CSC-2 | Chapter 4 | The Social Immune System and the Cancer Stage of Capitalism (1)

The Social Immune System and the Cancer Stage of Capitalism

Social life-organizations survive because they evolve strategies of recognition and response to select out what endangers them. Thus from the beginnings of human society, people living in productive and reproductive exchange with one another have regulated their lives and functions so as to prevent or to expel what is perceived as dangerous to their communal health. Whether we consider ancient Jewish or Egyptian or Hindu or Melanesian societies, we find an underlying common pattern more or less universal to human cultures. What is ‘unclean’, ‘polluted’, ‘malignant’, ‘contaminated’ or ‘defiled’ must be cleansed and purified, or the social body will suffer a breakdown of its life-structure. The dominant rituals and organizing orders of daily life are thus everywhere concerned with preventing the spread of some contagion within the social body which may infect and destroy the structure of collective life. Individuals are living members of this social body, each with assigned functions to sustain its reproduction, and believe they can no more survive its death than an organ can live beyond the organism it is part of.


Despite the primitive and primevally superstitious nature of the early development of social health systems, their overriding organizing principle of keeping the clean from the unclean to protect the social body from dangerous influences of all kinds had a host of actually effective, specific functions of social body defence.1 For example, infected or toxic or dysfunctional foods and practices of all kinds were excluded from contact with or ingestion or adoption by the social body, thereby preserving its living members from infectious agents, poisons, and maladaptive mores which would otherwise have threatened the life and reproduction of the community.

Constructive ‘taboos’ are life-serving, although medical science may wrongly assume that all taboos are by their nature harmful.2 They are prohibitions surrounding the chief acts of life which typically have an underlying function of life-protection – against contact with corpses, against physical punishment of infants, against sexual acts outside of social boundaries, against ingestion of specific substances. The point is to extract from them their crucial life-protective advantages and social-body defences against disease, injury and death. This is the embryonic form of immune recognition on the social level of life-organization which it is the great function of civilization to develop into effective competence.

Social immune practices subject to processes of test and falsification of what actually prevents disease and trauma to human communities, however, are a comparatively recent evolution of society. Scientific public health regimes originated in Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century with, as Michel Foucault puts it, ‘the accumulation of bodies’ in large cities during the industrial capitalist expansion: an intensive concentration of propertyless humanity that introduced a host of new and deadly problems of runaway sewage, fouled water supplies, adulterated foods, contagious diseases, roaming street people, abandoned children, extreme poverty and degradation, infirm and aged people without familial supports, and so on – much as we see growing again in the unfettered ‘free market’ cities of today.

The idea of ‘public health’ subsumed from the outset a number of new and old social problems and solutions to human morbidity that were arising in the densely populated conditions of industrial civilization: hygiene and sanitation by systems of water supply; drainage and sewage; the siting of disease-bearing abattoirs and cemeteries and isolation of infected human beings; the development of medical societies and corps of doctors; the formation of clinics and systems of distribution of inoculations and vaccinations for common diseases; and, eventually, the evolution of modern medical hospitals for the treatment of the ill and disabled.

Subsequent to its initial development in Europe and Britain, ‘public health’ came to be associated with a host of further municipal, regional and national government regulations to secure the prevention of disease and the promotion of health in the social populations falling under the jurisdiction of these various state bodies – laws, statutes and rules to ensure the purity of food, milk and water supplies and handlers; the authorized extermination of animals, insects or wildlife suspected of contributing to or bearing disease; the quarantine of individuals and the inspection, disinfestation or condemnation of structures and buildings deemed to be health hazards to adjacent communities; the regulated safety of public places from dangers and hazards to the well-being of their users; the prohibition of practices like spitting and eliminating body wastes in public spaces; the construction and maintenance of community systems of waste and garbage disposal; the systematic testing, inspecting and screening of commercial pharmaceuticals and other non-food products to validate their safety for human use and consumption; the formation of administrative and liability norms to protect workers’ health and safety in their places of employment; the provision of public centres, clinics and hospitals to administer tests, inoculations and curative care free of charge; and the institution of disease-identifying and preventative practices and educational campaigns embracing every kind of potentially disease-causing activity from drinking and smoking toxic substances to recreational sex and foreign travel.

To this very rich set of life-protective regulations and prescriptions we need to add another set which includes such entrants as, for example, the development of systems of law governing the use of exogenously powered vehicles, the licensing of drivers, and eventually the actions of pedestrians in public transportation flows. Here we move to life-protective regulation of social bodies which is not simply to prevent and treat pathogenic transmissions or behaviours which expose members of the community to life-attack by releasing non-human harm agents or hazards. This level of life-protection by society’s regulatory formations targets harm-causing by human agents and practices that do not intend to harm others, but may nevertheless do so seriously and systemically if not exactly regulated. Traffic lights at busy intersections, for example, set pathways of permission and prohibition which apply to all and are strictly enforced to prevent continuous road slaughter by unco-ordinated human choices. Similarly strict laws against releasing toxic emissions into society’s air and water by regularized decisions of corporate engineering departments and their superiors are also choices which seriously endanger societies, their members and their environmental life-host, but are not yet at a civilized stage of development.

