Published in Spain in 2000, this withering critique of biotechnology—composed in the situationist style—characterizes the production of GMOs as the latest “enclosure”, this time affecting the genome, “the most intimate commons of all” (Rifkin), and as an industrial offensive to create a “point of no return” by monopolizing patents on life itself and “substituting technical solutions for choices of a political nature”, for which purpose the miserable “citizen” and “civil society” movement were invented, to “modernize” the “methods of political management” so that the population can be more easily enlisted to support this “mode of production” that is “radically hostile to life”.
Notes on Technological Domination and the Myth of the Citizen – Some Enemies of the Best of All Transgenic Worlds
It is the essence of capitalism to subject to its will—and usually by means of destruction—all goods that are held in common in order to transform them into private property or commodities. At the present time, by means of biotechnology, it is appropriating the production of life. On May 12, for example, the European Parliament authorized the patenting of plants, animals, and human body parts.
Capitalism’s regimentation of nature began in the 16th century in England with the Enclosures movement, the opening act in the appropriation of the collective—communal—public spaces. During the late 19th century, in parallel with the development of science and industry, the process of privatizing life began with the creation of hybrid seeds that lost their special properties and produced smaller yields after the second generation. Today, patents on life and the manufacture and dissemination of GMOs constitute one form of that mercantile and industrial logic that seeks to reduce “the most intimate commons of all” (Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century)—genes—to a raw material transformed into a commodity: the eruption of GMOs in the world represents a qualitative leap towards the establishment of a completely artificial mode of food production that can be deliberately molded according to the needs of industry. Nature is, so it would seem, infinitely malleable without any consequences for human life.
Now that the vast majority of the West’s farmers have disappeared, replaced by employees in an agricultural-food sector owned by a handful of multinationals, the field of agriculture has been completely enclosed. In the United States, thanks to research carried out by the private police of the Pinkerton Agency, the agro-chemical firm Monsanto is filing lawsuits against farmers who harvest the seeds from Monsanto’s patented plant species for the next year’s planting and has legally mandated the destruction of their crops. Seeds, beyond their existence as seeds, are commodities subject to patents, sold in the form of a seed-herbicide-pesticide package. This subjection of agriculture to the decisions of the multinationals is resulting in the radical destruction of practical knowledge and possibilities for local autonomy.
The next stage in the subjugation of agriculture is the sterilization of the seeds: “In March 1998 genetics scored a new victory with the Terminator patent granted to the United States Department of Agriculture and a private company, Delta and Pine Land Co. The technique consists of introducing a killer ‘transgene’ that prevents the germ of the harvested grain from developing. The plant grows normally and produces a normal harvest but the grain is biologically sterile. In May 1998 the multinational Monsanto bought Delta and Pine Land Co and the Terminator patent - by now registered, or in the process, in 87 countries - and is currently negotiating exclusive rights to it with the Department of Agriculture…. Strange life sciences that conspire against the marvelous property of living things to reproduce themselves and multiply in farmers’ fields so that capital can reproduce and multiply in investors’ bank accounts.” (J. P. Berlan and R. C. Lewontin, Le Monde Diplomatique, December 1998.)
In contradistinction to its beginnings, when it had to prove its legitimacy against the hegemony of religion by explaining an intelligible world on the basis of experience, today science is producing certain discoveries concerning which none of the consequences can be known in advance. Science now demands that its detractors must scientifically prove the reasons for their doubts, when even common sense itself plainly apprehends the risks. After the series of tests carried out in the Second World War and the subsequent “civilian” development of nuclear power, the production of GMOs is the new “test” carried out on the scale of all of nature of a mode of production that is not only emancipated from the characteristics of life but radically hostile to life itself: it expresses the intention to bring about a point of no return. The former director of the Biomolecular Engineering Commission, Axel Kahn, was therefore capable of tranquilly declaring: “The only choice is to go forward. We must proceed case by case, but tests are not enough. We must have transgenic crops on thousands of hectares…. A moratorium on transgenic crops would entail ‘not wanting to know’ the problems that might arise on a large scale. This is why the Biomolecular Engineering Commission is against it” (Agra Presse weekly edition, October 21, 1996, p. 32). We should point out that this new Doctor Strangelove is currently the assistant director of the life sciences section at Rhône-Poulenc, which is now Aventis after its merger with Hoetsch.
Contrary to what is claimed by the propaganda of Monsanto, Novartis and Rhône-Poulenc (in a publicity campaign initiated in June 1998), the introduction of GMOs will exacerbate poverty and food insecurity in the so-called developing countries. GMOs, at first destined for the wealthy countries, will thus permit the production of the substitutes for the plants that are cultivated today for export by the poor countries: after having replaced subsistence crops in the Third World with crops destined for export, the West is now beginning to eliminate the export crops of the Third World. For example, it is now possible to manufacture lauric oils—normally extracted from coconuts or palm nuts—from transgenic canola. If this substitution results in a cost reduction, Asia and Africa will lose their predominance as exporters of lauric oils. The multinationals will not devote their investments to any other kind of research because there is no profit in attempting to resolve the problems of the “Third World”. The propaganda about GMOs conceals the basic fact that the organization of agriculture in the so-called underdeveloped countries depends first of all on a relation of forces of a political and economic order: latifundism, the invasion of their markets by the profitable products of the developed countries, wars; in short, the domination of the South by the North.
