Cheating At Life?, pt. V: Neoliberal Biocapitalism

Last week’s discussion wrapped up by talking about the transformation of the body under the biotechnological revolution of the modern biopolitical era. Today, we’ll begin by rounding out our analysis with a more detailed treatment of Levin and Lo’s recommendations for the regulation of financial markets grounded in biological systems approaches to complexity. By the end of this movement in the present essay, my hope is that the control revolution set forth by biopolitics upon both individual bodies, as well as the body politic, will appear to be total. Finally, the question issued by biopolitics as a decisive problem for modernity, will be a question of escape.

Levin and Lo’s article offers four specific insights from evolutionary biology and ecology that its authors suggest regulators ought to take into account: i., “too big to fail,” ii., “adaptive regulation,” iii., “homeostatic mechanisms,” and iv., “robustness and resiliency.”[1]  We concluded, after taking a look at the varieties of living things at the margins of what evolutionary biologists typically consider to constitute ‘Life’, and by following a review of evolutionary ‘cheating’ that calls into question basic unspoken assumptions about actual standards of the justified acceptance of biological theories and the sociopolitical foundations of modern biological worldviews, that there exists a certain identifiable liberalizing trend in the biopolitical sphere of late neoliberal capitalism.  Perhaps this comes as no surprise; the ideology of many liberal academics and of the ruling class more generally is that the neo-capitalism of modern neoliberalism has grown past the violent and bloody stages of ‘classical’ capitalism so vilified by Marxists and other more radical theorists.  If Life itself becomes a “cultural or artificial construct open to calculative and regulative interventions of administration,”[2] then presumably control over the biopolitical body could be softened under neoliberal administration (or even reappropriated for the socialized production of a latent biopolitical ‘biosocialism’).  It seems we can rest assured that the result of a union between biological systems theories and political economy will not result in brusque normative pronouncements by the former along the lines of the orthodox view captured by the title of Jones’ study: “Cheaters must prosper”.

‘Too big to fail’ makes the analogy between the unrestricted growth of financial institutions – noted as one of the key precipitating factors of the 2008 Financial Crisis – and the malignant growth of cancerous tumours.  ‘Adaptive regulation’ suggests a set of improved frameworks for environmental responsiveness modeled on the individual adaptations of organisms to specific problems posed by their environment, and specifically proposes allowing financial regulators to restrict leverage restrictions to a risk analysis between the assets of financial institutions and the macroeconomy.  We saw earlier that evolutionary adaptation was a post hoc explanatory mechanism posited by Darwin, inspired by a social metaphor that was popularized by Malthus.  The epistemic aim of evolutionary adaptation provides ideological justification for the class rule of the bourgeoisie, slated on a vision of gradual progress towards perfection and dynamic systems of change that allowed for an upwards social mobility that became the dominance of an entire class in society.  To concretize new class relations under the rule of the capitalist class, the entire dynamics of change which saw their rise had to be posited as a ‘Homeostatic mechanism’, whose internal dynamics only ever achieve the illusion of change, as if in a Parmenidean bubble of being.  The particular mechanisms suggested on the biological systems approach suggest the “imposition of frictions to slow [the] growth [of financial institutions]”[3] brought about by privatized innovation.  This apparent effort to renormalize and reduce internal inequalities within the existing economic system is thus seen to serve the double function of preserving existing class relations, while minimizing the direct personal financial impact of being the subordinate party to a control dynamic.  In this way, to paraphrase Levins and Lewontin, ‘Whig biology already mimics Whig history and political theory’, with its long history of mass pre-revolutionary labour unrest subdued and abated by the capitalist class, if not through the direct expression of force, then through ostensibly generous concessions and reforms, all in the name of preserving the existing political order.  Finally, ‘Robustness and resiliency’ urges the application of the notion of ecosystem robustness to the market, effectively connecting the deleterious outcomes of financial oligopolies to a reflection of the damage sustained by ecosystems as a result of the loss of biodiversity.

Here, it appears that the face of biopolitics itself has become merely a partisan issue.  The internal dynamics of the proposed biological systems approach, to the liberal theorist, will appear in the light of the progress of an advanced western capitalism towards egalitarian self-regulation and the eventual dissolution of internal difference, in the form of the reduction of social and income inequalities.  To the left of liberalism, Marxists will decry the homeostatic mechanism as an ideological barrier to the true destiny of progressive historical change after the bourgeois revolution, in the name of the proletarian revolution and the progress towards socialist society.  Marxist critique thereby always positions itself in relation to the dynamic system as in the relation of ‘Critical theory’ to ‘Traditional theory’, as Lyotard argues, who equally connects the traditional systems theories [Systemtheorie] to technocracy[4]; if the modern constitution of the biopolitical body were to become the target of such a Marxist critique, we could perhaps expect the latter to ground the revolutionary theory of political bodies in a symbolic reappropriation of the mummified remains of Lenin, installed by Stalin in a mausoleum in the Red Square in the center of Moscow, whose embalmed body surely can be taken to represent the immediate transformation of the modern political body into pure exchange-value.  But herein lies precisely the program with the Marxist critique, which is that there is no Archimedean point to which one can safely take flight in the hospices of critique.

… in countries with liberal or advanced liberal management, the struggles and their instruments have been transformed into regulators of the system; in communist countries, the totalizing model and its totalitarian effect have made a comeback in the name of Marxism itself, and the struggles in question have simply been deprived of the right to exist.  Everywhere, the Critique of political economy (the subtitle of Marx’s Capital) and its correlate, the critique of alienated society, are used in one way or another as aids in programming the system.[5]

This is to say that the critique of political economy is always already met with ‘adaptive regulation’, appropriated and internalized into the dynamics of the system, which thereby remains homeostatic.  Lenin’s body already belongs to biocapitalism in the commodity form of pure exchange; visitors may purchase walking tour packages that include admission to the mausoleum.   The Marxist critique of political economy, which resolves itself in the expropriation of the wealth, land, and ownership of the means of production of the capitalist class, developing hand in hand with the socialisation of labour, expropriates without transgressing biotechnological production and the means of producing biopower, thereby socializing labour only in the image of the modern constitution of the biopolitical body.[6]  It is in this homeostatic conjunction of appropriation and adaptation we find that the modern era of biopolitics is essentially totalitarian.

The current era of biopolitics has rightly been framed as a decisive problem of modernity.  Marxist critique leaves us ill-equipped to confront this definitive totalizing presence of modernity, because it is already subsumed within it, as a modernistic doctrine par excellence, even if dialectically opposed to the modern neoliberal capitalist orthodoxy defended by ‘Traditional theory’.  If it is possible to rethink the condition of bare life inside of a new space of possibility, it will be necessary to retreat from the modern.  In view of this, I suggest that the only critical stance that can take the modern biopolitical constitution as its immediate object must take the form of postmodern thought.  The biological body, in which the spirit is always already bound, transformed fully into commodity form at the modern intersection of biocapitalism and biotechnology, incurs a crisis for humanism in the sense that the human being, who is by nature a political animal (recalling Aristotle’s Politics), can only ever be what it is in the form of a return from the other; here we may turn to Heidegger, who would suggest that technology, which I have referred to here as an other, in this return to self, replaces the essence of being with its own, which opens up the modern crisis of humanism and the end of metaphysics as such.  Emmanuel Levinas can serve as a critical entry point to Heidegger on this point; in some ways, his own thought can be seen as an attempt to escape from the ontological violence of Heideggerian thought.[7]

To separate the spirit from the concrete forms with which it is already involved is to betray the originality of the very feeling from which it is appropriate to begin.  The importance attributed to this feeling for the body, with which the Western spirit has never wished to content itself, is at the basis of a new conception of man.  The biological, with the notion of inevitability it entails, becomes more than an object of spiritual life.  It becomes its heart.[8]

Postmodern theorists have often taken up Heidegger (often along with Nietzsche) as a means of positioning oneself critically against western thought.  Gianni Vattimo thinks of the postmodern in relation to Heidegger in terms of the post-metaphysical relation of being to a self-centered humanistic metaphysics, not as a re-turn, but as Verwindung (-windung signifies a ‘turn’, while Ver- is ambiguous between a for-which and a loss or departure-from).[9] In next week’s discussion – the final part of this series – we shall take some preliminary steps towards framing the problem of a reconciliation between this crisis of metaphysics, which is the end of humanism, and the collective loss of the biopolitical body to mediation by total biotechnological control.

[1] Levin & Lo (2015), 12544.

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

[3] Levin & Lo (2015), 12544.

[4] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (1984).

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] From Capital, Part VIII, Ch. 32: “Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime.”

[7] In fact, Levinas is interesting as an entry point for and against Heidegger.  Levinas was a student of Heidegger’s at Freiburg for a time, where the early enthusiasm of the former for the work of the latter would eventually become soured by personal tragedies: Levinas was of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, and Heidegger, a fervent National Socialist.

[8] Levinas, Quelques réflexions (1934): 205-7; cited from Agamben, Homo Sacer (1998), 151-2.

[9] Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

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