Rethinking the politics of animal liberation


It is clear to most reasonable people that apart from the Eternal Treblinka of non-human animals, other crises weigh heavy on our biosystem:

Anthropogenic climate change, deforestation, water loss and pollution, soil loss, the sixth great extinction crisis and the resultant threat to ecosystems stability, islands of plastic the size of small countries floating in the Pacific and Atlantic, seemingly perennial global conflict – nowadays most often in the pursuit of war industry profits ala Naomi Klein's disaster capitalism, or in order to maintain a state of exception whereby fundamental rights can be made null and void – the spread of dread illnesses, the poisoning of our food with toxic additives of all kinds, the invasion of the food supply by GMO's touted as panacea by hegemonic corporations...The list is long and it's all fueled by an out of control economy promulgating a deadly myth of infinite growth that is profoundly at odds with the reality of our finite planet.

How nice it would be if, in the face of all this, the most pressing task ahead of us was a roundtable discussion of the hermeneutics of the animal as it appears in the work of Jacques Derrida, or discerning traces of, or extrapolations to, an anti-speciesism in Giorgio Agamben or Donna Harraway, or extending various normative ethical and jurisprudential approaches beyond the usual human boundary, as though the associative weight of all these noble and satisfying academic pursuits would suffice to convince us and our peers so thoroughly of our convictions that the world would be impelled to change to meet the conclusions they draw.

Admittedly, the becoming-animal of the academy is somewhat heartening. Who, after all, could fail to be a little bit encouraged when hearing major philosophers like Derrida say the following:

Although I cannot demonstrate this here, I believe – and the stakes are becoming more and more urgent – that none of the conventionally accepted limits between the so-called human living being and the so-called animal one, none of the oppositions, none of the supposedly linear and indivisible boundaries, resist a rational deconstruction – whether we are talking about language, culture, social symbolic networks, technicity or work, even the relationship to death and to mourning, and even the prohibition against or avoidance of incest – so many ‘capacities’ of which the ‘animal’ (a general singular noun!) is said so dogmatically to be bereft, impoverished.
– Jacques Derrida

However, it does not seem at all clear to me that much of the work here offers us a particularly effective path towards resolution, or even praxis. The often superficial 'becoming animal' of the academy, with all its zoontologies, zoosemiotics, and so forth does not come close to a full practical engagement with any relevant issues; in many ways it is merely another instance of insular and distracting ludic transversality, the narcissistic shuffling around of pieces on a board that was warned of by over sixty years ago by Herman Hesse in Magister Ludi – The Glass Bead Game:

Castalia is a symbolic realm where all spiritual values are kept alive and present, specifically through the practices of the Glass Bead Game. It depicts a future society in which the realm of culture is set apart to pursue its splendid isolation.
– Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

It seems to me that, whether they emerge in the academy or in activist circles, many of our discussions unfold within, reinforce, and are thus captured by, a specific set of social and economic conditions, underpinned by values antithetical to the sustainable and consistent application of animal rights. Here's how Lewis Mumford, an early proto-anti-industrialist sees it:

The chief premise common to both technology and science is the notion that there are no desirable limits to the increase of knowledge, of material goods, of environmental control; that quantitative productivity is an end in itself, and that every means should be used to further expansion.
– Lewis Mumford

Total liberationist Dr Steve Best also describes the situation well:

The global capitalist world system is inherently destructive to people, animals, and nature. It is unsustainable and the bills for three centuries of industrialization are now due. It cannot be humanized, civilized, or made green-friendly, but rather must be transcended through revolution at all levels—economic, political, legal, cultural, technological, moral, and conceptual.
– Steve Best

Clearly these values and conditions threaten the entire context within which such rights could ever be afforded.

There are other aggravating factors:

The values capitalism inculcates – acquisitiveness, consumerist-utilitarianism, short-term-gain (not to forget the concomitant myth of the rational, isolated individual standing atop a world of resources external to herself and in contrast to which her subjectivity is constructed) – as well as the restrictive reinforcement provided by the State – a paternalistic authoritarian other that positions itself as the single legitimate recipient of our demands – channel ethical issues into highly limited statements of consumer intent directed to an ever-deferential and ultimately unaccountable so-called 'representative' body that forces us to enact all so-called 'resistance', all so-called 'direct action', as a set of performances that do little more than legitimate these same forces of oppression.

Our Cartesianism, our Enlightenment humanist myth of rational man caught up in an entirely anthropocentric teleological unfolding, also allows us to artificially separate the ethics we apply to a specific group from a full unfolding into other domains that appear within their scope; we see each of the 'causes' we affiliate ourselves with as an enclosed instance of consumerism, without allowing for the ethical values that lead us to those causes to illuminate the other causes those values should equally be applied to.

