A Vegan Response to the “No Ethical Consumption Under Capitalism” Argument

Being a young person in 2021 comes with a lot of emotional trauma. Looking out at the future, it can be hard to ignore the rising tide of intersectional crises facing the world. The climate crisis, first and foremost; but also, a changing job market that seems to offer increasingly insecure gig work to a debt-burdened cohort of graduates and the creep of right-wing authoritarianism. The state of the world has meant that many young people and progressives are starting to see things more systemically — understanding the origins of our neoliberal present by looking to past policy decisions and seeing how they continue to play out across a variety of systems.

This broad-scope approach is absolutely vital to building the kind of power we need to address the crises of our time. But it cannot be allowed to become an excuse for apathy and inaction. This is particularly apparent for me, as a vegan in leftist circles, any time I hear the reaction to veganism that there is “no ethical consumption under capitalism.” I agree with this statement taken out of context, but as a reaction to a movement that seeks to expand the realm of moral consideration it relies on faulty assumptions that ultimately weakens the broader effort for mutual liberation.

The basic argument goes something like this: (1) capitalism is inherently exploitative, and (2) therefore any attempt to do better by changing consumption habits is ultimately futile. Reaching this conclusion requires a few underlying assumptions. First, that veganism is purely a change in consumption behavior. This is a mischaracterization of veganism as a broader ethical project, in that sentient beings should not be thought of as commodities at all, but for now we can even assume it is just about changing what you do or do not eat. Second, this argument defines consumption changes as fruitless because of both the scale of industrial harm relative to individual actions and the continued exploitation that takes place even in the plant food industry.

Beginning from a place of agreement, I fully endorse the axiom that capitalism is inherently exploitative. A system that relies on a capitalist class owning all means of production will inevitably require workers to be paid less than the value they are creating to generate profit for the owner class. This does not run counter to veganism; rather, many vegans acknowledge that the capitalist drive for endless growth is a large part of why animals are suffering at an industrial scale like never before. I also fully agree that there is exploitation and even some truly awful labor practices in the plant food industry. Farm workers are often underpaid, taken advantage of for their legal status, exposed to serious injury, and more. Vegan-friendly organizations like the Food Empowerment Project, which advocates for a more just and sustainable world using our food choices, are working to address labor conditions on plant farms.

Where I begin to disagree with using this argument as a response to veganism is that it promotes personal apathy by eliminating any ability to discuss spectrums of harm or attempts to reduce suffering from occurring. It also prohibits good structural-level activism from being maximally effective by rejecting an expansion of moral consideration to include non-human animals. The appeal to futility here in using “no ethical consumption under capitalism” as a response to veganism seems to posit that things are either ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’ with little to no grey in between these poles. Taking this to its conclusion, why bothering trying to be a better person at all? As Christopher Sebastian has said, we are both oppressor and oppressed under capitalism, and we need to be critical about the role we play in perpetuating rhetorical violence that obfuscates from our own complicity.

A hesitancy to be self-critical cuts both ways here. Vegans can be resistant to messaging about workers’ rights in the farm industry as an obfuscation from the suffering of animals, and vice versa leftists can become complacent for already “getting it” when it comes to labor rights. Yet, the methods of protesting oppression often overlap across liberation movements — for example, the use of boycotts. Progressives largely agree that giving money to the worst corporations can and should be avoided. Hence, movements for individuals to take their money out of banks that fund fossil fuel projects, avoiding buying products from Nestlé who is stealing and commodifying water, preferencing local booksellers over Amazon, supporting the BDS movement from products made in the occupied Palestinian territories, and more.

Many of these other issue areas rely on changing individual spending behavior in the same way that the “no ethical consumption” argument seems to seek to rebut. The assertion is that some companies are such bad offenders, such as Nestlé for its environmental justice crimes or JP Morgan Chase for bankrolling the climate crisis, that we should collectively act to remove our individual financial support for these corporations. Under the “no ethical consumption” framework, these boycotts are futile as other drink companies or other financial institutions will still be at least somewhat exploitative. This gets back to the earlier problem with the argument for ignoring degradations of harm and our ability in both the short and long term to lessen real harm from happening.

That harm is truly and quite uniquely horrific in the animal agriculture sector. The industry contains many of the worst labor abuses and working conditions in the entire economy, it relies on the exploitation of bodies and reproduction, is responsible for an untold amount of environmental degradation and racism, and slaughters literally billions of sentient beings every year.

Animal farmers are kept “in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers” by the few large meat producers who control their contracts. The meat companies force farmers to compete with their neighbors, accrue ever-rising debt to retain their contract, and place all of the financial risk onto them. Farming communities are some of the poorest in the nation and have some of the highest rates of mental health crises, suicide, and child poverty. Farm workers are also exposed to disease and routinely exploited for their immigration status. Slaughterhouse workers similarly experience high levels of PTSD and trauma that can spill over into their communities in the form of substance abuse, domestic violence, and social withdrawal. Working in a slaughterhouse is one of the most dangerous jobs in America, with workers subject to repetitive stress injuries and more severe wounds including even losing limbs. This is only getting worse as line speeds are accelerated. Reports from Oxfam America have shown that slaughterhouse line workers are systematically mistreated and forbidden from even taking bathroom breaks.

Some 75 percent of all farm land is used for animal agriculture, and much of that is just to grow plants to feed to animals we will later eat. We already use 40 percent of the world’s land for farming — there is simply not enough land for us all to eat meat like the average American does. So, instead, we have created a world where meat eating is a luxury for the global 1 percent that comes on the back of environmental destruction that will affect the global poor first and worst. Animal agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation, water waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil erosion. To combat the climate crisis, we need to scale back our animal consumption.

Here in the United States, where factory farms are located is highly dependent on income and racial demographics of the area. In North Carolina, for example, pig farms are clustered in rural Black communities who suffer the negative health consequences of having literal pig shit sprayed onto their properties by industry. As activist and author Syl Ko has argued, addressing racism requires addressing the situation of non-human animals. Not just because of environmental justice concerns, but because the same hierarchy that places human and non-human in an artificial oppositional dualism is the same system that reproduces racial oppression. Similarly, writer and advocate Carol Adams has argued that without recognizing the way the dairy industry relies on the exploitation of female reproduction we will never truly unpack human patriarchy.

The animal agriculture sector is also responsible for the murder of some 3 billion animals every single day. That represents over 72 billion land animals and more than 1.2 trillion aquatic animals slaughtered annually. In almost all cases, these animals spent their entire lives suffering. The people who eat the most animals in the world are also privileged enough to not need to, and continue this slaughter only because it suits their taste preferences.

So, while there may not be truly ethical consumption under capitalism, there is at least more or less ethical consumption — and it is more ethical to boycott an industry that exploits humans, non-humans, and the planet on a scale unlike almost any other. The idea that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism should be a reminder not to get complacent, not to think that your purchasing of a locally sourced product is enough. But using this idea to push futility does nothing to advance an anti-capitalist agenda. For vegans, this reminder means continuing to fight the injustices in the plant agriculture industry. For leftists, it means expanding our moral consideration to include non-humans and to understand that defeating the white supremacist hierarchy we want to see gone requires an understanding of intersectional and interspecies mutual liberation.

Image Sources: @tyrathetaurus, @vegan_abolitionniste, AMISON Public Information

Canadian-American law & policy student. Fighting for environmental, racial, species, and economic justice. PIC Abolitionist. Vegan. He/him.

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