Assault and battery, rape, murder and so on, in contrast, are recognized intentional harms to others, and are subsumed by the criminal law. The criminal law too is part of the great protective web within which individual lives are permitted to be safe and flourish in a developed human community. But the rule of life-protective law is the spine of a much more extended and varied fabric of social regulatory life-protection which remains largely invisible to us by habitual presupposition. Even language itself beginning in warning sounds and signifiers is a deep weave and medium in this community web of mutual life-defence.

Because this social life-guardian is invisible in the global market, its supports are mortally endangered by the quasi-religious belief that ‘self-regulating market supply and demand’ are providential and ensure the best of all possible worlds. This is a God-system conception inherited from the Deist past which has been the greatest error of the epoch. So unconscious have agents of this disguised religion become of the social network of life-protection which safeguards every moment of their existence that an infantile ‘libertarian’ conceit has arisen that it does not exist. Each is a self-maximizing lord within a Market God world. This is another symptom of the loss of all life-support bearings which allows the emergence of the cancer system. The life-reality is very different.

Continuously evolving and intricately interrelated social and natural life-support systems enable and protect every moment of our lives: a vast panoply of life-protective regulative recommendations, procedures and penalty-backed laws to protect the health and prevent the disease of communities and their individual members by the multiplicity of harms, dangers, toxins, pathogens and army of negligent actions and practices that might endanger their survival or well-being.


As one considers in overview the unpriced and evolved mediations of every aspect of our lives by complexly articulated systems of life-protective circulation and regulation of our social intercourse and functions, one begins to recognize that – despite its continuous errors, oversights and dogmas – this historically evolved ordering and organization of civilized communities and states for the healthful survival and reproduction of their members is a social immune system of ever more developed complexity and importance to human survival and reproduction.

Following the model of immune systems on the cellular level, we can observe that societies which have not been stripped of their social immune capabilities by borderless money-sequences have highly developed immune surveillance, recognition and response systems. They have evolved, that is, socially constructed capacities for the continuous operation of a many-organized system of surveillance of the social life-host, reaching into every corner of the social organism’s circulations and functions for detection of not-self challenges to its life-organization. They also have an intricately elaborated system of effective immune recognition and response integrated into the social body’s operations at every level to select out the recognized threats and disabling diseases, injuries and assaults on the healthful functioning of the organic members of the social whole.

Societies acting in concert have even universalized on a global level specific quantitative indicators of the health or well-being of the world’s social bodies, compiling and publishing comparative rates of infant mortality, disease frequencies and ratios, average life-expectancies and indices of mortality, distribution of required life-resources across social memberships, general fitness-levels of members’ physical capacities, societies’ distributed attainment of mental competences, and even their measures of self-regulation and distributed participation in the organizational development of social hosts as functioning wholes. To an increasing extent, these various social indicators of the collective health and well-being of societies have become more complex and detailed than the medical profiles and records of individual-patient organisms to which medicine proper has standardly confined its attention. Yet there are two great debasing trends at work. The social immune systems which enable ever higher life-welfare of citizens are being stripped across the world, while the welfare and other new indexes which emerge tend to be subjective lists without life-capacity and capital grounds.3

Once we adopt a wider-lensed understanding of human health than that of the individual patient and recognize that all individuals are also members of a larger, living whole in which their interdependent relations and functions constitute a higher order of life-system protecting and regulating its living members as a wider social body, we become aware of a very momentous evolutionary and historical development. Not a Hegelian abstraction or genetic reduction, it has evolved for millennia behind our backs as a species life-formation which ultimately identifies with all that lives – a social immune system of increasingly complex capacities and competences upon whose society-wide-operation more and more people and species depend for their survival and flourishing.

At its own level of life-organization, the social body has developed in degrees varying with the public resources at its disposal all the defining hallmarks of immune defence against threats to its integrity and health: an exactly articulated and regulated system of self and not-self recognition, continuous and comprehensive processes of surveying the social life-host for sites and phenomena of disease, injury and malfunction, and evolved organic structures and strategies of response to recognized impairments of the social body’s vital functions.

It is not a question here of reducing the individual into a mere function and element of a social organism in which individuality does not exist as a value in itself. This is a metaphysical reduction which some organicist political systems like Plato’s The Republic, Hegel’s Philosophy of History and twentieth-century fascism have proposed, wrongly confusing the cellular and social levels of life-organization with disastrous effects when implemented as a political programme. Here the movement is in the opposite direction. The individual is not reduced to a moment of a social organism, to which it is assimilated as a contributory function that excludes the individual’s ultimate life-value in itself – for whose ‘higher good’ the individual may be sacrificed. This is a pathology of reductionism at the other extreme. Rather, the middle way is to recognize the social level of life-organization in its full life-protective evolution as the basis and guardian of individual life from which the individual person differentiates as a unique and unrepeatable bearer of life-value.

It is a question, then, of understanding the individual as dependent upon this social host as a necessary condition of his or her life -xpression as an individual. The individual is not reducible to, but grounded on this social life-host for self-articulation to be possible. The individual achieves individuality by expressing this social life-ground in some way particular to personal capacity and choice – caring for or educating the next generation, speaking for the larger community that which has not been heard, helping to produce goods needed by others as a unique contributor, and in general bridging the individual-social division by service to the larger community in some form in order to be an individual.

