McVeganism – new paradigm shift or same old sell out?

It has been reported that McDonald’s restaurants in Austria are introducing a vegan burger, a veggie burger and vegan “chicken” McNuggets. Apparently this is due to the growth of veganism in that country, whereas in neighbouring Germany – which has a less developed vegan movement – they will not be on the menu.

Martin Balluch of the Austrian group VGT (Association Against Animal Factories) is claiming this as a victory for that group’s reformist polices. In the past 15 years a number of laws have been passed such as bans on fur farming, battery cages for egg laying hens, wild animals in circuses, breeding rabbits in cages and experiments on great apes.

While this obviously falls a long way short of animal liberation, Balluch claims these reforms have helped raise the profile of veganism to the point where multinationals like McDonald’s want to cash in on it. This, he says, disproves the contention made by the well known animal rights philosopher, Gary Francione, that animal welfare and veganism are mutually exclusive.

Francione believes that if, for example, battery farming is abolished and free range eggs become the norm, then fewer people will be attracted to the vegan diet. While there is a certain logic to this view, it implies that most of us always behave in a rational goal-driven way. We are creatures of reason up to a point but there is also another side to the human psyche which is far harder to quantify.

In any case I have no truck with the pontifications of Francione. He is so removed from reality that his obsession with pacifism leads him to label any form of direct action – no matter how nonviolent – as a form of “terrorism”.

As an anarchist, however, I think animal liberation will only be achieved by social revolution  and the overthrow of capitalism, not delivered to us by corporations in the form of so-called ethical consumerism. Martin Balluch used to be a radical campaigner back in the nineties. Whilst living in England then he abseiled down the side of a church in Cambridge to publicise the hunger strike of animal rights prisoner Barry Horne.

Not any more though. Nowadays he prefers hobnobbing with politicians and company executives who he hopes will then agree to exploit animals but only in a kinder, more pleasant way. Although VGT was sued by McDonald’s for libel in the nineties and was forced to agree never to criticise or even mention the company again, Balluch admits he recently met them and to ask why the Chicken McNuggets sold in Austria are imported from abroad.

Yes, you heard me right. A so-called animal rights activist meets representatives from possibly the most prolific animal abuser on the planet who’ve gagged him from speaking out against them for years. Does he demand the right to free speech and that they stop murdering billions of cows, chickens, pigs, etc, stop destroying the environment or promoting unhealthy food or exploiting their workers or children through their advertising? No, all he wants to know is why they won’t sell the corpses of chickens reared in Austria who are “kept well” before they are slaughtered.

Naturally for a rapacious corporation like McDonald’s the bottom line is profit and the birds are “too expensive”. So at a stroke the much heralded welfare laws of Austria are sidestepped by capitalism – so much for reforming the system from within – and Balluch is instead making a great play of the vegan McNuggets, calling it “a good deal”.

He goes even further, however, calling it the beginning of a “paradigm shift” which may last 100 years but will lead to the dawn of a glorious age of emancipation for animals. In other words he puts his faith in politicians, governments and corporations to bring about animal liberation.

From an anarchist standpoint this is unbelievably naïve. The state and capital does not exist to liberate animals – or humans. It’s there to protect the power and profits of the ruling class it serves. Yes it will happily sell vegan products while there’s a niche for them, however veganism will be one subculture of many as postindustrial capitalism depends on lifestyle consumerism to create new markets.

McDonald’s will readily sell vegan burgers or McNuggets but as its overriding objective is profit at any cost, it will remain wedded to selling meat and other animal products and spend millions on advertising to generate the demand for that.

In any case even if it was to go vegan tomorrow, McDonald’s will still be responsible for exploiting its workers, children, causing waste and damaging the environment and producing unhealthy food (high in sugar, salt and additives). Surely this is a company no vegan or anyone with a sense of social justice would want to support.

We must always beware the ruling class on two levels – repression and co-option. It will try to batter those it considers too militant and beyond the pale while at the same time dangling a carrot to entice the moderates who can be won over by promises of reform. This serves two purposes.

First, it drives a wedge in movements and enables the state to portray those who turn a deaf ear to its entreaties as extremists. Second it assimilates the moderates into its own culture and with the help of a few titbits it has them under control. This is a classic divide and rule tactic which has been used for hundreds of years, including the animal rights movement.

When London Greenpeace produced the famous What’s Wrong with McDonald’s leaflet it was later sued for, it went out of its way to emphasize that the point wasn’t to make McDonald’s go vegetarian or vegan, but to “smash a multinational that epitomises everything we despise – a junk culture, the deadly banality of capitalism.”

Since then a prominent sociologist invented a term called “McDonaldization” to describe the emerging paradigm of “the principles of the fast-food restaurant coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.” Unfortunately if Balluch and others were to get their way, we might end up with the McDonaldization of veganism. Is that really a paradigm we should be happy with?


  1. That was an interesting read. Companies like mc donalds will go to any length to accrue profit and the problem is it will now attract people who wouldn’t normally go. You know paul, you’re an excellent writer. Have you considered writing a book? Or writing a regular column (dunno for which publication) but it’d be a good idea.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.