Monday, March 24, 2008

Body Politic


Amid the ongoing ideological resuscitation of eugenics and genetic determinism, evidence accrues daily of the way in which class penetrates and restructures biology. The New York Times has published the results of extensive research on behalf of the US government which found growing inequality in life expectancy across the US, arranged by class and race. They attempt to offset this with reference to rightist think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, who assure readers that the poor are dying younger not because they are poor but because they are ignorant. However, the overwhelming evidence is that differences in opportunity, income, diet, and access to health facilities is the cause of the problem. Stephen Soldz points out that there is a PBS documentary series planned on precisely this topic, based on the "mounting evidence that demonstrates how work, wealth, neighborhood conditions and lack of access to power and resources can actually get under the skin and disrupt human biology as surely as germs and viruses."

Of course, it is perfectly obvious that capitalism structures biological processes, and not only by way of its ideological representations of the ideal human type from the eugenics models to Barbie, and the denial that it does so is increasingly untenable. A study by Inas Rashad, 'Height, health, and income in the US, 1984–2005', in the latest edition of the scholarly journal Economics and Biology scrutinises biological outcomes and their relationship, and finds that heights and body mass are closely correlated to economic performance: the taller you are, the higher your income is likely to be, and of course this is correlated to a number of other health factors such as high cholesterol, and diabetes. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the way class structures biology is the fate of human bodies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the turbulent and callous 'transition' period between 1991 and 1994. A study for the same journal in 2006 summarised the overwhelming evidence that the 'reform' process, particularly during the worst years until 1994, had led to vastly increased mortality, especially through increased alcohol poisoning, suicide, and violent death. It produced an increase in 'stunted' and 'wasted' children (children who are too short, or too thin), reduced overall caloric intake, and reduced iron intake, thus leading to haemoglobin failure and higher morbidity. Naturally, these effects were stratified by class, so that there is a strong correlation between child stature and household socioeconomic status.

These are just a couple of examples - examples, I might add, of well-known phenomena, not at all controversial or mysterious. Of course, the idea that biological processes are partially at the mercy of sociological processes has some disadvantages. It disrupts the heroic ideologies of capitalism, which seem to oscillate between the master race doctrines in which a small number of human beings are hardwired for supremacy and the protean doctrines in which one can with sufficient will endlessly remake oneself, boundlessly improve oneself, exuberantly adapting to the dynamic conditions of the market place through sheer strength of will. You get a lot of the latter in quasi-scientific business doctrines such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming. For them, as much as for a certain specious version of 'postmodernism', the body is a discursive fiction, not in the sense that our conception of the body is itself textual, but in the sense that one can just override bodily limitations through exhortation. Thus, one can work twelve hour shifts, eating miniature sub-standard meals at one's desk, without suffering a nervous breakdown or a heart attack or ageing ten years in one month, because of one's positive attitude to work and achievement. Kapital, in its endless mysticism, just demands this much irrational belief to sustain its reproduction.