The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in England in 1824. The equivalent society for the prevention of cruelty to children was founded half a century later. For a decade or so before the latter was fully established, legal cases against child cruelty were run by the RSPCA, because there was no legal provision for children to be defended as human beings — and they had to be classed as “little animals”.

The rise of the RSPCA — which became the cause of anti-slavery advocates such as William Wilberforce, after that latter campaign had been well-established — was unique in the world, and not, as we say, a coincidence. As the industrial revolution in the UK roared ahead, large numbers of people became separated from working animals in their daily life, far more so than in more agricultural societies.

Meanwhile, the factories began to be filled with human beings being treated like animals — measurable units of regular power — and then with children. As animals became visible as suffering beings, children disappeared into the weave of production. What supported the society, what made Victorian England possible, was the one thing that could not be seen.

Animals became not only objects of compassion, but of displacement — their suffering became symbolic of a wider suffering as humanity disappeared into the maw of high capitalism. The full suffering of animals could be accorded because there was no danger to doing so — animals could not get up on their hind legs and demand their rights. They could be objects of compassion, but never subjects.

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That basic split has re-appeared again and again, and more on the right than the left; the diaries of Alan Clark, the neurotic incompetent Thatcher-era minister are full of musings about how terrible people can be to dogs, donkeys, etc, accompanied by nothing less than sadism about his fellow Britons during the crunch of  the ’80s — and musings about how Hitler was misunderstood. At its worst, concern for animals licenses misanthropy — because humans mistreat animals, all humans can be despised.

So it is a moral and political disaster when kindness towards animals becomes as important or equal a cause as our reciprocal moral obligations to other human beings. Yet that is what is happening now, following the Four Corners report on the shambolic (a word that originally came from butchery — The Shambles was a street in town where butchers were located), and with the push by Andrew Wilkie to ban live exports and to make this cause a focus.

For those from the left, this is exactly the wrong move at the wrong time, and they should steer well clear of it. Worst of all, is any active comparison between animal exports and our handling of refugees that makes any sort of commonality — the only thing worth observing about it, is that they are categorically different activities that both happen to involve ships.

To defend refugees, and to slate the full horror of swapping people — including of course unaccompanied children, who, as in the 19th century, are taken as mere units, to be accorded no subjectivity — one has to insist on the absolute and categorical difference between humans and animals. Indeed, one has to insist on it as the founding category of moral action. Part of the confusion occurs because the “moral” vision that has spread among some among the greens and social movements has been that of Peter Singer’s “expanding circle” — the idea that animals should be drawn into the expanding moral circle that over history has been extended from tribe, to nation, to eventually encompass the whole of humanity.

There is no capacity to found a genuinely critical or moral philosophy on such a conception. Its ultimate destination is that people start totting up the numbers of cattle being exported and refugees being shunted around as if this were some like-for-like comparison. Even more bizarrely, a type of animal chauvinism has crept in — our Aussie animals being mistreated in filthy foreign abattoirs. The issue is becoming a licence to withdraw from the universalism that has to underpin a proper treatment of refugees.

The issue is refugees — a small number to be sure, but a group whose humanity is being utterly negated, in a process whose main aim appears to be a continuation of the ALP’s auto-destruction through cowardice and amoral gimmickry. To focus on that, it has to be asserted that animals matter, but they don’t matter much, and if the fate of humans is allowed to be subsumed under that of beasts, as it did for the good burghers of the RSPCA, then we have become less moral, not more.