It seems to be all too common in postmodern discussions of "body horror" as a film sub genre to focus on themes such as abjection or posthumanism as an instance of social constructionism spinning out of control, to the point of excluding from consideration other more longstanding sociological perspectives. Consequently it is my view that the times in which we are living force us to rethink the relevance of modelling corporate behaviour along amoral familial lines. For in cases such as the latter, inheritance is controlled in a manner that benefits fixed membership only. It could be argued that large, complex organisations, largely comprised of impersonal relationships, could by contrast be placed at a disadvantage, insofar as attempting to secure loyalty, as memberships can freely dissolve once certain projects have been accomplished. My suggestion then is that certain films dramatise what Simmel described as "the sociology of the secret". Which is to say, organisations are able to cultivate particularly intense feelings of loyalty and trust, commensurate with their development and maintenance of secret rituals acting as gatekeeping mechanisms, thus differentiating their shared identities from the "outside".
A further point would seem to follow on from this, and it relates, yet again, to a canonical insight from a sociological classic, namely Durkheim's "Elementary Forms of the Religious Life". If we generalise the applicability of Durkheim's insights to accord greater recognition to microrituals, such as at the organisational level I have been discussing, then the point becomes even clearer. As per his description of interaction ritual, the periodic experience of intense emotional participation will generate collective effervescence, thereby reintegrating the nomadic neoliberal [atomised possessive] individual back into the group. While there are films such as "The Skulls" which dramatise this component of interaction ritual, of greater interest for my purposes are the black holes at the end of this continuum, a subcategory into which I would group the orgy sequence in "Eyes Wide Shut" and, most spectacularly of all, the orgy at the climax [sic] of the underappreciated "Society", featuring "surrealistic makeup effects" by Screaming Mad George (I've provided a link to his website, featuring further example of his work from "Society", at the top of this post. In my view, it is some of the finest work of its kind from the 1980s, equal at least to Rob Bottin's unforgettable fx in John Carpenter's remake of "The Thing").
Regrettably, it seems that in the bid for posterity "Society" will be outdone by more predictable attempts of satire, not coincidentally star vehicles, featuring body horror motifs, such as "Death Becomes Her". Be this as it may, "Society" stands out as a minor masterpiece in such company, not least because by pushing its metaphors as far as possible, it illustrates the horrifying possibilities of metaphorical analogy slipping into ontology. What I mean by this comment is basically that there may be grounds to contest the microsociological premise that organisations with homogeneous cores will tend to favour realist ontologies. Thus, the family is by "nature" associated with genital sexuality and reproduction. The horror in "Society" stems less from any nostalgia for the unattainability of this ideal than it does, or so it appears to me, for an expose of how this ideal is an ideology under advanced capitalism: the larger the social network into which the family is plugged into in order to reproduce its material abundance, the greater the chance it will adopt a more expansive constructionist ontology. The same holds in reverse when corporations attempt to secure loyalty by modelling themselves on the ideal of the family. The film's suggestion therefore is that these attributes are defining characteristics of the "natural" inheritance mechanisms deployed by the ruling class in society. What I wonder aloud though is to what degree the slippage from analogy into ontology depicted in this film, as enacted in such interaction rituals, could one day attain realisation owing to future advances of our own bioculture? Were this to prove one day to be the case, the villains in "Society" may be looked upon in retrospect as archetypes of those driving the biotech revolution i.e. they were probably CEOS of pharmaceutical firms, or some hybrid, such as the Weyland Yutani Corporation featured in the "Alien" films. Afterall, who could seriously believe that [constructionist] technologies of the biotech kind could not be incorporated into interaction rituals at every level of society, inclusive of "private" family get togethers and "secret" corporate functions? Not only would their novelty serve as effective signifiers of material privilege, they would also be effective ceremonial tools for bringing about the periodic dedifferentiation of neoliberal individuals (i.e. more so than the practice of "regular" sex, more evenly distributed throughout all social stratas). Perhaps this may not necessarily mean a replacement of the shaman like function performed in other contexts, such as religious services, especially if biotechnology is eventually "reenchanted" in exact relation to acceptance of its potential for regulating biopower at an everyday level.
Albeit shorn of the interrelationships between the sociology of the secret and interaction ritual theory I've described so far, I think it helps to paste below Steve Fuller's sociological sketch of the issue of mechanisms of inheritance management, as I'm convinced we may one day see these components functioning together - that is, unless we take the appropriate steps to regulate their development.
Anyway, here is Fuller's essay, which he emailed me for research purposes. If anyone wishes to cite the piece, here is what you should use: S. Fuller (2004): "Back to the Future with Bioliberalism: Or, the Need to Reinvent Socialism and Social Science in the 21st Century", in N.Stehr (Ed.) Biotechnology: Between Commerce and Civil Society. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers: 29-52
Back to the Future with Bioliberalism: or, the Need to Reinvent Socialism and Social Science in the 21st Century
Introduction: The Disappearance of Society in the Bioliberal Era
Introduction: The Disappearance of Society in the Bioliberal Era
Signs of the times appear in the most unlikely places. In the 3 October 1987 issue of Women’s Own, a supermarket magazine targeting UK housewives, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made the most notorious and profound assertion of her career:
I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.
This assertion unleashed a torrent of social scientific, social theoretic, and socialistic critique, perhaps most notably the earnest Fabian Society pamphlet (no. 536), ‘Does society exist?’ Authored by Brian Barry, an analytic philosopher who was then Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics, the pamphlet dutifully weighed the arguments on both sides of the issue before concluding that, contrary to Mrs Thatcher’s assertion, society does indeed exist. While Barry may have succeeded in assuaging the fears of Labour Party operatives, little had he realized that Thatcher was anticipating what is nowadays, generally speaking, a rather respectable and self-styled ‘progressive’ view across the arts and sciences. I call this emergent sensibility bioliberalism. However, in world-historic terms it marks a great leap backward to the moment when the market first asserted itself against traditional forms of social life – the ‘great transformation’ in European history described in Karl Polanyi (1944). For Polanyi, this moment created the original need for socialism. Whether something similar will happen this time remains an open question.
My argument is informed by a prediction that I hope will be self-defeating. I believe that, unless steps are taken to the contrary, we are in the process of systematically forgetting the intuitions that were common to the founders of socialism as a distinct political movement and social science as an autonomous body of knowledge. The most fundamental common intuition was that humanity is a project in the making, one achieved by organizing a certain kind of animal in a certain range of ways. This is the primary normative meaning of ‘society’ in the modern sense, and the nation-state has been its main legal executor. From this standpoint, while humanity is very much within the potential of homo sapiens, the species need not develop in that direction. Indeed, history has thrown up many ways of retarding and even pre-empting what is fairly called the ‘socialist’ project, once all members of homo sapiens are not treated as full participants in its construction.
