Embracing an Inside-Outside Strategy for Animal Freedom

Aidan Kankyoku
January 25, 2023

In the previous article, I explained how the narrative of "welfarism vs. abolitionism" was misguided and created unnecessary conflict among animal advocates. Now, I show how, by switching to the vocabulary of "inside game/outside game", the animal freedom movement can shift from infighting to collaboration.

The Gist

  • Animal advocates have been divided over pursuing more or less radical demands, leading to a conflict often framed as welfarism vs. abolitionism.
  • This framing obscures the reasons different advocates favor different demands.
  • Advocates intelligently choose their demands based on their objectives. These objectives, in turn, are a product of their role in the movement ecology.
  • By understanding the inside-outside strategy, advocates on both sides can see how this diversity is key to building a strong movement.
  • Advocates should build friendships and strong lines of communication with people on the other side of the inside-outside divide.

Stronger Together

I learned the phrase inside-outside strategy from the work of movement scholars Mark and Paul Engler, though I assume it’s been in use before them. The idea is simple enough: when social movements seek to change society, there are two routes they can take. One is to work inside the system, through the formal structures that have been set up to change policies. Running for office, getting a job inside a company or government agency, and corporate outreach are all ways to try to use the system’s built-in mechanisms to win a policy change. This is the inside game.

The outside game consists of the kinds of strategies people turn to when efforts inside the system fail. The thing that unifies outside-game strategies is building power outside of the dominant institutions. Once movements build alternative centers of power, they can try to exert pressure on the dominant institutions to accept change, or they can try to usurp and abolish those institutions altogether. Standard outside-game strategies include community organizing, picketing, civil resistance (e.g blocking roads or mass open rescues), and noncooperation (e.g. strikes).

The phrase inside-outside strategy speaks to the belief that these two approaches taken together are more powerful than their sum. The ideal dynamic is like this:

  1. Inside-game players work slowly and diligently to insert themselves in positions of influence inside the target institution, usually by pushing for modest reforms.
  2. The outside game provokes a crisis for the institution, a situation where ignoring activists’ more radical demands is more costly than responding to them. (Movement theorists call this the moment of the whirlwind.)
  3. The activists on the inside seize the opportunity to make sure the institution accepts (and follows through on) the movement’s full demands.

Put another way, outside-game strategies target social and cultural norms, shifting the playing field and bringing previously unimaginable demands into the mainstream. The inside game then works to translate these cultural shifts into concrete changes in law and policy, before political inaction leads the culture to backslide.

Dynamic Duo

To give a fictional example of how this might work, imagine two organizations working to get the government of Los Angeles to buy animal-free food instead of meat for its public facilities. Humane LA focuses on the inside game, building relationships with friendly council members and eventually working with them to start a small default-veg pilot program in public hospitals. They become a familiar presence around City Hall and lawmakers know them as helpful, accessible experts on the issue.

Meanwhile, Angelenos for Abolition is working the outside game, tracking down passive vegans and organizing them into a volunteer-led organization doing dramatic protests. By giving people a sense of ownership over their own participation in activism, A4A is able to build a list of hundreds of people willing to participate in their raunchy protests. Soon, their colorful antics demanding rights for animals are getting regular coverage in the local section of the LA Times.

Once they’ve built up enough commitment from their members, Angelenos for Abolition decides to build a fortified encampment occupying the road in front of City Hall. Their action is unprecedented, and so is their demand: an animal bill of rights. Faced with what social movement theorists call a moment of the whirlwind, lawmakers turn to the familiar faces at Humane LA. “We’re already implementing the program you asked us for. Can’t you get these people to go home?” And what do they hear?

“We’re not responsible for this. Those are the radicals! The current program isn’t enough for them. But, we just went out to negotiate with them, and we think we could get them to settle for 100% meat-free procurement across the entire city budget, based on our successful pilot in the hospitals…”

Family Feud

The inside-outside strategy sounds pretty good on the surface, especially when I oversimplify it as above. But unfortunately, across many different causes, it usually doesn’t work out so neatly. Conflict between outside-game “radicals” and inside-game “moderates” is almost a universal truth of social movements.

The reason, I believe, is that each side struggles to understand the reasons the other side pursues different demands. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we can deeply understand the dynamics of the inside-outside strategy, we can transform our conflict into a brilliant bit of political theater.

When inside- and outside-game players choose their demands, they are trying to meet a completely different set of needs. The job of the inside game is to gain access to key pressure points in the decision-making of the target institution. The outside game, meanwhile, aims to transform the norms surrounding the institution—the water it swims in.

