Why I Am a Vegan, and Why You Should be, Too (especially if you’re an anarchist)

There are two sets of reasons as to why one should be a vegan. I shall label them “positive” and “negative”. Positive reasons are those that aim to motivate a person to act in a certain way. Negative reasons are those that aim to discourage action. For our purposes, positive reasons will, broadly, take the form: “one should be a vegan because…”, whereas negative reasons will take the form “one should not eat meat/consume animal products because…”. In this article I will not focus on offering compelling positive reasons to motivate fellow comrades into taking up a plant-based diet. While these reasons are plentiful, and I’m sure, rhetorically necessary if we (vegans) are to win the generally public over to our ‘cause’, I do not feel they will be sufficient on their own to motivate broad appeal… Rather than adopting a rhetorical, persuasive approach, the success of this article will hinge upon my negative reason for veganism which I take to be philosophically both necessary and sufficient to motivate a change in attitude or behaviour.

A few disclaimers before I begin.

Firstly, I will not be arguing from the position of utilitarianism, nor will I be arguing from any position which presupposes that animals have rights. Moral rights, and the language/conceptual space around their discussion, are complicated – arguments that do not require these presuppositions ought to be made if they can be made. If it later emerges that we eventually establish a robust and comprehensively agreed-upon theory of rights that includes animals within its scope (and I do not see how else it could go), then the arguments made below will be fortified – not irrelevant.

Secondly, I will be arguing from an anarchist perspective, but also from a political-theoric, left aligned position. If you are not motivated by discussions around the (il)legitimacy of private property, and the way this norm is reproduced in our engagement with nature, then the odds are you will not find this discussion fruitful or compelling.

Lastly, as gestured towards earlier, I will not be utilising a consequentialist view of normative ethics – partly because I abhor consequentialism – but nor will my argument require the acceptance of any other normative theory. I am arguing for veganism from a structural, political, standpoint – not a moral (understood in a restricted way) standpoint. The purpose of this article is to look at animal product consumption from a political perspective, nor a moral perspective – it should not, therefore, provoke feelings of guilt or shame.

Part One: Depth Commitments – Surface Commitments

Put quickly, surface commitments are the things we do, depth commitments are beliefs (usually unstated) that would provide a story that would explain and ground why we have done the thing we have. Depth commitments make sense of our actions despite they are not necessarily being pre-reflectively available to the agent who performs them. To use an analogy from chess, my moving my knight from b1 to c3, my pawn from b2 to b4, my bishop from c1 to a3, etc only makes proper sense if I am playing a game of chess. Moving the pieces is a surface commitment – I am moving in accordance with a set of rules in order to win a game against an opponent. Participating in the project of a chess game is our depth commitment. If I am playing a different game, my moves suddenly stop making sense. If I were sat at what was recognisably a chess board, playing a game with an opponent, and moved my bishop horizontally (a move that would be considered “illegal” by chess purists and pedants, as well as those with a cursory understanding of the game) – and you were to protest that this was against the rules of chess, I could respond by saying “sure, but I’m not playing a game of chess – I’m playing something else”. My surface commitments rely on the depth commitments for their ultimate justification, if my depth commitment changes then so too should my surface commitment (if such a change is indeed required).

Nietzsche, of course, used the “depth-surface” distinction to motivate a change in psychological well-being. People, Nietzsche argued, behaved in accordance to a set of morals. These morals were/are existentially damaging as they promote emotional self-flagellation in virtue of its stated, self-annihilating, views around the value of selflessness. Our surface commitment, so-called Judeo-Christian morality, was/is harmful – but what would be the corresponding depth commitment to provide the hinge upon which such a grotesque system could turn? The only thing that could provide such a mechanism, Nietzsche argued, was a belief in the Judeo-Christian God to whom we are debtors, and debtors paying with our own suffering.

Of course, as we all know from The Gay Science, “God is dead”, so why do we continue to act in this way? Nietzsche hypothesised that there must be a time lag, a mourning period, between the death of a depth commitment, and the abandoning of its surface phenomena. Will this mean that we will be forced to jettison those rules that happen to be conducive to human flourishing? Will murder suddenly become permissible? No. Many of our current moral evaluations will continue to exist, but “for different reasons than hitherto…”. These different reasons, Nietzsche hoped, would be less psychologically scarring, less greatness-preventing, and more aristocratically elitist.

