Manifesto for Radical Abolitionism: Total Liberation By Any Means Necessary

By Dr. Steven Best, 11/13/09

I.

The nonhuman animal advocacy movement is at a crucial crossroads where truly it is now do or die. In the early 1980s, a new animal rights movement glowed bright with potential; in just a few years, however, the light faded to black as corruption, opportunism, and bureaucracy snuffed out the promise of genuine change. As they evolved, it became increasingly obvious that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other groups emulated the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to become corporate behemoths and mainstream machines. Increasingly co-opted and compromised, animal rights groups frequently worked with, rather than against, the exploitation industries in order to regulate, not eliminate, the ongoing nonhuman animal holocaust.

In the last decade, for instance, PETA pressured McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC to increase cage size and adopt “less cruel and more profitable” slaughter methods,[1] while HSUS aggressively campaigned for “humane meat” and “cage-free eggs.” These groups ultimately serve corporate exploiters’ interests and champion capitalist principles generally. But whereas PETA began as a grassroots organization in 1980, and continues to defend the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and to promote veganism, HSUS has been a bureaucratic welfare group since its inception in 1954, it consistently denounces the ALF, and has always capitulated to carnivorous culture as it barely gives support even for vegetarianism.

Lest anyone in either the industry or advocacy camps had any doubts, HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle put them to rest in a sycophantic July 2009 interview on Agritalk radio. Pacelle virtually apologized for being vegan in his private life and assured the flesh, vivisection, hunting, zoo, and circus industries that they had nothing to fear from HSUS, as his goal is to promote “decency and mercy toward animals” and not to close their operations.[2]

II.

In direct response to the wretched reformism and opportunism of bureaucratic “welfarism,” a new movement emerged to reconstruct nonhuman animal advocacy unequivocally as a struggle for animal rights, not “welfare”; for the total abolition of nonhuman animal slavery rather than its regulation; and for veganism, not “humane” animal-derived products of any kind. To a significant degree, the new vegan abolitionist movement has been shaped and defined by the work of Gary Francione, professor of law at Rutgers University. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Francione exposed the duplicity of “new welfarists” who use the term “animal rights” but pursue “welfarist” policies. These policies, Francione argues, are incoherent and dilute the meaning of rights; “welfarism” in any form, he insists, works to the benefit of industries and thus increases, rather than decreases, the demand for animal-derived products; it only aggravates, rather than alleviates, speciesism and the plight of nonhuman animals in horrific systems of exploitation.

Francione tapped and mobilized growing dissatisfaction with corporate reformism and sparked a growing vegan abolitionist movement. More accurately, he revived a vegan movement first created by Donald Watson in 1944, and was sustained by vegan societies such as in the UK and US. These societies maintained Watson’s broad and political vision of veganism not merely as a diet but rather as an ethical and political commitment to the abolition of nonhuman animal exploitation and, indeed, to all systems of oppression.[3] Francione wedded the pacifist ideals of ancient Jainism, Watson’s vegan viewpoint, and the philosophy of animal rights first systematically developed in 1983 by Tom Regan, merging these influences in a new matrix of pacifist vegan abolitionism.

Francione typically speaks as if he invented veganism, and sycophantic followers such as Roger Yates claim that a bona fide “animal rights movement” only began in 2006 with the ascendant influence of Francione’s work.[4] But Francione mostly returned to Watson’s original teachings, albeit often in diluted form that retains the ethical vision linking food choices to moral commitments to oppressed nonhuman animals, but without a consistent political commitment to working against all forms of oppression and exploitation. Abolitionist approaches toward speciesism began within the nineteenth century feminist-antivivisectionists, were deepened in Watson and emerging vegan societies, informed the hunt saboteur movements in the UK from the 1960s to the present, and were advanced in historically momentous ways in 1976 when Ronnie Lee founded the Animal Liberation Front.

While Francione advanced a forceful critique of “welfarism” and took animal rights philosophy to a new level, he has nonetheless proved to be bereft of political vision and incapable of forging a genuine resistance movement that can evolve beyond the marginalized position currently embraced by less than one percent of the human population. In Francione’s religious, tepid, and apolitical rendering, vegan abolitionism remains an elitist, white, Eurocentric consumerist lifestyle easily co-opted by capitalism and dominant ideologies. Moreover, Francione has spawned a cult-like following – “Franciombes” – who parrot his fundamentalist, rigid, bellicose, and Manichean positions; with slavish devotion to their Master and his hostile manner, Franciombes defame his critics in a style more suited to Machiavelli than Jains.

III.

