WHEN WE THINK OF A SOCIETY’S “DEFENSE SYSTEM,” WE THINK OF ITS ARMED FORCES. We have long been conditioned to do this. The military industrial establishment and the armaments business are the world’s most powerful institutions of organized violence and international trade. For them to preserve their vast systems of power, it is essential that they be sold as society’s primary form of “self-defense” (e.g., at least $700 million a day of demand on the U.S. public purse alone).[note]For a systematic critique of the military paradigm of social self-defense, see McMurtry (1989).[/note] Society’s real system of self-defense, its public health process, is in this way deprived of its proper social resources and functions. At the same time, ever more invasive assaults on the protection and circulation of means of life within societies by environmental despoliation, redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle-income classes to the rich, and radical dismantling of public forms of life-provision now attack society’s health and life-defenses from another side.[note]On November 11, 1994, Canada’s House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs made the extraordinary announcement that the state of Canada’s economy was more important than military defense to Canada’s security “because the threat to Canada’s standard of living is now greater than the threat to its borders.” The announcement, however, was not communicated in any mainstream news media.[/note] In these ways, we now confront a situation where the cumulative breakdown of society’s structures of life-security and health protection poses a more systemically far-reaching threat to social and planetary well-being than we are yet prepared for.
In this context, we must look through a wider lens at what we call “public health.” Public health regimes regulated by self-conscious scientific practices are a comparatively recent evolution, originating in Europe in the latter half of the 18th century with, as Michel Foucault puts it, “the accumulation of bodies” in large cities during the industrial capitalist expansion. The intensive concentrations of propertyless humanity in rising capitalist production centers 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 at the end of the 20th century.[note]Interestingly, the postmodernist Foucault (1984: 279-281), typical of the naive nihilism of this school, seems to deplore the regime of “care, contact, hygiene, cleanliness, attentive proximity, and physical exercise … which envelopes, maintains, and develops the child’s body … as an instance of social control.”[/note]
Subsequent to its initial development in Europe and Britain, public health 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 – from laws to ensure the purity of food and water supplies, to administrative and liability norms to protect workers’ health and safety, to public educational systems to develop cognitive capabilities essential to social and individual survival within vast, interconnected organizations of interdependent functions constituting contemporary social bodies. When surveying the increasing state and public-sector mediations of every aspect of our lives by complex, articulated systems of life-protective circulation and regulation of social intercourse and functions, one begins to recognize that – despite its continuous errors, oversights, and dogmas – this historically evolved organization of societies for the protection of their members against disease, trauma, and dysfunction is a determining level of species survival and development. It is a social immune system.
To measure the competence of this “social immune system” in any given society, we now have standard indicators of infant mortality, disease frequencies and ratios, average life expectancies and indices of mortality, distribution of life resources across social memberships, national fitness levels, grades of mental competence, and measures of citizen participation in the organizational development of social bodies as functioning wholes. To an increasing extent, these various social indicators of social health and well-being have become more complex and detailed than the medical profiles and records of individual patient organisms.
In recognizing this evolution of social life-organization and the corresponding immune defense systems, we must be very careful not to reduce the individual, as some political theorists like Hegel and the fascists have done, to a mere function and element of a social organism. Rather, we must understand that human individuals are dependent upon the larger social bodies to which they belong for their healthful reproduction and expression. To exist as individuals functionally able to realize individual capacities in a state of normal health, they must be protected members of social bodies. Individual persons are not reducible to, but are based upon the socially interrelated whole to which they belong for their life requirements to be fulfilled, and for their health to be secured. If we imagine the absence from our lives of an evolved social system of life protection, we immediately realize how precarious and lethally exposed individual human life becomes without it – for example, against contagious plagues, toxins, and insecure conditions of life and information transmission. In 14th-century Europe and Asia, up to three-quarters of individual humans suffered horrible deaths without the system of social immune defense that we now take for granted.