The Neoliberal Inevitability of Vegetarian Hegemony

It’s a tofu taco bowl. Sure it is.

The election of Donald Trump may signal a slap in the face for our neoliberal orthodoxy, but it’s certainly not a death blow. It remains to be seen how effective he will be in disrupting the stasis that has gripped western liberal democratic governance for much of the past quarter century. That it requires disruption is certainly true; reform, at least. But it remains unclear what will replace it other than a ball of resentment and anger. Just as Rick Page declared that ‘hope is not a strategy’ in 2001, the same can be said of anger. But what has that got to do with vegetarianism? Stick with me.

Neoliberalism is based in economics, numbers and science. Its logic is extremely hard to deny; that all people should be free, that governments should not interfere, and that religion and opinions are for people, not states. As William Davies put it in his Limits of Neoliberalism, ‘both the scientist and the bureaucrat run the risk of nihilism’ in such environments – presuming, of course, that science deals with facts. As Chris Hables-Gray has pointed out, of course, facts are themselves elusive. In quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle renders almost everything that we can perceive uncertain; our very basis for engaging with and understanding reality is challenged. Everything is relative, and yet the observer can only consciously observe within a single frame of reference. Therefore one cannot observe any thing or phenomenon in its complete relative state; therefore we cannot truly know anything – we can merely deduce. Even with such deductions, facts only remain facts until they are no longer facts. The world was flat, until it was round; the smallest particle was an atom, until it was a quark, or a string; all of the numbers – the facts – said Donald Trump couldn’t win, until he won. Still, we have to start somewhere – cogito ergo sum and all that – and rest, however uncomfortably, on the consensus view of the world in which we live.

The economics of life under the neoliberal yoke are such that all life is equal. Black, white, male, female, disabled, immigrant, senior and unborn. Minorities are self-declared; offense taken is offensiveness defined; the individual is finally elevated to her ultimate expression, her ultimate freedom: neoliberalism is the apotheosis of our kind, people are unshackled by what other people think, as we approach the natural end of history. However, when we return to the question of what defines life, the sages of neoliberalism must take out their science books again. Homo sapiens, they say. It’s all in the genus. What about pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee? We’ll come back to that.

When it comes to life itself, as opposed to the biological structure of things, things become even more complicated. In this context, I mean consciousness, or self-awareness. Is man a biological machine, or somehow more than that? Famed neurosurgeon Antonio Damasio has been soul-searching – quite literally – for many years now, and has located the self in the upper part of the brain stem. Take away any other part of the body, and presuming vital functional preservation, a sense of self will remain. Therefore, theoretically, all other parts of the body could be removed and replaced with machine parts, retaining that ‘person’. This is not to suggest that all memories would be retained (which could be described as ‘mere information technology’), but that sense of self, consciousness.

The curious thing about Damasio’s work is that the same physical structure is present in most animals with that kind of biological arrangement. Dogs, cats, sheep, cattle, horses – all have the same fundamental brain structure. As Damasio puts it, they just don’t have the same size of cerebral cortex that humans do, so they’re just not as clever. The scientist, therefore, has declared that these animals have consciousness. Similarly, Johnathan Balcombe has arrived at some surprising conclusions on the sentience of fish.

What entitles the human being to her exalted position? What basis in science can we establish that says ‘this person deserves such status’? A person with locked-in syndrome – with consciousness, but little else besides – has greater rights than the most intelligent, empathetic canine, and humans naturally fall into categories of smart and stupid people, strong and weak, tall and short, all with the same rights. Is the genus demarcation purely a trick of science, encouraged by religion, Victorian sensibilities, and cognitive bias? So a monkey can’t speak – the same is true of millions people around the world afflicted by muteness. Scientific racism in the past sought to distinguish among the human species a kind of order, which had more to do with class and social structure than with biology. In dispensing with discrimination within the genus, however, are we choosing to retain the pre-Victorian concept of biological order merely because it is convenient?

The Non Human Rights Project in the United States has prosecuted some fascinating case law seeking to win support for a charter of rights for non-humans in the world. They describe their mission ‘…to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.’ Facts are brittle things; moralities ‘evolve’. That negroes were sub-human was a conventional wisdom that prevailed in Europe and America for a long time. Perhaps people will look back on our generation as one of a line of monsters, carnivorous and stupid beasts without any sense of place in the earth, our shared heritage. Or perhaps Donald Trump will save us from ourselves!

