Peter Gelderloos, a self-identified anarchist and author of How Nonviolence Protects the State (South End Press, 2007), claims that veganism is a consumer activity. His arguments are a combination of ignorance and problematic assertions. There really isn’t much point in responding to Gelderloos claims about “veganism” since he presents absolutely no understanding of veganism, but I’ll do it anyway.
Gelderloos starts out by misrepresenting veganism as simply “a consumer activity. It is ultimately an attempt to change capitalism and human civilization through the exercise of one’s privileges as a consumer.” From there he goes on to argue how this is “an impossible approach.” Gelderloos even goes as far as to claim that veganism is not a lifestyle because a lifestyle is not a consumer choice.
I suppose Gelderloos may have just opened up a dictionary and read “vegan: a vegetarian who omits all animal products from the diet.” But this definition is not how vegans, at least not those with a historical understanding of the vegan movement, define themselves.
Had Gelderloos actually attempted to understand veganism he might have known that veganism is actually a philosophy of non-exploitation that applies to the societal level, and that this leads to a way of life (or lifestyle) that is based on noncooperation with, and divestment from, exploitation. Specifically with regard to the oppression of other animals, human animals are the agents of exploitation (or privileged group) and nonhuman animals are the targets of exploitation (or oppressed group). Veganism is about actively addressing this relationship of oppression. Vegans, as the agents, work to create equity and liberation by eliminating their privilege from the exploitation that targets and oppresses other animals.
I’m sure Gelderloos would disagree if I wrote: “Anarchism is a individualist lifestyle. It is ultimately an attempt to change capitalism and human civilization through the exercise of one’s privileges as an independent, self-interested individual. This is an impossible approach.” But this is basically the equivalent of Gelderloos ahistorical, asocial, and apolitical assessment of veganism.
Of course, as a human, Gelderloos is also an agent of the oppression of nonhuman animals. His attacks on veganism are meant, whether conscious or not, to perpetuate the oppression that makes other animals the target of exploitation. For instance, Gelderloos claims “Humans have evolved as omnivores” as an appeal to nature, which in effect masks other animals oppression as “natural.”
Saying something is “natural” is a convenient way to hide ideological assumptions. By claiming something is natural, Gelderloos can ignore all social, historical, moral, and political context. Naturalistic claims like this are used to justify just about every other form of oppression. In fact, evolutionary theory and capitalism have an interrelated and interconnected history, both informing and helping to refine the other. The capitalist theory that individuals are self-interested helped Darwin develop his evolutionary theory, which was then in turn used by social Darwinists to justify the capitalist system. Perhaps Gelderloos would subscribe to Peter Singer’s* “Darwinian Left” theory which claims male dominance is part of human evolution, thus putting both veganism and feminism in the category of being unnatural, and thus “impossible approaches” to addressing oppression.
Other problematic aspects of Gelderloos anti-veganism arguments include the romantic objectification of non-industrial, non-Western cultures. Gelderloos takes his romanticism as the model for a new society. In doing so Gelderloos ignores the historical, political, and social context of those other cultures, as well as the historical, political, and social context of the existing society. Gelderloos claims that since pre-capitalist societies exploited other animals and were “eco-harmonious,” that means a post-capitalist society, in order to be “eco-harmonious,” ought to exploit other animals as well. Like the appeal to nature, this argument fails for many of the same reasons, especially since it ignores all appropriate contexts. Regardless, since it flows from the evolutionary claim it is bound to fail anyway.
Gelderloos claims, “Stripping [veganism] of its moral universality, we can better evaluate its appropriateness, if an honest evaluation is what we actually desire.” Obviously an honest evaluation is not what Gelderloos seems to desire. Just as he used evolution to strip exploitation of its ideological context, and then used his romanticism of other cultures to strip exploitation of the historical, social, and cultural context, he then claims that “an honest evaluation” can come from viewing veganism as lacking moral context.
Using the enhanced misrepresentation of veganism as an amoral “consumer activity,” Gelderloos misidentifies veganism as a “boycott.” As I already pointed out, veganism is about liberation, not consumption. So when a vegan abnegates the products of exploitation, they are giving up privilege, as opposed to engaging in a “boycott.” If anything, Gelderloos’s ultimate inability to classify veganism as a boycott only serves to illustrate how veganism is not a consumer activity.
Gelderloos seems to believe that a plant-based diet is a privileged diet, conveniently ignoring that the privileged in fact consume a heavily animal-based diet. (Not to mention that consuming the products of other animals is privilege.) He also making outlandish, but conveniently unsupported, claims that veganism, if universal adopted by the Global North, would naturally lead to environmental disaster. Others have, with actual support cited, made the opposite claim, stating that a total plant-based diet is “the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue.”
Given that Gelderloos doesn’t understand veganism, it is not surprising that he seems to have a very strong and negative prejudice against vegans and that he engages in stereotyping vegans as self-righteous “missionaries.” (Calling out any form of oppression, whether through words or deeds, can get someone labeled “self-righteous.” It is a common epithet used by those with privilege to describe those who challenge their privilege.) One could just as easily argue that anarchists are self-centered individualists. Yet, like Gelderloos’s stereotype of vegans, such characterizations fail because, just like self-righteousness is not inherent to veganism, self-centeredness (one would hope) is not inherent to anarchism.
(* Important Note: In spite of popular belief, Peter Singer is not a vegan. Singer does not practice veganism, nor does he support the vegan movement. Whatever Singer’s concept of “animal liberation” is, he doesn’t oppose the social oppression of other animals. Singer believes that humans can continue to privilege themselves by targeting other animals for exploitation. For instance, in an interview with The Vegan, The Vegan Society magazine, Singer gives his endorsement for “a world in which people mostly eat plant foods, but occasionally treat themselves to the luxury of free range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm.”)