Let's now look at one of the clearest examples of this single cause exceptionalism: the radical approach of many animal activists to the animal rights cause and the way in which this radicalism is strongly contrasted – or even antithetical to – the approach these activists take when confronting ecological and human rights issues. Given the strong analogies animal activists are so fond of drawing – factory farms and the holocaust, or the anti-feminist pornography of meat, for example – this contrast is both stark and ironic.


Illegal action:

Given the rhetoric it generates, one would be forgiven for thinking that the animal rights movement was composed primarily of balaclava-clad members of the Animal Liberation Front. Folk heroes like Keith Mann, Ronnie Lee and Peter Young are the Facebook friends of many otherwise docile vegetarians. What is fascinating in this regard is not that this sentimental mass expresses adulation for midnight maneuvers in animal research laboratories and battery farms, that they live vicariously through them, but that they would likely balk at such activities were they undertaken in order to liberate innocent human beings. If political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Peltier or Marie Mason were liberated from prison by brave abolitionists, the likely response from the armchair ALF'ers would be, 'they should just let justice take its course. Vigilantism has no place in a decent society!'

If this is not yet clear, remind yourself of the common responses to human liberation actions undertaken by, for instance, desperate individuals in occupied Palestine against Israeli forces.

The rule is simple: when addressing animal issues, anti-authoritarian, illegal direct action is the preferred course of action, whereas when dealing with social or ecological issues, the radical choice is to vote for the democrats and get a WWF-linked credit card. Direct action that illegitimates the power of the state on one hand, and an appeal to legitimated hierarchies on other. It is worth noting in this regard that Ronnie Lee, the founder of the ALF, expressed strong anti-Statist leanings, and that many actual ALF'ers are anarchists.

Property damnage:

Property damage is okay when you're smashing up a vivisection lab, but not when you're a Greek protester whose country has been sold up the creek by Goldman Sachs in collusion with the IMF and your own government, and certainly not when you're a jobless protester in Orange Farm, South Africa, who takes to lining streets with flaming tyres and destroying police cars when your needs – the addressing of which is enshrined in your post-apartheid constitution – are consistently ignored by those in power (who are ostensibly too busy servicing their own 'needs'). We also defend – or even romanticise – the rampages of non-human animals placed in exploitative contexts like circuses or zoos. How then does it make sense to simultaneously vilify the direct and, yes, sometimes violent actions of oppressed and marginalised humans (oppressed no matter what capitalist rhetoric might have to say about their freedom)?

(If we take the words of David Barbarash, Former spokesman for the ALF to heart here, it does seem that at least some of those entering labs by cover of night have a useful analysis of property and systemic injustice:

“We're very dangerous philosophically. Part of the danger is that we don‘t buy into the illusion that property is worth more than life…we bring that insane priority into the light, which is something the system cannot survive.”)

Equality and intrinsic rights:

Animal rightists are also fond of using the language of equality and non-exploitation, of intrinsic rights, when challenging those who see the exploitation of non-human animals as legitimate given man's place at the very top of the hierarchy of objectified nature, yet fail to see how unlikely it is that people will be willing to, or even able to conceive of, extending these notions to other species when most of us continue to adhere to very similar entrenched hierarchies within the systems unique to just our own. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that these entrenched hierarchies – authoritarian Statism, patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity and cultural arrogance, to name a few – become the model, the structural 'diagram', that we generalize in all our other interactions with the natural world and its inhabitants. This view is perhaps best revealed through contrast with the surprisingly large crossover between feminism and veganism: the arguments and alternative values inherent in a full critique of patriarchy are almost identical to those that emerge within an honest consideration of non-human animal exploitation.

Domestication; theirs and ours:

We tend to use sympathetic constructions of animal others in order to domesticate them; it is not so much that we literally infantilise a subset of animal others with names and treats and comfy cushions but rather that we don't allow animality its full range of expression, its truly strange otherness. Hereby we also domesticate ourselves and suppress our own potential for strange otherness – by submitting the whole of the world to our closed-off, a priori notions of unitary subjectivity without allowing for ourselves to become in any way other through a sustained and open encounter with the world. The subject, the notion of self that is perpetuated in this manner, is the one constructed by capitalism, the one that must reduce and assimilate everything in the world to its own image through facile consumption.

But the world and its possible encounters are not exhausted by these 'consumer' relations.