Without the Social Immune System We are Dead

What is of special interest here is that the individual articulates individuality by expressing and serving fellow members of the community in some way, at the highest ‘the whole world’ – the visionary audience to whom creators of all kinds speak. In the lost ‘civil commons’ examined ahead, the disjunction between the individual and the society which protects and enables individuality is shown to be another absurdity of the era. Such artificial division is a symptom of the mutation of mind-set which has delinked from the world.

The more developed and competent the social immune system safeguarding all members of the social host from harm and hazard to each’s vital life-capacities, the more individuals can flourish with the assured conditions for self-realization as individuals. Conversely, the less developed or competent the social immune system is or becomes, the less the individual can flourish because of exposure to the harms, traumas, diseases, deprivations and impoverishments which the immuno-competent social life-organization does not prevent. The crude and ludicrous dichotomy between the needs of the individual and the needs of society overlooks this baseline reality. It is the ontology of the individual from which all human development and enjoyment of individuality advances, or is – by ignorance of it – crushed.

If we consider carefully the consequences of the loss from our lives of an evolved social system of mutual life-protection – that is, a social immune system – then we will be soon made aware of how precarious and lethally exposed any individual human life becomes. Without this systemic defence system of the social life-host – for example, against plagues, toxins and bacteria – one is soon diseased or dead. Without an immuno-competent social life-organization, the results are catastrophic. In fourteenth-century Europe and Asia, up to three-quarters of individual humans suffered horrible individual deaths. The Black Death was preceded by the weakening of the peasantry by the expropriation of their arable land to sheep pastures for global market export – an aetiology of health disaster still ignored in the expropriating processes of subsistence farmers across the world today for the same agribusiness export of mono-crops to foreign markets.4 In the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of 1918–19 caused by post-war conditions of social infrastructure devastation with no public health systems, 25 million people died.5

Yet today humanity’s long-evolving social immune infrastructure has been continuously deregulated, defunded, privatized and eliminated by unstinting attacks of global market restructuring across the world. All that is left is private corporate money-sequences exploiting pandemic fears for more profit – unless public health requirements rule over money-sequences. Regulatory, monitoring and preventative public agencies which have evolved over generations to protect and enable citizens’ lives, workers’ health and safety, and aquatic and land environments from the mounting industrial loads, dangers and pollutions of the borderless global market are, as these latter increase, being systemically dismantled at the same time. The effects of this social immune stripping are not tracked, because the social immune system is not recognized, and because the modes of tracking specific effects on social and environmental hosts are themselves defunded, cut back or axed.6 At the same time, the global programme excludes or selects out the cause–effect relation between these social cutback prescriptions and their destructive effects on macro life-systems.7

In these ways, the social life-host is rendered increasingly immuno-incompetent precisely as the conditions of the global market system unprecedentedly challenge its life-fabrics and members. The pattern of disease spread, the Harvard Working Group on New and Resurgent Diseases has concluded, ‘has resulted not from pathogen changes, but from social and environmental changes [of globalization] … through multiple pathways [of] deforestation … monoculture … widespread malnutrition … loss of publicly provided healthcare – resource depletion and chemical pollution … [and] uncontrolled use of chemical therapies’.8

All of these determinants of emerging disease spread, we need to observe, are directly attributable to unregulated global corporate activities and structural adjustment programmes.

Society’s Real Defence System

A disease disorder at the social level of life-organization is in principle the same as at the individual organic level. It is expressed in a systemic reduction of the normal structure and function of life-capacities. We readily recognize disease reductions of our lives at the individual level, even with a brief cold virus. But we may not recognize underlying patterns of disease at the social level for two main reasons.

First of all, social systems of life-organization are far beyond our own individual sentient capacities in their function. We cannot normally ‘feel that something is wrong’ the way we can with a diminution of our own life-functions. Systemic deficits of life-function and development can impair the life-capacities of the social body and, more so, its environmental host without our being much aware of it.

The second and still subterranean reason for our inability to recognize a disease in the social order of which we are members is that citizens of a society, and especially its privileged citizens, normally identify with the social value-programme underlying and determining society’s reproduction. They assume its decision-structure as ‘necessary’, and are pleased to flatter themselves that their ascendant positions within it are deserved and, in corollary, that those excluded are correspondingly undeserving. The ideological strata of society can even idolatrize the social order which systemically disables and kills large numbers of those within its orbit, conceiving it as the ordering framework of nature or God – as the Aztec priest-bureaucracy did in the sacrifice of tens of thousands of people to make the sunrise, as the brahmins and ksatriya did in the caste exclusion from human life of at least half the population of India, as the intelligentsia did in the holding of slaves, women and children as the disposable property of ranking males across the official ancient world, and so on.

This is the way in which the pathogenic reproduction secures its hold, and advances with no social recognition or response. We have observed this condition in even this century and civilization – in the massacres of millions to express Nazi values in this century, and in the starvation, malnutrition, dispossession and death of tens of millions by the economic programmes of the global market in the last few decades.9

The pathogenic challenge is met at the social as well as the individual level when the systemically disabling disorder is recognized for what it is, and overcome by the immune defences of the life-host. This plane of life-recognition and response is studied in scientific detail by the medical sciences at the individual organic level. But the same systematic study of social disease formations is not yet a conscious mode of understanding. Societies are, in fact, living bodies organized as interconnected systems of co-ordinated functions in unified structures of reproduction and growth. We know this if we are not obstructed by a market metaphysic that conceives of society in terms of aggregates of self-maximizing money-sequences and priced commodities in perpetual growth decoupled from all life-infrastructures.

