Recently, Saryta Rodriguez of Direct Action Everywhere interviewed John Sanbonmatsu, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The full interview can be read here. The following is an excerpt from the interview.
SR: Much of your work centers on the notion of critical theory: applying knowledge of social sciences to assess and critique society and culture. Many readers may have encountered this term in Sociology 101 courses; but what insight does critical theory lend to AR activism today? Would you say it is being implemented efficiently, relative to its use in past social justice movements?
JS: What makes critical theory “critical” is that it sets out from a point of view of social critique—a rejection of the dominant values and institutions of our culture (in this case, the rejection of speciesism as a mode of producing human life). The purpose of critical theory is twofold. At minimum, first, its function is to give us a clearer sense of what the “problem” actually is. This is crucial. How can we form campaigns, tactics or strategies, to solve a social problem without first understanding it? For example, some animal rights activists seem to think that convincing people to become vegan will end animal agriculture; but the main force driving our exploitation of nonhuman beings today is capitalism as a world system. Evidently, then, changing people’s dietary habits, while important, is not going to be enough. Buying vegan burgers, for instance, may actually be reinforcing the system of speciesism because, in many cases, it profits the very same companies who are marketing meat products, such as Whole Foods. So what may at first appear to be an unproblematic intervention may in reality subtly strengthen the system as a whole. Hence the role of the intellectual (whether the astute grassroots activist or the professional sociologist or philosopher)—which is, first of all, to acquaint us with the facts—becomes crucial.
But “facts” are fluid, cultural, and semiotic: they include our use of language, representations of animals in literature and media, the political economies of the meat system, and so on. And they cannot be stumbled across by accident. We have to be out looking for them, using the tools of theory.
In addition to illuminating the nature of the problem (or rather, problems, because speciesism is merely one key spoke on a giant wheel of interconnected systems of oppression and violence), critical theory can also help us think strategically about social change, by identifying points of weakness or contradiction in the current system. The history of critical theory actually succeeding at this is not terrible encouraging. Marx and Engels were brilliant at diagnosing the contradictions of capitalism, but not very good at theorizing revolution. (Most of the revolutions of the 20th century occurred in peasant-based societies, not highly industrialized ones, and most of them ended up being steeped in blood, before dissolving altogether.) That said, at its best, critical theory can serve as a kind of compass, or as “map-making.” Even if the “map” we have is incomplete and in constant need of revision, it’s better than not having any sense of direction at all.
SR: Critical theorists are captivated by the nature, meaning, and significance of power. How do you think the discourse and practice of animal agriculture—particularly “humane” meat—influence the pervasive power imbalance between humans and non-humans? How is that power imbalance related to other systems of power, and how might we most effectively challenge it?
JS: Unfortunately, the problem of “power” has largely disappeared in critical theory, thanks to the outsized influence of Michel Foucault and other poststructuralists, who drew attention away from classical conceptions of power as ideological hegemony to focus on “micro” power—power dwelling exclusively in the interstices of discourse, language, the comportment of our bodies, and so on. This is not to say that Foucault and others didn’t make a contribution to our understanding of power, because they did; however, with the exception of Marxists, a few remaining radical feminists, many sociologists, and some critical race theorists, theorists have otherwise ceased to be interested in power as a relational concept—as the dominance of one group over another. Symptomatically, Judith Butler, the poststructuralist feminist, has essentially removed the term “patriarchy” from the lexicon of feminism, making it very difficult, as a consequence, to “name” the problem of male domination.
In terms of “humane meat,” as I said, the entire discourse reinvigorates speciesism as a mode of domination, by providing ideological cover for the underlying principle of domination and violence, which it utterly fails to examine. In this sense, the sustainable meat and locavore movements can be seen as a rearguard action by the intelligentsia and Western middle class to secure their right to appropriate the bodies of other beings, in the face of the animal rights critique.
You ask how this system of dominance is related to others, and how to challenge it. Many fine scholars have shown the ways that speciesism reinforces and is reinforced by other systems of power and inequality, including capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and so on. The only thing I would say as a caveat to such analyses is that we shouldn’t succumb to the metaphysical presumption that all systems of oppression are equal in strategic or political significance, even though we must agree that they are all of equal moral importance. In my opinion, capitalism and patriarchy pose the two greatest challenges to animal liberation today: capitalism because it drives animal exploitation economically, ideologically and politically (“politically” insofar as the state is effectively controlled by big business); and male dominance because it propagates a value structure of objectification, domination, and violence. Militarized masculinity and misogyny are also at fault—think of the recent “Gamer Gate” controversy—because patriarchy is antithetical to the development of an ethic of care, one that would place compassion toward other beings at its center.
To find out more about Direct Action Everywhere, please go to their official website here.