The property status of animals, only animals:

Abolitionist animal rightists like Gary Francione and Tom Regan question the property status of animals by appeal to intrinsic rights, yet unless we also see how capitalism creates the very values that lead to such objectification in the first place, how we are fundamentally defined by our capacity to choose between consumer options, we have little hope of rescuing non-human animals from being anything more than quantifiable goods. The humaneness required here – a humaneness we're ironically most likely to demonstrate through the consumption of cause-related paraphernalia like donations to Greenpeace or the purchase of Sea Shepherd t-shirts – is secondary to fulfillment: just like non-human animals, sweatshop workers manufacturing t-shirts in developing countries are imprisoned, exploited and objectified, yet just like non-human animals it only takes sufficient distance to assuage our sense of complicity.

And this is only the surface of human exploitation. Let's not discuss, for now, where your vegan chocolate came from.

The marginally applied argument from marginal cases:

One of the strongest arguments for affording non-human animals rights, even though it is originally from the utilitarian perspective of Peter Singer, who is now best regarded as a new welfarist, is the argument from marginal cases. When confronted with arguments about what criteria non-human animals lack – rationality, the capacity for reciprocity, the ability to be subjects as well as objects of justice – we can easily find some cases where we grant rights to humans where these criteria are lacking – the severely disabled, for instance, or the very young. How strange it is then that, instead of the appeals to empathy and nurture they deliver nightly from across the dinner table, so many animal rights activists use near-Social Darwinist might-is-right rhetoric to defend privilege and relative freedom in their own lives from the poor and subjugated humans seeking their fundamental rights to sanitation, housing, food and clean water.

Solidarity, but not with each other:

Animal activists do go so far as to talk about solidarity between species – how we have an ethical responsibility to look after these other inhabitants of the Earth – yet within our species it's competition that counts: why should our hard-earned tax money be spent on the lazy poor, the violent savages, those Slavoj Zizek so powerfully calls 'the subjects supposed to rape and pillage'? To talk of solidarity, of love, of shared living in relation to our non-human animal others is not even lip service if we cannot also begin to foster these same egalitarian values in our own human communities.

In fact, in defending our callousness by appeal to cold, hard nature, all red in tooth and claw, we have even moved away from the original observations of Darwin, described here by Petr Kropotkin:

“Wherever I saw animal life in abundance, as, for instance, on the lakes where scores of species and millions of individuals came together to rear their progeny; in the colonies of rodents; in the migrations of birds which took place at that time on a truly American scale along the Usuri; and especially in a migration of fallow-deer which I witnessed on the Amur, and during which scores of thousands of these intelligent animals came together from an immense territory, flying before the coming deep snow, in order to cross the Amur where it is narrowest — in all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.”
– Kropotkin


Many of the above examples of the selective applications of ethical considerations and actions imply a deep-seated misanthropy, as though many of those who are most passionate about the plight of our furred and feather cousins have become entirely disenchanted with humanity and, instead of transgressing species boundaries, wish to merely step over to the other side of that boundary they so tirelessly rally against. Whatever the case, it seems obvious that one cannot talk of speciesism, of porous boundaries and slippery categories, yet retain such a generalised misanthropy, especially not when it is so clear that without resolving the fundamental social problems I've been alluding to, there is little hope for any real, lasting reconciliation between humans, non-human animals and the whole of nature.

Charges of simple misanthropy might be premature though. It might be that, in a uniquely effective way, animal rights allows many of us to displace our revolutionary impulses, our deep knowing that something very big and complicated is very wrong and in need of radical change, onto a single issue that can act as a filter for our passion.


In summary then, the values we hold in relation to non-human animals and the arguments we use to support our actions in this regard are positioned exactly against the values we so often seem to exhibit in encounters within our own species, values fostered by the power relationships we apply to the world just as they are applied to us every moment of our lives by the forms of capitalism and the State. We cannot hope for a full recognition of the rights of non-human animals, except as some kind of myopic consumer tokenism or displacement, unless we fully engage the discourses of power that reinforce the objectification and exploitation of these other beings.


Before briefly discussing solutions, let's take a quick look at the ethical discourses we apply to questions of the animal, or questions of the animals, as Derrida insists.

To me it seems as though traditional normative ethical approaches are insufficient. Consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics; all of these tend to assume the sanctity of the subject position, the homogeneity and interchangeablity of all subjects and situations, a situational vacuum in which the ethical encounter unfolds. Kantian universalism applied to the Cartesian subject lacks all nuance, is blind to our situatedness, our boundedness, the discursive and material constitution of this transient multiplicity of flows and processes that constitutes each of us, human and non-human alike.

