Special to the Cape Charles Mirror, this is part 2 of Robert C. Jones essay, How not to be a Vegan: Veganisms
In adopting vegan practice, a number of ethical vegans see veganism primarily as an individual lifestyle choice, an expression of their commitment to decreasing (and ultimately ending) the suffering and death that accompanies the commodification of sentient nonhuman beings.
Since many ethical vegans may believe (wrongly) that no animals are harmed in the production of their vegan consumer goods and foodstuffs, this ethical vegan “lifestyle” may sometimes be accompanied by a sense of ethical purity, a belief that once one adopts a vegan lifestyle, one then has “clean hands” and may carry on one’s consumerism with a clear conscience. Seen as a kind of litmus test of one’s commitment to social justice for animals, veganism may sometimes thought to be the “moral baseline” for those seeking to end the suffering and domination of other-than-human animals. Though there are debates among vegans about questions of purity and commitment, there appears to be a growing public perception of vegans, a kind of vegaphobia—that may be based in fact, prejudice, or more likely a combination of both—that vegans see themselves as better than and morally superior to nonvegans; that they may sometimes appear to be “preachy”; that they may exhibit a kind of self-righteous zealotry, acting as the “vegan police” who promulgate veganism as the universal, one-and-only way to fight systemic violence against animals. It was perhaps proponents of identity veganism that prompted philosopher Val Plumwood to describe vegans as: crusading [and]…aggressively ethnocentric, dismissing alternative and indigenous food practices and wisdom and demanding universal adherence to a western urban model of vegan practice in which human predation figures basically as a new version of original sin, going on to supplement this by a culturally familiar methodology of dispensing excuses and exemptions for those too frail to reach their exacting moral norms of carnivorous self.⁴
Such vegans are sometimes perceived—rightly or wrongly—as judging non-vegans (including ovolacto vegetarians) as shirking their responsibility or being self-indulgent or simply cruel. This view, that the only ethical way to live is to adopt a vegan lifestyle, Gruen & Jones call identity veganism. What distinguishes identity veganism from other kinds of veganism is that identity veganism is more about the practitioner’s self-image, state of mind, and attitude (particularly regarding themselves vis-à-vis non-vegans) than about consumer behavior. Though, qua consumers, the behavior of identity vegans may be indistinguishable from that of other types of vegans, it is a kind of deluded self-righteousness of some identity vegans that distinguishes them from other kinds of vegans. If followed strictly and universally, identity veganism is thought to confer clean hands and a clean conscience. As the name implies, this sort of veganism is often thought of as an identity, or individual lifestyle choice, and is sometimes characterized—again, rightly or wrongly—as exuding an air of moral certitude and superiority.
However, there are at least two reasons why identity veganism is not a kind of veganism to be endorsed.
First, identity veganism is, at best, naïve and, at worst, a way to insulate oneself from a terribly inconvenient truth. For in late-capitalist consumer culture, even vegans cannot escape the cycle of state-supported, systemic, industrialized violence and destruction of animals and their habitats. Vegan or not, we all have blood on our hands. Try as they might to believe otherwise, identity vegans must face the fact that regarding our contributions to the objectification of animals and the consumption of animal products, there is no “moral sainthood.”
Second, since the central focus of identity veganism practice is the rejection of and abstention from the consumption of nonhuman animal products, identity vegans may fail to attend to the lives of other sentient beings who may suffer to produce their consumer goods—specifically, human sentient beings. For example, workers of the Global South exploited to produce identity vegans’ non-animal product-containing consumer goods (e.g., the cotton shirt from Walmart) may not be considered in the equation relating personal consumer choice with a reduction or elimination of suffering. To ignore the suffering of Homo sapiens surely is itself a form of speciesism. Further, identity vegans may be blind to the environmental costs of their vegan consumerism. The circumstances driving their “clean hands” self-image may exclude damage to habitat that the production of vegan foodstuffs may (and often do) incur. This discussion leads me to the next kind of veganism I wish to address, boycott veganism.
