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!