Cheating At Life?, pt. IV: The Body and the Modern Biopolitical State

If you recall, we began this discussion with an interesting example of mutualistic interaction between species: that between parasitic wasps and host species of Lepidoptera, the latter of which is conferred with the apparent benefit of a selective adaptation that guards the species’ lineage from a common environmental pathogen.  On the orthodox view, identified by Emily Jones’ study, it might have been said that the parasite was cheating the host, tout court, glossing over the reciprocal relationship through which the host species also benefits from the exchange.  The study itself identifies plenty of similar examples.  Two Labroides bicolar, a species of cleaner fish, will partner themselves so that a guest may feed on the parasites of its host.  That the guest will occasionally take a bite out of its host had previously been considered an instance of cheating; however, a review of the literature suggests that it is unclear whether (or not) the host fish ascertains a measurable ‘fitness increase’ from having been bitten, thus making it unclear whether this counts as a case of cheating.[1]  Several Allomerus and Crematogaster ant species exhibit the peculiar behaviour of flower castration, sterilising plant growths on the host trees that have become habitat (called domatia) to the colony.  This reduces fecundity, but results in more vegetative growth, to the advantage of the ants, who have thereby evolved to extract a greater advantage out of their host; however, whether this counts as evidence of cheating must contend with new evidence showing that one species of sterilizing ant, albeit at the expense of plant reproduction, actually promotes overall plant fitness beyond the timeline of the colony’s occupancy.[2]  In these cases, it appears that the perception of evolutionary cheating falls to the preconception of a basic set of ontological assumptions grounded in lived social reality, where interactions are experienced as in a world of competitive individualism, rather than cooperative mutualism.

In fact, there seems to be a larger tendency in biology of which rethinking ‘cheating’ is only part, not yet equal in influence to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm, but perhaps approaching it.  New evidence of genome fusion and horizontal gene transfer, as in the case of the parasitic wasp, have complicated the phylogenetic Darwinian model of the ‘Tree of Life’, which now appear to contain circular root systems and intertwining branches, representing cooperative collaboration at the levels of evolutionary histories which challenge the old rigidly individuated branches.[3]  New research on prions, plasmids, archaeal viruses and cell organelles has suggested that, “whatever sense we might try to make of the Dawkinsian idea of selfish genes, molecular replication [i.e., ‘Life’] is always, and has always been from the pre-cellular molecular community to the present, the achievement of ensembles of molecules, not of individual molecules.”[4]  If the thesis of the genealogy of the modern era of biopolitics is correct, then there appears to be at least some evidence of a tendency towards liberalism within the sphere of biocapitalism, even if the liberalistic trend appears only at the margins of the existing intersection of biocapitalism and biotechnology.

This question was in the forefront of my mind when, recently, the most obvious road sign at this intersection appeared to me in the form of an opinion article, jointly published by evolutionary ecologist Simon Levin, and Andrew Lo of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering, in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).[5]  The article suggests meeting the challenge of market complexity and the possibility of instability in an era of collapse with the introduction of biological systems models into new regulatory frameworks to safeguard the state from the financial meltdown of a late capitalism in full crisis.

The economy is, after all, the product of the machinations, institutions, and interactions of individuals from one particular animal species, Homo sapiens. The unique abilities of our species—abstract thought, forward-looking and planning behavior, and social interactions, including sophisticated communication, computation, and large-scale cooperation—imply that the interactions are particularly subtle and complex. Nevertheless, they are still the product of animal behavior and the sooner we acknowledge this fact of nature, the sooner we can explore novel approaches to improving financial regulation.[6]

Never mind whether we have in fact become “technosapiens,”[7] or perhaps Homo economicus,[8] in transcendence of our species history qua Homo sapiens, as some suggest.  If the thesis of the modern constitution of the biopolitical body is at all correct, then it seems we are fully fallen into some form of each of these new evolutionary histories with something like a large-scale computational program for resolving the complexity of the late capitalist marketplace, encoded in the language of evolutionary biology.

Yu and Liu make the Foucauldian pronouncement in “The New Biopolitics” of the new commodity form of the body under biocapitalism: “Body is knowledge, and knowledge is power.”[9]  Here we may also look back to the first book of Marx’s Capital, in which it is said “that the labourer instead of being in the position to sell commodities in which his labour is incorporated, must be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labour-power, which exists only in his living self [my emphasis].”[10]  Capital’s consumption of labour-power, whose value is determined by the means of subsistence of the worker as a living organism, is at one and the same time the production of the commodity form.  With knowledge in the modern age largely exteriorized to computation and massive stores of data decentralized from knowing subjects, Jean-François Lyotard declares that “[k]nowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its ‘use-value’”[11] and becomes pure exchange-value, in its immediate consumption and reinvestment into capital as a form of reproduction: a production of labour power’s living subsistence.  Biotechnological knowledge of the biopolitical body is thus equivalent to biopower, which always already has its value fixed as pure exchange in the economics of biocapitalism against other commodity forms, in an irreversible abstraction from the use-value whose value is fixed as a function of the reproduction of labour power in the form of the subsistence and health of the living worker.

We can put this all much more simply.  The intersection of biotechnology and biocapitalism transforms labour-power into biopower, which is under the more or less direct control of biotechnology in the modern age of biopolitics.  The labour output of an individual worker is no longer legitimately delimited by his or her biological needs qua living organism, due to the biotechnological augmentation of the organism qua producer of labour-power.  If the average lifespan of the human being under the new health regime of the cyborg-biopolitical body were stretched out by a factor of two – say, to somewhere between 160 and 200 years – we could reasonably expect the retirement age to grow by a similar factor. Biopolitical bodies are already largely sustained and consumed by the market.  Progressive tech companies like Apple and Google offer egg-freezing services to their female employees, which is sold as an instrument of gender equality while denaturing the body for the sake of capitalist (re)production and consumption.  Moreover, public health in regions of the world where the best agricultural land has been appropriated through regimes of western economic imperialist and reserved for export back to western countries – specifically in countries such as Haiti and Ethiopia, where fluctuations in grain prices can be connected to health outcomes – is in permanent crisis, tethered to the whims of western markets.

Next week, we’ll start to move away from the biopolitical body, on to a discussion of the body politic, as it were; however, it should be quite evident by now that the strength of the critical perspective offered by the biopolitical sphere that I advance rests largely on an analogy between the two, insofar as each is connected by the biotechnological revolution.  We’ll take a closer look at the specific recommendations made by Levin and Lo, finally trying to come to grips with the biopolitical as a decisive problem of modernity.

1] Jones et al., “Cheaters must prosper: reconciling theoretical and empirical perspectives on cheating in mutualism” Ecology Letters(2015) 18: 1270-1284.

[2] Ibid.

[3] W. Ford Doolittle, “Uprooting the Tree of Life” Scientific American (2000) 282: 90-95.

[4] Dupré & O’Malley, “Varieties of Living Things: Life at the Intersection of Lineage and Metabolism” Philosophy of Theoretical Biology (2009) 1: 15.

[5] Levin & Lo, “Opinion: A new approach to financial regulation” PNAS (2015) 112.41, 12543-12544.

[6] Ibid., 12544.

[7] Yu & Liu (2010), 289.

[8] See for example, Henrich et al., “In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies” The American Economic Review (2001) 91.2: 73-78.

[9] Yu & Liu (2010), 289.

[10] Marx, Capital, Part II, Ch. 6: “The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power”.

[11] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984): Ch. 1-2.

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