March of a Nation

The starting place for this year’s Official Animal Rights March in London was the huge Achilles statue in Hyde Park – that triumphalist image of man the combatant, protecting his own interests with his left arm, while savaging the interests of others Achilles 2.JPGwith the his right. Against this obsolete rhetoric of Richard Westmacott’s 33 metric tons of cannon-bronze (the type of rhetoric which may yet inspire humanity to bring the whole house of life down into ruin), came together on 17 August a counter-eloquence of non-violence, asserting the right of other species not to be minced by the human sword.

And certainly the rally and the march were powerfully and variously eloquent: banners and placards (“The only thing we need from the animals is forgiveness”, go vegan sign.JPG“I’ve come from Lisbon looking for protein”, “You kill them and their flesh kills you”, “Suck your own tits!”); chants and other noise; and that symbolic mass movement through the streets towards Parliament Square – the organizers said 12,000 people, an over-estimate possibly, but certainly many thousands. Speeches too, of course, and these were sign-languaged: translated into a repertoire of gestures and looks not only beautifully expressive in themselves, but demonstrating that words, so often preened upon as our special human property, are not the sum of language but one variety of language only. In fact signing is a reminder of our heritage of animal communication, more generally of what ought to be our animal solidarity. And some of the signs are especially moving and beautiful: most notably on that Saturday the sign for ‘freedom’, the fists opening out forwards into spreading hands, as one might liberate a bird or preferably all birds.

Well, eloquence then. But as Prime Minister Lloyd George said exactly one hundred years ago at the time when he and others were trying to make an end of war at the Paris Peace Conference (Lloyd George was one of the pedestaled figures that overlooked the march when it reached its destination in Parliament Square), “the finest eloquence is that which gets things done.” So what does an event like this get done?

Of course it’s a massive mobile advertisement for veganism, touring the centre of a crowded metropolis: veganism the diet, but more importantly, as both the placards vegan options.JPGand the antiphonal chant (“Go vegan: for the animals”) insisted, veganism as a political movement. So, some persuasion gets done at least.

Also this time round there was a more definite project: a rehearsal for the ‘Animal Rebellion’ event in October, when animal rights will join the Extinction Rebellion movement (in which, of course, it’s a crucial element, whether acknowledged or not) in a large-scale disruptive demonstration. The assembly at the Achilles statue was therefore given advice on the philosophy, practice, and efficacy of peaceful direct action. (Gandhi, its great exponent and therefore the precise opposite of Westmacott’s Achilles, was another of the figures overlooking the crowd in Parliament Square.) The rehearsal itself was to consist in a blockade of traffic in and out of Trafalgar Square.

However, when the march arrived at the Square, all the traffic had already been closed off for the march, and there was nothing to blockade. In such ways a liberal society absorbs the blows of criticism and simply springs back into shape. And a march like this one does demonstrate, rather disconcertingly, how liberal British society is, so far as it goes. All those main roads through London closed off to let its critics pass clamorously through at their own pace! But then, as a glance round the world makes painfully obvious, this liberalism is not natural to human government; it has had to be laboured for and won here, in past centuries, by just such shows of dissent and demand as this one. In fact it illustrates their necessity and efficacy: they do get things done.

One of those political forerunners is just now enjoying bicentenary attention: the great gathering in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1819 to demand political reform, a gathering which was violently dispersed in the ‘Peterloo massacre’. (The name ‘Peterloo’ was an ironic allusion to Wellington’s victory at Waterloo four years earlier, an achievement which the Achilles statue commemorates.) Though a disaster at the time, this event was part of the run-up to the Great Reform Act of 1832. And that legislation began a sequence of electoral reform which reached its natural conclusion nearly 100 years later with the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, giving the vote to all women and men over the age of twenty one (over eighteens were enfranchised in 1969).

And there we came to a stop, leaving the great uncountable majority of UK residents completely unrepresented. In fact it seemed miserably apt, when the march was cenotaph.JPGclamouring its way past all the government offices in Whitehall, that those great rooms were empty and the windows blank, and, in Parliament Square itself, that large parts of the buildings were sightless behind scaffolding shrouds. At present, politics needn’t take notice of animal interests, and usually don’t.

Even so, it must be there, in Parliament Square, that a start is made, and animals begin their own far harder journey towards liberty through political representation: not, as at present, indirect representation by means of the good will of the humans who do have their own delegates there, but direct representation of some kind. As Robert Garner has argued recently in the journal Contemporary Political Theory, “a democratic polity should take account of animal interests, not because a substantial number of humans wish to see greater protection afforded to animals, but rather because animals themselves have a democratic right to have their interests represented in the political process.”