At this point, it is not clear that global market thought of ‘social defence’ has advanced beyond armed forces to annihilate peoples opposed to transnational corporate rule. We need to observe the indicators of this pattern of thought. Across the world, poverty-stricken indigenous peoples have been driven off their land-bases by local oligarchies backed by armed force who seize the land for resource extraction or cash-crop plantations to export their takings to richer markets. Those who have sought to protect the life of their communities by organized resistance have been hunted down by death-squads, napalm-bombed or otherwise attacked by armed forces representing the invasive corporate agents – a pattern of events which is still occurring from Guatemala, Chiapas, Cameroon and Ogonil and to Indonesia, Burma, China and the Philippines.

The military-industrial establishment and the armaments business it leads have their own special global interests in this restructuring of life-economies to money economies. They are the world’s most powerful institutions of both organized violence and manufacture trade. Thus it is essential that they be sold as society’s primary form of ‘self-defence’ to preserve their continued control over vast pools of public wealth (for example, about $1,000 million a day of demand on the US public purse alone long after the Cold War is over).10

Society’s real systems of self-defence, its public infrastructures of hazard and disease control and prevention, universal health care, public education, lifelong income-security, social safeguarding and care for the old, the young and the infirm, and regulatory protection of the environmental life-host are in this way downgraded and deprived of their income support. They are seen as less important than protection of private corporate property at home and abroad. As we have seen, the social infrastructure of life’s preservation and enablement has been rapidly dismantled. At the same time, ever more invasive assaults on life’s support systems within societies – by environmental despoliation, by redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle-income classes to corporate money-sequences, and by freedom of society’s capital to exit overnight in haemorrhages of investment infrastructure – attack society’s life-defence from another side.11 By these relatively new and sudden changes to society’s conditions of existence across the globe, we have come to confront a situation where cumulative breakdowns of socially evolved structures of life-security and health protection pose a more far-reaching threat to social and planetary well-being than any past plague or war without recognition of it.

Yet at the same time, we know there is a profound collective impulse of societies towards protection of their life-fabrics once threats are recognized. We see this life-defence system go into very effective self-organization in emergencies, invasions, disease outbreaks, systemic dangers to children or wherever a danger to the social body or its members is registered. This is the social immune system in action. Our experience of it in military war, inventions of foreign threats and demagogic posturing has obscured its deeper-lying ground. At bottom, it is a life-protective response at the level of social life-organization. That its shared motivational structure across a nation or community has long been manipulated and misdirected should not lead us into misconstruing its underlying nature and potential.

The passion with which European and Latin American peoples have refused to submit to dismantling of their universal health care, pensions or other life-protective systems, despite non-stop demands for ‘necessary cutbacks’, ‘austerity programmes’, and so on, expresses social immune systems at work, but the nature of the cancer system itself is not recognized. Social immune development depends on recognizing the antigen attacking it. In late nineteenth-century London, the idea of individual and public life-defence being connected in effective systems of social life-protection was, in fact, the conscious logic of design of sewer lines, garbage disposal, police guardians, and the circulation of clean versus contaminated water to the social body’s membership. The sewers were called ‘the great intestines’ of the society they served. When electrical networks joining society’s members in communication fields became an essential infrastructure of social life later in the twentieth century, they were called ‘the nervous system’.12 This organizing conception of people linked across classes in a common life-organization is not new, but repressed by the surrounding metaphysical doctrine of society.

Underneath the atomistic ontology of the market paradigm has developed the immuno-competence of actual social life-hosts which have long survived by the unseen civil commons of interlocking sanitary systems serving all, ventilation and safety norms for workplaces and dwellings across society, and evolving epidemiological survey mechanisms and disease-preventative clinics distributed through the social body. All imply what cannot be conceived from the egoistic standpoint of competing market agents – a social life-host capable of health and disease as an individual organism is, and immuno-competent or incompetent as an individual life-host is.

Beginning with the city whose life-interconnections demanded evolution of thinking beyond the atomic market self, the development of societies as macro life-systems evolved progressively more sophisticated structures of community life-defence against new and emerging dangers to their individual and collective memberships. Subsequent to its initial development in Europe and Britain, public health – a concept which expresses the emerging macro life-paradigm – came to be associated with a host of municipal, regional and national government regulations to secure the prevention of disease and the promotion of health in social populations across national and eventually international boundaries.

This socially constituted and publicly-funded infrastructure cannot depend on market exchange by its nature. From the beginning, it was developed by government through non-profit planning and social regulations binding all. As such, it naturally eludes the limited comprehension of the cash-nexus mind-set. The global market paradigm can no more compute this larger body of life than it can compute the intricately evolved eco-webs of environmental life-organization. Its model is confined to the simple, fungible inputs, throughputs and outputs of market money-sequences. That is why such a mind-set says ‘society does not exist’ or ‘environmentalists obstruct business’. It is also why governments implement policies to strip social infrastructures which protect human and environmental life. Their mutated market program blinds them to the realities of any metabolism beyond the exchanges and growth of commodities and money sums.

