Animal Liberation and Critical Theory. Interview with John Sanbonmatsu

by Marco Maurizi

JohnSanbonmatsuYou are editor of  Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, a book that marks an interesting novelty in the field of animal studies. Can you explain what are the limits of the thought of Singer and Regan?


As much as I respect and admire the important contributions of both Singer and Regan, both as philosophers and as advocates for animals, I do think there are some limits to where we can go using analytic moral philosophy as our primary point of entry into a comprehensive discussion of our relations with the other beings.  The main problem is the tendency in so much of ethics to reduce speciesism essentially to a problem of “wrong moral thinking.” The paradigm begins from a distorted conception of human psychology, insofar as it assumes rationality as the basis of consciousness, rather than feeling, desire, and indeed a will to power (in a Nietzschean sense). As an essentially liberal outlook, moreover, it sets out from a distorted view of society too, treating questions of power, authority, the state, capitalism, etc., as peripheral to the problem of ethics, which it cordons off from the messiness of the world in order to better clarify its own conceptual questions.  The idea that comes from this is that we can work changes in society by educating the public, appealing to “reason.”  But where is this reason that we are supposed to be appealing to?  I am not suggesting that reason isn’t important, or that reason should not be a normative ideal—something to strive for as individuals and as a society.  But there are reasons why speciesism has survived for over ten thousand years, and not all of them have to do with people being “misinformed” or somehow in the dark about the facts.  One of my recent projects has indeed been on the role of “bad faith” in the psychology of speciesism.  As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used that term, “bad faith” (mauvaise foi) is essentially a mode of self-deception in which I hide the truth from myself, in order to avoid having to take responsibility for my own choices and actions as a self-determining being.  Speciesism thrives on bad faith in countless ways, not merely on an individual level but at the level of society as such.  As everyone in the animal movement knows, few people seek out films about, say, factory farming or vivisection. Many people say they already “know” where their meat comes from, but in fact they don’t really know, and they don’t want to know.  So rather than investigate the matter, let alone read moral philosophy, they will instead rationalize animal industries by saying that eating meat is natural, that vegetarians kill plants, and so on.

All of that is to say that while there is surely a place for the kind of moral philosopher Singer and Regan have developed over the course of their careers, there is only so far we can by focusing exclusively on moral reasoning.  Speciesism is not merely public ignorance, or the absence of proper moral frameworks, but a material system, a totalizing ideology, and an existential structure—or, to use another term, a mode of production.  It is also a patriarchal system.  Feminist critics like Carol Adams and Josephine Donovan have drawn attention to some of the problems with the masculinist nature of the analytic tradition.  Singer, Regan, and others essentially bracket feeling and empathy, treating the “animal question” as a problem of analytic reasoning alone.  This displacement of compassion and care cannot help but reinforce a patriarchal order that thrives on disconnection and on denigration of traditionally “unmanly” virtues.  Adams has also shown that the domination of animals by human beings is intimately tied up with the domination of women by men.  Etc.  Analytical critiques tend to miss these key the social and affective dimensions of the problem.

There is something more that I wanted to say, and it is about Peter Singer’s work in particular.  In a way, I think Singer’s own attachments to the analytic tradition have blinded him to the existential nature of nonhuman consciousness and being-in-the-world.  When I saw Singer speak at the Minding Animals conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands, this summer, I was shocked by his suggestion that nonhuman beings don’t have a strong preference to live.  Now, no one in the movement who has followed Singer’s thinking on this question over the years will be entirely surprised.  As a preference utilitarian, Singer has on the one hand from the start maintained that we have no business making nonhuman beings suffer or experience pain, unless that suffering somehow conduces to a greater good.  And he has made it clear that few if any of the extant uses we human beings put nonhumans to, whether for food, science, or capital, can be justified.  There just really is not a good case to be made that it is “necessary” to cause other beings to suffer.  However, the Achilles heel of Singer’s position has always been the problem of killing.  Singer is married to his utilitarianism in ways that makes it practically impossible for him to find fault with the painless killing of any animal, even a human one.  (He has for this reason been sharply castigated by the disability rights movement–rightly in my view–for arguing that severely disabled infants who can reasonably be expected to live in pain for the rest of their lives ought to be euthanized.)  Moreover, Singer, this arch critic of speciesism, has maintained that the lives of “higher order” beings like apes and human beings have a greater value than other animals’ lives, owing to their ability to anticipate and to plan for the future.

