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Veganism and the class war

Class_warIt could be observed that much of veganism, as it is known particularly in the West, is associated with upper classes and privileged populations, but veganism at the grassroots is actually potentially most revolutionary, writes Konju Briggs Jr.

12 September 2010

My own definition of a vegan is a human who eats fruits and vegetables, as well as whatever nuts, seeds or legumes he or she may desire, and never eats or uses animal products. For starts.

For my purposes and for the purposes of this article, this vegan is not so heavily involved in extremely elaborate recipes, in highly-processed ingredients and additives, in soy and grains, etc. That can come later.

I’m simplifying and scaling down for the purpose of understanding what this article wants to address, which is the skeletal basics (though in full disclosure I’m pretty much a fruitarian).

A vegan, firstly, is someone anywhere in the world where fruits and vegetables are affordable and accessible who eats those items, eats produce.

That sort of vegan, who isn’t strictly dependent on special products, mock meats, packaged goods, and so on, who could be just at home eating the fruits and veggies available in Kinshasa or Kisangani as are available in Karachi or Kansas City, might be said, for the purposes of this thought experiment, to be a universal vegan, or even a vehicular vegan, and I will use either term interchangebly going forward.

As for the class war, I define it as the conflict between workers and bosses, between capitalists and proletariats, between landlords and tenants, between elites and all us riff-raff, even between humans and animals, over access and claims of ownership over land, infrastructure, the means of production, the structure of our economy, the production of culture, and so on.

It is the imperative of oppressors to oppress, to exploit, to profit, maintain ignorance, maintain illiteracy and food scarcity, maintain the divisions amongst working people, maintain ideological, religious, and political zeitgeists of constant hysteria, and yet eat well and live comfortably all the while.

It is the imperative of workers, of women, of ethnic or sexual minorities, of those rendered landless, to maintain unity in struggle, to vie for and claim power, land and freedom, to achieve self-determination and societies of fairness and justice, to collectivize resources, to build and practice pro-human cultures, and to, at a spiritual maximum as it were, prefer death to slavery.

The class war is very real and it is everywhere and, whether or not we acknowledge it, we are all class warriors of some stripe, all over the world.

If we find ourselves hating our banks and landlords and tiring of our bosses, that much makes us class warriors, just as a Naxalite Adivasi struggling against planned and perpetrated genocides and land thefts and who actually engages in armed struggle is a class warrior.

The bosses that like exploiting and polluting and dominating – whether at Goldman Sachs or British Petroleum or Tyson Chicken or General Motors or Lockheed Martin or Uncle Sam himself – they’re all class warriors for their side.

So how can we mix veganism – as practiced by the universal vegan – with the class war?

We start with the manner in which prestige is applied to certain objects to make them desirable, even when they aren’t healthy or necessary.

Possession or consumption of these articles of prestige is then used to define who is of what class, or at least who aspires to more elevated social rankings.

Yes, commodity fetishism includes propagating the meat prestige – look at the most extreme sorts of hamburgers the fast-food industry invents, or at the Heart Attack Grill.

So, all over the third world, even where meat is scarce or pastoralism is irrevocably destroying land, meat is a prestige. Automobile usage is another.

The wealthiest eat the most meat and drive the most, and are often the most gorged and overweight, hence the typical gut of rich and powerful elites in Africa and elsewhere in the third world.

(And thanks to the zombifying power of marketing and mass media, a million other useless, wasteful and dangerous products are rendered prestigious, and we must use our own voices and propaganda to fight this, but that is another topic.)

But if a society hedges closer to veganism, that means more calories will generally be available to its individual constituents, since growing plants is far more sustainable and efficient than growing animals which eat plants.

So that society would naturally enable an environment of greater equity and less classism.

On the other hand, if a society hankers hard after meat, that means fewer people will eat of the greater resultant scarcity in overall available calories.

The meat-centric society will inevitably breed the conditions for less equality and for harsher stratification, just because of how much meat production usurps of limited environmental resources.

That’s macro-level. What about individual vehicular vegan class warriors?

Conscious vegan workers remove themselves partly from an equation of exploitation by striking animals from a hierarchy of exploitation and brutality from their own lives.

They help keep the class war between humans and from involving non-humans, who have enough of their own struggles and class wars in the wild without having to worry about human consumption.

Conscientious vegan workers keep from supporting aspects of the elite apparatus and cash machine by non-participation in the meat-industrial complex and, should veganism keep them healthy, the medical-industrial complex.

The industries of violence and slavery are among the largest that support class and caste structures worldwide. Not endorsing the meat prestige and engaging in veganism means one is using one’s own labor and consumer powers to directly disempower the most odious aspects of the system.

It could be observed that much of veganism, as it is known particularly in North America, is associated with upper classes and privileged populations, but veganism at the grassroots is actually potentially most revolutionary.

In the US, poor communities of color are often bereft of access to fresh healthy foods, and disproportionately find themselves afflicted with the diseases of Western diets and lifestyles.

This is part of class war, as I see it, keeping the most chronically impoverished from being able to be healthy, long-lived and highly functioning, and from excelling as human beings. The elites don’t really care to ameliorate this problem.

Thus it is up to grassroots universal vegan workers of color, aware that existence in a human society configured such as ours means lifelong class war, to promote healthy lifestyles, to strive and struggle to increase access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables in our communities, and to speak loudly and widely on the benefits of non-meat consumption and the fallacies of the meat prestige and meat addiction.

Thoughtful vegans should make natural class warriors. Their veganism empowers them to escape relationships of oppression and violence with both humans and non-humans, while granting them the vitality and awareness to struggle for just power and representation for as long as necessary.

