Monday, September 22, 2014

Donations, Organizations, and "Noisy" Abolitionist Veganism

A colleague shared a very interesting essay with me that was recently published by the new International Vegan Association (formally the local abolitionist group, Boston Vegan Association).  The essay is titled, "Why Does the IVA Discourage Donations? (And Why Does it Exist At All?)."  I suggest readers pay attention to IVA developments because IVA stands as a very interesting and unique example of a radical abolitionist group that has gone non-profit and is in the infancy of professionalization. The essay itself is rather confusing (donations are bad, unless you donate to IVA; organizations are bad, except for IVA, etc.), but it offers some important evidence to the inner-workings of factionalism and the contention over movement boundaries and claimsmaking.

The primary reason I draw attention to this piece is because the IVA represents an interesting bridge between grassroots coalition and professionalization.  Despite its concerns with professionalization, the IVA does accept donations and has become a non-profit. Strangely, in doing so, they have turned right around and declared that any other organization that has taken the same path must be disingenuous or incompetent in some way.  They also claim to exist outside of the non-profit industrial complex because they accept donations only from "private donors," who, presumably, do not attempt to sway the organization's interests by controlling the purse strings.

One of the major problems with relying on fundraising is that needing money means needing moderation (I have explored this theme with The Vegan Society,  Vegan OutreachAnimal Charity Evaluators, Mercy for Animals, and others).  Groups that advocate for radical structural change will be, as a general rule, denied grant money right and left. This is because foundations are almost always set up by wealthy elites who became rich from systems of exploitation, and seek to protect those systems by only funding conservative reforms or diversionary social services.  Likewise, having to rely on public donations also means moderating the message.  It is easier to attract a larger pool of donors with a weakened position. Everyone loves animals, for instance, but a lot of people will be turned off by veganism (especially when mainstream media is elite-controlled and radical positions are routinely derided). Therefore, most groups will focus on "ending cruelty" and avoid vegan rhetoric.  It seems IVA avoids this problem by relying on "private donors."  I can't be sure, of course, but I suspect that the same person(s) writing the books they are promulgating control the purse strings.  Financial control, incidentally, is not the only way in which a social movement organization is manipulated.  Professionalized groups also recognize that they must maintain a certain degree of social capital in order to survive and flourish.  For large groups, this may mean advocating a moderate position that makes policy makers and industry leaders happy.  For smaller organizations like IVA, it may mean strict adherence to a certain gatekeeper's work lest the group be ousted from the important abolitionist networks that sustain it.

Does the IVA do good work?  Absolutely. I have always loved their booklet, and I think their message is clear and needed.  Ironically, though, going the non-profit route may be leading IVA to fall for the same pitfalls as other professionalized organizations.  As IVA points out in its own essay, going non-profit means going into competition.  The social change space is crowded with many other organizations that are desperately attempting to stand out so that their approach is deemed the most appropriate and their organization will get the needed resources for survival and continued growth.  This competition can create a lot of "noise," as IVA explains.  Non-profitization creates competition, and competition means a divided movement.  This is precisely why the state loves to hand out non-profit status--it disempowers and fragments a potentially dangerous social movement. On the other hand, some degree of conflict is necessary to stimulate movements towards improving their approach and developing new ideas and tactics.   Factionalism can be healthy.

Nonetheless, IVA has declared itself to be the only organization qualified to advocate on behalf of other animals.  In doing so, it also declares that PETA, Vegan Outreach, and other multi-million dollar grant-based organizations have lost their way, so to speak, in pursuit of self-interest over anti-speciesism.  Again, I don't disagree here, but I was shocked to see that a very small fledgling group, The Abolitionist Vegan Society (TAVS), is included in IVA's list of "noisy" major players.  I was shocked because this small grassroots group basically operates in exactly the same way as IVA.  The only "difference" is that IVA currently enjoys the favor of abolitionist spokesperson Gary Francione, whereas TAVS does no longer (due to personal differences, not tactical or theoretical ones).  To describe TAVS as "noise" is to describe IVA as "noise," because they sound exactly the same.  The inclusion of TAVS on IVA's list despite the identical nature of the two groups demonstrates that competition really is the name of the game for a group that goes non-profit.  There is simply no room for cooperation.  Sadly, this seems to hold true even within the very small and very marginalized abolitionist faction, a faction that is grounded in the principles of community and grassroots advocacy.  Otherwise, why spend so much effort undermining the credibility of fellow organizations like TAVS?

