Some Thoughts on National Organizations

I was recently a guest on a two-part podcast on Vegan Freak Radio. In subsequent discussion in the comment section of the second part of the podcast and in one of the forums, the issue was raised about whether animal advocacy should focus on grassroots activities or whether the movement should be controlled by “animal executives” who determine the agenda of the movement and dictate it to advocates.

I had some thoughts about this that I shared on the discussion forum and that I want to share with you.

As I see it, there are two related problems:

First, although some national organizations are better than others, these groups for the most part promote campaigns that focus more on the treatment of animals than on the use of animals. That is, they characterize the issue primarily as how animals are used and not that animals are used. As long as treatment is the primary focus, the movement will chase the elusive goal of reducing suffering to make exploitation more “humane” rather than abolishing use by incrementally eradicating the property status of animals.

As I have argued for many years now, any measure can be characterized as “reducing suffering.” These measures generally seek to protect animal interests to the extent that it is economically beneficial to do so and, therefore, do not in any meaningful way recognize the inherent value of nonhumans. On the contrary, these welfarist campaigns often reinforce the extrinsic or conditional value of animals.

Second, because the national organizations need a steady stream of “victories” for fundraising purposes, often including the payment of considerable salaries to directors, officers, and selected employees, they invariably characterize their campaigns in narrow and often trivial ways so that they can appeal to the largest number of donors and maximize the chances of “success.” For example, they have campaigns that focus on the method of killing rather than the fact of killing; they have campaigns that focus on one form of clothing made from animals but not the general use of animals for clothing. And because discussion about strategies and tactics is merely an inconvenience that costs time and money, these groups often label any criticism or critique as “disparagement.” Disagreement is not tolerated. Criticism is characterized as “divisive” and as “harming animals.”

These two problems have acted synergistically to produce a movement that does not move anywhere except backwards. The “victories” do not provide significant protection for animals in the short term and they do not lead to abolition in the long term. Indeed, the result of the campaigns of the national organizations is that the public feels more comfortable about animal exploitation. The paradigm does not shift.

If you consider that things are going in the right direction and that real progress is being made, then you should continue to support the national organizations.

If you think that it is appropriate for “animal executives” to receive high salaries, many in the six figures, then you should continue to support the national organizations.

If you believe that it is a good idea for animal organizations to be sitting on piles of money often amounting to many millions of dollars, then keep on supporting the wealthy animal charities.

If you are happy with “leaders” who, for example, claim that being a conscientious vegan is “fanatical,” or that animal rights means dead animals, or that insignificant welfare reforms mean that “[a] revolution is underway,” or who trivialize the serious problem of animal exploitation through sexist and puerile campaigns, or who give awards to slaughterhouse designers or heap sycophantic praise on marketers of “happy” meat, and who, throughout it all, characterize any expression of disagreement as tantamount to heresy and treason, then, by all means, continue business as usual.

But if you think that things are going in a very wrong direction, and if you think that the many millions of dollars that are contributed to these groups are providing a return that is appallingly poor, then you should consider an alternative approach. You should reject the idea that activism means writing a check to a national organization to support regulatory/legislative campaigns that go nowhere.

I have long argued that we ought to devote the bulk of our resources toward vegan education and advocacy. We should be vegans and we should do everything we can to educate everyone we can about veganism. There will never be any significant progress toward the eradication of animal exploitation as long as we do not have a strong, grassroots abolitionist movement. And we cannot have an abolitionist movement without veganism as a clear and non-negotiable moral baseline. To the extent that there are national organizations at all, they should serve primarily as providers of training and literature to assist grassroots activists in conducting effective and creative vegan/abolitionist educational efforts.

A movement based on “happy” meat and other animal welfare reforms is useless and, indeed, counterproductive. The animal welfare position is indistinguishable from the position of animal exploiters. Animal exploiters are willing to work with animal welfare proponents because the latter seek reforms that, for the most part, make animal exploitation more efficient. The welfarists, in effect, educate the exploiters about how to make minor changes that will increase productivity and profits.

We should also devote resources to hands-on care of those nonhumans whom we have caused to come into existence and to whom we have moral obligations. This includes sanctuaries that promote an abolitionist message, good no-kill shelters, foster networks, sterilization programs, TNR (trap, neuter, return), etc. To the extent that national organizations put dollars into these activities, that is a good use of money. But most put relatively few or no resources into hands-on activities.

