Monday, May 19, 2008

Book Review!

As I said before, I recently got Making a Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights by Bob Torres (published in 2007 by AK Press). Before I tell you what you think, I need to provide a little disclaimer. Bob was my undergrad advisor and my honours supervisor. His influence (and a few mutual friends) enticed me to vegetarianism and then veganism. He taught me marxism, and really helped me to articulate my thinking on capitalism, politics, animal rights, racism, sexism, and other issues. For that reason, the arguments in the book are basically in line with my thinking, so I really loved it. But I’ll try to avoid sounding like a groupie (even though I think it’s, like, so totally cool that I got a mention in the acknowledgements!). Sorry for the wordiness, I tried to keep it short but I have trouble with that!!

In Making a Killing, Bob is basically making the argument that one can’t be truly opposed to hierarchy and domination while still participating in animal exploitation. He uses marxist critiques of capitalism, and anarchist critiques of hierarchy as the base of his argument. Of course, he has to extend these traditionally human-centric arguments to apply to animals—not much of a stretch, really. It’s important to note that he doesn’t isolate his discussion of speciesism. Rather, it’s tightly woven with a discussion of racism, sexism, and classism. For instance,

“Much like racism, speciesism is built into the very logic of our society: from our assumptions about animals as ‘stupid’ or ‘tasty’ creatures, up to the laws that guarantee animals as our property” (p. 71-2).

This is noteworthy because the forms of exploitation have developed together and can only be successfully tackled together.

Bob also looks critically at the “Animal Rights Industry”, aka the main groups that claim to fight for animal rights. I found this chapter particularly interesting for a few reasons. One, because I’m a student of social movements, and that stuff is really my cup of tea. Two, because he spoke in depth on a few issues that I’ve always waffled about without articulating where I really stand. Third, many of these same issues are things that have been the focus of discussion in the Animal Rights group that is forming in Townsville (and probably mark the development of any AR group)—particularly issues of welfare vs rights, abolition of exploitative uses of animals, and whether its worth watering down the message to win people over:

“Sending the message that exploiting more nicely is acceptable only serves to maintain human dominance over animals, for it does not directly call into question the foundational notion of the use of animals. ... This is everything like an anti-slavery organization suggesting that owning slaves is acceptable, provided they’re treated well” (p. 93).

The suggestions he offers at the end—namely, real activism instead of consumerism, and a strong endorsement of veganism instead of welfarism—might be challenging, but I think they are absolutely worth doing.

Since I’ve been in some educational institution basically without a break since I was four (two, if you count Head Start), I’m not really a good judge of whether something is accessible to non-academics or not. But, I found the theories well-explained, such that I could understand even those I was unfamiliar with. Reading Bob’s explanations of tricky concepts transported me back to classrooms where he used similar illustrations to get his point across to a room full of mostly disinterested future-corporate-slaves (or, in many cases, execs).

There were a few places where I would have expanded on certain arguments, particularly in the chapter on the movements. That said, I never felt like there were glaring holes where I was left wondering what he was on about. The flow of the book made sense to me. One thing I would change is the references. I freaking hate end notes! I know everyone has their own preference, but I definitely prefer footnotes or in-text citations.

On the subject of references, I thought the book was well-researched. It was good to see primary sources referenced, like United Egg Producers and the USDA. It seems like some animal rights literature tends to cite only other AR lit. Using information provided by the animal exploitation industries gives a sense of legitimacy that sceptics can’t argue with (though we know they still will).

Basically, I thought it was great. It’s different from most books on veganism that I’ve come across because it doesn’t focus on health or environmental arguments, nor merely compassionate reasons; it takes a broader look at the socio-political implications of consuming animal products and builds a firm ethical base for veganism that supports the compassionate argument. And, in my opinion, that foundation is stronger than the other arguments, particularly in the face of opposition or heckling from sceptics.

“In challenging this bloodbath, done in the name of our palates, veganism says that animals have interests and lives quite apart from human concerns, and it respects that by avoiding all animal products to the greatest extent possible—this includes dairy, leather, eggs, and wool. ... This perspective is the only one that makes sense if one takes the challenge to overcome needless domination, hierarchy, and oppression seriously—particularly given how acutely animals suffer to produce the everyday goods and foods that we take for granted” (p. 131).


bazu said...

Thanks for this review. Definitely want to check this book out. I like having articulate sources to help me think through my positions and learn new things.

Lily on the Road said...

Interesting, I'll have to look for this book at Chapters.


Cookiemouse said...

Good review. I quite agree that we need to think a lot more about the dominant structures in our society. Animals do have a right to existence separate from humans.

Bianca said...

The animals as property thing really makes me mad! My animals are my children...

Liz² said...

That sounds like a great book, I always love when ways of life can be logically connected, especially for the benefit of people who may not have noticed the connection before. The animal right movement chapter sounds really interesting, too. You're lucky you had this guy as a prof!

pleasantly plump vegan said...

yeah, i wanna read this book. thanks for the review!
thats so col you know him and got an acknowledgment in the book!!!

Alec said...

Sounds like a good read. Pretty cool that you had this guy in school as well.

Does he talk about honey? I noticed in the quote you had at the end of your post that honey wasn't mentioned (that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't discuss it). I know most vegans think the honey debate is not a debate in that if you eat honey you can't be vegan, but I think some who call themselves vegan do eat it.

Vaala said...

Hey congrats on getting your grant!

Interesting review...looks like something I'm going to have to add to my reading list!

Theresa said...

Alec, he doesn't discuss honey specifically, but in his (co-authored) book 'Vegan Freak' he does--he gives it a big old NOT VEGAN stamp of disapproval. I suppose bees fit in with all other animals in discussions of exploitation and the view that they are here for our purposes, but it would have been an interesting addition.

Kumudha said...

I'm so happy about books which expose
animal cruelty.

Thanks for the review.

David J said...

Great review and summarizing. As a meat eater I am interested to learn more about the rights of animals and find it a little sad that this discussion is given so little space in mainstream public forums.
So like many other practices that ignore the rights of others degrade the natural world.

lengslog said...

It's hard to find books that looks at veganism from a more political scope. Well, for me it is. I've mainly come across books that argue the compassion etc etc. I agree with you. It's not much of an argument.

I'll look into the book. Thanks for referencing it.

Vegan_Noodle said...

Great review. How cool that you were mentioned in the acknowledgements!! As a a non-academic, I found most of the book pretty easy to follow. I even copied some of the pages from the last chapter to share with my vegan outreach group officers here in Houston to stress that we need to advocate abolition/AR/veganism instead of welfare issues.