Cheating At Life?, pt. III: The Unequal Constitution of the Modern Biopolitical State

In the previous section, we looked at a genealogy of the Neo-Darwinist worldview in the modern biological sciences.  Today, we’ll be looking at this same genealogy as disclosing the modern constitution of the biopolitical – and specifically, biocapitalist – state.  For those who missed last week’s post, you can find it here.

The idea is that, following the Darwinian Revolution, the development of the modern political era up to and including the current era of neoliberal global capitalism has taken the form of the immediate politicization of the body.  The genealogy of the modern state of biopolitics, according to Foucault, takes root decisively in the conjunctive development of early modern science and the development of modern political economy in Europe.  We could trace this line of thought back even further, to Aristotle, who in Book I of the Politics makes the well-known claim that “man is by nature a political animal [zōon politikon]”[1]; the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, arguing from the collapse of the classical distinction in Athenian Antiquity between bios (‘life’ or a particular way of life) and zoē (‘bare life’), and rethinking sovereignty and the modern biopolitical state, theorizes that “the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power”[2] – and further, that the production of this biopolitical body is none other than the self-constitution of the sovereign body as such.  Theoretical literature on the modern constitution of state power as biopolitics blended with biocapitalism is vast, interesting, and important; however, it is not my immediate concern here.[3]  If it is true that modern bodies are always already politicized, then all sciences of living organisms – evolutionary biology, population sciences, ecology, molecular genetics, et cetera – have become sites of struggle.  This means that alternative biological theories can and should be decided upon primarily with appeal to sociopolitical values.  Failure to answer the summons issued by the modern biopolitical era to the life sciences as a site of struggle will ensure that the only relevant ideological force acting on the constitution of the modern body will be exerted by the neoliberal management of biological research itself.

Following the analysis from last week’s post, we can say that the metaphor of competition, and other metaphors of the particular social mobility of the bourgeoisie, become prevalent in the biological sciences precisely because biology in the era of biopolitics is always already politicized as such.  Convergence on the usage of terms evoking unfairness and exploitation, abuse and the extraction of use-value without cooperation, in the absence of any pre-established well-defined theoretical unity, is neither a surprise, nor a merely coincidental epiphenomenon of the ill-refined definition of ‘cheating’, as suggested by Jones’ study.  It merely suggests a pre-existing politicization of bios that immediately exonerates itself, by the extension of the logic of the individual constitution of the bourgeois political body to the study of life itself.  In this way, evolutionary cheating is not significantly different from plain old rigorous ontological and epistemological reductionism from Descartes to Dawkins, which (some have argued) stems equally from the competitive ethos, presenting in a worldview in which phenomena of higher orders of complexity are seen as effected by the individual collisions between socio-cultural, genetic or bio-mechanical atoms.

The modern age of biopolitics as a new order of social control has been especially pronounced in the rapid development of biotechnology since the end of the 20th century.  The new and constant biopolitical initiatives of neoliberalism: the Human Genome Project; the ever-presence of genetically modified crops (GMOs) in the sphere of agriculture; genetic pre-screening for the ‘treatment’ of heritable chronic conditions like Huntington’s disease and Tay-Sachs; neuro-reductive renormalizations towards neurotypicality through neuro-chemical and physiological interventions, as in the treatment of depression, schizophrenia, and a host of other disorders of psyche in the West; these all point towards the phenomenon of the modern constitution of the state as being none other than the constitution of a biopolitical body, idealized against the backdrop of sociopolitical conditions that provide preconceptions – to evoke Aristotle – of what constitutes ‘the good life’.  Those excluded from the constitution of the body politic – included only in the sphere of ‘bare life’, as Agamben would say – fall into the real risk of becoming social pariahs.[4]  Biocapitalism announces the new age of biotechnological control over the body politic; in it, we have the effective material synthesis between the impulse to control through direct mechanical manipulation, characteristic of the rise of the capitalist class through the first Industrial Revolution in the means of production, and the modern constitution of the era of biopolitics ushered in by the Darwinian Revolution.