7 thoughts on “The Neoliberal Inevitability of Vegetarian Hegemony”

  1. Your title pulled me in. Then you wrote, “But what has that got to do with vegetarianism? Stick with me.” At the very end, you briefly mentioned, “our generation as one of a line of monsters, carnivorous and stupid beasts without any sense of place in the earth, our shared heritage.”

    That was it. I was left uncertain about why vegetarian hegemony would be an inevitable result of neoliberalism. And I couldn’t tell if such neoliberal-enacted hegemony would be a good or bad thing, in terms of shifting moral values and perception of life and consciousness.

    The neoliberal food system of industrial agriculture, processed foods, mass transportation of goods, and corporatist public health policy has increasingly pushed humanity toward a plant-based diet. But this has been a highly destructive way of feeding the human population. I don’t see how it can be sustainable.

    If we are hoping for sustainability in avoiding catastrophe, decline or collapse, we might be better off looking to traditional food systems. The problem is we may have painted ourselves into a corner. We could have legal cases declaring animals have rights, as we simultaneously destroy the ecosystems where those same animals once lived. These would be empty victories.

    1. I’ve thought about this post a lot over the last couple of years – based on your comment, perhaps I should update / clarify / rewrite it. In essence, neoliberalism reduces humanity to the quantifiable, to numbers, metrics. In so doing, we arrive at what Leo Strauss would have called the tyranny of relativism – if I am 100% intelligent, and a stupid person is 75% intelligent, does an ape who is 10% intelligent have some relative humanity in them? Neoliberalism ranks and orders the world such that we are all relative to one another. It is no longer possible to distinguish as ‘different’ Chinese people from Brazilian people – they are all simply relative. And just as those people are relative to one another, so animals are relative to human beings. There are many things in common – oxygen breathing, CO2 exhaling, methane farting, eating, drinking, seeing, and chasing many if not all of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Arguably there are many human beings not seeking self-actualisation, just trying to ‘get along’. Therefore some animals begin to creep into a broader definition of existence. Consciousness, ultimately, is what makes us not merely human, but ‘real’.

      Neoliberalism fundamentally denies the idea of values (there is only the market – only desire). Once you strip values from the cosmos, the label ‘human’ disappears. It’s not about shifting moral values, but the neoliberal abdication of moral values. As Alistair Campbell once said of the Blair government in the UK ‘we don’t do God here’. I don’t think it matters much if it’s a good or a bad thing – and that’s at least partially the point. My argument about vegetarianism becoming inevitable is that we will be forced to acknowledge non-human rights, which will mean that it will become immoral for us to eat animals – just as we can’t eat other human beings today.

      I’m not sure if this clarifies it; I hope it might do.

      1. This is an interesting an important discussion. I was considering a thought experiment, as inspired by your consideration of where neoliberalism might lead us. What if we did all become vegetarians (or came to eat suffering-free lab-grown meat or fake foods made from a Star Trek-like food synthesizer) where the human killing of animals was made obsolete and so what followed could be a world where rights extended to animals. Sounds great.

        The problem is that, going by actual functioning neoliberalism, even now not all humans are treated as having equal rights — not only is neoliberalism dependent on exploitation and oppression (Chinese workers with slave wages and locked in factories, etc) but is inseparably tied into a neo-imperialism of neocon militarization (funding and training paramilitary/terrorist groups, overthrowing democratically elected governments, wars of aggression, occupation, etc). So, a neoliberal future might be where some animals have more rights than humans or where only certain privileged classes of animals in wealthier countries have rights. One could imagine all kinds of dystopian scenarios where present inequities simply took ever new forms.

        Yes, neoliberalism is the tyranny of relativism and also the tyranny of reductionism, the tearing apart of the world into pieces and parts. So, a mountain is worth no more than the sum of its parts, the minerals, coal, and stone that can be mined from it — the way that one of those mining machines devours an entire mountain and all the life upon it in reducing it to fully equalized rubble. Its relative value, within neoliberalism, is relative only to the market god, the supposedly invisible hand that decrees value like a priest baptizing an infant to officially declare it’s soul saved but once saved it can die without any further concern — the soul being saved is abstracted from the living human being, in the way capital as fungible wealth is extracted from the material world.

