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(Welcome to) the Enclosure of the Bio-Commons

October 24, 2011

The process of the enclosure of the commons, described by Marx and numerous others as the immediate impetus for the creation of the industrial proletariat and the metropolitan explosion, has not ended. Instead, it has taken new forms. Today we are seeing the enclosure of the biological commons—the process that culminates in the commodification of life forms and the toxification of the total environment to the point that in order to survive its contamination, we must buy freedom from contamination.

An anecdote buried in a musty book (torn leather binding, mildew pages, fragrant like an ink-and-paper flower): the shepherd rises at dawn and herds his flock to the meadow (hooves clicking on dew-covered cobbles and crackling on dust and gravel) to find a declaration nailed to the tree by the edge of town declaring that the grassy land where he and his fellow villagers had always grazed their livestock is now off limits. Only the lord of the manor has the right to this grass, for it is grass that his sheep will turn to wool and that the new machines in London will turn to gold. He will have to leave soon. There is nowhere left to graze his flock. He will live in the suit of the newly exploding city soon, to work in that same factory, turning wool and sweat into gold. In exchange, he will receive black lungs and bread-heels for himself and his family.
Ah yes the enclosure of the commons—the starting point for Marxist analysis of capitalism. And yet something is missing: this enclosure event is often conceptualized as standing alone in history, nevertheless to continues today and the same process has expanded into other more ethereal realms. It takes only the invocation of the Zapatista uprising and the startling statistic that now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities to prove that the enclosure of the land commons continues. More controversial to some is the notion that today the information revolution constitutes an enclosure of the intellectual and social commons—and while books can be written on the topic, I’d like to gloss over it for now. What I’d like to focus on here for a moment is the enclosure of the biological commons.
The very notion of a “commons” to refer to biological systems seems strange so let me clarify: in this context, we must understand the commons as referring to life existing independent of monetary exchange and without proprietary claim laid to it. To understand what it means to enclose the biological commons, all we must do is delve into one entity—the US corporation called Monsanto. There are two main ways in which Monsanto and the biotech industry carry out enclosure of the bio-commons: the first is by environmental toxification, and the other by the commodification of life forms.
The toxification of the environment is a by-product of the profit generation of companies like Monsanto, yet when viewed systemically, becomes itself a system of profit generation, opening new markets for other firms. Let’s look at an example of this. PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) is a chemical compound synthesized by Monsanto as a coolant fluid for capacitors, transformers, and electric motors among other uses. A powerful endocrine disruptor, neurotoxin, and carcinogen, PCB contamination is an ecological nightmare. Large-scale contamination events have been recorded in a number of areas including Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Indiana, the Great Lakes, Alabama, and South Carolina in the United States, and in Belgium, Slovakia, and Ireland in Europe. Doubtless, many other such events have occurred in the “developing” world and evaded adequate documentation and recognition. The outcome of these contaminations is a population with astronomical rates of cancer, birth defects, and impaired brain functioning, among other problems. Due to this contamination then, residents are forced to adopt a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to curb the breakdown of their bodies. In this sense then, the means to survive in their region has become a profit-making machine for those who manufacture these pharmaceuticals. This might seem anomalous and ungeneralizable if it were not the case that PCBs are so widespread as to be found in the bodies of most living things on the planet, including every mother’s milk and the fat of polar bears. This is not to mention the enormous array of other toxic industrial chemicals with equal range and saturation. In the face of this toxicity it has become a privilege to consume foods and materials that have not been doused in these toxins. Organic food, products made from non-toxic materials, and living spaces far from industrial centers are luxuries that only the wealthy have access to. In this sense, freedom from toxicity has itself become marketized and commodified.
To sum up, one face of the enclosure of the bio-commons is conceptualized thusly: a toxification of the total environment to the point life lived with lessened risk of toxicity or life sustained in the face of toxic contamination become marketized and monetarized, commodified; enclosed.
The other face of this enclosure is accomplished through the patenting and legal commodification of life forms via genetic engineering, another field of marketization pioneered by Monsanto. By modifying the genetic makeup of plants to be immune to the toxicity of certain pesticides and herbicides and selling both seeds and these chemicals Monsanto has created a system in which the entire agricultural process has become proprietary. Here, saving and re-planting seeds becomes a criminal offense as it becomes branded as “theft” of the bio-property of Monsanto. Unfortunately, it has now been determined (through a hail-storm of harassment and threats to researchers) that gene-material has spread from bio-tech plants to other varieties through cross-pollination, opening the legal means for Monsanto to sue millions of farmers for bio-theft. Moreover, as industrial agriculture with the application of biotechnology becomes the only economically viable form of agriculture, all those who do not begin business with biotech firms are increasingly at risk of losing their farms—that is, unless they succeed in the economically treacherous shift to organic farming, with all the implications discussed earlier. In this process then, the bio-commons is clearly and unmistakably commodified—enclosed.
The enclosure of the bio-commons is only just beginning today and is being pushed as a new frontier for global business hungry for markets in a world where traditional commodity markets are increasing saturated. As this marketization marches on, it is our responsibility as elements of the biosphere to defend ourselves and our planet from this imperial encroachment by any means necessary.

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