Greta Thunberg, a young environmental activist, has become a powerful icon in our popular culture. Time magazine named her the 2019 “person of the year.” Many governments and business leaders, including Trump, have lashed out at her activism, and even her personally.
Concern regarding climate change and other environmental issues is clearly growing, particularly in North America. Part of this interest can be reflected in the current movement toward veganism, based on both environmental concerns and an embrace of “animal liberation” in general. Others have adopted an entirely plant-based (vegan) diet for reasons of weight loss and personal health and well-being goals.
How should Marxists respond to the arguments in favor of animal liberation? What position should we take on the growing thought that animals should not be used for agricultural purposes? Is there a way for us to address this movement in a serious way? A failure to address animal liberation could lead to the perception that Marxists don’t really care about environmental issues, and perhaps to an extent that perception is correct!
It should be noted at the outset that veganism in itself is politically neutral. In their book Vegan Freak: Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World (2010), Bob and Jenna Torres point out that veganism has representation from every political system of belief on the planet. We can note that Adolf Hitler was a vegan! His veganism was based on a Nazi concept of the purification of the body. We certainly should not dismiss the movement based on his conception of purity! What makes veganism a concept worth exploring is precisely the way that the movement addresses core political issues such as class, exploitation, and alienation.
To begin, we should note that some communists have written off the vegan approach as being liberal or bourgeois in its origins. That is a reasonable response to the narratives currently employed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). That organization is the most vocal vegan organization in the West. Many may appreciate their videos or online posts about the importance of stopping animal cruelty. Marxists can certainly agree that measures could reasonably be taken to stop needless suffering.
For most of us, however, that’s where the agreement stops. PETA has acted in ways that have, rightly, been condemned as “environmental racism.” Activists such as Pamela Anderson have famously fought against the seal hunt. Attacks on the seal hunt can lead to a racist and imperialist approach which attacks the traditional practices of Indigenous peoples around the world, particularly those based on hunter-gatherer economies. It is very hard to imagine that those living in far-north Arctic regions will be able to find their protein source from plants. Eating seal and caribou are essential to the provision of protein in their diet.
Approaches based on PETA have also focused on personal responsibility and the practice of “ethical consumption.” It has long been held that individual consumers should personally adopt a vegan lifestyle in order to personally stop the exploitation of animals by the agricultural sector. Within a capitalist framework, just how are our personal eating habits going to change capitalist industry?
We also need to explore the fact that when a product has been labelled “vegan” it can literally be sold at triple the price. Most working-class and poor families cannot afford to have their grocery bill tripled. As a result, many workers have ruled out living a vegan lifestyle. To take the argument seriously, however, we need to acknowledge that it doesn’t have to be this way. The vegan diet is typically made of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. There is absolutely no reason for such food items to be more expensive than meat, dairy, eggs or honey. Corporations have co-opted veganism by making “vegan” products so expensive. We need to challenge that!
We should also pay attention to the fact that, in India in particular, Hindu nationalism has been used to oppress Muslim people. Many Hindus and Buddhists around the world have embraced vegetarianism, and even veganism. What is concerning is the attack on those minority religious communities which traditionally have included meat consumption in their diet. Many vegans have criticized the practice of halal (or Muslim) meat production in which an animal’s throat is slit, similar to Jewish kosher meat production, calling it cruel. Arguments based on Islamophobic or anti-Semitic claims absolutely need to be rejected by anti-imperialist Marxists around the world.
Having explored the rejection of a liberal bourgeois argument, is it possible to adopt a vegan Marxist approach? Let’s take a look at a couple of issues which could form the basis for just such a position and practice.
Vegan Marxism needs to take, as its starting point, a solidarity with all workers who are currently employed in the field of animal agriculture. In North America, meat is extremely popular as a source of protein, and as a culinary enjoyment. Many of us retain fond memories of a family day in the summer around a barbecue! At the same time, most of us don’t really want to think about the fact that our meat that we love so much came from a sentient, caring and loving animal. As a result, those workers who are employed in slaughterhouses, meat packing plants, and butchery operations are typically workers at the very bottom of the ladder. In the U.S. in particular, it has been determined that workers in this field are over-represented by undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Several films on the Netflix platform such as Cowspiracy address this phenomenon. Major agricultural firms will employ such workers due to the fact that they can get away with paying these workers poorly. Vegan Marxists must take the material interests of such workers to heart.
Marxists who follow a vegan approach, and ecologists in general, often point out that animal-based agriculture is simply not sustainable. The amount of resources needed to produce a pound of meat, for instance, includes the feeding and grazing of cattle at a level of immense proportions. Animal-based agriculture is currently the largest industrial contributor to environmental destruction.
Take, for example, the deliberate burning of Amazon rainforests in Brazil to make way for cattle ranching. Beef and dairy production requires a massive amount of water and resources such as corn and soybeans, which could be used to feed people directly. Each year, the amount of cattle on the Earth increases far beyond the level that would occur by nature. Cattle used for dairy, for instance, are artificially inseminated so that they will become pregnant and give birth to calves. This is done in order for cattle to be able to lactate, and thereby produce milk. Those vegetarians who consume dairy, eggs, and honey are often quite saddened to learn that the calves produced in this way are typically diverted to veal production. Again, beef and dairy production demands more available land, which, under a capitalist framework, means the destruction of forests (the lungs of the Earth) and the loss of land previously held by Indigenous peoples around the world.
Vegan Marxists also really need to look at the fact that most people living largely on a plant-based diet do so on an involuntary basis. For most citizens of the world, meat is a luxury. For the environmental movement to be successful, all peoples of Earth must not only be considered as equals, but be treated as equals. In North America and Europe, meat and dairy production is heavily subsidized. Those subsidies reflect a decision, made socially, to value such production. It is very difficult to imagine that animal liberation or the ceasing of environmental degradation can be achieved under a capitalist framework. Under socialism, and ultimately, communism, social resources can be harnessed which are based on a more sustainable model of development.
It certainly is possible for Marxists to seriously address the environmental movement. A failure to do so could be dangerous, both for the socialist movement but also for our planet. It is also possible, and arguably necessary, for the environmental movement to seriously embrace an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist framework!