The Individual and the State

I’m always intrigued by the idea that I, this person, am not really one single individual, but am composed of thousands of billions of cells, each of which is an individual living thing. I started out as just one cell which kept on dividing and multiplying until now I’m made up of about 10,000,000,000,000 cells, give or take one or two. I’m not an individual: I’m a superstate. And yet I’m still ‘me’. Isn’t that strange?

And given that I’m made up of so many individual cells, which have each become specialised as bone cells, muscle cells, brain cells, liver cells, kidney cells, lung cells, etc, how is it that I seem to be of one mind, and to have one set of opinions and beliefs? And a taste for Bowmore whisky too? Why don’t I have millions of competing, rival beliefs and opinions and tastes? How did oneness arise out of such plurality?

And why aren’t all the cells of my body in revolt against my tyrannical single-mindedness? Why aren’t my legs trying to run away, and secede from this biological superstate? Perhaps one day they will.

I’m used to thinking about myself as ‘I’ and ‘me’, and to thinking of my arms and legs as my obedient servants who always do what they’re told by my controlling mind, sat like a king atop a hierarchy of slaves, to whom I send orders to do this or do that along a telegraph network of nerves. Time for another mug of tea? Within seconds I’ve stood up (a remarkable feat in itself), picked up the empty mug, descended the stairs to the kitchen, boiled a kettle, stirred in the tea bag, added milk and sugar, and then retraced my steps to where I came from. But who was this cup of tea for? Was it me? Do ‘I’ need a cup of tea? No, it’s not me who needs the tea. It’s for them. It’s for those trillions of cells which are getting a bit dehydrated, and a bit low on the sugar energy that powers them. The cup of tea is for them, not me. I am not, it seems, their tyrannical master after all. I am instead their representative, and they have been quietly prodding me for the past half hour to make some more tea. And roll a few more cigarettes. And cut another slice of that Belgian chocolate cake too.

And it’s not that those cells gently prod me for this or that. Sometimes they scream. If I stub my toe against a door frame, ‘I’ will know about it in milliseconds. And, as I hop around on one foot, rubbing the injured toe, all my thoughts will be with it, everything else forgotten.

The political structure of the biological superstate that is me is one that is extraordinarily responsive to the requests and demands of its member cells. Even a single pin-prick will capture my attention.

But if I was organised politically like Britain is politically organised, the cells in my body would get a vote once every 5 years about what they’d like me to eat next. Or rather, they would most likely be offered a choice between a regime of lentils, or a regime of porridge. And in the mean time, between these tiresome elections, I would be planning for them a no-smoking, non-alcoholic regime of regular exercise. That, and a bed of nails. And I’d be making lots of rules. No chocolate. No cookies. No crisps. No sugar. No salt. And I’d spend all my time reading theoretical textbooks of macrobiotic cooking. I would set out, like some ascetic monk or hermit, to mortify my unruly flesh, if necessary with beatings and flagellations, to numb it into silence.

But I’m not politically organised in that manner. I don’t set out to mortify my body, or to fast, or to purge myself, or bleed myself, or torment myself with weights and exercise machines. Instead, I feed myself chocolates and cigarettes and whisky, more or less on demand. And this may explain why my legs don’t run away. They’re onto a good thing, all 500 billion of them.

The political analogy between the cells in a human body and the human constituents of a state is an interesting one. Individual people in a state or society are like cells in a body. They are all specialised. Farmers are like stomach or intestine cells, providing nutrients. Roads and railways are like veins and arteries. Children are like stem cells. Sewerage workers and rubbish collectors are like kidney cells. Philosophers and scientists are like brain cells. And governments are like executive brain cells. And so on. And, all working together, they form Britain. Or France. Or Germany. And these states are players on a world stage, forming alliances with each other, trading with each other, fighting wars with each other. There are hundreds of these states dotted all over the world, some small and some big, all vying with each other. And if they want to vie successfully with each other, then they do best to combine together to form superstates. Like the United States of America is made up of, well, the united states of America. States like Maryland and Texas. Or the Soviet Union, as was, which was also a collection of states. Or China, which is the same again. India too. It’s big power politics. That’s why European politicians are trying to put together this European Union thing, so that they can kick ass along with all the big boys. And invade Afghanistan. Which is what all the big boys like to do. And have been doing it for hundreds of years. Heck, even Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan in about 330 BC. And if Julius Caesar had any regrets as he lay dying in front of the statue of Pompey in 44 BC, it would have been, ‘Damn! I never got round to invading Afghanistan!’

