The Luddite anniversary provides a very useful opportunity to look at the issues related to biotechnology and the new life sciences in a broad perspective. At first sight there may be little similarity between the Luddites’ struggle against machines in the textile trades and the many issues raised by the life sciences, yet beneath the surface there are strong similarities.
The most obvious aspect of the Luddites’ cause was the use of machines to replace labour, the process of capital intensification that has remained a key feature of industrial capitalism until the present. But beyond their legitimate complaints against the manufacturers, the Luddite rebellion was a protest against the Industrial Revolution as a whole: as Kirkpatrick Sale puts it in his book Rebels Against the Future, the rebellion was a fight not against machines but against The Machine of industrial capitalism. The Luddites were defending the integrity of their existing way of life and communities that were being torn apart by the Industrial Revolution. At its deepest level, this was about the domination and control of nature, and the subjection of life to the discipline of machines. An example of this was the way in which workers in the new mills were forced to follow the pace and rhythm of the machines, rather than those of their own bodies.
With the emergence of molecular biology and the power to manipulate living organisms through their genes, the imposition of the industrial model upon nature has moved beyond the physical and chemical to encompass the biosphere. The revolt against GM crops, as the latest expression of industrial agriculture clearly has the same protest against the regimentation of nature at its roots. But, what the anti-GM campaigners have often missed, perhaps because of the primarily environmentalist basis of that movement, is that the fundamental reason for introduction of herbicide tolerant crops, for example, was that, like the power looms, those crops reduce the need for labour. In Argentina, for example, where GM soya has been sewn over thousands of square miles, herbicide spraying is done by aeroplane rather than by workers on the ground. In much the same way that English peasants were driven from their common land and forced to become factory workers, and like the Green Revolution of the 1960s, GM crops are displacing peasants and forcing them into urban shanty towns.
It is also easy to feel the heavy hand of the industrial system in the following chilling quote from a practitioner of farm animal cloning. Referring to cows, he says: “... they should command a premium at each step of the way because the feedlot operator would know, 1) that this clonal line performs best on this ration, 2) that this clonal line will be ready for slaughter after X number of days in the feedlot, and 3) that the packing plant will pay a premium for these animals because they are assured of a known uniform product. In the end the consumer will benefit with a more uniform producti.“ It can also be felt in scientists’ scarcely concealed impatience with nature’s’ ‘inefficiency’ and ‘wastefulness’: the first application of genetic engineering to farm animals (growth hormones) was aimed at inducing faster growth and greater efficiency of conversion of food into meat and milk. Likewise, when we hear of animals genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals in their milk, being described in scientific journals and industry presentations as “bioreactors” or simply “factories” it is easy to see the source of people’s deep unease.
What these examples illustrate is that, beyond the specific concerns about environmental impact and animal welfare, the imposition of the industrial model with its criteria of efficiency and uniformity upon living organisms that have their own entirely different integrity and internal dynamics must inevitable lead to distortion and suffering. Now, not content to merely tinker with nature’s existing models, a new breed of engineers are moving into biology and are taking the first (mostly rhetorical) steps towards a ‘synthetic biology’ – the design of organisms from scratch, according to proper engineering principles.
When the organisms to be ‘improved’ are human beings these issues become not just ethical and political, but existential. Indeed, the history of scientific attempts to control society through biological interventions is about as terrifying as it could be, encompassing eugenics and the industrialisation of death in the Holocaust. But the process of technological innovation is so central to capitalist development that, although the political ideology of eugenics became discredited after World War II, the underlying drive to control human reproduction, has continued unabated. The 20th century saw a series of technological interventions in human reproduction with gradually increasing penetration and manipulative possibilities, beginning with sterilisation and birth control in the era of state eugenics, followed by contraception, artificial insemination, prenatal screening and IVF, which in turn created the possibilities of genetic screening of embryos, cloning, and genetic modification. Research continues on artificial wombs. As reproduction becomes more medicalised and technologised so it becomes subject to the ruling industrial criteria of quality control, efficiency and uniformity, although, as ever these trends are wrapped in the banner of ‘progress’, ‘health’ and ‘choice’. Soon we will reach the point at which, at least for the middle classes, sex is for fun, but ‘responsibility’ will dictate that having a baby is a serious business, over which prudent control must be exerted.
