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.
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:
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this article, I explain how the narrative of "welfarism vs. abolitionism" missed the mark and created unnecessary conflict among animal advocates. In the second part, I’ll show how, by switching to the vocabulary of "inside game/outside game", animal advocates can shift from infighting to collaboration.
When I was in college, around 2016, my campus animal rights club hosted a talk by the local representative of The Humane League1 Throughout this post, I’ll talk about THL as a stand-in for many organizations that pursue similar goals, mostly because of my personal experience with them. (THL). As she stood facing about two dozen college students interested in animal activism, she began her talk with a question:
“What goal should animal activists pursue?”
After several seconds of silence, I threw out an answer that reflected my background as an organizer with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE for short). DxE had a notorious flair for dramatic confrontations with the public, using disruptive protest to demand a complete dismantling of the legal systems abetting the exploitation of other animals for the benefit of humans. My answer, one of DxE’s slogans, was shorthand for that:
“Total animal liberation.”
The THL rep (I’ll call her Kristy since I haven’t asked permission to use her name) endured an awkward silence waiting to see if anyone else would respond. Kristy had been working for THL about as long as I’d been organizing with DxE. Her job was to mobilize volunteers to support THL’s signature tactics: handing out leaflets to the public about meatless diets, and pressuring corporations like Mcdonald's to set animal welfare standards for their supply chains. When she clicked to the next slide, the answer waiting there was, like mine, a reflection of her organization’s ethos:
“Reduce the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number of animals we can.”
For an outsider to the world of animal advocacy, these two answers would probably seem perfectly compatible. Yet from the moment they were spoken, room 217 of the Hellems Arts & Sciences building was filled with a palpable tension. A conflict much larger than us had asserted itself.
The humans that make up both THL and DxE share the extremely uncommon view that farming animals is a grievous moral harm, and the even less common conviction to dedicate their lives to opposing it. Yet back in 2016, this didn’t seem to be worth much. The relationship between the organizations was racked with mutual distrust, even disdain. And this malaise was merely a microcosm for a larger conflict among animal advocates, one that had been playing out for years in vicious comment threads across social media. To at least one side, this was known as the battle of welfarists vs. abolitionists.
In a moment, I’ll explain why I hope this dichotomy will finally be relegated to the dustbin of history. In fact, I believe it was as useless and misleading back then as it is now. But that’s not what I thought at the time.
As soon as Kristy’s answer appeared on the screen, a familiar narrative was racing through my brain. I had labeled her a welfarist, and as fast as my neurons could fire, this label was joined by a series of harsh judgments. Kristy, I decided, was a sellout who lacked either a strong commitment to creating real change for animals or the imagination to believe it was possible, or both. She must be small-minded, I immediately concluded, if she’s willing to settle for asking corporations to make such tiny changes to the way they torture and exploit animals, rather than demanding an end to that exploitation.
I feel pretty confident that something similar was happening for Kristy. In her view, I was a hopeless naïf, someone more concerned with doing activism that made me feel good than with actually making a difference in the lives of animals. By insisting that animal advocates set our sights on the unattainable, I and my ilk were damaging our ability to make any difference whatsoever, and driving the public further away in the process. Like others before me, I would soon realize that my goals were futile. At that point, I would either come around to her side or burn out and stop advocating for animals altogether.
I wish I could say otherwise, but I never developed a successful collaborative relationship with Kristy after that. For the next few years, we managed to steer clear of each other as we each worked in the same metro area to organize volunteers toward different goals.
Looking back, this was a stupid waste. Our efforts could have synchronized to be greater than their sum; instead, our mutual disregard ensured they were less than.
My purpose for this blog is to explain what I wish both Kristy and I had understood differently at the time, and how I believe that understanding can pave the way to a renaissance of collaboration among animal advocates.
If there was one person responsible for framing this debate as one of abolitionists vs. welfarists, his name was Gary Francione. You can guess which side he was on from the title of his book, The Abolitionist Approach. Indeed, for the law professor and vegan philosopher, welfarist was a dirty word, one many of its targets never identified with (he sometimes deigned to call them regulationists or incrementalists).
Francione more concisely laid out the fault lines as he saw them in an essay titled “Irreconcilable Differences.” (Gotta hand it to him, the guy knows how to get his point across in a title.) Describing the welfarist view as “blatantly speciesist,” Francione rails against the strategy of pushing for incremental improvements in farmed animal welfare regulations, in which he sees a “symbiotic relationship” with the industry itself. Ultimately, he concludes that asking for anything less than veganism (for the individual) and total abolition (for society) sets us up for failure.
When I was first getting involved in animal activism, I found Francione’s perspective appealing. His criticisms of welfare campaigning fit well with my own values, and he wrote about the basic questions of animal ethics with fierce clarity. I still cherish his animal rights philosophy, but I’ve come to see many points of his movement criticism that I don’t agree with. Specifically:
I had to contend with the plain fact that the humans working their butts off at organizations like THL are ethical vegans who long just as deeply as I do for an end to violence against animals. This reality came home for me when one of my best friends from college, Zoë Sigle (her real name this time) succeeded Kristy as the local grassroots director for THL. I’d known Zoë for years, and we’d grown into our activism together. I knew her to be a person not only of deep integrity and dedication, but also piercing intellect. It was impossible for me to write her off the way I had done with Kristy, who I didn’t otherwise know. (Not that that was any excuse.)