Like identity veganism, the guiding principle behind boycott veganism is a rejection of the purchase and consumption of all animal products with less (or no) consideration for the human or even environmental costs. Yet, unlike identity vegans, boycott vegans may very well accept that a byproduct of the web of production of even vegan foodstuffs may involve the harming of individual sentient nonhuman animals. However, as identity veganism is not to be endorsed, neither is boycott veganism.
First, boycott veganism (like identity veganism) sees vegan practice as a kind of individual lifestyle choice, ignoring the larger social, cultural, economic, and political contexts in which systematized, institutional violence, suffering, exploitation, domination, objectification, and commodification of both human and nonhuman animals are required to produce consumer goods of all kinds, including “vegan” consumer goods. As Jenkins and Stanescu make powerfully clear: [B]oycott veganism conflates conspicuous consumption with ethical action and political change….Simply replacing animal with plant-based products only transfers capital to global corporations through different mechanisms; boycott veganism serves to reinforce capitalist institutions and neoliberal social structures that promote the commodification of life and disguise market forces as neutral, amoral means of distributing social goods.⁵
Some identity and boycott vegans (e.g., “Taco Bell vegans”) either tacitly or actively condone the continued existence of the very same exploitative, neoliberal, consumer-capitalist structures that produce things like the milk found in milk chocolate (which they refuse to consume), and the cacao produced using child slave labor (which they may willingly or perhaps unknowingly consume) , or palm oil.
Second, by reducing veganism to individual consumer choices, boycott vegans unwittingly reinforce the belief that by “voting” with your vegan dollars you can make real moral progress and effect political change, leaving the exploitation of human and nonhuman animals, and the unprecedented catastrophic global destruction of the natural environment and animal habitats to the will of neoliberal, consumer-capitalist markets.
Importantly, boycott vegans fail to acknowledge that a vegan lifestyle, particularly in the Global North, can be an environmentally high-impact lifestyle. For example, the packaging from vegan food doesn’t take up less space in the landfill or consume fewer resources just because the food is vegan.
Additionally, boycott vegans overlook the fact that in terms of net suffering, harm, and destruction, being a high-consuming vegan can, in some contexts, be more damaging than being a meat eater.
Boycott vegans may overlook the fact that in terms of net suffering, harm, and destruction, being a high-consuming vegan can, in some contexts, be more damaging than being a meat eater. It’s certainly possible that a Michael Pollanesque omnivore who has no children, doesn’t own a car, rides her bike everywhere, and doesn’t travel by plane nor shop at Walmart can have a less-damaging welfare/ environmental footprint/hoofprint than a conscientious boycott vegan who produces two children, drives a Prius, often travels by plane, and purchases vegan products at Walmart.
Clearly, a different kind of vegan practice is called for, one that engages with, rather than ignores, the global devastation to which even a vegan practice can contribute.
Revisionary Political Veganism
The kind of veganism that I advocate I call revisionary political veganism, (or just political veganism for short). Actually, at this point, I’m not even sure what I should call it. Some have questioned whether and why I should call it veganism at all. This is something that I hope will come up in discussion today. Political veganism has three virtues: It is (a) revisionary, (b) aspirational, and (c) intersectional/inclusionary.
Political veganism is in part a revisionary project in that it calls for a rejection of the conventional concept of veganism as an individual lifestyle/consumer choice. Political veganism reappropriates the term ‘vegan’ to include a moral and political commitment to active resistance against institutional and systemic violence, exploitation, domination, objectification, and commodification directed against all sentient beings—human and nonhuman—as well as the natural environment that supports and sustains them. In this sense, veganism becomes a kind of stance—an anti-neoliberal, anti-consumer“ capitalist stance—toward economic and political structures of violence and oppression.
Political veganism actively rejects what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism, ⁶ a system in which corporate hegemony, maintained through the corporate security state, commodifies and exploits every living being and every natural resource while the citizenry, opiated through the spectacle of sensationalism and excess consumerism, surrenders its democracy and liberty to the consumer capitalism and the corporate state.
