The Economy of Genes, Biotechnology, and the Limits of Capitalism

Published June 1, 2001


It turns out the new economy is human after all. All signals on the horizon suggest that the American economy is heading for a serious slowdown, perhaps even a downturn. The stock prices of blue-chip technology companies, like and Cisco, have shrunk to fractions of their former size. The venture capital floodgates have closed. And no one really believes any more that giving away “content,” building “viewer share,” and selling “banner ads” is a real business model, or that untrained, inexperienced, 22-year olds can manage multi-million dollar companies. The euphoria-and the madness-is over. For now.

But if the business models are not yet clear, the new powers unleashed by the information revolution are very real indeed. Most important of all is the convergence of information technology and bio-technology, made clear last month with the announcement that the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics Corp. had both finished maps of man’s complete genetic make-up. As J. Craig Venter has said on numerous occasions, this scientific accomplishment would not have been possible without the new computing power.

But its significance-for capitalism, for American democracy, for human beings-far transcends the euphoria of the first, information-based new economy. The second new economy-the economy of genes-will change us forever. And it means, inevitably, that the meaning of capitalism will be changed forever.


Already, the past decade has forced us to reconsider the relationship between politics and capitalism in light of the end of the Cold War, the final eclipse of economic communism, and the rise of the New Democrats. The most common refrain of the last few years has been, “We are all capitalists now.” Indeed, there is great truth in this. The Woodstock generation that once stood on cars to protest the capitalist machine now buys SUVs with the dividends from their stock portfolios. The Democratic Party, once the party of Robert Reich, centralized industrial policy, and 70 percent income-tax rates, is now the party of Alan Greenspan worshippers, $900 billion tax cuts, and empowerment zones.

Gen X leaders of college groups like the Feminist Alliance Against Patriarchy and People for the Equal Treatment of Animals now graduate to jobs at McKinsey Consulting and Morgan Stanley or found technology companies with their computer science professors. The universities themselves, long derided by conservatives as the last bastions of true Marxism in the Western world, have become mini-techno-parks with in-house venture capital funds and for-profit incubators.

Clearly, conservatives have won an important economic battle-the victory of markets over central economic planning, of enterprising individuals over the ideology of the commune. But a series of moral questions remain that all conservatives-and all Americans-must soberly confront and that ultimately will shape American society in the decades ahead: Is the spirit of the new capitalism a conservative spirit? Have the highest ideals of postwar American conservatism triumphed or only the economic skeleton of those ideals? Is conservatism about virtue or personal freedom-and what happens when these two competing ideals come into conflict? Is conservatism about preserving institutions and traditions that have long shaped men’s souls or about technological progress and creative destruction? And if those formerly on the economic and cultural Left are really capitalists today, how did that happen? Have they changed capitalism or did capitalism change them?

Throughout the Cold War, American conservatism held together economic libertarians and the religiously orthodox, who were united in spirit by the shared enemy of soul-deadening collectivism and utopianism both at home and abroad. But in the post-Cold War world-and with the rise of the bio-tech capitalists, who may be the most utopian spirits now among us-the old union is on shaky ground and the old assumptions must be reconsidered.

The predominant conservative dogma, that if the market produces something it is good, needs a fundamental rethinking in an age when the World Wrestling Federation, the producers of Ritalin and Prozac, and (coming soon) companies that offer genetic engineering or human cloning all trade on the stock market. Judging the desirability of these “products” requires a frame of reference, a wisdom, and a set of principles that capitalism itself cannot provide.

Moreover, the old radicals who once protested the “technological machine” at Berkeley and elsewhere in the name of “liberation” now profess that technology is the greatest liberator of all; it is the thing that can make life anxiety- and alienation-free-two things that, far more than economic planning, are the great idols of the Left both past and present. Of course, the dark consequences of this communist-liberationist fantasy are by now quite clear: coercion, poverty, and mass murder by the state of its own people. Or as Irving Kristol put it, “A political fantasy incarnated into a reign of terror, a historical nightmare from which humanity has now awakened.”