        Still, might there be an unintended side effect that could have liberalizing results and could be a moral benefit, maybe even a net gain? According to your view, could we be forced to acknowledge non-human rights? Maybe. It’s related to seeing the mind as singular or multiple, as isolated or in relationship. The same goes for the larger world. We might acknowledge the non-human rights of animals as individuals while not acknowledging the non-human rights of places, geographies, ecosystems, the biosphere, and the earth itself. Neoliberalism, one could argue, is incapable of that greater appreciation.

        Instead of eating animals, humanity (or rather the neoliberal system as alpha predator) might eat entire worlds in destroying them, in consuming everyone and everything as equally valued or equally devalued prey. The remaining species with rights will be respected in their isolated individuality within zoos that artificially re-create the living world that has been forever eliminated because, within neoliberalism, the living world was never real in the first place — as Margaret Thatcher put it, “There is no such thing as society,” which is to say there is no collective or shared reality, no commons (to emphasize this point, she also liked to say that, “There is no alternative.). As such, even the destruction of the world won’t need to be acknowledged for it will be dismissed and denied, forgotten as if it never existed. To the Borg, all lives have equal value and equal rights. They are the most egalitarian society possible. But do we want to become the Borg? In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher writes:

        “When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis. The limits of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and re-defined) pragmatically and improvisationally. This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.”

        Besides, there is the genuine doubt that neoliberalism actually equalizes anything. Consider that there is greater inequality now than has ever happened in all of human existence. But ignoring that, let’s assume that neoliberalism will eventually live up to it’s rhetorical claims as an equalizing force. In that case, will it equalize by lifting all up, in the way that Reaganomics was supposed to lift all boats? Or will it equalize by lowering everything down to the lowest common denominator, be it Borg, the Thing, or mining rubble? What will equality look like? And will we want it once we have it? I offer such thoughts and questions as someone who is a principled egalitarian — my worries are not about communism but fascism and related ideological systems.

        Talk of a single diet for all of humanity touches a nerve, as that is what we have been moving toward and so far it hasn’t been a good thing. There has been much failure of official dietary recommendations and nutrition studies (see work of John Ioannidis, Gary Taubes, and Nina Teicholz). So much of our supposed knowledge in this area comes from low quality epidemiological/correlative studies. It turns out that most of it can’t be verified and so all of nutrition studies is in the middle of a replication crisis. Yet extremely weak and conflicting evidence was used to enforce a dietary ideology that we now know caused immense harm to public health, cutting short the lives of at least millions. It wasn’t only bad science but a false way of thinking, such as seen with reductive nutritionism (see work of Gyorgy Scrinis and Michael Pollan).

        Nutrionism is very much a product of neoliberal philosophy, where everything can be broken down to constituent elements that are all equal, not acknowledging complex relationships and balance ratios between nutrients, precursors, and cofactors as found in whole foods. The motivation for this reductionist attitude was that it was highly profitable. Industrial agriculture (chemical-drenched monoculture) and industrial processing made possible increased production, consistent (if low) quality, and shelf stability. This is particularly seen with refined flours and similar products where the nutrients are removed and then artificially fortified, but so much gets lost in the process (even commercial “whole wheat bread” is a misnomer, as it isn’t actually whole wheat as merely some of the removed fiber is added back in). The same mentality argued that highly toxic industrial seed oils were not only equal but superior to natural fats and oils that were traditionally used for millennia: coconut oil, butter, lard, etc.

        This is how we have gotten to the point of the standard American diet of highly processed foods. This is seen among both meat-eaters and vegetarians, and hence an equalizing force of the diseases of civilization. I’ve been a vegetarian in the past and at the time I did not eat healthy. My brothers and their families are all vegetarian and they largely subsist on processed and packaged foods, when they’re not ordering out — and unsurprisingly, they get sick often and the kids all have major neurocognitive issues (autism, obsessive-compulsion, learning disabilities, and depression). The processed foods they eat, according to the experts espousing the ideology of nutritionism, are in theory fortified with all of the essential nutrients; and yet obviously much goes missing. The thing is most processed foods are vegetarian, much of it vegan. A neoliberal future of vegetarianism might not be such a great thing, even as a healthy vegetarian diet is a genuine possibility. The problem is neoliberalism, at least in its extreme American form, doesn’t have a good track record with public health. There is no immense profits to be had in an optimally healthy population, anymore than a healthy earth.