Why am I bothering to bore us all with discussions around Nietzsche (certainly no friend of libertarian anarchists) and opaque philosophical distinctions? It will come as no surprise that my argument for veganism will rest upon such a distinction.

Part Two: What Veganism?

Here are some modal possibilities:

  1. Vegan and anarcho-communist/anarcho-communist-adjacent (vegan comrades)
  2. Vegan and Neoliberal (“woke veganism”)
  3. Omnivorous and anarcho-communist/anarcho-communist-adjacent (omnivorous comrades)
  4. Omnivorous and neoliberal (status quo for many in the global north)

In what I am about to argue, I only aim to show the impossibility of 3. – viz. the impossibility of omnivorous comrades. I am not making the stronger claim that all vegans are comrades. Some are positively not. Veganism is, like all things within neoliberal, late-stage capitalism, subject to marketisation. Indeed, capitalism has certainly appropriated veganism with terrific efficiency (and at an accelerated rate within the past ten years) such that veganism is now a consumer lifestyle that has a variety of products one can purchase to show one’s adherence to being plant based. The operant supposition to this lifestyle being, of course, if one buys the right (e.g. plant-based) products, capitalism will function better. Of course, one cannot solve the problems of consumer capitalism via consumer capitalism – no matter how many times we try.

In short, I aim to show that the only valid possibilities in the above table are:

  1. Vegan and anarcho-communist/anarcho-communist-adjacent (comrades)
  2. Vegan and Neoliberal (“woke veganism”)
  3. Omnivorous and anarcho-communist/anarcho-communist-adjacent (comrades)
  4. Omnivorous and neoliberal (status quo for many in the global north)

Again, and I stress this point in virtue of the sheer amount of frustrating conversations I’ve had with fellow comrades, I’m not saying if you’re a vegan you are, de facto, a communist. Rather, I am only going to argue (so modest is my project) that in a coherent anarchist society one would not participate in the consumption of animal products, and I shall do so by an examination of the political depth commitments that make sense of, or are presupposed by, eating meat.

Part Three: Authority, Regulation and Private Property: Biopolitics

At work, during non-cataclysmic, epoch-defining, circumstances, my employer determines what I wear, with whom I interact, when I eat, the tone of speech I adopt (not TOO Scottish), when I go to the bathroom and when I sleep. My behaviour is highly regulated. My employer derives the authority to do so in virtue of me selling my labour power to them, who then treats this (and, in effect, me) as their private property. Life is legitimately regulated in such a way only if we accept the legitimacy of the authorities who make claims on our time and, effectively, on us. The depth commitment operant here is capitalist-typical private property. We reproduce this norm when we regulate the lives of other conscious beings – beings whose non-fungible properties (personality, consciousness, whatever) are obliterated in the realisation of their exchange value as “meat/food”. Upon what authority could we legitimate this treatment of animals? Two things that are presupposed can answer this question:

  1. We are distinct from nature, occupying a different category of being, and exercise our will as external actors over it.
  2. We stand in a property relation to nature – it is ours to regulate, and this regulation includes consumption.

Position 1 is clearly untenable unless you are a very certain type of religious person who believes God made us as a special, distinct, category of being. If you believe this, I suspect there is no mode of discourse, no line of argument I can go down and exhaust, that will persuade your re-alignment. Luckily, I have never actually met any religious people who adopt this view (most, of course, believing that God put them here to occupy an “inherent” – being-in – position, qua steward), but I am sure they must exist.

Position 2 makes sense of the status quo, but presupposes the legitimacy of private property and the legitimate ownership of conscious life. If we do not think that our employers have the legitimate authority to regulate our eating-drinking-fucking-shitting habits, but use the language of the private ownership (or even rent) of our labour power to facilitate this, why do comrades feel that their reproduction of these norms on animals would attain its legitimacy via another source? No, our depth commitment is the same as the capitalist when we eat meat, drink milk, wear leather: it is the depth commitment of the legitimacy of private property. It is the same as a matter of necessity.

Being a vegan alters our attitude and our orientation towards nature. We stop seeing the world as something over which we have dominion and ownership rights, and start seeing it as continuous with ourselves. We do not see ourselves as standing elevated in a hierarchy, looking down, but on a rhizome, looking across.

By W.D. Sharkey

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