Jul 11, 2010
Animal rights activists need to be critical of large mainstream
organizations, fight to maintain philosophical and tactical
diversity, and demonstrate the vital importance of grassroots, direct
action and underground approaches, writes Dr Steven Best.
The modern animal "rights" movement is only a few decades old. In a
relatively short time, it has clearly made its presence felt in society.
There are many promising signs of evolution in the social attitudes
and treatment of animals, ranging from increased legal penalties for
animal abuse to the growth of the animal law field and growing
popularity of animal studies in higher education.
Nonetheless, it would be a serious mistake to conclude that we are
"winning" or making "progress" in a truly significant way, or that we
can ride into the future on the wings of the mainstream organizations
and their legislative-based tactics.
Fallacies of the mainstream
Consider this: after over three decades of growth and advocacy, the
US environmental movement has not accomplished any major goals and
easily succumbed to eco-fascists such as Ronald Regan and George W. Bush.
No amount of protests, demonstrations, lobbying, or mass mailings has
been able to stop the mounting global ecological crisis which plays
out in global warming, rainforest destruction, chemical poisoning,
species extinction, and countless other ways.
As Mark Dowie shows his must-read book, Losing Ground, the situation,
in fact, has steadily deteriorated and has reached crisis
proportions, despite the emergence of huge environmental
organizations and growing popularity of the environmental cause.
Similarly, whatever PR gloss one cares to throw on the last few
decades of the animal advocacy movement, one has to confront the
startling facts that ever more animals die each year in
slaughterhouses, vivisection labs, and animal "shelters," while the
fur industry has made a huge comeback.
Similarly, after three decades of activity, the animal advocacy
movement remains overwhelmingly a white, middle-class movement that
has gained few supporters in communities of color or among other
social justice movements.
So if we are counting the number of casualties in this war of
liberation, to single out one criterion, our side is hardly winning.
Over the past two decades, Americans have dropped $40 billion on
animal protection issues, some $2 billion a year, as 3,000 volunteer
organizations worked billions of hours. And for what? More death and
As activists lounge around swank hotels preaching to the choir in
endless conferences and Ego Fests, the enemy is growing in number and
Meanwhile, the key tactics that have truly proven their worth and
work where others fail the methods of the ALF, SHAC, and direct
action in general have been rejected and reviled by vast swaths of
Mainstream ideologues are under the spell of Gandhi, King, and
"legalism," the system-created ideology that urges dissenters to seek
change only in and through non-violence and the pre-approved
legislative channels of the state.
As the opiate of the masses, legalism disempowers resistance
movements and leaves corporations and governments to monopolize
power, deploy violence at will, and flout the laws created by and
for them -- whenever necessary and convenient.
Many individuals and organizations none more aggressively than the
Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) -- in fact have unctuously
adopted the murderous voice of the corporate-state apparatus and
denounced direct action as violent, terrorist, and antithetical to
the values of the animal advocacy movement.
The lethal virus of McCarthyism has infected our own movement. The
moral purists and legalists implore direct action advocates to purge
the "violent and extremist" element so that the voices of reason,
compassion, and moderation can prevail.
And prevail they will, we are asked to believe, with enough
professionals, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and lawyers filling the
hallways and chamber rooms of Congress, persuading our "elected
representatives" who -- of course! -- serve only the interests of the
people, and never the will of corporations.
It is unfortunate that such naiveté still impedes social movements
today, for the entire history of state repression, political
corruption, and corporate hegemony belies this bullshit at every turn.
In the accelerating phase of ecological crisis, it is now do or die
and we do not have the luxury to wait for change to unfold in the
long march through the institutions.
Lessons from the environmental movement
The animal advocacy movement is poised for ever greater failures as
it replicates the mistakes of the environmental movement.
At the turn of the decade in 1970, the future of the new
environmental movement seemed bright. Riding the crest of 1960s
turmoil and protest, environmentalism quickly became a mass concern.
The first Earth Day in 1970 drew millions of people to the streets
throughout the nation. The 1970s became "the Decade of
Environmentalism," as Congress passed new laws such as the Clean Air
and Water Act and the government created the Environmental Protection
Environmental organizations planted roots in Washington, DC, grew
vast membership bases, spewed out expensive mass mailings, and walked
side-by-side with the rich and powerful as they lobbied for a better world.
