The biopolitics of Germaine Greer

September 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

In Sex & Destiny, Germaine Greer develops a strong, cohesive thesis on the biopolitics of [over]population & the influence of women & the economy on it. A thousand-word summary post can do justice to neither book nor subject, but it will serve as a great springboard for the direction of the next few articles I intend to post. Following Greer, I want to look at human fertility & infertility as culturally diverse, rather than biological, without having a singly natural way of being practiced; I want to unpack how evolutionary competition is undemocratically practiced & monopolized by self-proclaimed democracies. Greer writes, “The blind conviction that we have to do something about other people’s reproductive behaviour, & that we may have to do it whether they like it or not, derives from the assumption that the world belongs to us, who have so expertly depleted its resources” (417). It is this self-righteousness that makes the West either feel it is their destiny to stay in control or that they have the right to control destiny, depending on one’s perspective. Not a bad starting point at all.

Here are just a few of the ways listed in the book that sterilisation was incited on the less diserables by wealthy stake-holders: “The British government continued to spend £3,000,000 a year for the establishment of sterilisation facilities in 325 district hospitals & 1000 Primary Health Centres” in India (361); “Between 1963 & 1965 American money paid not only for the sterilisation of 40,000 women in Colombia, but also for lipstick, artificial pearls & small money payments to the acceptors” (280). “From July 1933 to June 1947, 1,901 eugenic sterilisations were performed in North Carolina[…] Although only 27.5% of the state’s population is black, & even though the Negro [sic] hospital at Goldsboro took no part in the sterilisation programme, as many black men were sterilised, both by vasectomy & castration, as white” (277).* These are all varieties of eugenic practice, there is no doubt, against which Greer takes a moral — almost philosophical — stance:

We do not ask what the tiger is for; we must not ask Sir Julian Huxley’s question “What are people for?” We cannot contemplate the world’s poor & ask what use they are, as they joy & sorrow, multiply & die. (294)

Depicting overpopulation as a major problem denotes three modern conditions, Greer identifies. Firstly, that there is a pessimism in “developed” countries that the future — should anyone survive long enough to see it — will be even worse than the present (66). Secondly, the equation of life with production [participation in consumer economies] which means we do not place value on the lives of the elderly &, therefore, feel no moral obligation to look after them (376). Thirdly, it harks to the Western anti-child sentiment. This sentiment designates the role of mothers as marginal (381), then, which is not the case in societies that haven’t undergone that anti-child transition (19). Greer argues that the position of women is much better in such societies: “Woman in the extended Family is not an object but an agent; the Family’s prosperity & cohesiveness will be directly due to her[…] she has to develop & to play an increasingly important role [as she ages] for an increasing number of people, until infirmity deposes her” (244).

What is particularly impressive about Sex & Destiny is Greer’s refusal to view any woman as a victim of her culture; instead, she considers how our own culture informs our interpretation of the Other. For instance, acknowledging that “the cultural hegemony of Western technology [including medicine] is total” (30), Greer looks into non-Western methods of birth control with an open mind. Societies that use abortion & infanticide regularly are not immediately dismissed, rather looked on relatively. “The idea that young people should use abortion as a primary method of birth control causes the most extreme disgust, while the phenomenon of a very young woman struggling with powerful & potentially very dangerous medications [the birth control pill] leaves most people unmoved” (176). Another example is that much non-Western clothing for women is actually more convenient for the child-rearing & breast-feeding of motherhood [including the niqab, which many consider oppressive].

That populations continue to grow in “third world” countries means that the disincentives of child-bearing we’ve identified in Western thinking haven’t penetrated into all parts of the world [just yet?]. No matter the inhumane & illegal means dominant states might take to control the populations of “undeveloped” countries, numbers will not fall to desired levels until those disincentives are culturally transposed (375); “once they accept a materialist view of their situation, once they see their wretched selves with the eyes of their oppressors, they are finished” (414). That is why the capitalist system Greer equates to creating those disincentives needs global dominance — for as long as there are other population-booming traditions, both economic & family traditions, these will threaten the hegemony of capitalist democracies (43, 291, 326). Militarisation, authoritarianism, and lack of transparency in the foreign policies of today’s “democracies” are the logical progression of attempts to preserve their supremacy (382).

A criticism of today’s superpowers must take into consideration the international politics of human fertility. I don’t know of a text that describes this situation more eloquently than Greer’s. However, there are crucial points that aren’t broached in the book, most pressingly I believe the role of wars in global population control.*** Sex & Destiny will nevertheless continue to provoke meditations on the subject & inspire methodologies of future studies. There is important work to be done.


* For further details regarding American eugenics, see this New Scientist article.

** Civilian deaths are exponentially increasing, which suggests that modern warfare might have something more to do with population control than we usually admit to. Conflict is usually contained on territories of the undesirable population growth, if not outright waged on those territories with that intent. Furthermore, there is a never-before-seen complicity in citizens of the dominant oppressors who are, by all accounts, insufficiently moved by violence abroad; nowhere have we seen immigration policies that comply with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. There are also economic factors, of course — the profits of war & the arms industry for the West — which are meant to reinstate the superiority of the West &, therefore, its right to dominate.


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