If inside-game players trumpet radical demands or use radical tactics, they will be frozen out of the dominant institutions. Then the movement will have no allies on the inside when the moment of the whirlwind hits. Our momentum will fizzle out without achieving concrete progress.

Meanwhile, the entire purpose of the outside game is to shift the goalposts of the culture. If outside-game players pursue moderate demands, nobody will pay any attention, and the range of acceptable views will stagnate. And disruptive tactics can be a very effective way to draw attention to these agenda-setting demands.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Welfarists

When I first learned about cage-free campaigns, naturally, I assumed that the main reason organizations like THL pursued them was because they thought it meaningfully improved the lives of egg-laying chickens. When I saw some footage of cage-free farms (and later, when I set foot inside them myself as an undercover investigator), I reached a different conclusion.

Since then, Welfare Footprint released their findings from a massive study undertaken to quantify the suffering of hens in battery cage vs. cage-free facilities. Among animal advocates, the study did not change many minds. Those who already supported cage-free campaigns hold it up as the best stringent scientific examination of the welfare question; skeptics question the assumptions the study used to score different types of pain or outright reject the notion that suffering can be quantified in this way. These arguments often come down to disagreements on first principles, and it seems to me that no amount of data or debate will lead to a reconciliation.1For myself, I finally came around to believe in the welfare merits of cage-free campaigns when a colony of mice formed in my house. After other efforts failed, we decided we would build a house for them, trap them all together, and relocate the house as a whole to a faraway field where we would gradually wean them off food we provided. In the course of trapping them, however, I came to see the extreme traumatizing effect it had on these mice to be stuck inside the traps even for just an hour or two. The trap is large enough for them to move around, very similar to a battery cage, but they show signs of severe shock and lasting trauma if they are in it for more than a couple of hours. This experience helped me look at the Welfare Footprint study with new eyes, though I’m still sympathetic to those who argue against it as well.

Regardless of how you feel about the welfare footprint of cage-free egg farms, however, there may be better reasons to celebrate these kinds of welfare campaigns in the animal movement. Here are three, starting from the least compelling and building up to the one that really convinced me.

Reason #1: Driving up the cost of factory farming

The first alternative explanation I ever heard for welfare campaigns was that they could effectively drive up the costs for factory farmers, reducing the profitability of the industry and, eventually, consumer demand for their products. This rationale was immediately more appealing to me than the welfare argument, and I could more easily see how this strategy could undermine the industry and bring us closer to abolition.

For cage-free campaigns specifically, this argument was undercut by a recent economic analysis from California showing that the price of eggs statewide only increased $0.08 per dozen eggs compared to other states after full implementation of Prop 12’s cage-free requirement. It’s hard to imagine that an increase of less than a penny per egg will have any impact on demand. Ironically, while this news might make it easier to persuade other jurisdictions to adopt similar laws, it could also make outside-game activists less likely to accept these campaigns.

But this doesn’t apply to all welfare campaigns. The Better Chicken Commitment, a bundle of welfare standards for chickens raised for meat, was designed specifically to force the commercial chicken industry to start absorbing its externalized costs. 

Reason #2: Build momentum with winnable campaigns

This starts to get at the essence of the inside-outside strategy. While the radicals are working to build up enough power outside the system to create a crisis, the insiders can accumulate influence by winning modest reforms. These campaigns help the insiders gain recognition inside the system. They can even come to be seen as reliable experts who decision makers should consult on policies relating to their cause area.

The crisis created by the radicals will create a tiny window of opportunity; it is crucial that inside game players are in this position before the moment of the whirlwind hits. Modest reforms are a tried-and-true way for them to elbow their way in.

What’s more, these campaigns may even work to bring more of the public on our side for more ambitious demands. There isn’t yet enough research specifically looking at the effects of welfare campaigns on public opinion. But from what we know about psychology and marketing, welfare campaigns seem like they could be an effective foot-in-the-door strategy: by getting people to take a small action in support of a cause, we can sneak that cause into their identity. Once they’ve taken one supportive action, it will be easy and even imperative for them to bring their actions further in alignment. This could be a healthy complement to the door-in-the-face technique embodied by campaigns like IP3 in Oregon; further research on these dynamics in our movement would be useful.

Reason #3: Develop inside-game infrastructure

This reason is closely related to #2, but I see it as distinct. I only became aware of this rationale recently. This fall, 6 years after Kristy (the local THL director) and I (the local DxE organizer) became an embodiment of the conflict swirling between our organizations and the larger movement factions they belonged to, I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Coman-Hidy, who led THL for the last decade. Dave built the organization from when he was one of a few employees to a force that had shaped animal welfare policies for several multibillion-dollar multinational corporations. So perhaps it’s to be expected that I learned something new about these campaigns from him.

