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).


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