The analyses this article presents1 seems important for understanding and challenging the general, naturalist (essentialist) ideology that goes hand in hand with and legitimizes the speciesist oppression of non-human sentient beings. These reflections are extensions to the human/non-human relations of the feminist sociologist Colette Guillaumin’s analyses of racist and sexist realities and ideologies2.


*          *


In terms of relations between men and women, these analyses from the late 1970s are still relevant; although “social relations between the sexes”3 have since evolved (ideas and behaviours have changed) and the appropriation of one “sex class” by the other disappeared from legislation in the 1980s, it would still be incorrect and misleading to speak of equality between the “sexes” having been achieved, as we so often hear today.

In any case, these analyses are important for understanding the current situation regarding relations between the “sexes” and “races”, as well as “sexual” and “racial” identities, from a historical and political perspective. Not only do they help us to understand where we have come from and where we are now, they also give us a theoretical framework for understanding the concrete and ideological reality of speciesism. And yet, although her theory can be directly (and logically) extrapolated to speciesist domination, Guillaumin explicitly stated at the time that the boundaries between species legitimised the exclusion of members of non-human species from the sphere of moral equality. I will conclude by showing how this seems to contradict her own point of view.

I will therefore present her theories at length (sometimes in a very personal, and in any case necessarily very imperfect way, since this article is too short to fully explore this important subject) and will not hesitate to make use of several quotes.


Essentialism and social relations

Many morphological and physiological differences can be found between individuals. Some have black skin, others white, some have female genitalia, others male, some have blue eyes, others brown, some have blonde hair, others brown, and so on. But some of these biological differences have been attributed a meaning that others have not: they are supposedly a sign of the nature of these individuals, a sign of what they are. These differences provide the basis for the social identity and status of individuals, while other differences are simply individual attributes that do not have any significance or say anything about what these people are or should be. Consider the following: I have brown eyes and a certain type of hands – factors without any significant consequences – but I am white, I am a man, and these factors have decisive implications for my relations with others. This may seem highly obvious and unquestionable, but it isn’t, not in the slightest. Only some fifty years ago, women were brunettes, blondes, or redheads, and these factors, too, had a social significance (albeit a minor one). These differences were said to be a sign of their nature: their characters, in this case, were well and truly defined by their hair colour. This is an example of how certain personal characteristics were once used to indicate the “nature” of a person but now have practically no significance.

Saying that I have white skin, therefore, does not have the same meaning as saying I am white. Saying “my sex is male” is different from saying “I am a man”, etc.

The personal characteristics that are used to signify a particular nature are not neutral descriptors – they are linked to the social utility indicated by the respective categorisation of the individuals they are attributed to; they are linked to predefined social relationships. Racism (not to be confused with xenophobia, which has a separate social function) did not exist until the 17th and 18th centuries, by which time almost all slaves in the Americas were of African origin and had black skin (prior to this, there were also many white slaves). In ancient Greece or Rome, for example, where there were both black and white slaves, “black” was simply a characteristic, a word used to describe an individual’s skin colour, which may have been strange to anyone unfamiliar with that skin colour, but did not in any way define this individual. No particular identity or social status was attached to the term. Racism is therefore the specific ideology that developed after (or even during) the period in history when it became increasingly common for only black people to be slaves. From then on, these individuals were perceived as “blacks”, which, evidently, was also employed as a highly derogatory term.

Slavery was therefore not a result of racism; it did not come into existence because slave owners considered black people to be naturally inferior or born to be slaves (although they soon began citing these ideas). In fact, racism first came into existence because of slavery. And racism does not only consist of individuals being devalued because they are black, it exists because they are defined as black, defined by the colour of their skin, by a physiological characteristic that has become part of their supposed nature as a result of an ideology. Racist ideology argues that skin colour is what makes certain people “blacks” and explains why they became slaves, whereas the historical reality of racism shows that the social relationship created by slavery is what gave rise to racism.

Guillaumin does not shed any light, however, on the question of how two specific identities (female and male natures) of which biological sex is the indicator came into being. This may be because the division of humanity into different social “sexes” goes too far back in history for us to do anything but speculate. There may not have always been a domination of one “sex” over the other, but the truth is that we simply do not know very much about the matter. In any case, since the invention of writing, male domination over women seems to have been universal. Physiological (“natural”) distinctions are used in every society to create two separate ways of thinking that correspond to two social groups that are defined as dominant (the male category) and as dominated respectively4. Even if the social determination of each individual according to their sex existed prior to any form of domination, the fact remains that sexism (in this case meaning devaluing one of the two social sexes5 and the current general ideology on relations between the sexes) is logically a product of the relations of domination by one sex over the other.