As molecular biology penerates and dissects out each element of complex living systems it disintergrates them, making each element (genes, cells, tissues, organs) a separate object available for external manipulation, and also for commodification as a separate entity. Thus human embryos, eggs sperm and wombs can each be sold and recombined with each other for profit. Throughout human history, motherhood has been an integrated social/biological process, kept mostly outside of the sphere of economics and technology, in which women's central role as both giver of life and mother was honoured (even while the patriarchal insistence on women fulfilling those roles oppressed many women). Now, in the international surrogacy industry the 'Luddite Triangle' has moved to India, where poor and desperate women are facing the same exploitation and degradation of their status that the Luddite weavers and cloth finishers faced: they are relegated to just one stage of the assembly line, the (supposedly) unskilled work of merely incubating the offspring of wealthy Western couples. Legally binding contracts force them to give up the baby to wealthy Western couples, and once they have received their wages the surrogates have received all that is due them, and must quit the scene. It is small wonder that so many surrogates try to hang onto their child, at least where their social status gives them the remotest chance of success.
Already the ‘reproductive services’ industry (mainly IVF and surrogacy and egg and sperm donation) are multibillion pound industries, and as that paradigm takes over, even babies become just another consumer commodity, whose specification (sex, skin colour, beauty, cognitive abilities) are determined by the customer, with the most desirable characteristics commanding the highest price. Thus, in the US, working class egg donors receive £5,000 for their eggs, whereas Ivy League students who are tall, athletic and beautiful can command £50–100,000. This is the first stage of a new eugenics driven by the free market, rather than the state
The coming resurgence of overt eugenics is only one aspect of the new biopower, as social control is exercised through direct manipulation of human bodies. As science dissects the working of the body, medicine has abandoned its role of merely curing the sick, and has become biomedicine, an all-purpose set of techniques for manipulation and ‘enhancement’ of the body, (although such ‘enhancements’ are all aimed at either helping the individual conform to social prejudices, such as sexism, ageism, or at improving their performance as a worker). Other elements of the new regime include surgery (cosmetic and ‘gender reassignment’), pharmaceuticals for control of the emotions and ‘cognitive enhancement’ (e.g. use of Ritalin and other drugs by students to improve exam performance), brain imaging and the implantation of computer chips and, eventually nano devices.
Capitalism, at the bottom, is what its name implies, a form of existence in which everything is sucked into and assimilated by capital. It is this philosophy which underlies the patenting of genes, whole genomes, cell lines and organisms: patents are granted for inventions, not discoveries, and thus, nature becomes the intellectual property (the key form of capital) of corporations. The planned ‘enhancement’ of the human species through genetic engineering is thus a form of capital intensification: technology has reached the point where labour itself becomes the object of capital intensification, and we become one with The Machine. This may become literally true if the drive towards seamless integration of the human brain with computers succeeds. In popular culture, science fictions such as Robocop et al, prepare us for this invasion of our selves.
Thus, the challenge that biotechnology poses for us now is not so different from that faced by the Luddites. Can we resist the subjection of nature and ourselves to the internal logics of industrial capitalism; can we distinguish between that process, (which is always called ‘progress’ in our society) and a genuine liberation? If we are to do so, we must learn from the Luddites’ defence of the past, and of integrity, of that set of existing traditional practices, concepts and social ties, which preserve community and a space outside the market; those non-capitalist ways of being that are derided by the apostles of progress as primitive, irrational and oppressive. Whether we embrace this integration with capital or reject it is an existential struggle, which will be one of the key political issues of the 21st century
i Prather, R.S. et al 1992 Animal Biotechnology 3, 67-80.