Thursday, August 16, 2007

The field

Not very promising.

Take the Political Compass quiz to see where you stand. Incidentally, I'm pretty much in the lower left-hand corner (-8.88, -9.44), so you can just imagine how thrilled I am at this...

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I recently had a conversation with a friend about animal testing. She repeated a common argument vegans hear on the matter: if you're against animal testing, you shouldn't take any medicine that has been tested on animals; that is, all medicine.

This is based on a faulty but familiar misunderstanding of why vegans avoid products that have been tested on animals. The premise of this argument is that veganism is based around a specific moral code that forbids the consumption of animals, animal products, and things that are tested on animals. Making exceptions, even life-saving exceptions, are therefore indulging in hypocrisy: "I won't use things that are tested on animals, except for..." And hypocrisy is, of course, the ultimate sin.

However, veganism is not just an arbitrary code that vegans strive to meet. It is not a purity test. Vegans abstain from certain products for a specific purpose: to prevent animal suffering. The vegan "moral code" is a practical one that has a goal, not a line in the sand adhered to for dogmatic reasons.

There are three types of animal suffering:

Direct suffering. This would be things that result directly from the exploitation of animals, such as meat, wool, leather, eggs, and milk. Obviously, vegans would object to consuming these things, and by opting out we reduce the demand for them.

Replaceable indirect suffering. This category includes, for example, soaps or shampoos tested on animals, for which there are cruelty-free alternatives. The product you actually take home didn't harm any animal directly, but at some point in the past development of the product, animals were harmed. Choosing the alternatives ("voting with our dollars") sends a message to producers, and reduces demand for animal-tested products.

Irreplaceable indirect suffering. This is the category medicine falls in. Animal testing is government-mandated for medicines. As above, the products do not come directly from harming animals, but at some historical point animals were harmed. However, there is no alternative available that was not tested on animals. As such, market signals do not apply. We can't "vote with our dollars," because in this race there are no other candidates. Buying or not buying medicine that was tested on animals does nothing to stop animal suffering, as regardless of whether people want cruelty-free medicine, and regardless of whether producers want cruelty-free medicine, they have no choice in the matter because of government regulations and the animals in question are already dead. Even while we hope for an end to animal testing and work towards that goal, and as we may personally mourn the animal suffering, there is no practical reason not to take medicine that was tested on animals in the past. In fact, there is an eminently practical reason to do so: we're no good to the animals if we're dead.

Veganism is not about moral purity, it is about stopping unnecessary animal suffering. Not eating meat does that. Buying cruelty-free options does that. Dying rather than take an antibiotic that was required by law to be tested on animals does nothing. When regulations change and we have options, we will take them.

Anarchism and me

I am an anarchist.

I didn't feel comfortable saying that for a long time, and I'm really not sure for how long the description has applied. What I do know is that it's true, and that my hesitation to use the word was entirely the result of my own misconceptions about what it means, and what it doesn't.

I thought that anarchists were opposed to government. In fact, this is simply not the case. What anarchists oppose is hierarchy — when talking government, they oppose that particular variety of government called the State. Weber defined the State as an organization with "a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory," and this is the sort of government that anarchists oppose. They also oppose capitalism, but that is another post entirely.

To be sure, you will often hear some anarchists talk of overthrowing the government, and this is true: they want to overthrow the present government. You might also hear some anarchists refusing to describe the sort of government they would be comfortable with as a government at all. In a sense, this is also true, as it would scarcely resemble any government that has existed before.

The majority of anarchists, however, actually do want to see a government in place, one in many ways more robust than the representative democracy we have today. Anarchists want a decentralized government, with local decisions made through Athenian-style direct democracy. Decisions that affect more than one locality would be made by sending delegates from local assemblies to nested confederations covering larger geographical areas.

There are two things that make this government utterly unlike the government we are familiar with, the State. First, decisions are always made from the bottom up. The members of the confederation of assemblies are not representatives elected by hundreds of thousands of constituents, they are recallable delegates who remain members of the lower assemblies as well. To confuse this sort of confederation with representative government is to confuse administration with authority — the role of representatives is to make decisions for people, while the role of delegates is to coordinate decisions among them.

Second, the confederation does not have a monopoly on physical force. In the United States at present, one has no choice but to participate in certain elements of society. You must register with social security and for selective service. You must pay taxes. You must participate in jury duty. If you don't, you may be arrested in a display of the State's physical force, and you will be further charged if you resist because the State has a monopoly on the legitimate use of it. In an anarchist confederation, none of this would happen, nor would it be necessary. If you do not want to participate in the confederation, simply don't — but expect to also not benefit from it. Since an anarchist society is by definition a socialist society, this also means you will be opting out of the economy entirely. But you will be unmolested, and you may freely choose to do so. The confederation doesn't "own" the land, nobody will evict you or arrest you.