Relations of appropriation

Let’s return to Guillaumin’s general analysis. She argues that there are certain relations of exploitation and domination that are at once specific and comparable: these relations result in one entire category (class) being appropriated by another. The examples she cites are the relations of slavery, servitude and less commonly, what she describes as “sexage”. In these relations, certain individuals (of the dominated category) are the property of other individuals: those in the dominant category own the bodies and souls of the dominated, who are their possessions and must act according to the will of their owners in everything they do. Guillaumin argues that until recently (the situation is less clear-cut today, given that customs and traditions are no longer supported by law but still retain much of their power), women were appropriated in this way by men, both collectively in terms of general social relations and individually within family relations.

In the relations of sexage the particular expression of this relation of appropriation (that of the whole group of women, and that of the individual material body of each woman) are: (a) the appropriation of time; (b) the appropriation of the products of the body; (c) the sexual obligation; (d) the physical charge of disabled members of the group (disabled by age – babies, children, old people – or illness and infirmity), as well as the healthy members of the group of the male sex. (p. 181)

I will not attempt to give a full account of her extremely detailed, rational and persuasive arguments here. Instead, I strongly encourage the reader to get a copy of her book, which provides a fascinating and, I believe, extremely convincing theoretical analysis, of which only a very limited overview can be provided here6. Let’s simply bear in mind that as recently as the 20th century, a woman in France had to obey her husband, who had control over her salary (until 1907) and had to provide his consent for her to work (until 1965). And let’s not forget that the good old marriage contract, which stipulated that a woman had to submit to “her” husband, was not an actual contract, given that she was only guaranteed “maintenance” (means for survival) without any calculation or evaluation of what she was to produce (number of children7, hours of work, number of people she had to maintain emotionally and materially, etc.) being established. Sexual services were also compulsory, which is to say, left up to the discretion of the owner (until a recent change to French law, there was no notion of rape within marriage). At the same time, gaining access to an adequate salary has been and remains much more difficult for women than for men, with average male salaries still significantly higher than those of their female counterparts. At least one in every ten men is also violent towards “his” wife or partner.


    Job conditioning:

    « An Israeli animal trainer has been arrested for attempting to “train” his wife and children. He is said to have undergone “professional deformation” since beginning his career. The zealous trainer made his family “march”. At the end of the workday, he would abuse and severely beat his family, “applying training methods that are used for animals”. In addition, he had no problem making his wife and children sleep on the landing so that he could rent out the bedrooms of their apartment. » (L’Humanité, 4/11/1994)


Relations of appropriation and naturalism

Let’s return to the second part of Guillaumin’s analysis, which is most relevant to the question at hand. Up to this point, she has described and theorised the material, concrete and physical reality of relations based on sex (and other social relations of appropriation8.
From this point onwards, she begins to focus on the mental pictures that form in the human mind as a result – in other words, the ideology engendered by these relations of appropriation.

The ideological effect is not at all an autonomous empirical category; it is the mental form which certain determined social relations take. The fact and the ideological effect are the two sides of the same phenomenon. (p. 17)

Put simply:

… the fact of being materially treated like a thing ensures that you are also considered as a thing in the mental realm9. Furthermore, a very utilitarian conception is associated with appropriation (a conception which considers only the tool in you): an object is always in its rightful place, and what it is used for, it will always be used for. That is its ‘nature’. … as a corollary, the socially dominant set themselves as dominating Nature itself. In their view this is obviously not the case for those who are dominated, who, precisely, are only the pre-programmed elements of this Nature. (p. 211)

We therefore find practically the same ideology throughout history. With regard to slavery:

Aristotle already said: ‘It is then part of nature’s intention to make the bodies of free men to differ from those of slaves, the latter strong enough for the necessary menial tasks, the former erect and useless for that kind of work.’ (Politics, I:5:25). (p. 212)

Another example of the same message being employed two millennia later can be found in a speech given in New York in 1959, entitled “Justice for the Southern States”, in which pro-slavery lawyer Charles O’Connor argued the following:

“Now, gentlemen,” he said amid thunderous applause, “to that condition of bondage the Negro is assigned by Nature… He has strength, and has the power to labour; but the Nature which created the power denied to him either the intellect to govern, or willingness to work.” (Applause.) “Both were denied to him. And that Nature which deprived him of the will to labour, gave him a master to coerce that will, and to make him a useful servant in the clime in which he was capable of living useful for himself and for the master who governs him… I maintain that it is not injustice to leave the Negro in the condition in which Nature placed him, to give him a master to govern him nor is it depriving him of any of his rights to compel him to labour in return, and afford to that master just compensation for the labour and talent employed in governing him and rendering him useful to himself and to the society.”10

We can see from this example that Nature is a wonderful thing… particularly for the privileged groups who claim it favours them.