The socialist project has been traditionally inhibited or destroyed from two directions. One involves specifying a clear hierarchy within homo sapiens that makes it unlikely that all of its members can ever be equal participants in the project of humanity. The other involves the reverse motion of flattening the distinction between homo sapiens and other animals, such that the concept of humanity loses its metaphysical grounding altogether, and socialism is thus seen as too restrictive. In the early 19th century, humanistically inclined conservatives occupied the former position, and naturalistically inclined liberals the latter. Feudalism and Darwinism defined this polar opposition, both conceptually and historically.
In the early 21st century, the allegiances may be scrambled, but their collective consequence no less crowds out the prospects for the realization of the socialist project. In this respect, the new biotechnology marks not a radical break with the past, but an excuse to turn back the clock – specifically 200 years. That such a thing could happen is a by-product of these postmodern times, in which the very idea of progress (and hence regress) in the moral and political spheres is considered such a non-starter that there is never anything to ‘gain’ or ‘lose’, objectively speaking, by calling into question the project of humanity. The collective mind simply becomes distracted by other matters. At the same time, for those not so driven to distraction, the new biotechnology does provide opportunities for a reinvention of both socialism and social science.
Recalling the Past Link between Socialism and Social Science
To be sure, during the Cold War, and especially in the United States, the link between ‘socialism’ and ‘social science’ was treated as little more than an accident of spelling. (At least, so I was told as an undergraduate sociology major at Columbia in 1977.) At that time, under the historiographical influence of Raymond Aron and Robert Nisbet, sociology was said to have emerged as a reaction to the French Revolution of 1789, which in the name of Reason had tried to replace, in one fell swoop, centuries of traditional order with a planned society. Sociology, at its best, realized that this Enlightenment utopia was really a totalitarian nightmare in disguise, which would always fail to contain the paradoxical yet resilient character of human nature, as expressed in so-called ‘organic’ institutions like the family and the church. (From a strictly legal standpoint, one to which the original German sociologists were especially sensitive, these two institutions had radically different bases – the family being involuntary and the church voluntary. Nevertheless, that fact did not trouble the Cold Warriors, who focused on the anti-statism common to the two institutions.) In this genealogy, the arch French diplomatic observer of American affairs, Alexis de Tocqueville, figured as a founding father of the discipline, whereas one of his most avid readers and Auguste Comte’s British publicist, John Stuart Mill, did not. The difference, of course, was that de Tocqueville anticipated the Cold Warrior’s sense that democracy forces a trade-off between liberty and equality, whereas Mill held to the more ‘socialist’ idea that the two virtues could be jointly maximized with the rational redistribution of excess wealth.
Notwithstanding this Cold War attempt to manipulate sociology’s past, it is difficult to deny that the fortunes of socialism and social science have risen and fallen together. In what follows, I assume a common post-Cold War view about the background against which sociology was originally defined, namely, the Industrial Revolution in late 18th and early 19th century Britain. Instead of the planned society, the implicit foe of the nascent sociological discipline was the emergent capitalist form of life that threatened to level the hard-won difference between civilized society and brute animal existence. Depending on the Enlightenment philosopher one chooses, this difference had been won in classical Athens or republican Rome but, in any case, had regressed in the Middle Ages when a Plato-inspired hereditary hierarchy was used to protect Christianity from the threat of Islam, which claimed its spiritual mantle by promising a genuine brotherhood of humanity equal under the eyes of Allah. However, for the Enlightenment wits, this threat was rebuffed by what (only since 1945) is called the ‘Scientific Revolution’, which was in the process of liberating (‘secularising’) Christianity of its feudal residue.
At this point, it is worth remarking that the twinned fate of socialism and social science is not so very different from the relationship between the ecology movement and environmental science, despite the efforts of the latter’s practitioners to distance themselves from the former’s advocates. (What differentiates the eco-twins from the socio-twins, of course, is that political-scientific support for the eco-twins is ascendant.) In the case of both social science and environmental science, it is important to stress that the issue here is the autonomy of this body of knowledge from more established forms of humanistic and natural scientific knowledge. After all, Thatcher never denied the existence of human beings or even of such self-organizing social units as families. Similarly, she did not deny that we have animal natures and live in a physical environment. However, it is clear that she would have the normative and policy concerns that have distinguished the social (and environmental) sciences subsumed under more traditional socio-epistemic formations. And with the help of unwittingly obliging intellectuals, that is indeed happening.
The US lawyer-activist Jeremy Rifkin has seen half the story. In what he calls the ‘age of biology’, Rifkin (2001) rightly observes an ideological realignment, with social conservatives and the ecological left combined in opposition to the utilitarian view of life associated with biotechnology that is shared by the free market liberals and what remains of the Marxists. However, Rifkin regards this realignment as new, when in fact it marks a return the ideological state of play during the Industrial Revolution before the rise of socialism. The early 19th century debate was even couched as an anti- vs. pro-growth argument, as it is today -- only with the factory, not the laboratory, functioning as the lightning rod for people's hopes and fears. Back then protectors of the land and developers of industry occupied clear ideological positions that were mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. They were called Tories (Conservatives) and Whigs (Liberals), and their corresponding forms of knowledge were later immortalized by Matthew Arnold as the ‘cultured’ (humanists) and the ‘philistine’ (natural scientists) at a time when Britain was still innocent of a ‘third culture’ of social science (Lepenies 1988). At that time, the Tories were the paternalistic protectors of the inveterate poor, while the Whigs regarded poverty as a retarded state of enterprise from which the poor had to be released.
Nowadays the two groups are defined as Ecologists and Neo-Liberals, respectively, and their spheres of concern have somewhat expanded. Ecologists extend their paternalism across species, while Neo-Liberals believe that the state inhibits everyone’s – not merely the poor’s – enterprising spirit. The ideological space marked by this pre- and post-socialist world is captured in Figure 1.
