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Animal Liberation: Pathways to politics

Discourse on the treatment of animals has historically been largely seen as a matter of individual choice rather than of structural change. However, we are currently witnessing a ‘political turn’ in animal ethics, where our main responsibilities to animals are a legitimate matter for public regulation and state law, and concepts from political theory are being employed by scholars to advance proposals for new institutional designs.

PAOLA CAVALIERI: The animal cause in its modern form – that is, not as a pleading for better treatment of animals, but as a challenge to human supremacism and as a defense of interspecies egalitarianism – made its first appearance in analytic moral philosophy at the beginning the 1970s, during the last period of the emancipation of rational ethics not only from religion but also from large scale metaphysical appeals.

Crucial as it was for its radicalism, however, and despite the envisaged association with contemporary progressive causes, the inaugural discourse on animals tended to be relegated to the realm of the so-called practical ethics, where the issue of nonhuman treatment was apt to be seen as a matter of individual choice rather than of structural change, while analytic authors were not generally prone to articulate a political critique of the established order.

On the other hand, as observed by the editors of the journal Politics and Animals, notwithstanding the fact that work within various disciplines has for quite a while been pointing at a re-politicization of many naturalized dimensions of the human-animal relationship, political theorists kept devoting little attention to the animal question.

Recently, however, some concurring phenomena have altered the landscape. First, we are currently witnessing a ‘political turn’ in animal ethics, within which – assuming that our main ethical responsibilities to animals are a legitimate matter for public regulation and state law – liberal philosophers have started using concepts from political theory to improve accounts of animal ethics and to advance proposals for new institutional designs.

Second, for some time now, Critical Animal Studies – a field of research which expanded the initial philosophical discourse to include disciplines stretching from socioanalysis to ecocriticism to critical race and gender theory – promoted a transition from the apolitical emphasis on personal conversions to questions of political transformation by adopting a leftist approach characterized by an institutional focus and by a critique of interrelated oppressions under late capitalism.

And third, within this new context, an experiment has been attempted in which authors with different outlooks, proceeding from the antagonistic, rather than the regulative, dimension of the political, conjointly probe the transformative potential of a philosophically-informed political praxis, and explore its possible implications for strategy and tactics…

As Matthew Calarco notices, the reflection on the animal question is now in a moment when
argumentative strategies are ‘reinscribed within a larger … project that allows for a multiplicity
of ways of writing about, thinking about, and reorienting our practices in regard to animals and our relations with them’. Manifestly, the transition from ethics to politics is a momentous one for a movement, as it marks the passage from the mere defense and diffusion of some theoretical principles to the attempt to universalize and institutionalize such principles.

And of course, in making this passage, attention must be paid to the devising of projects which are radical – that is, able to ‘already create, if possible, a little of that future freedom’ that is the goal of an emancipatory movement – and at the same time pragmatic – that is, politically feasible and able to offer a cogent perspective.

Both horns of the dilemma loom in the present landscape. The question of the abandonment of the movement’s ideological core clearly emerges when, as is the case with the representatives of the liberal political turn who envision a merely reformed, as contrasted with totally reformulated, future political end-state, one finds a theoretical ‘constraining of conceptions of human/animal equality’ whose consequence is the formulation of a watered-down political programme – a programme, by the way, whose practical implementation is nearly as difficult as the realization of more radical goals.

On the other hand, the problem of feasibility tends to surface to a greater or lesser extent in all the approaches sticking to basic ideas of interspecies equality. On the liberal side, this horn of the problem appears in the most utopian facets of the future societies envisioned within the radical trend, where proposals are sometimes advanced that by far outrun existing policies even with respect to the present members of the political community, namely, human beings.

As for Critical Animal Studies, a serious obstacle to effective action lies in the very breadth of a challenge to the existing order which not only urges the mobilization of too varied political actors often incompatible as to their ideologies, but also sets up too many goals to achieve at the same time. And it can be argued that, though avowedly pragmatic in its intent, the concerted reflection on the development of schemes of strategic planning is somewhat undermined by the fact that, being an initial undertaking, it cannot as yet forge from the confrontation between different views the outline of a systematic, comprehensive project.

What will be the future of all such fresh developments? Around the island of this intellectual inquiry lies the sea of a variegated and committed social reality of which the animal liberation project is only a part. And while such a global enterprise, unlike many intra-human political organizations that waver under the blows of the economic crisis and of the barbarisation of politics, is currently thriving, gaining ever more visibility and extending its basic struggle in defense of animals to a planetary scale, the animal liberation movement specifically tries to confer the objectivity of public theory to a perspective on the world tendentially relegated to the state of confused experience, and to emerge as a relevant political force in order to thoroughly challenge the global speciesist order.

Insofar as such a movement rethinks the nexus of philosophy and politics with the aim of transforming social practices and political institutions, it is on its choices, not on an academic clash of opinion, that the fate of the main theoretical currents will depend. Also in the face of many recent forms of militant action, one can trust that in the end these choices, far from accepting a retreat, will empower and amplify the most radical among the political ideas arisen from the inaugural ethical challenge to human supremacism. SOURCE…


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