"Welfarism vs. Abolitionism" is Obsolete

Aidan Kankyoku
January 25, 2023

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.

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 fact that all strategies used by animal advocates are incremental; we merely focus on different increments.
  • Existing evidence does not support some of activists’ most common concerns about incremental welfare campaigns. 
  • A more sophisticated view of the different roles necessary in a movement ecology can resolve these conflicts. 

An Innocent Question

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.”

Them’s Fightin’ Words

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.

Antispeciesister-Than-Thou

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:

1. Welfarists are abolitionists

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.

2. Welfare campaigns aren’t responsible for the humane myth

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.

3. No strategy is without limitations

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.

Everyone’s an Incrementalist

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:

  • Converting more and more people to veganism until veganism becomes normal.
  • Banning more and more specific practices in animal farming until meat is prohibitively expensive or commercial farming is economically infeasible.
  • Pushing the overton window further and further until abolishing animal farming is a mainstream political position.
  • Convincing more and more cities and companies to adopt default veg practices until animal-free food becomes the dominant norm.
  • Emptying cages at fur farm after fur farm until the entire fur industry can no longer afford the massive insurance premiums.
  • Engineering better and better animal-free foods until they are tastier, healthier, and more affordable than animal-based food.

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?

Kumbaya

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.

Read part 2 now.

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10 comments on “"Welfarism vs. Abolitionism" is Obsolete”

  1. I mean, yah, of course. This dovetails with the juxtaposition of REFORM vs REVOLUTION. The best way to achieve meaningful reforms that matter and are impactful has always been through principled, collective, organized, conscious activity guided by dedicated cadres of militants. History has been like this. How does one think the meaningful reforms of the 1930s happened? Because the CIO happened. The CIO was made up of tens of thousands of militants who were organized, principled and dedicated. Not half-assed.
    I don’t condemn garbage like the Humane League or Francione because they advocate for reform or, as you say, “welfarism”. I condemn them squarely because they have no clue how to achieve it and be the first to fall in line with the oppressors of society, if enough pressure was put on them. The petty bourgeois have always been like this. How does one think fascism happened?

    That is to say, it is, as you describe, a false dichotomy. But the contempt still remains for those who don’t see the necessity of principled, militant, active organization.

    1. Hey Nav! It's good to hear from you.

      Would you be open to the framing that (for instance) THL don't reject the need for militant organization (militant in 21st century US not necessarily meaning armed, I assume we agree) but rather see that they're trying to fill a different role? I think this is the case for at least some at THL. Perhaps more importantly, as one person who gave feedback on this piece pointed out, they needn't necessarily agree with the need for militancy in order to effectively complement it. Do you see any role for the inside game?

      1. The “inside game” is a difficult thing for me to grasp, honestly. I see it as forced concessions that are earned by militant activity. Go too far inside and it has a kind of momentum unto-itself, that becomes corrupting to such an extent that it’s like crossing a kind of event horizon. The system controls everything in the eco system, and makes sure to bring seemingly at first unwilling participants. Maybe it’s apples and oranges, though. I don’t know. I just see the example of the history of Social Democracy, the level of corruption that went on, the opportunities that were missed, the rubicons that were crossed. We see it, politically, to borrow from politics, the Squad and AOC. That kind of “inside game” is totally corrupting-they are bought and paid for. They are terrified at even asking for lukewarm demands.

        I’m not saying form a fringe-out-of-the-loop “holier than thou” militant group (like, for example, ALF). THAT bends the stick way too much the other direction. Into pissing into the wind. We need important legislation, we need important reforms, but they must be fought for in a principled way. When you totally set up an inside game, all kinds of concessions are possible.

        I’m not against, per se, groups that do play that game of legislation, etc. Or “Welfarists” as you say. let them do what they do. But I do know that, ultimately, these sort of reform groups that are not tied to principled, organized militancy will always ultimately see the militants as a group that is endangering their activity (because they have not only bought into the game, have adopted to the rules, and made all the concessions). That is something to be mindful.

        I’m not sure you galvanize 3.5% of the population for animal rights only. I do believe you can when we contextualize animal rights with the greater climate catastrophe. The recent flooding in CA demonstrates this, too.

        1. I fully agree that probably the most harmful tendency of inside-game groups is to see militants as threatening their incremental gains, rather than recognizing that militancy can make far more dramatic gains possible. Personally, I've also come to appreciate the importance of people who deeply understand the inner workings of dominant institutions, and have enough relational and positional capital inside those institutions to translate militancy into concrete, lasting wins. I've seen too many militant groups get duped, especially now that dominant powerholders have a much more effective playbook for disarming radical protests than they did in, say, the 60s.

  2. Thanks for this helpful piece, Aidan. Well-argued and well-written! I very much look forward to your next article on inside game-outside game.

  3. Thanks for this! I’ve gone through a similar process and it’s great to hear your views. I used to be a follower of Francione too. I asked him at a conference once what activism he recommends since he had bashed single issue campaign, meatless Mondays, etc. and he kept talking about a guy from Australia with vegan cupcakes and Animal Liberation pamphlets.

    The idea that resonated with me was this concept of “welfare abolitionism” the idea of working on welfare to get to abolition. I believe that term came from Matt Ball.