Now, I personally have never seen an adequate defense of this position in print. Even if Singer could show, which he hasn’t so far, that only a handful of animals have a sense of themselves as continuous identity through time and have an orientation toward the future, it isn’t self-evident why or whether this criterion should matter, or why it should matter so much.  I can tell you that for most of his life, my ten year old son has lived in the moment, day to day, and in general has not been able to project out into the future beyond the next few hours.  Does that make his life any less valuable than that of the busy CEO who has planned out his retirement and worked through an investment portfolio to secure the future wealth of his progeny?  Why?  Indeed, couldn’t we say, on the contrary, that our lives as children, when we were living most in the moment, when the world was a vivid expanse of sensuous possibilities and mysteries, were more rich and full than the lives we lead as harried adults abiding by what Freud termed the reality principle?  When I look at the life of Cynthia, a cat who lives with my friends, I cannot help but envy her.  Every day is a wild adventure for her, full of mysteries, sensuous delights, intrigues, challenges, intense feelings, friendship and, no doubt, love.

Hearing Singer in Utrecht speak calmly and matter of factly about killing sheep painfully by shooting them in the head—not that he was advocating that, merely saying that animals can be killed painlessly—I felt that I was listening to someone with a dissociative condition.  And in a way I was:  analytic moral philosophy sets out from a Cartesian perspective that places the philosopher behind the Iron Curtain of his intellect, from which he peers out at the living world as through the wrong end of a telescope, distantly.  On the one hand, as paradigms, ways of seeing, utilitarianism and Kantianism are powerful tools for focusing our gaze on minute questions and concepts relating to our moral lives.  However, as Thomas Kuhn showed, to do this, to focus our gaze, paradigms also “screen” or filter out most of the phenomenal realm.  We see only what the paradigm allows us to see.  In Singer’s case, I fear that the very power of his utilitarian system has led him to embrace a correspondingly blinkered view of nonhuman consciousness, agency, and subjectivity. As I say, when I heard him speak, Singer went further than I had heard him before in suggesting that other animals have no strong preference to live.  This, I thought, was a staggering thing to assert, for several reasons.  First of all, what Singer has inadvertently done by devaluing the lives of animals is to open the floodgates for every abusive institution, every practice, that humans already subject nonhuman beings to.  There is the saying, attributed to Dostoevsky, that if God is dead, everything is permitted….Well, once you say that animals are of a kind not to care about the distinction between freedom and unfreedom, between living and dying, then everything really is permitted.  Certainly it is all too easy, from there, to rationalize your way into all sorts of exterminationist practices, regardless of whether the animals are (or can be) killed “painlessly”–which will anyway always be secondary in the minds of the killers.

I don’t want to make Singer out to be some kind of speciesist.  He has never wavered from his conviction that other animals experience their worlds and have a capacity for pain and suffering.  Yet owing to his philosophical predilections, I believe, he ends up embracing a reductionistic and alienated conception of nonhuman consciousness, seeing other beings as essentially empty vessels that “contain” experiences like pleasure and pain, rather than as persons whose being in the world is constituted through their experiences.  Animals in Singer’s world have interests, but they are almost always behavioral in nature—an interest in comfort, an interest in good food, an interest in not feeling terror, and so on.  I have never heard him acknowledge that other species, many others, have an interest in loving and being loved, even though we have no good reasons to exclude love from the set of experiences many species are capable of having. But above all, as I say, the one interest Singer is unwilling to grant them is an interest in not being killed.

In Utrecht, Singer seemed to suggest that nonhuman beings are averse to pain, not to death.  Now, anyone who has ever cradled a dying animal, or who has watched animals faced with violent death struggle for their lives, will have no problem distinguishing between pain-aversive behavior and the primordial instinctual intuition all sentient beings have to avoid their own deaths.  To be sure, even this “instinct” is context-dependent, a function of the organism’s life meanings and situation (which is why some animals die of grief, or become so weakened by some loss to them that they succumb to illness or predation soon afterward, having literally lost the will to live).  However, there is no getting around the fact that the one preference all sentient beings have is to live.  It is the one preference that in fact trumps all of the others.  We know from thousands if not millions of observations of other animals through the generations that an animal will willingly undergo severe pain, even torture, if that being believes that the alternative is dying.  Animals with a leg viciously stuck in a trap have been known to gnaw of their own limbs off, undergoing great agony to preserve their lives.  What’s strange about Singer’s view is that it of course flies in the face not only of Freud and Nietzsche but also everything we know through evolutionary biology and Darwinian theory more broadly.  If we were forced to identify a single “prime directive” of all of life, including plant life, it is indeed simply to live.  Whether the organism in question is a grey wolf, a Ridley’s turtle, a human being, or a field mouse, the being will undergo deprivation and suffering, even in extremis, in order to survive.  The experience of the Nazi concentration camps and similar situations demonstrated this beyond all doubt:  even stripped of our identity as human beings, deprived of everything, tortured and forced to watch our own  families murdered, we will struggle simply to find one more crumb to eat, one more day to live.  But the same fierce will to live can be seen in almost every species of animal whose life is being threatened, whether that being is a fish, a marine mammal, an avian, or an ape.  I would go further, however, to assert that many if not most animals know what death is; that when they are dying they know they are dying.  They also know when they are being killed.  Whether this fills them with a sense of sorrow or horror, as it does for human beings, is an unanswerable question.  But certainly people who have witnessed animals being killed, or participated in their killing, claim to have seen complex emotions and thoughts flickering in their eyes.

