Saturday, July 09, 2005

I'm A Meat Eater (Bonus: Discussion of Consumption Activism!)

I'm a proud meat eater.

Yup, me, the paragon of leftism, chews down a juicy steak now and again, priding myself on the skill to prepare it. (Frequent viewers could guess based on my ICA fandom.)

Let me explain why.

There are roughly two reasons that people choose vegetarianism: Personal ethical/spiritual or activism/protest. Let me take them in reverse order.

(For the purposes of this discussion, I define "vegetarianism" as eating no fish, poultry, beef, pork, seafood, or other flesh from animals, and "veganism" as vegetarianism with the addition of eating no animal byproducts, such as eggs or milk.)

I think that vegetarianism or veganism is part of a complex I call "consumption activism." These activists are the people who tell you you're being hypocritical for wearing Nike shoes or using banks or... In debate, a position called Blaming came up on the ocean policy topic, saying that blaming government and corporate institutions for problems was an attempt to divert attention from individual choices. My problem with this outlook is as follows:

1) It is notoriously self-righteous, all about who's the supposedly better leftist and who's not, all about critiquing others for not following norms that you happen to think are right. For one thing, it's remarkably intolerant, and it ignores the complex set of circumstances under which people make their decisions. Buying Nike shoes may be supporting sweatshop labor, but for poor people, if it saves them the money to be able to afford participating in worthwhile causes, it strikes me that that's not an easy decision to make, and an especially difficult one when made looking from the outside.

But even from a pragmatic perspective, the sort of crotchety proselytizing outlook that this implies doesn't do much to draw support or respect from beyond the aisle. Calling the people you're trying to convince assholes doesn't usually draw a lot of support.

2) It's just not a terribly effective mode of activism. Why?

A) Companies don't care about people who'll never buy their products. The only way that reducing consumption of X product really affects companies is if a substantial amount of former consumers stop consuming, enough to counteract normal growth and hurt products. That requires a ton of organizing, and I believe that other tactics can yield impacts quicker.
B) To even do it effectively, one has to constantly monitor one's consumption totalities. That means doing quite a bit of homework for everything from food to cars to clothes to shoes. Yes, some of this should be done anyways, but the real fanatics about this stuff even oppose putting money into capitalist banks.
C) In any respect, our consumption choices in a capitalist system, even with lots of us, don't communicate the requisite information to companies. If a grocery store loses one customer's input worth of meat, it doesn't even notice. If it were to lose a bunch, it may wonder why, but not be able to find out. Dollars don't tell the story: it's one of the failings of capitalism. Which leads me to point #3.

3) The entire assumption of the strategy reifies faith in capitalism, the state and markets. It assumes that everything or at least a substantial portion wrong with what we've got can be solved with our dollars. But that's a silly assumption made by people who often openly argue the opposite in their more conscious moments.

The matter gets confused by the fact that sometimes our dollars do matter (even more on this later). NIKE sweatshop production could possibly be stopped by enough people not buying their shoes until they stop using sweatshop labor (but that's more of a boycott, not really applicable in this case). Bringing down the whole meat industry might also be possible... I emphasize might. Changing the fact that corporations externalize costs onto others insofar as they can get away with it, are totalitarian institutions and try to make profit? I can't possibly see that being done with dollars.

This is especially true given that this hypothetical several million person movement to whom corporations pander could already have done major damage to capitalism far before this point AND would probably cause corporations to leave the country. Why sell to people who put huge restrictions on buying your products? Without stoppages on capital flight, this tactic is doomed.

Markets and corporations on their own have massive abilities to defend themselves from such reformist attempts (and this is as reformist as it can get: using their machinery to try to beat them). Add in the state, which will then use taxes to bolster flagging industries (say, by spending a ton of money on it through the Pentagon), and one has a strategy that simply doesn't have the flexibility or the impact to matter on its own.

4) Possibly the worst part of this entire notion is that it's a white, middle-class concept of activism.

These admonitions are not very useful for poorer activists, who simply don't have the money to really make corporations care about them. Consumption is skewed upwards proportional to income, so those with lower incomes thereby don't exert as much power with this tactic. A tactic that replicates hierarchy in its very functioning seems somewhat problematic.

This is especially true because poorer individuals are also often the types who would want to use remiss services: say, go to McD's or not buy expensive organic produce or meat.

To return to vegetarianism: It's rather easy for someone in Europe or America to fill their protein and caloric intake with vegetables, legumes, mushrooms, etc. It's almost impossible for someone in sub-Saharan Africa or even good portions of Latin America.

5) The whole notion is regressive and reductive, almost endlessly.