These relations of appropriation therefore correspond to a representation of the dominated as “natural possessions”, as beings “immersed in their nature”; beings that are simply “part of Nature”. The dominated are perceived as “bodies” and “matter” and their every deed and action is considered an immediate emanation of their “nature” (function). They are nothing more than specific embodiments of this Nature, which may be personalised to a greater or lesser extent11. Black slaves (and later, black people in colonised countries) were therefore seen as strong bodies that were devoid of subjectivity or reason: animals, big children, irresponsible people who needed to be protected from themselves, and so on. Children are described in a similar way (as “minors”). Women are the weaker “sex”, intuitive, irrational, illogical and capricious, scatterbrained and instinctive, ruled by their uterus (hysterical) or ovaries (the natural cycle of menstruation), etc. The oft-cited female intuition is a good example of how this naturalist ideology is applied to women:

According to this notion women know what they know without reasons. Women do not have to understand, because they know. And what they know comes to them without their understanding it and without their using reason: in them this knowledge is a direct property of the matter of which they are made. … Being in a dominant position leads one to see those who are appropriated as matter, and as a kind of matter which has diverse spontaneous characteristics. … The ideological aspect of the practical conflict between dominators and those they dominate, and between appropriators and those they appropriate precisely concerns consciousness. The dominators generally deny a consciousness to them precisely because they take them to be things. (pp. 214-215)

It is because living beings are appropriated that they have the status of an object. They are functional like tools and are (socio and psycho)logically perceived as non-individuated, interchangeable and devoid of subjectivity (having their own conscience, interests and free will, as they are subject to the will and interests of their owners). All of this is therefore ideologically expressed from a naturalist point of view: the nature of a thing is its function. Appropriated beings are things, they are not ends in themselves; they are nothing more than a means to whatever ends their owners use them for. They are therefore functional and have a nature. They are not individuals, but specific embodiments of a common essence (nature), be it their species, the eternal feminine, their race, etc.

It is with respect to [women] that the belief in a ‘natural group’ is the most constraining—the most unquestioned12. If the accusation of having a specific nature still today affects formerly colonized people, like former slaves, the social relationship which succeeded colonization or slavery is no longer a relationship of direct material appropriation. Sexage is still a relationship of the appropriation of bodily material individuality of the entire class. As a result, if there is a controversy about the question of the supposed ‘nature’ of former colonized people and former slaves, about that of women there is no controversy. Women are considered by everybody to have a particular nature; they are supposed to be ‘naturally specific’, and not socially. (p. 220)


Feminist postcard (Spellbound)


Freedom as an essence (for some), determination as a nature (for others)

The domination of appropriated individuals is attributable to their nature: they are like this or that, more like one thing and less like another, not what they should be, in short: different. But different from whom? Their owners (who, let’s not forget, also own the discourse)! Guillaumin is very clear on this point, but only when it applies to relations of domination among humans:

Naturalism does not apply indifferently to all groups involved in social relations, or, more exactly, if it concerns all of them, it does not apply to them in the same way or at the same level. The imputation of a specific nature is made to the full against those who are dominated, and particularly against those who are appropriated. The latter are supposed to be explainable totally and uniquely by Nature, by their nature—‘totally’, because nothing in them is outside the natural, and nothing escapes it; ‘uniquely’, because no other possible explanation of their position is even envisaged. From the ideological point of view, they are absolutely immersed in the ‘natural’.

By contrast, dominant groups do not, in the first stage, attribute a nature to themselves. They may, with considerable detours and political quibbling, acknowledge, as we shall see, that they have some link with nature —some link but nothing more, and certainly not an immersion in it. Their group, or rather their world (for they hardly conceive of themselves in limited terms), is understood as resistance to Nature, conquest of Nature, the location of the sacred and of culture—of philosophy, of politics, of planned action, of ‘praxis’ —but, whatever be the term, it is certainly the location of distancing through consciousness or creative activity. (p. 226)

This difference between the ideas concerning the dominated and dominant groups can also be explained by the difference between the relations that they maintain. Until now, the notion of a contract has characterised the social relations between owners (between peers and equals), as well as those between owners and the appropriated, in an essential way:

Not all social relations are translatable into contractual terms, and a contract is the expression of a specific relationship. For example, the paid labour force is within the contractual universe; slavery is outside it. The generalized sexed relationship (which is ideologically interpreted as a guaranteed relationship outside the contractual universe and founded in Nature) is not translated, and is not translatable, into contractual terms. This is habitually obscured by the fact that the individualized form of this relationship is itself considered to be a contract: marriage. … the contractual universe confirms AND assumes, before all other things, the quality of proprietorship in the parties to the contract. Minors, the insane, those under guardianship, i.e. those who are still the property of their father13 and who do not have possession of their subjectivity (which means in fact that they cannot have property of their own, as it is expressed in the Civil Code), do not have the power to make a contract. In order to make a contract, the ownership of material goods (land and funds put into play in the contract) and possibly the ownership of living things (animals, slaves, women, children) seems superficially to be the determining factor. But what in fact is the determining factor is selfproprietorship, which, in default of any ‘property of one’s own’, is expressed in the possibility of selling one’s own labour power. This is the minimum condition for any contract. But the fact for the individual of being the material property of someone else excludes that person from the universe of contracts; it is not possible for anyone to be at one and the same time self-owned and the material property of someone else.14 (pp. 191-192)

By definition, contractual relations are supposed to be devised by the parties involved. And, more importantly, this should be done freely15 (or in any case each party should have agency to create and act out the contract). Relations of appropriation, on the other hand, are imposed on the appropriated, whether by brute force or by the force of habit (which can, in any case, be enforced with violence if contested): by definition, the appropriated don’t get to give their opinion. They are not asked for it and have no choice but to fully accept their situation. Those who refuse to comply quickly learn what it costs them to do so. It’s only within the role assigned to them, always by the dominant group, that the appropriated are (occasionally) granted any independence. There is no ambiguity, regardless of what we may think. The owners in the contractual relationship may well have the impression that they enter into their own relations freely, individually and autonomously. They may feel that they themselves create or establish their place in their society and the world. But they know full well that this is not the case for those that they appropriate, whose place is already defined. The dominators position themselves as the agents of their relations, which means they necessarily position the appropriated as objects. Dominators also have the means of expression and develop the message that will reflect the relations of appropriation:

The first move of dominant groups is to define themselves in relation to the system which is ideologically decreed to be the foundation of the society. … In any case, they define themselves by mechanisms which create history, not by constraints which are repetitive, internal and mechanical, constraints which they reserve for the dominated groups. In this way men claim to be identified by their actions, and they claim that women are identified by their bodies. …

However, revolts, conflicts, historical upheavals and other reasons sometimes force dominant groups to enter into a problematic which they loathe for themselves just as strongly as they cling to it for those whom they exploit. They may then try to define their links with that very attentive Nature which furnishes them so conveniently and opportunely with living ‘supplies’. At this stage, they can undertake to develop those ‘scientific ethics’ (triumphantly liberal as well as Nazi), which proclaim that certain groups have the right to domination by the excellence of their qualities and innate capacities of all sorts.16

None the less they do not abandon the feeling that they are not one with the elements of Nature. And they consider that their capacities, as it happens, give them (what luck!) the possibility of transcending internal determinations. For example, Nature gives them intelligence, which is innate, but which, as it happens, allows them to understand Nature, and thus to dominate it in a certain measure. (pp. 226-227)

There is therefore a kind of doublespeak, an asymmetrical discourse at work here: the nature of some is determined by Nature, while others, in their essence, are free. This ideology is no more than a precise but mystifying account of the reality of social relations.

So Nature does enter into their discourse about themselves at a certain point, but at a place where they are assumed to have exteriorized links with Nature … The second stage of naturalist belief thus implies that the nature of some and the nature of others is subtly different and not comparable—in a word, that their nature is not the same nature. The nature of one group is supposed to be entirely natural, while the nature of the other is supposed to be ‘social’. (p. 228)

Some individuals are therefore instruments of social relations and must stay in the position that has been determined for them, while others, the owners, are members of the social body, and to a certain (though relative) extent, have to play an active role in establishing social relations and, in particular, in maintaining the state of the social order.

The imputation of being natural groups is thus made about dominated groups in a very specific way. These dominated groups are stated to be, in everyday life just as in scientific analyses, submerged in Nature and internally programmed. And environment and history are said to have no influence in practice over this. Such a conception asserts itself even more forcefully as the domination exercised gets closer to naked physical appropriation. In this conception an appropriated individual will be considered as having to do with Nature immediately, while the dominators are one step removed from it. What is more, the protagonists occupy different positions in relation to Nature: the dominated are within Nature and subject to it, while the dominators emerge out of Nature and organize it. (p. 231)

Guillaumin concludes her analysis as follows:

The more that domination tends towards limitless, total appropriation, the more insistent and ‘obvious’ will be the idea of the ‘nature’ of the appropriated ones. (p. 234)

The political conclusion here is that the fight can only be won if it appeals to political awareness rather than beliefs, and to political analysis rather than spontaneous feelings. It must create a contrast between the current understanding of how social relations function and the idea of their naturalness, the idea that that these relations, like the appropriated themselves, are natural and therefore, allegedly unquestionable.


