Biology is Ideology
In 1999, as Datacide readers are sure to remember, JFK’s son John Junior joined the family of Dead Kennedys, flying his light aircraft straight down into the Atlantic. Mystery surrounded this terrible event at first, until an Israeli geneticist set our minds at rest. The Kennedy family, he explained, probably carries a risk gene, which drove poor John Jnr, like his father, to tempt fate once too often.
The ridiculous dilettante’s violent death wasn’t the only enigma recently solved by genetic research. A ‘genius gene’ was found by scientists administering electric shocks to mice, while the gene supposedly responsible for sexual infidelity was discovered by a team working with two species of mole. A ‘long-term study on a group of 120 depressed Canadians’ identified a ‘suicide gene’: patients carrying it can now be ‘watched more closely than the others’ (1.). In the wider field of biology, a savant who had looked at 1,500 pictures in the National Portrait Gallery announced that women are more likely than men (68 per cent against only 54 per cent!) to turn the left side of their face toward a painter or photographer, because the right is ‘the more emotional’ (and therefore feminine) side of the brain. This breakthrough was illustrated in The Independent with a row of head-and-shoulders portraits: half a dozen women turning to their right and Einstein looking left.
This eagerness to make sense of the world through primitively wielded biology is rich in comic potential. Yet it also appears more threateningly in the latest refinements of Police Science. The criminal justice system no longer pretends to be concerned solely with detection and punishment of particular crimes. As in the ‘Health Sector’ and ‘the world of work’, increasing emphasis is laid on monitoring potentially disruptive bodies, a category which right now is expanding to include a larger ‘multitude’(2.) than ever.
Biological information is central to this experiment in control, but it’s by no means the only tool at the experts’ disposal. The new approach has also been taken up enthusiastically on the more mundane level of day-to-day policing. As part of a strategy called ‘Operation Shutdown’, Brixton police have been cruising around the town centre in vans carrying video equipment. When they see someone they’re looking for they stop the van, surround the target, thrust the camera in his or her face for a couple of minutes, then get back in their armour-plated vehicle and drive away. The people who get to star in the resulting features are not wanted for specific crimes: they’re what cop-intelligence calls ‘prominent or development nominals’. Either the police ‘know’ they’re doing something but don’t have any evidence of it yet, or they’re living on the fringes of delinquency and it’s only a matter of time. (A previous conviction is enough to make you eligible for filming now.) There’s no pretence that the video tapes provide evidence leading to convictions, but Met sources claimed that ‘Shutdown’ contributed to a 40 per cent fall in local crime. In other words, the tiresome business of catching people and putting them on trial can be bypassed altogether. Successful policing means inconveniencing potential criminals so severely that they’d rather stay at home. The barely hidden premise: that crime is not an event but an attribute of the criminal, a lifelong personality trait of which a conviction is merely a sign.
The same logic is taken a step further by the courts’ latest weapon against behaviour liable to disrupt ‘the peaceful enjoyment of property’ (3.). In September last year, four boys in Liverpool stood accused of spitting, menacing, loitering and urinating. As they couldn’t be shown to have committed any actual crimes, the court served a ‘Community Safety Order’ on them. They were allowed to go free, but from that moment onwards spitting, menacing, loitering and publicly pissing became serious criminal offences. Not for anyone else, just for those four boys. In effect, the invention of Community Safety Orders allows a judge to make things illegal at his discretion, to create new, personalised offences for ‘anti-social’ individuals who wouldn’t otherwise have qualified as criminals. In fact they needn’t even have caused an actual nuisance yet: as in Operation Shutdown, it’s enough to have it in you to annoy someone. On the evidence of ‘professional witnesses’ such as local authority staff’, subject only to the civil standard of proof (i.e. ‘the balance of probabilities’ rather than ‘beyond reasonable doubt’), an Order can be served on anyone ‘whose conduct causes or is likely to cause harrassment to the community’ (4.) (emphasis added). This new legal instrument is truly a landmark in the personalisation of Justice, the real subsumption of every singularity in the domain of the State. From now on if your attributes don’t quite extend to crime, a judge’s word suffices to ensure that crime will reach out and embrace your attributes.
