Socialism is, and has historically been, a doctrine concerned with liberation. The liberation of humanity from the burden of want, from tyranny and imperialism, from degrading forms of labor. Whether it’s the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, or anti-colonial insurrection, socialism has been at the forefront of every major emancipatory movement of the last 100+ years. It is now up to socialists to once again play their role in the fight for freedom by championing veganism and animal rights.
I predict some of you may already be groaning. An absurd vision immediately comes to mind at the mere mention of socialist veganism—Karl Marx in a hippie shirt popping with mandalas and sporting green hair with a “milk is murder” banner in the background, sighing with joy as he flicks his pen with a final flourish: “Poultry of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”
It is sometimes challenging to get people to take veganism seriously. A whole host of stereotypes leap up at the word “vegan,” few of them good. Fads among middle-class snobs and screeching neon teens, humorlessness, myopic militancy and bad brownies, holier-than-thou lectures, pitiful sentimentality for fluffy, all-too-precious animals: all of these images hamper the movement’s credibility. There have been moments of hypocrisy within the vegan movement, like No Evil Foods partaking in Quite Evil Labor Practices (contrary to its socialist-chic branding). Yet these cases are notable chiefly because of their infrequency, and say nothing about the validity of the ideology itself. All people, and certainly socialists in particular, would do well to examine the merits of veganism carefully.
One of the core tenets of socialism is equality. The socialist sees humanity and says the nurse, the binman, the physicist, and the businesswoman are all equal in a fundamental sense, no matter what value the market might assign to them. Our shared capacity for joy, love, fear and pain, our desire to pursue our interests and to be free from the cold talons of poverty—in these foundational ways we are equal. One’s market value does not determine one’s deeper worth.
If we can accept the premise of equality among humans we must consider extending it to non-human animals. Not in all things of course: it makes no sense to extend equal voting and speech rights to pigs (unless they are very special pigs indeed). Yet animals are our equals in many essential respects. Their highly similar nervous systems mean they can suffer acute physical pain like us and in some cases may even be more sensitive to suffering. They share our desire to stay alive, to avoid predation and slaughter. They cannot abide entrapment and their often squalid, confined lives breed psychopathologies such as tail-biting in pigs and feather-pecking in chickens. In these matters we are the same as animals and if we afford humans freedom from torture, entrapment, and death then we should offer animals the same.
The Marxist critique, mindful as it is of the twin issues of commodification and alienation, can help illuminate the pathology of the animal industry. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterizes alienated labor as “being forced; not involving self-realization (not developing and deploying essential human powers); not intended to satisfy the needs of others; and not appropriately appreciated by those others.”
With these criteria established, it is hard to imagine a more alienating job than that of the low level slaughterhouse worker. People are almost always forced into these roles by economic scarcity, and many slaughterhouse workers are undocumented migrants, members of impoverished minorities, or even victims of trafficking. There is nothing of the “human powers” in the rote and bloody extinguishing of life for profit, no room for “self-realization” on the killing floor. The work of the slaughterhouse is that of the mechanized reaper, killing hundreds of animals for the benefit of faceless consumers. Killing animals for food does not satisfy the “needs” of others but only their “wants,” as the nutritional viability of a vegan diet makes eating animal products unnecessary. Furthermore, the appreciation for slaughterhouse workers is practically nil: their wages are miniscule, their workplaces are hazardous, their rights are abused, and the paying public treats their work with disgust.
Workers are not just alienated from their labor but from their very decency and sanity. Research has connected slaughterhouse work with a host of psychological disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS), as well as rises in violent crime and substance abuse. Putting prices on the lives of sentient creatures not only results in their torture, the treatment of animals as nothing more than sacks of meat, but also ravages the psychology of those who, driven by economic despair, take part in this factory-line decimation.