Illustration by Jörg Li, based on the idea of the previous image.


“Animals” as appropriated and natural beings

The reader may have noticed that the quotes I have cited from Guillaumin’s article are almost always directly applicable to the situation of non-humans. Incidentally, this observation corroborates the validity of her theories, precisely because she did not develop them with a view to applying them to “animals”.

The reason why they are applicable in this way is that non-humans are very much considered as objects (and explicitly described as such in both the French Civil Code and Criminal Code); they are sold and bought as commodities and their owners usually have absolute power over them17. In short, they are truly appropriated. They are appropriated collectively as a class (the general category that corresponds to all non-humans) by another class (that of humans): for example, any human can fish or hunt an animal, which simply means that animals, as a whole, legally belong to humans (to humanity as a whole), and in order to become actual, concrete property of a specific human individual, all the latter is required to do is seize the animal by force or by deception. French law, incidentally, defines a wild animal as res nullius (literally: “nobody’s thing”). The offspring of a non-human, like anything else it produces, belongs ipso facto to the non-human’s owner. The very act of expressing the situation in these terms seems strange in itself because it seems so obvious and because of the extent to which we have accepted our status as owners and theirs as property as normal and natural.

The fact that animals are systematically perceived by all as “natural elements”, as “part of Nature”, as “belonging to Nature”, is inescapable. They are also considered to have “a nature” that governs them entirely. What they are and will go on to be is already determined at birth: mere indistinguishable specimens of their species, immersed in Nature and subject to it by instinct, or as Guillaumin says of women, “closed beings, who pursue a tenacious course, consisting of repetition, enclosure, immobility, and maintenance of the (dis)order of the world.” (p. 76)

In his well-known book, Wolf Children, Lucien Malson gives us a clear overview of the typical humanist (i.e. speciesist) viewpoint that can be found everywhere, since it corresponds to the current ideology. This ideology has been inherited from the 18th century and the Enlightenment but its roots can be traced far back into Antiquity:

The idea that man has no nature is now beyond dispute. He has or rather is a history.

Man’s is not a closed life, ruled and governed by a given nature, but an open one. He creates and imposes order on an acquired nature.

…there exists today a being which, unlike everything else in the world, does not appear at birth as a ‘prefabricated system’, but which still has to be constructed and has everything to learn…18

Ever present here is the notion of instinct, which, rather than explaining anything, acts like a magic incantation to signify that the stuff the appropriated are made from has special properties and governs them almost from the outside (though if we cannot speak of them having any kind of interior subjectivity, then we cannot speak of them being governed from the outside, either). Instinct is said to be the transmission belt for their nature. It creates the relay mechanism that enables the species (i.e. their nature) to dictate its trajectory to the individual by internal determination.

And yet, as accustomed as we may be to unceasingly referring to this notion of instinct, after studying the actual behaviours of non-human animals, we no longer know what to think about it, as even Malson agrees (while attempting to regain control of his argument):

The notion of instinct itself has admittedly lost much of its former rigidity even in animal psychology. The learning of skills by imitation among the higher animals, and the influence of group suggestion among the lower animals which live in a sort of permanent hypnosis, are now recognized as evidence of the important part which the environment plays in the shaping of the instincts. But the instincts are still treated nevertheless as a sort of ‘a priori of the species’ whose directions each member has to follow, even when separated prematurely from the group. The behaviour of animals is to this extent based on something like a nature19.

Despite the ideological a priori they share with everyone else, scientists actually find it increasingly difficult to legitimise this kind of idea. Speaking more specifically about birds and fish, ethologist Rémy Chauvin states that

… there is probably an innate component governed by chromosomes in many behaviours, but far from having a specific character, this component is a sort of vague and very general orientation towards the act that is to be accomplished20.

Although Chauvin doesn’t go as far as explicitly stating this himself, surely this definition of instinct implies that our own trivial feelings of hunger and satiety are also instincts? This both takes away much of the ideological advantage from the notion of instinct and goes some way towards filling the abyss that is supposed to separate us (humans) from other individuals. But I’m forgetting, of course, that we do not speak of humans as having instincts, but rather physiological needs…

The “customary” humanist viewpoint (or at least, the variety that is not racist or sexist) states that the dominant parties have animalised and naturalised the humans in dominated groups to make it easier to remove them from the category they call “humanity”, inappropriately attributing to them “natural” characteristics that are (factually and accurately) found in other animals.

