Slavery abolition is one of the greatest inspirations of the animal rights movement.
We find this inspiration utterly false and for several reasons which we broadly detailed in a series of posts about slavery.
In the first post we argue that neither the Thirteenth Amendment nor the American Civil War were a product of a moral struggle.
The Civil War broke for many reasons, none of which had to do with any sort of moral cause as the abolition of slavery. Wars don’t break for moral reasons. And they definitely don’t break between two sides over the rights of a third one. Wars generally break for money or power, and usually both. And so did the American civil war.
In the second post we argue that not only that the American civil war didn’t break to end slavery, it didn’t even really end it at all. Humans being humans, used an exception mentioned in 13th Amendment which is 'involuntary servitude as a punishment for a crime', as a loophole to keep slavery active and thriving by systematically criminalizing African Americans (we don’t mean the discriminative Jim Crow laws but the Black Codes, which was set as a legal basis for neo-slavery). In fact it took another century for slavery to really formally end in the United States alone.
And most importantly, regardless of the true reasons and causes for ending slavery, it never really ended, not in the U.S and definitely not all over the world. In fact as broadly detailed in the third, fourth and fifth posts of the slavery series, there are more slaves today than ever before in history and that’s what makes slavery ending as a successful test case for animal exploitation ending so absurd. If the comparison of industrial exploitation of animals and slavery is at all relevant, it is as a test case that proves the opposite. Since slavery never really ended, what activists should draw from the fight against slavery isn’t inspiration, but disillusion, a wakeup call to look for other ways to end animal suffering.
Slavery is now illegal in every nation on earth, yet it can be found in every corner of the globe. Even on the narrowest definition of slavery it's likely that there are far more slaves now than there were victims of the Atlantic slave trade.
In a way, the fact that slavery is not legal anywhere but happens everywhere makes it worse because it means that slavery exists not because of political disputes between groups or anything of this sort, it exists and is so prevalent because humans don’t care enough to stop it.
In our world it is much more important that crimes would be declared as such and be formally outlawed, than actually doing something so they would truly cease to exit.
Exploitation systems exist because someone benefits from them, and since the ones who don’t benefit from them (and therefore can be in the position to oppose them), are silent about them. The stronger benefits silently from slavery, the vulnerable suffers silently and the vast majority is just silent.
In order to seriously confront slavery, legislation and enforcement are far from being enough. Humanity must seriously confront slavery’s origin which is poverty. For that, the rich world must decide to stop plundering the poorer world and minimize the luxurious lifestyle it enjoys. That’s not going to happen.
Slavery will exist as long as there are power gaps between humans, and there will always be power gaps between humans.
Obviously most humans prefer to believe slavery was ended or at least that it is the work of particular evil people in the grimmest places on earth, a consequence of the wickedness of a tiny minority. The truth is that it is a consequence of the indifference of the majority who allows it to happen.
Many humans enjoy a high level of living largely because of modern slaves who make many of the products they buy and use every day. Slavery is prevalent in different stages of the supply chains from the production of raw materials like cacao, cotton, coffee, iron, rubber, wood, cobalt, and sugar to only name a few, to manufacturing every-day goods such as mobile phones or cloths made in sweatshops.
Despite being aware of it, most humans don’t bother themselves too much with the production process of the goods they enjoy. The same as they don’t when it comes to animal derived products.
If anything, that is the relevant analogy to take from slavery.
The hopes of the animal liberation movement are laid on an institution that exists for about 15,000 years, was never ended nor reduced but was actually broadened in terms of the number of slaves, the enslavement methods, the slaves’ age, the ethnical diversity, and the geographical spread. Slavery has never ended but evolved with time and it is now much more extensive and less visible, and that is the surest recipe to assure its continuance.
Slavery is almost everywhere, almost in everything. The fact that slavery kept growing in size regardless of the fact that it is illegal now in every country in the world, shouldn’t be inspiring but alarming.
But not only the inspiration is false, the comparison itself is false and it is so for several reasons.
Here are the main 10:
One of the main rationales of the comparison is that both slaves and animals were objectified and treated as if they are property. First of all, the fact that two exploited groups are considered property doesn’t mean they were treated the same. And secondly, most animals are not considered property but merely raw material.
Enslaved humans were never milked, skinned to be worn or eaten by their enslavers, and most exploited animals don’t do humans’ labor for them but are raised by them so humans can fiercely take what they desire from them, mainly their own bodies after they were murdered in the age and size humans wished for.
Some exploitations might seem similar to slavery (circuses, zoos, donkeys and horses exploitation and maybe even some animals in laboratories), but the food industry is a whole different story. Of course Genocide is a well-known phenomenon in human history, but intentionally systematically artificially creating populations to kill them is animal exclusive.
Black people were treated as sub-humans who are destined to serve white people, animals are a disposable bundle of meat that happen to be alive and sentient.
Overall, the estimations of the slave trade are of about 30 to 40 million humans during a period of about 400 years. Based on the common estimation of 150 billion victims in the food industries each year, that number is suppressed after 2 hours.
When the gaps are so enormous and the victims are artificially “produced” in their billions every year, it is not a quantitative difference. In the peak of slavery in the United States there were about 4 million enslaved humans. Every 13 minutes, 4 million animals are murdered in the food industry, most after they have suffered their whole lives.
Different Depth of Control and Manipulation
Cruel family separations were common during the slave trade, but not separating all the parents from all the young, all the time. In institutional animal exploitation the separation between the parents’ population and the offspring population is systematic.
The forming of a breed and the absolute control over its reproduction was never recorded in the history of human exploitation. Slaves were chosen by their body size and teeth condition but their body features weren’t modified according to the masters’ desires, as happens with almost every factory farmed animal today.
Creating an entire breed that is designed by artificial selection for specific profitable body parts is an animal exclusive atrocity, and one of the most dramatic differences between the two.
One of the greatest causes of suffering of animals is not the external prison they live in but the inner confinement. Animals are born to suffer from their own body deformities caused by genetic manipulations. Regardless of their living conditions, at some point of their lives they suffer simply from being alive. As opposed to slaves, whose living conditions in many ways are ruled by their human “masters”, in the case of animals at least from this aspect they are all ruled by the mastery of their own deformed bodies.
Clearly slavery is slavery regardless of the masters’ treatment. Taking others’ freedom is sufficient to consider slavery as one of the worst things humans ever did to each other. But not all the slaves suffered every single moment of their lives. Billions of animals can’t find even one painless position they can stand, sit or lie in. Billions of animals have no single moment of relief during their entire lives.
A very dramatic difference is the value of the victim. When the function of the enslavement is the labor of the enslaved there is an incentive to protect the slaves. Not out of consideration for humans but out of a cynical protection over the “property”. That is as opposed to the case in which the function of the enslavement is certain organs that happen to be part of the body of a sentient being.
When it comes to slaves, the longer they live and the better their physical condition is, the better it is for the enslaver who paid a lot of money to buy them. When it comes to animals the fastest they reach the “target weight” the better.
Slaves are good and profitable as long as they live, animals - when they die. That’s why there is at least some sort of a built-in extremely cynical economic incentive that the slaves would be healthy and live long, and that animals grow the desirable organs as fast as possible (on the expense of the rest of their body).
Obviously the very fact that a price tag was attached to a human is appalling, but given that this price was high, provided an incentive for the enslavers to protect the enslaved. When it comes to animals it is never the case, not even when it comes to expensive ones like some of the exploited animals in laboratories, or in circuses and zoos, horses in the horseracing industry and cows in the dairy industry. And it is definitely not the case with 99% of the systematically exploited animals which are so cheap, and the gap between keeping them alive and the profits made at their expense is so marginal, that millions of individuals are left to die in any case of a problem. In some cases a death toll of more than 10% of a population is just business as usual.
It is not by chance that much of the comparison is made using mammals and in industries in which they are worth more when they are alive. Fishes and Chickens are almost not mentioned since their lives are so cheap and short that it is absolutely incomparable with slavery.
Slaves are identified by names and documents. Cows and Pigs are identified by numbers. Chickens don’t even have identifying numbers. But they are counted in whole numbers. Fishes are not even counted in whole numbers. Individual fishes are not even considered as separate items - they are counted in kilograms and tones.
Different Scope of Demands
To actually abolish nonhumans’ exploitation, a much more radical change than a formal legal prohibition of selling animal based food is required.
The enslavement of several million humans in a very specific and defined system, which it is pretty clear where it begins and how it can end, is incomparable with the exploitation of trillions of nonhumans, which the scope and definition of their exploitation is obscure and undefined.
Human slavery is compared to institutionalized exploitation, mostly factory farms, but hundreds of thousands of humans privately imprison hundreds of millions of animals (mostly in their backyards) for several exploitive functions - from feeding themselves with their flesh or bodily secretions, worming themselves with their skin, do their labor, carry them or their belongings from place to place, guard their property, amuse them in their houses, amuse them in public places, bet on them, use them to kill other animals and etc.
These few examples don’t begin to cover the list of wrongs done to animals on a regular basis which happen outside of factory farms.
In addition, although human slavery is mostly compared to factory farms, animal liberation means that animals should be liberated from human tyranny. When it comes to animals everything is much more complex, every road dividing habitats, every artificial lighting operated at night, every ship invading the ocean with tremendous noise, with trembling, pollution and collisions, every flying object which does the same in the air, every industrial factory's polluting materials which animals are always the first to get hurt by.
The abolitionists’ goal was to convince their own people not to force humans from a different culture (who they considered a different race) to work so hard for so little. In theory all that it required was to hire more or less the same people to work on more or less the same farms but as free humans with rights, decent working conditions and a salary.
On the other hand if we take animal liberation seriously, we must vision a world which nothing in it is similar to the one we know today. Veganism is only the first step and we have so far reached less than about 1% of it. Morally we mustn’t compromise on less than a truly free world and that is never going to happen.
Even in the peak of slavery in the United States in the middle of the 19th century, the public opinion was at least bipartile if not in favor of slavery abolishment, since the North, which was against slavery (for self-serving political and ironically racist reasons), was more populated than the South.
So if to analogize, the movement’s “North” is speciesist vegans and the South is the rest of the world. On the eve of the civil war there were about 22 million people in the North and about 9 million in the South, that’s almost double and a half. Vegans are less than 1% of the world population...
And what makes things even worse is that despite that nowadays slavery is not bipartile but the vast majority of humans are against it, still there are more slaves than ever before. So what are the chances of animal liberation when the vast majority of humans are actively supporting their exploitation?
Another important difference is the set of justifications to enslave Africans. Besides the de-humanization and savageness that was attributed to Africans, which was used to excuse the supremacy and exploitation, many whites identified themselves as the Africans’ saviors. Many have convinced themselves that black people came from Africa to receive Christianity and if they have, they would gain a place in the next life, which is anyway more important than this one. Whether some wholeheartedly believed in such a paternalistic view, or was it a convenient cynical way to justify what they were doing, is less relevant, the point is that salvation was never used as a justification for animals’ exploitation. The fact that “salvation” was brought up, even merely as an excuse, proves that Africans were seen as humans, not animals. Inferior to white humans in their eyes of course, but still humans, and even ones who can get a place in the afterlife.
A very dramatic difference between the two struggles is the self-representation factor. Slaves could and have represented their case by themselves, animals can’t. Fredrick Douglas’ autobiography was a best seller and he traveled the North telling people his story and what slavery is like from first hand in his own voice. That was much more effective than William Lloyd Garrison’s journals, and it is definitely more effective than human activists trying to mediate animals’ suffering.
It’s not just about authentic voices that are identifiable for the wide public. The lack of self -representation regards every aspect of the struggle – its aims, its means, its priorities. You can be sure that if animals could represent themselves everything would have been totally different. Even the very definition of what is oppression and what is not.
While the civil war wasn’t really about slavery, violence did play a part in the struggle against it. William Lloyd Garrison was famously non-violent but Nat Turner, David Walker and John Brown, for example, weren’t. Despite that fact, they are studied in history classes. They are unquestionably considered as part of the anti-slavery struggle.
Even though they faced a much smaller atrocity compared with the one animal liberation activists are fighting against, the use of violence received much more support, some of which came in real time. That shows how vast the gaps are between the status of animals compared with what was the status of slaves, and how legitimate animal exploitation is compared with humans exploitation. John Brown is forever a hero for raiding an army arsenal because he wanted to initiate a slave rebel, and when AR activists throw paint on a fur coat they are violent aggressors.
And don’t get it wrong, it is not a historical perspective matter, the hanging of John Brown was a public event, he became a martyr a minute after he was judged, not retrospectively years after slavery was abolished.
We in the Animal Liberation movement can only dream of such legitimacy for violence use.
Even if, despite all the causes, reasons and evidences specified in the post regarding the 13th amendment, there are ones who insist on arguing that the abolition movement had a crucial factor in ending slavery in the United States, even in this most flattering scenario, it can only be said that the abolitionists had something to do with the fact that a war broke out. Somehow activists tend to ignore that part in their version of events – that a war, let alone a civil war, was a major factor in the events held before, what is mistakenly considered to be, the ending of slavery in the United States.
It is one thing to insist that the war was about slavery, but it is a totally different story to ignore the fact that one existed. We understand that activists need to believe that it was an ideological dispute, despite all the evidences. However, even in that fairytale version, in the end what eventually turned things around was a war. So if to ignore history and focus on the logic behind the comparison only, if it took a civil war, which lasted 4 years and had more than 700,000 causalities, to free the about 4 million slaves in one country only, do activists really believe that freeing billions of animals all over the world would be gained peacefully? Or is it global war that they offer?
Who in their right mind can even imagine a war between vegans and non-vegans? And even if there are some who do, currently ethical vegans are less than 1% of the human population and probably most of this tiny minority would pass on the war against 99% of the world’s human population.
We don’t see how the abolitionists’ (admirable as they are and inspirational as they are on a personal level) marginal influence is even debatable considering the events before and after the war. The North, generally speaking, was extremely racist before, during and after the war. Colonization programs were considered before, during and after the war (including by Lincoln himself). Several northern states maintained their slaves before, during and after the war. And of course, the war didn’t end slavery which continued in the South for about another century.
If one really wants to believe in that story, still, the allegedly social “change” happened by using coercion and violence. So if there is a historical lesson then it is that if you want to abolish a major exploitative system, start to acquire arms.
The comparison between slavery and institutional exploitation of animals is commonly criticized for supposedly belittling human atrocities, but as broadly detailed, it actually does the exact opposite.
As horrible as slavery was and still is, when it comes to the number of aspects of life the enslavers are invading, the depth of their invasion, the exploitation functions, the circumferential systems and facilities of the exploitation, the knowledge and research involved and mainly the extent of the exploitation throughout history, it is incomparable.
How is it possible to make a comparison between an oppressive system that suppresses the other oppressive system in several parameters, mainly considering that its extent is suppressed in 2 hours only?
While the world is getting farther and farther from being slavery-free, as hard as it is to realistically think this institution is abolishable, it is at least imaginable. A world without animals’ exploitation is unimaginable.
The few similarities that we do find are mostly the ones regarding the mindset of the enslavers, not in the status and value of the enslaved. Focusing on the enslavers instead of the enslaved is done because the mindset of activists is focused on how to change the views of victimizers and not how to free the victims. We have thoroughly addressed this issue in a blog post and in its follow-up. Please take the time and read them.
And even if after this long list of arguments you still insist the comparison is valid, you should definitely agree with our meta-argument - if the urge is to take advantage of a given situation and that is truly what stands behind all exploitations, then why insisting on changing humanity and not destroying it? If all along history, when humans observe weaknesses among others, regardless of ethnical origin, color or species, and no matter at which period in history, they take advantage of it, then why not draw the relevant conclusions – if we wish to truly abolish exploitation, we must abolish the exploiters?
Nothing can be compared with humans’ tyranny over animals. Not even the cruelest, most oppressive tyranny of humans over each other. Slavery was and still is an atrocity that we think is in itself a reason why humans must be annihilated. And the fact that such a dreadful atrocity isn’t the worst thing humans have ever done but actually can’t even be compared with the worst one, doesn’t leave room for doubt how necessary and urgent this moral obligation is.