Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Social(ist) Animals: Toward Mutual Aid against the Great Butcher

Sue Coe. 2004. "Ox Pull." From "Bully!: master of the Global Merry-go-round" Source: http://www.graphicwitness.org/coe/bullya.htm
"However, even vegetarianism in your hands, would make a capital article...  its connection with modern socialism, atheism, nihilism, anarchy and other political creeds... Brussels sprouts seem to make people bloodthirsty, and those who live on lentils and artichokes are always calling for the gore of the aristocracy and for the severed heads of kings... in the political sphere a diet of green beans seems dangerous." -Oscar Wilde, The Complete Letters, p. 334, from a letter dated Nov. 12, 1887.

Ten months ago, Paul D'Amato's article  "Socialism and 'animal rights'" sparked a small controversy that fizzled out within a month of its release. Unfortunately, out of the dozen responses only two or three were more argument than opinion. My aim here is to provide a more rigorous and comprehensive critique of D'Amato's article absent in the responses in order to better reconcile the perceived tension between socialistm and animal rights.

In "Socialism and 'Animal Rights'," D'Amato's reasoning starts off strong, making critical and important insights on the idea of animal liberation; however, it soon strays into weak, dangerous, and unnecessary territory. D'Amato comes to several conclusions (not presented in this order):

  1. "There is a clear connection between how a rapacious capitalism mistreats animals... environment... [and] human[s]"
  2. "Non-human animals are helpless… incapable of organizing and fighting for their rights"
  3. "To compare the condition of animals to that of... [humans] for freedom and equality is to view the latter through a paternalistic lens, rather than a lens of human liberation"
  4. "we need to insist on the essential differences between human beings and other animals, and reject the idea of 'animal liberation.'"
  5. "seeking more humane treatment of animals is not the same as calling for 'animal rights'"
In the first conclusion, he displays sympathy for nonhuman animals and their human allies. In the second, D'Amato properly points out the obvious but sometimes overlooked fact that no other (with a possible exception of a few) species can and/or is capable of politically organizing to declare their rights. This point leads into the subtitle and thesis of D'Amato's piece: to compare the animal liberation movement to human liberation movements is paternalistic (and reeking of white, middle-class, male privilege).

I'm totally on board with D'Amato's thesis if we are only discussing movements and not also mental, material, and legal outcomes. But he does not enclose his argument to his thesis; he continues on to argue that humans are essentially different from all other animals (despite being careful to say that humans are only "qualitatively" different"), and that the "liberation" and rights of nonhuman animals be rejected in favor of merely "more humane treatment." It is these last two conclusions, I find objectionable and weakly argued.

In this response, I will critique four positions D'Amato either asserts or  ignores. First, he implicitly argues that one cannot have rights unless one asserts one has them, a contractualist argument that would exclude many humans from possessing rights. Second, he explicitly draws on evolutionary biology to make arguments for an essential difference between humans and other animals that contradict themselves and are analogous to arguments that have been used to rationalize racism. Third, D'Amato misses how worker and animal exploitation are not only  increased by capitalism, but that they are intersecting oppressions that mutually reinforce one another just as socialism and animal rights are ethico-political positions that intersect and mutually reinforce one another. Finally, he is naive to the historical, cultural, and ecological ties between the exploitation and well-being of human and animal.

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