After Singer spoke, I went up to him and asked him how he could deny the one preference that all animals have.  When I pointed out that he had not proved that other animals don’t have a preference to live, he responded by saying that I hadn’t proved that they did.  Only later did I realize what I ought to have said to him:  “Well, fine, but my entire philosophical position doesn’t rest on the assumption that they don’t have such a preference, and yours does.”

In what sense speciesism can be defined as a “mode of production”?

Speciesism is a mode of production in the sense that it is the foundational organizing principle for the production and reproduction of human life, at least as central to the constitution of human identity, purpose, political and social life, and culture as gender and the sexual division of labor.  The term “mode of production” of course comes from Karl Marx, who developed the concept with Friedrich Engels to describe relatively stable, coherent, and deep-seated historical structures that can for a time serve to organize the material production and reproduction of daily life.  Feudalism was such a mode of production, a relatively long-lived system for determining social values, religious belief, and, above all, economic life in Europe.  Capitalism, an economic system organizing society and consciousness around the commodity or exchange value–which is to say, around private property and the division of society into an owning class and a working class–is another. Without getting into the complexity of Marx’s account of the mode of production (or into the controversies surrounding it), suffice it to say that Marx privileged the economic over the cultural and saw production and the division of labor as the key to understanding everything else in society.

Now, speciesism seems to me to be not merely “a” mode of production, but the mode of production–the modality of producing human life par excellence.  My own use of this term, however, differs in some significant ways from Marx’s. First, as I have said, for Marx and Engels a society’s mode of production was defined by the organization of its economic activity. The totality of a culture, including its political institutions, morality, and consciousness generally, flows more or less inexorably from the characteristic form of material production around which daily human life is organized.  But speciesism is a mode of production in a much more encompassing, even “existential” sense, serving as the universal ground or framework of our ontological identity as beings-in-the-world.  This is not to deny the centrality or importance of the economic in speciesism.  Many scholars over the years, including Plato, Rousseau, and Engels, have indeed speculated that the accumulation of economic wealth as such developed on the basis of exploiting domesticated animals, who became the first form of private property.  Furthermore, if we use “the economic” in its broadest sense, as the sphere in which production and exchange take place, then the production and killing of nonhuman beings is fundamentally an economic issue.  Certainly the production and reproduction of animal bodies takes place within economic systems:  animals’ bodies, minds, and labor remain quite central to the apparatus of capitalism, whether as the raw materials for the realization of profit, as speculative financial instruments (hog futures and dairy derivatives, etc.), or as “pharm” animals (literal bio-factories for the production of commodities).  However, it is also clear that nonhuman beings are much more fundamental to human society and identity than would be suggested by a purely economistic description of their role. As the perennial “other” to human beings, nonhumans play a truly foundational role in our psychic, symbolic and unconscious lives.  Like human workers, some nonhuman animals, to be sure, are still exploited for their labor—as work horses, oxen, seeing eye and bomb-sniffing dogs, and so on.  However, what we as humans do to the nonhuman beings is not in fact analogous to what the owning class does to the working class, because capitalists don’t literally eat their workers.  So when we talk about nonhuman beings and begin to describe our relations with them, we have to speak in extra-economistic terms.  What human beings “get” from the other animals is not merely material goods, but existential solace.  Speciesism is the metaphysical “backstop,” as it were, to any doubts we might have about our own place in the universe, or about the superior value of the human enterprise.  We matter because the other beings don’t.  Speciesism, then, is a total system for producing human life and defining human identity, as much a symbolic and existential system as a material or economic one.