I think the confusion over what anarchism is comes from two unrelated uses of the terminology. In general, people have come to see anarchy as a word meaning "chaos," when it actually means nothing more than "no rulers." But the more troubling use is the appropriation of anarchist language by what in the United States are called libertarians (and what in any sensible country would be called "fucking nutjobs"). Anarchists are socialists even before they are anarchists — anarchism is simply the most fundamental political expression of the same ideologies that drive socialism. Anarchism is a centuries-old political tradition drawn from the work of many philosophers and political scientists. But libertarians water down the language to generically mean "no government." So-called "anarcho"-capitalists, the absurd extreme fringe of the libertarian movement, do genuinely oppose all government, not only the State. But they are capitalists, believers in a system that relies upon competitive hierarchy as the fundamental force of the economy. "Anarcho"-capitalists are not anarchists, they are just plain capitalists, and want to smash the State not for human liberation but to remove roadblocks to capitalist exploitation and expansion. They usurped the word anarchy in exactly the same manner that libertarians usurped the word liberty; until the twentieth century, libertarian and anarchist were synonyms.

So I am an anarchist after all. I see the State — as distinguished from the organizational act of governance — as an unnecessary and exploitative hierarchy, just as I see capitalism. I support local direct democracy and delegated confederal democracy, and I oppose the present form of representative government. I'm a socialist. I'm everything your momma warned you about.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Listen, Vegetarian!

There are many reasons people stop eating meat. For some it is a choice made for a more healthy diet. After all, eliminating meat from your diet is associated with lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and many types of cancer. Given these benefits, it's perfectly logical to stop eating meat.

But if you're a vegetarian for any of these reasons, I'm not posting this for you — though I think you should read it anyway.

No, I am making this post for the ethical vegetarians. This post is for the people who are disgusted by the way animals are farmed for meat, and want to make an ethical choice to reduce that suffering.

Eating eggs and dairy still causes suffering.

I sincerely hope there are none reading naïve enough to believe that standard, factory-farmed eggs and dairy are in any way morally superior to meat itself. This fact should be self-evident, since the chickens and cows raised for eggs and dairy are treated as poorly or worse than those raised for meat. For this reason, it seems that most vegetarians choose to consume "alternative" eggs and dairy, labeled things like organic, cage-free, and free-range. By doing so, they believe that they are consuming products made by happy animals free from the suffering of factory farms.

In truth, choosing these products is more like choosing to merely punch someone repeatedly in the face rather than beating them with a bat. There are no particularly grand standards that producers must meet to gain these labels; terms like free-range are voluntary marketing devices. Typically, a "free-range" farm is indistinguishable from a factory farm, save a small door leading to a patch of dirt outside that a few animals may use at a time. As long as the animals had such access and at some point ate grass, they may be labeled "free-range."

All of the other suffering associated with animal agriculture remains: cutting and burning of beaks and tails, castration, branding, dehorning, tooth-grinding, and so on, all without anesthetic. They are still crammed into tight, unsanitary quarters.

These labels aren't on products to ensure you that the animals involved lived happy lives. No, they exist solely to make you feel good and not worry about where your food is coming from. They are there to make you halt your ethical inquiry, shut up, and buy the product.

Eating eggs and dairy still kills animals.

"But," says the vegetarian, "there is still no killing involved. A small amount of suffering might be inevitable, but at least no animals had to die for my milk and eggs!"

This is simply wrong.

Do you think that cows naturally produce large amounts of excess milk? Or do you suppose that cows produce milk for calves? If you're drinking the milk, what happens to the calves that were supposed to get it? Veal is the answer you're looking for, of course. Cows do not normally produce excess milk that must be taken and consumed by humans. They are involuntarily inseminated as often as possible to maintain pregnancy and lactation, and their calves are taken away after birth so they don't drink the valuable milk. Female calves are either raised to produce more milk or killed for rennet, while male calves are sold for veal, with all of the terrible suffering that entails.

Similar economic forces are at work in egg production. Most obviously, male chicks are largely unnecessary thanks to artificial insemination, and are killed immediately after hatching — typically by suffocation or being ground up in shredders. And even the hens that lay the eggs are almost inevitably sold and killed as food eventually.

Animals are not property.

This is really the bottom line. Even if we lived in a utopian world in which animals were not harmed or killed in the production of animal products, it doesn't change the root fact that we would still be treating them as means to our ends — purely aesthetic ends of flavor, utterly unnecessary. There is a fundamental ideology at work in the consumption of animal products, including eggs and dairy, which states that animals are ours to use as we please. This ideology suggests that it isn't what we do with animals that is right or wrong, but merely how we treat them while we do it. Anything an animal makes or does belongs to us, as long as they make or do it outside the torturous confines of a factory farm.

This ideology is absurd and hypocritical.

Nobody would argue that we ought to treat humans as property. We have a rather long and sordid history of overcoming this belief around the globe. Nobody would say that keeping slaves is acceptable provided they aren't beaten and are fed well and allowed time for recreation. The notion that this would be the case is abhorrent to modern minds. Nor would we allow that slavery is acceptable if the slaves are infants or mentally disabled and incapable of recognizing their status as property. So why, then is is considered acceptable to treat non-human animals as slaves? Does having a certain stretch of DNA in our cells really mean that we magically become morally immune to enslavement?

No, it doesn't. We grant all humans the moral and legal right to be free from treatment as property, and non-human animals should be granted that same right. Until that happens, the only ethical choice is to personally refrain from participating in their use. Vegetarians still support this paradigm with their voluntary consumption of products that belong only to the animals that make them, not to us. Vegetarians still tell the animal agriculture industry that using animals is acceptable, and encourage the exploitation with every dollar spent. Being vegetarian is not enough.

Go vegan.