The animal rights movement is a social movement.
Sociologists define social movements as a ‘collective, organized, sustained, and noninstitutional challenge to authorities, powerholders, or cultural beliefs and practices.’ (Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper. 2002. The Social Movement Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 3.)
From my research I discovered there were many similarities between social movements, including the animal rights movement, but there are two significant differences which makes our movement truly unique.
As political scientist Robert Garner explains
Moreover, for humans to campaign on behalf of them requires an altruism that is much more profound than for other social movements. Not only does it involve action to seek the advancement of the interests of another species, there is also a potential conflict between the interests of animals and those of humans. (Robert Garner. 2005. The Political Theory of Animal Rights. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 164.)
Animals can not organise themselves into their own social movement. Unlike humans, animals cannot be the agency of their own liberation. We have to do it for them on their behalf. This onerous responsibility makes it even more important for us to understand how to achieve animal rights.
Further, we have to tackle the complex issues of the benefits we accrue from our exploitation of animals if we are serious about establishing animal rights.
I tend to think these benefits are over stated by the animal industrial complex, which manipulates public opinion to fear any change in their use of animals. When the public think about their relations with animals they are reluctant generally to give up any pleasure (e.g., eating meat) or benefit (e.g., curing disease) they may feel is their entitlement.
But as anthropologist Barbara Noske asks ‘which human needs are being fulfilled and whose interests are promoted by the existing animal industrial complex?’ (Barbara Noske. 1989. Humans and Other Animals. London: Pluto Press. 23. Emphasis in original.)
Whatever may or may not be at risk, the benefits we do accrue from not relying upon animals to produce food and manage disease are considerable. History shows that social movements are accused routinely of seeking change which will adversely impact society if they achieve their objective. But it rarely, if ever, turns out to be true. Indeed, it is any wonder that we have made the social and economic progress that we have, given these outrageous claims.
Any sense of conflict between human and animal interests is questionable depending upon your point of view. Those who maintain that we must, for example, use animals to produce food and fight disease will say any rights animals may have must be subordinate to dominant human interests. This is to succumb to framing human and animal interests as a competition. A strategic dichotomy all too prevalent in human history: men superior to women; whites to blacks; natives to immigrants; heterosexuals to homosexuals; and so on. In our case, it is humans are superior to animals, which is called speciesism.
As society evolves and we become aware of our superiority prejudices we seek to resolve them as we become more aware of the resulting injustices. We readjust, accommodate and move on, in all likelihood, all the better for it.
The same, I have no doubt, will be true for animal rights; particularly when we understand if we want to feed the world’s population and encourage well-being that animal exploitation in factory farms and research laboratories are not only fundamentally problematic but also significant contributing factors to aiding famine and disease in the first place.
This is why it is vital animal rights is understood as part of a progressive agenda of social justice alongside other liberation movements.
Notwithstanding the need for the animal rights movement to enact Lord Houghton’s advice, animals are already in the political arena. It is the representatives of the animal industrial complex whom we should be concerned about.
Powerful commercial interests that profit from animal exploitation are well established political players. Their involvement in the political process helps to maintain the status quo, adopt regulations and pass laws that help animal users more than the animals. This political bias in favour of animal exploitation is reinforced by our continued institutionalised, commercial use of animals as property and disposable commodities.
There is a lot of money to be made from animal exploitation and many other non-financial gains. It is, therefore, not surprising that most of the regulations and laws relating to animals is more about protecting our interests in what we do to them than in us defending them from our actions.
Animals are represented in public policy by those who benefit from the power and control they exert over them. Animal researchers (not anti-vivisectionists) and factory farmers (not vegans) are more likely to be members of the policy-making networks which determine regulations and laws governing our relations with animals.
Consequently, animal-related public policy is more about how to use animals than protecting them from us.