Anarchism & Animals: Total Liberation or Total Confusion?

On 28 April this year, animal rights activists launched an impressive series of direct actions across eastern Australia as part of a campaign to promote the film ‘Dominion’. The resulting furor highlighted, once again, the confusion of ideas that exist at the intersections of anarchist and animal rights movements.

The following article was originally published in Sedition, No. 1, 2012. The argument remains relevant. It is republished here with the permission of the author.

Activists holding signs that read “You have been lied to, Watch Dominion”, blockade the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets in Melbourne, 28 April 2019.

Voltairine De Cleyre.

In their article ‘Liberty, Equality and Solidarity: Anarchism for Humans, Other Animals and the Earth’ (featured in this issue of Sedition), Julie Jordan and Richard Bulmer argue that the consistent anarchist should extend anarchist principles beyond human relationships to our relations with other animals and the earth. The argument that we should seek the “total liberation” of animals and the earth, however, is far from uncontentious and ultimately serves to confuse more than it illuminates.

At the core of Jordan and Bulmer’s article is a problematic transferral of notions like liberty, equality and solidarity to animals, without any acknowledgement of the relevant differences between most animals and humans. To say that we should seek to liberate animals and the earth sounds nice, but has no substance to it. It does, however, raise an important question – what do anarchists mean when we speak of liberty? Jordan and Bulmer argue that we should extend liberty to animals and the earth. This argument is misleading, as it ignores the fact that for anarchists liberty is socially produced. Rudolf Rocker argues that liberty is a cultural construction and exists “only when [it has] the ingrown habit of a people.” Similarly, Emma Goldman writes that liberty is created by “persistent resistance” and conscious striving on the part of those who seek freedom. She argues that to be free one must “have a consciousness of self, of being different from others.” Concepts such as liberty and solidarity imply subjectivity and the existence of moral agents. Such ideas describe relationships in which both sides participate. Thus the concept of liberty used by many anarchists is firmly rooted in the social (rather than natural) and assumes the existence of a subject who can evaluate and rationally comprehend their situation in life and strive to change it.

This idea of liberty does not seem to be easily transferable to animals. While a chicken may be healthier and happier outside of a cage, should we call this liberty? If we are to draw on the way many anarchists have conceptualised liberty, it seems we should not. Even if we were to adopt an altered version of liberty, problems remain. The lives of wild animals can scarcely be said to be free when predation and starvation so often govern their lives. In human society, anarchists have rejected the idea that liberty can be found in a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ scenario in which all are free to kill and be killed. Yet for animals such a state is the norm. The idea of a society without cruelty is a fundamentally unnatural concept, which is atypical of many animal relationships. It doesn’t seem that if humans were to cease contact with other animals that they would be any ‘freer’, rather the reverse may be true.

The conflation between concepts relating to human society and those that relate to the lives on non-self-conscious animals is further illustrated in Jordan and Bulmer’s comment that “the sexual subjugation of women is paralleled in the routine rape and perpetual pregnancy of dairy cows.” This comparison is nonsensical. The sexual control of women by men as a result of living in a patriarchal society is significantly different – both in its origins and effect – from the forcible insemination of dairy cows. The latter is reprehensible when painful to the cow, but it is the potential pain inflicted, not the act itself, that is objectionable. In the case of sexual coercion and the sexual assault of women, however, even if no pain is inflicted, the non-consensual nature of the act is enough to make it a profound attack on the person’s liberty and sexual integrity. Cows, however, lack such an idea of sexuality and hence a notion of sexual integrity or consent can have no meaning for them. These differences are not trivial and to overlook them is to severely obfuscate the issue.

If it is unclear if animals can be liberated, it is even less clear that the earth can be said to be free or unfree. Jordan and Bulmer argue that anarchists should seek a liberated earth, free from human “control and domination.” This idea is simply confusing. How can the plants/soil/rivers be free or unfree? Given that such entities are not even sentient (they cannot feel pain) it is hard to imagine how they could be said to prefer one state over another or be limited in their choices. One might hope that such a usage of “liberate” is purely metaphorical, however, Jordan and Bulmer propose that “advocates for the earth” should “make representations in its best interests.”

The notion that the earth must be ‘freed’ from human control is also problematic because it creates an arbitrary separation between humans and the environment. Human control over the earth is not necessarily a bad thing. Evidently, some ways in which humans currently control our environment, such as our creation of nuclear waste and other forms of pollution, are hugely harmful – both for human and non-human inhabitants – but this does not mean that all forms of human control are harmful.

Some examples of human control, such as the use of land for agriculture, are necessary to sustain human life. Other human endeavours such as attempts to avoid bush fires by removing brush cover are also examples of human control of the earth, yet these are often beneficial for humans and animals that might otherwise be killed or injured in bush fires. This is not to say that we do not need to seriously rethink the way we interact with the environment – we obviously do – but this will involve modifying the form of control we exert, not ceasing such control altogether. Rather than seeing humans as part of the earth’s living community, Jordan and Bulmer present humanity as existing outside of nature. Jordan and Bulmer’s argument risks supporting a dualistic view of nature where what is natural is pure and what is human corrupts.

Ultimately, the struggle to stop human cruelty to animals is a worthy one and the desire to have a sustainable relationship with our environment is increasingly essential. To my mind, though, it would be far more accurate and effective for anarchists to acknowledge the differences that exist between humans and non-humans whilst fighting for a world in which human cruelty towards sentient creatures is no more. However, this struggle is done few favours by a notion of “total liberation” which ignores the differences between animals and most humans, and anthropomorphises (attributes human characteristics to) both animals and the earth. The result of such an approach is likely to be confusion rather than effective action.

Mikhail Bakunin, quoted in Black Flame, Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, AK Press, Oakland, 2009.
Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-syndicalism, Phoenix Press, London, 1988.
Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, 3rd Edition, Alix Kates Shulman (Ed.), Humanity Books, New York, 1998.
An Anarchist FAQ , Section A.2.2 – Why do anarchists emphasise liberty?

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