These accounts offer little more than a functionalist, reductionist, utilitarian account of being that is blindingly reflected in the current crisis of exploitation of the natural world and its framing as a mere pile of resources. Even virtue ethics is guilty of submitting the final measure of what is said to be virtuous to power, resulting in virtues measured by how well they reify current conditions and understandings, current biases. Eudaimonia is captured by systemic prejudices and there is no real flourishing as long as the unit of analysis is the subject and not the ecosystem.

(Environmental virtue ethics may be is a first step in this direction, if it can become ecological virtue ethics. The environment, remember, is what is 'out there', a set of actors wholly separate to ourselves. Ecology is what we are part of, the myriad flows and complex processes and creative unfoldings we are so deeply enmeshed in.)

In moving beyond the sanctity of the subject as enshrined in traditional normative ethics, it is, perhaps somewhat tellingly, the poststructuralist and neo-materialist feminists who have taken the lead by applying the populations thinking and process ontology of Gilles Deleuze and others to these pressing ethical questions.

"An ethical life pursues that which enhances and strengthens the subject without reference to transcendental values, but rather in the awareness of one’s interconnection with others."
– Rosi Braidotti

“The concepts of animals or the animalistic become a sort of conceptual dumping ground for all the features of ourselves that we don’t like and want to expel from our definition of “the human”: irrationality, instinct, emotion, ignorance, the body in a word, precariousness...

Wherever the human is, it is always outside itself in the non-human, or it is always distributed among beings, among human and non-human beings, chiasmatically related through the idea of precarious life. So we can neither lodge the human in the self, nor ground the self in the human, but find instead the relations of exposure and responsibility that constitute the ‘being’ of the human in a sociality outside itself, even outside its human-ness."
– Judith Butler

Regardless of the power and vitalism of these contemporary ethical approaches, however, I do not think we will find some final salvation in subjective and highly convoluted explorations of ethics and post-humanities that, if they were just delivered with sufficient conviction or eloquence, would somehow magically suffice to turn the world vegan, to free all non-human animals – and human ones too – from captivity, that would stop the logging trucks in their tracks and shut down the polluting power plants and still the oil pumps and lift plastic from the ocean and divert food to the needy and replace all GMO's and monocrops with permaculture gardens and liberate the voices of all oppressed and marginalised peoples around the globe.

No. What we need are not more sophisticated ethical arguments. What we need is much more simple.


We need to radicalize our thinking and challenge all of our sacred cows. Single issue campaigns, of which animal rights in isolation from issues of social and ecological justice is a prime exemplar, regardless of what people like Gary Francione might say, are, as we saw, a set of performances legitimated by and legitimating the very system that needs to be dismantled. Petitions and protests can serve to raise awareness, but unless they are coupled with an appeal for real, radical action, undertaken on behalf of the entire biocommunity, they merely serve to reproduce themselves, just as we saw during the unprecedentedly vast street marches that arose in opposition to the war in Iraq several years ago; millions of marchers had no impact on US imperialism then and they have no impact now. Power concedes nothing without a real demand and the performance of a demand is not a real demand.

An effective campaign is more like class struggle. Not in the sense that unionised Marxists need to seize the means of production in some kind of proletarian moment of divine redemption, but in the sense that we need to expand the boundaries of our class – the class of the exploited – to include all other life on Earth and position the full force of every moment of every life in the swelled ranks of this enlarged proletariat against the systems – and if necessary those who refuse to disengage from them – that continue to oppress us.

Steve Best has said that: "Victims of oppression cannot advance by oppressing and victimizing others."

I would add that they cannot advance by ignoring the oppression and victimization of others either.

Many former Animal Liberation Front'ers recognised this in the 1990's; they became the Earth Liberation Front. There is but a single short, necessary step to be taken by those of us who allow ourselves to fully accept the implications of animal liberation from the exceptionalism of the ALF to the inclusive justice of the ELF and beyond.

We cannot hide behind the rhetoric of fundamentalist pacifism any longer either. Violence is only violence in context. The violence an abuser enacts against his victim is not the same as the violence his victim enacts against her abuser. The violence – which is almost always more accurately seen as property damage – that is enacted against the destructive, soul-destroying machineries of capitalism and the State is not the same as the violence enacted by capitalism and the State against each and all of us, human and non-human alike.

Indeed, these dogmatic, overly-simplistic prohibitions to act serve only to facilitate our oppression and our right to extensional self-defense against great ongoing violence, and they operate only within the context of complete denial. The suffragettes knew this. So did the Black Panthers. So did the Native North American peoples. So did umkhontho we Sizwe. So did the Indian fighters against colonialist rule, no matter what you think Gandhi might have said.