Why is the Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary operating hand-to-mouth and now desperately in need of funds when national organizations are sitting on millions of dollars and some of these organizations are paying six-figure salaries? This situation is just one example that the “movement” represented by the national organizations has lost sight of fundamental values and has failed miserably.

For many years, the national organizations controlled communication among animal advocates. Advocates learned about what was going on through the publications and conferences of particular organizations and these perspectives were obviously skewed to serve the purposes of those organizations. Advocates with different and dissenting views were excluded and their voices effectively silenced.

This is all changing as the result of the internet, which is making possible the development of an international nonviolent, abolitionist, grassroots movement based on veganism. The national organizations are seeking to suppress this emerging movement by arguing that only a movement run by full-time, often highly-paid, animal executives can help animals. This is to be expected but it should be rejected.

We have limited time and limited resources. It’s a zero-sum game. Every dollar that we donate and every second of time that we spend on regulatory/legislative campaigns is a dollar less and a second less that we devote to vegan/abolitionist education and hands-on work.

We are not harming animals by deciding to devote our resources to vegan/abolitionist campaigns and hands-on work. Indeed, if anything is harming animals, it is perpetuating the insidious myth that welfarist reforms will reduce suffering in significant ways in the short-term and will lead to the abolition of animal use in the long-term.

We do not need large organizations whose employees get fat salaries and subsidized travel. Every one of us can be a “leader.” If we are to succeed, every one of us must be a leader, an important force for change. Every one of us has the ability to affect and influence the lives of others. This is hard work, to be sure. Many will not be interested; some will. But the few we do reach will reach others, who will reach others, and so on. And for every person who embraces veganism, the source of oppression—demand—is reduced.

If you are not a vegan, then stop being an animal exploiter and become one. If you are a vegan, you are, by that act alone, doing something important and do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Veganism is activism. Remember that veganism is not just a matter of diet or lifestyle; it is your expression of the abolitionist principle. It is your personal commitment to nonviolence.

If you want to do more, then get some clear and unequivocal vegan/abolitionist literature, such as that available without charge from the Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary. Distribute that literature. Educate yourself about the issues. Talk about the moral and environmental aspects of veganism with anyone and everyone who will listen to you. Always be gentle in your advocacy. But never shrink from being clear and unequivocal in your view that we have no moral justification for exploiting any animals—however “humanely” we may do so.

There are many, many things you can do to promote abolition that cost little or no money and that require only your decision to work to make a change.

As one example: If you are a college student, work to get more vegan options at your school rather than to get the school to buy “cage-free” eggs, which still involve hideous suffering and delude people into thinking that they can be “conscientious consumers.”

Look at what Professors Bob Torres and Jenna Torres, the Vegan Freaks, have done. With a modest amount of money but a lot of hard work and persistence, they have used the internet to educate about veganism and build a network of vegans all over the world. Vegan Freaks is an excellent example of creative vegan/abolitionist education and it is far more effective than all of the expensive welfarist campaigns combined.

If you do have money that you can afford to donate, then sponsor a regular vegan food table at your local community center. Or help those who are doing hands-on work. There are so many more effective ways to use money than to contribute to the cash reserves of animal corporations or pay for the salaries or travel of animal executives.

The first time someone tells you that she or he has become a vegan because of your efforts, you will realize that you don’t need “leaders” or “animal executives” who control things and who suppress dissent because it’s not good for “business.” You will see that you, acting by yourself or with a friend or two and without much money at all, can make an important contribution to the emerging movement to end animal slavery rather than to perpetuate it by making it more socially acceptable because it is considered to be more “humane.”

Sure, it’s easier to write a check but it’s not doing anything to help the animals. Sure, it’s easier to go along with what the big corporations want you to do rather than doing your own grassroots work and being assailed as “divisive” and as “disparaging” by the animal executives. But any social movement that rejects dissent and disagreement is not a social movement—it is a cult. And any social movement that maintains that activism is writing a check has disempowered itself and become nothing more than a business.

You—we—have the ability to change this. And we have the responsibility as well.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione