The metaphor of the “body politic” has existed at least since Aesop defended the role of the stomach against accusations of laziness in his fable, The Belly and The Members.[i] A defence which was put into practical use to calm social unrest regarding the apparent unfairness of the system by at least one Roman senator, Menenius. His discourse was recorded in the chapter on Coriolanus in Plutarch’s Lives and made more prominent by Shakespeare in the opening scene of his play Coriolanus. Hobbes also used the idea in his own way in his introduction to the Leviathan, and Marx updated it to modern understandings of how the human metabolism works in Capital.
In Shakespeare’s rendering of the plebeian revolt, the belly story is used by Menenius to pacify the indignant mob. He tells them that there was a time when all the body parts rebelled against the belly, accusing him of being an idle organ, hording part of the system, letting the other organs do all the hard work whilst he sits back and enjoys the goods that are thrown into his office. Against these slanders the belly replies that while it was true that he received all the general food, that was only because he was the storehouse and the shop of the whole body, and that he redistributes that which he receives in an equitable fashion according to the needs of all the other organs, only keeping the chaff for himself. Menenius’ argument is that the patrician class, like the stomach, may appear lazy and greedy but in actual fact it is the most functional and necessary of all human organs. But the story is a lie on two levels. Neither the function of the stomach in the belly fable, nor the association made between belly and patricians were accurate. As Proudhon pointed out in his What is Property? : “if any one had remarked to this story-teller that the stomach freely gives to the limbs which it freely receives, but that the patricians gave to the plebs only for cash, and lent to them at usury, he undoubtedly would have silenced the wily senator, and saved the people from a great imposition.” [ii]
Our metaphor of the beast, on the other hand, is not so much that of a political body as one of an entwining system driven by an economics of surplus rather than any a priori, political power reasons. Economics before politics. This is why the European Union is an essentially economic institution, rejecting political unification. Isn’t the EU, as it is today, the ultimate representation of right-wing liberal-democracy’s anti-political point of view: that politics inhibits freedom where freedom means the freedom of economic interests? But the meaning of this is also semantic and rhetorical – the freeing of the market place means the granting of power to the market place so that economics means power, means governance, means politics. For example, in the EU, what we are seeing is the manipulation of needs and concentrating them from an economic (free-market) perspective in order to regulate “political” decisions on a nation state basis and impose economical right-wing strategies that benefit and bolster plutocracy in an arguably dictatorial fashion.
At the present we have a system that allows financial institutions, analysts and speculators to influence and even change the government of a country that they are not even nationals of by manipulating interest rates in order to make life unbearable for certain debt paying countries. The poorer you are the more interest you must pay on your debt: that is the modern money-lender’s sentence, although “poor” is not the correct term, the more correct euphemism is “high-risk,” which can mean “irresponsible” (Greece, Italy and Ireland) or “socialist/Keynesian” (Greece, Portugal and Spain).
In this way the world is transformed into a huge casino and our national governments become players around an enormous roulette wheel, although the wheel is manipulated. The casino is absolutely corrupt and controlled in a manner which is totally transparent. There is no need to hide when your power is absolute. Our governments choose to sit at this roulette table for one simple reason: it is the only game in the macro-casino. And if you decide you don’t want to play? The casino, like the mafia that must control it, has its ways of convincing even the most reluctant players.
But how has this situation been allowed to come about?
Let us look again at our body-politic or economic-organism model: if an organism which is the system we are a part of is a consuming, digesting, excreting metabolism, what are we? Certainly the seven thousand million members of the human race must be very tiny parts of this organism, microscopic even: microbes. So what relationship do microbes have to the organisms they inhabit – parasitical or symbiotic… Parasitical? Are we parasites of the system or do we sustain it? Can parasites be absolutely necessary for an organisms survival? What is the relationship between parasites and their hosts in natural organisms? Can we see any parallels?
The popular view of parasites is that they tend to degenerate rather than evolve, often becoming more plant-like than animal. Nevertheless, parasites can adapt to their hosts in staggeringly sophisticated ways. In many cases they are able to control the physiology, reproduction, and even the brains of their hosts. They often provide the biochemical skills their hosts lack which are necessary for the survival of the infested organism. But parasitism, is not always maintained on a mutual basis. One associate usually takes more, sometimes much more, than the other. [iii] Parasites will sometimes take so much that they will kill their hosts. More rarely in fact is the opposite relationship, with a host taking more from the parasite than the parasite receives. Yet it does occur.
The Buchnera is a kind of bacteria which has been coexisting in tiny green aphid insects for over 200 million years. It is perpetuated through maternal transmissions and co-speciation. The aphids actually house the bacteria in comfy cells in their own bodies. But why would anyone want to not only deliberately invite these filthy squatters into their home, let alone ensure the squatters’ kids could squat as long as they liked as well?
Well, the aphids are very finicky at the dining table and they only eat one thing: sap. And sap is not a bad thing to have an addiction to as its very plentiful as long as there are trees or other sap-filled plants around. And it is very rich in carbohydrates, but, on the negative side, it is also very poor in nitrogenous compounds. So, eating only sap is obviously not to be recommended if one wants a well-balanced diet, and yet the aphid is a very fecund creature. How can this be so?[iv]
Some 200 million years ago the little aphid came to a big realisation. I love sap, he thought. And then, why complicate my life looking for other food sources if I can find a good parasite to compensate for the food groups that I lack? In other words, if you’ve got squatters why not put them to work? But, what are those lazy, crusty beggars good for? They don’t do anything, do they?
Well, yes they do. They recycle, producing essential amino acids and even riboflavin. But the squatters can have another advantage: if there is no sap to be found the aphid host can use the squatters inside it as a nutritional reserve. In other words, if there is no food to be found, suck on a squatter.
Now the squatters are absolutely essential for the aphids’ survival. Nevertheless, the only apparent advantage the squatter gets from this arrangement is the little comfy cell with no rent to pay. But surely they could get a better deal in some other metabolism? Our bet would be that the Buchnera are so accustomed to being in the aphids cosy little cells that they’ve forgotten all about the existence of other metabolisms. The system for them is the aphid organism. That is all they know. They cannot imagine anything else that could possibly work, let alone work better. Let alone make their lives better.
Likewise the relationship between the capitalist-organism and its people-parasites has already become a tightly integrated one, even if a hugely top heavy one. Instead of eating sap the capitalist-organism survives exclusively on the vitamin we call money. It appears to profit enormously from its relationship with the parasites within it, and yet those same exploited microbes, although obviously prisoners in the system, offer unswerving support and seem perfectly happy enough to let the disproportionate distribution of profits continue unconditionally. Why? Because they are too comfortable, or because they are too lazy or too accustomed to a certain kind of reality to imagine anything radically different? To answer these questions we need to put these Wall Street Whale parasites under the microscope and examine them more closely. From the point of view of the system we are those parasites. From the point of view of humanity the system is the result of a long process of creation that we ourselves have created through our all too human historical process. But how is it that this human history has allowed its individual parts to have become nothing but parasites? Or perhaps parasites is the wrong term. Isn’t the system itself a sucking parasite entity that has evolved around the microbes that are united within it? Is the shepherd a parasite living off his flock? In any case, let’s go to the microscope and get a get a closer look at these despicable little creatures. Despicable? Did we say despicable? Aren’t we talking about ourselves?
[ii] Proudhon, What is Property?, p.311
[iii] See Insect Symbiosis, Edited by Kostas Bourtzis and Thomas A. Miller, CRC Press, 2003.