As a new stage or sub-form of capitalist development, biocapitalism, to some extent, presents a biotechnological “utopia” of promoting and optimizing life.  On the same hand, biotechnology has come to represent the capitalistic advanced productive forces, opened up new room for the technological, industrial and consumptive innovation of capitalism, and promised health, beauty, wisdom, longevity and environmental protection through organ transplant, reproductive intervention, bio-medicine, genetically modified food and bio-fuels, and other benefits.  A genetically based value system is created, and life is no longer a natural and immutable destiny, but rather a cultural or artificial construct open to calculative and regulative interventions of administration…  However, what one discovers beneath biotechnological revolution and its seductive promises is actually a “control revolution.”[5]

Later on in the paper just cited, Yu and Liu address the inevitable proliferation of new polarizations and systematic oppressions under biocapitalism, almost summarily, in their statement that “only a small number of people can get access to designer genes [my emphasis]”[6].  This echoes Kitcher’s more moderate thesis, that the new biotechnologies of the genetic revolution, while potentially a positive force for driving social change, can be expected only to exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities if introduced into a milieu where such inequalities already exist.[7]  Biopolitics is itself only a modern framework or context of political reality.  Thus, for Yu and Liu, the fact of the biotechnological revolution as a control revolution suggests the rise of the biocapitalist state.…

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Cheating At Life?, pt. II: Genealogy of Modern Life

If you haven’t already, click here to read Part I of this series, introducing the problem of life at the margins of political economy in the modern era of biopolitics.

Recently I wrote about a species of parasitic wasp, the course of whose evolutionary history has effectively performed a genome modification on certain species of Lepidoptera –butterflies and moths – taking place over about the past 100 million years.  What is fascinating about the wasps, who transfer part of their own genome into the lineage of Lepidoptera through the injection of an archaeal virus into the host, seem to incur in a mutually advantageous relationship of reciprocity; this, because the bracovirus transmitted by the wasps has been adapted by the host species, so as to provide a natural resistance against the similarly structured baculovirus: a common environmental pathogen that they face.

What makes cases of mutualistic species interactions such as these so interesting is that they challenge the dominant research paradigm in evolutionary biology and related disciplines, like evolutionary ecology, molecular genetics, zoology and population science.  The Neo-Darwinist worldview still implicit in the popular research of many such disciplines essentially provides an explanatory structure or set of epistemic aims, which conducts standards of the justified acceptance of particular hypotheses as true or truth-baring, is a result of the initial research success of a tendency that gave rise to Huxley’s “Modern Synthesis” of the mid-20th century, between the laws of classical genetics and evolutionary laws operating at the level of populations.[1]  On the Neo-Darwinist view, species interactions are still largely envisioned in terms of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the only trace of mutualism is taken to be ‘mutual exploitation’ (here I am quoting evolutionary ecologist Emily Jones, lead on a recent study of evolutionary cheating which confounds the Neo-Darwinian worldview and to which we shall return; Jones is quoting her old graduate studies advisor, apparently an adherent of the orthodox view).  Perhaps the most familiar, if discredited view, at the furthest logical extension of the Neo-Darwinist paradigm, is the story of the selfish gene, and of the genetic transfer of cultural “memes”, advanced by Richard Dawkins.  Dawkinsian levels of biological reduction are not typically considered to be a ‘hot topic’ at the forefront of biological research anymore, but the related debate between mutualistic and competitive interactionism is.

Jones’ study notes that, from the early development of Darwinism in the mid-19th century “[t]hrough the 1980s, interpretations of the causes and consequences of cheating in mutualisms developed largely in the absence of any theoretical framework”[2] on cheating as such.  The study takes the form of a literature review, revisiting empirical data on several of the best studied cases of what had hitherto been considered prime examples of evolutionary cheating.  Despite the ‘absence of any theoretical framework’, the metaphor of competition was suffused throughout early modern research on species interactions: mere occupants referred to as ‘parasites’, orchids luring pollinators labeled as ‘deceptive’, and so forth.  The noted absence of a unifying theoretical framework is interesting.  It can be taken to suggest the presence of structural factors, primordial to the epistemic activity of theorizing, by virtue of which diverse programs of research were able to converge upon the veridicality of what was and is ultimately a social metaphor.