By way of illustrating that distinction, here is the government’s response last month to a parliamentary petition asking for theft of pet animals to be made a specific criminal offence. “We acknowledge the emotional trauma which the theft of a much-loved pet can cause”, it caringly states, but no reform is needed because existing guidance on sentencing already takes into account this “emotional distress that the theft of personal items such as a much-loved pet can have on victims.” There is no mention of the interests of the animal; it is simply assumed that the humans are speaking for themselves, animals happening to be the focus of their interests in this case.

In short, it’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. But Abraham Lincoln’s fine and famous phrase is no longer adequate, if it ever was. That chant “for the animals needs bringing into it. Lincoln spoke of a “new birth of freedom” in “this nation”. But the animals are as much a part of whatever nation they live in as the humans are, more so by seniority; they are at least as much affected by its government; and therefore they are equally entitled to their own voice – that is, a voice dedicated to their interests alone – in that government’s decisions.

How to manage that is, of course, a difficult question, but let’s at least insist on the principle now. As the quoted article by Robert Garner shows, it’s making some headway in academic political thinking: indeed there is a peer-reviewed online journal titled Politics and Animals. But by a more popular audience the idea is likely to be thought absurd or threatening. Going back to the Peterloo anniversary, one of the aims of the Memorial Campaign set up to mark this anniversary year is “to crowd-source ideas for radical improvements to how democracy is conducted”. For this purpose it has set up a web-site called ‘Six Acts to reboot democracy’. People are invited to sign up and vote for or against the proposals shown there, or to make their own proposals for democratic reform. When I first looked, there were 33 such proposals; none of them mentioned animals. I have therefore posted a proposal titled ‘Representation of Animals Act’. Please go there and vote for it, if you have time: when I last looked (it’s near the bottom of the page), it had received a total of one negative vote.

 

Notes and references:

The title-phrase comes from a speech of the Irish nationalist politician Charles Parnell, given in 1885: “No man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country – thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

The Official Animal Rights March (TOARM) facebook page is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/achilles-way-london-w1k-1ab-united-kingdom/the-official-animal-rights-march-2019-london/615721232212726/  There have been/will be related marches at about this time in many other cities round the world. TOARM was founded by the organisation called Surge in 2016. Last year’s London march was described in this blog on 3 September 2018.

Prime Minister Lloyd George’s speech at the Paris Peace Conference was reported in the Times of 20 January 2019.

The publicized intention of Animal Rebellion in October is to blockade the meat market at Smithfield in London. Please visit its web-site at http://www.animalrebellion.org/

Robert Garner’s essay ‘Animals and Democratic Theory: beyond an Anthropocentric Account’ was published in Contemporary Political Theory, vol.16.4, 2016, pp.459-77. It can be read online here: https://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1057%2Fs41296-016-0072-0?author_access_token=xNdtWwORBPuYWYx0bHmbalxOt48VBPO10Uv7D6sAgHtNg344y2R29w6T1gh33kZDmAvHpritVE1zaVYYkHK2S22mn9e-UqOTAw2XrOTRE95RWBW9DCw6tbESCaRw05SaTD67RwZg3G8UgFwzYJmjrg==

The animal-theft petition and answer can be found here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/244530?reveal_response=yes

Abraham Lincoln is quoted from his speech given at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg, on 19 November 1863.

The Peterloo Memorial Campaign’s ‘Six Acts Project’ is online at https://www.sixacts.org/

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The Noise of a Great Host

On Saturday 25 August, the Official Animal Rights March, organized by the group called Surge, made its way through central London. There were related marches in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, but this particular one started at Millbank, by the Houses of Parliament, and finished in Hyde Park. It was a huge clamorous assemblage – the organizers say ten thousand people. That may be an overstatement, but at any rate the march took about twenty minutes to pass any particular point.

From such a procession, which frees attention from the usual demands of road and pavement traffic, the buildings and other places on the route can be properly observed for once and seen for what they really are. To take just the beginning and end: at first, the huge and over-detailed Houses of Parliament, seat of the earliest of all representative governments and still laboriously governing the nation without any representation at all for the vast majority of its residents, and lastly Hyde Park, notionally an irruption of nature in the middle of a great city, but in reality an exhausted tract of human playground.

And one characterizing thing about the human species as imaged in the scenes passed by the march is its addiction to war. The rallying point was the famous burghers.JPGRodin sculpture in Victoria Gardens, Millbank, titled The Burghers of Calais. These are the six dignitaries who, in legend and perhaps in fact, gave themselves up as a ransom for their city when it surrendered to the English army of Edward III in 1346. A fine image of heroic suffering, then: more generally, an incident in war – the Hundred Years’ War, in fact, which my dictionary of history describes as a “series of wars, punctuated by periods of peace or truce”.