But (and this is clearly not of the slightest interest to Guillaumin, since she does not defend this idea) there is no such thing as “animalisation” or “objectification” (which are unfortunately the same thing) of dominated humans that aims to make them easier to dominate. There is only a certain type of social relationship, that of appropriation, that logically corresponds to a certain type of ideology: that of nature. The idea that the appropriated are “natural”, that their appropriation is “natural” comes from the very fact that they are appropriated. It stems from the specific type of relationship – the relationship of appropriation.

Guillaumin’s analyses are rather convincing: the imputation of naturalness stems from the relationship of appropriation. The viewpoint that seeks to base appropriation on the naturalness of the dominated is therefore secondary to the appropriation itself. The same goes for the contempt in which the interests of the dominated are held: it is not the contempt that creates, explains and legitimises the exploitation, but the exploitation that engenders this contempt.


The fight against speciesism is also necessarily ideological

Guillaumin does not question speciesist evidence – not necessarily whether exploiting non-humans is justifiable, which could be a separate question in itself, but the idea that non-humans are natural, specimens of their species, driven only by their “instincts”. Yet her own analyses logically lead us to question not only the naturalness of dominated humans, but the naturalness of all dominated beings. Guillaumin questions the idea of naturalness itself, regardless of which group it is supposed to apply to, because in reality it seems to correspond to certain types of social relations. The idea of Nature and the nature of things is called into question by this investigation into its reflective character and its ideological foundation in relations of appropriation. And with this investigation, the humanist ideology, which is the opposite of the notion of Nature, is also inevitably criticised21. In addition, it’s important to remember that the only argument that has been invoked up to this point against animal liberation theories (which are not considered to be connected to the issue at hand) is that freedom is what sets humans apart from other animals, natural beings, that are devoid of it.

There are, however, many differences between appropriated humans and non-humans: the latter can hardly be regarded as agents in social relations, or only to a limited extent, compared with the majority of humans (once they are a few years old). Non-humans are condemned to accept this appropriation since they’re unable to do anything to change them. In short, they cannot create a real balance of power, let alone enter into any contractual relations themselves, at least not explicitly22.

Western political ideology has traditionally viewed contractual relations (i.e. relations between equals, or those who are declared equal) as the opposite of relations of appropriation (i.e. owners’ relations towards their things) and considered these two types of relationships as the only ones possible. This is what people mean when they say, regarding animals, that any beings that do not have responsibilities towards others do not have rights, either. But we forget to specify that, despite their inability to take on responsibilities, many humans are granted limited, but nevertheless fundamental rights (the right to food and shelter, the right to not be killed or tortured): the very rights that non-humans are so cruelly denied.

Children, for example, the last class of humans that are explicitly appropriated, are perceived as irresponsible, unable to manage social relationships, etc., —ideas that are quickly proven false, except when it comes to infants. In fact, infants, like senile humans, those with severe mental disabilities and others under guardianship, are no more able than non-humans to manage social relationships or enter into a contract. Nevertheless, because of their species, they are still given consideration, however little this may be (in any case, more consideration than is given to the animals we use); by law, if not always in practice, we are supposed to take their vital interests into account23 This argument cannot, therefore, be used to support our continued dominance over non-human animals (or, at least, not in a way that can be considered moral), which proves that even now, those who are unable to establish any power relations can still benefit from social protection, however insufficient it may be.

In any case, we are unfortunately not yet at a point where it might be useful to ask ourselves what social status animals ought to have, an issue that is, to say the least, difficult in the context of today’s society. There is, however, an urgent need to work towards a cultural revolution with the aim of transforming our current vision of non-humans. Without this, there is hardly any hope for a radical transformation of their fate. Unlike other struggles, the fight for animal liberation is condemned to remain a movement led by the dominant group themselves and will never be able to rely on the determination, intelligence or (cultural) ideological criticism of the dominated group, which colonised peoples, black Americans, women, etc. are able to use in the context of “their” struggles. It is therefore up to us to take on this task, which we are not in the best position to do. It involves criticising the traditional ethical theories of humanism (and promoting the idea of equal consideration of interests, for example) but it also involves criticising our common vision of animals as natural beings that are immensely different from humans, whom we see as free beings. I believe it is essential that we criticise the human/nature dichotomy itself: although there are radical differences to be found in the practical sense, I do not believe these correspond to what we perceive to be natural vs. human, natural vs. social, or natural vs. artificial. The distinction that we can establish between beings that feel, suffer and are aware, and those that do not seems much more pertinent. We need a distinction between the “objects” that have interests, whose existence can either go well or badly, and the objects to which nothing matters, those which are unable to feel and to which values do not apply.

