Monday, August 24, 2015

Guest Post: Jacobin's Species Problem, Part Two: Agents, Systems, and Similarity

[I got behind on writing my follow-ups to my last post, however Robert Stanton stepped in to write this wonderful post. -Scu]

Thanks to Scu for the chance to respond further to Sarah Grey and Joe Cleffie’s piece “Peter Singer’s Race Problem” in Jacobin from a couple of weeks ago. Scu has already started the conversation with his previous post, and I’d like to follow some of his points a bit further and also make a few broader observations about the issue of speciesism within a socialist critique.

The main strength of Grey and Cleffie’s article is its observation that rights discourse is at best a weak tool to address animal suffering and exploitation: “Rights,” as they note, “from a materialist perspective, are meaningless outside of human existence; suffering does not necessarily confer rights.” Indeed rights, as a humanist conception, are granted by and to only those individuals who are deemed worthy of them by a certain group of people. Even within the human community, though, the entrenchment of individual rights has been questioned as a reification of specific aspects of what it means to be human: as Wendy Brown observes, constructions of individuality “are predicated upon a humanism that routinely conceals its gendered, racial and sexual norms” (“Suffering Rights as Paradoxes,” 238). The extension of rights to animals, on an individual or a group level, has struck many critics and activists alike as flawed because it inevitably relies on a criterion of rights-worthiness based on one or more characteristics shared with humans, usually including suffering, communicative ability, and rational agency. A classic example is the Great Apes Project, which has fought with some success for the extension of basic rights to “the non-human great primates” who are biologically and cognitively closest to humans.

Grey and Cleffie, by contrast, both recognize and embrace the humanism inherent in most rights discourse: they deny rights to animals specifically because they supposedly lack the human characteristic of rational agency:
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.
Scu has already pointed out the flaws in this argument: not only is it factually wrong (many animals not only love and reason, but do fight for their freedom), but it employs usefully circular logic: if you define agency as all of the things that oppressed humans supposedly do but oppressed animals supposedly do not (direct themselves, love, reason, write, fight for their freedom), then you must by definition deny animals that agency, and hence any sympathy or care that depends on the agency. Lacking this quality, animals immediately become the “objects of history,” subject to those who do possess rational agency. Such a definition implicitly denies agency to animal struggle because it is not conscious, organized, or effective. But this raises disturbing questions within human history.

As Henry Louis Gates notes (drawing on Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts), a significant strain of historiography denied that slaves ever revolted in nineteenth-century America, for some very familiar-sounding reasons: the Harvard scholar James Schouler declared in 1882 that “the negro” was an “imitator and non-moralist,” “easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots,” “a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip.” Slaves have revolted frequently throughout history, sometimes with success (especially in the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804); in the United States, numerous slave revolts took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 being the best known. Such revolts were certainly conscious, they were sometimes well-organized and sometimes disorganized, and, crucially, they were largely ineffective in overturning the larger institution of slavery; its end was instead largely the result of organized protest by non-slaves. Similarly, Jews rose up in ghettos and camps under the Nazi regime, without significantly changing the progress of imprisonment and genocide. Does the fact that there were not more revolts, or more organized and effective revolts, by black slaves and Jewish prisoners mean that these people were less subjects, and more objects, of history? At this point, the subject/object distinction becomes so muddy as to lose any moral force.

Comparisons such as these inevitably generate great offense to many. Grey and Cleffie claim that “[m]emes – and serious political arguments – that compare factory farms to slavery and genocide are profoundly racist.” They cite examples such as PETA’s use of lynching and Holocaust imagery, the appearance in your Facebook feed of “inflammatory memes juxtaposing images of factory-farmed chickens with images of slave ships or Nazi concentration camps” if you have “animal-rights activists or vegan evangelists” among your online friends, and the backlash to outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion at a time when the killing of African-Americans receives far too little outrage, generating a counter-backlash with the hashtag #animallivesmatter. Inflammatory images, memes, and slogans that assert simple equivalency justifiably generate outrage and offense, especially #animallivesmatter, which cravenly combines the energy of #blacklivesmatter with an ignorance of the underlying issues of oppression at stake.