Of course, Francione insists the intentions of “welfarists” don’t matter. So let’s look at their impact.
The logic behind Francione’s accusation of a “symbiotic relationship” is that by pursuing incremental reforms, advocates are sending a message to the public that farming animals is a basically acceptable practice that just needs to be reformed:
Groups… identify practices that are economically vulnerable, such as the gestation crate; industry resists; a drama ensues; industry eventually agrees to make what are meaningless and possibly even financially beneficial changes; the animal groups declare victory and fundraise; industry, praised by the groups, reassures the public that it really cares about animals.
It makes sense that welfare campaigns might lead members of the public to think that farming animals is no problem after all. But is that actually what happens? It turns out, we don’t have to guess.
Two research teams have recently investigated this exact question. The first study (n=1,520), published this April, measured people’s opposition to animal farming (AFO) after being shown three different readings: one about current animal farming practices, one describing welfare reforms, and a control about an unrelated topic. The welfare group reported slightly lower AFO than the current practice group, but greater AFO than the control group.
The differences were too small for statistical confidence, but to address Francione’s accusation, we only need to show that welfare reforms don’t reduce AFO. The purpose of welfare reforms is not to change public opinion; we have other tactics for that, as long as they aren’t making it worse. (Another team led by Pax Fauna’s own Zoe Griffiths reached similar findings in a study soon to be published.)
Now, it’s certainly true that the humane myth is a key idea propping up the slaughter industry. But the available evidence suggests that welfare campaigns by animal advocates aren’t to blame. Indeed, meat corporations seem perfectly capable of spreading that lie themselves, even in countries with the fewest protections for farm animals. And inversely, when we look at countries with relatively higher protections (such as Germany, Sweden, and the UK) it appears they go hand-in-hand with stronger energy for animal-free foods and animal liberation activism.2I am not aware of anyone studying this rigorously, and it seems worthwhile. If it has been studied, I’d love to see it so please share! That is, higher welfare protections don’t seem to stifle abolitionist impulses in a society.
The final thing that turned me off Francione’s argument was asking: well, what are you offering instead? Instead of welfare campaigns (and just about everything else) Francione believes we should all be focusing on vegan education: convincing people to embrace a vegan lifestyle, one-by-one or lecture-hall-by-lecture-hall. He used to point out that if every vegan in the UK would convert just one other person to veganism each year, the whole country would be converted in just 7 years. This is mathematically correct3If 1% are currently vegan, 1% x 27 = 128% just as surely as it is not remotely happening (the number of vegans is growing very slowly or not at all), and Francione offers no credible strategy to make it start happening.
I don’t think that someone needs to have a solution to a problem in order to point one out. But it bothered me for Francione to spend so much time criticizing others when his own strategy was so full of holes. And ultimately, it led to a shift in my perspective.
Incrementalism is just another word for strategy, especially following on Paolo Freire’s definition in Pedagogy of Hope:
What can we do now in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today?
Unless you have a plan for how we’re all going to wake up tomorrow in a vegan world, you are an incrementalist. The thing that differentiates us is not the purity of our desire to end violence against animals; it is merely the incremental steps we are each focusing on to get there. Every animal advocate I know is in basic agreement about the world we’d like to see (at least insofar as it concerns humans’ relationship to other animals). We’re just focusing on different increments to get there:
I’m guessing that if most people reading this were to isolate any one of the strategies listed above, we’d have a hard time seeing how that strategy alone can get us all the way from the world we have today to a radically different relationship to other animals.
Fortunately, all of these strategies and more are being pursued in parallel in a diverse movement ecology. And if we play our cards right, each strategy can make up for the deficiencies of another.
Alright, so now we can all hold hands and sing as we march towards a glorious vegan future, right?
It probably isn’t a very controversial idea to say that the movement will need a diverse, multistrategic approach to win real change for animals. But needing a variety of strategies doesn’t mean any one of them should be above criticism.
The conflict that existed between DxE and THL back in my college days may have gotten out of hand, but it was based on real, substantive disagreements about strategy. It wouldn’t work to paper them over by throwing around terms like multistrategic and movement ecology.
Rather, it is precisely by examining those disagreements up close that my own views changed. I have come to believe that the strategic disagreements between DxE and THL were based on fundamental misunderstandings because we each only saw things from our particular position in a complex movement. It has taken me years to realize, but the different demands we were pursuing were a reflection of the different roles we were playing in the movement and the needs of those roles. This is something more subtle than the diverse incremental strategies listed above.
Fortunately, DxE and THL each provide great case studies. No two strategies divided the movement more back in those days than the corporate cage-free campaigns pursued by groups like THL and the signature restaurant disruptions of DxE. In the sequel to this blog, I try to convince my skeptical 21-year-old self that there was a depth of wisdom to cage-free campaigns, and convince Kristy of the same thing about DxE’s antics. I’ll recruit the help of a new, more collaborative frame for thinking about this old division in the movement: inside game and outside game.
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