The Guru and his disciples come together in a dance of doctrine and dogma. Like Christian fundamentalists, Francione and his followers believe they possess the Truth while all others struggle in error. As Francione argues there is literally “no alternative,” only chaos and ruin, except for their approach based on obedience to law, peaceful education, and focus on individuals and consumption habits over institutions and productive imperatives stemming from global capitalism. For them, the world is black and white, answers are cut and dry, and complexity is reduced to the Procrustean bed of either/or, rather than enlivened through the dialectical logic of both/and.

According to the pacifist party line, militant direct action (MDA) tactics such as economic sabotage are ALWAYS wrong and NEVER effective. Excusing themselves from the work of analyzing the complexities and unique specific situations, Franciombes fashion a handy a priori “truth” and apply it mechanically to every action that has happened or will happen. Their ignorance of history is matched only by their mental rigidity. For over three decades, in dozens of countries throughout the world, in countless thousands of actions, liberators and saboteurs have freed hundreds of thousands of captive nonhuman animals; permanently shut down numerous breeders, “fur farmers,” and vivisectors; and convinced countless numbers of individuals to find gainful employment in careers other than nonhuman animal exploitation, while inspiring people worldwide to join the animal liberation movement.

In all this, Franciombes see no value or gain and, despite operations closed forever, they can only repeat the baseless claim that all damaged property is rebuilt and all liberated nonhuman animals are “replaced.” This may happen in some cases, but in light of the many operations shut down for good, this clearly is a false claim; even when animals are replaced and property rebuilt and restored, rising insurance costs are enough to weaken and jeopardize the viability of small and moderate operations at least. Whereas dogmatic pacifists hide under the cover of ignorance and denial, corporate exploiters themselves have testified to the effectiveness of ALF actions.[5]

By vilifying sabotage tactics as “violent,” and by conflating attacks on property with assaults on people, Franciombes adopt the reactionary discourse and position of the FBI and the corporate-state-media complex. They needlessly and divisively pit education in opposition to illegal tactics (even open rescues), as if the two tactics were irreconcilably opposed rather than complimentary aspects of a revolutionary process.

Despite some talk of capitalism, commonalities of oppression, and alliance politics, Francione ultimately pushes a simplistic, single-issue “go vegan” approach pitched to a white, affluent, privileged, Western audience, with no intent to engage people of color, working class families, the poor, or China and India – the world’s most populous nations now in rapid transition from maintaining traditional plant-based diets to embracing Western diets rooted in consuming “animal products” including flesh, milk, and eggs.

Francione thereby reinforces the dismal elitist, classist, and racist stigmas attached to activists for nonhuman animals since the beginning of “animal protectionism” in the early nineteenth century, and he further isolates veganism and animal rights from progressive movements and the social mainstream. Unable to articulate a structural theory of oppression, exploitation, and ideological hegemony, and mired in Western dualisms and the construction of false oppositions such as between production/consumption, individual/social, and psychological/institutional, Francione exculpates the logic and global machinery of capitalism to lay the entire burden of blame and responsibility on individual consumers.

Certainly, humans do have agency and need to take responsibility for transforming their personal lives, such as by engaging the ecological and ethical imperative to go vegan. But politically and pedagogically it is also crucial for citizens to recognize the formidable power of the structural forces in their lives and the ways in which sedimented economic and political institutions pose profound obstacles to teaching, learning, and progressive ethical and social change. Psychological and ethical change is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of the large-scale social transformations needed for creating viable democratic and ecological cultures.

Internalizing the capitalist ideology of liberal individualism, this pseudo-abolitionist offers nothing but the most banal and tepid reformism which is no more effective in changing the overall social relations of domination than “welfarism” is in breaking the chains of speciesist oppression. Rather than advancing on Watson’s formulation, Francione offers a regressive and hollow version of a rich ethical political ideal opposed to all forms of exploitation and hierarchy.

IV.

Franciombes eliminate complexity and ambiguity from the social-political picture, and reek of arrogance, dogma, and condescension. They cling to the religious conviction that any approach to veganism, animal rights, or abolitionism other than what Francione has set in stone is false, reactionary, and “welfarist.” They promiscuously deploy the phrase “new welfarist” to discredit others in the movement, much as McCarthyites hurled the epithet of “communist” and post-9/11 patriots terrorize with the discourse of “terrorism” to discredit their opponents as irrational extremists.

Indeed, in McCarthyist fashion, upon receiving alleged death threats from supporters of confrontational or illegal direct action, Francione made reckless accusations and named names of anyone (including avowed pacifists) remotely connected to such a devious terrorist plot. Moreover, Francione routinely brands his opponents as “mad” or “insane,” as if disagreement with his divine teachings were evidence of psychological impairment and oblivious to the normalizing and ableist implications of crude dichotomies of sane/insane and rational/irrational.

Unable to grasp the root causes of hierarchical domination and ecological crisis, blaming individuals over institutions, Francione is hardly positioned to grasp the nature of the problems afflicting other animals and the planet let alone to offer potential solutions and viable tactics. And thus we get nothing beyond the hopelessly vague, liberal pseudo-panacea of “vegan education.” Apparently limited to blogging and podcasting to the choir, Francione & followers are bereft of politics, and, in fact, they lack even the most rudimentary elements of a theory and practice of education – more than a small problem for an approach seeking change through vegan education. Their outlook is utterly delusional in the conviction that veganism is the main vehicle and catalyst for individual enlightenment and, thereby, for social change. These pugilistic pacifists cling to a Christian-like faith that somehow, someday their insular polemics and feeble “education” efforts will transform the heart and soul of humanity and, thereby, change society as a whole. Oblivious to the threshold we are about to cross, they promote slow, incremental change amidst rapid, systemic ecological breakdown.

Incredibly, as global ecological and social crises rapidly mount, Francione ignores the most crucial events of the day – human overpopulation, species extinction crisis, deforestation, global climate change, and the destructive growth imperatives inherent in the capitalist economy. The chaos theory model Franciombes use to buttress their collective hallucination of a “vegan revolution” is far more applicable to the exponential growth of flesh consumption in China and India. For every person who becomes vegan, a thousand flesh-eaters arise in these rapidly industrializing societies and elsewhere such as Brazil and South Africa. The Franciombe concern over “replacement” of liberated nonhuman animals seems to elude them as it applies to their own single-issue approach, which fails to realize that for every vegan convert they celebrate, armies of necrovores are continuously born and raised.

Francione’s approach is complacent, detached from reality, and irrelevant to the massive and complex struggle necessary to forestall biological meltdown and ecological catastrophe. Pacifist lifestyle veganism is another dead-end and groundless hope, totally inadequate to the unprecedented challenge of a planet in crisis. If once progressive, Francione’s approach is now clearly reactionary. It is a pseudo-abolitionist movement, bourgeois lifestyle veganism; it is a one-dimensional, single-issue, Eurocentric, white, elitist, consumerist, capitalist construct that vegans and abolitionists need to shed quickly.

Where Franciombes seek to trademark abolition and revile as mere “welfarism” any vision not their own, this group aims to blow the doors off their cultish theology in order to reinvigorate thinking, restore common sense, situate veganism in its broadest political context, and revitalize possibilities for revolutionary change. Our options are not confined to either the “welfarism” of HSUS or the pseudo-abolitionism and lifestyle veganism of Francione. There are other ways, such as history reveals and the future requires.

V.

We need a far richer and more radical concept of abolitionism that draws from and revitalizes the strength and power of the nineteenth century anti-human slavery movement that erupted in the US (and of course earlier in the UK). Unlike the pale imitation and caricature espoused by Franciombes, the version of abolitionism we champion is far more in tune with the radicalism, pluralism, and alliance politics (imperfect and impermanent as it was) of nineteenth-century abolitionism. But eschewing nostalgia and outmoded political models, this approach also draws from numerous other contemporary theories and political movements. We recognize the need for radical social change and we understand that the fight against speciesism, capitalism, the state, and hierarchy in all forms will be waged on many different fronts simultaneously. We seek to reinvigorate a movement sold-out by corporate opportunists and paralyzed by pacifists who sympathize with the latent “humanity” of oppressors and demonize the militant wing of animal liberation, a perverse inversion of loyalties and misguided sentiments manifested in the Stockholm Syndrome mindset evident in the mindset of fundamentalist pacifists who enjoin activists to respect the humanity of murderous oppressors as they demonize and vilify militant liberationists6

We cannot stop the speciesist and corporate war on nonhuman animals and the planet with blogging, leafleting, tabling, and recipe books alone. Capitalism is inherently destructive, and change will never come solely through education and persuasion, nor without a movement more powerful than the agents and institutions of omnicidal destruction. As radical pedagogy theorist Paulo Freire himself insisted – education can only be part of a much broader and multi-pronged movement of resistance, struggle, and change. Thus, like all priorl revolutions, human and nonhuman animals will not win liberation because oppressors suddenly see the light, but rather because enough people become enlightened and learn how to rock the structures of power, to shake them until new social arrangements emerge.

It is not only the content of Francione’s positions we challenge, but also the very form and method of his approach. We cannot progress in the struggle for liberation or hope to be politically relevant unless we abandon Francione’s dualistic, either/or logic for a dialectical both/and logic, one that abandons all bogus dichotomies and false separations. Thus, we need education and agitation, mainstream and militant tactics, peaceful resistance and confrontation and sabotage, and aboveground/legal and underground/illegal means of weakening speciesist capitalism.

We need more, not less, vegan education, of a kind that shatters the enclaves of white privilege in which Franciombes entomb abolitionism and reaches out to the poor, working classes, inner cities, less-industrialized nations, and, crucially, the emerging crisis flashpoints in the burgeoning population giants of China and India. And, despite one of his most persistent and vapid imposed false options, those who work underground to liberate nonhuman animals through raids can and do rescue other animals from “shelters.”

While we support the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, and defend the importance of economic sabotage, we also recognize that property destruction is only a rear-guard and minor means of resistance that has to yield to a broad social movement. Still, it remains an important – sometimes seemingly the only – means of resistance against the capitalist property system, and merits support as we simultaneously work toward building political alliances on a global scale and in an unprecedentedly broad and inclusive way.

The pluralist and contextualist approach central to our position absorbs the partial value and validity of vegan abolitionism, but without the debilitating dogmatism and disabling rejection of effective tactics simply because they do not conform to an ancient code or utopian ideal that only serves to strengthen oppression and to reassure oppressors they have nothing to fear from an “opposition” movement.[7] It abandons single-issue fetishism and the complacency of class and racial privilege in favor of diversity, solidarity, and bridge-building with those most economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized. Only in this way, can the profound importance of veganism and animal rights be recognized and respected by a social majority; only in alliance with other struggles can its revolutionary potential be realized.

In the consumerist and privatized lifestyle form promoted by Franciombes, however, veganism is the opiate of the people, and Murray Bookchin’s polemic against apolitical “lifestyle anarchism” can be fruitfully applied to the vaporous lifestyle veganism championed by Franciombes and others.[8]

We endorse a form of abolition that (1) defends the use of high-pressure direct action tactics, along with illegal raids, rescues, and sabotage attacks; (2) views capitalism as an inherently irrational, exploitative, and destructive system, and sees the state as a corrupt tool whose function is to advance the economic and military interests of the corporate domination system and to repress opposition to its agenda; (3) has a broad, critical understanding of how different forms of oppression are interrelated, seeing human animal, nonhuman animal, and earth liberation as inseparable projects; and, thus, (4) promotes an anti-capitalist alliance politics with other rights, justice, and liberation movements who share the common goal of dismantling all systems of hierarchical domination and rebuilding societies through decentralization and democratization processes.[9]

VI.

We form this new group out of the need for a radical social approach to veganism and animal rights that transcends bourgeois liberalism; the need for a global Left that renounces speciesism and all other ancient and lingering prejudices and forms of oppression; the need for post-hierarchical worldviews and democratic and ecological societies; and the need for total liberation and revolutionary transformation.

Forget Francione

We must link the liberation of other animals to human and Earth liberation, and build a revolutionary movement strong enough to vanquish capitalist hegemony and to remake society without the crushing loadstones of anthropocentrism, speciesism, patriarchy, racism, classism, statism, heterosexism, ableism, and every other pernicious form of hierarchical domination. Humanity may not succeed in this endeavor, but it is one that we must undertake. It is no longer the classical choice between “revolution or barbarism,” but now that of revolution or ecological collapse and mass extinction.

We have two goals. First, we aim to expose the fatal flaws in Francione’s approach, and provide a positive alternative to his apolitical, one-dimensional, and single issue form of abolitionism. This approach provides a greater openness, diversity, and flexibility of tactics in contrast to the dogmatic and artificially constrained options Francione leaves open for his extreme pacifist approach. Since this alternative model is richer, multidimensional, and far more political, it opens to an alliance politics with other progressive and radical causes and groups.

And as we promote alliance politics, it is crucial to find ways of building bridges and forming commonalities. And thus our second and quite modest goal is simply to open a space for new forms of thought and struggle that revolve around the ideal of total liberation and a new ethics and politics that transcend humanism – however broadly defined – and encompasses all sentient beings and the natural world. We must first and foremost forge channels of communication to link vegan and nonhuman animal liberation communities with human animal liberation and environmental communities, representing a politics for the 21st century. In this endeavor, we hope to make this site and possible others a rich storehouse of information and a valuable medium for discussion and debate.

We reach out to any and all people from any of these communities to contribute to this crucial endeavor. Clearly, this broad spectrum of thought and politics will not agree on all points, but it is more important to focus on similarities and shared concerns, such as arise from the devastating impact of capitalism on social, sentient, and natural worlds with mutual concerns of peace, justice, equality, democracy, rights, autonomy, and ecology.

Notes:

[1] For PETA’s approach, see “The Case for Controlled-Atmosphere Killing”.

[2] For a transcript of the interview, click here.

[3] For Watson’s seminal 1944 essay arguing for a broad ethical and political concept of veganism, see: ukveggie.com/vegan_news/vegan_news_1.pdf.

[4] Roger Yates, “Three Years Young”.

[5] Susan Paris, president of vivisection-industry front group Americans for Medical Progress, for example, admits the ALF has had a large impact on vivisectionists, writing, “Because of terrorist acts by animal activists like Coronado, crucial research projects have been delayed or scrapped. More and more of the scarce dollars available to research are spent on heightened security and higher insurance rates. Promising young scientists are rejecting careers in research. Top-notch researchers are getting out of the field.” Moreover, the August 1993 Report to Congress on Animal Enterprise Terrorism describes the effectiveness of ALF tactics:, “Where the direct, collateral, and indirect effects of incidents such as this are factored together, ALFs professed tactic of economic sabotage can be considered successful, and its objectives, at least towards the victimized facility, fulfilled.” Both quotations cited at animalliberationfront.com.

[6] For a vivid and grotesque example of the Stockholm Syndrome and the internalization of the capitalist superego, see Lee Hall’s scurrilous attack on MDA in her self-published screed, Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror (2006). For critical dissection of the multitude of fallacies, errors, and abysmal scholarship informing this pacifist propaganda tract (which one could easily mistake for a political attack from a vivisection industry front group or the FBI), see the essays by Best and Miller listed in note 7. Also see the devastating critiques from UK activists deeply involved in the campaigns Hall distorted and denounced: Steven Best, Jason Miller, Joan Court, Janet Tomlinson, and Lynn Sawyer, “Presence of Malice: UK Activists Vs. Lee Hall”, Alison Banville, “Lee Hall: Unplugged and Unmasked”; and Lynn Sawyer, “On the Practice of Pluralism: A Response to Lee Hall and the London Vegan Festival Controversy.”

[7] On the importance of a pluralist and contextualist method, see Steven Best and Jason Miller, “Pacifism or Animals: Which Do You Love More? A Critique of Lee Hall, Friends of Animals, and the Franciombe Effect in the New Abolitionist Movement”, and “Averting the China Syndrome: Response to Our Critics and the Devotees of Fundamentalist Pacifism”.

[8] See Murray Bookchin, “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm”.

[9] On alliance politics in a total revolution framework, see the Introduction to Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II (eds.), Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (2006, AK Press).

——————————————————————————————

Dr. Steve Best is TPC’s Senior Editor of Total Liberation. Associate professor of philosophy at UTEP, award-winning writer, noted speaker, public intellectual, and seasoned activist, Steven Best engages the issues of the day such as animal rights, ecological crisis, biotechnology, liberation politics, terrorism, mass media, globalization, and capitalist domination. Best has published 10 books, over 100 articles and reviews, spoken in over a dozen countries, interviewed with media throughout the world, appeared in numerous documentaries, and was voted by VegNews as one of the nations “25 Most Fascinating Vegetarians.” He has come under fire for his uncompromising advocacy of “total liberation” (humans, animals, and the earth) and has been banned from the UK for the power of his thoughts. From the US to Norway, from Sweden to France, from Germany to South Africa, Best shows what philosophy means in a world in crisis.

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2 Responses to “Manifesto for Radical Abolitionism: Total Liberation By Any Means Necessary”

  1. While I do not actively participate in it, I have learned from the animal rights movement to think much more deeply about my own relationship with the natural world. This to me also is a key difference between simply regulating animal welfare at the “convenience of capital” and truly advocating animal rights, both to transform ethical understanding of society and in direct action advocacy which can often be born out of a very basic purpose to help another living creature that is in peril. Always the dignity of people (or, from a broader perspective that is offered here, of all living things) before profit and property.

  2. drstevebest Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and sensitive comment, the Left and progressive radical movement has a long way to go on the animal liberation and vegan issue, and those camps have much to learn from the Left and radicals; it is vital we form alliances. But I really appreciate the enlightenment and reflective thinking you show here.

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