The scientific establishment as a whole possesses a very clear understanding of the nature of the risks associated with the dissemination of GMOs, but refuses to draw the least practical conclusion from this knowledge: unlike the insurance companies, which refuse to cover GMOs. First, there is the risk of the impoverishment of crop biodiversity due to the fact that a handful of increasingly more powerful and concentrated firms monopolize the plant varieties on the market. This monopolistic strategy now limits the choices of the farmers, who are prohibited from planting the seeds from their own harvests, whether transgenic or conventional. Furthermore, a farmer whose land adjoins a transgenic field will see his crops transformed by cross-pollination. Finally, we must take into account a factor that works to the detriment of natural biodiversity and environmental equilibrium: the genetic pollution affecting the flow of genes that normally takes place between cultivated plants, wild plants and variants of the cultivated species. This genetic pollution will confer upon these plants certain undesirable properties and capacities for resistance that could have a deleterious effect on the rhizosphere, and not just on farmland. We shall also cite some other risks that are currently being considered: the creation of new chimerical varieties concerning which nothing at all is known (tobacco with a firefly gene or a tomato plant with a fish gene); the likely emergence of resistance to pesticides on the part of insects and plants that are transformed into noxious, almost indestructible “super-pests” or “super-weeds”; and the risks of an increase in the incidence of certain types of human cancers (testicular cancer, for example—see The Lancet, April 15, 1995) and allergies. As in the case of the production of plutonium and other transuranic elements by the nuclear industry, we are bombarding nature with manufactured and toxic elements that never previously existed.
None of these things are of any concern to industrialists, who have rejected any long-term view and are instead securely ensconced in the limited optic of immediate profits. As Monsanto’s director of corporate communications boldly proclaimed: “Monsanto shouldn’t have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job” (“Playing God in the Garden”, The New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998). One will get a better appreciation of the gist of this declaration if one considers the fact that Monsanto occupies responsible positions in that very same regulatory institution…. As with the nuclear industry, once again the regulator and the regulated are one and the same.
Totalitarian in an increasingly more obvious way, the world economy discovers in the development of GMOs new means conducive to its delirious expansion. While competition is currently provoking fierce battles between agro-chemical firms (mergers, restructurings with the usual cutbacks and layoffs), one may also observe that these ferocious business adversaries are capable of becoming “allied competitors” whenever unrest raises its head among the public, especially in their public relations campaigns.
“… technological discourse is above all deceptive discourse…. the lie is not merely in advertising. Indeed, it is in technological discourse as a whole, which strongly and loudly affirms values (in this case freedom) by the very means which negates these values…. The great design is, above all, that there should be no conflicts.”
(Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff)
The essence of technological totalitarianism consists in substituting technical solutions for choices of a political nature. These technical solutions engender new problems that the multinationals and the bureaucrats claim to manage rationally, that is, in an increasingly technical way. This manner of dealing with all aspects of human life freezes all imagination by assuring that only technical solutions, palliatives and prostheses will be possible to the exclusion of any other approaches.
It is of the utmost importance at the current time, with regard to the delicate decisions that must necessarily be imposed, that capitalist and bureaucratic logic should modernize its methods of political management. Just as the appearance of GMOs is the fruit of genetic manipulation, political management implies the manipulation of individuals. It is necessary to insert the gene for responsibility into the dispossessed individuals who are ready to receive it, in order to create the illusion of participation on the part of a citizenry deprived of any decision-making power. This implies, from a moral point of view, that the citizen should allow the powers that be to divest themselves of some of their own responsibility.
The citizen embodies one of the main contradictions of capitalism: just as capitalism needs to simultaneously integrate and exclude men as wage workers in the domain of production, the political arena simultaneously entails the participation and exclusion of men as citizens. Today’s political management in effect faces the obligation of having to address an agonizing contradiction: at the same time that it aspires to distance individuals as much as possible from any involvement in managing their own affairs in every domain, it complains about the general apathy and the banalization of “uncivil” behaviors that such a situation ineluctably generates.
Today, the modern citizen appears as the most mystifying figure of the prevailing political impotence.
The citizen votes, confident that he is making a political choice. He is persuaded that in a state based on legal rights all problems can be successfully addressed with a little good will on the part of the citizenry. He has come to believe that he is taken into consideration in decisions in which, however, he has never been considered at all. Some days he even feels obliged to attend a demonstration.
The citizen can be recognized essentially by virtue of the degree to which he adheres to the script of the common values and representations of the middle class that have been imposed on everyone. He is variously a complacent student, a confused teacher, a restless commercial director, or an employee of the cultural sector, a reader of Télérama or other Bourdeuseries, a reasonable worker, maybe unemployed…. In this sense, his political incapacity is merely one aspect of the more vast movement of dispossession that he encounters in all of his everyday activities.
Like a miraculous ersatz product, the discourse of civil society arises at a moment when even the traditional forms of political and trade union participation are definitively collapsing. The acceleration of the collapse of political social life over the last ten years is principally explained by the end of the false East-West antagonism, the disappearance of the working class, and the concomitant victory of the logic of the commodity. With the help of the associative milieu of the left, directed paternally by a handful of discredited politicians, the citizen prospers in a process of the mutation of politics in which all serious opposition vanishes, in which every party seeks nothing more than to take over the day to day implementation of decisions made by others. An entity chosen to fill the political and social voids, the figure of the citizen is the abstraction that rises over the ruins of both.
Despite the fact that he likes to imagine that he is a busy man, the citizen is the man of irresolution par excellence. Constantly lost whenever it is a question of making a choice with regard to any question, regardless of its importance, he is the man of never-overcome anxieties. Since he was produced exclusively for the purpose of ratifying pre-established situations and choices, he is most often in a state of almost total ignorance concerning the contemporary mechanisms of political manipulation; hence his humanitarian tendency. Since he never questions power, he is active in a virtual agora that he wants to preserve exempt from injuries and conflicts. The modern citizen is undoubtedly naïve, as was pointed out with so much satisfaction by Deputy Le Déaut, former president of the Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices, and the organizer of the “Citizens Conference” on GMOs in June 1998.
Since he will never be able to make any decisions by himself, for the citizen everything is transformed into a mere object of knowledge that is to be endlessly studied. That is why he will only accept debates that are stripped of all practical implications. The “debate” in effect constitutes the privileged framework of civil society effusiveness: pleased that his dissatisfaction has been submitted for review, he listens religiously to the tranquilizing words of the experts who reveal to him the indispensable “objectivity” of their accredited Ph.D. knowledge; the more progress he makes towards the illusory acquisition of this knowledge, the more he thinks that the time has come to commit to a comprehensive and fully justified decision. At the very moment when his certainty seems most fixed, however, he is once again seized by his sickly lack of resolve, and he collapses scorned and despondent in the ditch of his specific uncertainty. For he will never want to reach a conclusion. His state of mental numbness is now manifested by confusion and a lack of interest in questions that felicitously touch upon his miserable charlatanry. And when, during the debate at La Villette, it was announced that the development of GMOs is an indispensable last resort if Europe does not want to lose ground economically to the United States, he displayed his apathy with regard to what was clearly nothing but a decree. Because he renounces all use of his will and his discernment, the citizen, at the same time that his masters show that they are ready to face all challenges, is logically reduced to the need to tolerate everything.
On the threshold of the 21st century, with the Internet and Love Parade, the cell phone and hundreds of cable channels, the spectator and the Internet surfer, or, in other words, modern man, has become an extremist of consensus: in order to hear only what he wants to hear and what flatters him, he only needs to change the channel, since he will everywhere encounter an unlimited variety of discourses that conceal the same lies, the same propaganda that cloaks innumerable networks of influence. From his participation in this game with power, the citizen derives the satisfaction of helping to give a human form to the power in whose hands he is a plaything and which is also destroying humanity and the world.
Faced with a world that is plunging ever more inexorably towards a generalized chaos, in which the definition of “human” presented by the ideology of biotechnology is reduced to the mere expression of human DNA, the concept of the citizen is just one of those pills that we swallow to mask the symptoms of an incurable illness. In fact, [what is needed is] the liquidation of the political powerlessness in which each individual remains a subject linked to the much more extensive system institutionalized by the state and the logic of the commodity over the last two centuries. This liquidation will have an opportunity to begin when individuals, rejecting organized passivity and recognizing their individual powers as social forces, reinvent the public space where sovereign dialogues (debates with practical implications) that involve all aspects of existence can take place. Within this framework, in contrast to an illusory “end of history”, the possibilities offered to the ideas and the principles of this struggle, clearly and directly, and always from the perspective of supporting choices that are authentically oriented towards solidarity, will constitute the foundations of expression of a complete and universal democracy, by means of which all of humanity will finally be able to create its own history.
Some Enemies of the Best of All Transgenic Worlds
Translated in April 2014 from the Spanish text, “Notas sobre la dominación tecnológica y la mistificación ciudadana”, published in the June 2000 issue of the (now defunct) journal, Maldeojo.
The Spanish text is available (April 2014) online at: http://www.oei.org.ar/edumedia/pdfs/T12_Docu2_Notassobreladominacion_Maldeojo.pdf