by Dr. Steven Best
The “animal rights movement,” such as it is, poses a fundamental evolutionary challenge to human beings in the midst of severe social and ecological crises. Can we recognize that the animal question is central to the human question? Can we grasp how the exploitation of nonhuman animals is implicated in every aspect of mental, social, and ecological breakdown? Can we illuminate and eliminate the corrupt constellation of overlapping oppressions that constitute the sickness and bungled experiment we call “civilization”? Can we become truly enlightened and overcome one of the last remaining prejudices, a sanctioned system of murder, a legally-validated police-protected form of enslavement, an ongoing holocaust? Can humans reorganize their economic institutions, retool their technologies, and reconstruct their cultural traditions apart from visceral violence and socially-secured sadism? Can they construct new sensibilities, values, worldviews, and identities?
Animal liberation is an assault on human identity alienated from the natural world and complex with vanity and arrogance. It demands that humans relinquish their sense of superiority over nonhumans and smash the compasses of anthropocentrisim and speciesismAnimal liberation provokes people to realize that power demands responsibility and that might is not right. , It places an unprecedented burden on humanity to act altruistically and no longer exploit their fellow beings. Animal liberation calls people back to an integral consciousness and relation to their teeming natural surroundings such as their early ancestors enjoyed before symbolic thinking, technological culture, agriculture, and the emergence of hierarchical ideologies and institutions.
By expanding the definition and boundaries of moral subjects and community, animal liberationists challenge hierarchical thinking of all kinds (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ablism, and statism). Above all, it dismisses the speciesist mindset that humanity is apart from, rather than a part of, the natural world and evolutionary processes. In a masterful example of question begging and circular reasoning – animals are deemed inferior to humans because they are not humans (i.e., they lack allegedly unique human qualities such as reasoning, language, and symbolic and technological cultures). Distorted conceptions of human beings as demigods who command a planet that exists solely for its interests and benefits must be replaced with the far more humble and holistic notion that humans belong to, and are dependent upon, vast networks of organic and inorganic relationships.
Let’s be clear: we are fighting for a revolution, not for reforms, for the end of slavery, not for “humane” slavemasters, for a new consciosuenss, not “enlightened humanism”. Animal rights advances the most radical idea to ever land on human ears: animals are not ours to exploit as food, clothing, resources, commodities, data, or “entertainment.” They exist for their own purposes, not ours. But animal liberation is simply unthinkable on its own terns, rather than as part and parcel of a larger revolutionary project that integrates human, animal, and Earth liberation as one inseparable struggle.
Thus, we must not only educate and agitate, we must form a social movement that combines the merely partial struggles for social justice, autonomy, animal rights, and ecology in a global, revolutionary politics of total liberation. As with all revolutions, animals will not gain “rights” (or whatever a possible future society calls inviolable and inalienable moral and legal protections against abuse and exploitation) because oppressors suddenly see the light, but rather because enough people become enlightened and learn how to rock the structures of power, to shake them until new social arrangements emerge.
Animal liberation requires that people transcend the complacent boundaries of humanism – however “radical” and “progressive” – to effect a qualitative leap in ethical consideration, one that moves the moral bar from reason and language to sentience and subjectivity. Humans must not only change their views toward one another, a massive undertaking in itself, they must also recognize that the species boundaries separating human from nonhuman animals are as arbitrary as those of race and sex. Animal liberation is possible only as total liberation that is advanced as part and parcel of a radical social movement and realizes moral learning processes in the institutional networks of a truly democratic post-capitalist society.
Animal liberation expands on classic humanist values such as rights, democracy, equality, justice, and peace, as it broadens inclusivity, expands moral value and legal protection, and deepens community. In taking the quantum jump beyond humanism, animal liberation does not “trivialize” human rights (as bioethicist Arthur Kaplan claims), but rather frees the universal and progressive aspects of rights from the ignorance, bias, prejudice, and discrimination of “rational” and “enlightened” human beings. Humanism is nothing but a tribalism writ large, applying to the artificially created chasm between “Us” and “Them,” between human and nonhuman animals, a conceptual dualism that underpins the vicious and violent system of species apartheid.
