Dr. Steven Best: From the Theory of Politics to the Politics of Theory: Repression, Direct Action, and Ecological Crisis

Translation of 2009 Interview with Norwegian Antispeciesist Group, Nettverk For Dyrs FrihetBelow is an interview with professor and activist Dr. Steven Best. In this interview by  Arild Tornes in Oslo (summer 2009), Best discusses his “personal and professional background, his introduction to animal rights, his support for the ALF & direct action, the consequent academic repression, and his thoughts about the meaning of rights and state of the movement.

I met Steven Best at the International Animal Rights Gathering 2009 in Oslo, where he held several talks. Steven Best is professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), author and activist. Best is a controversial defender of animal rights, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), direct action and revolutionary politics.

Topics like postmodernism, animal rights, the ecological crisis, biotechnology, liberation politics, terrorism, mass media, globalization and capitalist domination are subjects of his work. The recent anthologies he has published with co-workers are Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic Industrial Complex (2009), Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (2006), and Terrorists and Freedom Fighters: Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (2004).

In this interview Best talks about his personal and academic background, his encounter with animal rights, his support of ALF and direct action, reactions from the academic community on his controversial positions, and his thoughts about the current state of the animal rights movement. We also touch upon the meaning of ‘rights’ and finally Best talks about his contacts and experiences with the African animal rights movement.

AT: Can you begin with giving a short presentation of your background and work?

SB: I got into animal rights first from a human rights background. In the early 1980s as a college student I worked on issues related to Central America and South Africa, and these were very hot political issues in the early 1980s. I was reading Marx and a lot of leftist literature, and working in these anti-imperialist and anti-apartheid groups and getting a political education. And during that at the age 24 I had a an epiphany, a revelation, one night eating a double cheeseburger, it occurred to me in a very vivid way, for the first time, that this was the body of an animal that had been slaughtered. I had this very vivid image in my mind I couldn’t get out, connecting this so called food with an animal, and it really bothered me so I spit it out and I tried to eat meat again and I couldn’t. So something was happening just internally, and I had not heard any information or read any books or listened to a lecture or anything, it was just completely internally, some kind of intuition. Then I became a vegetarian very shortly after that.

So I was a vegetarian leftist , humanist first for a few years, and then in the late 1980s I read Peter Singers book Animal Liberation and I was just shocked, amazed and appalled by what I learned in this book. It had completely transformed my paradigm within a week. I realized that animals are the most victimized and defenseless of all the victims of injustice, so I decided to rethink my politics and to start working on animal issues, and I began to teach animal rights ethics at the community college in Austin Texas where I got my PhD, and then when I became a professor at the University of Texas El Paso in 1993 I became an activist on animal rights issues. So I moved from a left humanist into a vegetarian and into a vegan and into an animal rights perspective. And from animal rights I moved from animal welfare to animal rights to animal liberation, where I’m supporting direct action, so it was a real learning curve, a real evolutionary projectory.

AT: Your early work was about postmodern theory, some with the critical theorist Douglas Kellner. How did you move from that to your latter interest in animal rights and your liberational stance. Was it something that inspired you or you got tired of?

SB: Well, I realized the futility of doing abstract theory. I think theory is very important for politics and vice versa, you have to mediate these two concerns, but I thought that the theory was at a too abstract level and was not engaging animal issues concretely enough. I was involved in a number of projects, my politics was ahead of my theories, and I was already thinking different things, but writing in a different way that weren’t appropriate. So I just decided to try to make my work more concretely oriented toward environmental issues and animal rights issues, and I stopped doing that kind of academic theorizing. I can’t say I mediated postmodern concerns with animal rights, I don’t know if it’s worth doing in any detailed way, but it’s very popular in animal studies. Postmodern approaches to animal studies are very popular. I just haven’t engaged in that myself, which is somewhat ironic because I have done a lot of work on postmodern theory, but I just don’t know how useful it is. For me theory, like the Foucault’s metaphor of a toolkit, theories are tools and you just pick up what’s useful to analyze something, it might be Marx, in might be Foucault, feminism, postmodernism, you take what’s useful and you try to work in a clear way, concrete, in plain language, to the extent possible.

AT: How has your radical work been met, in terms of reactions from the academic community? I’ve heard you have experienced some resistance or repression from your university.