The commodification of living beings not only helps the meat industry dissociate from the violence of their actions but also helps the consumer to do the same. Shoppers buy pre-packaged meat in bright, sterile stores and are forgivably oblivious to the true nature of what they buy. Grinning chickens and cows cover the packaging and slender strips of pink flesh look all too innocuous. This allows people to “de-animalize” what they eat, and eliminate nuisance thoughts about whichever gentle farmyard critter is for dinner. The obfuscation of meat’s true nature through processing and marketing make the filth, the blood, the screams of the factory farm all but invisible to consumers.
Many moral arguments in favor of veganism seem compelling, but so do many arguments against it—until you examine them more closely, at which point they promptly fall apart. While some argue that veganism is a privilege of the white bourgeois, this myth is easily dispelled. The original vegan was a kooky, blind Syrian poet by the name of Al Ma’arri. Rastafarianism has birthed a tradition of veganism called Ital, and Black Americans are three times more likely than other Americans to be vegan or vegetarian. Plant-based cuisines have been prominent throughout history, from India to Mexico to Ethiopia. 10th-century Chinese pilgrims, guided by the Buddhist ethic of non-violence, created the first fake-meat dishes while the Vikings were bludgeoning Europe into the darkest of the Dark Ages.
There is nothing inherently privileged about being disgusted by the meat industry’s treatment of its workers and animals. Indeed, it is meat that is typically associated with high social status and wealth, and it is meat that therefore embodies capitalist artifices—money over morals, greed over compassion. Poorer members of society, preoccupied with their immediate survival, may have less time or wherewithal to take on board veganism’s arguments or learn how to adapt their cooking. However, cheap recipe databases are aimed at surmounting these problems and democratizing veganism: its accessibility is restricted more by a lack of information rather than ingredients. Substitute meats can be expensive, yet this only means that those who can afford to purchase them should do so as much as possible, to increase the demand for such products and make them more widely available and affordable. It is incumbent on good socialists to object to the carnistic diet, discarding bourgeois beef in favor of proletarian pulses.
As we can see, there is nothing “culturally imperialist” about veganism. The infliction of unnecessary suffering is wrong no matter who you are or where you are—it would be essentialist, relativist drivel to suggest that this universal moral position should not be encouraged globally. In fact, in much of the world it would represent a return to a more traditional diet. Ethical traditions like ahimsa—the ancient principle of non-violence against all living beings that is a core tenet of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism—provide diverse historical arguments for veganism and animal rights in general.
Even if you cannot be swayed by the moral justifications for veganism, and only realpolitik can stir your Machiavellian bones, then consider your own self-interest. There won’t be much room for a socialist society—or indeed any society—if the earth is reduced to cinders, and adopting a vegan lifestyle is the single biggest thing an individual can do to combat climate change. If the world embraced a vegan lifestyle the amount of global farmed land could be reduced by over three quarters (76 percent). By way of reference, that means freeing up an area of land equivalent to the territories of the United States, China, the European Union, and Australia combined. This means more space for biodiversity to flourish, more space for our grasslands and rainforests to breathe and grow over derelict cattle ranches. It means a healthier planet with healthier people, room for nature and civilization with plenty of space to spare. It is a utopian vision, but a utopian vision in the best sense: radically different, radically better, materially achievable.
Socialists understand that cooperation and collective action are the mechanisms of history. Yet do not let that dissuade you from acting as an individual. Revolutionary change can happen; all you need to do is choose a different item on the menu. With already impressive vegan food options, which are improving all the time, that option may even taste better.
Marx said that “to be radical is to grasp things by the root.” Who would have thought that the root in question led down to the delicious tubers of veganism? If we want to be serious about the exploitation and ruination of animals and human beings, if we want to preserve our ecology and our entire planet, then going vegan is one of the best ways to do it. Equality now, equality for all, a future for our children and for nature, an end to the unnecessary brutalization of animals—a kinder, better world. Socialism intertwines economics with morality, and so too does veganism. They are complementary ideologies, comrades in the struggle for progress and betterment: let the green flag and the red flag soar together, high above the meadows of our future!