Ruthless Pragmatism, the ALF, and Strategic Nonviolence

Update: The first version of this entry was all mixed up with the next entry. That’s now fixed.

This past weekend’s TLOV 2009 conference is over, and I have a lot to think about. In particular, I both agreed and disagreed with much of pattrice jones' keynote on Sunday afternoon.

Her keynote outlined an approach to animal rights based on the axiom that “animals exist”. This means that animals are creatures with desires that need to respected right now, as opposed to in some future theoretical sense. As a consequence, this requires animal activists to act with “ruthless pragmatism”, which may mean doing things that make us ethically uncomfortable.

I (mostly) agree.

She said that simply getting people to go vegan is not enough. She stated that in order to win we have to both reduce demand and raise the costs of doing (animal abuse) business.

I agree with this as well, but with some caveats.

Pattrice praised both the ALF as well as welfare legistation like Prop 2. It’s true, both do raise the costs of doing business. The welfare legislation also has a real impact on actual animals, and so is worthy in and of itself (as long as there’s not something even more useful we could be doing).

But let’s tackle the ALF. Is the ALF ruthlessly pragmatic? I don’t think so. In fact, the ALF is one of the most idealistic “organizations” I know of. Certainly, they’re not metrics-based, methodical, or any of the other things I associate with pragmatism.

Pattrice says that the ALF has cost animal abuse industries millions of dollars through their vandalism and animal releases over the years of their existence. So how much is “millions”? In 2002, The FBI testified before Congress that the ALF and ELF combined had caused $43 million in damage since 1996. From my reading online, it seems like ELF is more damaging in their activities, but let’s be generous and split it. That means that the ALF is doing approximately $20 million in damage (in the US) every five years.

The first question, then, is does this damage raise the cost of doing business? Second, is this the most effective thing that these activists could be doing?

I think the first question is relatively easy to answer. In the US alone in 2006, the mink “crop” sold for approximately $136 million at auction. Looking back at previous years, wholesale mink pelt values at auction were more than $1 billion from 1998-2007.

So we have an industry making $1 billion in 10 years (in the US alone) at wholesale! The retail amounts are even more staggering. Retail fur sales were $1.34 billion in 2007 alone.

So given those numbers, is it reasonable to think that the ALF’s generously estimated $40 million in the same time period had an impact on the fur industry? I don’t think so. Even if all $40 million in damage had been taken just by mink “farmers” (which it wasn’t), that’s less than 5% of their income. Unless their margins are ridiculously low, it’s hard to imagine this being a major problem.

Even if this caused a 5% increase in retail costs, fur coats are a luxury good. Luxury goods have a lot of price elasticity, and a 5% increase in price may have a 0% impact on sales! And given the 10x markup from wholesale to retail, there’s clearly room for retailers to absorb a 5% increase in the costs paid to wholesalers.

This might all sounds like I’m saying that the ALF just needs to get out there and do a lot more damage. At some amount of damage, they would be able to have a serious impact on prices, and this would eventually decrease sales, which in turn would decrease production.

The problem with this approach is that we haven’t yet looked at the costs to the animal rights movement. I’d love to argue that the ALF’s actions are detrimental to the movement as a whole. They make us look bad, and make it hard to get people to listen to us. But that’s a somewhat nebulous argument.

A more solid argument is that the costs to the ALF activists themselves are very, very high. Any activist who is involved in a significantly damaging action wil become a high-priority target for law enforcement. The most likely outcome is that they will be caught, turned into witnesses against their cohorts, and/or put in jail for long periods of time. Either way, they are no longer able to be activists for a significant period of time, and they are certainly not able to repeat their ALF actions on a regular basis.

So the price of “success” for an ALFer is to stop being an activist for a non-trivial amount of time. Of course, this “success” also imposes a cost on the larger movement, as well-meaning supporters spend money and time on the ALFer’s legal defense and jail support.

The animal rights movement cannot compete with animal ag when it comes to money. In their 2007 fiscal year, HSUS had approximately $100 million in income. HSUS is by far the biggest 501c3 working on animal rights in the US, and arguably only some of their money goes to “animal rights” work (I’m not knocking HSUS for that, BTW, I think they’re great).

PETA, which is probably the next biggest organization, brought in about $30 million.

That’s pocket change compared to the combined financial resources of the animal abuse industries. Mink wholesale alone is equivalent to the income of the two top AR charities in the US. The fur industry is miniscule compared to farmed animals. In 2007, beef producers alone brought in $50 billion wholesale.

That’s a lot of big numbers, and it seems overwhelming. How can we possibly win? Well, we need to be ruthlessly pragmatic. I think that strategic nonviolence is the ruthlessly pragmatic philosophy that shows us the way to victory.

Strategic nonviolence analyzes the disparity in power between us and our opponents, and shows us that we do have one big advantage. We are on the side of justice, and our cause is morally persuasive. Animals do deserve equal consideration, and they are being horribly tortured by humans. We can use this morally persuasive argument to convince members of the public to join our cause and support us.

But we cannot fight toe-to-toe with money or violence. Our opponents can outspend and outfight us quite easily. We cannot engage them on the battlegrounds where they are strongest.

We will not win unless our movement grows quite significantly. How will we know it’s grown big enough? Instead of covert releases of animals at night, 1,000 of us will march to a factory farm and liberate animal in broad daylight, unopposed. 500 of us will stand arm-in-arm blocking a slaughterhouse entry, and we’ll do it every day for a month. When we do these things, the public at large will praise our bravery and commitment to equal consideration for all beings.

But we’re not there yet.