But “serious political arguments” should not automatically be lumped in with incendiary activist language. Language matters here: if someone says that one thing is exactly the same as another thing, then you should immediately be suspicious of that claim, because no two different things are the same thing. The Jacobin piece frequently uses the word “equivalent,” which in its etymology and usage in this context means something like “having equal moral force or effect.” The idea of “equivalence” between human and animal oppression may convince some people, but will offend many more, especially at a time when the violent force (the “-valence in “equivalence”) of racist institutions and practices continues on a daily basis.

A more effective term might be “similar,” which does not assert equal force but means more precisely “comparable in some respect that is significant and useful for purposes of argument.” Such a concept would much more easily apply to comparisons between racism and speciesism, or mistreatment of humans and animals, even more at a systemic than an agential level. Important for a socialist analysis, similarities allow us to examine the overlapping structural, material, and technological relationships among oppressions. None of this requires asserting that an animal life has the same value as a human life, or even engaging in moral equivalences and analogies. But it does allow us to examine the ways racism and speciesism can engage in logics that support one another, or allow us to look at the material technology of barbed wire in cattle yards, colonialism, and concentration camps. Again, the point is to think at the systemic level, and not only the agential level.

Clearly, Peter Singer’s brand of utilitarian philosophy, by focusing so narrowly on individual agency, fails to account for violence and injustice that is exercised at systemic and institutional levels, as the authors note: “Singer thinks human consciousness has advanced with regard to racism, contending that, while racism still exists, it is widely condemned, and that where it does persist it can be explained by people’s individual attitudes.” Singer is not wrong to assert that speciesism is at a very early stage in terms of its recognition and evaluation: many people would deny that the concept exists, and many more would deny that it is a moral problem. But he clearly holds too optimistic a view of the ebbing away of racism: as Grey and Cleffie note, “entire academic disciplines” have demonstrated, using data and sustained moral argumentation, the persistent structural inequalities of racism, which cannot be effectively combatted solely by arguments about individual choice and agency.

But the imbalance between individual and mass consciousness is itself the big problem in the article. The authors acknowledge “the indisputably horrendous treatment of animals in the industrial production of meat,” but note that individual action such as becoming vegetarian or vegan, or avoiding products supported by animal experimentation, are “ineffective in actually changing the current system.” By way of comparison, “boycotts are only effective when they are part of the strategy of a mass movement that directly challenges the systemic nature of racism.” In fact, animal advocacy groups, whether welfarist or abolitionist, have been undertaking just such mass action for decades, a fact completely ignored here.

Reading the article for the first time, I hoped that a more sustained and productive comparison between anti-racist and anti-speciesist action, one based on effective mass action, would follow. But the obvious next step is glaringly absent: namely, the recognition that the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture is itself structural, systemic, and institutionalized. Animal abuse, and the condition of human workers, worsen when size, speed, and efficiency are maximized: the very things that are necessary for profitable production and distribution in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and especially in the rapid expansion of meat production in developing countries. [This is probably why there exists a broad literature on anti-capitalist analysis and anti-animal exploitation analysis. See, for a partial overview, the work of Ted Benton, Bill Martin, David Nibert, and Nicole Shukin.] Such an argument could, of course, be used to support smaller, more humane, and more sustainable animal agriculture; arguments both for and against such efforts continue to be made by people embracing or critical of capitalist economies. But the fact remains that speciesism as a moral norm – the belief that animals are a category of consumable commodity - specifically benefits the economic systems that depend on its tenacity.
In the end, the authors completely fudge the essential moral dimension within a socialist critique:
There is no question that a rational socialist system would make drastic changes to our current methods of food production; we might indeed eat much less meat than we do now, even if it was of a higher quality. But humanely raised and slaughtered animals could certainly be one component of a food production system created to mitigate the current rate of climate change and to feed not the hunger of profiteers but the hunger of ordinary people.
After briefly mentioning that the treatment of animals under current conditions is a moral issue but not exploring it, the authors conspicuously omit it from a list of moral considerations under a “rational socialist system,” nor could it ever be properly included in such a system without recognizing the functioning of the food production system within current capitalist economies. As a critique of individualist, utilitarian moral philosophy, the article hits the mark, but an effective socialist critique requires an acknowledgement of the entrenched, largely unquestioned power structures that underlie systems of oppression, and their intersections across species boundaries.

Robert Stanton is an Associate Professor of English at Boston College. He is currently at work on a book entitled Holy Signs and Fruitful Toil: Animal Voices and Human Literature in Anglo-Saxon England.