Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Animal Abolition and Prison Abolition: An historical perspective.

Over at the Animal Law Coalition, there is a post concerning a bill that will greatly expand prosecutors abilities in animal cruelty cases for GA. Considering I am still registered to vote in GA, I took my time to make some phone calls on behalf of this bill (if you are registered to vote in GA, you might want to take some time do the same). And while I think this change is important, I was somewhat uncomfortable at the same time. It goes to a broader conflict I have with the increasing police-ification of the animal rights movement.

As many of you know, not only am I am abolitionist when it comes to viewing animals as property, I am also a prison abolitionist. You know, I'm generally for empty cages, for everyone. So, it obviously bothers me that many animal abolitionists often support stronger prison sentences, and tend to get gleeful about locking up individuals. Now, I get it. When you think people are murderers and torturers, it's hard not to want them to get their just deserts, and we live in a society that makes you think that means prison. Or course, we also live in a society that makes most of what we do to animals not count as murder or torture. Rethinking some of these societal norms is probably a good idea, especially for the animal abolitionist.

It also bespeaks a great deal of privilege to think that increased presence of police and illegality leads to more justice and protection. Practically speaking, that's seldom the case. As Angela Davis phrases it in one of the better passages from Are Prisons Obsolete?
Why were people so quick to assume that locking away an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. population would help those who lived in the free world feel safer and more secure? This question can be formulated in more general terms. Why do prisons tend to make people think their own rights and liberties are more secure than they would be if prisons did not exist? (p. 14)

Now, there are many animal abolitionists who come from either an anarchist tradition or a tradition that means prisons and cops don't make you feel more secure. But such people are marginal within a still relatively marginal movement. What is interesting is that this dynamic with an animal rights movement is not new.

I recently read Leela Gandhi's absolutely wonderful book, Affective Communities. I highly suggest it to anyone, especially the chapter on "Meat." In there, Gandhi distinguishes between two different turn of the century animal welfare movements occurring within the British metropol. On the one hand you had the socially semi-disgraceful group centered mainly around The Vegetarian Society, composed of anticolonial agitators, anarchists, socialists, feminists, gay activists, etc. On the other hand you had the respected animal welfare group centered mainly around the RSPCA (the royal part certainly indicts their level of social respect). This second group of mainstream animal welfarists were able to pass some of the first legislation on animal welfare.
These efforts finally bore fruit in 1822, when a historic bill, introduced into the Commons by Sir Richard Martin, member for Galway, succeeded in extending protection to "Horses, Mares, Geldings, Mules, Donkeys, Cows, Heifers, Bull Calves, Oxen, Sheep, and other Livestock." Henceforth anyone having charges of these creatures and caught wantonly beating, abusing, or ill-treating them was liable for a fine of between ten shillings and five pounds, or imprisonment for up to two months. (p. 88)

Many of the laws suggested or passed by the English Parliament about animals welfare, were dedicated to the bloodsports and pass times of the poor and working classes (and indeed, most of our laws about animal welfare in this country follow a similar model). The laws were meant not to (just) protect animals, but also instill into the poor and working class a examples in order to make them "better." Or, as the the RSPCA put it in their original meeting, their purpose was not only "to prevent the exercise of cruelty towards animals, but to spread among the lower orders of people.. a degree of moral feeling which would compel them to think and act like of a superior class." (quoted in Gandhi, p. 93) And if these laws, therefore, resulted in more policing and interference among these classes, well it wasn't an accident but a purposeful by-product discussed as much among the members of Parliament.
In this case the relationship between the respected animal welfarists and the early utilitarians does not come across as an accident. Rather, we see in utilitarianism a similar desire for hierarchical forceful obedience in order to produce a people that followed certain mores and norms (governmentality, in other words). We can see this in Bentham's involvement with prisons and James and John Stuart Mill's involvement and support of British colonialism.
And while I am not sure I would ascribe the obvious defects of the classical animal welfare movement to the people fighting for animal rights today, I would say that the modern penal system carries with it the indelible marks of its origins: those of coloniality, racism, and classism.
Those of us in the animal abolition movement have a duty to tread carefully around these legal instruments, and to refuse to support, at least more often than not, anything that expands the present prison industrial complex.
Which I guess brings me back to the GA bill. I'm not sure about this bill, but I also believe it is important to get other animals out of situations of neglect and abuse that doesn't currently exist. Which is why I think it is probably something to be supported. But I certainly won't hide the fact that such issues are complex, and I that I could be wrong.

As sort of an asterisk on the discussion of utilitarianism. I want to say that not only do I think we've seen a change the current animal rights movement, I think we have as we have as well in the current utilitarian philosophy, as well. It is also worth noting that Bentham supported a good number of liberal, even radical positions in his day. So, I think utilitarianism, especially the ways it was originally formulated were deeply messed up. I also sometimes think it gets a bum rap. But I don't have much to say (at this time) on this last point.