The Bio Politic: Markets in Biology, Bodies and Information

September 25, 2007

Economic historian Karl Polanyi had a name for things not originally produced for sale on the market: he called them “fictitious” commodities. In this category he included land and labor. Polanyi argued that at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when these factors of production became organized as commodities to be bought and sold on the market, human history entered a radically new chapter in which pride of place was given to the market as the basis for the whole organization of society. “The Great Transformation,” as he called it, meant “no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market.”

Today, the free-market ethos pinpointed by Polanyi continues its creep into the fundamental elements of life—or what the Greeks called bios, whether in the form of people, body parts, biological and genetic matter or information thereof—generating a new catalogue of fictitious commodities. Indeed, in our brave new world, not only is human activity (labor) available on the market, human bodies and body parts, too, are “things” subject to exchange. And nature—or “land” in Polanyi’s designation—is also up for sale. But today’s coveted “real estate” is the biological matter of the natural world and its genetic components. Similar to traditional real estate, these natural resources can be accumulated and hoarded as intellectual property patents and other forms of privileged information. In fact, with the technological leaps and bounds of recent decades, information itself is not only being controlled for profit, it is also being leveraged to preserve discriminatory social orders. This Report traces some of these disturbing trends.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes in the Report’s first article documents a deeply troubling side of globalization: the traffic in “fresh” organs. In some cases, the organs are stolen from unsuspecting hospital patients, leading one victim’s mother to deem it “biopiracy pure and simple.” In other cases, desperately poor “donors” are recruited and willingly sell their kidneys for a few thousand dollars to international organ brokers.

Inhumane poverty is similarly at the root of Haiti’s restavèk system. Amy Bracken details how the inability of parents to provide for their families leads them to forfeit their children “into indentured servitude, with some essentially selling them (taking money from middle-men or the ‘guardians’ themselves) and others accepting the lifting of the load as payment enough.”

These two scenarios lay bare a cold contradiction of neoliberalism. According to free-market utopians, the market system functions through the rational and autonomous choices of calculative actors; therefore, they posit, all actors of an exchange stand to gain, or at least are left no worse off, otherwise the said exchange is “irrational” and shouldn’t occur. The “donors” of the underground organ trade and the parents of restavèks are not irrational, however—they make their fateful choices under extreme duress: utter and coercive poverty.

Who stands to gain and who stands to lose on the global chessboard is a central consideration for Cori Hayden in her look at bioprospecting’s benefit-sharing agreements in Mexico. The design of these agreements endorses a market-driven form of participation that seeks to align the varied and often conflicting interests of “stakeholders” in bioprospecting projects. Hayden reveals the contradictions and limitations of these agreements, which frequently run counter to the same problems they seek to address.

With examples from Ecuador, Michael Dorsey gives us a future glimpse of bioprospecting. No longer will bioprospectors have to tread through steamy jungles or elicit knowledgeable locals to find organisms with valuable commercial applications. The necessary biological samples are increasingly available to them as information in vast databases, allowing a handful of researchers and corporations to bypass the real-life “stewards” of these natural resources entirely. Dorsey suspects the products derived from these databases will remain similarly concentrated in the hands of the few.

Kelly Gates, in the final contribution to this Report, finds a similar outcome from the growing application of biometrics—digital technologies designed to automate the process of recognizing individual human beings. This cybernetic system of bureaucratic surveillance, says Gates, serves “the identification and access control needs of the expanding networks of transnational capital,” perpetuating a world of haves and have-nots.

If Polanyi looked back to the Industrial Revolution as the source of the destructive political and economic system of his post-World War II days, future economic historians might also look back to our own time as a point in which the global economy generated still newer fictions, with their particular forms of exploitation and exclusion.


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