Recently, an apparent conflict has arisen between the perceived philosophy, politics and practise of veganism. There are those that believe we need to promote a liberal form of veganism, minimising political context and emphasising ‘vegan consumerism’ or ‘mainstreaming’. Where ‘anyone’ can consume vegan products and avoid those which are not.
In contrast there are those who emphasise the philosophical basis of veganism, where ideas about opposition to exploitation and cruelty to animals take prominence. This perspective tends to be expansive (1) in that it considers different forms of exploitation, how exploitation is related to domination, and how the system utilised to discriminate against animals (because they are ‘only’ animals) is also used against people, who are also marginalised and oppressed within the present economic and political system.
From the depoliticised perspective of veganism there is no direct challenge to the broader political or economic system we currently live under, a system which is dependent upon exploitation for its continued existence. Capitalism is allowed to carry on as normal, and provide us with our various vegan treats.
In this way we do not draw the connections between the situation of animal exploitation and human exploitation. The liberal view allows for all comers to adopt the definition of veganism, including nazis or other fascists. Within these hierarchical systems there can be animal exploitation or not, dependent on the nature of the ruler/elite. However, within a politicised definition of veganism which emphasises the context of exploitation and domination, it isn’t possible to be vegan whilst ignoring those aspects of domination that can also be applied to people (human animals).
A liberal definition of veganism is one that refers to the practise of veganism without consideration to its origin (2). In the liberal form people can be vegan who adopt the practise merely to improve their physical wellbeing (3), ignoring completely the issue of animals, and can openly discard the diet as a fad when it becomes convenient to do so. Within a liberal definition people like Bill Clinton are vegan, but he was never vegan anyway (consuming fish), in this example the mainstream press reported on his veganism without considering the contradictions. He wasn’t challenged from an animal standpoint, and neither was the media challenged by mainstream groups on their definition (or [mis]use) of the term ‘vegan’.
At times, It has been claimed we would be ‘stronger together’ by accepting a liberal definition. However, in turn, it hasn’t been acknowledged that the liberal view could be dismissed in favour of a definition reflecting opposition to all animal exploitation. There is no reason why philosophy and practise can’t walk hand in hand, so that we can be consistent with the original definition of veganism, and expansive beyond consideration for ‘the animals’ or merely ‘vegan’ consumerism, so we openly oppose forms of exploitation regarding both human and non-human animals, and the environment that we live in.
‘From animals to anarchism’ by Kevin Watkinson and Donal O’Driscoll. (2014)
‘Making a Killing: The political economy of animal rights’ by Bob Torres. (2008)
1. This approach does not present an easy to follow yellow brick road, there are many challenges along the way that require us to re-evaluate deeply held beliefs whilst learning and adapting to situations we find ourselves in. See particularly the Vegan Information Project for further material.
2. Pages 2 – 9 of a leaflet published by The Vegan Society demonstrates an original way in which people, animals and the planet were considered in regard to veganism. However, whilst the contemporary Vegan Society mention these aspects, they fail to critique those elements of ‘mainstream’ society that are in opposition to the philosophy of veganism. So instead of defining veganism as something which is rooted in social justice, they emphasise that veganism is for ‘everyone’. In this way they are confused about the meaning of veganism, and often appear to define veganism as merely the boycott of non-human animal exploitation.
3. Similarly, some environmentalists emphasise the impacts of animal farming on the environment, and go so far as to adopt a plant based diet. However, this group does not challenge the commodity status of animals or consider animal liberation as a social justice issue.