SB: Yeah, my next book that is coming out in a month or so is on the topic of academic repression and it’s a large anthology with a large introduction that I wrote. The general situation in the US, especially after 9/11, has been one of severe repression for any controversial radical ideas. People are being fired from their jobs quite regularly for coming out as a lesbian or gay, for supporting anarchism, for challenging university involvement with biotechnology, or for radical animal rights, for any issue that’s controversial or very political. Peoples jobs are threatened, and academic jobs are very hard to get, so people tend to be quiet now. There’s a very depoliticized environment in the US where people are repressing themselves, that’s when repression is effective, when the police don’t have to repress you, or the university administrators, you repress yourself, because you are afraid of the consequences of speaking out. Well, I have been one to speak my mind whatever the consequences. I already had tenure, the system where you are permanently hired and your job has some security in the US, and if you don’t have tenure it’s very hard to speak out because they can fire you when you have little recourse. With tenure it’s a little bit difficult, you have some security, although people with tenure have been fired to. So I started out on the ALF and I went around the country defending ALF actions and speaking on the ALF, and after a few months of this I guess my colleges and the administration at my university became aware of this, some talks I gave were highly publicized, and they decided to remove me from my position as department chairman, and it was quite messy and obviously political, a political hit, and it made the front pages of the main academic newspapers in the US and it was very obviously a political attack. How they disguised this they related it to job performances, they said well your job performance is poor, but really it’s about your politics. So, I’m the only person that I’m aware of as US academic, who has come out in favor of and support of the ALF and support of militant direct action, because the other professors, certainly Peter Singer, certainly Tom Regan, they don’t support this, and other people who might are afraid to speak out on this, well I just decided it’s important for professors to speak out, it’s important for academics to speak their political views, whatever they are, and to stand up for free speech. So in effect it’s certainly my free speech rights, in generally, but specifically it’s defending animal liberation from the perspective of a professional academic, and I think it’s important professionals supports direct action, so it’s not just kids with purple hair and tattoos. Lawyers and doctors and professors need to support animal liberation.

AT: Can you share some reflections or opinions you have on the current state of the animal rights movement?

SB: Yeah, it’s hard to generalize in the US because it’s such a big country and there’s so many different groups and approaches. And I think some approaches are quite effective. There’s some direct action approaches which are centered upon documenting animal abuse, like rodeo abuse, with video cameras, and using vans with television screens or projection screens on the side of the van with films about animal rights and handling out literature and going into cities, these are very effective educational approaches. There’s a strong vegan outreach community in the US educating on vegan issues. And the direct action community, the ALF, is sometimes very active like, right now at UCLA, the campus is a state of warfare with the ALF attacking the vivisectors at that campus, so there are some very concentrated pockets of activity in the US where good work is being done, in advancing the struggle, advancing education.

But also as I pointed out today there’s a huge problem with the large mainstream groups, HSUS and PETA, which are working hand in hand with industries to certify and promotes animals that are killed through “humane” slaughter and resulting in “humane” meat and “cage free eggs”. I see these campaigns as disastrous, as legitimating what the meat industries are doing, giving them good publicity. They get the sealed approval of the so called animal advocacy groups and instead of promoting veganism, “humane” meat is being promoted by large welfare groups in the US. What I see happening therefore is the biggest groups in the US are being co-opted and they are working for their own interest. Whether they intend to or not, they are lending legitimacy to animal slaughter and animal consumption and they are diverting a lot of funds that could go to grassroots groups, go to these huge groups and their multimillion dollar corporate enterprises, and this is a huge problem.

AT: Some defend them by saying that they also defend veganism as the optimal, but you think that it’s marginalizing the vegan message, the way they work?

SB: Well, it’s a bit difference between PETA and HSUS, PETA supports veganism explicitly, but they also support humane slaughter technique, a bite of an inconsistency there, and HSUS supports “humane” meat and “cage free eggs”, PETA does not do that, but I think that its promoting the wrong message, its promoting the message that its morally legitimate to consume animals if they have been slaughtered “humanly”. And the irony of this is quite striking, can you imagine women promoting “humane” rape or children rights groups promoting “humane” pedophilia. You know, you can only understand the inconsistency and contradiction and speciesist nature of these campaigns by comparing them to their human rights equivalence, “humane rape”, “humane pedophilia”. It’s completely absurd, why do we have “humane” meat? Well, because they think that this is the only way to make this message palatable, of animal welfare, animal rights or veganism, that the public needs to move in stages or in steps, but it’s important to directly push the vegan message.

