporting the organizations that exploit images of suffering.

The concern is that most of this fundraising is actually invested into organizational infrastructure and further fundraising, not Nonhuman Animal liberation. Furthermore, reform does nothing to challenge the systemic issue of speciesism; it only increases public comfort with speciesism and improves the image of exploitative industries.

 

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 11, 2013.

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You Won’t Believe This Shocking Whole Foods “Healthcare” Policy

Photo by Jay Janner

Photo by Jay Janner

Cooperation with speciesist industry is a primary tactic for professionalized organizations in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, despite its dangerous consequences for normalizing a post-speciesist ideology. This strategy concerns me as it normalizes capitalism, despite capitalism’s inherent need to exploit social inequality.

“Father” of Nonhuman Animal rights and elite philosopher Peter Singer supports this pro-capitalist route, insisting that those with the privilege to do so should financially support the world’s poor, generally by funneling wealth through carefully selected, elite-operated charities. From this perspective, it is not necessarily the unequal system that is the problem, but rather the failure for more privileged parties to take care of those underneath them.

Altruism and corporate success are fundamentally incongruent. Consider Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s 2009 editorial piece published in the Wall Street Journal warning of the perils of Obamacare (President Obama’s attempt to provide healthcare to the millions of Americans who were vulnerable and unprotected, myself included at the time). Mackey insists that each person is responsible for their own health, and placing this burden on corporations is inappropriate:

“Rather than increase government spending and control, we need to address the root causes of poor health. This begins with the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health.”

Not surprisingly Mackey’s prescription for personal responsibility and better health entails consuming more whole foods (conveniently on offer in his stores).

While activists believe that elites are the gatekeepers to to a more altruistic society, the pressures of capitalism will ensure that their cooperation with industry will entail serious compromise. Like many grocery chains, Whole Foods amassed its wealth through the exploitation of Nonhuman Animals, prison laborers, and immigrants producing product and the lower classes pushing the product on shop floors. What Mackey fails to acknowledge is that social services such as Obamacare are funded in part by corporations because it is considered a means of redistributing the wealth extracted through these inequalities.

Whole Foods Vegan
 
Mackey, like many wealthy elites, resent this government intervention, promoting instead a neo-paternalist charity system which would keep this redistribution process within in his control. In doing so, corporations are able to feed or starve particular programs or issues  according to the economic and political interests of the corporation.Revising tax laws, he insists, will, “make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance…” The celebration of individualistic solutions to social problems created by capitalism redirects blame to the most vulnerable in our society and absconds corporations of their responsibility to redistribute the wealth accrued through the exploitation of the vulnerable.

Mackey advocates “capitalism with a conscience,” supposing that a system built on inequality need not be devoid of altruism or compassion for others. But this conscience is conditional on the protection of a system of haves, have nots, and “personal responsibility” for successfully navigating a fundamentally unequal  society.

This is not a game that social justice movements ought to be playing. Capitalist corporations require exploitation and prioritize profit. This incompatibility with egalitarianism should be a warning to activists that corporations will hold very little genuine support for social justice. Indeed, when activists offer their movement’s seal of approval to these “conscientious capitalists” as the Nonhuman Animal rights movement frequently does, corporations such as Whole Foods will happily apply these commendations to their products. Undoubtedly, this will also justify dramatically increasing the profitability of their value-added products.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.Readers can learn more about the dangers of corporate welfare and pro-capitalist approaches to anti-speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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What’s Wrong with “Carnism”?

Sponge Bob Vegan

Many of my readers have asked over recent years why I do not support the rhetoric of “carnism.” The short answer is that it is speciesist.

In an interview with ARZone, Dr. Melanie Joy discusses her theory on carnism, which she defines as an invisible ideology of “meat”-eating (I place “meat” in quotations as it is a euphemism) that is (according to her website) “‘essentially’ the opposite of veganism” (I place “essentially” in quotations as I will show this not to be true).

One host asks Dr. Joy why she rejects the more logical and straight-forward concept of speciesism. Her reply was that speciesism is “too abstract” and “confusing,” but most people seem to “get” carnism.

This is where I have a problem.  Why the focus on flesh? To single out flesh as somehow more problematic is nonsensical. Instead, it becomes yet another campaign for reductionism/vegetarianism. Carnism obscures the importance of veganism and unnecessarily confuses anti-speciesist campaigning.