Where does one stop putting one's money? Is it only companies who use sweatshop labor or simultaneously egregiously abuse life? Okay, so all those other totalitarian companies get off the hook. Oh, so now it's also banking institutions, stocks, bonds, 401(k)s and other retirement accounts? Huh. Ah, so now you say any money spent and any work done is collaboration and one should just become a hermit?

The hermit proposal, according to this twisted logic, may actually garner some support in my Comments section. But there's two problems. First, I can't imagine that being a very popular advocacy likely to get people to the left. But second, it basically means giving up on society, giving up on the frameworks of elites.

Mind you, I'm morally repulsed by capitalism, but I also want to win. And one way to win is to make as much money as possible. "Judo" tactics on their own, as I indicate above, are somewhat limited. Combined with real institutional and movement support to prevent corruption and utilize the resources, they can be the key to victory.

Also, this notion really does intellectual violence to the complex nature of institutions. Yes, capitalist institutions are bad, but production is not. Yes, capitalist meat is bad, but maybe not meat in general. One has to think about what could be changed rather than rejecting everything whole hog.

(I wish I could find an excellent Albert article on private consumption).

Let me offer two caveats. First of all, I'm not talking about boycotts, forming alternative businesses, growing one's own food, etc. Some of these things are independently worthwhile and some of these things make sense from a tactical perspective. Notice how a boycott works differently from simply saying "I'm not ever going to consume meat." The meat industry doesn't sell to vegetarians. However, as Alton Brown covers, they DO change, say, the leanness of their hogs when diet crazes come about. The difference with a boycott is that the statement changes from "I'm forswearing your product forever" to "I'm not buying your product until you do X, Y and Z clearly identified things." The notion that your money can eventually return is the encouragement for a business to comply. (Even this is, in and of itself, a pretty minor victory, but a lot of pretty minor victories count.) And the boycott clearly states the qualitative reasons why the product isn't being bought.

Second, even a very extreme anti-consumption strategy could be part of revolutionary frameworks, a tool in the toolbox. I'm objecting to the notion that it's a revolutionary monad. And the other implication is that others could still consume, say, meat and not be counter-revolutionary assuming they were doing all the other things.

Further, modern agriculture kills quite a few animals and has HUGE ecological ramifications, particularly given that the type of variety that vegetarians/vegans build their diets upon is difficult to achieve and not available to most of the world. Everything from irrigation to the oil consumption of modern farming ("trading oil for soil") to pesticide application to artifically putting in natural pesticides (yes, even mantises and ladybugs) to fertilizer runoff to high-intensity tilling that causes eutrophication and hypoxia to nutrient depletion and deforestation does real ecological damage. Not to mention that farm jobs are often low paid and extremely strenuous. Even worse, most biotech companies are going to experiment with dangerous GMOs. It's not at all clear that giving a dollar to Harris Ranch is worse than giving it to Monsanto.

(To be fair: Even animal waste is pretty devastating in terms of ecological impact.)

Not all land is equal, nor is all corn and feed, and all things consume water. The evidence I've seen shows that meat, as part of a holistic ecological strategy, will be not just a luxury but essential.

Now for the ethical side of the equation.

The whole notion of vegetarianism is based on anthropocentric (and, to some extent, culturally contingent) ethics. It's not that refusing to eat meat is anthropocentric, because the epitome of anthropocentrism would be to only think humans were valuable and to not feel any remorse for killing an animal to eat it. But it is the similar lack of caring about the vegetables one is eating that makes the notion still anthropocentric.

"But Fred", one might say, "plants don't feel pain!" Maybe, maybe not. .

Even if they don't, though, this assumes that the relevant criterion for guilt is that it feels pain. But that's still anthropocentric; it assumes that the cow, having closer sensations to us than the lettuce, is morally inferior to eat.

I know this sounds like "You're murdering lettuce!", but my position is a little more nuanced than that.

The sad part about living is that we consume other things. Trying to reduce the pain they feel and in turn being ready to contribute in return to the environment is really the only option.

I don't want to be self-righteous about meat consumption either - I can see challenges to the meat industry and in fact eagerly support them, I can see reduction of meat consumption - and the upside of my proposal, also i's equalization - I just can't see it as the end-all and be-all. Others can be vegetarian as their own personal instincts demand. I just won't follow suit.

