• Nina-Mari Grobler

The Trap of Capitalist Veganism

I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity.

Joaquin Phoenix’s recent speech at the Academy Awards has vegans and non-vegans buzzing. It comes at a time when, in the whole history of veganism, the movement is at its most distant from all the other causes mentioned by Phoenix. Once a movement rooted in anti-exploitation and animal rights, veganism is now largely associated with wealthy, skinny white people who often enjoy a serving of cultural appropriation with their morning glass of R50 kombucha. Vegans are probably the last people you would expect to turn up in the streets at a protest against gender inequality, racism or unfair wages.

What veganism looks like to the public eye right now is a far cry from where it came from. At its core it is a radical movement which seeks to eradicate exploitation, anthropocentrism and speciesism. Speciesism is a system of exploitation and oppression based on the prejudiced belief that human animals are superior to non-human animals. In the past, veganism has kept intersectionality at the forefront of the movement. Civil Rights activists like Dick Gregory were talking about the intersectionality between veganism and other forms of oppression in the 1980’s and feminist scholar and writer Carol J. Adams highlighted the connection between feminism and avoiding animal exploitation in her 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. The big voices of veganism were knee-deep in fight for liberation and freedom for all marginalised and oppressed groups.

Yet, if you look at the most famous vegan advocates out there today, like James Aspey, Gary Yourofsky, Joey Carbstrong and Earthling Ed, you will notice that the public face of vegan activism has become pretty white and indubitably male. Celebrity activism is big business in the vegan world right now and these men are profiting. They style themselves as quasi-messiahs and preach to their masses of followers, on and off social media, with an authority that is rarely questioned. Their “activism” style is often aggressive, pompous and laden with toxic masculinity. They talk over and down to people and get paid to do so by their fans. That’s right, you can donate to these men to do “activism” as a full-time job. $100 a month and you get a Skype chat with one of the legends himself!

None of these celebrity activists mentioned above really fight for other causes. They rarely discuss any and if they do, it is usually only to further their own vegan argument rather than standing up for the other cause itself. They mention racism only when they can use it as a pro-vegan tactic. Feminism and women’s suffrage only ever comes up as an example for comparison. In fact, George Martin, an organiser for Anonymous for the Voiceless, which is probably one of the most famous and recognisable vegan groups in the world right now, recently argued for having Men’s Rights Activists and Trump supporters in the vegan movement. All this serves to separate veganism further from any other cause that stands up against prejudice and oppression, which are the very things veganism is against.

Besides the white male dominance on the activism front, veganism is more associated with expensive and exclusive foods than ever in the past. In order to make veganism sell better, it has in many ways been rebranded as a lifestyle choice which revolves around Woolworths food and slim bodies. Far from radical anti-oppression, it is seen more as a trendy diet for wealthy people and it consists of food that is hard to come by, expensive and difficult to prepare. Even foods that have been staples in other cultures for centuries, like tofu, are sold at upper class shops for exorbitant prices. The vegan restaurants that continue to pop up in wealthy areas are considered the standard and the fact that some of the earliest vegan restaurants in the USA existed in poor black communities is entirely forgotten. The result of this marketing makeover that veganism has had is that the movement no longer centers the victims – the non-human animals. Instead, it fits cozily in a niche in a white, patriarchal and capitalist society. The voices of vegans of colour, poor vegans, disabled vegans and LGBTQ+ vegans are drowned out.

Perhaps it was an attempt to get rid of the “extreme” descriptor veganism often still carries with it that made so many people willing to buy into this capitalist veganism. However, veganism is extreme. It takes a hard line stance against exploitation, oppression and speciesism. Watering it down has not made it easier to swallow, but instead has helped it cater to large corporations who can now make money off of vegan products in addition to non-vegan products. Consequently, the movement looks exclusive, shallow and stagnant from the outside. I do not entirely fault individual vegans for this change, although I think many individual vegans could benefit from taking a serious look at their values and motivations. As with many things, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of capitalism, which has quite the skill for turning potential threats to its power into profit. In the same way that beauty companies like Dove have sold us socially acceptable, pretty feminine bodies with flawless skin as “feminism”, so large corporations are selling us superfood smoothies and Impossible Burgers as veganism.

At the end of the day, veganism is not the sanitised public image it currently has. It is a liberation movement that seeks to eradicate the use of non-human animals as products and in this quest it ties in with all causes that seek to end injustice, domination and exploitation. By centering the animals, we can get back to fighting for this cause as a first priority. In order to do that, we have to stop letting dominant white, capitalist, patriarchal voices hog the mic. We have to make sure the voices of vegans of colour, LGBTQ+ vegans, disabled vegans and poor vegans are amplified. There is a great deal we can do to make the community more inclusive, such as calling out racism and sexism and stamping out fatphobia and toxic diet culture when we see it within the community. Vegan activism needs to address the lack of access to healthy foods in poorer neighbourhoods and separate itself from capitalist endorsements of expensive products. Free marketing for large corporations is not activism and it does nothing to include a large portion of the world’s population who cannot access these foods. A more inclusive community will help the movement grow and become more robust. The most important thing to keep in mind at all times is intersectionality and if we can do that, we will start taking important steps towards true liberation for all.

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