"Noisy" TAVS Activism
Not any one organization, and certainly not any one person, has all of the answers. This type of approach is appropriate for religious endeavors, but it does not work with social movements.  Thousands of researchers and seasoned activists have been studying the science of collective behavior and social movement success for decades, and two things are crystal clear:  1.  Social change work is extremely complex; and, 2.  There is no one correct answer.  Despite IVA aspirations, it is not likely that their one small organization that adheres to beliefs of just one person can enter the field and single-handedly change the game. Alienating potential allies in the abolitionist faction will, in likelihood, hurt rather than help them.  A group that declares itself self-evidently superior and entitled to leadership is a group that abides by patriarchal norms of hierarchy and control.  The competitive nature of social movement activism is in itself reflective of patriarchal co-optation in the social movement space, but when a group declares itself the only one with the answers and the only one worth listening to (based on "because we said so" logic), this group is shoring up male dominance.  Readers should be wary of taking the claims of any group of privilege as self-evident.  Readers should also be cautious when these patriarchal claims are used against anti-oppression groups like TAVS (especially in the case of TAVS, as it is run by a woman of color).

The notion that a social movement can be 100% coherent, 100% in agreement, and 100% unified is mere fantasy. The notion that one small organization and its one leader can rule the entire movement is male fantasy.  This is not how social movements work, and if it was how they worked, it would be an extremely unhealthy misfortune.  Social movements rely on diversity to breathe and grow.  Not too long ago, Kim Stallwood (former employee of PETA and seasoned advocate) was pushing for an international Nonhuman Animal rights coalition to combine our disjointed efforts into one unifying force, something similar to feminism's NOW or the civil rights movement's NAACP.  There are benefits to this cooperation of course, but there will also be a sharp increase in moderation and a sharp increase in opportunity costs for radical voices.  Abolitionists will find even fewer resources available as the big players monopolize.  In reality, this would only be a goal achievable by the powerful reform-focused groups like PETA, Farm Sanctuary, and others.  Radical abolitionists could never expect to hold sway over these major players.  Even if it were possible, I would hesitate to recommend this strategy, as it becomes a major impediment to movement diversity and growth.

IVA's justification for denouncing all other groups is that any organizational structure at all will necessarily detract from advocacy (except for IVA, which is deemed impervious).  True, when a group reaches a certain point on the path to professionalization, priorities change and the constituency suffers.  But this is not to say that some form of organization is unnecessary.  Especially for a faction that is so marginalized in both society and the larger movement, some form of community and cooperation is really necessary to motivate participation and to sustain it.  Social movement participation is costly and risky.  We like to think we become activists solely out of moral obligation, but the truth is that there must be some balance to the negative aspects of participation in order to keep people going.  Community is one such balance. A sense that there is an us, the comfort of mutual support, and an activist identity keep people going.  Grassroots groups like TAVS, Vegan Information Project, and, yes, even IVA create this important motivator.  Social change work is hard, and most people don't want to get involved.  Organizing helps to counter that reality.

"Noisy" Vegan Information Project activism
For those interested in reading more about social movement theory in relation to the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I invite you to read my work available on my page. In particular, my 2012 publication, "Applying Social Movement Theory to Nonhuman Rights Mobilization and the Importance of Faction Hierarchies," may be of interest.  IVA makes it very clear that activists should read and become knowledgeable before trying to teach others. I would suggest  that IVA also heed that advice. There is a wealth of social movement research that could inform IVA opinion pieces that some readers may currently mistake for evidence-based, factual literature.