Dr. Joy insists that the term carnism actually entails all animal products. To the casual observer, however, this is not true. Having read her books, for that matter, I can attest that this hidden vegan meaning is never made clear. She even concedes in the ARZone interview that she rarely mentions “leather” or “wool.” Carnism also excludes vivisection, companion animals, and animals used in entertainment.

Following up with this important oversight, the ARZone host asked if she believes that audiences exposed to carnism ideology were “getting it” or if they were finding themselves “confused.” Dr. Joy  clarified that she’s had no problem with confusion at all; most people do indeed “get it.” Of course, we would not expect many authors promoting their work to suggest that it left readers or listeners confused! But aside from the leading question–Dr. Joy isn’t really pushing us to consider anti-speciesism or veganism, so there isn’t much to get confused about. Vegetarianism as a concept has been largely accepted in our culture for some years now. She’s not proposing anything radical or new.

The real intention of carnism lies in its ability to sell.

At the time of the ARZone interview and the publication of her second book, Joy had recently launched the Carnism Awareness and Action Network. As with dozens of other reform-focused organizations, CAAN does not explicitly promote veganism, but instead promotes arbitrarily defined reductionism. It’s all about the meat.

Most importantly, CAAN’s website also loudly displays “DONATE” buttons.

Clear anti-speciesist messages discourage donations, and large non-profits are wary of this. As organizations professionalize, they compromise. This is a pattern that surfaced in my dissertation research spanning the late 20th and early 21st century of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. When an organization professionalizes, donations become key to its survival. Carnism language helps CAAN to stand out in the crowded social movement space. It also makes it more appealing to elite donors when that nasty, offensive “vegan” language is carefully tempered, obscured, or erased entirely.

Joy’s argument is that the carnism schema simplifies an overly complicated concept (that we shouldn’t hurt others). She insists that speciesism (the correlative to racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and ethnocentrism) is just too confusing. But rarely (if ever) does she herself make a clear case for veganism in her writing or campaigning. Also troubling is she never clearly states why exploiting species, such as cats, elephants, and dolphins, that are not used for food is problematic. Nor does she make it clear that exploiting Nonhuman Animals for their skin, milk, or eggs is inherently linked to the flesh consumption that carnism highlights.

Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants inhaling an endless stream of Crabby Patties
Again, the misleading nature of carnism ideology is intentional, as further evidenced in Joy’s essay titled, “Our Voices, Our Movement: How Vegans Can Move Beyond the ‘Welfare-Abolition Debate’.” This essay published with One Green Planet at the time of the ARZone interview and CAAN’s launch, and it seeks to downplay the importance of the growing divide between “abolitionist” veganism and reductionist/reformist non-vegan approaches. Washing over factional divides in the movement is critical for non-profits, as acknowledging them would mean legitimizing pundit concerns about the non-profit structure itself. Acknowledging them would certainly undermine Dr. Joy’s superfluous theory on carnism as well.

Like many non-profit leaders,  Dr. Joy ardently defends counterproductive and ultimately speciesist tactics of reform and vegan-bashing.  Her suggestion for “moving beyond” the debate is simply that anti-reformist vegans cease their claimsmaking and join the status quo (“our voices, our movement”). Carnism works to invisibilize veganism as a rhetorical matter, but also as a political one.

This essay is not intended to character attack Dr. Joy. Her approach to anti-speciesism is a common one–it is part of a larger system of pro-capitalist non-profiteering which stagnates social change, despite the good intentions of its participants. While her approach to social change is deeply flawed, her social psychological work on how humans and societies interact with and understand other animals is very approachable. I have even assigned it to my students in the past.

That said, carnism has got to go. Joy insists that we must understand carnism in order to understand the mental blocks preventing liberation. However, caring about Nonhuman Animal suffering while simultaneously participating in their exploitation doesn’t need yet another label. In social psychology, it’s called “cognitive dissonance,” and it is a result of oppression generally speaking, and speciesism specifically. That’s the language the social justice community understands, but a new label for an old idea makes for jazzy grant proposals. That’s the bottom line.

 

If you enjoyed this essay, these ideas and more are explored in my book, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights (Palgrave 2016).

 


A version of this essay was originally published on December 9, 2012 on The Examiner.
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