The Vegetarian Myth Myth
When Donald Watson, Sally Shrigley and
23 of their friends founded the Vegan Society on November 1st, 1944, the
world was a very different place. It was no accident that veganism, a term
coined by Watson, was gaining traction during the waning months of World War
II. As the sun set on the old seafaring empires, many Europeans looked
around at the devastation wrought by industrial warfare and knew there had
to be another way. Unfortunately, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill had other
ideas. The politicians, industrialists and assorted war profiteers who had
done quite well for themselves during war years wasted little time in
consolidating their power. While the United States and Soviet empires rose,
anarchists and the political left did its best to recover from the
repression of the war years. Egalitarian visionaries like Watson sought to
pioneer new ways of living that could leave the violence of war and
slaughter in the past. So why didn't we?
The history of strategic
boycotts is storied and, in the years leading up to the birth of Donald
Watson's Vegan Society, they had been used to varying degrees of success.
From the National Negro League's boycott of goods produced by slave labor in
1830 to Gandhian Swadeshi during the struggle for Indian independence to the
Jewish-organized boycott of the Ford Motor Company over its ties to the
Third Reich, there was ample historical precedent to suggest that
coordinated denial of popular economic support could result in at least a
degree systemic reform.
Much has changed in the years intervening
1944 and 2011. While veganism as a simple boycott may have seemed a
sufficient strategy 67 years ago in a pre-global marketplace, we can no
longer expect to shop our way to the revolution. Ultimately, efforts at
action that do not address the root causes of systemic exploitation will
result in the recuperation of veganism by institutional power. As we
earlier post, global capitalism depends upon an ever-increasing margin
of profit maximization through resource extraction. Even if we are naive
enough to believe that we can minimize the effects of this extraction
through the reform of its most brutal aspects, the capitalist logic always
seeks a greater rate of extractive efficiency. The only equilibrium sought
by this system is that of a dead planet on which every last resource has
been exploited to the point of inutility. This is incompatible with the
ethics of veganism and, as such, any serious vegan needs to be as serious
about organizing against global capitalism as they are about boycotting meat
and dairy products.
A visit to your (gentrified) neighborhood Whole
Foods Market showcases how even an ethos as sound as veganism can be
transformed into a class wedge. Paying major corporations to transform
society for us is not a viable political strategy. When we engage with
veganism exclusively as consumers, we are falling prey to the same marketing
tricks that legitimize humane meat (sic): that a guilt free lifestyle only
costs a few extra dollars per week. This lack of strategy ensures that
veganism will die a quiet death in a subcultural, middle class ghetto of our
own creation. The ecological devastation and murdering of biodiversity
brought about by industrial soy plantations is how capitalism interprets
veganism. If veganism is not anti-capitalist, then it is useless, except
perhaps to let us witness a mass extinction in slower motion.
this is to say that the boycott aspect of veganism lacks relevance, only
that we cannot expect to make social progress by engaging in the ethic of
veganism solely as consumers. Boycotts have been used in the past as
powerful organizing tools. They are embodied demonstrations of strength,
solidarity, discipline and unity. They are beacons to others who care but
feel disempowered or isolated. We are here, we are poised and every person
who comes with us adds to the historical inertia of our movement.
boycott may only be our first step as a movement but it's not the only one
we've made in 70 years. The Hunt Saboteurs Association, the Band of Mercy,
the Animal Liberation Front, the Liberation Leagues, SHAC and the Animal
Defense Leagues all represent strategic advancements in the struggle for
animal liberation. Whether or not one agrees with any particular tactic
utilized by these groups, it is important to study their history. If you are
someone for whom veganism is a political act, then it is your history. In
order for this movement to maintain relevance for another 70 years, we need
to be unafraid of its evolution from reaction to anti-capitalist organizing
tool to post-capitalist social foundation.
In our next post, we will
discuss practical strategies for vegan anti-capitalist organizing beyond the
Some recommended reading:
Against All Odds--A concise, strategic look at the pre-SHAC campaigning
era in England.
Dusk Til Dawn--This book is absolutely sprawling. It's not the kind of
thing you want to sit down and read cover to cover. That said, it chronicles
40 years of movement history in the words of somebody who was there to
witness and participate in it.
Green is the New Red--Picks
up where Keith Mann leaves off on the other side of the Atlantic. Will
Potter's incisive take on the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties with a
focus on the animal liberation and radical environmental movements.