The vehicular vegan revolutionary can be a revolutionary of stamina and substance, of vision and actualization, actually practicing diplomacy (with non-humans) and militancy (against industries and economies of subjugation).

And that is how, and why, veganism can relate to the class war, and why vegans, especially working-class vegans of color, should consider themselves class warriors.

But it’s just one small open-source theory that still needs help (or refutation) from y’all.

Veganism can indeed be revolutionary, and we must make it so if we are serious about social change, food sovereignty, earth and non-human justice, and human freedom and equity.

Konju Briggs Jr is a writer, blogger, activist, massage therapist and a research assistant at Essex County College in New Jersey. He recently completed and is seeking publication for an Afrofuturist existentialist novel entitled An Android Reads the News. At present he's writing a novel which, from a magical realist approach, exposes some of the intercultural absurdities and political nausea of contemporary life in America as experienced by people of color and immigrants.

He has been vegan since he was 15, converting in mid-1999 following some deep thinking on arguments read and heard, combined with a natural revulsion towards the brutality of slaughterhouses and no love for the flavor or odor of flesh. In the ensuing years, his travels in West Africa and studies on development have caused him to think more about how veganism can be related to food sovereignty, pro-human economics and human rights, and not just animal rights. Veganism is thus central to his third world internationalism.

Konju blogs at Green Chimurenga, Vegans of Color and Afrikan Satori.



-1 #4 chad binge 2010-09-17 22:28
I think that so-called revolutionaries could be more revolutionary if they were to revolutionize their very tired revolutionary language? Just say’n ;0)
0 #3 Lauren 2010-09-17 20:03
Thanks for posting, I think this is a big discussion going on in some parts of the left of the climate movement. I think this article conflates what is politically effective in creating social change - what changes we should push for on a broad scale in the agricultural industry and elsewhere - and what is a personal consumer choice.

It's strange to see an anti-capitalist article talk about "consumer power" and how we should exercise it to create a society that is more sustainable for people and animals and the planet - the idea of consumer sovereignty, that changing what we as individuals buy has far reaching consequences, can change the world and is empowering - is one of the biggest myths that capitalism promotes and it disturbs me to see revolutionaries promote it too.

I admire the choices that many political people make when it comes to their lifestyles, and I too minimise my impact on the planet in a whole bunch of ways, but I recognise it's predominantly a moral choice. What has changed about the cruel treatment of animals since this author became vegan? What's changed since I started recycling at home? Nothing, in fact the climate crisis has worsened.

It's really dangerous to promote this idea that consumer power is the first step to creating social change. It's not accurate, it doesn't reflect how social change is actually won (mass movements of people collectively articulating and pushing for their demands) and it reinforces the ideology of individual consumerism.
0 #2 Alex Melonas 2010-09-14 10:57
@Breeze: Your dissertation sounds fascinating. As to your first proposition regarding "accessibility" and privilege (that is, predominately white, middle-income), I think you are spot-on. I am a doctoral student at Temple University, which is located in north Philadelphia, an area heavily burdened by racism and classism. The inaccessibility of good, "whole" foods is a dominant theme. Indeed, only very recently did north Philadelphia get a grocery store stocked with these food items, but the impetus for opening that store was not to serve the "local" community, but to serve the ever-expanding Temple student body. However, the benefits are certain to be dispersed beyond this core group of constituent users.

But, as you've done, we have to be careful to distinguish the practical issue from, say, the normative or theoretical grounding. Through the lens of practicality, veganism does seem to be associated with privilege; however, as to theory, I think precisely the opposite is true; to wit, ethical veganism (for me) is a logical extension of an egalitarian challenge to oppression, which I take to mean the domination by a powerful group of a weaker group and all the ideological rationalization s posited by that powerful group to justify the oppression.

As for your latter thoughts, what I take to be your central themes (re: what veganism "means" to different groups within the black vegan movement), I can't say. I have an intuition that vegan foods are not markers of class elitism given the predominately negative view of veganism.
0 #1 Breeze Harper 2010-09-13 15:13
How timely, as I literally am writing my dissertation right now and focusing on how class comes into play with black female vegan activists. There is such little written about class and veganism within mainstream best selling title, so I’m glad that you posted this food for thought.

I unfortunately still feel that the accessbility of veganism as being something for upper class white folk is a truth. Why? BECAUSE the food system in the USA is structured in a way that benefits white class privileged people the most to have ‘easier’ access to a well planned vegan diet (well, any well planned whole foods dietary choice, whether it be omnivorous holistic diet or vegan or vegetarian holistic diet)…but like Precision Afrikan was saying , the roots of veganism are not elitist and if the global food system were not so embedded in imperialistic capitalism, neocolonialism, and racialized hierarchies of power, veganism could be a possibility for many people who are otherwise hindered by classism and environmental racism.

I am a critical food geographer and employ critical race and black feminist theories into my dissertation work. As I look through the narratives of black female vegans, I am trying to understanding how place/region (because geography is all about place) merges with the effects of racialization, class, and vegan food access. I am trying to figure out to what degree is veganism a grassroots activist pursuit for freedom and alleviation of suffering for some of these women… and to what degree does veganism become a ‘high class’ status for some black female vegans who don’t want to be ‘mistaken for low class blacks.’

I would like to know if I’m making sense here. I’m still trying to figure out how class elitism, class struggle, etc play into my analysis of black female vegans. Black folk are not a monolith and there is class elitism amongst them and I wonder how this plays out in terms of black vegans at least here in the USA (which is the regional focus of my work). True, meat is a marker of class elitism, but what, if any specific vegan foods become markers of class elitism amongst black female vegans who enjoy middle to upper class privileges?

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