Who Says Cannibalism Is Wrong?

Submitted by sm on 9 July, 2007 - 10:05

Why not, asked Jonathan Swift, an Anglican priest of Dublin, making his "modest proposal" for solving two of eighteenth-century Ireland’s great problems, "overpopulation" and mass starvation — why not eat your small children?

That would keep down the population, he argued, and ensure that those who lived were well nourished. Much of Swift’s text — one of the most effective satires ever written — was then given over, after the fashion of a cookery book, to a gruesomely detailed discussion of how best to dress and cook, and when best to serve, the various parts of a child butchered for the table.

He sustained it, grimly serious, for page after page, in terrifying detail.

Even in 18th and 19th centuries Ireland, where alien land-masters treated the people with unrelenting savagely, reality never caught up with the nightmare of Swift’s imagining. In China, they have come very close to it. Arguably, they have surpassed it.

In China, very large numbers of "criminals" — people, for example, who steal cars — are killed by the state; their organs are then removed and either used by well-off Chinese or sold abroad for hard international currency.

It was reported in the Daily Telegraph* that a hospital in Beijing has signed a contract with the Chinese state for the delivery of a regular supply of kidneys harvested from victims of the state’s executioners.

Capital punishment is normal for many petty offences in "Communist" China. The Chinese state kills more people than any other state. The lucrative market in human spare parts, so observers report, now ensures that cases are hurried along, that guilt or innocence is often a matter of indifference, and that many are killed who might otherwise be spared because their limbs and organs are valuable. This is not too far from what happened when the wife of the commandant of one of the Nazi concentration camps had inmates killed so that their tattooed skin could make pretty shades for her household lamps.

Orders can be accepted for particular body parts belonging to still-living people, who are then killed to order in the way most appropriate for preserving the bespoke organs. Thus, if hearts are needed, the alleged car thief or petty forger is shot in the head; if corneas are needed, the victim is shot through the heart, to make sure the eyes are not damaged.

Who decides what pieces of which criminal are to be preserved? There is a carefully worked-out set of procedures, spelled out in a secret 1984 legal directive:

"Where it is genuinely necessary… a surgical vehicle from the health department may be permitted to drive onto the execution grounds to remove the organs, but it is not permissible to use a vehicle bearing health department insignia, or to wear white clothing. Guards must remain posted around the execution grounds while… organ removal is going on."

Folk legends about vampire nobles in castles who drink the blood of ‘their’ peasants, are mythic representations of exploitation — folk versions, shaped by generations of the exploited people, of what Swift did in his study.

But you do not necessarily have to kill people to drain their blood. And horrors such as those I have described, though China has taken things to extremes possible only in a totalitariam state, are not found only in China. The collecting of Third World blood plasma for the US market, bought from hungry, undernourished people in places like Haiti — before the Aids plague — was long a gruesome symbol of the vampirism that sustains our civilisation.

The new trade in body parts — and it is not limited to China, though there it is a state industry able to ensure an adequate supply of raw material — is privatised medicine gone mad. Doctors take life — at second hand, but they know — from the poor and give it to the rich.

In class society, technical progress is not always the same thing as social or human progress. Frequently, it is their enemy.

There is no shortage of examples. In the Southern states of America, for example, the savage working to death of black slaves, and the vast increase in the slave trade that went with it, were stimulated not by agrarian backwardness in the USA of that age but by the wonderful technological innovations out of which grew the British cotton industry 200 years ago. It inaugurated the Industrial Revolution which would transform human society all over the globe. In Britain itself, women and children were, of course, also exploited savagely in the cotton factories run by the owners of the splendid new technology.

Class society is by its very nature socially cannibalistic. It is organised so that some people can rob, exploit and "consume" the capacities and lives of others.

In a famous essay, "The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society", written in the mid 1840s, Karl Marx described this feature of all class society in its most fluid and developed, capitalist, form. He is describing "the power of money":

"By possessing the property of buying everything, by possessing the property of appropriating all objects, money is thus the object of eminent possession. The universality of its property is the omnipotence of its being. It is therefore regarded as omnipotent… Money is the procurer between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life. But that which mediates my life for me, also mediates the existence of other people for me. For me it is the other person… "That which is for me through the medium of money — that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) — that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my — the possessor’s — properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness — its deterrent power — is nullified by money.

