War against animals: Time to stop playing nice
- Published: 10 July 2010
- Hits: 3077
Animal rights activists need to be critical of large mainstream organizations, fight to maintain philosophical and tactical diversity, and demonstrate the vital importance of grassroots, direct action and underground approaches, writes Dr Steven Best.
The modern animal “rights” movement is only a few decades old. In a relatively short time, it has clearly made its presence felt in society.
There are many promising signs of evolution in the social attitudes and treatment of animals, ranging from increased legal penalties for animal abuse to the growth of the animal law field and growing popularity of animal studies in higher education.
Nonetheless, it would be a serious mistake to conclude that we are “winning” or making “progress” in a truly significant way, or that we can ride into the future on the wings of the mainstream organizations and their legislative-based tactics.
Fallacies of the mainstream
Consider this: after over three decades of growth and advocacy, the US environmental movement has not accomplished any major goals and easily succumbed to eco-fascists such as Ronald Regan and George W. Bush.
No amount of protests, demonstrations, lobbying, or mass mailings has been able to stop the mounting global ecological crisis which plays out in global warming, rainforest destruction, chemical poisoning, species extinction, and countless other ways.
As Mark Dowie shows his must-read book, Losing Ground, the situation, in fact, has steadily deteriorated and has reached crisis proportions, despite the emergence of huge environmental organizations and growing popularity of the environmental cause.
Similarly, whatever PR gloss one cares to throw on the last few decades of the animal advocacy movement, one has to confront the startling facts that ever more animals die each year in slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and animal “shelters,” while the fur industry has made a huge comeback.
Similarly, after three decades of activity, the animal advocacy movement remains overwhelmingly a white, middle-class movement that has gained few supporters in communities of color or among other social justice movements.
So if we are counting the number of casualties in this war of liberation, to single out one criterion, our side is hardly winning. Over the past two decades, Americans have dropped $40 billion on animal protection issues, some $2 billion a year, as 3,000 volunteer organizations worked billions of hours. And for what? More death and bigger cages?
As activists lounge around swank hotels preaching to the choir in endless conferences and Ego Fests, the enemy is growing in number and strength.
Meanwhile, the key tactics that have truly proven their worth and work where others fail – the methods of the ALF, SHAC, and direct action in general – have been rejected and reviled by vast swaths of the movement.
Mainstream ideologues are under the spell of Gandhi, King, and “legalism,” the system-created ideology that urges dissenters to seek change only in and through non-violence and the pre-approved legislative channels of the state.
As the opiate of the masses, legalism disempowers resistance movements and leaves corporations and governments to monopolize power, deploy violence at will, and flout the laws – created by and for them -- whenever necessary and convenient.
Many individuals and organizations – none more aggressively than the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) -- in fact have unctuously adopted the murderous voice of the corporate-state apparatus and denounced direct action as violent, terrorist, and antithetical to the values of the animal advocacy movement.
The lethal virus of McCarthyism has infected our own movement. The moral purists and legalists implore direct action advocates to purge the “violent and extremist” element so that the voices of reason, compassion, and moderation can prevail.
And prevail they will, we are asked to believe, with enough professionals, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and lawyers filling the hallways and chamber rooms of Congress, persuading our “elected representatives” who -- of course! -- serve only the interests of the people, and never the will of corporations.
It is unfortunate that such naiveté still impedes social movements today, for the entire history of state repression, political corruption, and corporate hegemony belies this bullshit at every turn.
In the accelerating phase of ecological crisis, it is now do or die and we do not have the luxury to wait for change to unfold in the long march through the institutions.
Lessons from the environmental movement
The animal advocacy movement is poised for ever greater failures as it replicates the mistakes of the environmental movement.
At the turn of the decade in 1970, the future of the new environmental movement seemed bright. Riding the crest of 1960s turmoil and protest, environmentalism quickly became a mass concern.
The first Earth Day in 1970 drew millions of people to the streets throughout the nation. The 1970s became “the Decade of Environmentalism,” as Congress passed new laws such as the Clean Air and Water Act and the government created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Environmental organizations planted roots in Washington, DC, grew vast membership bases, spewed out expensive mass mailings, and walked side-by-side with the rich and powerful as they lobbied for a better world.