I suggest that an adequate explanation of the sway that the metaphor of competition had on early modern evolutionary biology, which today is challenged by studies like Jones’, must be understood with respect to two key factors: i., the conceptual revolution ushered in by the early history of evolutionary theory, whose champion was to be Charles Darwin, which transformed Western rationality in such a way that the social and political being of humankind was seen as capable of explanation by and subjection to biological controls; and ii., the rise of the capitalist class in the bourgeois revolution of mid-19th century Europe, whose own self-justification and ideals of class freedom were a problem for it.  The aristocracy and old feudal monarchies were associated with the Church, whose overthrow as the cornerstone of social and cultural knowledge was already aided and abetted by the earlier Copernican Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Through this overthrow, a mechanistic world brought into view by the Newtonian and Cartesian cliques was brought under the control of man’s industrial and technical mastery, decentered from the designing hand of an increasingly distant divine creator.

We may tentatively advance the thesis that the success of a political revolution is partially contingent upon an accompanying revolution in the understanding that legitimates the new regime.

The breaking down of the last vestiges of feudal society, in which peasant and lord alike were tied to the land; the ascendancy of merchants, financiers, and manufacturers; the growing power in France of the noblesse de la robe in parallel to the old noblesse the l’épée – all were in contradiction with a world view that saw changes in state as only occasional and unusual, the result of irregular reallocations of grace.  Reciprocally, a world view that made change an essential feature of natural systems was inconceivable in a social world of fixed hereditary relations.  Human beings see the natural world as a reflection of the social organization that is the dominant reality of their lives.[3]

We can see that early Darwinism furnished Europe with just the right ideological conditions to justify the rise of the bourgeoisie as the new ruling class.  In this sense, the early development of Darwinian Theory is best understood as an event which effects a reciprocity between the material reality and ideological conditions of bourgeois class rule.  This reciprocity is made even clearer when we consider that the idea of evolutionary adaptation was, for Darwin, a post hoc explanatory mechanism of natural selection, inspired by his reading of Malthus’ (1798) Essay on the Principle of Population.  It is from Malthus’ essay that Darwin developed the idea of the ‘struggle for existence’, which assures the evolutionary successes of individuals whose hereditary traits would allow them to appropriate resources from the environment with maximal efficiency in direct competition with others. …


Cheating At Life? Biopolitics at the Margins of Political Economy, pt. I

In recent weeks, Daraprim – a generic drug used to treat the potentially deadly toxoplasmosis – has been the center of a biopolitical drama.  Overnight, the life-saving drug saw a 5000% price hike, drawing attention to other recently publicized price-inflation scandals in the American pharmaceutical industry, and rearing the head of capitalistic enterprise in the biotechnological world.  Although brought down slightly in price amid public outcry, the medicine that once cost around $13.50 per pill still hovers in the hundreds.  Recently, San Diego based drug company Imprimis has introduced a direct competitor to Turing Pharmaceuticals’ Daraprim, for a lower price.  The surprise, the outrage, and the rush to regulation and price balancing abandoned to the free market, all signify what has caught us off guard at the modern intersection of biopolitics and biotechnology; we have entered into the era of biocapitalism.

Aristotle famously states in Book I of the Politics that “man is by nature a political animal [zōon politikon]”.[1]  This assertion is, in its essence, a birth of biopolitics in Athenian Antiquity.  If we are by nature political animals, then the sphere of political law would appear to be a special case of natural law; or, the study of the laws of nature has a strong positive normative valence for political constitution.  We might understand Aristotle as claiming that human beings are teleologically oriented towards the constitution of the polis, as the notion of final and formal causes are essential to his understanding of generality in the expressions of natural law.  It would follow that what is good for us qua living, rational, embodied organisms, is equally good for the constitution of the polis.  Good living [eu zēn] is necessary for ‘the good life’, or ‘happiness’ [eudaimonia]