But beneath the self-maximizing pursuit of price and profit in market sequences of money gain has been evolving a consciously constructed commons of social life-organization and universal goods upon which the deeper and long-term development of humanity and civilization have always depended. It embraces a vast system of social life-defence, from laws to ensure the non-contamination of food to liability norms to protect workers and citizens from industrial hazards, to public educational systems to develop cognitive capabilities essential to individuals’ survival and self-expression within vast, interconnected organizations of interdependent functions constituting contemporary societies. All are now privatized, defunded, slashed and otherwise attacked by a disease disorder not yet detected.

Knowing the Enemy

Because social immune systems have grown up beneath our consciousness of them, for millennia disguised behind atavistic taboos and armed forces of social defence, they have remained in their evolutionary adolescence, subject to irrational disorders. On the one hand, they have – until global market restructuring – evolved in the most advanced societies to collectively ensure the lives and reproduction of their members free from disease and breakdown. On the other hand, there have been barbaric immune regressions in times of extreme social stress.

Atavistic attacks on minority populations as ‘unclean’ or ‘foreign elements’ have been unleashed in murderous ‘defences’ of superstitiously conceived social bodies. Such strikings out in mass social confusion have increased beneath causal connection with the implementation of global market ‘re-engineerings’. As we will see with increasing depth ahead, ‘structural adjustment programmes’ have deprived people of their past life-security (for example, in the former federated socialist republics of Yugoslavia and in sub-Saharan Africa where subsistence farmers have been cleared from the land for agribusiness or oil extraction for global market export).13 We can usually see in these cases something like a disordered social immune system at work – false recognition of a ‘not-self agent’ within globally restructured societies – and then destructive response by extinctive attack on the falsely identified enemy group. These outbreaks of savage virulence within communities where before, as in Yugoslavia, there had been constructive association, are then disconnected by global market ideology from the suddenly deprived life-grounds of the people involved, and even claimed to be ‘rational’ in the circumstances of group hatred which have been delinked from their common cause.14

These are primitive derangements of the social immune system, and themselves require civil commons recognition and cure. Civilization gradually selects out these social immune system disorders as long as there are not more general breakdowns in the health of social hosts (for example, massive impoverishment of the society’s members which is a typical precursor of these social life-breakdowns). In these cases, there is danger that social immune regimes will atavize to false identification of disease agents (for example, the impoverished themselves, or a different-looking group). Such disordered targetings of ‘viruses’ or ‘foreign elements’ in the social body are normally exploited by ruling interests which benefit from the disorder, as in the focus on anti-semitic, anti-communist, or racist social divisions which systemically distracts public attention from the actual disorders afflicting social life-organizations.

Historically, we have long observed these social immune disorders in various forms, from ‘witch hunts’ across the nations of Europe in the later sixteenth century to ‘anti-subversive’ exterminations in developing countries across the world in the Reagan era of the 1980s. We saw them again in the 1990s in ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations in areas where populations had been stripped by ‘structural adjustment programmes’ and/or clearances of the land to make room for ‘production for export’. We see them as well in ‘social cleansing’ operations by right-wing governments across the world attacking the poor, the gay, the unemployed and the left-wing in ‘cultural wars’ or other immune disorders.

These immune-regime pathologies in social bodies are perhaps history’s most virulent plagues. But instead of recognizing the underlying roots of their deformation which these deranged movements exploit and direct onto scapegoats, we are apt to blame the community life-ground itself for these virulent deformations of it (as Indians blame ‘communalism’). In this way, we continue to miss the common life-base of social self-protective response which is the motivational source of all healthy social immune systems to protect all of society’s members. In consequence, we remain vulnerable to the derangement because we have failed to comprehend the deep nature of its source, and thus of its perversion.

The consequence of this confusion, in turn, is that we fail to recognize or respond to the actual disorder selecting for the perversion, and so are not able to redirect society’s highly developed immune capacities onto the deeper disease pattern itself. We can observe this immune disorder in systemic form with the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) prescriptions for societies suffering from increasing and unpayable debt burdens. These debts continue to grow because of the high-rate, compounding interest demands on them placed by foreign market agents and moneylenders. Instead of recognizing and responding to this disordered debt-system itself, which appropriates more and more of the sustenance of these societies with no contribution to their life-functions, the IMF’s decision structure is set to prescribe the reverse, becoming in this way a vector of the pathogenic programme rather than its prevention.

The IMF’s ‘structural adjustment programmes’ prescribe the reduction or elimination of social spending on the needs of society’s own members, and require instead the conversion of their agricultural and production systems to food and other exports so as to pay never-ending compound interest demands to foreign banks. Today they dismantle Western civilization in Greece, Italy and Spain themselves; who knows where next. These measures deprive the host society further of the means of life its citizens are already short of, and strip aggregate demand on which market growth itself depends – the clear marker of system derangement not yet read. As the world’s institutionalized agency for preventing ‘monetary instability’, the IMF prescribes, in other words, that still more of the host society’s life-sustenance be appropriated to feed the non-productive circuits of continuous money demands from foreign financial institutions. Not even the required aggregate demand is left to restore the collapsed economy. It is reduced further so that collapse deepens – again the marker of the system cancer.15 What was instituted as a social immune structure on the international plane operates in fact as a pathogenic invader of societies’ capacities to reproduce their and their citizens’ lives and even their market economies.