As I have said, Marx and Engels of course used “mode of production” primarily to describe different ways of organizing human labor, hence to describe class stratification and the panoply of dialectical social relations deriving from that stratification. By contrast, speciesism as a mode of production cannot be reduced to contradictions or hierarchies in human societies, however germane those contradictions and hierarchies are to the different specific forms speciesism assumes.  While it is possible (and necessary) to speak of a capitalist form of speciesism, a totalitarian Communist form, and so on, all such modalities must ultimately be seen as secondary to a more primary, indeed primordial, mode of producing life in which we human beings act as a class in and for ourselves; in which we treat all the other beings as objects for human appropriation, use, and extermination; in which finally we arrogate to ourselves the political right to do all this. There is no question that what drives the mass killing of animals today is capitalism and a patriarchal value system that denigrates compassion and sanctifies violence and sadism.  However, speciesism cannot be reduced to capitalism or patriarchy.  Insofar as it creates a divide between human culture on one side and nonhuman being-in-the-world on the other, it is substantially autonomous as a mode of life.

For Marxists, this will perhaps be the most troubling aspect of my description of speciesism as a mode of production, since it describes human beings qua human beings as an oppressor class. Not only does this mean that even oppressed classes of human beings are complicit in speciesism, including workers, people of color, and women.  It also means that our existing models of historical praxis and social agency are more or less useless, since for two hundred years such models have revolved around the notion of a historical subject coming to self-consciousness and organizing itself collectively, which however is something that the millions of diverse species of nonhuman beings cannot do (notwithstanding Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which I have always found compelling as a fantasy of nonhuman revolution!).  Simply, how do we theorize revolutionary social change in such a context?  But these are only brief, schematic points, and it remains for those of us working in this field to develop give a proper theoretical treatment of speciesism as a mode of production, particularly of its contradictions and therefore its possible points of strategic vulnerability.

Many consider animal rights and animal liberation as totally independent from human liberation. What is the relationship between these? Is it possible to end animal slavery without human liberation? Do you think that human liberation will lead naturally to animal liberation?

Animal rights activists who believe we can overcome speciesism without overcoming patriarchy as a structure of power and a mode of socialization, or without somehow overcoming the capitalist system, are simply mistaken.  If one looks at what is driving most of the current violence toward the other beings, including the forced extinction of thousands of entire species, it is capitalism as a world system.  By the same token, the destruction of nonhuman life is bound up with a patriarchal social system that views compassion with contempt, and that objectifies nonhuman beings and women alike.  So, human liberation and animal liberation are linked in fundamental ways:  see David Nibert’s important book, Animal Rights/Human Rights, which (despite a creeping Marxist economism throughout) provides an excellent sociology of some of the historical, material, structural, and ideological features linking speciesism with various forms of human or social oppression.

Would human liberation automatically lead to animal liberation?  The answer depends on who on the left one talks to, and on what one means by “human liberation.”  If one means, “human beings liberated from human, social violence and inequality, and free to appropriate the fruits of nature democratically,” then no, absolutely not.  Traditional socialist and anarchist definitions of “liberation” are extremely problematic, insofar as they uncritically set out from a strong anthropocentric bias that erases nonhuman experience and consciousness. In the 19th century, Marx famously called for “the humanization of nature” and the development of forms of economic development that would not undermine ecosystems.  However, as Ted Benton and others have shown, neither Marx nor any socialists gave any serious consideration to the interests of nonhuman beings, apart from their relative usefulness for us as raw material in the system of production.  Sadly, the left today is probably no closer to animal rights today than it was a century ago. On the contrary, if you look at what’s happening on the left in Europe and North America and Latin America, you find a food politics centered around the “sustainable” enslavement and killing of nonhuman beings, movements like Slow Food, aquaculture (factory-farmed fish), locavorism, etc.  When the US-based Nation magazine did a story on global food politics last year, not a single one of its multiple contributors so much as mentioned animals or criticized animal agriculture.

Alas, it is all too easy to imagine a leftist project whose liberationist claims run in the same groove of traditional radical and liberal humanisms vis-a-vis nature and other natural beings.  Notwithstanding the dismally implacable misogyny of PETA, I generally see much more openness on the part of the animal rights movement to taking on traditional leftist and social justice concerns than on the part of leftists asked to think about their meat-eating habits, to say nothing of speciesism as a total system.  In this connection, you have asked, There are multiple reasons for the left’s general unwillingness to take on the animal issue.  But part of it has to do with the left’s masculinism and its aversion thinking about empathy and love as necessary elements in our praxis.  This aversion is bound up with the left’s historic ambivalence and equivocation toward the problem of violence.  Most on the left see not the slightest contradiction between creating an anarchist or socialist or even just social democratic future, on the one hand, and rearing and killing animals on farms, testing pharmaceuticals on them, or bringing their pro-union toddlers to the circus.