19th c. Conservatism
21st c. Neo-Liberalism
21st c. Ecologism
19th c. Liberalism
Fig. 1. THE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE BEFORE AND AFTER SOCIALISM
One key difference between the 19th and the 21st century expressions of this matrix is the exact nature of the thing that the opposing ideologues wish either to protect or to free. In the 19th century, that thing was labour power. Conservatives wanted to restrict labour both physically (i.e. the ability of individuals to move house to find work) and conceptually (i.e. family and guild prerogatives on the intergenerational transmission of property, trade, and craft). In contrast, Liberals promised freedom along both dimensions: On the one hand, Liberals wanted to sever people's hereditary ties to the land that legally inhibited the construction of factories and people living near these places of work; on the other, they wanted to dissociate labour from a specific human embodiment, which effectively reduced labour to a form of what Marx called 'variable capital' that was ultimately replaceable by the 'fixed capital' of technology. In the 21st century, the object of ecological protection and neo-liberal emancipation is genetic potential (Fuller 2002a: chaps. 2-3). Thus, ecologists campaign for a global intellectual property regime that prohibits 'bioprospectors' from appropriating the genetic potential of indigenous peoples and the patenting of animal and plant species. Meanwhile, neo-liberals envisage the aim of intellectual property legislation as simply the removal of barriers from people freely trading – and being held responsible for – their genetic potential as they would anything else in their possession. Moreover, the neo-liberals follow the practice of past liberals of foreseeing the replacement of the natural with the artificial, as the traded organic material is eventually superseded by synthetic biochemical versions that produce the same effects at less cost and risk.
What had yet to exist in the early 19th century -- and what is disappearing in the early 21st century -- are the various shades of red that used to cut such a dashing figure across the political landscape of Europe as socialist and social democratic parties, as well as their distinctive forms of knowledge. To be sure, these parties continue to exist, if only by virtue of organizational inertia -- an ironic twist to the fate of the social democrats recounted in Roberto Michels’ 1911 classic, Political Parties. Yet, as has become especially clear in the UK and Northern Europe, the old socialist parties are subject to strong countervailing forces from the ecologists and the neo-liberals. A more muted version of this tension can be even found within the US Democratic Party (e.g. the strength of the recent presidential candidacies of the ecologically minded Ralph Nader and the neo-liberal Ross Perot).
Socialism as the Dialectical Synthesis of Conservatism and Liberalism
We tend to forget that one of socialism's achievements was to wed a broadly utilitarian, pro-science and pro-industry policy perspective to an overarching sense of responsibility for all of humanity, especially its most vulnerable members. It essentially completed the secularisation of Christianity promised by the Enlightenment (MacIntyre 1994). This movement started with the ‘religion of humanity’ of the Marquis de Condorcet and Auguste Comte, extended through the various socialist movements of the last 200 years, and was most successfully realized in the heyday of the welfare state in the third quarter of the 20th century. As Hegel and Marx might have it, the genius of socialism was to generate an egalitarian political ethic from a dialectical synthesis of the two countervailing forms of inegalitarianism that came to be consolidated by the end of the 18th century: conservative paternalism and liberal voluntarism. For the first time, a form of politics took seriously the idea -- at least as a regulative ideal of collective action -- that all people belonged equally to homo sapiens.
Socialism's inegalitarian roots remain latent in the Marxist motto: ‘From each according to their ability (the liberal credo) to each according to their need’ (the conservative credo). Marxists imagined that a spontaneously mutually beneficial division of labour would eventuate in a classless society. But what if we do not yet live in 'society degree zero' (the revolutionary moment) and classes are already in existence? In the 19th century, conservatives could see in the Marxist slogan the need to reproduce dependency relations, whereas liberals could read it as a call for the free exchange goods and services. Both conservatives and liberals imagined that a legally sanctioned system of stratification would result in either case, be it based on ascription or achievement. Moreover, each not only justified their own position but also demonised that of their opponents, as in Charles Dickens’ fictional portrait of the heartless liberal, Thomas Gradgrind, in Hard Times and Bram Stoker’s satirization of the parasitic Austro-Hungarian aristocrat, Count Dracula. The difference between these two forms of inegalitarianism are illustrated in Figure 2:
LEGACY TO SOCIALISM
State ensures that the able provide for the needy
State ensures that the needy become able
VISION OF ARISTOCRATS
Hereditary Protectors of Tradition
Wasters of Unearned Advantage
VISION OF BOURGEOISIE
Mercenary Destroyers of Tradition
Investors in Earned Advantage
VISION OF POOR
SOURCE OF ORIGINAL EQUALITY
Fitness to Fate
SOURCE OF ULTIMATE INEQUALITY
Fig. 2. THE TWO INEGALITARIAN SOURCES OF MODERN SOCIALISM
The conservative strategy was to reproduce the current social order, no matter the opportunity costs, whereas the liberals wanted to invest current wealth most efficiently, no matter the social dislocation that resulted. For British liberals, the Poor Laws, which devoted 80% of local taxes to providing the poor with a modicum of food and shelter, could be better spent on roads and other capital investments to attract industry, thereby creating jobs that would enable the poor to provide for themselves by contributing to the nation’s overall wealth. In contrast, the conservatives believed that the cost of maintaining a secure life was a stable hierarchy, which implied the perpetual reproduction of feudal dependency relations between the rich and the poor. To destabilize this hierarchy would be to incur untold damage, including unnecessary death. But for the liberals the far greater cost of stability was that the poor were never given the opportunity to rise to their appropriate level of merit (or die, if they prove incapable of adapting to the needs of the market), which impeded the overall productivity of society. Liberal political economists regarded the amount of unused inherited land as the ultimate symbol of this squandered potential.
Thus, the liberals began to query how class divisions were drawn: why sheer property ownership rather than earned income or merit? What is touted as the 'individualism' of liberal political philosophy is simply the realization that class divisions are conventional, if only because everyone is endowed with the same innate capacities but differ in their opportunities to employ those capacities. Liberals aspired to a world in which people could dispose of their capacities just as landowners could of their property: Ideally, you would be judged by what you did with your ‘possessions’ in this extended sense, in a free environment. As we shall see, this perspective has come to be reinvented as we acquire greater knowledge of specifically biological capacities. In any case, liberals agreed with conservatives on the need for some sort of principle of cumulative advantage but disagreed on its basis. In particular, what was an appropriate principle of inheritance? Legal theories of succession presupposed rather ancient biological views about the passage of competence across generations of family members that created grounds for a son’s entitlement to manage his father’s estate or assume his trade (e.g. primogeniture). It was this common concern with the transmission of accumulated advantage – what Richard Dawkins (1982) has renovated as the ‘extended phenotype’ -- that would come to distinguish both liberals and conservatives from socialists most clearly.
The Rise and Fall of the Welfare Concept: From Sociology to Socialism on the Cheap
The question of inheritance – the inter-generational transmission of property – was central to the establishment of sociology in Germany, France, and the United States. The concept of welfare was meant to capture a collective inheritance to which each member of society contributed and from which each benefited, though – as Marx stressed – not according to some default biologically based principle. In the final quarter of the 19th century, all three nation-states transformed the legal basis for incorporating individuals into the social order: Germany consolidated, France secularised, and the US expanded. The first president of the German Sociological Association, Ferdinand Toennies, christened sociology’s founding distinction, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, as respectively the conservative and the liberal pole out of which this newly integrated conception of society was forged. A legal scholar by training, Toennies regarded this conception as the culmination of a medieval innovation in Roman law.