A Maddox response to a PETA letter and an article about vegetarianism: and

From Z Magazine General Forums (, some edited replies from Albert on consumption :

"I think the real problem with investing in the stock market is that it tends to cause a person to root for the firm, to root for profit making,and that can undermine consciousness and values.But if one can avoid that dynamic, or getting bonds, or putting money in a bank -- I don't see it as a big problem. We live in the world we live in. There are compromises all the time. No way to avoid them -- not much point in worrying about them. Much more important to be activist in more collective respects, I believe.

Well, some people think that everyone has to operate in precisely thefashion they deem proper, or, by virtue of not doing so, be a hypocrite-- others of us recognize that living in an oppressive mileau means that one makes compromises all the it or not...and that if you must judge a person (not a very useful thing to be doing, in general) you can only do so in possession of quite a lot of information abouttheir context and all their choices, not just a very few of them.

So, if you work for a corporation as a wage slave you are, in that degree, lending your actual labors to the creation of profit and there production of capitalist hierarchy. Is this hypocritical?
Suppose you are anti-capitailst and rail against wage slavery and profit making. Some might say yes -- most would say no. Why not? Because given the setting you operate within, to do otherwise is simply beyond most people's possibilities. Now I don't work as a wage slave, and I never have. But I think it would be outrageous of me to call people who do so and also profess to be against capitalism, hypocrites. We don't all face the same situtations and options. I do put money in banks, though I don't invest in the stock market - -for reasons I mentioned. For someone who puts money under their pillow-- I guess on grounds that they don't want their effort to contribute to the portfolio of a bank to call me hypocrtical for using banks, would be ridiculous, I think. Were Z, for example, and every other project I am aware of, to reject using banks, checks, credit cards, etc., there would be no such projects -- which would not be a good choice, I think.

Here's a much more graphic example. In the early days of South End Press, we bought a building to house the operation and the staff very economically. Changes in the area caused the value to go way up. We sold it and used the gains to further finance the efforts. We also boughtanother, and did the same thing again. Now when a landlord does this it has one flavor, when we did it, it had a very different flavor, I would argue. Here is another -- I have a friend who has devoted years of his life to trying to create a restaurant chain that would earn millions for activism, suffering hugely in the process. That is a very iffy choice --literally being capitalistic to try to extract funds to use against capitalism. It is very hard to keep your head in such an undertaking. And it is also very hard to succeed. But to call such a person a hypocrite would be horrendous, in my view.

Back to me -- I don't invest in stocks and while I would tell someonewho does invest my reason for not doing so, if I was asked to -- as I was -- I would not call them hypocrites for doing so. On the one hand, it would be wrong because it would be utterly ignorant. You might make a case, however dysfunctional to having any kind of positive effect it would probably be, that someone who says they are a leftist and who does nothing with their money other than invest it in the stock market or eat it is being hypocrtical -- particularly if they also aren't activist, but to judge people in ignorance of their wider choices and allegiences is just horribly arrogant and harmful, it seems to me. So, if person x told me they had invested in company y -- it might make me wonder just a little, I suppose, but by itself the impact on my view of the person would be minuscule, because pending knowledge of more, it doesn't reallytell me why, with what intentions, and in context of what pressures and possibilities, and with what other actions undertaken as well. I said the reason I though investing in the stock market was not a good idea was because it tended to create a sitaution in which a person isrooting for a company, rooting for the dow jones, and thus, in some sense rooting for capitalism, and such a stance, if it is adopted, can get in the way of doing good political work and having good political judgement. Similarly, I think taking on a stance of judging people's personalities and values based on their diverging from some policy orchoice you advocate, with little beyond that to go on, or even ignoring everything you might know beyond that, is also a bad idea. It tends tocause one to become harshly judgemental, to lose any sympathy withpeople who see things differently or have different circumstances, and, in that way, makes it difficult to build unity and solidarity. I recommend against someone on the left buying stock, yes -- though not very aggressively. It has a tendency to push against good left thinking and activity, but only somewhat and in many contexts its value to the person might offset that or even overcome it. I recommend against this kind of judgementalism that dismisses people as hypocrites or worse un [sic] the basis of very limited information, and even against being inclined to try to make such judgements, yes -- and I do so very aggressively because I actually think this inclination is far more destructive of movement activist potentials than many other types of compromise people make. In fact, I think it has virtually no redeeming features, no benefits or nearly none -- and considerably greater debits.

...[T]he way the system works, your money under your pillow is not one less bomb. It will always be one less of something good, not one less of something bad...the bads are done before the goods...unless, of course, movements compel otherwise.

If you feel that putting any asset of yours into circulation in such a way that it might be part of the process of bombing someone is verboten-- then you have to withdraw to the woods. But the reality is, if you care about those potentially bombed people,you will have much more impact on preventing the bombing by being an anti-war a gargantuan margin...then by having withdrawn to the woods."

