Rather than individualized battles, the view of social anarchism encourages us to see struggles as interconnected, and to act appropriately by building alliances and solidarity between them. . . . Yet while social anarchism has been at the forefront of challenging many oppression, most social anarchists have not been very active—either historically or presently—in challenging the human domination of animals.1
On a day like Thanksgiving, when various charred and mutilated bodies lay strewn across millions of American tables, the feeling that is foremost in my heart is not one of gratitude, but of mourning and even anger. That the average person sees no disconnect between centering thanks and grace around death is unsurprising. That this disconnect remains an oversight or rejected outright in radical Christian and anarchist circles is more confusing. Like Bob Torres, anarchist and vegan author of Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights, I contend that lack of careful and ongoing attention to nonhuman animal liberation leaves one of the most obvious and persistent forms of oppression unchallenged. Furthermore, it also makes for incomplete and disjointed analysis around other forms of oppression and resistance. Below are a few thoughts on important movements that miss the animal liberation piece and the consequences of that omission.
Critique of TechnologyAnarchist and Christian Jacques Ellul is well known for his incisive analysis of technology and the technological system’s impact on individuals, communities, and the way we construct society. Yet as I was reminded earlier this week, many of those who follow his analysis—unlike Ellul who condemned vivisection—miss the fact that the first sentient victims of the technological march are often nonhuman animals. Take for instance this week’s announcement about the latest in “smart technology”: the new bionic contact lenses that could make digital information even more pervasive that it already is while further collapsing the artificial with the biological. In one article4, the author casually mentions that the lenses were successfully tested in rabbits, bringing it one step closer to human use. Immediately, I began envisioning lab technicians forcing foreign objects made for a foreign purpose into an unknown number of rabbit’s eyes—objects that have no benefit for their lives and that take them farther away from the lives that God intended. As I type, millions of other rabbits, mice, rats, chimpanzees, cats, dogs, and other animals are being caged, tortured, manipulated, restrained, and otherwise sacrificed on the altar of technology for commodities that serve human beings.5 To disavow technology without naming the devastating way domesticated nonhuman animals are used long before these gadgets reach human hands is to miss a crucial link in the chain. To critique technology without exposing the irrationality of a system that torments nonhuman animals that are close enough to us to be our experimental substitutes while maintaining that these creatures are only mere resources is to miss an important tool for resistance.
Undoing Racism, Sexism and Other Human OppressionAs I have articulated in other spaces, there are clear overlaps between the ways we dominate human individuals and the ways we dominate other animals. Yet the concept of nonhuman animal liberation is often overlooked or deliberately excluded from attempts to undo racism, sexism, heterosexism, and a multitude of oppressions that we afflict on one another. In the all too anthropocentric feminist, anti-racist, queer, and other movements, nonhuman animals are often viewed as “distractions” and their experiences of disempowerment viewed as too insignificant for our consideration. However, when animal liberation becomes an integral part of the discussion, we begin to see how our freedom is wrapped up in one another. When animal liberation becomes an integral part of the discussion, the door is opened for analysis that names the way white women, men and women of color, differently-abled people, foreigners, and queer individuals are made to share similar social locations as our two- and four-legged kin of other species. There is room for intersectional analysis that asks why animals are used as epithets for oppressed people and why people are so allergic to claiming our animality. There is room for creative theology that sees God as not only transgressing the binaries of male and female, but also transgressing the human-animal dichotomy.6 There is room for mutually supportive models of liberation that does not sacrifice one group for the other. When animal liberation becomes an integral part of the discussion, we understand that all marginalized creatures endure a similar logic and system of oppression that “others”, creates hierarchies, justifies inequities and normalizes abuse. Conversely, when animal liberation is ignored we are essentially saying that freedom is reserved for the already privileged class of creature and that there is a form of domination that we are willing to accept.
