Last Sunday, I attended Vegan Life Live, a festival with a multitude of stalls, ranging from samples of ‘fish-less’ fingers to anti-McDonald’s campaigners. I was particularly interested in one stall, promoting sign-ups to ‘the Humane League’. Overhearing animal rights and activism, I was immediately intrigued. The ‘fast-action network’ promotes animal rights in major institutions by the use of collective pressure from an online group, sending out ‘easy, one-minute actions two to three times per week that include signing a petition, posting on social media, or emailing decision makers’.
Previous victories have been against Walmart, Panera and Starbucks, who have all since published policies to address farmed animal abuse.
More information on the Humane League can be found at this address: The Humane League
Feeling enthused to be part of an active group, I signed myself up (and continued onto the fish-less fingers)!
Later that week, the anthropology of infrastructure, and discussions of the state, power and activism, bought this momentary decision to the forefront. Who was it that ‘The Humane League’ was fighting against? What role did new technologies play in the rise of activism groups such as this?
An anthropological lens allowed me to revisit the matter and, with a particular focus on the network infrastructure which was created through the technology of social media, I realised that the actions of this one activist group raise important and intriguing questions about the role of power within the state and the politics of new technologies. Focusing on two major themes-tensions and power– can help to unravel the intricacies of modern politics.
Just as Anand (2001) focuses on ‘pressure’ to understand politics, a focus on tension reveals much about the activist’s plight. The online group is worldwide, with a myriad of different individuals from various backgrounds. Although tensions such as politics or culture may normally exist between these strangers, uniting in a common goal against these state institutions allows these existing tensions to be momentarily put aside and even redirected towards a common opposition. Big international companies are more likely to listen when pressure comes from a multitude of sources and the material technology is the means for this contact to occur, which could be seen as a new contemporary politics. The effectiveness of these online activism groups lies in the fact that they unite the global locally, and this redirection of tension is perhaps one major factor in their success.
Foucault (1982) discusses the location of power within the state and The Humane League challenges our preconceived ideas. Perhaps the fact that activism groups can be successful suggests that some power lies in the people and is not as state-based as we think. The state and the people are actually in constant dialogue and decisions are made at the crux of this conversation. Social media allows this activism, both through providing a platform but also by lending knowledge to the public, another thing which Foucault claims is central to power.
I believe an anthropological focus on the network itself- who it brings together and to whom it is directed-raises alternative questions than a focus purely on policies or ideologies and allows us to reassess the location of power and the role of digital technologies in this modern era of politics.
By Chloe Nettleton, 22nd January 2017
Anand, N. 2011. “Pressure: the politechnics of water supply in Mumbai”. Cultural Anthropology. 26 (4): 542-564.
Foucault, M., 1982. The subject and power. Critical inquiry, 8(4), pp.777-795.