The movement’s recipe for success, however, quickly turned into a formula for disaster as large environmental groups increasingly resembled the corporations they criticized and, in fact, themselves evolved into corporations and self-interested money-making machines.
Behemoth organizations such as Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society, and Nature Conservancy formed the “Gang of Ten.” They were distinguished by their corporate and bureaucratic structures whereby decision-making originated from the professionals at the top who neither had nor sought citizen input from the grass roots level.
The Gang of Ten hired accountants and MBAs over activists, they spent more time and energy in mass mailing campaigns that actual advocacy, and their money was squandered on sustaining their budgets and bureaucracies rather than protecting the environment. They brokered compromise deals to get votes for legislation that was watered-down, constantly revised to strengthen corporate interests, and poorly enforced.
As an entrenched bureaucracy with its own interests to protect, they not only did not fund or support grass roots groups, they even fought against them at times.
They formed alliances instead with corporate exploiters and legitimated greenwashing/brainwashing campaigns that presented polluters and enemies of the environment as friends of the earth – as when the Environmental Defense Fund bragged that something significant happened when they partnered with McDonalds to end plastic foam containers, as the rainforests continued to be pillaged for Big Macs and Quarter Pounders.
The EPA became a farce that protected the interests of corporations over citizens and the earth, while lulling the populace into thinking that there was genuine “regulation” of corporations and environmental hazards.
The significant gains in the environmental movement came in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the emergence of thousands of grass roots organizations not beholden to patrons, corporations, and politicians, along with the direct action tactics of Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Earth First!, and the Earth Liberation Front.
Problems in our house
Looking back on the last two decades of environmental politics, it is clear that mainstream organizations are an impediment to the radical changes necessary in society to stop corporate ecocide.
With ecological crises mounting, an ever-growing division between the world’s rich and poor, and transnational corporations gaining increasing power and control over all nations, it is clear that tactics of compromise, reform, and moderation cannot stop the juggernaut of capitalism and speciesism and that more radical and confrontational methods are necessary.
Unfortunately, the same problems and pathologies that crippled the potential power of a mass environmental movement are replicating themselves in the animal advocacy movement.
As Gary Francione, Joan Dunayer, and others have complained, it is hard even to find a consistent animal rights philosophy and politics in the movement, as most campaigns in fact are corporate-compromising, welfarist campaigns dressed up in a rights language and seek a reduction in suffering rather than the abolition of the root causes of exploitation.
Through the influence of the ALF and SHAC, a militant direct action presence has entrenched itself in the animal advocacy movement (the ALF beginning in the 1980s and SHAC in the late 1990s), but in most cases direct action is either shunned or vilified for fear of state repression or losing the almighty funding and patron dollars through contamination with controversy.
The new Goliath
HSUS, in particular, has distinguished itself as a divisive force by pulling out of national and regional conferences that include direct action speakers.
Rather than evince respect for diversity and debate instead of run, HSUS not only has withdrawn into its own insular conference world, it has publicly attacked the ALF and SHAC. In an interview, Mike Markarian, HSUS Executive Vice President of External Affairs, crossed a clear line when he demonized ALF activists as criminals and applauded the FBI for going after them.
HSUS is a vast, global empire unto itself, with offices throughout the world, 10 regional offices in the US, and tentacles in a web of other organizations and affiliates.
While it has no relation to local humane societies and animal shelters anywhere in the US, HSUS does control dozens of legal corporations throughout the world, such as Earthvoice, the Wildlife Land Trust, Earthkind USA, and the UK World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Like other transnational corporations, the HSUS conglomerate survives through endless expansion and growth. In 2002, it took over Ark Trust, producers of the Genesis Awards for animal-friendly TV and film. It absorbed the Fund for Animals in 2004, and in 2005 it snapped up edgy activists Miyun Park and Paul Shapiro from Compassion Over Killing, a pro-open rescue group willing to break the law to rescue animals, a clear no-no for HSUS.
From its 30,000 members and annual budget of $500,000 in 1970, it has morphed into a body of 9 million members with an operating budget of nearly $100 million in 2005.