Political veganism finds solutions to structural violence and oppression in a rejection of the structures themselves. For example, consider the recent lead poisoning of the Flint, Michigan water system. To seek a solution to that atrocity in the promotion of urging individual consumer-citizens to purchase bottled water or individual water filters on their faucets is to seek solutions in the wrong places.
Political veganism—in fact, all veganisms—can be only aspirational. The belief that abstaining from animal products allows one to avoid complicity in harming other animals ignores the complex dynamics involved in the production of consumer goods of all kinds, global entanglements we engage with each time we purchase and consume food of all sorts. Living today, even for vegans, involves participating in the deaths of sentient individuals. Vegan diets have welfare footprints in the form of widespread indirect harms to animals, harms often overlooked or obscured by advocates of identity and boycott veganism.
Though vegans have attended to the tragedy that farmed animals experience, few pay much attention to the harms other animals suffer in the production of vegan foodstuffs. For example, the raising and harvesting of crops used in plant-based industrialized agriculture involves the deaths of countless animals in fertilization, plowing, tilling, and habitat displacement. Even if some vegans can practice “veganic” farming, few of us can afford to create food in this way.
All aspects of consumption in late capitalism involve harming others, human and nonhuman. When we live with companion animals, other animals will have to die, most obviously to feed those animals.
But even if they are vegan, dogs and cats will kill and eat other animals if they get a chance. While neither ignoring nor resigning oneself to these realities, as political vegans we acknowledge our complicityin these institutional vices, while doing the best we can to minimize them. Not to do so wouldbe bad faith.
Political veganism commits us to striving for a moral goal, as something one works at rather than something one is. Of course, there is overlap between identity and boycott vegans on the one hand, and political vegans on the other. In different contexts, someone who recognizes that veganism can be but an aspiration may also express her commitments in ways that make it seem more like a lifestyle.
However, to see that veganism is only aspirational is not to see veganism as merely an aspiration. To call oneself a political vegan while continuing consciously and without necessity to act in ways that condone animal exploitation (for example, proclaiming your aspirations to vegan commitments while ordering a cheeseburger at your favorite fast food restaurant) would be to disingenuously appropriate the language of veganism and, again, to be inauthentic and act in bad faith. Despite wanting it to be otherwise, vegan or not, we cannot live and avoid killing, even if only indirectly. Given all this, veganism can be but an aspiration, and imagining otherwise is an illusion. Political veganism incorporates this fact into practice, imagining and earnestly trying to actualize—to the best of one’s ability—a world in which there is no violence, exploitation, or oppression, while working at the individual, political, cultural, and structural levels to reduce harm and foster a vegan world, while fully recognizing that, even as vegans, we are complicit in this cycle of violence.
Finally, another virtue of political veganism is that it is inclusionary. Political veganism demands thinking in terms of totalities of oppressions. It acknowledges the connections between and rejects the structures of oppression—such as human exceptionalism, speciesism, racism, sexism, ableism, and militarism—while emphasizing the relationships between the consumption of animal products and environmental destruction. Thus, political vegans reject the notion of a meat-eating environmentalist, feminist, or queer advocate. Such binaries are not aligned with the goals of dismantling speciesism and eradicating the commodification and consumption of nonhuman animals.
Political veganism is wide in scope and not limited only to a rejection of the consumption of animal products, but also to a rejection of the structures and institutions that link the commodification and exploitation of animals, vulnerable human populations, and the environment. Thus, political veganism is not a personal dietary lifestyle choice, but rather an active and engaged worldview dedicated to an inclusion of nonhuman animals in social justice theory and practice. (Jenkins and Stănescu) Political veganism acknowledges the link between structural violence and exploitation, and the consumer-capitalist structures that drive demand for vegan foodstuffs and other “vegan” consumer goods. These include the experiences and sufferings of nonhuman animals and human workers in slaughterhouses, the trafficking and slavery of farmworkers who grow and pack vegan foodstuffs, or the abuse of impoverished Bangladeshi children beaten and forced to work 20-hour shifts, seven days a week, for pennies to produce clothing containing no animal products for retailers such as Walmart.
