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.

In the next post of this series, I take a charitable view of the state of modern life under biocapitalist control.  I entertain the view that the process of biosocial development ushering us into a “biotechnological ‘utopia’” may be softened by late capitalist neoliberalism, traceable through a neoliberalizing trend in the ideology of some biological sciences.  This position will be offered a Marxist critique, primarily against the commodification of the body, and the internal contradictions of biocapitalism.  However, we shall see that these contradictions arise within the gut of an autoimmune biopolitical body, thus placing modern biopolitics (which we could have predicted by way of analogy with so much parliamentarism) at an apparently partisan impasse.

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

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 7.

[3] I have attempted to articulate such a theory in my “The Modern Constitution: Biopolitics and Sovereignty in Hegel’s Dialectic of Life” (unpublished), available here on

[4] See Phil Kitcher, The Lives to Come (New York: Touchstone, 1997) for a thorough discussion of many of the issues mentioned above, and the effects of the genetic revolution on the future of humanity.  I mean to evoke a chapter of this book here, entitled ‘The New Pariahs?’.

[5] Yu & Liu, “The New Biopolitics” Journal of Academic Ethics (2010) 7: 289.

[6] Ibid., 292.

[7] Phil Kitcher, The Lives to Come, 1997.

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