I also have to note that this applies even to those who have nascent leftist principles (a surprisingly large portion of the population) yet do all sorts of perhaps counter-productive things or aren't yet an activist. Others shouldn't comport themselves to our standards; that'd be a ludicrously self-righteous statement. Leftists have to recognize, while keeping their moral compass very well-aligned, that in a system as full of oppression as we've got people will be making hard choices and maybe won't see the alternatives. While it would be nice if they rekindled their hopes automatically, isn't it sort of our responsibility to attempt to persuade and appeal to them?

The key point Albert makes, though in a more understated way, is that there is only so much time anyone has to spend on activism, and that time could either be spent (law of diminishing returns and tradeoffs) reading pages after pages of "bad" and "good" companies or going out and fighting against capitalism.


Anonymous Giulianna Lamanna said...

I hope it's not too late to respond to this post! Unfortunately, I just noticed your response to my blog post, "The Hypocrisy of Vegetarianism."

To be sure, I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of "voting with your dollar." But I feel the need to defend myself and some others who are like me... I eat organic food not because it is good, but because it is less evil than the alternative. (After all, agriculture is where we went wrong, and organic agriculture simply sucks the nutrients out of the soil more slowly than factory farming.) And I do this not because I believe that if enough people do this, we can take down the system (whatever system we manage to take down, another will rise in its place), but because of pure selfishness: I want a minimum of blood on my hands. Also, organic food is slightly healthier.

I'm also doing this only until my boyfriend Jason and I can get together a tribe, get a big chunk of land, and hunt and gather on it as humans were meant to. 3/4ths of the tribe of Anthropik just came back from a weekend-long class on edible wild plants... the process has begun, but it's going to be slow. Meanwhile, I don't want to be plagued too much by liberal guilt. ;)

So... that's just my little nitpick... there are people who go organic (and vegetarian) for reasons other than consumption activism. (For instance, it seems that quite a few people do it because it's the "in," "hip" thing for rich, white, snobby people to do.) Otherwise, your blog post was spot-on. (Sing it, sistah! Er... brothah!) As soon as I finish posting this, I'm going to go check out some of your other posts. Which would be.... right now.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

Re: Organic food: Very true, and I agree (and my original post expressed this) that those like me concerned about the environment must buy organic produce and meat insofar as our budget, location, etc. allows. It would be disingenuous to claim what I do and then turn around to buy the worst corporate produce and meat without even an attempt at dealing with broad ecological ramifications. However, because I try to include self-interested reasons as well as ethical reasons when I speak to people (and don't feel bad for doing so), I also say that I think organic agricultural products are far better in taste and health impacts.

But I don't think agriculture is where we went wrong. That is, agriculture has traditionally been associated with hierarchy and ecological devastation, yes, but firstly, I think Bookchin has done a devastating and compelling job proving that tribal societies also did ecological damage and had hierarchies stemming often from shamans or chiefs, even if many aspects of them were democratic, matriarchal and social. The real point that Bookchin and I both draw is that it is SOCIAL relations, not anything intrinsic to agriculture itself, and I believe parecon would use a revolutionarily different form of agriculture.

So why is it that organic food is more expensive than non-organic? After all, value is subjective and prices are formed by humans, so why did humans pick these prices? Simply put: The market, not any economy and not people, generates not just the ability but the almost forced incentive to externalize one's costs onto others, including future generations, who (having no dollars) have no "votes" in a marketplace. Organic food SHOULD BE cheaper or at least comparable, because there should be an incentive, once taking into account broader quantitative and qualitative ramifications of both (organic agriculture not only deferring costs now but later and corporate non-organic agriculture doing the opposite), to buy organic.

Further, while I tend to agree with capitalist advocates that one way to deal with ecological damage is technology, I think the reason their argument is empirically denied has nothing to do with technology per se but to do with the fact that any technology, no matter how noble and laudable, will be put to the interest of private profit, which almost always mean foregoing long term gains for short term ones and increasing extraction instead of keeping extraction constant but of better ecological and product quality.

Regarding your boyfriend: Sure. I said "roughly" because there are a million infinite permutations for every individual, as well there should be, and I was trying to isolate the constant, publicly expressed strains. So yes, you may be doing it because of your personal desire to make a tribe, and my friend X may be doing it because his friends are, and his friend Y may be doing it because his parents essentially make him, and so on, but once you eliminate the clash and jangle and start looking at the broad social aspect of each individual choice (the true meaning of "the personal is political"), one can see roughly those two reasons I isolated.

9:15 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home