It sounds like a public holiday. The kind of thing which has a Google doodle dedicated to it. But International Cube Day is not some bizarre celebration that only your search engine has heard of.
Instead, it was a day on which waves of vegan activism broke out across global cities from Mauritius to Hyderabad, from Osaka to Guatemala City. It occurred throughout Europe with demonstrations in the obvious places like Alexanderplatz in Berlin, and in more obscure places like Marks and Spencers in Truro.
They all employed the same method: a spectacle based shock tactic called The Cube of Truth.
This day of global activism on 3 November was coordinated by the street action group Anonymous for the Voiceless. An offshoot of the hacktivist movement Anonymous, AV was established in 2016 with the aim of converting people to veganism.
Their values are clear and define the movement. They are ‘abolitionists’ when it comes to animal cruelty. They wish - as most vegans do - to end all forms of animal exploitation and fight primarily against speciesism which they view as a form of discrimination.
Although commitment to vegan values has taken Anonymous from behind their screens and onto the streets, they are a peaceful, non-violent movement that operates within the bounds of the law.
Activists that bully or harass and do not comply with the group’s principles are not permitted to carry the group’s name. They seem to strive to be the acceptable face of vegan radicalism.
Structurally they are impressive, a grassroots effort with no central organising force beyond a website that links to each chapter and a series of Facebook groups that coordinate events.
Although the comparisons stop here, their structure is reminiscent of a biker gang where a local chapter is established (or in the exceptional cases of Cyprus and Mauritius a national chapter) and then affiliates to the organisation.
There are over 800 chapters globally – to be considered an active chapter at least one Cube of Truth demo must be held a month so at a bare minimum there are 9600 of these cubes a year.
The cube is something to behold, when carried out well. A square of people is constructed in which each person faces outwards, wearing the now familiar Anonymous icon, the Guy Fawkes mask. The cube is silent. It does not need noise.
Each Fawkes-clad Cuber holds a screen or a placard saying truth. On the screens montages of the local industrial farming practises: calves being beaten, caged hens, bloody corpses in grim conditions cannot help but mesmerise you as you’re confronted by the reality of the supply chains you enable.
Outside the cube maskless volunteers explain what is going on and evangelise the benefits of veganism.
These shock tactics certainly work but it is questionable whether they’re efficient. As of 5 November 2018 AV’s website boasts: “Over 8,493 demonstrations in 806 cities worldwide, we've convinced at least 308,771 bystanders to take veganism seriously.”
While that's an impressive absolute figure, most cubes last around 3 hours. It does not seem unreasonable to ask whether these hours could be better spent on more efficient promotional activities.
AV sincerely believe in the tactic and it has helped recruit some of their most committed members. Brad Simmons, an organiser for the London chapter, joined AV after witnessing a cube in Covent Garden and has since helped establish demos in other UK cities.
He assures me that it isn’t time wasted. The outreach volunteers only speak to those who have been watching the spectacle for a while, those who are clearly interested, those who might change their habits.
They want to challenge preconceptions in a civil manner. Brad mentioned a commitment to the Socratic method. This is not the only philosophical grounding of the movement.
Several of the activists seem to espouse something similar to deep ecology, even if they haven’t read Naess directly.
I spoke to three activists at the Paris cube on International Cube Day. They all stated that vegan activism was part of a wider project to end all forms of exploitation; they were all in other movements alongside AV.
The way that they described the intersections between their various struggles echoed Chantal Mouffe’s idea that to achieve genuine social justice, a “chain of equivalence” must be drawn between different fights for justice.
To this end AV and wider radical veganism must be understood as anti-capitalist. The setting of the Paris demo highlighted this perfectly. Looming over the cube was the glitzy tackiness of the Mall D’Italie. It is an orgy of advertising and materialism, practically a monument to conspicuous consumption.
AV challenges this, their message is to consume less and consume ethically. Despite this though their politics are not entirely structural. AV lobby as well as use direct action. They theorise that all levels of society must be pressured to achieve the change they want to see.
But, when I ask Meven, a Paris activist, whether my responsibility is equal to that of Macron or Maccies he says yes. His response is simple: “Because these companies need profit they sell things for us to buy. If we stop buying them, they stop selling”.
This is perhaps where AV fall down. Individual choice is certainly worth pressuring, but sometimes they lack the nuance to see that these companies create demand as well as supply.
That said they do recognise the power of companies. I asked Dianne and Victor, outreach activists at the Paris cube, what their policy was regarding children seeing the disturbing footage.
AV activists approach children watching and tell them they have to ask their parents’ permission and try and dissuade younger, unaccompanied children from watching.
Victor, only 16 but a competent debater, fired back quickly when I asked him if it was acceptable to have this in public. He told me advertisements are everywhere influencing people, there is far more pressure to consume animal products than to avoid them. Dianne also chipped in with “it’s the truth”.
It’s a persuasive argument. Perhaps AV are approaching the issue from the perspective that in the current system we have trickle down economics, but trickle up morality. The big changes must begin at the grassroots, on the streets not in the ironically named ivory towers.
AV aren’t without their critics, but they tend to come in the form of anti-PC online trolling. One group imaginatively named “Anonymous for the Voiceless are a Cult!” told me they are pro-capitalist, for-profit and divisive within the animal rights community.
Dianne and Victor refuted this easily. They are a non-profit organisation and are well received as radicals when compared to groups like PETA, whose work they appreciate but whose self-interest they dislike.
You don’t have to agree with AV’s message to see that online groups such as this and “Why are Vegans like this?” are generally trolls, or concern-trolls with nothing to say. There is little in the way of an organised intellectual basis for anti-veganism as most vegans (that aren’t in violent groups like ALF) peacefully coexist with members of the meat-eating public.
AV certainly reject such methods, despite the hard-edged image, they are generally very friendly, their propaganda outside the cube consisted of fliers for good vegan restaurants and vegan lifestyle magazines.
AV are interested in making veganism accessible and don’t adopt violence or poverty-shaming tactics like some of their aforementioned peers in the animal rights movement.
Anonymous for the Voiceless’ slogan is “Animals. Environment. Health” an appeal to the three main benefits of veganism. The most interesting aspect sits in the middle; it's emphasis on the environmental benefits of veganism is increasingly gaining truck with the public.
A lot of the members at the Paris demo were young, and Meven told me that it is easier to engage people, particularly young people when talking about the benefits of veganism for reducing greenhouse gas output and land clearing in the Amazon.
If they continue to push this line, then AV could perhaps become more central in the new crop of environmental movements that aim to shake us from our destructive torpor.
Climate alarm and Extinction Rebellion are relatively recent international expressions of resistance against an establishment that does not care about climate justice. AV form part of this front and push a more palatable style of militant veganism that is rooted in environmental justice.
Oliver Haynes is a politics and French student at the University of Exeter and a freelance writer. Past bylines include Open Democracy, Labour List and Invisible Illness.