Last week I had a chat with a friend about the concept of eugenics, and it revealed just how much I have to learn. With some on the American Right (that’s you and your associates, Mr Beck) accusing the Obama plan of engaging in eugenics, and the comparison of Obama with Hitler being all over the Right-wing media and on not a few protest posters, I figured that the time was right to nail my colours to the mast, even at the risk of seeming simplistic.
I support certain forms of eugenics.
Allow me to be clear in what I mean, because a large amount of rubbish passes for eugenics. I’m not talking about banning or discouraging the reproduction of people with genetic weaknesses. I’m not talking about encouraging the procreation of those with inheritable ‘good’ traits. People should be permitted to have sex and reproduce as much as they wish, with no restrictions.
Yet as we improve our knowledge of genes and their interactions, and improve the technologies that permit the selection of certain characteristics, there is no reason why we could not begin to apply such knowledge to creating people who are super-intelligent, super-strong, likely to live a long time and so on. Such people would then be socialized in the usual way – by being born and being educated and so on.
The strangeness of the concept aside, it should tell us something that the debate about eugenics usually tends to come down to the same old battle lines. For example, libertarian transhumanists want to permit all sorts of cybernetic or genetic modification so long as it is guaranteed by the market. As a socialist, I’d prefer universal access to such self-enhancement treatments on a voluntary basis.
As befits our post-modern epoch, there are also those continually trying to use every new discovery to invalidate conceptions of the class structure of society. Thus with ‘biopolitics’, where sociologists like James Hughes seem to think that eugenics and similar modifications will tackle the root causes of inequalities of power. Perhaps someone should introduce Professor Hughes to Messrs Mouffe and Laclau.
I think my argument, basic though it is, ultimately comes down to this: humanity has been editing its own genes and its own abilities since we came to be. Agriculture, something we accept daily without thinking, changed the human species irrevocably, but yet it was not ‘natural’ – we adapted nature ourselves. The nature eugenics promises to adapt is merely inside ourselves – and I don’t see much principled difference.
With any advance, there is always the question of who will get to use it and how. That is true of everything from the first productive surplus, back in the mists of time, to the extreme heights of what we can do today. So this new battleground of the same old ideologies merely gives us one more thing to attack the capitalist markets for (potentially) confining to a small minority, the already-wealthy.
Here the power of eugenics or cybernetics meets its natural limit; it cannot do more than capitalism can do. Inequality may be widened still further by its deployment, much in the same way that without redistributive measures such as our national health service, inequality would be wider than it is. But the inequality would progress along the same lines as any other, as far as I can see.
The potential for breeding a slave race of exceptionally strong but intellectually limited humans (or some other variation) is not really a viable one, I would suggest, on same basis which caused the latifundia to fail; limited productivity and the need for constant central stimulation, rather than the dynamic system of capitalism where the hegemonic ideology potentially turns every individual into their own productivity manager.
We can change that, and consciously put ourselves in control of the process, only by overthrowing capitalism. A eugenics option on the NHS would count as a redistributive measure, if the reality of genetic engineering arrives, and we should support it – but we should support it while pointing out that our society will continue to produce inequalities, and that in any case, redistributive measures are often repealed.
So things come down, once again, to class struggle, which cannot be superseded by the ‘radical democracy’ which Professor Hughes implies.
Power is not just unequally distributed because of our uneven biological development and cannot be correctly distributed by tampering with that development – in this regard Hughes ‘biopolitics’ has become another form of identity politics which fails to challenge the core issue. The condition of the human race is sustained by the means whereby we reproduce and perpetuate our social organisation; our means of production, the private ownership of capital and all the hegemonic tools which flow from these.