An Interview with Species and Class (Or with me, depending on your perspective)

Last year I came across the group, Species and Class, itself another online blog dealing with the tricky subject of animal exploitation and revolutionary politics. I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by them on my own perspectives in relation to political philosophy and, of course, veganism, which prompted an interesting discussion at the time and may be of use for those looking to get to grips with such issues in an informal and distinctly unpretentious way. Any incoherence on my part is most likely my own fault. It’s also the case that in the text I will make reference to my membership of the News and Letters Committees, itself a Marxist Humanist group primarily located in the US. I have, however, now left this grouping primarily over their refusal to properly deal with (or even acknowledge) the Odessa massacre and their effective support of NATO policy and escalation in Ukraine.

S&C: How would you describe your economic politics? Are you a socialist? Would you consider yourself a Marxist, anarchist, social democrat or something else?

DR: I’m most certainly a Marxist, although at the risk of sounding pretentious I’d qualify that in specifying allegiance to the more humanistic side of Marx. So Marxist-Humanist is likely the correct term.

S&C: Can you describe what involvement, if any, you’ve had with the organized socialist or anarchist left?

DR: Well I’m currently 31 and have been involved in left politics, to one extent or another, since I was about eighteen. Initially I was a member of the Utopian-orientated Socialist Party of Great Britain, although in retrospect that was a youthful reaction to observing the rather empty-headed “activism for the sake of activism” ethos of more sizable groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, which at that time was very much the first port of call for those looking to get a taste of political dissent, despite how unhealthy and problematic that organisation turned out to be.

I subsequently found a home in several other groups such as the Communist Party of Great Britain and the International Marxist Tendency, although in the case of the latter I was compelled to leave due to that group’s rather extreme attitude towards factionalism and internal democracy. As such I’m, unsurprisingly, affiliated to a group known as the News and Letters Committees, which is primarily based in the US, and ascribes to the Marxist Humanism prolifically espoused by one of its founders, Raya Dunayevskaya.

S&C: How have your views regarding animals been received on the socialist or anarchist left?

DR: It’s usually met with indifference, although a hostile reception is not unknown.  I’ve come across the idea that the concept of animal rights is “petty-bourgeois”, although this term is so heavily and abstracted employed as a method of abuse on the left that it often means essentially nothing. Generally my political stance towards animals and agriculture, as well as my ethical perspective on the consumption of meat/diary, is seen as just a personal lifestyle choice – like my penchant for wearing high-collared jackets – which is actually rather depressing.

S&C: Does your organization have any official position on animal exploitation of any kind? If not, is this something you would like to change? If so, how might you do this?

DR: I think there is some potential here, although as such N&LC does not appear to have any official position on animals, agriculture and so forth. I’d very much like us to develop some kind of orientation towards such issues, given that we generally have a very open organisational praxis. Generally when one enters a political organisation you necessarily find that there is no clean slate when it comes to the ideas and prejudice that necessarily builds up within a population often in receipt of some form of net benefit from the operations of imperialism.

I’m not saying this is what’s happening in my group, in fact what I had in mind is the more extreme occurrences that I know of within British Trotskyism – the recent scandals regarding rape accusations and general sexism in the SWP comes to mind – but one thing I have come across is that just because somebody believes in revolutionary objectives in the abstract doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to practice such a thing in the concrete.

I’m thinking again of my experience in other organisations, where what’d you see is a very “top down” relationship between rank and file members and the leadership, which often liked to think of itself as some kind of intellectual elite (and would frame arguments as such) yet would practice distinctly reactionary methods in the day to day course of running an organisation. I think the point I’m trying to make is that it’s very easy to say you want to change the world when change is still a long way off, and your commitment to that change remains purely in the realm of rhetoric. Ascribing to the moral notion that animal life has inherent worth requires some form of immediate commitment in terms of the choices you make each day, and you’ll often find that’s something people find problematic, even when they regard themselves as a “revolutionary”.

S&C: Is there any way in which speciesism is used to further human class exploitation? If so, how?