Dave and I got to talking about the inside-outside strategy, and I was surprised that we used much of the same language to talk about it. I was all ears when he told me there was one thing he wished the outside-game radicals understood:

“I’m all for radical tactics pushing the boundaries of what demands we can make. But right now, the movement as a whole is not developed enough to effectively take advantage of it.”2(I’m paraphrasing)

The truth is, right now both the outside and inside games in the animal movement are underdeveloped. We simply do not have the power culturally or politically to make the changes we need to make. The question we face is precisely the one posed by Freire:

What can we do now in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today?

Nothing we can accomplish right now in terms of political or cultural change is exciting to me. I’m far more interested in asking how we can build enough power to be able to make those changes.

For me, this is the crux of the conflict over cage-free campaigns: strategists like Dave were tasked with building up organizations that could powerfully fill a specific role in the animal movement ecosystem. As a small team with a small budget, THL needed to build an organization that could impact the policy decisions of governments and massive corporations. This meant building up a steady organization with dependable revenue streams, skilled staff, and durable organizational knowledge about how to navigate the halls of power. Eventually, they zeroed in on cage-free campaigns, around which not one, but an entire sector of inside-game organizations is being built.

Who am I to argue with that?

From Conflict to Collaboration

The inside-outside strategy is a much better way to make sense of old tensions in the animal movement than welfare vs. abolitionism. This new frame can help both sides understand each other. The outside game can understand why insiders use modest demands to strengthen their position inside the system. Meanwhile, the inside game can understand why outsiders incorporate radical demands that aren’t achievable in the short term.

By demanding complete abolition, followers of DxE and Francione are trying to jumpstart the slow process of normalizing an idea that will take a long time to become mainstream. In the meantime, it serves to make other demands look relatively more modest, and thus makes them easier for inside-game strategies to pursue. Radical demands grab people’s attention and can reshape the mainstream narrative in a way that modest demands cannot. If we are bringing people closer to our side, it doesn’t matter in the short term whether or not we’re getting what we ask for.

Like all theoretical models, the inside-outside model I’ve relied on here is an oversimplification of the real world. In reality, THL has sometimes used informal means of creating pressure, such as protests, to push corporations to accept their demands. And DxE at times has turned to the legislative process to win real victories, such as banning fur in Berkeley and San Francisco, then the whole state of California.

That said, I think the overall model holds up. It’s obvious to me that groups like THL are in a better position than DxE to negotiate with policymakers public and private; they have far more experience navigating those systems and have learned painful lessons. Meanwhile, DxE’s rugged grassroots orientation allows them to jump on risky, attention-grabbing tactics (like gluing their hands to NBA courts) that more conservative organizations won’t touch.

We’ll Set ‘Em Up, You Knock ‘Em Down

Does it matter that inside and outside game organizations understand each other? It’s possible that we can accidentally harness the inside-outside strategy even if we don’t get along. After all, the strategy is a kind of theater, with roles for a good cop and a bad cop. Wouldn’t that work even better if we really believed it ourselves?

Maybe, but I’m convinced we can do better the more we understand we’re on the same team. First, it makes conferences much more enjoyable. And I think it even makes us more effective.

The essence of the inside-outside strategy is that we’re all building power towards a moment of the whirlwind, the time that our issue becomes a crisis for the dominant institution. The role of the outside game is to create that moment, while the inside game works to positioning themselves to seize it. This is our precious opportunity to make real change.

Without inside-outside coordination, movements are easy to co-opt,3For lack of space here, I’m only going to briefly mention one pair of examples. The Gezi Park protests in Turkey were built on relatively spontaneous grassroots energy with weak connections to an institutional wing. When it came time to negotiate with the government, nobody had the legitimacy to represent the protesters, a crisis which eventually unwound the movement. By comparison, the Tunisian revolution featured heavy involvement of labor unions, which eventually represented the street in negotiations that led to a peaceful governmental transition and a new constitution. leaving us with a far worse compromise than we could have gotten otherwise. Here’s what we need to do to prevent that.

Inside game: remember where you came from

You’re going to use modest reform campaigns to position yourself at points of leverage inside the system. But don’t forget the endgame.

Always remember that there will be a moment in the future when you can win something far more ambitious than what you’ve sought so far. That moment will come when a surge of grassroots pressure (combined with scrutiny from the press) forces the decision-makers close to you to wrestle with a truly radical activist demand. This surge of grassroots energy will probably be smaller than you think; it won’t look like Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful.

