Total Liberationist Reflection on Iris Young’s ‘Five Faces of Oppression’


To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2018). Total Liberationist Reflection on Iris Young’s ‘Five Faces of Oppression’, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).

When reading on the topic of social justice, my sociological imagination always takes my thoughts to the wider collective of sentient (and social) beings we share this planet with, and so my blog posts will likely always contain an element of this. My desire, in speaking on this topic, is to hopefully make people look beyond the species barrier and see the bigger picture when we talk about justice.

I want to clarify that when I speak about including other animals in our discussions of social justice and in our definitions of oppression and exploitation, my aim is not to paralyse the discussion of class, race, gender, sexuality, disability or any of the other various complicated aspects of human oppression and the dynamics of inequality and power relations. It is rather to highlight what I see as a major shortcoming of the discipline of sociology, that our critical analysis tends to stop at the boundary of species. While I would be hesitant to accept any attempt to quantify suffering, exploitation or oppression, the scale of human exploitation of non-human animals seems to me to warrant attention within sociology, especially when we are discussing concepts such as justice and equality.

Although my perspective could be called post-humanist, I prefer to align myself with Total Liberationism. “Whilst more conventional approaches to anarchist politics have often focused primarily on opposing the state and capitalism, the struggle for total liberation is additionally concerned with opposing all additional forms of human oppression, as well as the oppression of nonhuman animals and ecosystems.” This is where this ties into the discourses around social justice and ideas of utopias, as Total Liberationism recognises that changing the economic system alone (distributive justice, or a Marxist revolution) would not be enough, as other forms of domination and social hierarchy (e.g patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, cissexism, ablism, ageism, speciesism, and ecological domination) would continue to exist. This is why Total Liberationism encourages a holistic and intersectional revolutionary strategy aimed at using direct action to dismantle all forms of domination and social hierarchy.

The text: I like the idea that oppression isn’t just tyranny of a ruling group, but that it can be ‘the result of a few people’s choices or policies that cause embedded unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols.’ It reminds me – like so many things – of Foucault’s assertion that power isn’t just sovereign top-down power, but rather more complexly distributed amongst everyone, in norms and discourse. It’s pretty much the same thread of thought I guess, since oppression can be defined as the unjust use of power. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that the author also talks about oppression making people ‘less human’ and ‘dehumanising‘ them. I can’t help but want to deconstruct this linguistically. What does this actually mean?! What is it to be ‘less human’? What is left when a person is dehumanised? Because of the dichotomy we have created between ‘humans’ and ‘animals’, my natural reaction to these words is to think of a human being being ‘reduced’ to an animal. This is, after all, often an integral part of so called ‘dehumanising’ discourses (e.g women are ‘bitches’, refugees are ‘cockroaches’). This is ironic considering that language like this is actually arguably in itself oppressive, as it places the human species in a superior position over other species, so that to be ‘less human’ is a terrible thing. And it IS a terrible thing, in a world where animals are treated so unjustly. But inherently other animals are in no way inferior to us. They are instead treated so badly because they are perceived to be inferior.

Anyway, moving on. Actually going back a little bit, back to ‘unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols’. Am I the only one that sees how relevant this is to our consumption of meat, eggs and dairy, or our use of leather, fur and wool? This consumption of animal products is completely normative in our society (fur increasingly less so perhaps), it is habitual for most people, and it is largely hidden (hence ‘unquestioned’) by symbols. For example, suede, leather, steak, bacon, burgers, nuggets… none of these things describe what they really are. They are symbols. So I would agree with the author, and argue that oppression is very much present in people’s choices, as well as existing in a more structural sense. In fact I generally agree with everything argued in this article and think it is a useful addition to our arsenal of literature when considering social justice. I however would take all of the concepts stated, and push past the discursive limitations of the article (which uses the word ‘people’ 30 times) to extend these concepts also to other animals, who I believe deserve to be included in the ‘moral community’, which is really what we’re discussing when we talk about justice and equality.

Let me work through this as quickly as I can. ‘Exploitation is the act of using people’s labors to produce profit while not compensating them fairly.’ I agree. 100% sounds like exploitation to me. But let’s go a bit further. ‘Exploitation is the act of using an individual’s labors to produce profit while not compensating them fairly.’ Now we can see how ‘producing’ (notice how we refer to animals’ biological processes in an industrialised manner) eggs or milk and receiving no compensation for this can be considered exploitation. But do you know what it is called when a ‘worker’ not only doesn’t receive compensation for their labour, but doesn’t actually consent to it? Slavery. Linguistically, this has the added connotation of being someone’s property, which is also the case with animals. But with most animals exploited by humans, exploitation goes further than this. Not only are their labours used to produce profit, but their life is ended, their bodies butchered and profit is acquired from the sale of their flesh. In this sense (and Foucault would perhaps appreciate this application of bio-power), the natural processes of reproduction, eating and digesting food and gaining body mass actually creates profit. So really seeing non-human animals as members of the working class makes sense. Seeing them as slaves makes sense. But really their slavery goes beyond anything we as a species have done to other humans, at least on such a large scale.