As difficult, bloody, and tenacious the battle to win gains in human rights and equality has been throughout modern Western history, we must recognize that every justice struggle to the present has been relatively easy. Now it gets hard.
The patterns of history cannot be changed by the vain hopes of pacifists who believe that Divine intervention or moral magic will make animal liberation – which threatens human psychological, social, and economic structures in profound ways – will be achieved peacefully, without shedding a drop of blood, through reason, compassion, and persuasion. Far more plausibly, especially as social and ecological crises heat up to fever pitch, we are headed for a profound, lengthy, and likely violent war – a war of human against nonhuman animals, of liberationists against exploiters, and of the corporate-state complex against militants and dissenters of any kind.
The struggle to end human supremacy is the most difficult liberation battle of all because speciesism is virtually primordial and universal. Speciesism was arguably the first form of hierarchical domination and a key model and blueprint for slavery, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ablism, and fascism. Speciesist cultures have grown in scale and degree throughout human history and its poisonous roots of human supremacism have spread throughout the globe.
Power, domination, violence, and extermination are not dynamics limited to Western culture or the modern world, as if there were a utopian past or radical alternative to recover. While wary of biological reductionism, it is nevertheless evident that power pathologies are deeply embedded in the long social and biological history of humans, and our ancient Australopithecine and primate ancestors. As appalled the “monster” in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818), the history of humanity is a tale of violence, warfare, genocide, destruction, such that a war of extermination was first unleashed, quite likely, on a fellow human species, Homo neanderthalensis. Then, after a 15,000 year long pogrom designed to eliminate Neanderthals, humans hunted large mammals (megafauna) into extinction on every continent they roamed.
Humans slaughtered remaining hunting and gathering tribes, waged wider warfare against one another, enslaved captive populations, and from Romans and Mayans to Christians and the US, they blanketed the Earth with invading armies whose numbers rose from thousands to millions to billions, exceeding ecological limits the entire way and paying the price with every crash and collapse.
Fueled by greed, bloodlust, cruelty, orgies of killing, and insatiable appetites for power, the Roman, Greek, Mayan empires are but variations on the global Human Empire – the tyrannical reign of Homo rapiens – such that one species on a path of runaway growth and expansion has colonized a fecund planet capable of generating tens of millions of species.
The pathologies of power and are not limited to Western societies or to the modern world, such that there is some significant utopian past or cultural alternative to recover. While social institutions such as capitalism magnify the worst aspects of human behavior, a violent dominator complex is not wholly accidental to the human species itself, which, but for rare exceptions, is a violent, destructive, and imperialist animal. Human beings have proven incapable of learning from past disasters, and unable to relinquish their arrogance and delusions.
Animal liberation is the most difficult battle we have ever fought because it requires widespread agreement to abandon the privileges of power and what people widely perceive to be their hard-won or God-given rights to exploit nonhuman animals and the entire Earth for their purposes.
To change these attitudes, and the systems they inform, is to change the very nerve center of human consciousness and existence.
That is our task no more and no less.
Dr. Steven Best is NIO’s Senior Editor of Total Liberation. Associate professor of philosophy at UTEP, award-winning writer, noted speaker, public intellectual, and seasoned activist, Dr. Best engages the issues of the day such as animal rights, ecological crisis, biotechnology, liberation politics, terrorism, mass media, globalization, and capitalist domination. Best has published 10 books, over 100 articles and reviews, spoken in over a dozen countries, interviewed with media throughout the world, appeared in numerous documentaries, and was voted by VegNews as one of the nations “25 Most Fascinating Vegetarians.” He has come under frequent fire for his uncompromising advocacy of “total liberation” (humans, animals, and the earth) and has been banned from the UK for the power of his thoughts. From the US to Norway, from Sweden to France, from Germany to Russia to South Africa, Best shows what philosophy means in a world in crisis.