Guillaumin’s analyses take this direction: apart from the fact that they enable us to understand what speciesist ideology corresponds to and how close it is to sexist and racist ideologies, her analyses challenge the notion of an order of freedom as the opposite of an order of nature, stripping it of its status as “natural” and “evident” and framing it as a cultural phenomenon linked to relations of domination. These analyses provide a possible basis for a radical critique of appropriation and the ways of thinking it engenders.


Yves Bonnardel has been an antispeciesist activist since the early 1990s. He also fights for youth rights, against adult domination and against the idea of nature. He is an activist against France’s neo-colonial policy in Africa, against the penal system, against discrimination based on nationality, etc. He is committed to the equal consideration of the interests of all, and the reduction of suffering on this planet.



  1. This text by Yves Bonnardel is the translation of the article “De l’appropriation… à l’idée de Nature” published in Les Cahiers antispécistes, n° 11, December 1994.
  2. This analysis was first presented in issues 2 and 3 of Questions Féministes (February and May 1978). They appeared along with other articles by Guillaumin in Sexe, Race et Pratique du pouvoir: l’idée de Nature (ed. iXe, 2016). The following translation of Guillaumin’s text was used for the citations in this English version: Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology (London: Routledge, 1995). See also Guillaumin’s work L’idéologie raciste, genèse et langage actuel (Gallimard, 2002 [1972]).
  3. The relations that Guillaumin calls “relations between the sexes”, “relations of sex class” and “sexed relations” obviously do not correspond to sexual relations, but to social relations determined by (social) membership in one sex and/or the other. The word “class” is not used in the strict Marxist sense here, whereby a class of individuals is characterised by its place within relations of production. Rather, it is used in a more indefinite sense to describe a category of individuals that determines and is determined by social factors (we can therefore speak of a “sex class” in the same way we sometimes speak of “the class of free men” or a “class of slaves”, etc.).
  4. I believe that defining each individual by their sex, this specific identity to which each individual must adhere, meets a society’s need to control the reproduction of its members, which it does by imposing distinct identities on them. It is their duty to assume these identities, which equal their respective social functions (primarily concerning reproduction – producing children as new members of the social body). I believe that domination is secondary, that it only comes into play once the categories of sex are already formed. The categories are no more “natural” as a result of this.
    The fact is, objects of human sexual desire are created socially. Children who grow up in the wild, apart from other humans, masturbate but their sexual desire (need, instinct?) has no object, given that they are brought up in complete absence of humans, let alone individuals of the opposite sex. See also on this subject Robert Stollers, Sex and Gender: the Transsexual Experiment (London: Hogarth Press, 1968) and Beverly Birns, “The emergence and socialization of sex differences in the earliest years” in Merill-Palmer Quarterly of Behaviour and Development vol. 22, no. 3 (July 1976), pp. 229-254.
  5. Why are women everywhere the dominated sex? Some interesting points and reflections on this question can be found in “Essai sur les origines de la division sexuelle du travail” (in Les Nouvelles de l’archéologie, no. 24, summer 1986) by Alain Testard and in L’un est l’autre (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1986) by Élisabeth Badinter (whose general views, incidentally, I do not share). For a refutation of the theory that matriarchies existed, see Stella Georgoudi’s “Creating a Myth of Matriarchy” in A History of Women in the West (article translated by Arthur Goldhammer, eds. Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1994-1996).
  6. The potential emotional content of relations between the sexes, the possible emergence of love relations, have in fact long helped to mask the reality of relations of domination and appropriation.
  7. Children are also appropriated, in the past by their fathers and since 1970, by both parents (when “paternal rights” were replaced by “parental rights”), who are their owners, or rather, usufructuaries and guardians. It is in fact society as a whole that is the true owner of children via the state, since it is the latter that ultimately decides who will have “custody” of the child, which the state is able to grant or withdraw in accordance with its own rules. In fact, individuals are never truly owners of anyone or anything; the social body is. Those I refer to improperly as “owners” (both for convenience and for consistency with Guillaumin’s use of the word) are also appropriated, albeit directly by the social body as a whole (which is what their status as members expresses) rather than indirectly by certain humans (which would correspond to the status of tools, or to use the term Aristotle employed for slaves, “animated instruments”).