DR: What I find happens is that the violence enacted upon animals reflects back onto us in a distinctly moral and political sense; people become accustomed to having violence inflicted upon others for their own benefit, and psychologically they externalize that suffering through the act of objectifying the suffering subject as being outside of the sphere of moral concern i.e “they deserve it,” “it’s just an animal”, “they’re terrorists” or, a more extreme example in terms of imbecility “they shouldn’t have blown up the twin towers” and so forth.

And it doesn’t stop at animals; it most certainly is not the case that those living in an imperialist nation, such as the UK, will suddenly freak out in absolute moral indignation at the ongoing behaviour of this country and the suffering engendered by our foreign policy. We ignore it and trivialize it in much the same way we ignore and trivialize the pieces of hacked up animals lining our shopping basket. If a population accrues a certain material benefit from an exploitative practice it will often display a remarkable degree of moral hypocrisy when challenged on such a front; the common retort of “I like eating meat, it tastes nice, who cares about animals” is often accompanied by an equally callous opinion on the plight of, say, Bangladeshi garment workers who will have likely labored to clothe the fine individual expressing such opinions.

What’s more, the absurd amount of meat demanded by populations in the imperialist centers directly impacts upon the lives of those in the peripheries of the global economy. Land seizures, land clearances, destruction of natural environments to make way for cattle grazing and so forth, plays a serious role in the destruction of indigenous economies and the reshaping of internal markets, or their outright annihilation as is often the case. An interesting comparison can be drawn here between the potato blight that impacted upon much of Europe in the middle of the 19th century – the native Irish were by and large expected to subsist, and did subsist, on a largely plant-based diet, potatoes of course, and continue to export produce, including animal products, to the imperialist center, Great Britain.

Yet given that the Irish agricultural economy had largely been reworked precisely to satisfy the import demands of the British ruling class (with Irish landowners of course in tow) this economic relationship had little regard for the material well being of the native population. This isn’t something that has just vanished, and it’s not surprising at all that nation’s with a sizable amount of “food insecurity” continue to export agricultural produce, including dead animals, as part of a subservient relationship to the global north that is strikingly similar to the Irish-British dynamic of the 19th century.

S&C: How would you respond to the suggestion that personal veganism is an individualistic solution to a systemic problem? Or that insisting on personal veganism as a baseline for animal activism is the equivalent of saying anyone who drives a car can’t be opposed to fossil fuel economies, or anyone who wears Nike can’t be opposed to sweatshops?

DR: Potentially, yes it is, although I’d say that “personal veganism” is often the beginning of a valuable attempt to grapple with fundamental questions regarding oppression, resistance and emancipation. It doesn’t always go this way, in fact I’ve come across some vegans who will honestly state that they care nothing for humans, even when witnessing horrific suffering on the part of sentient beings that just happen to be homo sapiens. This is obviously more a position entertained by the psychologically deranged, although it must be said that sometimes it’s a product of a general attempt to withdraw from a reality irrefutably stamped with human activity – an activity which, of course, is often intensely unsettling – and seek refuge in kind of deification of the natural world that flies in the face of reality.

Veganism itself, however, is something I find to be politically and ethically revolutionary in potential, for reasons already stated in terms of economics and imperialism, but also in the simple capacity to empathise. Capitalism is not an empathetic system; it directly chips away at human beings in a multitude of ways, dragging everything down to the commodity relation and a simple interaction between buyer and seller, regardless of what horrors are spawned in the process. Veganism can cut around that, allowing people to take hold of personal ethics in their day to day existence and abstain from participating in a dynamic that views oppression and death as routine, or actually desirable if you can make money from it. In that respect veganism can be deeply empowering, yet again in potential it can only prove “revolutionary” once we expand that “ethic of caring”, for lack of a better term, into the political sphere.

As to whether this is akin to claiming that you can only be concerned about fossil fuels by refusing to drive, I would say there is obviously a connection there, but in terms of the scale of suffering prompted by a carnist diet each and every day, I’d say there is a quantitative difference here.

S&C: Is a vegan capitalism possible? Why or why not?