AT: You agree that the mainstream animal rights movement marginalizing its core message by favor populistic single-issues and welfare reforms, but you have also criticized abolitionist like Gary Francione. Can you say something how your views depart from him?

SB: Well, Francione is on the right track to criticize these mainstream groups that are urging reforms rather than abolition and are actually promoting meat consumption, whatever they intentions are, rather than promoting veganism, so Francione is getting us back on the right track, away from these reform campaigns toward a pure abolition message. There’s a lot of controversy over whether that is a correct path, whether that is to purist or not, so there’s a lot of debate about that, it’s quite controversial. But my problem with Francione is that he is opposed to direct action which is an effective tactic and therefore he rules out of hand an important part of our struggle. He’s message is to the White, it’s to elitist and so it’s not taking the vegan messages out to the wider audience that includes Blacks – people of color I should say – workers, poor people and southern nations. If we are going to push vegan education, let’s push it through a very broad audience, not just cookbooks for the white middle classes, that’s all they are doing right now. And moreover they are, I didn’t mention this point earlier, but veganism is a kind of consumptionism, consumerism. You go to this fancy food stores and you buy your vegan products and you shop, you look at these magazines that are very glossy, professional done, like VegNews in the US. Their almost pornographic, with all the advertising and sumptuous foods and restaurants and, I can image a poor person or a person of color looking at all this and saying well this is privileged white people, you know, pursuing their single issue interest, while we can’t even eat over here. So it promotes consumerism and I think we ought to be critical of consumerism. And finally they are not addressing the fact that there is a planetary crisis and meat consumption is going to double by 2050 and so this slow glacial approach of revolution one plate at a time is not going to work, and they are in a fantasy land, and they’ re not being realistic, they’re not facing up to the full extent of the crisis, and if the situation is more dire than what they allow, that mean that our tactics have to be more radical, we have to work harder and more effectively and we have to escalate the struggle, but none of this is even possible with Franciones approach because he rules out direct action and he does not have any concrete ways of forming alliances with other groups.

AT: Has he written any critique of ALF, I don’t remember having read anything?

SB: He has one short message on his website about violence, that he’s opposed to violence and that he defines ALF as violence, which begs a lot of questions. He defines property destruction as a kind of violence. He comes from two schools of thoughts here, one the ahimsa, eastern philosophy of never doing harm, of absolute peace, and therefore that would rule out sabotage and property destruction. The ancient eastern view of ahimsa is a nonviolent philosophy very influential in the movement. Second he comes from Donald Watson approach, the founder of the American vegan society in 1944, who counseled that veganism is a nonviolent practice. And so this ruled out from two different angles militant direct action, Francione consider veganism direct action. So I call militant direct actions sabotage, raids, threats on companies; these kinds of things are militant actions that are rules out by Francione.

AT: Some claim, like Lee Hall, and I guess Francione too, that aggressive confrontative militant actions scare people away from the movement and the message. And that they get the main attention in the media as opposed to the animal rights message. How would you answer that?

SB: Number one, some of these actions are not necessarily reported, so the public may be completely unaware of what’s going on. And number two, the real target and purpose of the action is to encriple an exploiter, and that’s more important than what the public opinion might be, should there be a public opinion. So if one can strike at a fur farmer and shut down that fur farm and parts of the public are alienated by that or think that is radical or extreme, is that really so important what they think? Because their opinions might not be to important in the long run anyway, if they’re not involved politically or if their influence is insignificant. But number three, this is why there is a press office, an animal liberation front press office, is to try to have some control over the meaning of these actions, so that if there’s a bombing attack on a laboratory van at UCLA, the press will call up, the media will call up the press office and say, why was this attack done, what are your views on this? And there’s a change to contextualize this to explain it, so that if there is media coverage, they will get another side, another perspective to consider if it is objective reported. So there are ways to control the message that are important, and that’s why there’s a press office. But I mean, look, it’s important to undertake these actions and hope for the best and it’s not the whole of the movement, you see. A important part of the movement has to do with education, it is to do with some of the mainstream work, it is to win people, is to be influential on people and to win them to a favorable position on animal rights. And there are whole sectors of the movement working on that, there’s no reason why there can’t be other kinds of actions, underground, happening elsewhere, a compliment to these action. And if the public is alienated? Well, again I think it’s more important that the actions are effective. And in very many cases they have been effective, so I think they are worth doing. It’s also how you do the actions, like if you write on the wall with spray paint “Die vivisector scum!”, and a picture of that gets in the paper, that’s not going to have a favorable impact on to many people, but if you write instead a little more positive message, like “animal experimentation is bad science”, something to that effect, and that gets printed in the paper, then the public have something to think about, so it depends on how the action is done. But that is one of the most controversial issues in the movement, and it will remain so.