    I went from that extreme abolition approach to being a “sell out” working on welfare reforms 15 years later. I’ve been in the movement since 2005 and the best thing I learned was that I don’t know everything, and I’m going to make mistakes and change my mind along the way. No one has ever done what we are trying to do and none of us have all the answers.

    I'm all for embracing the multi-strategy approach. I may personally disagree or think someone's idea is ineffective or misguided, but I'm not going to publicly criticize it. That seems key to me, that we respect that someone else deeply cares about these issues like we do and sees a different way of going about things.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Katie. That Francione story is right on the mark! I could help but laugh.

      There's an unattributed quote I've often heard about a civil rights organizer in the 60s who was asked by a journalist about infighting. His only response was: "In the movement, we're a family. Families fight, but we keep it in the family." I actually think one reason our fights have spilled out into the public is that we don't have a good forum internally for holding these constructive debates. People have genuine criticism of each others strategies. I happen to believe a lot of these criticisms could be resolved through something resembling a well-structured debate, which in my view often leads to greater understanding by both sides. But without that, frustration builds up and ends up beings vented in more harmful ways.

  4. Hey Aidan - thanks for writing about this and sharing your thoughts. It's an interesting conversation for sure. I appreciate the way you describe your journey from a more judgmental posture to a more appreciative and collaborative one, and I think that's a valid lesson. I also appreciate that the "great debate" and conflict around this issue may not be super valuable to the movement more broadly. That said, I had a few thoughts while reading your post:

    1. For the first portion of the article you present incrementalism as if it's the approach of welfarists, and then later you point out that everyone's an incrementalist. I wonder if the entire incrementalist conversation is really relevant to the welfare conversation? Because it seems to me that one can be an incrementalist abolitionist (e.g. plant-based procurement) just as one can be an absolutist welfarist (e.g. Joel Salatin). Even when getting into your second article, isn't it possible to play inside game with incremental abolitionism instead of welfarism as well? So I'm not sure that we technically need welfarism in order to play inside/outside ball.

    2. You seem to be coming from a strategic framing here. I appreciate that, and I also notice that maybe that frame doesn't address where the critics are coming from. I suspect when critics talk about welfare they are sometimes coming from an ethical frame: What is the message we are sharing with others and is it an honest expression of our ethical values? Might it be important for us to hone our messages so we can be honest with ourselves as well as those around us, and thus maintain more integrity in our relationships?

    3. Moving back to the strategic frame: if we're having a conversation about animal welfare, I'm concerned that we might be missing the opportunity to have another, more direct conversation about the roots of the problem. With limited firepower in our movement, I feel a burning need to economize. In particular, I suspect that the number of people who support total animal liberation is smaller than the number of people who support animal welfare reforms. It may be a loss to the movement if the people who believe in liberation and are willing to dedicate their lives to the cause instead spend their precious time on something that others could do.\

    4. You wrote a section titled "welfarists are abolitionists". While I do see where you're coming from, I'm not sure that I agree. I think some welfarists are, and some probably aren't. I'm guessing the ones that you and I know personally mostly fall into the liberationist-in-disguise camp. But it also seems to me that there's a pretty significant amount of people working towards welfare who do not share the liberationist agenda. That doesn't mean we shouldn't ally with them when it supports our agenda, but we also might want to be careful that we don't conflate their agenda with ours.

    5. I'm not sure that welfare does too well outside of the consumer frame. It seems that it's very easy for folks to fall into a defensive consumer posture "I only eat humanely raised animals" and welfare programs might reinforce this frame. If we want people to think about taking collective action to move towards a plant-based food system, I'm not sure how valuable the animal welfare conversation is as a part of that (but you've done the research - maybe you could tell me!)

    1. Hey Owen! I appreciate all your points. Reading them makes me think I probably oversimplified some of my points for narrative convenience.

      1. Agreed, the incrementalism point is one way I'm trying to point out the underlying flaws in the abolitionist/welfarist frame. But you're right that there are people (like Salatin) who are genuine welfarists. It's possible I could have been more accurate by focusing on "New Welfarists" which is Francione's term for people he sees as insufficiently insistent on abolitionist messages.

      2. The honesty point is a good one. I think it's a good conversation to have and all I'd have to say about it in relation to this piece is "can we at least agree that on some level that is still a strategic disagreement?" I think the principled view is about a belief that being consistent on principles like honesty will ultimately lead to a better outcome. So it's a strategic question that can be constructively debated rather than a moral question that poses an "irreconcilable difference" (Francione's term).

      3. I don't necessarily disagree. As I see it, the basic argument is about whether welfare reforms are an effective incremental step toward abolition. Some think they're the best incremental strategy we have, others think they're pointless at best and counterproductive at worst. In the second article I examine these arguments. I'll just add that from our research, it's not clear the public makes such a distinction between welfare and the roots of the problem. They may go hand in hand.

      4. Agreed, I oversimplified here.

      5. I find this point wonderfully provocative. Using my own statements against me! But actually, I agree. I don't think welfare campaigns make for good public messaging. Welfare campaigns might be a good strategy to build institutional power, but not a good strategy to build narrative power and political power in the public sphere. Which is exactly how I'm hoping we reframe our conversations about movement ecology.

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