How to Tell Social Health from Social Disease

How can we tell a pathological social immune defence from a healthy one? The recognizing principle for any disease, individual or social, is the extent to which it disables the life-host. With the individual organism, we recognize disease by symptoms manifesting the disorder – impairments or interferences with normal operations of the body which are states of morbidity to the extent that they reduce the range of bodily or mental function of the host organism. Broken bones, dislocations and torn muscles are easy to recognize because they immediately present to the host a decisive reduction of its ability to move. Infectious diseases are less easy to tell. But they invariably manifest themselves as real health problems to the extent that their continuance manifests a loss of bodily or mental function that the healthy organism normally possesses.

In any case of health problem, we can always identify the severity of the affliction by the reduction in the life-capabilities of the host. This life-reduction is, in turn, calibrated by the extent of the loss of life-capability.

We can express these principles of individual or social health and disease in a simple general principle: The more the life-host is disabled, the worse the disease or the health problem is. The extent of the health problem, that is, is exactly recognized not only by the capabilities of life-function lost in relation to the reference-body of the pre-diseased state, but also by the duration of this loss. At worst, the affliction approaches totality in its disablement, with the limiting point of this process the death of the life-host.

With the social life-host too, we can diagnose its disorder by this same principle. To the extent that non-communicable diseases, unemployment and environmental degeneration increase, social health and well-being are in decline. We know this now. Yet so far as the causal mechanism behind societies’ epidemic degeneration of well-being, we live in the Dark Ages. When the losses of life-enabling sustenance and protection become systemic, progressive and serious across significant sectors of global social life-organization, then we confront a problem of a global system disease. Yet its cause or aetiology is taboo to name.

A society, conversely, becomes healthier to the extent that its shared range of vital life-abilities and functions slope up rather than down – for example, its members’ full and life-enabling employment, nutritional adequacy, housing adequacy, average physical fitness, freedom from disease disorders, and environmental integrity and biodiversity. At the most general level, whatever promotes more comprehensive ranges of a social membership’s capacities to act, feel and think is the direction of its health protection and development; whereas whatever reduces or eliminates these vital life-ranges is the direction of its ill-being.16 We can read the signs of these health and ill-health patterns at all levels in any society, taking the reference body of its previous state as our benchmark of life-progress or decline.

Whether we are talking of Easter Island or Western civilization today, we know a serious system disease has invaded social life-organization when the life-security of an ever larger proportion of society’s members has become insecure in increasing life-domains. For the global system as a whole now, the degenerate trends of have been identified in systematic diagnosis at the macro level in Chapter 1, ‘Decoding the Cancer System’. The problem is that the grave disorder has not been recognized or responded to because the immune system of societies has itself become diseased by an out-of-control global money-sequence system metastasizing through every node of social defence. In fact, this overwhelming of social immune systems has occurred across the world – from Africa and Latin America through the Middle East to South-East Asia to the US and European Union today. It began early on as described in the prior pages. Consider this description by a Canadian priest of the systematic destruction of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala:

The Guatemalans had been organizing co-operatives and protesting their terrible poverty. When their ancestral lands were turned into huge coffee and sugar plantations [for international export and trade], they could no longer grow enough food to survive. The army responded to their resistance by killing hundreds of thousands in the 1980s as ‘communists’, and a struggle for land grew into genocide.17

The Immune System Model Across Social and Organic Life-Organization

In the first instance, the conventionally accepted military system of social defence behaves very much like an intra-organic immune system. Indeed the parallels here are so striking that one might wonder whether the military mode of social self-defence is not an unconscious projection from the cellular level onto the social plane. ‘Foreign’ antigens ‘invade’ the host body. After ‘recognition’ of the ‘invasive agent’, the antibody can neutralize the antigens by engulfment or by isolation as a mass, in both cases eventually absorbing the ‘not-self’ into the host organism. Or it can destroy the ‘foreign invader’ by a process of cellular-wall perforation and blasting that uncannily resembles in principle the bullet and bomb attacks of military operations.

These concepts of ‘self’ and ‘not-self’, ‘surveillance’, ‘recognition’, ‘foreign agent’, ‘invasion’, ‘response’, ‘defence’ and ‘attack’, we must bear in mind, are all standard concepts of scientific medicine. On the one hand, one might argue that the idea of a ‘social immune system’ confuses organic and social life-hosts. But if we consider the matter more deeply, we can see that the terms and designators deployed by medical science in its explanatory descriptions of the immune system’s organic operations are all themselves social categories. The foundational concepts of the entire immune-system lexicon begin with the binary opposition of ‘self’ and ‘not-self’. The conceptual signifier of the immune-system model, ‘immune’, itself derives from the Latin root, in-munus, which refers to an exemption from compulsory military duty which exposed one’s life to attack and death. Again here, we see that the scientific concept of ‘immune system’ is modelled on social life and deploys social categories across its lexicon of description.

It is on the basis of this model of social life-organization that the further fundamental concepts and designators of immune-system operations are then developed and articulated as a unified system of meaning and explanation: (1) ‘surveillance’ of all the phenomena of organic processes to ‘detect’ any ‘abnormality’ in its functionings; (2) ‘recognition’ of the ‘not-self’ of disease or antigenic ‘challenge’; and (3) ‘response’ of the ‘host’ body to the ‘foreign invasion’, ‘opportunistic’ pathogen, disease ‘agent’ or whatever is ‘interfering with’ or ‘compromising’ normal life-function. As we expose medical science’s immune-system model to reflective examination of its standard categories of description and explanation, we see that in fact this model is pervasively conceptualized in terms of social life-organization. The medical model itself derives from it, not the other way round. The prior model is social immune defence and response; and cellular cancer itself is the product of social causal mechanism, as shown in Chapter 1.