Biopolitics suggests that the body is always already politicized.  This can be understood in several ways.  We can understand this to mean that the body is immediately transformed into a commodity, equal in value only to its own labour-power and reproduction.  We can understand it to mean that research in the biological sciences – evolutionary biology, zoology, ecology, population sciences, genetics and bacteriology, etc. – reveals intimate facts about the nature of life itself, and that our knowledge of these natures has a transformative effect on our constitution of political organization, in the form of the modern state.  For Foucault, biopolitics is a modern governmental technology, which serves to construct a regime of truth inextricable from the power structures tied to neoliberal political economy and inseparable from political rationality.[2]  I propose that the former two claims, on the new commodity form of the biopolitical body and the biopolitical transformation of political understanding, can only be understood with a more literal interpretation of the Foucauldian sense of biopolitics as technology.  The biotechnological revolution, especially in the fields of medicine and agriculture, is essentially a revolution in a certain means of production.  The health of the body politic falls to the care of the capitalist state, which only implements its medicines from the free market, in the form of a neoliberal approach to financial regulation.

The marriage of biocapitalism and biotechnology consummates the power relations suggested by Foucault, through the technological appropriation of the body, for the purpose of a transformation of labour-power wherein the living body of the labourer at once produces her own organic subsistence.  The biocapitalist no longer needs to provide the means of subsistence to the worker from out of his own profits; the cyborg union of living and dead labour already provides sustenance for itself through its own work.  Labour-power is transformed into biopower.  Many of these critical concepts appear at first as mere wordplay.  In what follows, I hope to demonstrate how each comes into effect through the use of concrete examples, picked out from modern biology and political economy.  I will take up the topics of evolutionary ‘cheating’, the ideology of the modern biological orthodoxy, biological systems models of complexity suggested as regulatory frameworks to tame the anarchy of the capitalist free market, and a brief Marxist critique thereof, in an attempt to reveal sites of struggle in the era of biocapitalism.  Ultimately, I shall argue that the modern dominion by biotechnology and the immediate appropriation by biocapitalism of the biopolitical body besets human subjectivity with a bondage from which it has no escape.  Rightly framed as a decisive problem of modernity, I shall turn to postmodern thought in an attempt to address the possibility of freedom from biotechnology and biocapitalism.  This last movement of the present essay shall hint on Heidegger and Levinas, on towards the Italian postmodern philosopher Gianni Vattimo.  In a way, the main thread that I draw through these arguments belongs to Levinas.  The most pressing problem for being – a being born into the biopolitical body and always already under biotechnological and biocapitalist control as such – is the problem of escape.[3]

[1] Aristotle, Politics I.2 (1253a1).

[2] Foucault, ‘The Birth of Biopolitics’ in Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 73-79.

[3] Levinas, De l’évasion (‘On Escape’, 1935).…

Weekly Roundup, Post-election #Cdnsci Edition

One of the first actions of the new Liberal government was the reinstatement of Canada’s long-form census on Nov. 5th, one day after its swearing-in. The data collected in the 2011 National Household Survey, the shorter, non-mandatory version of the survey, has been confirmed not be compatible with previous StatsCan data collection efforts, and not to provide enough information about the effectiveness of social programs. The long-form census had broad support across segments of Canadian society, and its cancellation in 2010 was denounced by almost everyone, even inspiring a song in favour of its preservation. The move for its reinstatement occurred in time for the next planned census, in 2016, to the relief of researchers at the University of Toronto. A Globe and Mail editorial argues that in addition to the return of the long-form census, the Liberal government must reinvest in StatsCan, undoing the deep budget cuts of the Harper era.

Another major science policy issue during the campaign, the unmuzzling of Canadian federal scientists, took place the next day. These scientists are now permitted to discuss their work with the media and the public. Under Harper, scientists were treated as “second-class citizens” hundreds of scientists in the public service were “asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons” according to a 2013 survey.  Celebrations at the unmuzzling were mixed with warnings that better Canadian science policy requires restoring lost jobs, repairing damaged relations between government and NGO agencies, reversing decisions relying on bad or no evidence; basically, overturning the many issues of Harper era’s science policy. Policy expert Paul Boothe warns, in addition, that government scientists must maintain a difficult balance of objectivity and loyalty no matter who’s in charge.