By Jon Hochschartner
David Nibert, an anti-speciesist socialist, is a professor at Wittenburg University and the author of two respected books on the intersection of human and animal exploitation and oppression. Nibert was an organizer for the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC)— a precursor to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – when he was a university student in the late 1970s. He is currently a member of the DSA.
“It is essential for animal rights activists to recognize how capitalism promotes oppression economically, politically and ideologically,” Nibert said in a recent email interview. “And it is equally imperative that socialists become aware that the abolition of the oppression of other animals is crucial in creating a sustainable, just and nonviolent system of food production, which is an important step in promoting economic and social justice for all.”
For Nibert, it’s important one understands how the plight of animals and that of low-status humans have been interconnected through history. “For example, the expropriation of land and water resources to raise animals for food has been responsible for centuries of violence, displacement and repression throughout the world,” Nibert said. “Hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples are landless and marginalized due to past land grabs by ranchers.”
This practice continues into the present. “Tens of millions of hectares of land are being taken in Latin America and Africa to enable corporate agribusiness and the retail food industry to double the profitable consumption of animal products by the more affluent – again, with an increasing emphasis on ‘grass-fed, organic’ fare, which requires even more resources,” Nibert said.
He is opposed to reformist approaches to eventual animal liberation. “When some corporations agree to increase cage sizes, this is taken as a victory for other animals, and the businesses that oppress animals for profit are given awards and endorsements,” he sad. “Some advocates for other animals pursue voter initiatives to ameliorate the worst forms of oppression of other animals. However, changing economic and political circumstances can quickly lead to the nullification of such modest reforms. Indeed, Iowa congressional representative Steve King tried to attach an amendment to the 2014 federal farm bill that would have nullified such reforms in many states. Although he was unsuccessful this year, his efforts illuminate how tenuous such meek reforms actually are.”
In order to demonstrate the supposed uselessness of reform, Nibert highlighted conservative rollbacks of progressive victories of generations past in anthropocentric politics. “In the past several decades we have seen many legislated reforms ostensibly to ameliorate human suffering and deprivation quashed — from the New Deal-era policies of establishing a progressive income tax and rights for organized labor to the recent attack on voting rights for people of color,” he said. “Statutory reforms relating to the treatment of other animals are unlikely to fare any better. In the end, the gradualist, reform-based approach to social justice largely serves ideological and diversionary functions for an expanding capitalist system.”
For Nibert, reforms aren’t just useless, they’re actually detrimental to progressive struggle. “What is more, such tepid, ‘humane’ reforms actually make the public feel comfortable eating products derived from the oppression of other animals and are thus counter-productive,” he said. “To really promote justice for other animals, their human advocates should promote a global transition to a plant-based diet and stop wasting energy on creating reforms and the quixotic efforts to see that they are enforced.”
It should be mentioned the organization to which Nibert belongs, the DSA, supports tactical reformism. As the group’s website states, “Reforms we win now—raising the minimum wage, securing a national health plan, and demanding passage of right-to-strike legislation—can bring us closer to socialism.” One wonders if Nibert genuinely cannot see the value of such measures. Karl Marx reportedly made his famous quip, “All I know is that I am not a Marxist,” in response to the devaluation of reform by his French acolytes. He dismissed their arguments as “revolutionary phrase-mongering.”
Using language apparently inspired by the work of Gary Francione, Nibert upheld the prioritization of individual consumer choices. “Being vegan and promoting the abolition of all forms of oppression of other animals should be the baseline for all animal activists,” Nibert said. Pressed as to whether he applied such a prefigurative standard to environmentalists and socialists, he suggested he did not do so. “Eating other animals is not the moral equivalent of getting into an automobile,” Nibert said. “Indeed, it is difficult to function in the United States by staying out of automobiles. However, use of – and support for – hybrid and electric vehicles, and using public transportation when possible, is responsible behavior. People opposed to sweatshops may indeed prefer to refrain from buying products from Nike and similar brands and shop for fair trade and union-made shoes and clothing.”
Nibert seemed to suggest that veganism was necessary to feed the global human population. “While more than a billion people on the earth are currently hungry and malnourished, over 70 percent of the earth’s agricultural land is used for the creation of animal products,” he said. “As the human population races to more than ten billion, and as climate change advances, a transition to a plant-based diet is essential in order to feed an increasingly hungry and thirsty world.” Questioned whether he thought dire poverty was a result of scarcity, rather than an unequal distribution of wealth as socialists traditionally argue, Nibert appeared to backtrack. “The fact that so much of the world’s agricultural land is in the hands of the Animal Industrial Complex leads to food scarcity,” he said.
Asked to weigh in on the debate between Jason Hribal, who sees animals as part of the proletariat, and Bob Torres, who views domesticated non-humans as superexploited living commodities, Nibert was noncommittal. “I can see some truth in both positions,” he said. “Other animals have been exploited as laborers for centuries, while also being treated objectified and treated as property.”