You’ll have spent years working to build these relationships and win modest reforms. It’ll be easy to mistake this moment for a threat to all your careful work instead of what it is: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for truly transformational change.

You’ll be the movement’s negotiators on the inside. Don’t sell us out for a cheap compromise in the exact moment we can go for a big win.

Outside game: accept insiders as our allies

Playing the outside game, we get the privilege of asking for what we really want, while the insiders have to wear a mask. We must not mistake this for moral superiority. We’re playing different positions on the same team. 

We need the inside game. When the time comes, they will be crucial to help us navigate the halls of power and turn our momentum into real, durable victories. If we’re constantly dumping on them for the more modest goals they advocate for, they’re not going to feel very enthusiastic about working with us.

Everyone: build strong lines of communication

Finally, both sides need to talk frequently and build trust. If we don’t have strong lines of communication, we’ll have no hope of coordinating during the hectic moments in which rare opportunities tend to present themselves. We’ll work at cross-currents and end up with a weak compromise when we could have won real concessions.

We will be at our strongest when the inside and outside games are merely two faces of the same united movement. To ensure this, everyone should have a best friend on the opposite side of the inside-outside strategy. 

Starting now, you can find out who lives and works in your area, then meet for tea to start building a relationship. Outside-game folks can attend the Animal and Vegan Advocacy Summit, while inside-game folks can come to the Animal Liberation Conference, to get a taste of how the other half lives (and make a few friends while you’re at it).

And most importantly, you can leave a comment on this post, and click the button below to subscribe to this blog! It just might be your first step in shifting from conflict to collaboration.

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4 comments on “Embracing an Inside-Outside Strategy for Animal Freedom”

  1. I really love this! Seems to me one of the biggest challenges is building trust across the divide, especially since many of the most prominent advocates on both sides have spent decades in an antagonistic relationship. I can imagine a lot of people being open to this new perspective, but thinking "why should I support them when they're not going to support me?"

    Also, you didn't really acknowledge that there are non-negligible factions that in some ways actually don't share the same end goal. For example there are insiders (and insider orgs) who firmly believe it's totally fine to kill and exploit animals as long as they lived free from excessive physical pain. And there are outsiders who are more interested in attention, status, and broadcasting their virtue than actually helping animals. Do you think these are mostly just outliers, who draw undue attention to themselves (especially from those in the opposing camp)? Or is it an issue that requires further strategizing or changes to movement culture?

    1. That's a great point, Lucas. There are certainly a range of individuals and organizations primarily engaged in food-related advocacy whose end goal would be a different kind of animal farming. In my experience, these are orgs that care about animal welfare but tend not to put it front and center in their strategy, rather pairing it with other goals related to so-called "regenerative ag", etc. In my experience, the people involved in farmed animal advocacy at (e.g.) HSUS and ASPCA would like to see abolition just as much as you or I would, though others in their organization (including the people they report to) likely do not.

      I'm not sure who you have in mind re: outsiders seeking attention. I know some people would have seen DxE (my alma mater) that way, whereas I can say from the inside that the attention was a strategy we were committed to even though it usually made us uncomfortable. We can debate the merits of the strategy without doubting the intentions, which is obviously an overall theme of this piece. But maybe that's not the sort of thing you're pointing to?

  2. As a long-time producer of vegan community projects (since 2003) this article discusses important viewpoints. I have worked on projects for both inside and outside strategies. The main thing I have always been amazed is why the various vegan leaders and philosophies don't get along and have so much tension. We are supposed to model the compassionate hearts towards all beings that we expect others to adopt. If we are railing against our own community then how do exemplify a new consciousness? We don't, we just become another movement based on power struggles rather than being leaders to define a new process of doing things in the world. Mainstream culture still sees vegans as fringe people, no matter if you are inside or outside. Our challenge as a movement is to express compassion towards people that disagree with our viewpoint as a model for what is possible. Within that compassionate perspective we can still take action. But our action will resonate more with the very audience we seek to transform - those that still view animals as food and the environment as something we dominate and exploit for monetary gains. We have no sphere of influence over those people unless we can get their attention and trust so they might open up and actually learn from what we have to share. That kind of trust comes from suspending our moral outrage long enough to actually relate to what is important to them. I am from Hawaii and call it "Aloha Activism" and found it very successful to normalize vegan values within the local culture here in the islands ( I am the producer of the VegFest Oahu festival in Hawaii among many other projects). I want to see the leaders of the vegan movement stop judging each other and instead honor each other as working with different strategies, as this wonderful article suggests.

    1. It's great to hear from you, Joy, and hear about what you're working on in Hawaii! I'm so glad the piece resonates.

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