"I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with 24 feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good...Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever?

"Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?..

"That which I am unable to do as a man, and of which therefore all my individual essential powers are incapable, I am able to do by means of money."

The rich have always appropriated the speed, strength, cunning, skill, bravery, enterprise, artistry, sexuality, intelligence, creativity, etc., of others. The only limits to this are the limits of what is physically possible. When Karl Marx wrote, not all the money in the world could have appropriated the life potential of one person and given it to another with an incurable disease. But that is a matter only of what is technically possible at a given moment.

And if technique sets the only limit to what is possible in the way of one person appropriating the bodily qualities of another, then the expansion of medical technique, and the invention of new techniques (the first heart transplant was made as recently as 1967) enlarges those possibilities. The possibilities are expanding all the time. We are in a period of tremendous surges in medical possibilities.

If my heart is diseased to the point of death, I can now buy a healthy new human heart and skilled technicians and doctors to put it in the place of my own. If my liver is rotten, I can buy someone else’s liver.

I can buy murderers to get me the organ I need for the prolongation of my own life. I can find states and state functionaries — in China, but not only in China — to legally kill people possessing good organs so that I can buy those I need from them. If I am blind, I can buy good eyes, if not from the person whose eyes they are, then from an enterprising private murderer — such a thing has been known to happen — or a murdering state.

The possibilities for the rich to do what they have always done, but in a new way, and to a new degree, grow enormously; and the rich are not dependent on organs made available by unavoidable death, nor are they forced to take a place in a democratic queue for organs made available by unavoidable death. Money decides.

"If life were a thing that money could buy/
Then the rich would live and the poor would die/
All my trials, Lord, will soon be over…"

went the old song, in the days before technology and class oppression could combine to make it possible for the rich literally to take life and limb from the poor and the unfortunate and to bestow it on themselves. Vampirism and cannibalism is now no longer just folk metaphor for extreme exploitation, or deliberate satire such as Swift’s. We arrive at a new form of organised cannibalism: some people now consume, though no longer orally, other people.

Of course, no light is shed on anything by crudely equating this monstrous Chinese industry in the body parts of people freshly killed to order and the state that organises and profits from it, with what happens in bourgeois-democratic Britain.

In Britain or in the USA, the rich and their governments do not capture poor people — youths who go for joy rides in someone else’s car, for instance — put them through a travesty of "justice" and then render down their carcasses for direct implantation in the rich.

Yet what is happening in China does bear a terrible family resemblance to what is happening in capitalist societies like those of Britain and the USA. It happens in a less "administrative" and less overtly barbarous form, but it happens nonetheless.

What else is it but social cannibalism when scarce health care is distributed by being bought and sold, so that the rich buy health and life, and increasingly the poor suffer and die where access to state-of-the-art health care might have healed them?

What else is it, when money is allowed to buy you health and the lack of it condemns you to premature sickness and death?

What else is it when, as in the USA now, desperate poor people sell — they do! — a kidney or an eye to other people rich enough to buy the right to cannibalise their bodies? No rarity, it is already a subject for "problem" drama on popular TV. This is likely to be a growth industry. There are even reports of enterprising private gangsters illegally doing what the Chinese state does legally.

In China, the state does it directly; in the USA, and increasingly in Britain, the liberal state holds the ring for the free market, and its god, money, to do it.

What is happening in China is all too nightmarishly real. Yet it is so plainly no more than two or three stages along our road, that it could, like Swift’s "modest proposal," be an imaginary, satirical, extrapolation from what is happening to the poor here.

It bears the same relationship to what is happening in Britain and the USA as Swift’s proposal to cook and eat children did to the savage Irish landlord system which ate up their lives without literally consuming their bodies.

Primitive people ate their war captives in the mistaken belief that they would thereby acquire their strength. Civilised people long ago passed that stage. Now the miracles of medical technology take us full circle.

Wonder-working technology under the control of ruling-class barbarians, farmers of the people, makes it possible for the victors in the class struggle, physically to annex and acquire as their own bodily attributes the organs, lives and strength of the defeated poor — to consume them. The ruling cannibals are doing that, and not only in China.

The new combination of miracle-working technology and class society which open up new dimensions of exploitation are, in the 21st century, making the barbaric fantasies of primitive cannibalism everyday social reality.

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