AT: You have emphasized the importance of connecting with other liberation movements to grow, to build bridges and alliances, and you have criticized parts of the animal rights movement for being single issue oriented. Doesn’t the agenda of the animal liberation movement per definition include all sentient being, all animals, human or nonhuman?

SB: It depends on how the word animal is interpreted. And rightly interpreted, it does include human interests, not everyone emphasizes that. If I’m challenged and someone says well look human interests are more important, I say well you know this is about human interests, humans are animals too. That’s why we have the word nonhuman animal, that people often say instead of animal, to emphasize that we are animals, and we are all animals, and there are human animals and nonhuman animals. The nonhuman animals are the majority of the species of the planet. So properly conceived animal liberation is earth liberation is human liberation, and it’s a broad based anti-oppression movement. But some people will understand this in a single issue way that will be divisive, because people will think this runs against human interests or people don’t see the connections. So it’s important for the animal rights activists to emphasize the universal interest of animal rights issues, because this is not only about elite white people concerns, it’s about the future of the planet now. It’s about everyone has a concern or interest in animal rights whether they recognize it or not.

AT: Do you think the concept of ‘rights’ is problematic, given the radical tradition of critique against it?

SB: Yes. There’s various critiques of rights. Marxists don’t accept rights. Marx never talked about rights, he talked about justice. He thought that rights was a bourgeoisie discourse, It’s a competitive discourse, it comes out of a society that pits people against one another. I have property rights and you have maybe property rights, but we might be in conflict, my rights protect my territory. It’s very individualistic, it’s very material oriented. Rights do come out of a bourgeoisie capitalist context. The Marxists make that point, the Communitarians make that point, they think it’s an individualistic discourse and they’ re looking for a more communal based concept of justice. And the feminists have a critique of that, as a patriarchal bourgeoisie discourse, as a abstract legal concept, when we need more concrete caring relationships that aren’t mediated by the legal system and that aren’t bound up with patriarchal ideology. Anarchist don’t accept rights, there’s a lot of critiques of rights. But it’s the common coinage for moral struggles today, it’s very hard to articulate a struggle outside the language of rights, and if you could would it not be someone academic? We want to communicate with people in a language they understand, that language is rights, so if we can intervene in this context of rights, that is human rights oriented, and say well look, if humans have rights animals have rights to. So I understand these critiques. I think they make relevant points, but here I’m a pragmatist, I think we should work in the given moral language and framework and try to win legal rights for animals in this sense and widespread moral psychological acceptance of animal rights whereby people would change their lives. Such as by going vegan in recognition of animal rights. But I mean look even in a socialist, or anarchist, or ecofeminist society where there’s no rights, there’s just caring relationships, there’s community relationships, there’s no sense of competition, there’s still some notion of rights implicit here. Because rights establishes intrinsic value, rights establishes that you have an claim in society that is inviolable, that no one can sacrifice your interests for some other interest. This is what the concept of rights does, this would be implicit I think in any social context that respects the interest of sentient life of any kind. So you see, there are legitimate critiques of rights, but how practical are they? And whatever the context might be it seems to me that some concept of rights is implicit in any society worth having. So you can’t just dismiss rights by saying its capitalist or a male construct, so what? It’s a good construct in terms of what modern westerns history has accomplish. It’s the best concept that we have, so if we can successfully extend this to animals, then their situation could dramatically improve.

AT: What do you think is the most efficient activism in the animal rights movement today?