DR: Potentially, although I find it unlikely that such a thing will ever exist. Outlets selling veganism as a “lifestyle choice” often do very well financially, WholeFoods for instance, yet even these establishments will quite happily sell butchered animals alongside their “ethical” produce.

It’s the case that veganism can be accommodated well enough within the system, assuming the individual vegan adopts the peculiar “I hate humans” mindset already mentioned and is perfectly happy to respect animals yet participate in a system that harms people. This is certainly possible, but only if one removes the revolutionary potential inherit in sympathising with those who are the most helpless, the most vulnerable, and indeed often the most exploited and affronted by the operation of the capitalist system, those of course being animals.

I find it hard to imagine, for instance, the US having an entirely vegan population yet not changing in a very real, very fundamental way in regards to attitudes towards racial minorities, women, the environment and, of course, it’s role in the global economy. For hundreds of millions of people to make a moral decision to value the lives of pigs and cows yet maintain the same psychotic disconnect when it comes to the peoples of the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the abomination of nuclear weapons is, in my view, pretty unlikely.

S&C: Jason Hribal has argued animals should be considered part of the proletariat. Bob Torres has said such a definition obscures the difference in revolutionary potential between animal and human laborers, and that animals are in fact superexploited living commodities. Where do you stand in the debate?

DR: Super-exploited living commodities is, off the top of my head, the term I would prefer to use, given that, to a Marxist, the proletariat necessarily sells it’s labor power to capital for the purpose of accumulating surplus value. This is obviously something that only humans are able to do, and so for the sake of clarity I’d prefer to avoid describing animals as part of the proletariat, although no doubt Hribal frames the argument with some sophistication that I’m probably not being entirely fair to.

As such I would stand with Torres, as animals occupy the frightening position of not just being viewed as commodities when they are alive, as human labor power is also, but of having their physical bodies intimately tied to the use value inherent in their status as a commodity. You could argue humans may experience a similar degradation, women in prostitution in particular quite literally sell their bodies to the predations of others, yet with animals it’s something very specific where their manifestation as a commodity involves their physical annihilation.

The lines are necessarily blurred, however, what with the alarming proliferation of human trafficking and the literal murder and dismemberment of human victims by organ traders, but in terms of scale and frequency animals constitute “living commodities” in a manner far removed from the experience of most humans.

S&C: British socialist Richard Seymour has said the relationship between animals and humans in Marxism is under theorized. Do you agree? If so, what areas are particularly lacking?

DR: I’m actually surprised Seymour said this, given his admitted penchant for Louis Althusser and all the joys that come with that. I’d have to learn more about the context in which Seymour argued this, although at a glance I’d certainly agree. As to how and why such a relationship is “under theorized” I’d have to say there are a number of factors, although the moral disconnect that “First World” populations have when it comes to the consequences of their lifestyles and politics certainly plays a role.

The reduction of any and all beings to the status of a commodity is undeniably a prime cause. Even Marxists will quite happily fawn over a cute kitten obtained like any other saleable item yet then, ten minutes later, purchase and consume the flesh of a cow. Animals as “living commodities” vary in the nature of their utility the same way any other commodity – a car, chair, hat etc – does, but where as a chair owes it’s entire non-sentient existence to human activity, a “food” animal only manifests its use value through the destruction of it’s own agency – literally in most cases – and as such the entire process takes on a directly oppressive, often murderous character.

Why this is not more obvious I have no idea, but a potential cause among the left in particular is the human-centric focus on which Marx and Engels based much of their writings. As we both know Engel’s in particular had an incredibly unsettling attitude to animals, and I hardly think it’s “revisionist” or “petty bourgeois” to distance ourselves from that. It is interesting though in that Marx came fairly close to the absurdity of how capitalism treats both humans and animals when it came to England and the question of land enclosures, as in the human population in rural areas becoming depleted – largely to provide cheap labour in the cities -, but also to make way for…sheep farms. Marx spits some venom at the bourgeoisie here, but obviously doesn’t make that qualitative leap in terms of analyzing the extreme and deliberate proliferation of animal life as “living commodities”.

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