New Age Policing locates criminality within the person rather than the act. Therefore (short of reverting to medieval notions of sin and possession) it cannot do without analysis of each offending body. As the focus shifts from detection of crime to monitoring ‘risk’, forensic science is progressively debased. An ‘archaeological’ dimension — reconstruction of events from scattered, lifeless debris left behind — gives way to simple gathering of data. The ‘creative’ part of the process, heavily dissembled, lies in the subsequent use of this information, its role in ‘targeting’ preventive law enforcement.
The first fruit of this renewed pact between criminal justice and scientific knowledge appeared some time last year. Very soon, the British government announced to universal applause, everyone suspected of a crime will be subject to compulsory drug testing. The result will be recorded in every case; where charges are laid a positive test will make it harder to get bail and will be admissable in court as evidence — not so much of the detainee’s responsibility for the original crime as of his or her inner illegality. This idea reflects a change in the meaning of what it is to ‘be against the law’. ‘Illegality’ is no longer a property of acts through which a subject challenges legality and deserves punishment. Crime within the person makes sense only as illness, an internal defect independent of the acts which are its symptoms. ‘Harm’ caused and ‘risk’ implied by this affliction must be contained through more or less coercive therapy. (5.)
Automatic drug tests bring the level of bodily intrusion allowed in British police stations somewhere near that seen in US factories and offices. But at around the same time the new powers were being hailed, another plan was introduced without any fanfare at all. If enacted, this proposal would expose bodies to bio-judicial probing to an exceptional degree.
The less obviously sinister part of the Home Office consultation paper (6.) presents itself as mainly being to do with fingerprints. Under the proposed new law, fingerprinting will no longer be limited to suspects arrested and taken in for questioning. A ‘livescan’ system will allow prints to be taken on the spot, without consent, from anyone stopped in the street: these will automatically be submitted to a national database, an electronic archive of delinquent profiles, ‘in order to determine a link between crimes’. Something of the idea’s real scope is suggested in a section innocuously headed ‘Footprints’. The new rules for fingerprints will apply to all ‘non-intimate body samples’, for example mouth swabs, ‘at least ten hairs including roots’, or ‘the imprint of any part of the body other than the hand’. Given that anyone on the database can be recalled for further non-consensual scanning an unlimited number of times, they will thus be required to make their entire body suface permanently available for tracking and analysis, to consecrate it to a ‘standing reserve’ of criminal matter.
Hapless, upstanding civil libertarians may be more alarmed by the part of the paper dealing with DNA samples. Its underlying theme, however, is the same as that of the ‘Fingerprints’ section: the need to maintain a pool of potentially criminal human material, made up of patients to be managed constantly rather than subjects to be punished for particular transgressions. At present DNA samples must be destroyed after a person is no longer suspected of a particular crime. Under the new rules they will be held permanently on a national electronic archive, kept in storage until the crime that matches comes along. Unlike ‘non-intimate’ mouth swabs and handfuls of hair, the police will not be able to take DNA samples without consent, but if you refuse to surrender your ‘blueprint for life’ a court will be free to infer that it contains something you wish to hide.
The DNA database has the potential to transform detective work, making the ‘cunning sleuth’ a strictly nostalgic figure. Instead of starting with the circumstances of a crime and looking for suspects whose actions correspond to these facts, investigators will be able to keep on testing the same person against different ‘crime scenes’ until one that fits is found. The famous ‘one in 50 million chance’ that ‘an unknown person unrelated to the subject would share the same [DNA] profile’ is quoted, but no mention is made of the number of people whose DNA can be present on a ‘crime scene’ sample at the same time. If a suspect is already on the delinquents’ database, being one of the countless people to have left a trace of themselves on an object involved in a murder could easily be passed off as proof of guilt.
Advanced genetics is thus assimilated by traditional juristic reasoning: in the 1970s the same assumptions now attached to DNA convicted an Irish worker in an adhesive tape factory of assembling a bomb which contained bits of tape with traces of his body on them. Courts’ willingness to accept such evidence might be seen as a triumph of reification (the experience of commdities and the social relation which produces them as ‘natural’). Justice totally forgets the Exhibit’s production process: the equation ‘contact=guilt’ pretends that the object came spontaneously into being a moment before the crime in which participation was its destiny. The logic implied here is that of medieval witch trials: familiarity with a utensil steeped in crime is among the attributes of the accused, therefore her being is stained as horribly as the murder weapon. Unlike a bloody knife, however, the human criminal is able to repent (or in contemporary language, to ‘accept that she has a problem’). In this case her body still suffers exemplary punishment, while the Therapy Sector annexes her soul in exchange for a promise of distant Health, just as the Church once offered Purgatory and Salvation to those burned by the Secular Arm.
A single astonishing sentence exposes the true stakes of the proposed body sample archives. By checking the database when stopping ‘suspects’ in the street, ‘the officer will be able to ascertain…whether there is a history of, for example, violence or contagious disease’ (emphasis added). Thus we learn almost casually that for the first time in some two hundred years illness has become a police matter (7.). This shouldn’t be taken to mean simply that police powers are encroaching on the domain of Health: it could just as easily be said that the reverse is happening. It would be more accurate, however, to speak of a tendency towards convergence between two categories, in which neither achieves hegemony over the other. The rise of New Age policing and the generalised interpretive authority of biological concepts are bound closely together as decisive features of this process.
The discovery that ‘disease’ and ‘violence’ are regarded as equally valid objects of policing obviously raises the spectre of ‘Health’ imperatives coercively enforced through legal violence. At the same time, the two terms’ location on the same strategic level also suggests that ‘criminal’ violence (i.e. violence outside the State monopoly) should be treated like a contagious disease, something ‘carried’ by certain people who may transmit it to others before symptoms even appear. Danger to the patient and to others must be minimised by constant observation and strict ‘self care’ regimes, with risky behaviour deterred by ‘aversive stimuli’ where necessary. As carriers are rarely identified before symptoms develop (before ‘violence’ as a personal quality manifests itself in violent acts), these preventive measures had best be applied as widely as possible.
As the distinction fades between administering sickness and management of crime, the role of both in capital’s imposition of (waged and unwaged) work becomes less mysterious than ever. In the last few years criminal sanctions have been used to cut off lines of flight from the labour market, with the ‘fraud’ menace as pretext for attacks on dole and sickness benefit autonomy. (8.) Meanwhile therapeutic models prevail in the benefit/work-imposition system (focused on adapting each individual to the needs of the market through personalised rules for the claimant, one-to-one advisors, endless training in ‘attitude’, ‘presentation’ etc) and within employment itself (in the emphasis laid on ‘personal skills’, backed up by individualised ‘targets’ and appraisal, the double-edged rhetoric of ‘Investing in People’). Striving to improve individual health and ‘fitness’ can also be seen as also a form of unwaged work, and not only in the sense that these efforts pump up labour power. Capitalist work must not only produce commodities and reproduce physical labour-power, it must also nurture forms of subjectivity likely to ensure its own survival. The social desirability of ‘fitness’, the transformation of character traits into treatable syndromes (9.) and the incessant discovery of new health risks don’t just boost sales of gym memberships and drugs. These phenomena breed such fierce desire for guidance from doctors, trainers and therapists that their authority spills out of their specialist fields into the wider political world (as in the personal workfare programmes referred to above). Enthusiasm for new, deterministic ‘evidence’ linking various habits with sickness or health, together with trust in preventive treatments, assures therapists that their authority will eventually be internalised. Just as a ‘softly controlled’ creative worker lives the corporate command as a spontaneous urge, the ‘health-conscious’ patient inherits the ‘carer’s’ constant vigil, feeling doctor’s orders as his own ineffable desire. The form of subjectivity produced by this work is experience of a body individually ‘indebted’, answerable for what befalls it; a sense of personal subjection to immutable biological laws, to which quiet submission promises the least disappointing of possible lives.
The interdependence between policing, imposing work and the ideal of health is close enough to justify speaking of a three-way convergence between the irreducible function of the State, that of ‘the economy’, and the present historical form of subjective bodily experience (or immanent ideology’s most subtle vibration, depending on your point of view). While all three elements maintain distinctive features, the singluarity of each is determined by and allegorically expressed in the other two.
This nexus is recognised by British institutions in one exceptional case (10). ‘Criminal justice and health and social policy’, acknowledges a Home Office document, come together in the management of ‘dangerous people with severe personality disorder’ (nicknamed DSPD) (11.). Most people with DSPD, we’re reassured, have already raped or murdered and are serving long or prison sentences. Others rot in mental hospitals. But occasionally ‘the law fails to protect society’, because some disordered personalities haven’t done anything to be punished for yet, but can’t be sectioned because they’re ‘not likely to benefit from hospital treatment’. In the eyes of medicine and the law, personality disorder is not a mental illness. Sufferers can only be put in hospital if by mischance they happen to be sick as well. Therefore in order to catch the few exceptions who are neither ill nor guilty a new kind of internment is required. This will probably be run separately from the prison and health services, possibly by private companies. (Another alternative being considered would keep DSPD detention within the criminal justice system by increasing the use of ‘discretionary’ life sentences, to be imposed on the basis of psychological or psychiatric assessment carried out during remand).
Whoever administers the new powers, a long established logic will be reversed at a stroke. Rather than a diagnosis of a specific disease or guilt assisgned for a particular crime, the grounds for detention will be assessment of an abstract ‘risk’, a judicial gamble on the DSPD case as potential ‘danger to the community’. The only precedent would be political or medical internment in times of war or plague hysteria, but in these cases the criteria, however dishonest, are more clearly delimited (e.g. every Irish person became eligible under British emergency law). The usefulness of ‘personality disorder’, by contrast, lies in the fact that it is barely defined at all. ‘There is no consensus amongst clinicians on the nature of personality disorder [or] how it should be managed…This in turn relects the lack of an adequate research base of evidence’ (12.) Far from revealing a defect in the concept, this ‘lack’ is the source of its unique flexibility. ‘Personality disorder’, which used to be called ‘moral insanity’ or ‘moral imbecility’, is used in psychiatry to classify all patients whose irrational or anti-social habits can’t be assimilated to any more exact diagnosis. As a consequence new variants are always being invented. ‘Paranoid’, ‘depressive’, ‘hyperthymic’ (meaning ‘happy, shallow, superficial and uncritical’), ‘schizoid’ (‘aloof and disinterested’), ‘explosive’, ‘anakastic’ (over-sensitive), ‘hysterical’, ‘asthenic’ (easily led) and ‘asocial’ (‘cold and unfeeling’) personality disorders are just a few of these. The proposed power of internment is supposed only to apply to the most dangerous cases, but given that neither the nature of the danger nor how to recognise it has been determined, the potential for its wider use is obvious. Mental health charities promoting sympathy for the afflicted have taken advantage of the lax criteria to claim that ‘20 per cent of us suffer from personality disorder at some time in our lives’.
Brief passages in the government’s proposal give a hint of how personality disorder detention might be targeted in practice. DSPD sufferers, it emerges, ‘pose significant management challenges in institutional settings…They are adept at undermining management regimes where security is not tight…they have very different needs from most mentally ill patients and often undermine hospital regimes. Many fail to comply with care programmes on a voluntary basis beyond the immediate crisis period’. The ‘danger’ causing most concern, then, is the threat the disordered person poses to the institution treating her. Personality disorder, as we know, may co-incide with mental illness but is not the illness itself. ‘Disorder’ exists in its ‘Dangerous’ form when (as the SPK/PF recommended) the patient attempts to turn illness into a weapon.
The phenomena described here have obviously not arisen at the same time by co-incidence, but nor are they elements of a grand, half-submerged conspiracy. Rather, they are manifestations of a slow and open-ended historical process, a still obscure realignment between forms of knowledge and capitalist strategy, biology and sovereignty. Like every historical transformation, this one contains violently opposed possibilities, and as always, the stakes are confused by all self-defining ‘sides’. Sudden estrangement from traditional and viable ways of living breeds recognition that scientific knowledge isn’t neutral, that its forms (and those of its expression in technology) are determined by the interests of the class controlling its development. Genetic research could eradicate diseases which ruin millions of lives, but at present it is used to boost the rate of exploitation in third world cash cropping. Meanwhile biological patents withold access to anti-AIDS drugs from the African countries worst affected by the virus (13.). Yet throughout the affluent world hostility towards this state of affairs is drained off into visions of a ‘natural’ order outraged by fields of genetically altered corn. As the authors of Aufheben remark, ‘The problem with substituting the simple negation of “civilisation” for the determinate negation [Aufhebung] of capitalism is not just that some of us want to have washing machines, but that it prevents one connecting with the real movement’ (14.).
The Human Genome Project — the US-funded scientific mission to ‘decode’ human DNA — is regularly portrayed as being on the point of unlocking the mysteries of individuality. ‘In a few years’, writes a London tabloid, (15.) ‘the entire genome will be decoded and it will be possible to deduce anything about a person’s make-up — from their level of addictability (sic) to their innate potential for violence, maths, music or muscular dystrophy’. The columnist goes on to call the DNA archive a ‘sly’ and ‘essentially illiberal’ design to take advantage of unravelled chromosomes. But bio-politics are blind and deaf to righteous invoking of ‘civil liberties’ (a concept tied to the very State-form these developments tend to eclipse.) The only way New Age Policing tactics might be paralysed is through ‘mass illegality’: for example, making physical obstruction of police video teams or refusal to supply body samples so commonplace that reprisals against every resisting individual become impossible. This would not work unless backed up by the refusal of those not immediately targeted to play the part of the ‘community’ menaced by low-level delinquency and free-floating personality disorders. On a ‘strategic’ level, meanwhile, nothing could be more inane than to denounce ‘abuses’ of scientific knowledge. Permanent antagonism to therapeutic models of control demands that the representation of social singularities in biological terms — the image of truth prevailing in mass mediation and State policy — be coldly anatomised and imaginatively undermined.
Anyone interested in direct action against the growth of the carceral state should contact CAGE : Box G 101 Magdalen Rd Oxford OX4 1RH / firstname.lastname@example.org
(1.) The Observer, 30 January 2000.
(2.) A concept culled from Spinoza, most often used by the generation of Italian communist intellectuals jailed or politically exiled after 1979, as a kind of euphemism where once they might have said ‘working class’. See Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (eds.), Radical Thought In Italy, Minnesota U.P. 1996.
(3.) Home office consultation paper, September 1997.
(5.) For a succinct account of the role of State and corporate drug policy (simultaneous expansion of testing and ‘treatment’) in ‘communitarian’ social control, see Michael Fitzpatrick, ‘Tony Blair’s Therapeutic State’, LM 127, February 2000. http://www.informinc.co.uk
(6.) Home office consultation paper, July 1999. http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/ppd/finger.htm
(7.) It is impossible to date precisely the long and complex separation of the hospital from Police Science in its original (and still in one sense valid) meaning: the imposition of work through enforcement of Poor laws.
(8.) See ‘Dole Autonomy Versus the Re-Imposition of Work’, Aufheben pamphlet, available from Aufheben, Brighton & Hove Unemployed Workers Centre, 4 Crestway Parade, Hollingdean, Brighton BN1 7BL, UK, or http://lists.village.virginia.edu/~spoons/aut_html/Aufheben/doleaut.html
(9.) Pathological conditions discovered in the last few years include rudeness, politeness, lack or excess of ambition, passionate committment to abstract ideas, inability to choose the right colour clothing or car, and above all the ‘emotionally illiterate’ reluctance to ‘share’ feelings, reticence towards counselling. Meanwhile the word ‘addiction’ has acquired a loose metaphorical usage, allowing it to be applied to almost anything done regularly. (A recent study, for example, proclaimed that 1 in 5 Americans are addicted to the internet.) Yet ‘addiction’ retains some of the gravity of its literal, physical meaning: thus countless innocuous activities become the subject of tearful confessions and 12-step plans.
(11.) In Italy, on the other hand, the alliance between work and therapy is shortly to be celebrated by a merger of the Health and Labour ministries.
(11.) Home Office consultation paper, July 1999. http//www.homeoffice.gov.uk/cpd.dangcie.htm
(13.) For a detailed account of the destructive effects of laws protecting ‘intellectual property’, see ‘Les firmes pharmaceutiques organisent l’apartheid sanitaire’ by Martine Builard and ‘A qui appartient les connaissances?’ by Philippe Queau, in Le Monde Diplomatique No. 550, January 2000.
(14.) ‘Decadence: the theory of decline or the decline of theory’ in Aufheben 3. http://lists.village.virginia.edu/~spoons/aut_html/Aufheben/auf3dec2.htm
(15.) Henry Potter, Evening Standard, 3 December 1999.