And just such a description of human history as a whole was evidenced along the route which the march took through London. Leaving the burghers of Calais, it next went past the statue of Winston Churchill as war leader in Parliament Square; then on into Whitehall, with its fine Cenotaph built to honour the dead of the Great War; then past the new memorial to the women women's memorial.JPGwho served in World War Two, and the statue of Earl Haig, Commander of the British Army in France in 1915-18; then, the Crimean War Memorial in St James’s; then, just before Marble Arch, the memorial to Bomber Command; and finally, at the southern entrance to Hyde Park, the memorial to the Duke of Wellington’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars, with its colossal statue of Achilles, naked except for a sword and shield, a summary of man as mere belligerent. And as if to affirm this story of the perpetual merry-go-round of war, the statue was made from the enemy’s cannon.

Most of these memorials are impressive and even moving records of courage and self-sacrifice: seen, that is, from within the species and taking it as given. Seen from without, however, they’re simply a shameful record of delinquency, the evidences of a uniquely disorderly species.

Is there some connection between this war-making and the affluence which is the other most patent characteristic of these streets of central London, with their clubs, restaurants, pompous hotels, and luxury goods displayed in windows? It was a proposition put by the Quaker and zoophilist Thomas Woolman in his Plea for the Poor (1774): “May we look upon our treasures and the furniture of our houses and the garments in which we array ourselves and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions or not.”

Doubtless there is such a connection, but much more directly and essentially this affluence is the plunder from a war which is only not recognised as such because it’s simply a way of life. This is the war which Rachel Carson spoke about in her book Silent Spring (1962): “man’s war against nature”. In her book she habitually uses that phraseology: “our war against the insects”, “war on blackbirds”, “all-out chemical war on the gypsy moth”. She writes that “the chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its crossfire,” and she summarises it all as humanity’s “relentless war on life”. Rachel Carson did not mean these expressions for images, but for fact. She showed, indeed, that much of the post-war insecticide novelties of the 1940s and 50s were taking forward research pursued during “man’s war against his own kind” – as memorialized in Whitehall: “post-war” because, thank God, there are indeed “periods of peace or truce” between human wars. There is no truce, however, in the war against nature: a few sanctuaries, perhaps, but peace never.

Rachel Carson was writing about only one branch of that war, the destruction of the lives that compete for food with or otherwise annoy human beings. But all our exploitation of animals fits into that same war and the war mentality. Edward III may have spared the lives of the six burghers, but he appropriated their city and staffed it with Englishmen. Likewise, but more ruthlessly and ambitiously, we have appropriated the lands and lives of all the other species. Humanity is everywhere an army of occupation, and its exactions are there on show along St James’s and down Piccadilly: the leather goods, the cashmere shop, the charcuterie, the cheap burgers and, by way of contrast, the pricey Ritz Hotel menu: Veal Sweetbread (£28), Native Lobster (£52), Roast Bresse Duck (£38), etc. You’ll observe in that menu how a habitat becomes a ‘provenance’ to interest the consumer, a sort of gourmet’s trophy.

Very rightly, then, the marchers were chanting Their milk . . .  not ours! Their flesh . . .  not ours! Their skins . . .  not ours! Their lives . . . not ours!”  Simple and absolute: the wrong is so elementary that it can properly be changing the world.JPGsummarized in sayings and chants. “We are trying to change the world”: yes, and not in favour of some impossible utopia. On the contrary, the change would be to turn it, as the novelist T.H.White said, “right back into the real world, in which man is only one among innumerable other animals” – no longer their conqueror and scourge, an anomaly in life’s history, but their co-tenant. “With us, not for us”, one placard said. After all, it’s certain that we shall have to unlearn the habit of war or else finally destroy ourselves, and here’s the place to start: “Peace begins on the plate”, said another.

Of course if we do destroy ourselves, it might liberate the other animals in a more lastingly satisfactory way.

 

Notes and references:

The title is a quotation from the Bible, 2 Kings 7: 6.

The Hundred Years’ War is described as quoted in A New Dictionary of British History, ed. S.H.Steinberg, Edward Arnold, 1964.

John Woolman’s A Plea for the Poor, or a Remembrance and Caution to the Rich can be read here: http://www.richardporowski.com/documents/books-papers/john%20woolman%20-%20a%20plea%20for%20the%20poor.pdf  The quotation is from Chapter 10.

T.H.Whyte wrote about “the real world” in a letter of December 1940, quoted by Sylvia Townsend Warner in her introduction to The Book of Merlyn, Fontana, 1983, p.18 (slightly altered here to correct a mistaken preposition). The theme of Whyte’s story of Merlyn and King Arthur is how to cure humanity of the habit of war. The book is discussed in this blog on January 1st 2018: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/two-merlins-and-their-tasks/