        The health claims of nutritionism remind me the fantasies of right-wing libertarians. A few libertarians I know are former fundamentalist Christians and it seems they simply transferred their religious convictions to secular aspirations. So, for example, instead of eternal salvation in Heaven, they place their faith in eternal life in cryogenics and salvation in heavenly space colonies. It’s the idea that the natural world is unnecessary, that the restrictions of the natural world do not apply to the neoliberal human. Humanity will simply transcend it all, based on greater knowledge that will allow us to recreate the conditions of life and health. Neoliberalism and right-libertarianism shares this techno-utopian inclination — it’s the promise that is offered, if it can never be fulfilled. It’s more of a religion than a political philosophy.

        You state that, “Neoliberalism fundamentally denies the idea of values (there is only the market – only desire).” Ideologies claiming to not be ideologies is an old pattern going back to the post-revolutionary backlash, as seen Southern slaveholders complaining about Northern “-isms”: abolitionism, feminism, etc. This most often has been found on the political right and certainly neoliberalism is popular on the political right, but maybe this anti-ideology ideology is more broadly about any reactionary position or at least a strong tendency within the reactionary mind. This isn’t limited to those other people with the wrong political beliefs and moral values, since in a reactionary society such as this we all — conservative and liberal, meat-eater and vegetarian — are exposed to this infectious mind virus.

        I’ve wondered about how the reactionary mind might relate to what I consider the agricultural mind, specifically the emergence of a high-carb diet that was made ever more possible with improved farming. This relates to my interest in Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. Following the Bronze Age collapse, one of the changes that happened in the Axial Age was more systematized farming. Prior to that, farm fields were kept in a semi-wild state with grains mixed with weeds and this also meant a lot of fungus, including ergot, that made it less edible. Learning to control weeds and fungus was a major advancement and meant more grains could be grown to feed ever larger imperial populations and ever more concentrated urban populations. This was a drastic increase in carbohydrates, but even as grains offer more calories they are lacking in a lot of nutrients that are found in wild plant foods and animal foods (e.g., omega-3 fatty acids). With further increase of grain yields in the 1800s, the high-carb diet became entrenched as the norm of civilization.

        As many have argued, nutrition is the foundation of neurocognitive development and mental health. Others like Weston A. Price went further in arguing that it is the central pillar of moral health as well — moral health being expressed as pro-social behaviors such as being helpful, friendly, gregarious, kind, and compassionate as opposed to fighting, causing problems, being uncooperative, and acting selfishly. Studies have confirmed this, sometimes as a side effect of studying something else. In one study on the very low-carb keto diet as a treatment for diabetes, it was observed the children on their own became more well behaved. The standard American diet (SAD) is causing health problems for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. I can’t help thinking that someone like Donald Trump might not be so mentally deranged if he hadn’t spent is whole life eating junk food and fast food. Is the American population in need of psychotherapy and psychiatric medications or rather are they in need of brain healing.

        What if there is something about the high-carb diet, in particular as the industrial diet, that causes or contributes to the reactionary mind that so plagues modernity? Whatever exactly is going on, it can’t be doubted that the reactionary mind corrupts and co-opts everything it touches. This is how good intentions and great ideals continually turn down dark paths. I doubt vegetarianism and animal rights will be immune from this reactionary taint. As an environmentalist myself, I note how corporate greenwashing has taken over the environmental movement, as all the major environmental organizations are dependent on corporate funding and the environmental regulatory agencies have been captured by corporate interests. I feel wary of how rhetoric can be used.

        In the power and persuasion of the reactionary mind, we moderns seem unable to resist it’s allure as the reactionary, in its anti-ideology ideology, can use the rhetoric of any ideology. This was how, in speaking in the language of any given audience, Nazis were able to appeal both the political right and political left, especially the liberal class. Even some Jews remembered feeling inspired when they heard Adolf Hitler speak in person. That is what makes the reactionary so dangerous. This is why I have my doubts about neoliberalism actually being able to enact animal rights or, for that matter, even human rights. That is what all the protests are about right now, that not all humans are being treated equally under neoliberalism. Why would this change in the future? Why would more of the same neoliberalism lead to a different result? What if both human rights and non-human rights can only be achieved through something else entirely, a radical re-imagining of what is possible and necessary?

