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, Truman, 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 their 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 discussed in an 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.
None of 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.
The 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 an upcoming post, we will discuss practical strategies for vegan anti-capitalist organizing beyond the boycott.
Some recommended reading:
Against All Odds–A concise, strategic look at the pre-SHAC campaigning era in England.
From 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.