In short, the nature of the cancer pathology and its cure are the same in generic principle across social and individual life-organization. Scientific medicine itself presupposes this systematic correlation without recognizing it. The problem has been that methodological entrapment within atomic life-hosts and blocking out of disease disorder in the surrounding ruling order have together ruled out recognition of cancer invasion and growth at the macro level of life-reproduction. This has been the ultimate immune system failure of the era.

Individuality and Social Life-Requirements not Opposed but Interdependent

If we sustain the distinction between health and disease on individual and social levels, we have the commensurable basis of judgement and evaluation to relate them. We thus we avoid the profound error of opposing individual to society which has bedevilled the market-capitalist epoch. ‘Individualism’ here has come to mean the opposite of affirming unique life-capacities in an autonomous way. As other fundamental meanings, it has mutated to a deindividuating imperative to acquire ever more money demand blind to life itself. Such a ruling code is anti-individual, because it is uniform in the nature of its goal and every unit of acquisition. It is not ‘self-interest’ in the classical sense of Aristotle or Spinoza because there is no realization of life-interests. It is always instead to input minimum money demand to become maximally more. To conceive of such a programme as ‘individualism’ does not make sense in life-terms. On the contrary, the more it governs, the more uncontrolled, rogue forms of money-sequence growth emerge not before seen.

Marx’s General Formula of Money Capital and its Alternative

Karl Marx was the first to see that the law of money capital growth usurped preceding economic systems. He distinguished it from previously existing social organization of production by the both the beginning and end of its cycles being money-value rather than use-value. Whereas previous exchanges by the medium of money had begun with a use-value (for example, shoes) which was then sold to others for the money to buy another use-value (for example, food), the capitalist ‘mode of production’ was an inversion of this circuit. It began with money to be invested in others’ production of use-values which, once produced, were sold as commodities on the market for more money, which then began the production-exchange circuit of netting more money for the ‘capitalist’, again ad infinitum.

This was a process of transformation of society’s structure of reproduction which took centuries to institute in Britain and Europe before it spread across the globe. At first, merchants merely bought the goods that others produced independently, and sold these goods to others for more than they paid to extract a profit for themselves. They began with money, and ended with more money, but played no role in the process of production itself. This mercantile operation was as old as history. But the truly distinctive nature of the capitalist market system arose with the money owners’ direct control of the production process itself. It emerged as money owners moved from purchasing the use-values made by others to purchasing the factors for producing the use-values themselves – workers, instruments of production and natural resources to produce at the least money cost per unit.

With human work and the means of production directly subordinated to the money investor’s ownership and control, the process of production could be rapidly reorganized, mechanized and intensified with no internal limit to the treatment of the human lives or environmental resources used as components in the system. In Capital, Marx formalized the transformation in the capitalist mode of reproducing society as follows, and he called it ‘the General Formula of Capitalist Production’:

Use-value or Commodity → Money → Use-value or Commodity or C → M → C (pre-capitalist exchange)

changes to

Money → Use-value or Commodity → More Money or M → C → M1 (capitalist exchange).

Marx proceeded to argue that there was a ‘contradiction’ between the requirement for reproducing and developing societies of human beings, on the one hand, and the requirement of ever more money extraction and accumulation by the private owners of investment capital. The primary contradiction he focused on was between the requirements of productive force development and the systemic demand of capitalist investors for ever more surplus-value extraction relatively impoverishing workers. To reduce this contradiction, Marx called for the replacement of capitalist class rule by the producing class’s rule for a higher level of ‘productive force development’.

Working-class movements or movements in their name sought to do this for over a century. The standard view is that they failed. But in fact they did not fail so much as they were attacked to near extinction. At the international level, the process of destroying non-capitalist and socialist societies has never been stopped by trade embargoes, propaganda wars, training and administration of death-squads, blacklistings of suspected supporters, and various other means of annihilating all alternatives.

From the Welfare State Compromise to Transnational System Mutations

The capitalist form of social life-organization was nonetheless eventually compelled by the ‘communist threat’, workers’ movements and a new electoral accountability to adopt preventive measures against its internal disorder. Advanced capitalist societies slowly and under great social pressures introduced social reforms to limit a multitude of system hazards to people’s lives. This process began with social legislation restricting working hours and factory-caused hazards and diseases, and eventually led to universal programmes of education, health and social security, an evolution whose reversal is analysed elsewhere in this study. In this way the destructive consequences of the modern capitalist organization of society were progressively counterbalanced by socially legislated protections of human life. This overall social immune development depended throughout on non-market public agencies recognizing and responding to the life-needs of society’s members as a whole and preventing disabling morbidities from taking hold.

Despite this long development of social immune system with roots reaching back over centuries, a relatively sudden mutation of social orders emerged during and after the ‘final triumph of capitalism’ in particular. Dramatic changes in social life-organization across the world by ‘global market restructurings’ of societies precipitated breakdowns in evolved social immune capacities on virtually every parameter of life-protection.