      2. Let me make a simpler and shorter argument against neoliberalism, in relation to diet and rights.

        Neoliberalism disconnects both the meat-eater and vegetarian, both the consumer and the worker from the food system. No human has to directly kill anything because the system will kill for them. In industrial agriculture, thousands of animals and insects are killed on each acre of land every year but what kills is chemicals and self-driving tractors.

        The human being is removed from the equation and so no human individual needs to participate in, observe, and feel complicit in the killing. Meanwhile, animal rights as part of an abstract legal system could create an experience of a liberal society of moral virtue. The suffering is hidden and the costs ever more distantly externalized.

      3. A thought occurred to me. What exactly is involved in the neoliberal system and reactionary mind? Maybe most fundamentally it comes down to the issue of Marxist alienation and false consciousness, which reactionary neoliberalism simultaneously promotes and preys upon. This is how late stage capitalism both causes the problems and offers what it claims to be solutions (or otherwise entices with seeming hope and promises). The poison is real, whether or not the antidote will live up to the claim.

  2. David, thank you for your comments. I’ve not done a word count but I suspect it’s longer than the original piece!!
    I don’t quite agree that neoliberalism is dependent on exploited labour; our current system certainly is, but neoliberalism as a concept promises that the markets will mature and avoid such bad social outcomes. We must simply allow it time to work itself out. Similarly on the militarization point – this is a reflection on the current status rather than something upon which neoliberalism is contingent.
    You’re right to envisage a state where some animals have greater rights than humans; but the distinction between human and animal blurs as values are dispensed with as subjective nonsense. Today in many parts of India cows enjoy more protections than young girls; in a neoliberal future similar ‘inqualities’ could accrue. Indeed not just animals either; legal personhood and attendant rights are being extended already to things like the Whanganui River in New Zealand (
    On the Borg – spot on. This is the cyborg argument about essentialism…in my reading, amongst others, Chris Hables Gray (Cyborg Citizen) and of course Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. I have Fisher’s book but haven’t read it yet. It is not merely (I would say) that there is no governing transcendent Law; it is that there is no transcendence. This is what Heidegger meant when he lamented the uprooting of man as already having happened, and that ‘only a God can save us now’. The elimination of values that neoliberalism requires implicitly requires an abdication of morality too, and any appeal to a higher objective; neoliberalism has no truck with art, save as diversion, amusement, or chattel.
    On diet, I’ve not looked much, it doesn’t really interest me. However your comments reminded me of a piece in Nudge (Thaler / Susstein) where the head of Chicago School Meals – responsible for feeding 150,000 children a day – realised that if she placed French fries at eye-level on the carousel, the kids ate more French fries, whereas if she put carrots at eye-level, the kids ate more carrots. This meant – by extrapolation – that she could control the diet of Chicago’s kids. Which sounds great at first – give them all carrots! However, the ACLU rode in and said she couldn’t effectively deny choice by designing food options in a way that was ‘political’. This is where we are! Your comments on ‘nutritionism’ however are interesting, and I’ll read more.
    Salvation in space colonies – love that. There’s a great recent book on Digital Cash by Finn Brunton which traces the origins of the bitcoin bunch, and their libertarian origins. Mad crowd called the Extropianists who believe in eternal life. Similar order, I suspect, to your libertarian friends.
    To be clear, I’m no neoliberal. There’s something clearly lacking, something that denies a fundamental humanism, and the possibility for transcendence. That last piece – the possibility for transcendence – is what makes us human, and keeps us alive, hopeful and optimistic – for the most part.
    One your shorter argument – I think it’s a cop-out. It’s certainly true that none of us meat-eaters wants to see inside the sausage factory; but we can never be entirely detached from it. This goes back to Langdon Winner’s question – Do Artefacts Have Politics? – whereupon the answer, in brief, is that they do not: only people do. And we cannot detach any moral obligation from the effects of our technology no matter how distant we are from it, or how weak is our control.

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