Thursday, 28 January 2016
"Putting an end to animal expoitation" - Interview with Ballast
Below is the English text of an interview I did recently with the French radical left-wing magazine Ballast, published in French at http://www.revue-ballast.fr/ronnie-lee
Do you remember when you thought that the education system and pedagogy wouldn't be enough to change people's ideas about animal rights?
What made me think about this was, when some years ago, people campaigning against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) animal research laboratory almost succeeded in forcing the place to close. Campaigners from Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty managed to convince most suppliers and all the UK commercial banks to withdraw services from HLS.
However, the government at the time, a Labour one, stepped in and took the previously unheard of action of allowing the lab to have banking facilities with the Bank of England, thus allowing HLS to remain in business. Then the government passed new legislation to make it harder for people to campaign against animal experimentation.
They also encouraged the police and prosecution service to arrest and prosecute campaigners under laws that were never originally intended for that purpose. The aim was to put anti-vivisection campaigners in jail, and many people were given long periods of imprisonment for SHAC activities, with one person receiving an 11 year sentence.
I came to the conclusion that although the government were the major culprits, animal rights campaigners were also to blame for this situation, because we were not involved in political campaigning to try to prevent a pro-vivisection government from coming to power. I formed the view that animal liberationists had to become more involved in politics, because if we did not do our best to get a decent government into power, we could hardly complain when we ended up with a bad one.
To fight the government response, in terms of actions, which one was the most fruitful and successful that you have organised on the ground?
It's difficult to evaluate. In the past, going back 30 years or so, I was involved in many direct actions and some of them did result in animal abuse establishments closing down and going out of business.
There was one campaign in particular in London against a lab called Biorex, where they carried out all sort of horrific experiments on animals. This was a long and very varied campaign, with people doing sit-ins, direct action, demonstrations outside etc. and, in the end, the lab closed down and the building was taken over by Greenpeace and became their headquarters in the UK. So it went from an appalling place for animals to offices used by people to protect the environment and the animals living in it.
However, although direct action has undoubtedly saved thousands of animals from suffering and slaughter, I came to the conclusion that if we wanted to bring about the widespread liberation of other animals from oppression by humans, we had to change the fundamental attitude towards non-human animals of a very large number of people and that could only be done by vegan education.
When you consider there are more animals directly killed by humans every hour (the overwhelming majority by the food industry) than the total victims of the Nazi holocaust, it becomes obvious that there has to be a major in-depth change in society to put an end to this horrific situation.
I can't see direct action being able to play a major part in bringing about that social change, because I don't think enough people will be prepared to carry out the large number of actions required to do it. Therefore, we must turn to vegan education as the major strategy for bringing about animal liberation. However the question arises of how to deal with people who refuse to be educated.
If such people are still allowed to operate freely, they will continue to be involved in animal abuse, which is a situation that obviously cannot be tolerated. We already have situations in this country where the majority of the population is opposed to a particular form of animal abuse but the people that carry out that abuse are still allowed to do so because governments won't legislate against it.
Like fox hunting for example. For decades a considerable majority of the population has been opposed to it, but it was still allowed to continue because nothing was done by the government to outlaw it. The reason for that was because of the attitude of Members of Parliament, with the majority not wanting fox hunting banned or not considering it an important enough issue for legislation. There is a law against it now, but it is not very strong and not properly enforced. It's the same thing with animal experimentation, where most people are opposed to cruel experiments, but such tests are still allowed to continue because the government does not have the will to take action.
Therefore, it needs more than people opposing something to make it stop. And, in order to make that happen, we have to become involved in political activity to make sure we get people in power who will pass strong and far-reaching animal protection legislation.
If people are educated to be vegan, the number of animals killed for food and other reasons will be massively reduced, but it will not end altogether because some people will still want to consume animal products etc. So, in addition to education, political campaigning needs to form part of our struggle, if we want to totally end animal abuse.
Most people, even politicised ones, think human rights come before animal rights and believe it isn't possible to struggle for both at the same time; as if the desire for emancipation can't be extended to all lives. What do you answer to that?
Where people are focused on struggling against capitalism, for instance, they don't say that to fight against racism, sexism or homophobia is wrong. They support these struggles and see them as compatible with their struggle against capitalism. For instance, they don't say “we have no time to stand up for the rights of gay people because we must focus on fighting against capitalism”.
At one time I think there were some anti-capitalists who believed that fighting against sexism etc. was "diversionary", but I don't believe such people exist these days. It doesn't make sense to say that to also struggle against speciesism is not compatible with those other struggles, because it is totally compatible. There is no reason why we can't fight against all these things. Indeed, they're connected, because we're talking about prejudice.
Racism, sexism, homophobia etc. are all forms of prejudice, and speciesism is also a form of prejudice against those that are considered to be different. People just have to extend their thinking.
It's only a few hundred years ago, perhaps less than that, when black people weren't considered to have rights and were generally believed to be inferior to white people. Therefore it was believed legitimate to oppress black people and use them as slaves.
There has obviously been a big change in thinking on that issue, brought about through campaigning and people coming to realise that racial prejudice is wrong. It's the same with speciesism, where we have to fight to overcome that form of prejudice and to teach people that all forms of prejudice are linked.
That was actually our next question: do you think the animal rights struggle should be connected to other social and anti-capitalist struggles?
Yes absolutely, because it's part of the same continuum. It's a struggle against prejudice and exploitation and the struggle against speciesism is linked to all of those other struggles.
Animal rights seem to be still something the majority of people don't understand. Even being a vegetarian or a vegan, a non-activist one, seems to cause hostile reactions. What drives you? Where do you get your energy from?
Regarding the first part of your question, about hostility towards vegetarians and vegans, I think it's becoming much less these days, because as the popularity of vegetarianism and of veganism increases, more and more people are ending or reducing their consumption of animal products.
Re what drives me. To be honest, it's mainly anger. Anger at the injustice of animal persecution. What we are seeing is an extreme form of bullying. This comes with any form of prejudice, but most particularly with the illtreatment of animals, because it's the strong persecuting the weak.
That makes me feel angry and it's from this anger that I get the energy to fight. I do think though, that such anger has to be controlled and used as a fuel, rather than it being allowed to dominate, because people don't do things in the most sensible way if they are driven by uncontrolled anger. You have to try to use the anger as a fuel that drives you in a direction that is determined by calm thought and analysis, which is what I try to do.
The “Cahiers antispécistes” in France compares the way we treat animals – in terms of logistics, techniques – to apartheid in South Africa or to the Nazi's extermination camps. Does it seem to you a relevant argument, that can make people understand?
I think it is absolutely relevant because what we are talking about is supremacism and imperialism. The Nazis, for instance, regarded themselves as superior to other races. Their ideology was that the aryan race was superior to all others. Because of this ideology they believed it was right and proper to persecute people of other races and put them into concentration camps and to even do experiments on them, and to drive them off their land and occupy it.
The Nazis had a policy called Lebensraum, which means "living space", and that policy was to drive people of other races off their land, use them as slaves or send them to concentration camps, and then to occupy that land with the aryan race. That's very similar to what humans have done to other animals. We have our own policy of Lebensraum where we take the territories of other animals and use those for our own purposes. Then the animals are persecuted in various ways whether it's for food, experimentation etc., etc.
There is a very close parallel between how the Nazis treated other races and how the human species treats other animal species. The human species behaves like a bunch of fascists and imperialists in terms of the way it treats other animals.
When we interviewed other animal rights campaigners for the magazine, they all promoted legal and non violent actions. Some of them think it would be enough to show people slaughterhouse videos to make a change, in a peaceful way. They say use of violence is counter-productive and that it turns away public opinion from this cause. We know you've been asked a lot about it, but if you don't mind again, for our readers who don't know the subject...
Well I can understand what they are saying and I think overwhelmingly the most important thing is education because it's about changing the way that ordinary people behave.
For two reasons: firstly because their current behaviour in itself supports the persecution of other animals. If people buy animal products, go to the zoo, to the circus, etc. then obviously that supports, encourages and finances the abuse of other animals; that's the first reason.
And secondly, when it comes to trying to create a political system where animals are properly treated - in other words to have a government that will pass the legislation you need to protect animals - so those people will vote in the right way. The nature of a government depends on how people vote, so it's very important that people are educated to vote for the best party for animal protection.
It's really important to educate people to change their behaviour as consumers, but secondly also to change the way they behave politically. That's something of vital importance. And political campaigning is connected to that.
What I'd say about the question of violence is that first of all it depends how violence is defined, because damage to property is often called "violence" where nobody is physically injured. Personally I wouldn't call that violence. For me, violence is when a person is physically attacked.
I think whether or not violence is a good thing is a question of tactics, with regard to what is the best way to move forward in terms of really changing things big time. And I believe that has to be largely through education.
When direct action takes place, there is sometimes outrage in the media, but does that represent the general opinion of ordinary people? I tend to feel most of the fuss is caused by people who want to abuse animals just shouting more loudly because they're upset about animal liberation activities. I don't believe it's a reflection of how the average person feels.
If you or I were to see somebody in the street beating a dog, and we said “please don't beat your dog”, but he carried on beating the dog, we would have to use some force - which could be defined as violence - to stop that from happening. Now would that be wrong? I'd say of course it wouldn't. And I don't see the difference, in moral terms, between someone beating their dog in the street and somebody torturing an animal in a laboratory.
So if someone did go into a laboratory and used violence, or used force I'd prefer to say, to stop that from happening, I wouldn't criticize that person anymore than I'd criticize a person who used force to stop someone from beating a dog in the street. To me, there's no difference between those two things. People have to be very careful before they condemn others for carrying out that sort of direct action.
So, I think it's not so much a question of what is ethically right or wrong, but more a question of tactics, because we have to think tactically about what's the best thing we can do to bring about animal liberation. I could go right now to a laboratory and physically attack somebody carrying out an animal experiment to stop them from doing so, and I don't think my action would be morally wrong, even if it resulted in serious injury or death to the vivisector.
But if I think about it tactically, and ask myself what is the best way for me to go about trying to stop animal experiments, attacking the vivisector appears not to be the best option. Is it better to physically attack a vivisector and end up in prison, thereby greatly reducing my ability to campaign for animal liberation? Or is it preferable to do education and political action and remain able to campaign for many years to stop vivisection as a whole?
I think it's a question of thinking more long term. If you think short term, such as "that animal is being tortured now, I need to save the animal, I'll go in there and I'll use force and I'll stop it", I don't think that's morally wrong and it's far better than turning a blind eye and not doing anything at all. But if you think more tactically, in a more strategic way, about how we actually stop this whole system of persecution, then the route of education and political action is the way to go.
If someone went and used "violence" to try to stop animal abuse, I wouldn't condemn them for doing that, because the people truly deserving of condemnation are the animal abusers and all those people who are doing nothing to stop animal persecution, but I'd see such "violence" as perhaps not being the best thing to do tactically. We are fighting a long war against human imperialism and to win a war, you have to think long-term and have a long-term strategy that will bring eventual victory.
I believe in being ruthless in pursuit of animal liberation, certainly in terms of carefully analysing the situation, formulating the strategy most likely to succeed, and steadfastly sticking to it. When faced with the nightmare of human imperialism, ruthless is the only way to be. I do not want people to think for a second that my favouring of education and political campaigning, rather than direct-action, as the main way forward for animal liberation, is a sign that I have become less ruthless. It is because I have become more so.
Did you think about this long-term strategy while in prison? This is where you created the magazine « Arkangel ». What role do you give to writing and promoting your ideas?
I think my change of emphasis in terms of political campaigning - and also to a large extent with education as well - came later. Arkangel was still, in a sense, very much promoting direct action in the best way it could, while trying to minimise the risk of prosecution.
One of the main reasons l was put in prison was because I was judged to be the publisher of the ALF Supporters Group newsletter, which went out every couple of months to people who signed up as supporters of the ALF. Inside the newsletter there was a lot of stuff encouraging people to do direct action and to get involved in the ALF and it was very blatant - we even had a kind of cartoon strip in one of the issues that actually showed people how to break into somewhere, how to disable alarms and all that kind of thing. It was very much up front in its encouragement of illegal action and we just got away with it for quite a long time.
And they said I was the publisher of that. I wasn't actually the publisher, but that was believed in court and was one of the reasons I ended up being put in prison, for encouraging people to carry out ALF actions and cause criminal damage. With ArkangeI, I felt we had to be very careful to do things in a way where we could avoid being prosecuted.
My idea for the magazine was for it to be like a substitute for the ALFSG newsletter, but more cleverly written. So it wasn't totally along the lines of how I think now, but nevertheless, I think there was a lot of useful stuff in Arkangel.
Do you consider ALF prisoners – or prisoners from any other similar movement - as political prisoners?
Absolutely yes, they are political prisoners. Whether that means those prisoners should be treated any differently to other prisoners is another question. But yes, I think they are political prisoners.
You were imprisoned in 1986 and released six years later. In what way did your time in prison influence your beliefs and your route for the future?
Because I knew I would be so closely watched in everything I did, I came out of jail thinking that it was going to be very very difficult for me to be involved in direct action and I wondered what else I could do to promote the cause of animal liberation.
It was at that stage I started thinking about going out on the streets and doing stalls to educate people. This was difficult for me at first, because I had never previously had very much involvement with the ordinary public, but I gained confidence by helping people who were already doing street stalls, so that eventually I was able to organise and do them myself.
Joining the green party in the UK was one of these routes?
Yes, but that came a lot later because I was just involved in education for several years after I came out of prison.
Then for about 13 years, my wife and I ran a campaign, called Greyhound Action, to protect greyhounds. This all started after we adopted a greyhound and became involved with a greyhound rescue organization, which we mainly helped by transporting the dogs to their new homes. This made us look into the situation of greyhounds and how many were killed and abused because of the greyhound racing industry.
I don't think you have greyhound racing in France but in certain countries - USA, Australia, the UK and Ireland - it takes place on a commercial level. About 10,000 greyhounds a year are killed because of the UK dog racing industry industry, with the situation in Australia probably the worst of all.
So we started campaigning against the greyhound racing industry, trying to put a stop to it by working to close down greyhounds tracks. It started in a small way. Initially we thought of it as a small part of everything we did, but it grew to be so big that it took over and I was spending about 80 hours a week on the campaign, which gave me very little time to do other things.
While I was involved in the Greyhound Action campaign, the business I've mentioned already, about the government bringing in new laws against anti-vivisection campaigners, was going on. So, I thought to myself, that as a movement, we do have to get involved in politics to try to stop that sort of thing from happening.
It had become very much a trend in the animal rights movement to not be involved in politics. There had previously been attempts to make a political connection, like when the Labour Government was elected in 1997. Before the election the Labour Party made lots of promises with regard to animal protection, which enticed a lot of animal rights campaigners to support Labour and to work to get them elected. Before that, animal rights campaigners weren't really involved in politics.
Labour did get elected and they did eventually pass some legislation to protect animals, but they also went back on a lot of promises. One of the big promises they made was to begin an investigation of animal experimentation - to really look into it. So there was a big hope that they would at least reduce the number of animal experiments. But they didn't do that.
And there was a guy called Barry Horne, an animal liberation activist, who was serving a long prison sentence for ALF activities. Barry went on hunger strike to try to force the government to live up to their promise to set up a Royal Commission to look into animal experimentation. They refused to do so and Barry ended up dying from the effects of his hunger strikes.
This caused a lot of animal rights campaigners to believe that involvement in politics was a big mistake, because politicians were not to be trusted to keep their promises. Then there was the government repression against SHAC (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Huntingdon_Animal_Cruelty), where a lot of people got put in prison for long periods of time.
These things caused me to think in the opposite way to many other animal rights campaigners, because I formed the opinion that, realistically, whether we like it or not, we are always going to have a form of government, at least for the foreseeable future, so if we don't do anything to influence what that government is like, we can hardly be surprised when the government we get is one that supports animal abuse.
The biggest area of animal suffering and slaughter is the food industry, especially factory farming and industrialised fishing. More than eight billion animals a year are consumed in the UK, which far exceeds the number killed by any other industry of animal abuse.
Under successive governments, including Labour ones, this has got worse, with big subsidies being given to these animal slaughter industries, so we have to work to eventually get a government elected that will turn that situation around. I came to the conclusion that if we didn't try to get the best possible government, we could hardly complain when we got the worst possible one.
So when I had more time, after I was no longer running the greyhound campaign, one of the things I wanted to do was to get involved in politics, at least to some extent. And I thought to myself: what's the best way to do this? Because governments are formed by political parties, I asked myself what was the best political party to try to get into government?
I thought it has to be the Green Party, because they have by far the best policies on animal protection. Those policies aren't perfect, by any means, but Green Party policy is to abolish factory farming and hugely reduce industrialised fishing, which are by far the two biggest areas of animal abuse.
To me there were really two possibilities: one was getting involved in the Labour Party and trying to radically change them; the other one was to join the Greens and try to get them into power. I couldn't see how Labour could really be changed. Of course things are perhaps a little bit different now. The current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a big supporter of animal protection and has appointed a vegan, Kerry McCarthy, as shadow environment minister. The problem is, though, that most Labour MPs don't support Jeremy Corbyn. He's good, but most of the others aren't. I think that's a huge problem and what will eventually happen, I don't know.
Anyway, I decided to get involved with the Green Party, and together with some other people, formed a group called Greens for Animal Protection (GAP) which campaigns within the party to further improve its policies on animals and to persuade it to give a higher priority to animal protection. Although the Greens have got good policies on animal protection, they don't advertise or promote those policies sufficiently and that needs to be changed. GAP is involved in the policy-making process within the party and holds stalls at green party conferences, vegan fairs etc.
I outlined my current thinking re vegan education and political campaigning in January 2014 in a blog article entitled "A Greenprint for Animal Liberation" (http://animalliberation-socialjustice.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/a-greenprint-for-animal-liberation.html) which has been translated into French at http://www.international-campaigns.org/un-modele-ecologique-pour-la-liberation-animale
A French anti-capitalist and ecologist thinker, Paul Ariès, has written a book that is violently opposed to anti-speciesism and the ALF, whom he has accused of being anti-human. What is your opinion about that?
To say that animal liberationists are anti-human is like saying if you are against the Nazis, you are anti-German, isn't it?
For me the term animal liberationist applies to anyone who wants other animals liberated from oppression at the hands of the human species. The term doesn't just apply to the ALF, nor to followers of Peter Singer who wrote the book called “Animal Liberation”.
And animal liberation is on the same continuum as black liberation, women's liberation and gay liberation, where people are struggling to gain the freedom of oppressed groups from prejudice and persecution. Animal liberation isn't in opposition to human beings as such, it is in opposition to the behaviour of human beings when they oppress and persecute other animals.
I would describe the behaviour of humans towards other animals on this Earth as human imperialism. The human species, in general, behaves in an imperialistic, supremacist, and speciesist way towards non-human animals, which can be equated to racism, sexism etc. To compare the behaviour of the human species to the behaviour of the Nazis isn't saying that all humans are Nazis; it's actually saying that the regime set up by the human species on Earth, in relation to other animals, is similar to the regime the Nazis wanted to set up in relation to other races.
To say we're opposed to Nazism isn't saying we're opposed to all Germans. The two aren't the same. So what Ariès says doesn't make sense to me. To be opposed to human imperialism isn't to be opposed towards all humans, it's to be opposed to the regime that has been set up. And really it's not mainly about ordinary people, it is about the type of leadership we have, because most people follow leaders.
Ordinary people have been brainwashed: born into a system and a society where they are constantly told that humans are superior to other animals. Similar to the situation of somebody born a few hundred years ago, when it was generally believed that black people were inferior to whites. Most people just accepted that and didn't challenge it, because it was the norm to believe that.
If the Nazis had triumphed and been able to spread and enforce their policies, a German child of the aryan race growing up today would be brought up to believe they were superior to people of other races and that it was right and just to exploit those people. There would be very little challenge to that, because people would be brought up in that system.
The people who promote and push the current human supremacist system are people who have a personal or commercial interest in animal abuse and the political leaders who support them. Those are the people driving human imperialism, it's not ordinary members of the public. So, it's not so much ordinary people that animal liberationists should be opposed to, but rather those people in positions of power and influence who promote human supremacism.
What role has religion, and more particularly Christianity, played in our perception of other animals?
I think it's a problem, because a lot of religions, and particularly Christianity, have the attitude that humans are made in the image of God and we're the most important species and the ones that should dominate the earth. That's very much embedded in Christianity and most other religions and it obviously encourages speciesism.
As an atheist, I dislike religion. I believe religions to be irrational and harmful. That's not to say that all religious people are bad. I've known a lot of good religious people, but I don't think they're good because they're religious. I think they're good people who just happened to be religious and that religion doesn't actually do anyone any good.
I think veganism and animal liberation are rational concepts, and I dislike anything I perceive to be irrational, probably for that reason. Although I've known some Christians who have been excellent campaigners for animal protection, I would say that's despite their Christianity, rather than because of it, because I think Christianity as a whole has encouraged the persecution of other animals.