Looking at some of the mainstream vegan publications and some of the more high profile social media superstars, you would be forgiven for thinking that veganism was a trend invented by wealthy white hipsters in the noughties which is all about weight loss, quinoa and Faux Foie Gras.
The more popular the V word becomes, the more people and companies cash-in and the slicker and thicker the sales pitches get. As with all trends, the prices inflate as the bullshit dilates. And, as with all trends, the wealthy (and the wannabe wealthy) are happy to pay more just to make themselves feel special. Inflated prices lead to economic segregation and add to the notion that veganism somehow requires privilege.
The left’s own tendency towards trends has helped to reinforce this attitude in some political circles. The postscript to the 1999 pamphlet Beasts of Burden: Capital, Animals & Communism, describes how the anarcho-punk scene of the early 80s moved from a strong vegan/animal liberation stance, through a healthy period of class conscious veganism, to an anti-vegan position which had more to do with Andy Capp inspired middle-class prejudices than any actual experience of life in working-class communities (you can get a beautiful A6 copy of Beasts of Burden from Active Distribution).
Ironically, Donald Watson, co-founder of The Vegan Society and the person who first coined the term ‘vegan’, wasn’t some aloof affluent hipster trying to increase sales of tofu. He was a joinery teacher from Mexborough, North Doncaster. An area which is about as working-class as you can get. It was a coal-mining community when he lived there, serving Cadeby Main, Manvers and Denaby Main pits (all gone now of course). Sadly modern day Mexborough now has major problems with poverty and county lines drug gangs operating out of Sheffield. It is the sort of place where it isn’t hard to learn about the nature of exploitation. And the exploitation of nature for that matter. I’m not trying to paint a picture of who Donald was, I never knew him. I just want to show that he was not so removed from human suffering that he focused solely on the suffering of animals. Indeed, as Donald knew well, the two are not exclusive.
I mention exploitation because veganism is first and foremost about ending the exploitation of animals. As Donald Watson himself said back in 1944:
“We can see quite plainly that our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies.”
Veganism is anti-exploitation, just like anarchism is anti-exploitation. It is a simple message confused by decades of romanticising, philosophising, moralising and marketing (again, just like anarchism). We should not confuse vegan consumerism with the fundamentals of veganism. In his essay Veganism and the Class War, Konju Briggs Jnr defines a ‘universal vegan’ as somebody who is not “dependent on special products, mock meats, packaged goods, and so on, who could be just at home eating the fruits and veggies available in Kinshasa or Kisangani as are available in Karachi or Kansas City”. A veganism available “anywhere in the world where fruits and vegetables are affordable and accessible.”
It is this universal veganism which holds the key to grassroots emancipation. It provides a practical means to taking back some control of some of the fundamental needs of human life, as Konju says:
“It is the imperative of workers, of women, of ethnic or sexual minorities, of those rendered landless, to maintain unity in struggle, to vie for and claim power, land and freedom, to achieve self-determination and societies of fairness and justice, to collectivize resources, to build and practice pro-human cultures, and to, at a spiritual maximum as it were, prefer death to slavery.
In the US, poor communities of color are often bereft of access to fresh healthy foods, and disproportionately find themselves afflicted with the diseases of Western diets and lifestyles … Thus it is up to grassroots universal vegan workers of color, aware that existence in a human society configured such as ours means lifelong class war, to promote healthy lifestyles, to strive and struggle to increase access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables in our communities”
As Julia Feliz Brueck’s Veganism of Color points out, voices like Konju’s are all too often “drowned out by the same white noise that systematically oppresses us all– vegan or not.” But it is non-white voices which speak the most clearly about the potential of veganism in helping to counter exploitation, oppression, hierarchy and colonialism. Many vegans are non-white (there are a higher number of vegans per percentage of population in BAME communities) and despite the rise in the fake flesh trade, most vegan recipes are based on traditional foods which were grown and prepared by the people who consumed it. Most published vegan recipes are based on traditional meals, although, for reasons of copyright and marketing, they are invariably made much more complicated (overly complicated recipes are a pet hate of mine, BOSH’s ‘Easy Peasy Pasta’ has 15 ingredients, some of which are far from ‘easy’ to find in the ex-pit villages of Doncaster).
Colonialism and capitalism rely heavily on removing a people’s ability to satisfy their own essential needs. Autonomy is the antithesis to elitist hierarchy. In neoliberal societies we rent almost every aspect of our lives from companies, corporations and the state. But in a rentier economy every act of DIY, grassroots solidarity becomes an act of rebellion. As Beasts of Burden also noted, anarchism went through a baby and bathwater moment when it abandoned the DIY practicality of the anarcho-punk era:
“[D]espite having a more coherent world view [in terms of class consciousness], many born-again class struggle anarchists actually had a less subversive relation to the world than before. Anarcho-punk did involve a practical critique of the way things are, not just at the level of direct action but in the development of different ways of doing things[.]”
Luckily for us, not all anarcho-punks hung up their Crass t-shirts and combat boots in the 1980s. Southend’s Graham Burnett not only stuck to his guns, but went on to become the UK’s foremost vegan permaculturalist. His Spiralseed website is a wealth of knowledge. More importantly his beautiful illustrations offer a vision of how our communities could be if we took food growing into our own hands. Permaculture itself is heavily influenced by the same autonomous peasant cultures which inspire so many vegan recipes and can, at times, be infected with the same ‘white noise’ as veganism. Which is why Graham and Nicole Vosper have worked together to help define a ‘liberation permaculture’, which sits well with Konju’s concept of universal veganism.
Liberation permaculture seeks to “challenge the roots of oppressive systems, the relationships or power at play.” As Graham and Nicole point out:
“If we are truly to re-design our lives for freedom and autonomy and respect for the land then we need to break the denial and get to the roots of understanding our current state of affairs. If permaculture is all about relationships, then we need to consciously design for relationships without domination. This is the premise of liberation permaculture.”
I believe that liberation permaculture and universal veganism have the potential to empower marginalised communities. The growing, preparing and sharing of locally grown, healthy, tasty, satisfying vegan food can offer a route out of everyday exploitation and help undermine the neoliberal norms and values which so subtly (and not so subtly) enslave us. It is a gateway to autonomy which is open to all. The more deprived a community, the more marginalised and neglected plots available for grassroots regeneration. As Gangsta Gardener Ron Finley proved in South Central LA. It doesn’t take armies of people or decades of ‘party building’ to make a real difference. And, as Ron Finley is keen to point out, you get strawberries!
And with those strawberries come friendships and the social glue needed for true mutual aid. From Make Rojava Green Again in North and East Syria, to Aranya Agricultural Alternatives in Telangana, India, to Bolton Urban Growers in, er, Bolton, Lancs, there is no shortage of inspirational projects to get you growing. And from Richa Hingle to Afya Ibomu, there are plenty of vegans offering simple recipes for you to make the most of the food you grow. I mention Richa and Afya because both offer recipes which can be easily scaled to cater for larger numbers of people. If you want to spread the message of mutual aid, grow in your community and (once we’re out of lockdown…) eat communally. If we can’t dine it’s not our grassroots revolution.
Illustrations by Graham Burnett