The movement's recipe for success, however, quickly turned into a
formula for disaster as large environmental groups increasingly
resembled the corporations they criticized and, in fact, themselves
evolved into corporations and self-interested money-making machines.
Behemoth organizations such as Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness
Society, and Nature Conservancy formed the "Gang of Ten." They were
distinguished by their corporate and bureaucratic structures whereby
decision-making originated from the professionals at the top who
neither had nor sought citizen input from the grass roots level.
The Gang of Ten hired accountants and MBAs over activists, they spent
more time and energy in mass mailing campaigns that actual advocacy,
and their money was squandered on sustaining their budgets and
bureaucracies rather than protecting the environment. They brokered
compromise deals to get votes for legislation that was watered-down,
constantly revised to strengthen corporate interests, and poorly enforced.
As an entrenched bureaucracy with its own interests to protect, they
not only did not fund or support grass roots groups, they even fought
against them at times.
They formed alliances instead with corporate exploiters and
legitimated greenwashing/brainwashing campaigns that presented
polluters and enemies of the environment as friends of the earth as
when the Environmental Defense Fund bragged that something
significant happened when they partnered with McDonalds to end
plastic foam containers, as the rainforests continued to be pillaged
for Big Macs and Quarter Pounders.
The EPA became a farce that protected the interests of corporations
over citizens and the earth, while lulling the populace into thinking
that there was genuine "regulation" of corporations and environmental hazards.
The significant gains in the environmental movement came in the late
1970s and early 1980s, with the emergence of thousands of grass roots
organizations not beholden to patrons, corporations, and politicians,
along with the direct action tactics of Paul Watson and the Sea
Shepherd Conservation Society, Earth First!, and the Earth Liberation Front.
Problems in our house
Looking back on the last two decades of environmental politics, it is
clear that mainstream organizations are an impediment to the radical
changes necessary in society to stop corporate ecocide.
With ecological crises mounting, an ever-growing division between the
world's rich and poor, and transnational corporations gaining
increasing power and control over all nations, it is clear that
tactics of compromise, reform, and moderation cannot stop the
juggernaut of capitalism and speciesism and that more radical and
confrontational methods are necessary.
Unfortunately, the same problems and pathologies that crippled the
potential power of a mass environmental movement are replicating
themselves in the animal advocacy movement.
As Gary Francione, Joan Dunayer, and others have complained, it is
hard even to find a consistent animal rights philosophy and politics
in the movement, as most campaigns in fact are
corporate-compromising, welfarist campaigns dressed up in a rights
language and seek a reduction in suffering rather than the abolition
of the root causes of exploitation.
Through the influence of the ALF and SHAC, a militant direct action
presence has entrenched itself in the animal advocacy movement (the
ALF beginning in the 1980s and SHAC in the late 1990s), but in most
cases direct action is either shunned or vilified for fear of state
repression or losing the almighty funding and patron dollars through
contamination with controversy.
The new Goliath
HSUS, in particular, has distinguished itself as a divisive force by
pulling out of national and regional conferences that include direct
Rather than evince respect for diversity and debate instead of run,
HSUS not only has withdrawn into its own insular conference world, it
has publicly attacked the ALF and SHAC. In an interview, Mike
Markarian, HSUS Executive Vice President of External Affairs, crossed
a clear line when he demonized ALF activists as criminals and
applauded the FBI for going after them.
HSUS is a vast, global empire unto itself, with offices throughout
the world, 10 regional offices in the US, and tentacles in a web of
other organizations and affiliates.
While it has no relation to local humane societies and animal
shelters anywhere in the US, HSUS does control dozens of legal
corporations throughout the world, such as Earthvoice, the Wildlife
Land Trust, Earthkind USA, and the UK World Society for the
Protection of Animals.
Like other transnational corporations, the HSUS conglomerate survives
through endless expansion and growth. In 2002, it took over Ark
Trust, producers of the Genesis Awards for animal-friendly TV and
film. It absorbed the Fund for Animals in 2004, and in 2005 it
snapped up edgy activists Miyun Park and Paul Shapiro from Compassion
Over Killing, a pro-open rescue group willing to break the law to
rescue animals, a clear no-no for HSUS.
From its 30,000 members and annual budget of $500,000 in 1970, it
has morphed into a body of 9 million members with an operating budget
of nearly $100 million in 2005.