Until the twelfth century, Roman law recognized two general categories of social life. In the ‘natural’ mode, property was transmitted through the family (gens), an equation of biological reproduction and social succession. But there was also an ‘artificial’ mode for temporary associations (socius), such as joint-stock companies and crusades, which were project-centred and ceased to exist once the project was completed and its profits were distributed to the project’s partners. The Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft distinction is grounded in this contrast, which also persists in folk understandings of biologically acquired traits as somehow more basic and durable than socially acquired ones. Missing from these two categories was an artificial social entity entitled to perpetual legal protection because its ends transcend those of any or all of its members at any given place and time. In the twelfth century, this entity (universitas) was born. It is the source of the paradigmatic objects of social science research. Originally populated by guilds, churches, and, of course, universities, this realm of universitas gradually came to include still larger corporate entities like states and firms, the constitution of which was to be central to the sociology of Max Weber.
Considerable significance has been invested in the universitas as a distinctive expression of humanity. The presence of this legal category testifies to a conception of society that is irreducible to either suprahuman fate or infrahuman drives – that is, the domains of theology or biology. In this respect, Condorcet and Hegel were only two of the more famous proto-sociologists who identified the ‘universal state’ with humanity rendered self-conscious. This identification was based not on some misbegotten chauvinism about the French Republic or the German Reich, but on the sheer logic of the concept of universitas. Not surprisingly, Toennies had earned his scholarly reputation as the German translator of Thomas Hobbes, who was among the first to exploit this logic for some politically interesting purposes.
Hobbes saw the potential of the universitas for self-improvement through the normative regulation of its members. Specifically, he recognized that this process would require the redistribution of properties from natural individuals to the artificial corporate person licensed as a universitas. For Hobbes, the fear and force that divide individuals in the state of nature would be alienated and concentrated in his version of universitas, the Leviathan state, whose absolute power would then enable the individuals to engage in sustained peaceful associations that would have the long-term consequence of fostering civilization, from which subsequent generations might benefit. The socialist ideals realized in the welfare state may be seen as having carried this logic one step further, as income redistribution aimed to remove the class divisions that emerge unintentionally from the advantage accumulated in post-Leviathan civil associations, which then effectively create a ‘civilized’ version of the state of nature, as Marx perhaps most vividly recognized. In his more Communist moods, Marx seemed to believe that the proletarian revolution would devolve the Hobbesian sovereign back to the people, who armed with self-consciousness and modern modes of production, would be able to lead a secure and peaceful existence. However, short of that utopian outcome, the threat of the Internal Revenue Service ends up sublimating the threat originally posed by the Leviathan.
No one ever denied that the redistribution of property (understood as both abstract qualities and concrete holdings) entails what economists call 'transaction costs' – that is, the costs involved in bringing about the redistribution. But how to ensure that these costs are borne equitably and in ways that do not overwhelm the transactions they are designed to sustain? A neat feature of the Hobbesian solution – one long associated with Machiavelli – is that a credible threat of force is self-economizing. In other words, the threat works to the extent that it does not need to be acted upon, because prospective targets anticipate its bloody consequences; hence they take pains to avoid conditions that would result in those consequences. Of course, the threat needs to be credible in the first place, which is why Hobbes emphasized the absoluteness of the sovereign's power. Anything short of a complete monopoly of force would invite challenges that would divide the sovereign's energies between securing the conditions for redistribution and the actual redistribution. A normatively desirable redistribution of property may still result – but perhaps with a fraction of the original population. To be sure, this has been an acceptable price to pay for saving Humanity from the more recalcitrant elements of homo sapiens – at least according to the revolutionary founders of the first French Republic. Others have been less sure.
In the final quarter of the 19th century, the first professional association of social scientists, the German Verein für Sozialpolitik, addressed this problem by proposing a minimal welfare state as the price the rich should pay for tolerating rapid social and economic change without generating civil unrest (Rueschemeyer and van Rossum 1996). In this way, Germany could make a peaceful internal transition to its emergent status as a global imperial player. In the form of Bismarck's social security insurance scheme, conservative paternalism thus made its formal contribution to the realization of socialist ideals, since what had originated as a concession came to be a rallying point for Germany's nascent Social Democratic Party. Nevertheless, Bismarck's scheme did serve to immunize Germany from a Marxist proletarian revolution, whose potential resemblance to the first French Republic frightened partisans on all sides. Moreover, as long as the welfare state provided only the minimum – and not the optimum – for the maintenance of social life, there was little chance that the poor would ever have sufficient leisure to mount a credible organized challenge to the rich. In this respect, Bismarck's welfare state was designed to supplement Ricardo's 'iron law of wages', whereby workers are 'rationally' paid just enough to keep them coming to work the next day.
Whereas the conservatives unwittingly paved the way to socialism in their attempt to maintain order in the face of rapid change, the liberal-inspired promise of greater overall productivity though greater cross-class mobility eventually won the political argument to create more robust welfare states. This argument, popular among Fabian socialists in Britain, was presented as a self-reinforcing 'virtuous circle': The wealth of society as a whole is promoted by everyone doing what they can do best, which means that everyone needs to be given the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, which in turn will result in greater wealth for society as a whole. This shift in welfare orientation from the past to the future presupposed a different justification for progressive taxation. Whereas Bismarck's welfare initiatives mainly had the rich reward the poor for work well done in keeping them rich, the Fabian welfare state would have the rich make speculative investments on those most likely to maintain or increase their wealth in the future. Accordingly, the welfare state's attention shifted to 'front-loaded' expenditures in preventive medicine and educational equality.
Although the Fabians' more generous sense of welfare came to define 'first world' nations by the third quarter of the 20th century, the strategy has always faced two countervailing forces that have tempted policymakers to return to the biological roots of inheritance: the persistence with which the rich try to reclaim their tax burden and the delay with which welfare beneficiaries improve their life chances. Both potentially wreak havoc on party political campaigns by implicitly raising the question of redistribution's transaction costs. It was against this background of impatience that eugenics promised, so to speak, 'socialism on the cheap' (Allen 1998).
The two people most responsible for advancing eugenics as an academically respectable basis for policy in the Anglophone world – Francis Galton and Karl Pearson – were self-styled 'scientific socialists' of the late 19th century (i.e. before Marxists cornered the market on the expression). For Galton and Pearson, the laissez faire policies of a so-called Social Darwinist like Herbert Spencer were sociologically naïve because they underestimated the extent to which a single illustrious progenitor could enable successive generations of unproductive offspring to occupy powerful positions. Here the eugenicists took specific aim at the British House of Lords. In a eugenic utopia, election to the upper legislative chamber would be rationalized by examining entire family histories to see which lineages demonstrated consistency or steady improvement across generations. Moreover, on that basis, the eugenicist could expedite the forces of natural selection by providing incentives to increase the reproductive tendencies of the more illustrious lineages and to decrease those of the less illustrious ones.
The 20th century was largely a story of eugenics run amok. To nations faced with an influx of immigrants and mounting costs for public health and education, eugenics promised an easy way out – indeed, at an increasing number of points in the reproductive process, as knowledge of genetic causal mechanisms progressed (King 1999). Early in the century, changes could be induced in reproductive patterns only by either modest incentives (e.g. tax breaks, income subsidies) or brute force (e.g. sterilization, genocide): the one insufficiently compelling and the other too repellent. However, today's eugenicists – now travelling under the guise of 'genetic counsellors' – can intervene at several intermediate stages, including amniocentesis and genetic screening, which are more likely to appeal to a broad moral consensus.
Indeed, following some landmark cases in France, there is now legal precedent for presuming that one has a 'right' not to have been born if those causally proximate to the birth could have reasonably anticipated that he or she would lead a seriously disadvantaged life (Henley 2002). The noteworthy feature of this judgement is its presumption, a la Thatcher, that society as such shoulders no special burden for the fate of its members. The judge ruled that the genetic abnormalities called 'disabilities' are not prima facie opportunities for socio-legal innovation, as, say, animal rights activists routinely urge on behalf of their constituency. Rather, disabilities are pure liabilities, but ones for which only the disabled person's parents and doctors are responsible.
With this ruling, we have come a long way from the strong welfarist perspective of John Rawls' (1972) 'veil of ignorance', which justified substantial redistribution of wealth on the grounds that if one's own place in society is uncertain, then it is best to allocate resources so that even the worst social position is not so bad. Indeed, for some political philosophers, our increased ability to anticipate the differential outcomes of the genetic lottery provides sufficient grounds for rolling back Rawls altogether.
For example, Hillel Steiner (1998) has swung so far back to libertarianism that he would have tort law absorb most of the state's claims to redistribute benefits and harms. Steiner envisages a world in which a basic knowledge of genetic science and one's own genetic constitution would become integral to citizen education, for which individuals would then be held accountable as a normal part of self-management. For the feminist legal theorist, Roxanne Mykitiuk (2003), this emerging bioliberal regime is simply another step in the march of the post-Keynesian state. Thus, policymakers imagine that as we acquire a more fine-grained understanding of the relationship between our genes and our traits, the state can safely retreat to the regulatory margins of the market, ensuring that biomedical products do what is claimed of them. It is then up to the consumer, provided with such information, to make a decision and endure the consequences.
Ronald Dworkin (2000) has updated Rawls to make a case for socialized insurance against genetic risk, a strategy endorsed by the UK's leading cancer research charity as a basis for public reinvestment in the National Health Service, despite current Labour government policy to devolve healthcare to the private sector (Meek 2002). This reinvention of the welfare state turns on an elementary point of genetic science. Suppose we assume a fixed species or common gene pool – admittedly a 'closed system' that is placed increasingly under strain with progress in biotechnology. Nevertheless, in that ideal case, genetics demonstrates both the commonality of possible life chances (i.e. genotypes) and the arbitrariness of the particular life chances that are realized in individuals (i.e. phenotypes). Even given clear genetic markers for traits that are agreed to be 'disabilities', the only way to prevent those disabilities from ever arising at all would be to prevent the birth of anyone carrying the relevant markers – even given the unlikelihood that any of the aborted would have led a disabled life. The prenatal terminations proliferated by this approach are called 'false positives' by statisticians and 'errors on the side of caution' (on a mass scale) by everyone else. As a general policy for pre-empting undesirable outcomes, it adumbrates an intolerably risk-averse society. (For example, one landmark French case concerned a relatively common disability, Down's Syndrome.) Yet, this policy is proposed as a post-welfarist 'paradise' embraced by not only neo-liberals but also ecologists, who invoke the 'precautionary principle' to similar effect.
At this point, I must comment on a serious rhetorical difficulty concerning the implications of bioliberalism's devolved eugenic sensibility. The contrast between the welfare state and bioliberalism is typically presented in terms of attitudes toward risk: The former supposedly aims to minimize risk, while the latter aims at least to accept risk, if not exactly to maximize it. However, given the ease with which bioliberals pre-empt negative life chances, this way of putting the matter is paradoxical. Although Rawls himself encouraged the view that individuals are naturally risk-averse, the redistributionist strategies of the welfare state in fact collectivise risk. In other words, the state enables the reorganization of people so that they are capable of taking more risks than they would or could as individuals. As either Spencer or Galton would have seen from their different perspectives, the welfare state's redistribution of resources artificially extends the selection environment to allow for the survival of otherwise unfit individuals – presumably because of the anticipated long term benefit that such individuals would provide for the rest of society. In cases of subsidised education and healthcare to ambitious and clever children from poor homes, the social benefits are palpable within a couple of decades. However, the benefits derived from special educational and health facilities for the disabled depend on more extended notions of humanity.
Martha Nussbaum (2001) has suggested that the policy imagination is recharged by the periodic adoption of what Max Weber would have called a ‘re-enchanted’ view toward so-called ‘monstrous births’, such that they are not problems to be avoided or liabilities to be minimized – but rather symbolic events from which we learn something deep about what it means to be one of ‘us’. Yet, the nature of this ‘depth’ is far from mysterious. It simply requires interpreting the monstrous birth as an occasion to extend the definition of the human rather than to have the birth excluded for failing to conform to the current definition. (The anthropology of Mary Douglas and the philosophy of science of Imre Lakatos provide interesting precedents for this line of thought: see Bloor 1979; Fuller & Collier 2003: chaps. 5, 7.) Historically speaking, such an attitude has been integral to the distinctive push of Western scientific medicine to regard death – like war, so said Jacques Chirac – as always an admission of failure. The unconditional commitment to the prolonging of human life, no matter the cost, or even the consequences for those whose lives are prolonged, is a secular descendant of the monotheistic concern for the weak and infirm members of homo sapiens. In these most vulnerable parties -- at least according to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- lies the human stripped of its worldly power to a form that only God could recognize as ‘His’ own (Fuller 2000b, 2002b).
The Great Leap Backward from Humanity to the Politics of Nature
While it is convenient to argue that the concrete failures of socialism and social science explain the great ideological leap backward, an important part of the explanation lies in the diffusion of political interest from the specifically human to a more generic sense of life. No doubt, this reflects the cultural impact of Neo-Darwinism on contemporary political and ethical intuitions. But it also reflects a profound change in political economy. The original defenders of animal rights were urban dwellers like Epicurus, Lucretius, Montaigne, and Bentham, who held no special brief for protecting the natural environment. Indeed, their pro-animal thinking was part of a general strategy of rescuing all sentient beings from captivity in ‘the state of nature’ (Plender 2001). For them, as for Linnaeus, Lord Monboddo, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the highest compliment one could pay an animal was to say that it was fit for human company. Animal rights came to be absorbed into a general ecological ethic only with the decline of agriculture as a mode of production. Thus, by the time Peter Singer (1981) came to speak of ‘expanding the circle’ of moral responsibility, he ultimately had the entire planet in his sights – that is the preservation of animal habitats, not simply the incorporation of animals into human society.
I cannot say exactly when animal rights came to be associated with a specifically anti-humanistic sensibility, one that places greater value on wild over domestic animal existence. Nevertheless, the assimilation of animal rights to a global ecological ethic has served to lower both the criteria for an adequate human existence (i.e. to the minimization of suffering) and the tolerance for individual humans who fail to meet those criteria (i.e. the disabled, the infirm, perhaps even the unwanted). In other words, an extension of rights to animals in general has been accompanied by a restriction of rights to specific classes of humans.
Fuller (2001a) portrays this development as a scientific version of La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’. In effect, animals receive the benefit of the doubt in a global ecological ethic simply because less is known about them. A reified version of this judgement is central to the Aristotelian tradition: Animals are morally neutral in a way that humans are not because the former always realize their lower potential, whereas the latter often do not realize their higher potential. Admittedly, disabled humans are not personally responsible for their failure to realize their potential, but still their lives are valued less when compared to that of able-bodied humans. In light of this lingering Aristotelian sensibility, an unintended long-term value of conducting more research into animals might be that greater familiarity with the grades of animal life will enable similarly nuanced judgements of animals, including perhaps making them liable for their own unrealised potential.
As we have seen, the concept of welfare has been dissipated in two respects. On the one hand, ecologists have wanted to ‘expand the moral circle’ to cover animal welfare. In a post-socialist period when tax bases are certainly not growing, and are often shrinking, this policy invariably involves spreading welfare provision more thinly among humans. It has resulted in more explicit discussions of tradeoffs in legal coverage and even ‘triage’ in healthcare. In this context, John Stuart Mill gets his comeuppance for having the temerity to presume that a disabled Socrates (Stephen Hawking?) was worth more than an able-bodied pig. On the other hand, neo-liberals want simply to withdraw state involvement from all but the most basic welfare provision, converting individual tax burdens into added spending power that may be used as individuals see fit.
New developments in genomic-based biotechnology offer comfort to both the ecological and the neo-liberal views of welfare provision. On the one hand, the ontology underlying the new biotechnology stresses a 95%+ genetic overlap between humans and most other animals, creating a presumptive parity of interests and rights. On the other hand, the research agenda of the new biotechnology is oriented toward the identification of specific abnormalities in specific strands of DNA, which ultimately would enable each individual to have a comprehensive understanding of her genetic strengths and weaknesses, so that she can make an ‘informed choice’ about the degree and kind of healthcare she is likely to need. For a sense of political contrast, an ‘old socialist’ would read the ‘95%+’ figure as grounds for encouraging xenotransplantation, gene therapy, and animal experimentation – all in aid of maximizing the use of animals to promote human welfare. Moreover, rather than focusing on the uniqueness of each person’s DNA, the old socialist would note that they are combinations of elements drawn by chance from a common genetic pool.
A sign that both the ecologists and the neo-liberals have evacuated the ground previously held by the red parties is that the welfare of the most vulnerable members of human society is largely abandoned as an explicit policymaking goal -- though both continue to make arguments to the effect that the poor and disabled might benefit indirectly, such as by trickle-down economics or even some ‘mercy killing’ (especially if the minimization of suffering is taken to be an overriding value). Indeed, there is a tendency for both ecologists and neo-liberals to speak as if the fundamental problems of poverty and immiseration that gave rise to the labour movement and socialist parties have been already more-or-less solved – much as it is often claimed that certain previously widespread diseases like smallpox and polio have now been eradicated. But both sides of the analogy turn out to be empirically flawed and maybe even conceptually confused, if they assume that social progress, once made, is irreversible and hence worthy of benign neglect.
For their part, sociologists have done relatively little to illuminate this rather strange sense of ‘living in the future’ that characterizes contemporary post-welfarist politics, even as the gap between the rich and the poor within and between countries has arguably increased. Instead, sociologists have fixated on the generalized exposure to risk that the devolution of the welfare state has wrought, and the self-organizing ‘lifestyle politics’ that have emerged in its wake. It would seem that with the decline of the welfare state has come a phenomenologization of the sociological sensibility, as if the ontology of social structures dissolves right alongside the devolution of state power. I refer here, of course, to the so-called ‘risk society’ thesis introduced by Ulrich Beck (1992) and popularised in the guise of ‘ontological insecurity’ by Anthony Giddens (1990). However, this is not quite phenomenology as Alfred Schutz understood it -- nor is it politics as anyone normally understands it.
At the dawn of the mass media, Schutz (1964) famously argued that radio gave listeners a false sense of immediacy of events happening far beyond their everyday life experiences, which might embolden them into political intervention. (He was worried about fascist propaganda galvanizing the petty bourgeoisie.) If we replace ‘radio’ with ‘internet’, Schutz’s reservations would seem to apply to the lifestyle politics associated with, say, the anti-globalization movement. This change of media enables the anti-globalizationists to control the means of knowledge production to a substantial extent, but it also enables them to autonomize their activities from ordinary politics. What is noticeably lacking from this movement – especially when compared with the old labour movement -- is sustained engagement with the people on whose behalf the demonstrations are made. Protestors tend not to be members of the classes represented but well-educated, well-meaning people who – by virtue of age, disposable income, or employment situation – can easily transport themselves to the first-world sites where global political and economic oppressors happen to congregate. The actual oppressed are typically too busy working in third-world sweatshops or fearful of local political reprisals to demonstrate for themselves.
To some extent, this lack of sustained engagement already had precedents in the failure of university-based activism in the 1960s and 1970s to touch base with industrial labour, even though much of the academic political rhetoric concerned ‘class oppression’. With the 20/20 vision afforded by hindsight, we may say that the more ecological and libertarian features of campus radicalism held little appeal to organized labour, with its generally solidarist strategy for retaining factory jobs. Of course, the jury is out on whether the anti-globalization movement really serves the interests of those they claim to represent. Nevertheless, the movement already displays some distinctive contexts of interaction. The representatives and the represented – the protestors and the oppressed -- are usually limited to ‘photo-ops’ in the broadest sense, ranging from the protestors briefly visiting oppressed habitats in the presence of the cable television news channels to the protestors themselves filming the oppressed to raise consciousness at home.
It is easy to see how such self-appointed representation of others suits a reduction of the politics of humanity to a ‘politics of nature’. For example, animal rights activists do not organize animals to revolt against their human oppressors, nor do they necessarily spend much time around animals – though they visit sites of animal captivity, mainly to bring back evidence of their cruelty to the humans who might make a difference to their fate. While this political strategy is perfectly understandable vis-à-vis animals, it should cause the heart of any socialist to sink when applied to humans: Where are the attempts to persuade the locals that they should organize themselves to revolt against their oppressors? Of course, in the current political climate, the few such attempts that do occur are regarded as ‘treason’ and ‘terrorism’ – indeed, as they were when socialists acted similarly in the 19th century. Yet, the original socialists were not deterred by the threat of state sanction because they believed that the locals could be persuaded of their point-of-view and, crucially, that fact would contribute evidence to the view’s correctness. This result, in turn, would embolden the enlarged comradeship to continue spreading the word worldwide.
Here we see one of the many senses in which socialism tried to realize the spirit of Christianity in a secular guise (MacIntyre 1994). Presupposed in the socialist project – at least in this organizational phase before it became the dominant state party of any country – was a sense that one’s own faith in the project had to be tested against the unconverted. This gave socialism much of its heroic quality, but it also meant that the doctrine was responsive to the resistance it met from those on whose behalf socialists aspired to speak. In contrast, the anti-globalizationists are essentially a self-appointed emancipatory movement that does not require its subjects to confirm its perspective. Read uncharitably, the anti-globalizationists would appear to be risk-averse or dogmatic in their own sociological horizons. In effect, they have assimilated the plight of oppressed humans to that of the natural environment, whose consent they would also never dream of seeking. In this respect, they engage in a ‘dehumanization’ of politics -- albeit a benevolently inspired one.
Other attempts to provide a post-welfarist grounding for sociology have foundered on the shoals of ‘body politics’. In his keynote address to the annual meeting of the British Sociological Association in 2002, Bryan Turner, a founder of the sociology of the body, a popular field speciality, argued for a division of labour within social science to recapture the distinction between a universal human nature and differences among particular societies. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the proposed division was a phenomenologically inspired one – between the universal experience of pain and the culturally relative manifestations of suffering. For Turner a supposed advantage of this redefinition is that it draws the boundary of the social’s domain right at the interface with the natural world. Thus, Turner would extend sociology’s remit to cover areas previously ceded to psychology and the biomedical sciences. Unfortunately, this extension comes at the price of attenuating the definition of the ‘social’ in ways that, once again, give comfort to both ecologists and neo-liberals at the expense of the old left: ‘The social’ is reducible to a collection of traits possessed by individuals (the neo-liberal turn) and, moreover, these traits are defined such that their possessors need not be humans (the ecological turn). It marks a return to an ontology that sees the difference between ‘species’, ‘race’ and ‘culture’ as matters of degrees, not kinds, and a normative ideal that is fixated on the ideal member of one such group rather than the exemplary collective product that ‘humanity’ was meant to be.
Conclusion: A New Foundation for Genetics in the Social Welfare Sciences
No one denies the unprecedented nature of what we know about the genetic constitution of humans and other animals, as well as our capacity for genetic intervention both in vivo and in vitro. What remains – and will always remain – in doubt is our control over the consequences. Genetics is an irreducibly statistical science. Indeterminacy occurs on at least three levels: interaction effects among genes in a genome, from genotype to phenotype, and the interaction effects between genetic makeup and the environment. In this respect, the very term ‘biotechnology’ masks a socially significant gap between knowledge and control. Interestingly, at the dawn of the 20th century, when eugenicists learned from the Hardy-Weinberg theorem that most disabilities would remain unexpressed in the individuals carrying the relevant genes, they did not admit defeat for their program of selective breeding. Rather, they intensified their research, as if the indeterminacy were ignorance that could be eliminated through more precise genetic knowledge and invasive genetic technology (Paul 1994: chap. 7). However, as one might expect of any complex phenomenon, this research has succeeded in posing new problems as it solved old ones.
The statistical nature of genetic science provides the best chance for reviving the fortunes of both social science and socialism in the 21st century. But the realization of this future requires a genuine Hegelian ‘sublation’ of genetics. In other words, the status of genetics as a body of knowledge needs to be reduced before it can be properly incorporated into a renovated conception of ‘society’. Specifically, it must come to be seen not as an autonomous, let alone foundational, science but as a ‘mere’ social technology that can be explained, justified, and applied by a wide variety of theories, ideologies, and policies. Ideally, this involves divesting genetics of its status as a paradigmatic science with a canonical history and fixed location on the intellectual landscape. Indeed, we should aim for the phrase ‘genetic engineering’ to become a pleonasm. Genetics must become like the economy, which is no longer the preserve of laissez faire liberals but a generally recognized and multiply interpretable societal function. However, given the prevalence of what Richard Dawkins (1976) notoriously popularised as the ‘gene’s eye-view of the world’, the public understanding of genetics continues to conjure up the spectre of totalitarian regimes, comparable to the public understanding of political economy, circa 1810, which evoked images of dehumanised exchange relations.
The analogy runs deeper, since Dawkins draws – perhaps unwittingly – on the reversal of means and ends that Marx used so effectively in Capital to illustrate capitalism’s perversion of value. Just as money drives the exchange of commodities, ‘selfish genes’ use willing organisms to reproduce themselves. In contrast, with renewed sociological vision, genes should not be seen as the prime movers of life but organic by-products of procreation, a means by which people perpetuate several legally sanctioned social formations -- most traditionally the family -- as they bring the next generation into existence. To be sure, these organic by-products are themselves socially significant as regulators of individuals’ bodily functions. Nevertheless, describing the genetic basis of humanity in such ontologically diminished terms draws attention to the subservient role of the gene, which through changes in the constitution of society and extensions in our biomedical capabilities (not least ‘cyborganization’) may itself come to be transformed, obviated, supplemented, or even replaced.
Moreover, in keeping with a welfarist sensibility, this sociological revaluation of genetics places it squarely in the realm of human endeavour, specifically a product of collective labour that draws indeterminately on a common pool of resources in order to increase society’s overall value. Moreover, the value of this product – the offspring – is measured by all the factors that go into its actual production rather than some inherent value of its raw material (as in the extreme bioliberalism of the ‘right not to be born’ rulings). The relative weighting of these factors and the identity of their bearers are the natural stuff of politics. Indeed, a society’s genetic potential is the nearest that nature comes to providing a res publica, a focus for public deliberation and collective action. A ‘politics of the gene’ should be part of an integrated welfare policy that encompasses the pre-natal situation, the conditions of birth and infancy, child-rearing and formal education, as well as preventive, diagnostic, and curative health care. As in debates over taxation, there are many possible points of intervention for influencing an individual’s life chances. Each proposes to redistribute the costs and benefits across society rather differently, usually in accordance with some vision of justice. And as in debates over, say, the taxation of inherited wealth, we may look forward to the day when reasonable people disagree over specifically genetic interventions without demonising those whose arguments test the extremes of political possibility. In the end, what matters is the democratic framework for taking these decisions, one that invites the regular examination and possible reversal of standing policies (Fuller 2000a).
It is clear that renewed attention to the concept and processes of redistribution should be central to sociology for the 21st century. In the first place, a property possessed by an individual may be normatively positive or negative, depending on the legal authorization for its transmission. Indeed, there are Biblical grounds for this notion. Biblical literalists concede that the only evil form of transmission is biological reproduction, which grants legitimacy to later generations simply by virtue of being a genetic descendant of Adam, the original sinner. A more sanctified form of transmission requires a formal renunciation of what was evil in this legacy, as in baptism or its secular equivalent, an examination that gives a candidate the opportunity to renounce one’s former ignorance or prejudice. Moreover, even if we grant that people are ‘by nature’ selfish to the point of being prone to use violence to protect their individual inheritance, they may nonetheless improve their sociability simply by the legal transfer of these violent tendencies to the state as executor of their collective inheritance, which is tantamount to maintaining the conditions under which the people remain sociable. The ‘arts of citizenship’ from military training to regular elections encapsulate this species of political alchemy. Accordingly, potential combatants are compelled to focus on particular activities with clearly demarcated rules of engagement rather than ‘taking the law into their hands’.
The reinvention of sociology will also benefit from the mutual recognition of the fundamental equality of individuals that accompanies a redistributionist ethic. ‘Equality’ here is meant in mainly negative terms, namely, the arbitrariness and potential reversibility of whatever conditions actually differentiate members of a society, be it to one’s own advantage or disadvantage. This point may be seen as another way of sublimating the uncertainty that besets homo sapiens in a Hobbesian state of nature (e.g. the Rawlsian ‘original position’) or more positively – following Alasdair MacIntyre (2000) – as identifying humanity with a sense of reciprocity, that is, the capacity for giving and taking. Our achievements are largely due to the collaboration and license of others who neither question our motives nor themselves materially benefit from those achievements. They simply expect that we would act similarly toward them under similar circumstances. Included here are the background institutions that economists say ‘minimize transaction costs’. (However, Alvin Gouldner  intriguingly suggested that it may be the separate development of the ‘giving’ and ‘taking’ phases of reciprocity – that is, beneficence and exploitation – that mark the human.)
Regardless of aetiology, an egalitarian attitude counteracts both complacency about success and fatalism about failure: Informed with a vivid sense that the future may well not copy the past, people will endeavour to make their collective efforts exceed whatever they might do individually or in a more socially restricted capacity. The outstanding question that remains is which individuals are eligible for this sort of equality: Is the redistributionist regime limited to only and all those genetically marked as homo sapiens? Whereas socialists traditionally answered yes without hesitation, today neo-liberals deny the ‘all’ and ecologists the ‘only’ premised in the question. In today’s ideological debates over biotechnology, neither neo-liberals nor ecologists speak consistently on behalf of all of humanity, although it is clear that specific humans are likely to benefit from politically realizing one or the other side. Here a renewed socialist sensibility would make a point of prioritizing the maintenance and extension of specifically human traits, forms, and projects.
In conclusion, I must observe that to compare genetic potential with, say, labour power or inherited wealth is, in an important sense, to render the raw material of our lives banal. Moreover, from a sociological standpoint that regards humanity as a collective project initiated by homo sapiens, that is exactly how it should be: Our humanity lies exclusively in what we make of our genetic potential, not in the potential itself. In this respect, Aristotelians were right to hold humanity to a higher standard of achievement than animals – but only because we had already achieved so much, not because our raw material was intrinsically better. The task for sociology in the 21st century, then, is to reclaim the ground that the a posteriori has lost to the a priori in our conception of humanity. For example, what Aristotelians regard as ‘virtuous capacities’ need to be recovered as ‘beneficial consequences’. A telling target for recovery is the ‘law of diminishing marginal utility’, the fundamental principle of welfare economics, which began life very much inspired by the idea of humanity as a normative project but became a naturalistic account of how humans ‘always already’ behave.
I earlier noted that John Stuart Mill, despite his links to sociology’s founder, Auguste Comte, is conspicuous by his absence from canonical histories of the discipline. Mill originally invoked the law of diminishing marginal utility to demonstrate how liberty and equality could be jointly maximized: If someone possesses a sufficient amount of a good, the overall welfare of society would be increased by transferring any additional amounts to someone who lacks the good. The basic idea is that the resulting compression of the difference in goods would be generously offset by the additional freedom that the transfer’s beneficiary would gain to satisfy her wants. Mill interpreted this principle as a policy injunction to redistribute income so that everyone can make the most use of society’s resources. He presupposed that economic laws serve as normative correctives to injustices that result from artificial restrictions on the free flow of goods and services that have been backed by generations of legal enforcement. Genetics may provide an opportunity for sociology to return to this Millian sensibility.
However, it is worth recalling that ‘economic science’ formally broke with ‘political economy’ when William Stanley Jevons successfully contested Mill’s interpretation of the law of diminishing marginal utility in the third quarter of the 19th century (Fuller 2001b). Jevons held that the principle is meant to represent, not correct, nature. In that respect, it behaves exactly like a physical law. The appropriate use for the principle, then, is not to decide on policies for correcting injustices but to identify the frame of reference within which one can say that this principle is already operating – the invisible hand’s implicit reach. From this reinterpretation came the ‘positivist’ turn that has increasingly marked the history of economics – in particular, a focus on formal models of idealized closed systems (a la Newtonian mechanics) and panglossian explanations for the distribution of resources in actual societies: The urge to redistribute wealth was thus permanently kept in check by the search for hidden redistributions happening elsewhere in the economy. Certain bioliberal tendencies in the social sciences, by making too easy a peace with the emergent forms of biotechnology, come dangerously close to setting us once again on the Jevonian path of least normative resistance, which would in turn only serve to set our disciplines back another 200 years.
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