Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Some thoughts on Abolitionism vs. Welfarism

As most of you know, I don't think much of turning tactical or strategic disagreements into absolute disagreements among those who seek animal emancipation. Well, while writing a review of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals for this blog (and btw, let me suggest Peter Gratton's post on this book), I found myself getting into a long tangent that I have decided to make into a post of its own.

One of the things that will confuse and/or bother traditional vegan abolitionists who read JSF's Eating Animals is that not only is he generally favorably disposed to both the HSUS and PETA, but he treats them as different sorts of organizations. That is to say, while he calls HSUS an animal welfare organization, he calls PETA an animal rights organization. Now, in certain circles of animal abolitionists it has become almost a tautology to call both PETA and HSUS welfare organizations. The logic of such a move is explained by Gary Francione in this podcast. (I know that podcast is from September, may I also say that I almost never listen to podcasts from anyone, I just don't have a lot of time that format makes sense for me).

In this podcast Francione argues that one cannot both support abolition for animals and support moves of animal welfare. One cannot both be for bigger cages and no cages. He makes makes two types of arguments to support this claim: The second set he makes a series of historical arguments that the only welfare changes that industry adopts are made for profit. That is to say, they would do so regardless of the efforts of organizations like PETA. The first set of arguments is the ones I have problems with, which is that he argues that it is simply speciesist to say one is for welfare now as we work for an end goal of abolition. His support for this argument is that one would never argue for better rape, or better murder, or better torture (though he catches himself when he says this), or better child molestation. One would fight to end all of this. It is only because they are animals that we argue for better slaughtering practices rather than an end to all slaughtering practices. But Francione's analogies are problematic because they all represent things we have already agreed as a society to oppose. What we need to look at are other radical movements, but these involving humans.
Well, one of the other issues I am very concerned with is the abolition of prisons. Again, this is an institution that is truly unforgivable. And even a cursory history of prisons would show that many reforms actually strengthen the carceral society rather than reduce its strength. (For those interested in knowing more, I cannot suggest Stanley Cohen's Visions of Social Control strongly enough). Even with all of this being true, one of the things that prison abolitionists are constantly confronted with is if they should devote resources to reformist projects or not. Should you, for example, spend time to make sure prisoners get decent health care treatment? Or create a drop-in center for the formerly incarcerated? Or allow condom distribution in prisons (which was, last I checked, banned in 49 states and the federal system)? Or a million other things that could make the lives of those caught up in the carceral society slightly better? I don't think these questions can be answered ahead of time. I don't think we can always say we should support every reform, no matter how small, or oppose every reform, no matter how big. I think these questions have to be addressed as they come, with a grasp of history and the stakes involved. We also have to admit that we are not purists, but the abolition is necessary to stop the suffering, exploitation, and violence systematically done to those caught up in these processes and institutions. Labeling those who disagree with the decision you have made about these questions as not being sufficently dedicated doesn't seem to help.