The political world – which is made up the executive ‘minds’ of these various rival states – is to its individual human members much like what ‘I’ am to all the cells in my body. They hand out tax cuts and bonuses like I hand out chocolate biscuits and mugs of tea to my trillion cells. In between, politicians get back to the serious business of making alliances, planning wars, much like I get back to the business of writing my blog or thinking about Idle Theory and all the other things I think about, and which my legs and stomach and tonsils don’t seem to care too much about.

And once people start to think about societies or states as biological entities, with brains, stomachs, muscles, kidneys, and so on, then it follows that you start to treat a society or state as if it was a human body. If you’re both a politician and a doctor, like Gro Harlem Brundtland, you see society as a patient, and yourself as the doctor who prescribes medicines and therapies. Modern ‘healthism’ looks at societies in this way. And the first thing that the doctor-politician notices is that the body politic is drinking too much alcohol, smoking too many cigarettes, eating too many Belgian chocolate cakes, and so on. And she prescribes a strict diet for the patient. No more smoking, no more alcohol, no more chocolate, and lots more exercise. And if the body complains, well, it must be ignored. Its faint cries for ciggies and beer and chocolates must be ignored. No more pampering. The body politic must be made athletically lean and fit and hungry. Because you need that sort of body to fight wars and engage in the really serious big-boy politics of world domination. And, of course you have to purge from the political body all the useless and parasitic individuals. A century or so back, these used to be Jews and Gypsies. Now it’s smokers and drinkers and fat people. They’re just a burden on society, and upon the state – so many ‘useless eaters’.

Modern politicians still think about societies the way that kings and emperors used to think. They’re just things which provide tax revenues and armies and weapons, and all the stuff that’s needed to keep the only game that really matters – world power politics – on the road. Nothing has really changed in 500 years or 1000 years. It’s the same as it ever was. The Blairs and Obamas of today are no different from the Hitlers and the Napoleons and the Caesars and Alexanders of yesteryear. They’re out to make names for themselves, as major players in big power politics. Which is something wholly separate and above the tiresome concerns of disposable, petty individuals. It’s a higher calling. Ask Nick Winterton. He’ll tell you.

And me? I live in the big toe on the bottom left of Britain. And I’m screaming blue murder about the smoking ban. Nobody listens much. Least of all the politicians in their elevated, detached, separate world. They’re only interested in what other politicians think. Who cares what I think? Certainly not Gordon Brown or David Cameron. I’m not very interested in the game of world power politics. Here in the big toe, all I want to do is to be able to go down to the River, and buy a pint of beer and smoke a cigarette, and I’ll be content.

But recently this society has started getting wired up with something called the internet. We already have the broadcast media sending one-way commands at us. The internet is like a new nervous system that allows us to scream back. Its messages go all round the world. And I’m beginning to wonder whether, if there’s enough of us little stubbed big toe cells screaming away together into this new nervous system, we might start to break through into that complacent, self-absorbed political world in Westminster. And I don’t care how many times the message goes round the world before the cunts there hear the message.

And if they don’t hear, I’m going to run away.

About Frank Davis

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3 Responses to The Individual and the State

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ll comment further later. For the moment, though, I’ll offer this quote which I often think of, because what you wrote brought it to mind.
    “Over 200 Billion red blood cells a day die in the interests of keeping you alive. Do you anguish over their demise? Like those red corpuscles, you and I are cells in a social superorganism whose maintenance and growth sometimes requires our pain or elimination, suppresses our individuality, and restricts our freedom. Why, then, is it of any value to us?
    Because the superorganism nourishes every cell within it, allowing a robustness none of its individual components could achieve on its own.”

    -Howard Bloom, “The Lucifer Principle”

  2. Anonymous says:

    From Uncle Marvo who doesn’t have any of these accounts …
    Bloody first-class article, Frank.
    I can’t add anything.

  3. Anonymous says:

    You’re in trouble if you like tea I think. If we recall the tobacco taxes started gradually with just one item or another, finding obscure health reasons to justify it. Really it does seem like the unethical task of a gov distributing an addictive drug and then exploting the adicts. So we move to a soda tax; but why, soda doesn’t really contribute to obesity the way are exaggerating it does. And while no one’s seemed to notice that 99% of soda’s contain the addictive drug caffiene. I drink 2 cups of coffee everyday, and I’m carefull to not turn that habit into; 2 cups of coffee and a soda, avoiding caffinated soda’s often leads to having no drink at all in public. With the agressive moves against smokers, I do expect in the near future that my coffee will cost a fortune everyday.

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