Totalitarian Capitalism

Corporations are seizing the genome, but that’s only the beginning

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 29th June 2000

Nearly everyone debating the mapping of the human genome now agrees on one thing: that the identification of our genes invokes an unprecedented danger, as it might assist a handful of companies to seize something which belongs to all of us. I wish this were true.

Terrifying as the impending capture of the essence of humanity is, it is far from unprecedented. The attempt to grab the genome is just one of many symptoms of a far graver disease. We are entering an age of totalitarian capitalism, a political and economic system which, by seizing absolute control of fundamental resources, destitutes everyone it excludes.

On Saturday I met a campaigner from Kerala in southern India, who told me that, to the tribal people he works with, the ownership of land is as inconceivable as the ownership of air would be in the northern hemisphere. I told him the bad news. In several American cities, blocks of air, which (once legally transferred to a suitable site) allow their owners to build skyscrapers, change hands for tens of millions of dollars. There have been a number of legal disputes over the ownership of clouds, as firms battle for the right to make them drop their rain where they want it. Companies are now claiming they own asteroids and landing spaces on the moon.

None of these presumptions is any more absurd than the claim to possess exclusive control over part of our own planet. But, as property rights proliferate, almost everything which once belonged to all of us is being seized.

In Britain, for example, despite repeated pledges by the government, playing fields and allotments are disappearing faster than ever before. Public squares are being turned into private shopping malls. Traditional stopping sites for travellers, some of which survived for five millennia, have nearly all disappeared over the last 15 years.

Knowledge is rapidly becoming the exclusive preserve of those who can afford to buy it. Intellectual property companies are monopolising image banks and picture archives, while academic publishers, concentrated in ever fewer hands, are able to charge outrageous prices for access to the work they publish. Companies are asserting ownership in perpetuity of the material in their electronic databases. A firm called West Publishing has tried to insist that it owned the entire archive of US federal law.

The biotech companies have been empowered to seize the human genome by the very people – Tony Blair and Bill Clinton – who are now begging them not to do so. Blair’s government helped drive through the European directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions, which enables private companies to claim not only human genes, but also plant and animal varieties and even human body parts.

Every asset, once secured by the new totalitarian regime, is surrounded by a Berlin Wall equipped with border guards. There are ranches in the United States in which you would be shot on sight if you tried to take a walk. Disproportionate responses to the feeblest threats are assisted by the private prison and security industries now seizing control of another fundamental asset: human freedom. We cross the economic frontiers at our peril.

The worst global inequality in history is a direct result of this totalitarian capitalism. Two hundred people now own as much wealth as half the world’s population for the simple reason that they have been empowered to steal it from the rest of us.

This empowerment emerges from an unwholesome union of neoliberal economics and feudal law. Our legal framework, which pre-dates democracy, protects property above individuals and individuals above society. We can’t expect our governments to address this inversion of democratic priorities. The three men who could begin to reform our legal system – the Home Secretary, The Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister – are all lawyers, and all wedded (literally in the Prime Minister’s case) to the profession which benefits from its iniquities. Property-based law favours the interests of the rich, which, in turn, favours the interests of its practitioners.

The walls rising around us are beginning to look impregnable. But before we can decide how they might best be demolished, we must first recognise that the enclosure of the human genome is just a single cell in the privatised global prison the new regime has built.