Four months ago Nocton Dairies – evangelists of the doctrine that ‘Cows do not belong in fields’ – withdrew their plans for a super-dairy in Lincolnshire in the face of public protest and objections by the Environment Agency. Now, both sides of the Atlantic have seen a further hardening of opposition to the practices of intensive agribusiness, and in particular, the routine use of antibiotics in industrial farming. In the States, the launch in early May of a campaign called "Moms for Antibiotic Awareness," was followed at the end of the month with a lawsuit filed against the FDA by The Natural Resources Defense Council. Both take issue with the fact that 80% of the antibiotics given to livestock are non-therapeutic, habitually placed in food and water to, in effect, ‘immunize’ animals against their less-than-salubrious living conditions. Similarly, the Friday before last The Independent revealed that the past decade saw a dramatic increase in the agricultural use of three classes of antibiotics considered vitally important to human health. This serves to further intensify concerns about the role of farming practice in breeding antibiotic-resistant super-bugs like MRSA, and the lethal strain of E. coli responsible for the recent outbreak in Germany.
Some of us – cynical about the incessant manufacture of panics – might well want to chalk this up to Yet More Scaremongering. However, I find it useful to divide the anxieties of our age into ‘Stuff which is in the interests of capital’ and ‘Stuff which is not.’ Opposition to extracting maximum profit from a pound of pig’s flesh – irrespective of the effects on health – seems to fall squarely in the second box. Which leads me to suspect that it might be more than just another whipped-up neurosis designed to brow-beat me into continued consumptive compliance.
There a two other reasons why this story strikes me as a real cause for concern. First, it chimes with the general pattern of capitalism’s basic inability to respect the material limits of the living. It’s a choice example of the way a certain techno-industrial imperative insists on herding cows, chickens and people into boxes and exhorting them to produce beyond what their bodies and minds can withstand. This has predictable effects on their health, which industrial technocracy greets, not with a lessening of productive pressure, but a re-doubling of remedial technological intervention. And so, just as antibiotics are shoveled into livestock to make them grow! grow! grow! in conditions unconducive to their thriving, so, many of us, exhausted by the schlep and grind of late capitalist production, are encouraged to fulfill our duties by relying on an endless cocktail of multivitamins, antidepressants, and cold remedies which just happen to contain speed.
Second, this refusal to respect the limitations of life – and reckon with the consequences of this refusal – is not just driven by the desire to transmute base matter into gold. Indeed, the routine ‘immunization’ of livestock against the very conditions of their existence, gives us a glimpse of the pure pulse of the project which began when Descartes declared that human beings were ‘the masters and possessors of nature.’ That is, industrial technocracy does not respect the limits of life, not only because it’s a greedy blaggard, but also, because it’s fundamentally invested in bending life to its will.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the endless trench warfare we wage against death. I’m not suggesting that the judicious use of antibiotics is a bad thing. But the over-prescription of antibiotics – to both humans and animals – speaks of a desire to eradicate all indications of mortality, a refusal to tolerate the limits of bodies in favour of designing perfect security systems to protect us from the vulnerability of being alive. We see this all over the place. In our obsession with firm flesh; the infatuation with anti-oxidants and willingness to inject poison into the middle of our foreheads. In the pitch battle against invisible enemies amassed inside our homes, the mania for disinfection that has spawned so many pots of hand-gloop. And, during the four years I lived in America, I saw it above all in the attempt to manufacture foodstuffs impervious to decay.
It’s no coincidence that industrial farming, and the immunizing of livestock it entails, have mainly come from the States. American culture is marked by the belief in its god-given right to be free from all forms of putrefaction and decay. They make bread which stays fresh for four months. They think soft-boiled eggs are dangerous. They have a horror of blue cheese. Mainstream American food-culture – which gifted humanity with a cheese-like substance engineered entirely for its thermodynamic properties, and a small cake-bar purportedly capable of surviving a nuclear holocaust – is singularly in thrall to the idea of stopping the rot. And this approach is consonant with their expectations of healthcare, their attitudes to domestic hygiene, and their decision to drive around suburbia in small armoured vehicles. Life, they seem to think, can be cleanly cleaved from its corruption. It can be scrubbed spotless, or genetically engineered, or indemnified with endless applications of antibiotics. It can be made to exist in the absence of its own undoing.
But this is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that. Death is not something that we should embrace. And we should never relinquish the determination or political will to provide living beings with the conditions they need to thrive. But there is a profound difference between thriving and indemnification, between encouraging life and denying its material limits. The march of time, the accumulation of age in bodies, the daily contact with the world which opens us to infection - all of these things are not incidental to our living. To be free from death, and decay, and disease, is also to be free of life – to be, in effect, already dead. And moreover, one suspects that the death-denying imperative beneath industrial technocracy - its refusal to tolerate the limits of fleshy-lives immersed in time - is actually responsible for producing increased threats to our well-being. The Doomsday scenario - where routine operations will be impossible for want of antibiotics - is yet another instance of a danger we have engineered ourselves, and in part because we are far too fond of trying to do away with danger. We have yet to accept that we are living, and that therefore we are sometimes sick. And, until we do, it seems, we will make ourselves much sicker yet.