Why should the left care about animals?  We know that human beings justify the violence they inflict on one another through the discourse of “animalization”—treating the other beings as the source of an absolute negative value.  We also know that, historically, most of the technologies of violence and oppression were first used against nonhuman populations and individuals, before being put to use against human ones– from the sling shot and bow and arrow (used in hunting), to barbed wire, mechanized slaughterhouses, and Zyklon B (an insecticide)–elements the Nazis used to create concentration camps.  The reproduction and control of farm animals became the model for human slavery; the extermination of “pests” in agriculture gave human beings the idea for the extermination of rival groups of human beings in war.  We also know, finally, that the global ecological crisis is intimately tied up with speciesism as a way of being in the world.  I don’t mean merely the catastrophic ecological damage that animal agriculture is doing to the rainforests, to fresh water supplies, to the biosphere as a whole (through greenhouse gases).  I mean that the very premise of all human development and industry is that the other beings we share the earth with don’t matter, that they have no value.  We look outside our window and see “Nature”—an abstraction that simply means “a place without humans.”  Just as the Europeans emptied the other continents of human beings conceptually, by reducing them to “savages,” before attempting it in practice, through colonization and primitive accumulation, human society empties the entire world of its living nonhuman beings, its myriad nonhuman consciousnesses and cultures first in the realm of thought.  So the idea that we could have true human liberation without animal liberation betrays a fundamental ignorance not only about the intrinsic value of nonhuman consciousness and ways of being in the world, forms of culture, but of the history of human violence and the role of animals and animalization in human social and semiotic systems.

I would only add that, the structural and discursive/semiotic links between speciesism and modalities of human-on-human violence aside, the idea that we could achieve a genuine liberation for ourselves on the basis of the enslavement or unfreedom of billions of other beings is incoherent “metaphysically,”at an existential level.  Even were it possible to create a socially egalitarian, socialist or communalist society alongside slaughterhouses and laboratories teeming with captive mice and capuchin monkeys, at the end of the day we would still be left having to face ourselves, to ask ourselves what kind of being are we?  What kind of being, that is, would intentionally construct a society on the basis of degradation and total violence and call itself “free”?  In what possible sense could we deceive ourselves into thinking such a society was “liberated”?  The idea that we can or should found “the new society” on a system of totalitarian violence, terror, and technologies of mass extermination is madness, a principle of historical consciousness and agency that is completely self-contradicting, not to mention grotesque.  We surely need to set our sights higher than that, conceiving of human emancipation in much broader terms than has heretofore been possible within the frame of our anthropocentric hubris. A substantial part of our own alienation is wrapped up in our self-estrangement from our being as embodied, sensuous, suffering animals ourselves.  When we denigrate and kill the other animals, and dismiss our own animal being as inessential to who and what we are, we also degrade important features of human existence.

What is the relationship between antispeciesism and veganism?

Veganism is literally “the least we can do” for the other animals.  A feminist would never think of helping men commit sexual assaults against women; a white civil rights activist would never think of telling racist jokes (or going to a lynching).  No one who cares about the lives and deaths of the other animals, therefore, should eat or wear products made from nonhuman beings.  Veganism comes with the territory of an anti-speciesist consciousness.  This said, however, I personally don’t accept the notion that veganism itself is necessarily a form of activism in itself, though it can be when practiced the right way (e.g., as an opportunity to challenge and raise the consciousness of non-vegans).  I know many vegans who “religiously” (or perhaps piously) eschew the consumption of any and all animal products.  I myself am one of them.  But such practices don’t change anything for the animals, and becoming a vegan oneself is not necessarily going to lead to a change in public consciousness more generally.  While I do think we should act as good Kantians, avoiding hypocrisy and bad faith, I do worry sometimes that we all sometimes succumb to the “magical thinking” that if we just change our diets, or avoid taking our children to zoos and aquariums, society will somehow “get the message” and change its ways.

