The New Veganism: Cruel Optimism
Simon Amstell’s 2017 mockumentary Carnage was a breakthrough for the vegan movement. Set in a utopian 2067 where everyone is vegan, it tells a story of how, due to the threat of climate change, society shifted to veganism, and how the older generations are having to “come to terms” with their carnivorous past. In one scene, a psychotherapist named Yasmine Vondenburgen holds support sessions for former carnists to lift their guilts over carnism. Davina, a patient of Vondenburgen’s, faces the trauma of recollecting that Edam was a cheese she once consumed, and subsequently breaks down in tears. Using humour to promote what has mostly been considered a sub- or countercultural movement, it helped to normalise veganism and indicated the growing interest in - and provided a loving portrayal of - veganism as a cause and a lifestyle.
Contemporary documentaries on the likes of Netflix continue to profile climate justice movement. As this topic becomes evermore mainstream and urgent, veganism as a lifestyle choice continues to be promoted as a way that helps an individual “save the planet.” A movement that once took an abolitionist stance, and sought the liberation of non-human animals, has mutated into a pragmatic movement that seeks a sustainable future for humanity.
And what better way to sustain the future of humanity than to visit that pricey vegan hipster joint, and post a selfie from there as an Instagram story? In Amsterdam, these types of vegan establishments are on the rise. They offer an ethical alternative to the local steak houses. But they also sign employees up on precarious zero hour contracts, and the high-demand food crops, such as soy, that their products rely on perpetuates the fact that the West continues to over-consume at the expense of disadvantaged countries.
What once was an anti-capitalist collective movement, a punk voice for animal liberation, has taken a sharp right and has become a lucrative strategy for entrepreneurs. Activism has become an accomplice to capitalism. Punk vegans argue that no ethical consumption can exist within the borders of capitalism. You’ll spot their stickers that read “Dier vriendelijk vlees bestaat niet,” Ethical meat does not exists, on the street lamps of Amsterdam. It all seems a far cry from the graffiti that says “Go vegan or go home!” on the walls of a newly established Vegan Junk Food Bar.
One of the results of neoliberalism, and the high individualism of consumer culture, is that human beings are encouraged to take up Catherine Kaputa’s idea of “you are the brand.” You are an entrepreneur. You are the winner. You are the loser. In conversation with vegan restaurant workers it became clear that to me that those individuals were taking personal responsibility for climate change, or for animal slaughterings, because they felt like an embodiment of neoliberalism.
Instead of demanding action from corporate giants, neoliberal individuals grow anti-capitalist ideologies within capitalism, spreading hashtags throughout vegan community, showing off their activist work for brownie points on a CV, and build vegan businesses that aim to be at least half ethical. In a recent interview, Armain Schoonbroodt, a vegan thinker and founder of VeganAmsterdam.org, envisions a vegan world where all businesses are vegan. He muses that veganism being trendy is useful for the movement, in that it helps to introduce veganism to people that can later adopt a deeper meaning. Whilst this pro-active and pragmatic approach to making waves in society should not be overlooked, it is important to address what can only be described as cruel optimism. Not only are trends short lived, meaning the movement may lose attention sooner rather than later, but a vegan business, like nay business, brings with it the entrepreneurial spirit of competition. Competition leaves little room left for the collective, which has been the primary motor behind the vegan cause for decades now.
The longevity of the vegan punk counterculture has been hit by the self-righteous neoliberal leaf blower. If you continue forth with the vegan movement, it is important to ask yourself if you are vegan for the cause or for the commodity?