Political vegans also recognize the role that state-sponsored subsidies of agribusiness play in the dietary racism that results when such subsidies make available high-fat, cheap, animal-based foods in impoverished neighborhoods truly in need of healthful, whole, plant-based foods. Given that political veganism can be but aspirational, sincere political vegans do their best to decrease their contribution to global suffering by actively opposing these industries and the fetishizing of commodity consumer culture.⁷
If taken seriously, political veganism has some interesting—if not counterintuitive—consequences.
For example, on the one hand, someone in the Global North with disposable income who eats an exclusively plant-based diet solely for reasons of personal health or who abstains from eating animal products out of concern for “animal rights” but who purchases “vegan” (e.g., non-leather) consumer goods from Walmart while cognizant of the conditions under which those kinds of items are produced would not be vegan in the sense that I am characterizing political veganism. Conversely, I can imagine a “fellow traveler” who earnestly and sincerely aspires to political veganism, but who lacks the resources, income, or employment (e.g., a freegan, or perhaps a poor, vulnerable single parent) and “dumpster dives,” or in some other way takes in animal bodies or their byproducts for sustenance, who could constitute a political vegan in the sense that I am articulating. Rather than seeing these seemingly odd consequences as a deficiency, they instead act to highlight the virtues of political veganism,illustrating why political veganism is both revisionary and aspirational.
In conclusion, I have argued that those of us living in affluent consumer culture under late capitalism, where plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy are readily available, are ethically obligated to adopt vegan practice. I have provided an argument for localized veganism, and answered a number of objections to it. Further, I have identified a number of veganisms and advocated for one, namely, revisionary political veganism. I ultimately argue that vegans are obliged to actively engage with and resist those power structures built on speciesism, violence, oppression, exploitation, domination, objectification, and commodification of all sentient beings—human and non—and their habitats. I see political veganism not merely as a theoretical construct, but as a call to action and engagement by those of us in the Global North to retreat from our destructive consumer-capitalist ontologies and use our privilege to reduce and ultimately eliminate suffering, while forging moral and just relations of care, compassion, and respect.
Note: Robert C. Jones is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University. He has published numerous articles and book chapters on animal ethics, animal cognition, speciesism, social justice, and veganism, and has given over forty talks at universities and forums across the globe. Dr. Jones will be publishing a collection of essays called Critical Perspectives on Veganism: Read about it here. Robert’s essay is adapted from a longer essay to appear in a new collection of essays titled Critical Perspectives on Veganism due out this year” or something like that. My essay in that volumes is not called “How Not To Be Vegan” but is called”Veganisms”.
¹Much of the content of this essay comes from Lori Gruen and Robert C. Jones, “Veganism as an Aspiration” in The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat, eds. Ben Bramble and Bob Fischer (UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), 153–171. I would like to thank Lori Gruen for her support and encouragement to expand on that essay.
4Val Plumwood, “Integrating Ethical Frameworks for Animals, Humans, and Nature: A Critical Feminist Eco-Socialist
Analysis,” Ethics and the Environment (2000), 286.
⁵Stephanie Jenkins and Vasile Stănescu, “One struggle,” in Defining Critical Animal Studies: An Intersectional Social
Justice Approach for Liberation, eds. Anthony J. Nocella II, John Sorenson, Kim Socha, and Atsuko Matsuoka (NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2014), 78.
⁶See Sheldon S. Wolin Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton University Press, 2010.
⁷Stephanie Jenkins and Vasile Stănescu, “One struggle,” in Defining Critical Animal Studies: An Intersectional Social
Justice Approach for Liberation, eds. Anthony J. Nocella II, John Sorenson, Kim Socha, and Atsuko Matsuoka (NY: PeterLang Publishing, 2014).