Such a behemoth has a homogenization effect on the movement whereby it monopolizes donations to animal causes, commands ever more media, disseminates welfarist ideology, co-opts activists useful to its programs, and maligns direct action approaches, all the while staying disengaged from local humane societies and animal shelters as a whole (unless they are willing to pay HSUS a fee for services and advice).
Certainly, HSUS has helped animals in various ways and helped to chalk up a number of legislative victories against cockfighting, horse slaughter, and other atrocities, and under Pacelle’s leadership it progressively advocates a vegan agenda.
But it also is a vast bureaucratic organization with its own interests and needs (such as paying Pacelle’s $300,000 annual salary) that has adopted many of the unfortunate characteristics of mainstream environmental movements.
No such empire and bureaucracy can be sustained without its lifeblood – money – and fundraising, patron satisfaction, and forging corporate ties thereby occupy a good deal of HSUS time and energy.
In 2003, HSUS had $116,205,882.00 in total liability and net assets, yet spent around $3.5 million on the crucial problem of animal sheltering (far better than in 2002, when they gave less than $150,000 to local humane societies and shelters). They did, however, spend over $15.6 million on fundraising and accrued $6.3 million in administrative costs.
HSUS acquired over countless millions of dollars in donations to aid animals gravely affected by hurricane Katrina. They worked to save many animal lives, but also came under intense fire from activists on the ground who claimed that they were inept and inefficient.
One has to wonder if a more flexible organization structure would not have been more effective. And how much of that largesse supports its bloated bureaucracy and fundraising needs, and how much goes directly to the animals? Would such funds not have been better utilized by shelters and rescue organizations at the grassroots?
In 1994, Pacelle told Animal People that his goal was to build “a National Rifle Association of the animal rights movement,” suggesting he seeks a powerful organization dominated by single-issue politics.
Such an approach means in practice the kind of compromise politics that vitiated the environmental movement, such that HSUS is prepared to bargain with or support nearly any politician (however right-wing) or corporation for a vote.
This was evident in their support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA, a neo-liberal economic policy modeled on NAFTA), whereby they gained tenuous support for some animal issues, but lent their support in turn for a “trade agreement” that threatens small farmers, violates the rights of workers, promotes factory farming (and thus greater meat and dairy consumption), and favors transnational corporations that grow wealthy through the plunder of Southern nations.
Do or die
If the animal rights movement is ever to become more than just another “interest group,” if it is to achieve it goals of animal liberation, and if it is to realize its potential for radically transforming human identity and society, it will have to study past social movements and learn from their successes and failures – the environmental movement in particular -- in order to draw the right lessons and not repeat the same mistakes.
Activists need to be critical of large mainstream organizations, fight to maintain philosophical and tactical diversity, and demonstrate the vital importance of grass roots, direct action, and underground approaches.
As frustrated as activists become for far greater degrees of progress, it is also true that we need patience, foresight, long-term vision and strategies, and use of non-violent tactics where these are viable.
Where legal and non-violent tactics are not viable, however, where they are not enough to stop exploiters from killing innocent animals, it is our duty to use stronger tactics to bring this violence against animals to an end.
As we would not argue any differently if we were defending human beings against violence and terrorism, we should apply the same arguments to animals who have equal rights to life and freedom.
As with past human liberation struggles, any and all tactics that prove themselves effective in the field of battle must be used for animal liberation, thus demanding a pluralist and non-dogmatic approach.
For a long time, the direct action community has tolerated the opprobrium of mainstream organizations like HSUS, which claims that direct action approaches have discredited the values of the movement and impeded its progress.
As we consider the level of radical tactics necessary to defend animals and the earth, and ponder the fallacies that have guided the animal advocacy movement for too long, maybe it’s time to turn the tables and expose the fallacies and hypocrisies of the mainstream.
The message of the animal rights/liberation movement has nothing to do with profits, corporations, and fundraising, and everything to do with a revolutionary transformation of human consciousness and all existing social institutions.
Dr Steven Best is an Associate Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at the University of Texas, El Paso. For 25 years he has researched, taught, lectured, and published in areas such as philosophy, literature, social and political theory, cultural studies, film and mass media, science and technology studies, politics, terrorism and peace/security studies, and ethics (with a focus on animal rights, environmentalism, and biotechnology). He is the author and editor of 10 books and is currently completing a new book, Animal Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution.