The biopolitics of decoupling

Image: Stela Grespan


The impasse between the biopolitics of sustaining capital and the dynamics of the immense community of life, of which we humans are a part, which is sustained by a delicate web of structural couplings, which have been broken since we inaugurated the Anthropocene

“Civilization and barbarism are not different types of society. They are found – intertwined – wherever human beings come together” (John Gray).

In current times, it does not take much cognitive effort to realize that the hegemonic way of life of civilization is totally unsustainable, in whatever perspective we observe it, be it social, ecological, political, economic, institutional, ethical, spiritual, material or any other. other. This civilizing incongruity has to do with the different worldviews that have been elaborated and experienced throughout history, until we reach the economic worldview, which reigns almost absolute in the current era. This is because all worldviews already experienced, from the theocentrism of the Middle Ages, passing through the anthropocentrism of Renaissance and modern culture, which was mixed with the deterministic mechanism initiated in the XNUMXth century and ended up in the current economism (and even the bet on transhumanism provided by algorithms, which some project for the near future), were permeated by the patriarchal culture, which is supported by the appropriation of the truth that the world is a large arena governed by the idea of ​​struggle, hierarchy, power, control and extraction of natural resources. And this patriarchal culture, in many moments of human history, triggered processes of profound regression, but never as intense and impactful as what appears to be underway in contemporary times.

For the British philosopher John Gray, “Human life is no longer shaped by the rhythms of the planet”. The human species, according to him, in its impetus to rebuild the world in its own image, is forging a post-human world, which makes him conclude that “however it ends, the Anthropocene will be brief”. A good way to understand this brevity sponsored by human beings is in the notion of biopolitics or biopower, as conceived by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who explains so well the genesis and course of transformations, both in the past and in the present, in the structures of governance and power of capital, which today are on the rise in the face of disorientation, instability and deepening of the civilizing crisis, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this sense, understanding the current era through biopolitics is very useful, since the new configurations of the capital system, implemented from the neoliberalism inaugurated in the 1970s, impose new and urgent reflections on the dark paths that civilization is taking. Thus, the proposal here is to think about a great paradox that seems to be behind biopolitics, based on the assumption that it represents the sustaining metabolism of capital not only to ensure that we are too alive to die, but notably too dead to live. The control of death through biopolitics engendered a highly productive and overly morbid society, thus revealing a powerful process of decoupling the vital and the human. In order to understand this proposal for reflection, it is necessary to add a new element of analysis that we can also call (bio)politics, that is, politics from the perspective of biology, a field of science whose knowledge has been, for quite some time, expanded from significant way by expressive names like the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana. Thus, the idea here is to try to contribute to critical thinking in the face of the biopower that today forges and controls our world-system, which is sliding, by leaps and bounds, towards a civilizational collapse.

In a recent article, the philosopher Vladimir Safatle, commenting on Foucault's posthumous book, Birth of Biopolitics, resulting from a course given at the Collège de France, from 1978 to 1979, explains how Foucault conceives this mechanism of control of bodies, in which the forces of capital have been reconfigured in recent decades through “a true social engineering capable of formalizing all spheres of social life based on the company's model”. Thus, we watch inertly the emergence of the new homo economicus: “entrepreneur of himself, the one capable of calculating his time, his education, the affection devoted to his children, as an investment in the production of profitability of human capital”. In short, Safatle discusses, based on Foucault, how “a new form of social control manages to impose itself through the hands of liberal 'freedom'”, thus taking the economic view of the world to a new level of hegemony unprecedented in the history of capitalism and, consequently, increasingly aggravating the impasses of civilization. Biopolitics, as capital's sustaining metabolism, proves to be a powerful process of regression and barbarism and, at the limit, of self-destruction of civilization.

In this same strand of Foucauldian reflection, expressive philosophers such as Byung-Chul Han (with the “weariness society” arising from “performance society” of the new individual “Self Entrepreneur”), Peter Sloterdijk (with the anthropotechnics resulting from the “repetitiveness in creativity”), Giorgio Agamben (with "new life" resulting from the state of exception), among others, reinforce this reading around the new biopolitics that is currently being created, towards a hypervigilance capitalism, today fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, challenging us to think of other ways of being in the world. Han, for example, understands that “we should free ourselves from the idea that the source of all pleasure is a satisfied desire”As “only the consumer society is oriented towards the satisfaction of desires”. In that case, it would be better “redefining freedom from the community”. Thus, he defends “that we have to invent new forms of action and collective play that go beyond the ego, desire and consumption, and create community”. Deep down, they all seem to warn that we need to find some way to overcome patriarchal culture.

However, if the notion of biopolitics was born from an effort to understand how modern medicine was constituted, within the formation of industrial society (XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries), in a strategy of state control of bodies, in order to to ensure the production force of the capital system, it seems pertinent to bring here some of Maturana's ideas, since he, in his scientific practice, made, as we will see later, relevant contributions to the understanding of what life is, in particular , about the biological foundations that support (or should support) not only human behavior but also social behavior. Unlike the many thinkers who, throughout history, have made and continue to make, from the social sciences, the critique of our world-system that is supported by the logic of the market, Maturana has developed along his investigative trajectory the biological conceptions that demonstrate that we have been living, for millennia, under a civilizational paradigm that is totally inconsistent with the processes of sustaining life, which has affected the most diverse dimensions of human experience: scientific, economic, cultural, political, social, religious, among others.

Humberto Maturana, from Santiago de Chile, received a PhD in Biology from Harvard (1958), worked in neurophysiology at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and also worked in philosophy, anthropology and some specific areas of medicine such as anatomy, genetics and cardiology, with an interest permeated by the understanding of living beings and, especially, the human and the relationship between humans. Maturana is recognized in several countries and in vast areas of knowledge for his studies, having been awarded several prizes and distinctions such as Doctor Honoris Causa by the Free University of Brussels and the McCulloch Prize by the American Society of Cybernetics. Of the many books he wrote, I would highlight Autopoiesis and Cognition (Reidel, 1980) and El Arbor del Conocimiento (Editorial Universitária, Chile, 1984), both writings together with the Chilean biologist and philosopher Francisco Varela, who died in 2001, with whom he conceived in the 1970s the notion of autopoiesis (self-production, the creation of oneself), a concept that went beyond the domain of biology and was incorporated into other areas of science and philosophy, having been used by recognized names such as Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, Niklas Luhmann, Antonio Negri and others.

By bringing Maturana's thought to the field of politics, the idea is to reflect on the phenomenology of politics from the phenomenology of biology and, thus, be able to perceive how the biological and the cultural intertwine, due to a condition inherent to the nature of human beings. living beings, and how this relationship has been dissociated throughout human history, contrary to the principles that govern the constituent metabolisms of life. After Charles Darwin, whose discoveries in the field of natural sciences (Theory of the Evolution of Species – 1859) put to the ground the aura of divinity surrounding man until then, making him mortal and placing him in the same category as his animal relatives , Maturana was perhaps the one who best managed to broaden the understanding of the dynamics of life, even reaching, through biology, a better understanding of human behavior and life in society.

Perhaps Maturana's main contribution to science was the broadening of the understanding of what knowledge and reality are and what is the relationship between them. Maturana conceives that life, in its most varied forms, is a process of knowledge intertwined with reality. In his words, “every act of knowing gives rise to a world”. Thus, the reality in which each individual lives is what he builds from his perception, that is, his worldview or mental model, while this same reality also retroacts on the individual, building him. This field of study has been conventionally called the biology of cognition. By the way, what Maturana revealed through biological phenomenology, names like Nietzsche already intuited through philosophy, when he enunciated: “Against positivism, which stops before phenomena and says: 'There are only facts', I say: 'On the contrary, facts are what there are not; there are only interpretations'. We cannot establish any fact 'in itself': perhaps it is nonsense to want something like that. Everything is subjective.” Remembering that Nietzsche, like most of the notables of his time, was a thinker closer to the patriarchal vision, but with good insights not patriarchal. After all, no matter how brilliant a mind is in its ability to understand the complexity of the real world, there is no way to completely escape patriarchal conditioning by being immersed in a way of life that sustains itself.

Saying that each individual produces the world and is produced by it, in a recursive and circular process, goes against the still predominant idea called representationism, in which there is an objective reality independent of the observer, which constitutes the basis of patriarchal culture. In it, the world is already something pre-given in relation to human experience, which makes us adopt a passive attitude towards reality. This is how, for example, the current hegemonic economic view of the world operates, which imposes on us as truth the idea that the world is a large market governed by competition, meritocracy, consumption and accumulation, through which it seeks to justify that there is no other form of sociability other than the one we currently experience, which has capital as its centrality.

For a better understanding of this biology of knowing, an attempt is made to summarize the main concepts and studies developed by Maturana and Varela that better explain the biological foundations that sustain the dynamics of life and the social phenomenon, which serve as arguments to understand that the human behavior was shaped by a patriarchal culture in disagreement with such fundamentals, and which also allows us to understand how, from the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, capitalism gradually engendered a biopolitics of growing decoupling of the processes that sustain life on our planet, which includes human societies.

Autopoiesis and structural coupling: the dynamics of life

The term “autopoiesis”, which comes from the Greek poiesis, referring to production, means self-production. It was used for the first time in the academic world in 1974, in an article written by Maturana, Varela and Ricardo Uribe (PhD in cybernetics at Brunel University, London) to explain how living beings continuously produce themselves. As Maturana says, autopoiesis is the “center of the constitutive dynamics of living beings”. Living organisms, from the level of cellular components to communities of living beings, are thus autonomous systems that self-produce and self-regulate. However, paradoxically, they are also dependent, as they need to resort to the resources available in the environment to maintain their autopoiesis. Hence the need for complex thinking (which embraces contradictions) to understand concepts that best explain the inherent complexity of the real world.

On the other hand, living organisms are also determined by their structure, which Maturana and Varela called “structural determinism”. Each living being has an organization that defines it, the way it configures itself, which is supported by a structure resulting from the way its components interconnect and interact without changing its organization. That is, the structure changes all the time to maintain its organization, adapting to changes in its environment, which are also continuous. Determinism here, therefore, is not to be confused with predictability, as the structure is constantly changing to maintain its congruence with the environment, which is also in permanent change. Another paradox of the dynamics of living systems: they are in continuous internal disorder, within the structure, to maintain external order, within the organization. In other words, living beings are permanently in a state of entropy (degradation) and negentropy (regeneration). This flow, which is necessary and essential for the living being to maintain a kind of harmony with the environment in which it is inserted, only ceases with the loss of organization, that is, with death.

Hence the notion of “structural coupling”, also developed by Maturana and Varela. The living being, to maintain its organization, needs to be in a permanent state of congruence with the environment around it. The living world thus constitutes a large community with various forms of life, all in a continuous state of interaction, in different orders of organization, whose behaviors affect each other (living being and environment) and, thus, go establishing contextual consensuses that guarantee the coexistence and evolution of all the members of this immense network that is the biodiversity community in which we are inserted. As Maturana says, “what defines a species is its way of life, a configuration of variable relationships between organism and environment”.

When we appreciate the harmony and exuberance of a large Amazonian forest, for example, we are actually observing an immense network of biodiversity in structural couplings, between an incalculable number of living beings, in complex adaptive processes of coexistence. In the human body alone, according to microbiologists, a community of the order of trillions of bacteria and micro-organisms coexists. According to Maturana and Varela, “the continuous structural change of living beings with conservation of their autopoiesis happens at every moment, incessantly and in many simultaneous ways. It is the heartbeat of life”.

Acceptance of the other: the origin of the social

From these concepts such as autopoiesis and structural coupling, the view of so-called modern biology (XNUMXth century), which understood evolution from the genetic configurations that are conserved in the reproductive history of living beings, takes a huge leap in understanding about the dynamics of life. In this new perspective, the explanation of the phenomenon of evolution, according to Maturana, “is in the change of the way of life, and in its conservation in the construction of a lineage of organisms congruent with its circumstance, and not in disagreement with it”. In the case of human beings, Maturana maintains, based on a study of fossil records from 3,5 million years ago, that the origin of the human lies in the emergence of language and its intertwining with emotion, which constitutes the basis of human actions. , contrary to what common sense thinks, which gives centrality to reason and objectivity in our actions, an understanding that formed the basis for the development of modern science, which emerged in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries in Europe. As he himself says, “every rational system has an emotional foundation”. However, “we belong to a culture that gives the rational a transcendent validity, and what comes from our emotions, an arbitrary character.”

Maturana also maintains that, from a biological point of view, the acceptance of the other is what gives rise to the social, as it happens in any community of living beings. However, this is not what happens among humans. Human societies function based on a dynamic of forced behavior, which is the pattern of patriarchal culture, in which the economic worldview is sustained. This pattern of behavior was further reinforced by the so-called social Darwinism, which brings the notion that the world is a large arena, an idea conceived by the English philosopher, biologist and anthropologist, Herbert Spencer, considered by some to be the prophet of capitalism. laissez-faire, which coined the expression “survival of the fittest”. This is a version of the evolutionary theory of natural selection, not fully accepted by Darwin himself, which went beyond the domain of biology and extended to the cultural realm.

The notion of autopoiesis, just as it explains the dynamics of any community of living beings, should also be extended to human groups. However, patriarchal culture has subverted this dynamic of life and, thus, we experience a pathological sociability in this sense, since it favors a tiny minority of the human species to the detriment of a huge contingent of individuals. In the words of the writer and psychotherapist Humberto Mariotti,“A society could only be seen as autopoietic if it satisfied the autopoiesis of all its individuals. Therefore, a society that discards living individuals while they are still alive, and therefore currently or potentially productive (through expedients such as the production of subjectivity, social exclusion, wars, genocides and other forms of violence), is self-mutilating and therefore pathological.”In other words, we are culturally conditioned to live in competition, and not rarely in a predatory way, which denies the presence of the other, while biologically we can only maintain our autopoiesis and our congruence with the environment if we accept the other as a legitimate other in coexistence.

In this sense, what exists in nature is a great coexistence of various forms of life that interact with each other and the best way to understand this dynamic is through the notion of cooperation. However, when nature joins culture, the latter can overlap with the former, which seems to have happened to human beings when patriarchal culture was installed since the Neolithic period. Mariotti describes well how we try in vain to project ourselves into nature: “When man calls certain animals predators, he is anthropomorphizing them, that is, projecting a condition that is peculiar to him. As they do not compete with each other, non-human living systems do not 'dictate' norms of conduct to one another. Keeping the natural conditions, among them there are neither authoritarian commands nor unrestricted obedience. Living beings are autonomous systems, which determine their behavior based on their own references, that is, based on how they interpret the influences they receive from the environment. If this did not happen, they would be subjected systems, obedient to determinations coming from outside.”

Therefore, competition is a phenomenon that belongs to the cultural scope. What gives rise to the social is the acceptance of the legitimacy of the existence of the other, without which there could be no human coexistence. Maturana, in addition to stating that “the anthropological origin of Homo sapiens did not happen through competition, but through cooperation”, goes even further when he says that “love is the central emotion in human evolutionary history from the beginning”. The word love here is more associated with the notion of mutual care than with any Christian or romanticized connotation that it entails in common sense, that is, it concerns the “emotion that constitutes the domain of behaviors in which the acceptance of the other as a legitimate other in coexistence takes place”. That is why Maturana claims, based on biology, that 99% of human illnesses are related to the denial of love, insofar as acceptance of the other is the biological foundation of the social phenomenon. As Gray also reinforces, “Health may be the natural condition of other species, but in the case of men, disease is normal. Being chronically ill is part of what it means to be human.”.

Denial of politics: the origin of barbarism

Today, as it is almost a continuum in history, humanity is experiencing yet another process of political deterioration and, consequently, we observe the growing fraying of the social fabric, which, as a rule, descends into authoritarianism and nationalism accompanied by extreme violence against human dignity. The horrors of the twentieth century confirm this. Indeed, according to the English historian Eric Hobsbawm, “History is the record of the crimes and follies of humanity.” And we could not expect anything different if the culture that permeated the entire human trajectory in the last six or seven thousand years was the patriarchal one.

Deep down, humanity is hostage to a kind of cultural self-blocking, which imprisons it in its own culture and thus cannot see any other form of sociability. This has to do with that claim attributed to Einstein that “We cannot solve a problem with the same state of mind that created it”. In other words, we face in a very natural way and, therefore, without any questioning, the culture in which we were born and developed, without realizing that we are incongruous with the human condition itself, which allowed us, throughout the evolutionary process of Homo sapiens, which lasted around 350 years, to get here. The normalization of the negation of the other and, in the extreme, the trivialization of the violence that this normalization generates is the pattern of sociability of the patriarchal culture. Maturana links this cultural conditioning to the current civilizational crisis in the following terms: “For the members of the community who live in it, a culture is a realm of self-evident truths. They do not require justification and their foundation is neither seen nor investigated, unless in the future of that community a cultural conflict arises that leads to such reflection. The latter is our current situation.”

The fact is that the negation of politics is currently in accelerated expansion, in several parts of the world, as a reflection of the exacerbation of capitalism through the neoliberal doctrine in progress in the last fifty years. O movement of capitalism based on this neoliberal ideology, driven by technological development, consists, on the one hand, in dismantling and suppressing State forces and, on the other hand, imposing the corporate standard of sociability or, as Maturana prefers, we are experiencing the “openness to corporate tyranny”. That is why neoliberalism must be understood as a new form of totalitarianism, which is now reversed, that is, under a market dictatorship, as the philosopher Marilena Chauí maintains. And as such, it turns out to be an economic doctrine doomed to failure, but not without first producing a profound civilizing regression, tending to be much more overwhelming than others recorded in history, since there are two new components that frighteningly potentiate and amplify their effects: climate change and the collapse of nation-states, both global phenomena. In fact, humanity is facing its first crisis of planetary reach, which leads many thinkers who are more attentive to the multiple dimensions of the current civilizational crisis to compare the Anthropocene with one more of the mass extinction processes that the Earth has had in the past. past, in view of the accentuated and accelerated loss of biodiversity that has been observed by science in recent decades.

Gray claims that “New kinds of despotisms arise in many parts of the world. Governments resort to the latest technologies to develop hypermodern techniques of control far more invasive than traditional tyrannies.” The new biopolitics that operates in the present time helps to understand these ongoing changes in the capital system. With the neoliberalism that started in the 1970s, associated with the algorithm revolution, which gave rise to the phenomenon of globalization, financialization and transnationalization of capital, this metabolism triggered an almost imperceptible process of reformulation of the market democracy of the last four hundred years, further amplifying the incongruity of the capitalist system. We are experiencing, on the one hand, the decline of liberal democracies and, on the other, the probable advent of hypervigilance capitalism as a result of the symbiosis between market and technology.

In a recent interview with the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, on 30/4/2020, Maturana was very concerned about the current health and ecological crisis and was very blunt in stating that if we do not listen to each other and do not find ourselves in mutual acceptance and collaboration, through democratic coexistence, “we will not generate any change aimed at the well-being of humanity, without or with a viral pandemic, we will go straight to our extinction”. The capitalist system is not only incompatible with the dynamics of nature, but it is rapidly deteriorating this dynamics. In Mariotti's view, “A truly autopoietic society cannot coexist with the predatory competition and exclusionary capitalism that prevails in the world today. The same goes, of course, for state capitalism, at least what has been put into practice so far, in regimes that do not excel in respect for the diversity of ideas. If we are determined from within, any form of authoritarianism is and always will be aggression.” Hence the impasse between the biopolitics of sustaining capital and the dynamics of the immense community of life, of which we humans are a part, which is sustained by a delicate web of structural couplings, which have been broken since we inaugurated the Anthropocene.

Unfortunately, science and history do not progress harmoniously. It is not because Maturana and others, before and after him, discovered better foundations to explain the human condition and the reality in which it is inserted that our way of living will be resignified for the better. The advances and setbacks that humanity has experienced were not driven by science, but by the hegemonic worldview in each historical time, which has always appropriated science in the way that best suits it to impose itself, as was the case of social Darwinism mentioned above. As Gray states, “Science is a method of inquiry, not a world view”. The engine of history, ever since capital became the structuring axis of civilization, has been the freedom of politics and the market, the latter always subjecting the former and sometimes even annulling it. And there are no signs that there will be an inversion of this dynamic in the near future.

According to the Austrian sociologist Riane Eisler, from some point in the Neolithic, when there was the great cultural bifurcation in the West, the Indo-European warrior peoples made use of weapons to promote the passage of “Partnership Society”, hitherto predominant, for the “Society of Domination” (The Chalice and the Sword: Our History, Our Future, Palas Athena, 2008). Therefore, it is perhaps more reasonable and useful to understand and accept that the history of humanity coincides with the history of regressions imposed by patriarchy and will probably reach its peak and exhaustion in contemporary times. There is no way that the Anthropocene will have a long life in view of the uncouplings that are taking place.

If the scientific findings of Maturana and many others, in this investigative line around social phenomenology, are not being incorporated by politics and the market, and everything indicates that they will not be, at least they will serve to provide us with the biological foundations to understand the barbarism and climate breakdown into which civilization is sliding. With the growing annulment of politics, there are already strong indications that we are inaugurating a very dark phase of history in which the human ego, in its most destructive expressions, threatens to reign supreme, without counterweights to contain or at least mitigate it. That is why it is always worth remembering the warning of the Austrian neuropsychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who felt the horrors of Nazism firsthand: “So let us be alert – alert in a double sense: Since Auschwitz we have known what human beings are capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”.

According to the poet Thomas Eliot, “Humanity does not support much reality”. Seen from a certain perspective, such an affirmation is nonetheless a great encouragement. This is because perhaps the new biopolitics that are being managed by the forces of capital, backed by algorithms, which some find more appropriate to call tanatopolitics or necropolitics, as the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe does, will lead us to such a dystopian reality and, therefore, , so unbearable that, after all, this emptying of the human, of the vital, of politics, of reflection, of contemplation, perhaps represents a preparation for going through the difficult metamorphosis that could allow us to rescue our lost humanity. Who knows, a last chance for redemption, a shred of hope that the patriarchal culture and the internal conflicts it inflicted on humans will finally be dissipated and return to its contingent state, and that the community of life and the love that gives support to return, after a long time, to their natural course.

Antonio Sales Rios Neto is a civil engineer and organizational consultant.


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