Table of Contents



  1. The whole of anthropology can be understood as a decoding of tribal communities’ beliefs and practices which confer survival advantage by protecting them from dangers and harms. In short, taboos are life-functional. Marin Harris provides countless examples of diet, sexual norms, rituals, and so on, which function to safeguard their community life-host (as in his classic short study, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture, Glasgow: Collins and Son, 1974).

  2. Dorland’s, for example, defines a taboo as follows: ‘any of the negative traditions and behaviours that are generally regarded as harmful to social welfare’ (Dorland’s Medical Dictionary (27th edition), London: B. Saunders Company, 1994).

  3. See the tracking of the pattern in articles by McMurtry in CCPA Monitor in the notes of Chapter 1, and this journal’s issues since May 2011.

  4. Frederick Cartwright and Michael Biddiss, Disease and History, New York: Dorset Press, 1991, pp. 35–6.

  5. Stephen Hume, ‘“Bird Flu” – The Next Pandemic?’, Vancouver Sun, December 13, 1997, p. K9.

  6. Malaria outbreaks and increase, for example, were at a record level in market-industrializing regions, with 300–500 million cases annually by 1997. Two entymologists asked: ‘Can you get funding? Probably not. Funding for malarial pathogens and their vectors is at an all-time low. … Money [is] the organizational goal’ (Leon G. Higley and David W. Stanley, ‘The Dark Landscape of a World with Ten Ounces to the Pound’, American Entymologist (Winter 1997), 210–11).

  7. The stripping of health and environment regulatory structures under rationales of ‘competitive cost-cutting’, ‘fighting deficits’ and ‘deregulation for heightened efficiency’ has continued non-stop for 30 years whatever the cost in destroyed lives. In the US, Ralph Nader has reported that 50,000 lives a year are lost due to air pollution, while 100,000 people die prematurely due to toxins and trauma in the workplace, as corporations press for still more deregulation to lower their money costs in ‘a brutally competitive global market’ (Ralph Nader, ‘It’s Time to End Corporate Welfare as We Know it’, Earth Island Journal (Spring, 1996), 36). In Russia since liberation to ‘free market’ regulation, there has been a 3,000 per cent rise in cases of syphilis and an unmonitored skyrocketing of diseases of impoverishment for the 75 per cent of the population who now live in poverty without social services (Report of the World Health Organization, Tim Radford, ‘Europe Faces Disease Invasion from East’, Guardian Weekly, April 13, 1997, 7). In ‘market reform’ Ontario, one of the world’s richest jurisdictions, an unprecedented ‘public health crisis of air pollution’ has emerged across the province which makes it dangerous for children and susceptible adults to be out of doors (Ontario Medical Association, Martin Mittelstaedt, ‘Breathing can be Bad for Health, Doctors Warn’, Globe and Mail, May 13, 1998, p. A3). ‘The current system of regulating the use, release and disposal of known and suspected carcinogens – rather than preventing their generation in the first place – is intolerable’ (Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream – An Ecologist Looks At Cancer and The Environment, New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997).

  8. Harvard Working Group on New and Resurgent Diseases, ‘Globalization, Development, and the Spread of Disease’, Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996, 160–3.

  9. See, for example, Susan George, A Fate Worse Than Debt, San Francisco: Food First, 1988; Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalization of Poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms, Penang, Malaysia: Third World Network, 1997.

  10. For a systematic critique of the military paradigm of social self-defence, see my Understanding War, Toronto: Science for Peace and Samuel Stevens Press, 1989.

  11. On November 11, 1994, Canada’s House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs reported that ‘the threat to Canada’s standard of living is now greater than the threat to its borders’. The announcement was not communicated by any mainstream news media.

  12. These conceptualizations are reported in Annmarie Adams, Architecture in the Family Way: Doctors, Houses and Women, McGill-Queens University Press, 1996.

  13. In Yugoslavia prior to the ‘ethnic cleansings’, 9 million workers out of a total of 2.7 million were declared redundant under the US loan-pressured Financial Operations Act, and GDP subsequently declined by as much as 50 per cent under the massive ‘privatization’ programme (World Bank figures cited by Chossoduvsky, The Globalization of Poverty, pp. 251–2). In Somalia, a Los Angeles Times report, carried by the International Herald Tribune on January 19, 1993, showed that two-thirds of Somalia’s territory had been leased out to four transnational oil companies, a condition of lost grounds of life for Somalians that helped explain the primeval civil war which has subsequently raged across the country. As in Yugoslavia, the restructuring and appropriative invasions of the global market system which caused the collapses of social fabric which issued in these horrific killing fields was not a connection that was permitted to circulate on ‘the information highway’. Rather, ‘ethnic hatred’ and ‘warlords’ were the problem which required US-led armed-force foreign interventions to solve it. The trends have continued.

  14. Russell Hardin argues for the ‘rational’ nature of contemporary ethnic conflict in his One For All: The Logic of Group Conflict, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, 46.

  15. The earlier cycle involved here is described in systematic detail by Susan George, Debt Boomerang: How Third World Debt Harms Us All, London: Pluto Press, 1991, and Chossudovsky, The Globalization of Poverty.

  16. The general theory here is called life-value onto-axiology and is spelled out in my What is Good? What is Bad? The Value of All Values Across Time, Place and Theories, Oxford: Eolss Publishers under the auspices of Unesco, 2010.

  17. Ted Hyland, Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice, September 30, 1993.