SB: I wouldn’t say it’s any one thing. The pluralism itself would be the most efficient approach. But not just any strategy, like with “human” meat strategy is not something I would accept from a pluralistic standpoint, saying oh there are some good in that, there’s no good to that ultimately. I think campaigns like Paul Watsons are just outstanding, truly of historical significance, amazing, impressive. The vegan education is very important, it’s becoming very sophisticated very good literature and websites, and that’s growing. There are campaigns to abolish circuses, there are effective campaigns against fur farming around the world, and maybe more progress being made in Europe that in the US on certain campaigns. I think in general Europe is more enlightened than the US, it has maybe a deeper history in some senses, certainly in England with animal protectionism.

There are some campaigns that are very effective, but I think on the whole the movement is losing ground. That’s the important point. For every step forward we take we take three steps back, because what we are competing with is a dramatic spike in world meat consumption. The fur industry has made a comeback, in the US at least. There’s still a huge problem with animal shelters, vivisection has increased in the UK, possible in the US. So we are not winning some of the campaigns we thought we were and the big picture is that we are losing ground, and I think that people need a sharper sense of what’s going on at a planetary basis, the crisis, the ecological crisis, the species extinction and climate change, we need more work on that and the population problem.

AT: You have been involved with Animal Rights Africa (ARA), can you say a bit about their work?

SB: Yeah, you can go to their website, and you can go to the total liberation festival link, and you can see a video tape of parts of my talk. It was a very successful event, we had three hundred people show up including representatives from nine different human rights, social justice and environmental groups, including gay lesbians, anti-privatization groups, human rights groups and environmental groups. We had a debate, and it began with my arguing for the importance of animal liberation and why human rights groups should accept these struggles and work with them. And then there was debate about that question, a very spirited debate, with these human rights, environmentalist activists and an audience that included many member from the townships or from South Africa.

AT: Do you think ARA is efficient in coalition building?

SB: A long way to go, but I think I maybe started some small movement toward trying to form alliances among those different groups, so that everyone might benefit. That’s been some of my work there in South Africa. I’ve gone down there three times and done three different speaking tours to the universities and community halls, and had some good response from blacks. That’s important, and it’s important that blacks take this message to other blacks, and that blacks picks up veganism and start vegetarian kitchens and restaurants and start their own education campaigns. It’s very hard for a white western guy to come down there and really be effective in vegan education or animal rights it’s important that it grows from their own culture. It’s a diverse culture of course and it includes whites. But, the meat industries are trying to turn South Africa to a meat production, meat consumption capital. And that happening in Brazil, it’s happening dramatically in China and India. These should be issues of profound concerns. If we’re doing vegan education, why aren’t people working in these areas, why aren’t they trying to form alliances in India and China. They should be.

AT: Is the animal rights movement in Africa growing?

SB: Yes, there’s a good animal rights group in Africa and in Cape Town and Johannesburg there are vegan groups too so it’s definitely growing. It’s growing worldwide, that’s the number one important thing to say, and worldwide it’s not an “animal whites” movement, there is some color diversity globally, but it’s not keeping pace with the destruction of species and the planet, so that’s the second thing to say. So again, making progress but not enough, making progress but still losing ground, that would maybe be a good title for something, making progress, losing ground, you know, that tension there.

The situation is deteriorating very rapidly, we have raising sea levels and we have these dramatic shifts in global temperatures that will cause deserts and floodings and disease and hunger and environmental refugee and social chaos and security issues, it will change everything. And it’s already happening, people are already being affected by this, animals are already being affected by this, like the polar bears, they are drowning because they have no iceberg to rest on. It’s already unfolding dramatically and rapidly, and this is the issue of the times, certainly a key one, but it’s largely ignored. And the environmental groups they don’t get it. Greenpeace came out and said well factory farming is number one cause in greenhouse gas emission. Oh my God a revelation, an environment group recognizing this. So instead of promoting veganism what they do is say we should be eating kangaroos and whales, because they don’t produce greenhouse gas emissions like cows do. I mean talk about missing an opportunity to make a dramatically powerful message, they had the world attention there for a second, that factory farming is a huge cause of global warming. That’s a message that a lot of vegans have been trying to get out, it’s not widely understood. People think the transportation industry might be the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s the agriculture industry. This is one why reason animal rights and veganism is a key part to the solution to a progressive global change.