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Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day and The Capitalist Infesto: Democracy vs. Corporate Privatization of the Biological Cell

International Endowment for Democracy
www.internationalendowmentfordemocracy.org or www.iefd.org

The Capitalist Infesto: Democracy vs. Corporate Privatization of the Biological Cell

By Mitchel Cohen

A specter is haunting the planet—the specter of biological devastation and ecological catastrophe. The ecosystems sustaining life are being ravaged. Many familiar organisms—butterflies, frogs, bees, whole species—are in sudden danger of being wiped out, and mechanisms for propagation—even seeds!—are coming under the private ownership and control of a few very large agro-chemical corporations which seek to alter their genetic complement and reproductive capacities to further their control over land and the world's food supply.

Civil liberties take a backseat to the exigencies of the biotech industry. All the good things that human beings have achieved, and all the beauty of the world around us—the once magnificent old growth forests, pristine drinking water, healthy soils, seas teeming with fish, indeed, the sanctity of life itself as manifest in our genetic codes—are being grabbed, privatized and pillaged by corporate, technological and political powers and legitimized by new laws in a shameless orgy of material profit.

With changes to the gene pool verging on becoming irreversible and biotechnology becoming ensconced as essential to this new era of capitalist accumulation, enforcement of so-called intellectual property rights at the behest of the global corporate structure has political ramifications far beyond the biology of a few individual organisms. The biotech industry is hammering structures of power and domination into new configurations, so that our political institutions parallel, intersect and serve the needs of biotechnological corporations. These require new "power formations" on an international level.

The new technologies constitute modes of production and reproduction that intersect capitalist relations of exploitation; they shape and, ultimately, dominate our approach to science, art and even so-called "pure research." Science is not neutral, it is dripping with ideology. In our society, Science plays a dual function. Researchers are victims, but also perpetrators of the dominant determinist paradigm looming over and winding through our lives.

At least six people have died thus far in the U.S. (that we know about) as a direct result of experimental (and unapproved) "gene therapy," performed by scientists who try to introduce DNA into patient's cells to replace missing metabolic functions. But these deaths were covered up. Because of their investments, the scientists were allowed to conceal the results of their medical experiments by writing them up not as deaths, but as "proprietary business information" and thus invisible to review by reputable institutions.

In the name of science, healthy Black and Latino children are turned into guinea pigs, as "professionals" administer dangerous drugs such as fenfluramine to them under the federally funded Violence Initiative Project, to alter their brain chemistry to counter their alleged "genetic predisposition" to committing crimes. Let us be clear: Criminal behavior is no more determined by genes than is the desire to do "scientific" research or to become a corporate lawyer. People shape, and are primarily shaped by, social and environmental—not genetic—conditions. Scientists can no more predict the full effects of altering a single gene on an individual organism—let alone on larger eco-systems in which plants, animals and micro-organisms evolve in precarious balance and symbiotic relation to each other—than they could track a particular electron through a single atom, or a neutron through the course of a nuclear bomb blast or the evolution of the universe.

In the name of science and public health, lawmakers across the country are sponsoring legislation requiring mandatory HIV-testing and compilation of the names of those testing positive for the HIV virus. In the name of science, people who in the future are recipients of human organs grown in animals in England must report the names of their sexual partners to the authorities, according to a new law there, to control the spread of potentially dangerous viruses—this, from an industry, that claims that growing human organs in pigs, for instance, is "perfectly safe"! (Forget that for the first time viruses common to pigs, birds, and wildlife are said to be crossing the species-boundary and are being transferred to humans.) In the name of science, giant corporations spill their effluvia and toxic wastes in the water supply, soil and air, and then the same companies manufacture chemical treatments for the cancers and other ailments their environmental destruction has caused, making profits on both ends. In the name of science, genetic sequences are being patented by private corporations, which are now claiming ownership over the cell-lines of individual people as well as entire ethnic groups.

Catastrophe is, literally, blowing in the wind. The biotech industry is charging ahead full speed, knocking aside all who dare to question its apparent willingness to sacrifice our lives and the environment in its rush for profits.

Industry propagandists parry critics' claims by downplaying the significance of the new technologies and the political changes needed to shepherd them through. "Genetic engineering of plants is really no different than hybridization and plant splicing. Those techniques also developed new strains and, occasionally, led to unanticipated problems," they say disingenuously. Nonsense! What they fail to report—and they know this all too well!—is that mistakes due to new varieties of plants generated through hybridization are rectifiable. Hybridization does not irreversibly change the genetic complement of life itself. It does not pluck genes from one species and splice them into a different one raised in a wholly different environment. It does not threaten to leach new combinations of genes out into the surrounding environs to spread on their own through entire populations, with devastating effect. It does not introduce potentially fatal allergens into common foods, and then fight to prevent such foods from even being labeled.

But all of these define the new biotechnologies and their fundamentally anti-democratic nature. In the past, genetic combinations formed naturally. Even when they had other than beneficial effects, from a human point of view, they did not attack the integrity of the whole organism. New traits were selected for over generations; the offspring of those organisms that better fit the immediate environment were able to survive in greater number; natural selection took place through whole populations. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, attacks the integrity of organisms by introducing genes that had never been part of the species and have no relationship to context—the surrounding genetic and cellular material. Their effects on the individual organism as well as the surrounding environment are unpredictable.

Even controversial techniques such as the green revolution, which relied on hi-tech hybrid strains of rice, wheat and other grains and which were used politically and economically to drive peasants off their lands and confiscate them on behalf of multinational corporations invested in the production of export crops, selected for new varieties through hybridization; their genes were already part of the genetic complement of the crossed organisms. In a sense, hybridization and similar non-genetically engineered techniques preserved their genetic material. The new genetic engineering technologies, on the other hand, alter individual genes ad-hoc, without understanding that it is the relationshipbetween genes, involving their sequencing, position within the chromosome, and interaction within the larger gene pool and the constantly shifting cell chemistry, and not the isolated gene itself that shapes the development of particular proteins, metabolic processes and developmental patterns.

Genes, like every other entity, are context-dependent; nucleic acids do not constitute the "blueprint of life." They are not determining agents but part of complex dialectical interactions involving DNA and genes, genes and traits, traits and behavior, and behavior and overlapping and mutually-defining systems of capitalism and patriarchy. These enter and shape every level, from the way we observe the interaction of molecules (reductionistically, deterministically) to the way we conceive of and research genes, chromosomes and cells, to the more familiar conditions of alienation we experience and re-create as human beings.

With the new microbiology fast becoming the dominant framework for examining life, the doing of scientific work itself has become more and more atomized, fragmented, broken down into specialized disciplines and sub-disciplines: not just Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Ecology, but Molecular Biology, Evolutionary Genetics, Cytology, and Developmental Embryology, overwhelming us with its plethora of disconnected parts. Can there be any appreciation of the whole, of the complex interaction between the whole and the parts? Such appreciation is becoming more difficult as one's scientific work and thought feed on and reproduce patterns of exploitation, linearity, and domination, even when one does not mean to do so. The more fragmented our focus, the more "deterministic," in this culture, we become. The strictly deterministic, quasi-religious cause-and-effect model of DNA as blueprint still predominates. Too many scientists just substitute "genes" for "God" as the ultimate determining force. Why are ultimate determining forces needed, anyway?

My biologist friends offer one of two rejoinders to my sweeping statements: "That's not true," or "We already know that, what else is new?" They offer examples where genetic engineering has done some good: for instance, an emergency injection of engineered insulin. "If we controlled this technology we'd put it to work for the public good."

But such arguments turn out to be rationalizations for scientists working within the biotech juggernaut, which always tries to sell itself with a humane face so as to ease the qualms not only of the population at large but of its own scientists, trapped as they are in what has become an increasingly commercial and reductionist approach to research. Contrary to the red herring statements issued by the industry, radical ecologists do not propose to deny sick people relief of suffering obtained from, for instance, Protease Inhibitors—however temporary that relief will turn out to be—nor other such genetically engineered treatments. But we do attempt to provoke society as a whole to address why people are sick to begin with and to delegitimize the industrial framework as the dominant paradigm for doing scientific research. Why are scientists researching what they are researching to begin with, let alone in the ways they are doing it? The arguments of the biotech industry and its apologists turn out to be little more than sophistry allowing them to protect their investments and bet the world against their anticipated profits.

Scientists, researchers and technicians are, they say, engaged in biotech development "for the good of humanity." Let me offer, then, some modest proposals for the common good:

  • Ban all genetic engineering of agriculture, plants, pesticides and foods
  • Abolish the private patenting of genetic sequences—intellectual property rights.
  • Take private profit out of research and development of health-related drugs.
  • Require all bio-engineered products, and those derived from them to be clearly labeled.

We need to not merely question but challenge authority and the privatization so central to the new technologies. Changing the world, standing up to the Monsantos, Syngentas, Pfizer, Merck and Eli Lillys requires taking risks, sometimes very serious and personal ones, so that we can begin to determine for ourselves our own destinies which is, after all, a fundamental goal of any democratic movement worthy of that name.

But in a world where the concept of "self" will become littered with industrial genes if the privateers have their way (and who really knows any longer where those genes have been?), what is the meaning of self-determination? What "self" is doing the determining? If there is to be any hope at all in literally reclaiming our "selves," let alone our world, creating a new society and saving the planet, one can no more take hold of capitalist technology and wield it for the public good than one could the apparatus of the State, for inherent in the technology of genetic engineering, as in the State, are all the relations of exploitation, domination, and power over others, and over Nature, that we need to overthrow. These relations inevitably reassert themselves unless we dismantle both the technology and the state altogether, along with the system of capitalism in which we live. Only in the course of doing all of that can we re-envision the world we hope to live in and take the kinds of action needed to bring it about.

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