I also worry that the very focus on diet—veganism—is in a way a distraction from the underlying politics of extermination, because it shifts the focus of our discourse from production to consumption.  The problem, however, is not with “eating meat,” of course–it’s with killing animals in order to eat them.  Somehow, our movement needs to do a better job creating a public discourse around speciesism itself, which is to say, first, around the total system of violence that characterizes our relations with the other beings, and second, around abolitionism, the cure for the disease.  It isn’t hard to see why activists would seize on veganism during a historical period when collective modes of action and resistance have gone into decline, and when capitalism has so penetrated consciousness that the only way we can conceive of social change is through one or another form of consumerism.  But I think it’s a mistake to focus on changes in diet to the  virtual exclusion of speciesism as a world system.  The vulnerability that comes with this approach can be seen today with the spectacular growth and success of locavore and Slow Food movements, which have similarly stressed changes in consumption patterns as the key to social transformation, but with the aim of stabilizing “meat” as a natural commodity.  However, neither veganism nor locavorism will in themselves alter the ownership of the means of production:  capitalism is more than happy to live with twenty million vegans and five billion meat-eaters.

Do you think that animal right activists should join the anticapitalist movement “if and only if” all humanist activists become vegan themselves?


On the contrary, we need to join the anti-capitalist movement in order to place animal interests at the heart of that movement, just as we need to ensure that leftist events are vegan, that they have panels on animal themes, etc.  Intellectuals involved in anti-speciesist work have a special responsibility to challenge other leftists and feminists to examine their own assumptions about nonhuman beings—about who they are, about the violence against them.  If, on the contrary, we self-isolate, we only ensure that the left’s self-understanding never changes.  Moreover, since capitalism is responsible for the vast, vast majority of the animal suffering in the world, there is no prospect—zero—that our movement is going to make any significant headway until and unless capitalism is torn down, or at least greatly weakened.  So we have to do everything we can to ensure that that movement succeeds.

How did you come to get involved in animal liberation?

When I was in college I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which convinced me to become a vegetarian.  However, that doesn’t really answer your question, since we often seek out books and points of view that correspond to something we feel within us already.  The personal is political, as they say, and my own life history has everything to do with how I came to animal liberation. There’s an interesting moment in the animal rights film, The Witness, in this regard, in which the man at the center of the film, Eddie Lama, describes being severely beaten on the streets one night, and feeling completely isolated and alone with his trauma.  Lama then draws a connection between that experience and his empathy for the animals we traumatize as a society.  In a similar vein, I think my own traumas growing up, particularly the racism and violence I experienced as the only Asian American in my school (my father’s parents emigrated to the US from Japan at the turn of the 20th century) sensitized me to the sufferings of others and gave me insight into the nature of marginalization and collective violence more generally, whether committed against human beings or against other beings. I suspect that there are many, many others in our movement who have similar stories to share about developing an awareness of nonhuman persons through their own experiences of oppression, marginality, or trauma.

A second factor for me, no doubt, was that my family always had cats and dogs, and they were well-treated.  Living so closely with other beings was an education in the possibilities not only of nonhuman being-in-the-world—the extraordinary personalities and capabilities of these other beings—but also of the possibilities of inter-species communication, companionship, and love.  However, neither of these two experiences per se–growing up feeling marginalized and living with animals—was enough to get me to think more systematically about our relations with the other beings.  Hence the importance for me of reading Singer’s book as a young man.  Even before picking up Animal Liberation during my junior year in college, I had already developed considerable respect for Singer’s moral philosophy after reading his famous essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (on the 1970s food crisis in Bangladesh) in a philosophy course.  So I was open to hearing what Singer had to say on a topic that had always gnawed at me (no pun intended)–the ethics of eating meat.  Even after reading Singer, however, it then took me years to begin to see beyond the single issue of vegetarianism to recognize speciesism as a structure of violence, even a mode of producing life.  And here I have to credit critical theory, the feminist movement, and the culture of the left more generally for educating me about the nature of power and injustice, and the way they can seize hold of a society.

Are you working on a new book?

I’m working on a short book on “locavorism” and the politics of the sustainable farming movement. My thesis is that while that movement represents no threat whatsoever to industrialized agriculture, it does represent a threat to abolitionism and to animal rights more generally.  There is another book I started but need to get back to, On the Animal Question, in which I try to pick up where Marx left off in On the Jewish Question and the 1844 Manuscripts, i.e. his attempt to establish a philosophical basis for universal human emancipation.  My idea is to reconsider “universal” freedom by placing nonhuman consciousness at the center rather than periphery of our how we think about emancipation and praxis.  Finally, I have also started a longer book that focuses on technology and the technological order under capitalism.  But that’s on the back burner for now.

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