Critique of CivilizationOf the more recent critiques of oppression, anti-civ anarchism, known to some as “anarcho-primitivism,” seems like it should be hospitable to the question of nonhuman animal liberation. Yet, if anything, the path to liberation from domestication and civilization remains decidedly human-focused as other animals are ideologically and literally sacrificed for the sake of human re-wilding efforts. Although the anthropological evidence that grounds much of anti-civ discourse is wide-open to various interpretations of early human life, the story and the model that tends to dominate the movement’s imagination is that of “hunter-gatherer” societies. But “primitivism’s” captivation with the hunter-gatherer is perplexing for several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that domination of “nature” is often named as one of the building blocks of civilization but, without attention to animal liberation, domination of other animals is often left out of the analysis. Take for example John Zerzan’s chapter on “Patriarchy, Civilization, and the Origins of Gender” in Twilight of the Machines. There he identifies patriarchy as “rule over women and nature”7 and suggests that the two forms of oppression are synonymous. Yet he does not pay any explicit attention to the fact that “nature” includes nonhuman animals, nor does he engage the idea, as others do, that a shift from a divine/mystery-based relationship with nonhuman animals to one of power-over-animals through organized killing may well be one of the roots of the various oppressions that characterize civilization.8 Indeed, the label “hunter-gatherer” in and of itself is deceptive, given that 1) it is estimated that 80% of early human food was gathered and foraged and 2) it is an open question whether our early hominid ancestors were hunters (a practice believed to have begun only 20,000 years ago) or scavengers of animal bodies in times of environmental pressure. Given the various theories that abound, why is it that the “hunter-gatherer” image predominates what it means to return to the wild and not the “fruitarian-vegetarian-scavenging” or even “gatherer-hunter” possibility? Would hunting be viewed as a part of liberation from civilization if animal liberation from human domination was a bigger part of the anti-civ ethos?
In asking these questions and naming the gaps I see in each of these worthwhile critiques, my intent is not to be dismissive. Instead, my identify how these forms of resisting oppression can be strengthened by paying attention to creatures beside ourselves. Nonhuman animal liberation is not a “threat” to other social movements for justice and resistance because the plight of our nonhuman animal kin is intertwined in many ways with our own. From where I am sitting, radicals of whatever stripe cannot hope to “abolish oppression” or “work for shalom” while using or accepting the use of other creatures as we currently do in instances when another reality is possible.9
- Bob Torres. Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. Oakland: AK Press: 2007, 126–127.
- There is currently a bill being proposed to end the use of great apes in various forms of research: http://www.humanesociety.org/news/news/2011/11/chimpanzee_update_110911.html Although legislative means are problematic in many ways, the anarchist community beyond the ALF has had very little to offer as far as other forms of resistance.
- I understand that there are places in the world in which less brutal and less industrialized farming methods are the primary means for which people can receive basic sustenance. This point extends only to those “humane farms” that exist in places where other ethical eating and clothing options are readily available.
- Michelle Roberts. “Bionic contact lens ‘to project e-mails before eyes.’” November 21, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15817316
- Behind the Mask: The Story of People Who Risk Everything to Save Animals, a 2006 documentary on the Animal Liberation Front and other animal liberationists produced by Uncaged Films and Animal Rescue, Media & Education, shows the reality of human experimentation on other animals in excruciating detail.
- One of the New Testament images of this is at Jesus baptism in which God is simultaneously imaged as human creature (Jesus), nonhuman animal creature (dove) and beyond human and nonhuman animal (“Father”). The imagery of Jesus as Lamb in understanding the atonement in Hebrews and as imaged in Revelations is also rich ground for this kind of theological delving. In the Triune God there is no competition between difference and unity as the three distinct persons are also an indivisible unity.
- John Zerzan, Twilight of the Machines. Port Townsend: Feral House, 2008: 11.
- In his book, An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other (New York: Simon and Schuster , 1993) nature writer Jim Mason spends several chapters addressing the “man-hunter” description of early human life and the way various biases (including the meat-eater’s bias) often color the way we interpret the anthropological record. He also looks explicitly at how plant and nonhuman animal subjugation among our evolutionary ancestors contributes to the rise of hierarchies that shape other cross-human oppression. Anti-civ thinker and anthropologist Layla Abdel Rahim has made similar arguments as Mason on her site, http://layla.miltsov.org/the-mythical-predator/
- Here again I want to stress that I understand that there are places in the world in which climate and geography make it impossible to live without using the bodies of nonhuman animals. Although there are probably ways in which nonhuman animals can be more respected in those situations, they are not the primary audience of this piece.
Nekeisha Alayna Alexis is the co-founder of Jesus Radicals and co-organizer of its annual anarchism and Christianity conference. She is an occasional writer and speaker with numerous interests including animal ethics from a Christian and anti-oppression perspective. She joined the Anabaptist/Mennonite tribe in 2003 and works for anti-racist transformation within the church. She also takes part in ecumenical conversations as part of the Ekklesia Project.