Such a behemoth has a homogenization effect on the movement whereby
it monopolizes donations to animal causes, commands ever more media,
disseminates welfarist ideology, co-opts activists useful to its
programs, and maligns direct action approaches, all the while staying
disengaged from local humane societies and animal shelters as a whole
(unless they are willing to pay HSUS a fee for services and advice).
Certainly, HSUS has helped animals in various ways and helped to
chalk up a number of legislative victories against cockfighting,
horse slaughter, and other atrocities, and under Pacelle's leadership
it progressively advocates a vegan agenda.
But it also is a vast bureaucratic organization with its own
interests and needs (such as paying Pacelle's $300,000 annual salary)
that has adopted many of the unfortunate characteristics of
mainstream environmental movements.
No such empire and bureaucracy can be sustained without its lifeblood
money and fundraising, patron satisfaction, and forging corporate
ties thereby occupy a good deal of HSUS time and energy.
In 2003, HSUS had $116,205,882.00 in total liability and net assets,
yet spent around $3.5 million on the crucial problem of animal
sheltering (far better than in 2002, when they gave less than
$150,000 to local humane societies and shelters). They did, however,
spend over $15.6 million on fundraising and accrued $6.3 million in
HSUS acquired over countless millions of dollars in donations to aid
animals gravely affected by hurricane Katrina. They worked to save
many animal lives, but also came under intense fire from activists on
the ground who claimed that they were inept and inefficient.
One has to wonder if a more flexible organization structure would not
have been more effective. And how much of that largesse supports its
bloated bureaucracy and fundraising needs, and how much goes directly
to the animals? Would such funds not have been better utilized by
shelters and rescue organizations at the grassroots?
In 1994, Pacelle told Animal People that his goal was to build "a
National Rifle Association of the animal rights movement," suggesting
he seeks a powerful organization dominated by single-issue politics.
Such an approach means in practice the kind of compromise politics
that vitiated the environmental movement, such that HSUS is prepared
to bargain with or support nearly any politician (however right-wing)
or corporation for a vote.
This was evident in their support for the Central American Free Trade
Agreement (CAFTA, a neo-liberal economic policy modeled on NAFTA),
whereby they gained tenuous support for some animal issues, but lent
their support in turn for a "trade agreement" that threatens small
farmers, violates the rights of workers, promotes factory farming
(and thus greater meat and dairy consumption), and favors
transnational corporations that grow wealthy through the plunder of
Do or die
If the animal rights movement is ever to become more than just
another "interest group," if it is to achieve it goals of animal
liberation, and if it is to realize its potential for radically
transforming human identity and society, it will have to study past
social movements and learn from their successes and failures the
environmental movement in particular -- in order to draw the right
lessons and not repeat the same mistakes.
Activists need to be critical of large mainstream organizations,
fight to maintain philosophical and tactical diversity, and
demonstrate the vital importance of grass roots, direct action, and
As frustrated as activists become for far greater degrees of
progress, it is also true that we need patience, foresight, long-term
vision and strategies, and use of non-violent tactics where these are viable.
Where legal and non-violent tactics are not viable, however, where
they are not enough to stop exploiters from killing innocent animals,
it is our duty to use stronger tactics to bring this violence against
animals to an end.
As we would not argue any differently if we were defending human
beings against violence and terrorism, we should apply the same
arguments to animals who have equal rights to life and freedom.
As with past human liberation struggles, any and all tactics that
prove themselves effective in the field of battle must be used for
animal liberation, thus demanding a pluralist and non-dogmatic approach.
For a long time, the direct action community has tolerated the
opprobrium of mainstream organizations like HSUS, which claims that
direct action approaches have discredited the values of the movement
and impeded its progress.
As we consider the level of radical tactics necessary to defend
animals and the earth, and ponder the fallacies that have guided the
animal advocacy movement for too long, maybe it's time to turn the
tables and expose the fallacies and hypocrisies of the mainstream.
The message of the animal rights/liberation movement has nothing to
do with profits, corporations, and fundraising, and everything to do
with a revolutionary transformation of human consciousness and all
existing social institutions.
Dr Steven Best is an Associate Professor of Humanities and Philosophy
at the University of Texas, El Paso. For 25 years he has researched,
taught, lectured, and published in areas such as philosophy,
literature, social and political theory, cultural studies, film and
mass media, science and technology studies, politics, terrorism and
peace/security studies, and ethics (with a focus on animal rights,
environmentalism, and biotechnology). He is the author and editor of
10 books and is currently completing a new book, Animal Liberation
and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution.