Monday, February 24, 2014

Why the Abolitionist Approach Cannot Succeed

Kim Stallwood has been tweeting all day with variations of this request:

Okay, I'll bite.

There are no examples, nor are there likely to be any in the near future. Abolitionism hasn't achieved much of anything.

But not so fast...

The prompt is obviously designed to elicit a simple admission of failure, but it is both leading and dishonest. Really, it reminds me of my ignorant white friends who blame people of color for being poor. It also reminds me of well-to-do people who blame poor persons for being on welfare. Or those who blame women for being poor, underpaid, devalued (or even raped). If they aren't succeeding, it must be their fault, right?

Social Movement Inequality and the Welfarist Hegemony

Most of us recognize that these positions are not telling the whole story. As with social inequality, the social movement arena also has a set of power dynamics that we must consider. In the same way that a patriarchy is set up to benefit certain groups (men) and disadvantage others (women) and a white supremacy is set up to benefit certain groups (whites) and disadvantage others (people of color), the welfarist hegemony is designed to benefit professionalized welfarist groups and disadvantage radical grassroots groups (this trend holds true for all social movements). Men and white people have all the money, prestige, and opportunities, and, as an extension of that, they also get to make the rules, dominate claimsmaking, and create meaning and ideologies that support their supremacy. Welfarist organizations are no different.

Even small non-professionalized groups can benefit in this system by adhering to the value-structure welfarists have created. Small groups might not have access to the huge pool of resources that PETA and HSUS have, but they can tap into the power of their claimsmaking and networking. When a small group rallies against gestation crates, for example, they are drawing on the ideological power of Mercy for Animals. They can also call on MfA for leaflets, volunteers, and other supports. If they promote ethical veganism and avoid reform campaigns, they get the cold shoulder and suddenly have a lot more difficulty finding grants and institutional support. Again, this is typical of all social movements. By way of an example, the gay rights movement is dominated by large groups like the HRC that prioritize reform (like gay marriage), while the smaller groups that focus on those issues that aren't profitable to the large non-profits (like gay homelessness) get squeezed out.

In a system like this, where large groups have dominated the ideological landscape and control almost all of the resources available to the movement, the abolitionist faction simply doesn't have a chance. PETA, HSUS, MfA, CoK, FARM, Farm Sanctuary, Vegan Outreach and others rake in almost all of the donations, they have all the state/industry/elite/foundation connections, and they enjoy the ability to frame animal rights and what "effective" activism is. In doing so, they make it nearly impossible for anyone else to advocate. Abolitionists (and other radical activists like those in the No Kill faction) are left with table scraps. We're shouting to be heard from down on the floor at the ankles of the big organizations that sit at the feasting table of the non-profit industrial complex.

My point here is that it is illogical to misconstrue social movement inequality with social movement inefficacy. If abolitionists had equal access, then maybe we could start to judge how well vegan education and anti-speciesist values could work. But we lack the funding, and large organizations refuse to give veganism a chance. What's more, they spend a whole lot of time denigrating anti-speciesist rhetoric and portraying veganism as "hard" or elitist."

Welfarists do Welfare

The other important problem with Kim's question is that he assumes that welfarists and abolitionists want the same thing. Welfarists want reform and they have the resources to seek reform, so that's what they get. As Gary Francione has explained, this success is easily achieved, not only due to the vast resources welfarists enjoy, but also because these reforms are mostly desired by industries that capitalize on public concern for animal welfare. See this new outreach poster he has been circulating:

In the words of Roger Yates, welfarists do welfare. Abolitionists don't want legal reform, we want abolition. In a grossly speciesist world that exploits billions of Nonhuman Animals and in a movement culture that more or less condones it, laws are wholly inapplicable. No law passed in a speciesist society will do anything to help animals. Lest we forget, the legal system is an institution designed to protect and promulgate the interests of the privileged. As Gary Francione explains in Animals, Property and the Law (echoed by several other legal philosophers like Lee Hall and David Cassuto), any law we pass in the current political climate will only work to cement speciesism. Abolitionists don't want legal least not yet. One of the foundational principles of abolitionist animal rights is to first advocate for veganism and create a critical mass of vegans, and to then work to change laws to reflect these new social attitudes. With less than 2% of the American population identifying as vegan, we're not ready for legal action yet.

Abolition Strategy

I titled this essay "Why the Abolitionist Approach Cannot Succeed," not because I think it is a lost cause, but because I think we have some serious institutional barriers to overcome.  Vegan Outreach alone raked in a million bucks last year and then squandered it all on reductionist, anti-vegan nonsense. Just imagine what change we could make if the movement redirected its resources towards a genuine animal rights message. PETA pulled in about 31 million dollars last year. What if PETA quit labeling No Kill advocates as hoarders and started funding adoption strategies? HSUS pulled in 149 million dollars. What if HSUS were to stop colluding with meat industries and began countering them instead?

Do I think there is hope for the movement? For abolitionism? I do. I have dedicated my career (brief as it has been thus far!) to the position. I've seen the movement start to take notice. Kim and other big players in the movement are starting to respond. They are beginning to recognize that our position is a valid one...or at the very least a persistent one. After all, that is one of the main purposes of radical factions for any social movement: to keep the professionalized organizations that sell out to the non-profit industrial complex in check. Their wealth of resources comes at a cost. Incorporating into the capitalist model means their power to create structural change is effectively neutralized. Abolitionists may be disadvantaged in money, networking, and ideological power, but we do have the freedom from the bureaucratic non-profit spiderweb needed to keep our position honest. We can still afford to put Nonhuman Animals first.