  8. Guillaumin makes no mention of human-animal relations and barely touches upon adult-child relations, which are, however, more extensively covered in La Domination adulte. L’oppression des mineurs by Y. Bonnardel (Le Hêtre-Myriadis, 2015), among others. The purpose of the appropriation of children is not (or is no longer) primarily to directly profit from their labour, etc. but to “domesticate” and socialise them, making them socially functional. Whether this is done gently or with concern does not change the reality of the appropriation in the slightest. On the contrary, it conceals this reality.
  9. Aristotle, as we have seen, saw slaves as “animated instruments”; French plantation owners in the colony of Saint-Domingue referred to their slaves as “pickaxes”, etc.
  10. New York Daily Tribune, 20 December 1859, cited by Karl Marx, Das Kapital, volume III (Hamburg: Verlag von Otto Meisner, 1867).
  11. See “L’Animal, l’Homme, la Nature, la Société: et moi, dans tout ça?”, in the brochure Nous ne mangeons pas de viande pour ne pas tuer d’animaux, Corinne Monnet, Françoise Blanchon, Martial, Yves Bonnardel and David Olivier, 1989. Black people are therefore specimens of their race, women incarnations of their gender, etc. while men are individual representatives of Humanity (which is ideologically characterised and distinguished by the individuation of its “members”). Animals, meanwhile, are viewed as undifferentiated specimens of their species.
  12. This is, of course, false. The idea is at its most obfuscating when referring to non-human animals, as we can see from the fact that Guillamin does not find it necessary to consider her analyses applicable to animals as well: are they natural?
  13. As we have seen, “rights” to a child have been described as “parental” rights since 1970. In 1978, however, it was still the father of a family who was entitled to social benefits, who managed the family property and any property belonging to the children.
  14. Indeed, slaves were generally excluded from any right to property, including the ownership of any subjectivity. They were also excluded from any legal action, even as witnesses (which was also long the case for women and children). On the subject of women, as recently as the 1990s, it was estimated that they held about 30 % of global wealth (goods, means of production, etc.).
  15. We know what this can represent in reality, whether it involves the oft-cited social contract or the freedom to work in exchange for pay, for example. But this is not the place to discuss the ideas produced by owners themselves in their specific situations.
  16. In the original text, the author included a footnote here which provides more detail.
  17. Although this may depend on the social function that is assigned to the species to which individuals “naturally” belong. Thus, “pets”, which have a different function, are generally better off than “livestock”, etc.
  18. Lucien Malson, Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature, translated by Edmund Fawcett, Peter Ayrton and Joan White (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972). This idea is indeed “now beyond dispute” – a historical idea. The task of humanism has been to extend tendentially, at a concrete, material level, progressive recognition of the right of “all humans” to have ownership of themselves. At the associated ideological level, this includes extending the notion of equal freedom to “all” humans. This has corresponded to the advent of capitalism, a social relation based on the greatest possible potential for engaging in trade (buying and selling goods), and therefore engaging in ownership.
  19. Malson, op. cit., p. 9; I have no idea what “permanent hypnosis” he is referring to here, nor how the term would be inadequate to describe how humans live in society, although I imagine he sees humans as the quintessential superior animals.
  20. Rémy Chauvin, Des animaux et des hommes (Paris: Seghers, 1989, p. 21); this book is a sort of popularisation of ethnology and mentions many results of experiments or observations that go completely against the usual vision of animals/nature/determination vs. humans/social/free. Even though I believe that caution should be exercised with certain passages, this work goes a long way to revolutionising our understanding of non-humans.
  21. Because humanism as a whole, the dignity that is said to be specific to humans, is an ideological creation that only holds water if we accept that a natural order exists and that certain beings have a nature, which is supposedly determined by “Nature” itself. It is only in contrast to these beings that Humanity can distinguish itself: a natural, defined order is required for the Kingdom of (human) Freedom to stand apart. See Une liberté qui nous subjugue, op. cit., and Clément Rosset, L’Anti-Nature (Presses Universitaires de France, 1973). See also “What is speciesism?” and “Humanism and the promotion of a natural order” by David Olivier.
  22. The animal cause nevertheless plays on the presumed contractual nature of this relationship where possible: it would thus be deemed horrible to kill racehorses because they have served us so loyally, just as it would be terrible to abandon one’s faithful dog, and so on. But the principle behind animal liberation is not based on these kinds of arguments because it demands equal consideration of the interests of all beings that have interests, regardless of any notion of contract or reciprocity.
  23. They are nonetheless among the first to be sacrificed in a crisis; almost 40,000 psychiatric patients in France died between 1939 and 1945 from a lack of care and food as a result of political and administrative decisions. See Max Lafont, L’extermination douce (AREFPPI, 1987).
Categories: Analyses