Second, Marginalisation: ‘The act of relegating or confining a group of people to a lower social standing or outer limit or edge of society.’ Once again, change ‘people’ for ‘individuals’, ‘beings’ or ‘animals’ (which would include us, the human ape) and already this theory has a wider applicability for identifying oppression. Furthermore, the author argues that ‘these groups are subjected to severe material deprivation (they don’t have access to basic resources) and even extermination (such as genocide).’ We can apply this to the millions of non-domesticated non-human animals whose material deprivation comes from our ownership and subsequent destruction-for-profit of their habitats, and their extermination is quite literally species extinction, which is happening on a daily – if not hourly – basis.

Regarding the concepts of powerlessness and the culture of silence, I think it is pretty obvious that non-human animals are amongst the most powerless groups in society due to the fact that they are not able to communicate linguistically with humans. “There once was a person who, for a short time, could hear the animals speak. He hasn’t stopped crying since.” – From La Mirada Circular (translated).

The author goes on to define Cultural Imperialism as ‘taking the culture of the ruling class and establishing it as the norm.’ In this way, Melanie Joy argues that Carnism – the hegemonic ideology that conditions us to eat certain animals – establishes meat eating and other practices as the norm, and like other dominant ideologies (i.e white supremacy, patriarchy) it is so dominant that it is institutionalised and made invisible. Of course, the difference here is that the ideology of Carnism isn’t generally established amongst other animals, but rather they are its main victims. The author also mentions in this section Judeo-Christian belief systems, upon which US American and much of European culture is built. Similarly, Francisco Lara argues that Judeo-Christian beliefs also serve as the foundation of humanity’s perceived superiority over other animals. It’s no surprise. After all, it also serves as the foundation of sexist belief systems too; Eve was after all created from Adam’s rib, and then went and got us cast out of Eden. Nice job Eve.

Last of all (in my analysis and wider application of the text), violence. Do I even need to say anything? Industry standard is to burn off chick’s beaks, castrate piglets with no anaesthetic, grind up alive or gas male chicks born in the egg industry (they don’t lay eggs after all, and aren’t the fast-growing kind the meat industry likes to use). Dairy cows are artificially inseminated on what the industry refers to as the ‘rape-rack‘ annually so that they will have a calf and produce milk. Male calfs are then taken away from their mothers (who cry for weeks on end. A truly heart-breaking thing to hear) and kept chained in a confined pen and essentially starved into anaemia to ‘clarify their meat’ – denied even the freedom of movement to turn around to drink their own urine to combat the anaemia. They are then slaughtered at just a few weeks old for veal. One of the accepted methods of ‘humane slaughter’ for piglets is to grab them by their tail and slam their head against a wall or hard surface. This is just the violence present in ‘food’ industries, there is of course hunting, horse racing, dog fighting, animals circuses… Our violence towards animals is pretty extensive.

The thing is, we can all make a huge difference today by choosing not to be complicit in this sort of treatment of our fellow animals. The people working in the slaughterhouses – for the most part – are there out of economic necessity. It is us buying products from these industries and creating the demand for these atrocities to happen. I haven’t even gotten into the environmental side of things, or health. And these two other aspects also link in to social justice, not to mention to wider ranging implications that eating animals has on other human beings. The Global South is the most effected by climate change and environmental ramifications of our diets in the North. Some 800 million people go without food everyday, while we actually currently produce enough food to feed around 17 billion people – but feed the majority to so-called ‘livestock’. Literally, stock that is alive. Anyway, let’s save that stuff for another day.

Let me just highlight the scale of what’s going on here before I go make a cup of tea with hemp milk… Humans make up roughy 7.5 billion of the trillions of sentient beings on Earth. Humans kill 56 billion land animals each year. That’s a big number. To make it a bit more relatable, 6,000 land animals are slaughtered every second. Every five days, humanity kills the same number of animals as all the humans that have died in all the wars and genocides in recorded history. Every. Five. Days. The number of sea animals we kill is hard to quantify, but estimates that between 970 and 2,700 billion fish are caught from the wild annually, and this excludes all farmed fish. This would all be cool if there was some rational and coherent argument to justify this kind of behaviour. But unfortunately there isn’t. That’s literally how I ended up becoming vegetarian, and then later vegan. It’s the curse of being a logical, rational thinker. Of course, one can reach certain conclusions and then decide not to act on them, preferring instead to ‘turn a blind eye’. But for me, I would not be able to respect myself being aware of such atrocities being committed, and yet continuing to choose to be complicit and pay for such suffering to happen.

There’s perhaps no-ne better than Jaques Derrida to explain why, even as I have done in this blog, referring to any and all animals that are not human animals as ‘animals’ is in itself problematic and part of the larger problem of how humans treat non-human animals and nature itself.

I think it is likely one of many eloquently posed assumptions and beliefs of the Enlightenment period that has left us with this conception of humanity as set apart from other species and nature. Just as one can argue for racial equality by arguing that belonging to a certain racial group based on the arbitrary characteristics of skin colour, hair texture and a set number of other physical characteristics is not justification for differential treatment, so can we argue that the characteristics that separate human animals from those of other species, and belonging or not belonging to the group ‘humans’, is also not justification for differential treatment, and certainly not for murder.


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