And so, while the evils are utopianism are still fresh in our minds, conservatives must remain vigilant of their own utopian tendencies-especially the tendency to worship capitalism and man-made progress more than these things ought to be worshipped, to make capitalists gods beyond rebuke.

Strangely enough, large segments of the Left and the Right have started to sound like one another in their new utopianism, even if they began from vastly different places and still think of themselves as vastly different souls. George Gilder, the techno-capitalist guru extraordinaire, has begun to sound shockingly like Karl Marx. “The new age of intelligent machine . . . will enhance and empower humanity. . . . It will relieve man of much of his most onerous and unsatisfying work. It will enlarge his freedom.” “We can escape our absorption in the trivialities of subsistence.” We can achieve the “transcendence of human self-alienation.”

The first two are Gilder, the last one Marx, but the sentiments are identical: Where the old human beings lived in “alienation” due to physical suffering, psychological hardship, and mundane chores, the new human beings are now free to dedicate themselves, in fine health and without inhibitions, to the creative satisfactions of the “spirit.” All of life’s problems can be solved by human effort-by the progressive engine of history-and man can live in this realm a fully satisfying life. By vastly different roads, Marx and Gilder reach this fundamentally similar conclusion.


One can only guess what Adam Smith, the great intellectual patriarch of modern capitalism, would have thought of Gilder’s messianic capitalist enthusiasm. I suspect he would have found it odd, even mad. Smith’s economic insight was built on his understanding of human limitation and of the possibility that man’s self-interest would turn men against each other. The idea of capitalism was meant to civilize that self-interest and channel it toward shared prosperity, some measure of human freedom, and social stability. Smith’s ambition for man was steady and middling, built on his observation of man’s desire to better his material condition. He expected the character and ambitions of neither beasts nor angels-but something in between, what he called “enlightened self-interest.”

Of course, Smith also believed that capitalism itself could make men more virtuous, though to a limited degree. A look at the Gen X capitalists demonstrates this fact: This generation is more self-reliant, creative, realistic, and economically responsible than their anti-capitalist predecessors. But these real though limited virtues, in the end, are not enough to preserve a free society-at least not in a form that we would find recognizable or desirable.

Take the entrepreneur who uses his self-reliance, creativity, and economic ambition to develop and sell Prozac-a drug that, now wildly over-used, works precisely by numbing the self-reliance, ambition, and responsibility of its users in favor of medicalized relief from the challenges of existence. This Prozac-peddling entrepreneur is destroying the very idea of entrepreneurship, which begins with self-awareness, the exact thing Prozac destroys. He uses his very real virtues to undermine the virtues of others. He uses his entrepreneurship to shut down the moral habits of entrepreneurship in others. He is, ultimately, a cannibal.

Shocking as it is (or should be), this sort of cannibalism lies at the heart of the new genetics-built as it is on the manipulation, manufacture, and commodification of our own species, usually in the form of research on aborted human embryos, to serve our own misguided, utopian, narcissistic ends. In the end, this cannibalism and the contradiction it entails cannot be sustained, at least not in a form that leaves men both free and virtuous, that leaves us men, not monsters.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once said that capitalism and communism are just predicates of the subject technology, mere footnotes that are more alike in their materialist assumptions and their ultimate consequences than they are rival spirits. If conservatives want to prove him wrong-if they want to show that capitalism can cohere with a truly religious and moral life while communism cannot-they must be willing to look beyond capitalism to the first principles of what makes a life good and a society just. They must even be willing to criticize capitalism-and capitalists-when the “goods” they sell and the promises they make are corrupting, false, or undesirable. This is why conservatives can only give two cheers for capitalism, not three. And why for the grandest ambitions of the bio-tech revolution-and the evil, utopianism, and hubris they are built on-they should give no cheers at all.

Source Notes
Copyright: 2001 Doublethink

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