As Ward Churchill says in his book, Pacifism As Pathology:

“The desire for a non-violent society is the healthiest of all psychological manifestations. It seems the height of contradiction, therefore, that we should need to break with this in order to achieve it. Therein, however, may lie our only hope.”
– Ward Churchill

I do not wish to fetishize violence, but if we are to be effective we can no longer flippantly dismiss anything beyond peaceful placard-waving as somehow antithetical to our ends, as a priori wrong. We cannot deny the possibility that at some point violence will be necessary; the more we discuss the implications of this now, the more successfully we will be able to absorb its impact then.

More importantly and positively than the need to accept the possibility of violence though, we need to effect massive, fundamental systemic change. The hierarchies and the endless competitive consumerism that mark our social existence are diametrically opposed to those values all of us naturally seek, and find, in our own communities: egalitarianism, trust, mutual aid, consensus, creativity, companionship and a proclivity for life that is truly lived. We urgently need a system that reflects these values, that emphasises power to not power over, that doesn't encourage or necessitate hyper-individualism, hegemony, deference to authority, endless accumulation, progress as an ends in itself and the desacralization of the whole of the natural world. We need permaculture and communal living and relationship with instead of stewardship of or control over. We need to fundamentally alter our economics, our education, our modes of production. Even our relationships. Even how we make decisions.

What I'm talking about, of course, is anarchism.

What is anarchism? Here's how Emma Goldman, a prominent anarchist from the beginning of the last century describes it, in admittedly anthropocentric terms:

“Anarchism really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the domination of religion; the liberation of the human body from the domination of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth, an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.”
– Emma Goldman

If the term remains unpalatable due to its common connotations, we can replace it with whatever we wish; we can call ourselves libertarian socialists if that makes us feel better. Regardless of how we refer to this alternative way of living though, this enhanced sense of all being in this together, one thing is certain. We can choose anarchism – in the best sense of the word: radical egalitarian horizontalism – or we can have anarchy – in the poorest, most savage sense of the word – chosen for us.

If we choose well, it is likely that we will, naturally and through necessity, evolve new values and also a renewed vision of the world; environment will become ecology, them will become us, the unitary subject of Enlightenment humanism will become partial, concrete and embedded multiplicity, the domesticated animal other would become simply another index of animality, of the richly diverse possibilities of life.

We do not need to wait for the revolution, although a revolution – or even countless revolutions – might well be necessary; we can begin the task of living anew right now. We can give up all the comforts that shield us from the existential horror of our own mortality and begin to explore everything I've been speaking about. Revolution or not though, one thing is for sure: some kind of confrontation with power, however it plays out, is almost inevitable. Willing workers on organic farms and refugees in recovery from Western civilization will not be spared this encounter and, indeed, a sense of solidarity worthy of the name impels us to act on behalf of all, not just ourselves, in countering the forces of subjugation with all our being instead of actively avoiding them.


So we need not just animal liberation, not just earth liberation, not just human liberation, but a total liberation that is far more than the sum of its parts and that is radically anarchist, in the full sense of the term. This involves sharing animal rights with ecological justice and social justice activists, but also, importantly, encouraging liberal or politically apathetic animal rights people to engage in radical political discourse without reducing any of these to any other or believing that one is foundational or primary.

When we put everything I've been saying together and consider it in all its glorious heterogeneity, it comes close to capturing the pursuit of ecosophy that Felix Guattari, following Gregory Bateson, talks about in The Three Ecologies:

"Without modifications to the social and material environment, there can be no change in mentalities. Here, we are in the presence of a circle that leads me to postulate the necessity of founding an "ecosophy" that would link environmental ecology to social ecology and to mental ecology."
– Felix Guattari

In closing, although it is not foundational, the insights of animal rights do seem uniquely situated to address the foregoing problems, but only if we follow through all their implications and allow ourselves to be radically altered by them, subjectively, politically, materially and spiritually.

To quote Steve Best once more:

Animal liberation is the culmination of a vast historical learning process whereby human beings gradually realize that arguments justifying hierarchy, inequality, and discrimination of any kind are arbitrary, baseless, and fallacious. Animal liberation builds on the most progressive ethical and political advances human beings have made in the last 200 years and carries them to their logical conclusions. It takes the struggle for rights, equality, and nonviolence to the next level, beyond the artificial moral and legal boundaries of humanism, in order to challenge all prejudices and hierarchies, including speciesism.
– Steve Best