In a poem called “Almost Islands” (which riffs off of John Donne’s famous “no man is an island” passage), collected in my book To the Barricades (Talon Books 2013), I proposed a new social body: the biotariat. Here’s the relevant part of the (rather long) poem.
People of earth
there are no islands now
the planet is peninsular
jutting in space
one blue-green growing
brown orb attached to
disease we’ve made in
threshold song no
isolato on genetic shores
How does the predator
become the trustee?
Musk gesture pheromone
or mode of socio-economic
no island for flit
of swallow’s blue-green
back rustle of genetics
in the ditch we probably dug
The next revolution
is what culture will teach
we can and can’t do
as system’s feedback loop
grabbing the red flag
spore poppy claw
of the biotariat
and heading off into
the weeds developers
left back of decay
It’s easy enough to throw an invented term into a line of poetry. In this fairly philosophical and speculative post, I would like to take the opportunity to begin to flesh this idea out just a little.
1. When we compare humans to animals in terms of mistreatment (“they were treated like animals”—in Gaza or Syria or the Sudan or…), we mean no disrespect to animals; we mean only that animals, including human beings, are often mistreated, exploited, and accorded no dignity. These processes are increasingly systematized and totalized.
2. First, a provisional definition. The biotariat: that portion of existence that is enclosed as a “resource” by and for those who direct and benefit from the accumulation of wealth. So: workers and commoners; most animals and plants, including trees and forest and grassland ecosystems; water; land, as it provisions and enables biological life; minerals that lie beneath the surface of the land; common “wastes” and “sinks” too, into which the waste products of resource production and use are spilled—the atmosphere and the oceans. It’s that large. The enclosed and exploited life of this planet.
3. Is it possible to politicize life as such? To—even conceptually—imagine its “class composition”? To read it—cross biotically—as social? I believe that current world conditions push us in this direction—make this an unavoidable move.
4. This is the reason to propose a biotariat: the enclosure and exploitation of life, in all its manifold aspects (from boreal forests to sea turtles to Bangladeshi garment workers to the homeless of the world’s major cities to sex trade workers to the coral reefs and so forth and so on), has reached a stage in which “we”—all of life—are in the same desperate and drunken boat—constrained there by a system of total and planetary accumulation that even the term “capitalism” perhaps cannot adequately capture anymore. In what sense is this “economics”—this means of the production of financial inequality that systemically impacts and imperils life itself?
5. Some key terms. Commons: the shared, widely understood; that which life requires access to in order to persist; that limited resource which is “managed”—either through ecological checks and balances, or human-generated customs—in order to be available for continued use. Enclosure: the privatization of the commons for exclusive access and use, for purposes of private profit generation, typically in ways with little regard to the resource’s sustainability.
“The urban proletariat were commoners without a commons,” writes Peter Linebaugh—displaced by enclosure. So the biotariat is life without a common (shared, open, non-privatized) support for life itself.
6. Enclosure, Peter Linebaugh notes (in Stop, Thief!), involves at once the “taking of land and the taking of bodies.” Linebaugh is noting the historical convergence of the enclosure of common lands and the “body snatchers” who stole and murdered commoners and other poor people to provide cadavers for the burgeoning medical schools of early nineteenth century England. But we can extend this analysis to the “taking of land” from indigenous people under colonization (and the extension of colonization into the current era of extreme resource extraction) and the “taking of bodies” evident in both the residential school system and the vast numbers of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Going even further, the “taking of land” becomes almost total under current conditions, where the entire surface of the earth and its atmosphere too functions either as “productive resource” or sink for waste products (including carbon emissions), and the “taking of bodies” includes the capture of nearly all animals in factory farms, zoos, or “nature reserves.”
But again—how can we politicize life as such?
7. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that the earth is a single, self-regulating complex system, integrating biological, atmospheric, and inorganic subsystems. With the biotariat, I would imagine a politicized version of this hypothesis—the earth as planetary commons, all life as constituting the commoners who depend upon access to the planetary commons. This would be to project not a divine earth goddess (Gaia), but earth as a repressed commons, lowly, leveled, and exploited. Not as singularity, but as the multitude of life, coming, under the impetus provided by globalization and climate change, into a new and necessary solidarity.
8. The politicization of life as such, and thus the calling to arms of the biotariat, depends upon a willingness to accept “a definition of politics as a political ecology and a notion of publics as human-nonhuman collectives that are provoked into existence by a shared experience of harm.” This is Jane Bennett, from her book Vibrant Matter. The perspective of the biotariat requires “taking the side of things” (parti pris des choses—Francois Ponge), or what Bennett describes as
“Dogged resistance to anthropomorphism…. I will emphasize, even overemphasize, the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces (operating in nature, in the human body, and in human artifacts) in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought.”
9. To recognize that the commons is more than a system of social reproduction—that it in fact is a system of ecological sustainability, writ large, into which human social reproduction fits. So—commoning, as a verb, is what all life does—a process and an action upon which all life depends. The proposition of a biotariat calls a new collective identity into being, a new common subjectivity formed by life itself.
10. To acknowledge the biotariat is to conjoin Marxist and ecological analysis (I’m obviously not the first to suggest this synthesis): not only workers are exploited in this system—all of life is exploited in its totality. “Natural resources,” just as much as the human resources of labour force, are the resources capitalism exploits in the accumulation process. As counterpoint, Linebaugh notes that “The activity of commoning is conducted through labor with other resources; it does not make a division between ‘labor’ and ‘natural resources.’” On the commons, human and natural resources are co-implicated in the process of ecological reproduction. Capitalism separates them and, anthropocentrically, even capitalism’s critics have maintained the separation of (human) labour and (natural) resources. We need to return to an analytic based in the common fact of life as such—its reproduction, human and (interdependently) otherwise.
11. From the enclosure of common lands and the dispossession of commoners, leaving them with no means of survival outside of the wage, to the colonization (i.e., outright theft) of indigenous territories the world over, the extent of capitalism’s enclosures has only grown. Next comes the industrialization of agriculture, the meat factories many animals now live short entire lives in, the rendering of much of the landscape outside of cities a single, giant “open pit” from which “resources” are stripped, to genetic modification and the introduction of “man-made” petroleum products, chemicals, and pesticides into all ecosystems and all life forms the planet over. The “class” threatened by this system now—the class that is repressed and exploited for profit—is, indiscriminately, all of life (both present and past, when we consider the extraction of fossil fuels).
12. What can “we”—the biotariat—do? How can you “organize” life as such in resistance to totalized, planetary capitalist exploitation? This isn’t Animal Farm, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or a Tolkien tale in which an army of trees will join us on the battlefield. I don’t have an answer to these pressing questions—but I will offer some speculation in future posts. For now, I will only suggest that organizing on a common ground with all of life—resisting capitalism from the position of life itself (rather than one human class or social subsection)—draws together a number of strands of current global resistance—from indigenous land resistance through climate justice movements to new urban occupations and the organization of migrant rights—all of which might be reconceived and reinvigorated as the resistance of the commons of life to the new and massive enclosures of total subsumption and a totalized global capitalism.
13. William S. Burroughs once proclaimed, “Death needs life for what it kills to grow in.” Now we might say, capitalism needs life for what it kills to grow in. And so we—the biotariat—are now enclosed in one massive factory, our bodies ground into profit.
14. It’s the only way to end this first foray. Biotarians of the world unite—the only thing you have to lose is your chains!