Saturday, August 8, 2015

Jacobin's Species Problem, part one: animal subjects

Jacobin magazine has recently published an article entitled "Peter Singer's Race Problem." There is a lot in this article. Some of it good, most of it not so good. What I hope to do here is to produce a few posts analyzing some of the biggest issues of this article. Though, I have many part ones on this blog, and very few part twos, so there is a chance this blog post will standalone. This post is going to focus on the rather odd claims that animals are the mere "objects of history."

Here are the relevant passages from Jacobin:
The biologist and radical Steven Rose, in his essay “Proud to Be a Speciesist,” says that the term speciesism, "was coined to make the claim that the issue of animal rights is on a par with the struggles for women’s rights, or Black people’s rights, or civil rights. But these human struggles are those in which the oppressed themselves rise up to demand justice and equality, to insist that they are not the objects but the subjects of history." Rose here is using the term in a different sense than Singer does, but his point stands. Animals, no matter what Singer and other animal rights activists may want to claim, are objects of history. To compare them with humans who have suffered and do suffer oppression — and, importantly, consciously resist that oppression — is factually wrong, not to mention reactionary. [...] We should certainly try to alleviate unnecessary suffering when dealing with animals, but as journalist Arun Gupta pointed out in a recent speech, this is at best a case of negative rights: for example, the right of “not needlessly being subjected to cruelty.” Rights, from a materialist perspective, are meaningless outside of human existence; suffering does not necessarily confer rights. It’s only possible to talk about human rights, civil rights, or women’s rights because different groups of humans who face oppression have struggled and continue to struggle to win these rights. This is not the case with animal rights. No animals have ever struggled to gain better treatment in food production or to oppose unnecessary experimentation by cosmetic companies. Insofar as animal rights exist, it is humans who have granted and fought for these rights. Animals themselves cannot be said to have inherent rights that we do not give them. [...] Human beings, whatever their racial identity, possess agency. Enslaved human beings, even in the most brutal days of the chattel system, were self-directed beings who not only felt pain and experienced self-perception but who loved, reasoned, wrote, and above all fought for their own freedom. Other species will never display that kind of agency.

So, there is a lot going on here, but really we can boil this down to (1) animals cannot struggle for their freedom, (2) therefore rights can only be given, and (3) that means animals are mere objects. There are two pretty obvious responses. The first is that obviously animals have struggled, and the second is that the struggle cannot be the only way to be a subject of ethics. Let's explore both of these in a little more detail.

Animals engage in a variety of behaviors that are clearly struggles against oppression, that are obviously about resisting. Take this story about a chimp in a zoo. He would break apart concrete, create piles of stones to throw, and hide those piles of ammunition. Then he would use those stones to attack people attending the zoo. Many scientists believe elephants are suffering from ptsd between poachers and habitat lost, and we have now seen a rash of elephant attacks on towns, and at least some are theorizing that the elephants are trying to fight back.  We could see several other examples. Orcas and elephants killing various "trainers." Some of this has been sketched out in Fear of an Animal Planet. But there are more examples, not just ones of obvious violence. We might want to look at animals refusing to reproduce in captivity, running away from slaughterhouses, going on hunger strikes, going limp when workers try to move them, and a whole host of other behaviors that if they were being done by humans in the same situation we would unproblematically call resistance. This refusal to say that animals are engaging in the same behaviors that would believe if saw humans do it is what Frans de Waal has called anthropodenial. You can see how this disavowal works in the Jacobin piece, where we do not have to care about animals because they are not agents, but we know they are not agents because we have already decided not to see any agency.

Now, you can probably think of several objections here. Let's answer a few. One counter-argument is that these modes of resistance from animal subjects has been ineffective, or is necessarily ineffective. But how can this matter? If this is the case, it means that any social movement for recognition or rights cannot be taken seriously until they have effectively won. Another argument is that maybe struggle must be recognized by the dominate for it to matter. If an animal goes on a hunger strike, and no one understands it as a such, does it count as struggle? Well, if it doesn't than that simply means that all rights are conferred by the dominate group, which would not seem to be what the Jacobin writers want. Furthermore it would delegitimize all the resistance that is fugitive and infrapolitical.   Perhaps the issue is that animals' resistance is not conscience as such. Well, first, no real way to know. Second, that would delegitimize all attempts to create communities and lives outside of hegemonic power that is not consciously committed to being resistant. The last objection I can think of is such resistance is not organized. But organize resistance cannot be the only way one gains a right to have rights, can it? Maybe that is the case.

This leads us to the second contention against the Jacobin argument. Namely, why does struggle matter is the first place? The authors of the piece don't even bother to present this argument. Why, of all the grounds necessary for caring about others, is resistance key? The authors reject suffering. One assumes they also reject sociality, joy, vulnerability, and any number of other qualities that are transspecies. No reason is given. But you also feel they can't really believe this. We can think of any number of groups, groups that are usually considered moral patients, eg babies, that we are sure the writers believe we have a moral duty towards. Or what happens if we finally over come oppression (that should be the goal, right?), and in a few generations there are women who do not suffer sexism, queers who won't suffer homophobia, people of color who are not oppressed by racism, etc. Will those generations of humans suddenly have, paradoxically, lost their rights? We are produced and undone by each other. We mingle, and co-become, and build new futures and worlds. And none of this is uniquely human.


Okay, I hope to write at least two more posts. One on race, and another on capitalism. We'll see if that happens. If I don't get to it, you can check out this former post on critical race theory/critical animal theory. Needless to say, I can certainly agree to a criticism that Peter Singer has some issues when it comes to thinking about race, and that the animal rights movement has certainly fucked up, a lot and often, when it comes to race.
I don't think I will get into this later, but so I will put this here as an aside. This article spends a lot of time talking and theorizing about rights. Which is fine. But it is worth pointing out that as a preference utilitarian, Peter Singer doesn't actually care about rights. Moral obligations are therefore not based upon rights for him. Remember your Bentham, rights are "nonsense upon stilts." This isn't really important for my previous discussion, it just seems a technical point that matters if you are, you know, writing an article about Peter Singer.