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+4 votes
I'm curious as to what you as Anarchists, as well as what other Anarchists whose work you've read, think about scientific medicine. Is it good, bad, neutral? Is it all a state/Capitalist scheme?
by (740 points)
My honest comment is that it is complicated.

much of the body of 'modern' medicine, is conflicted by the necessity of 'independant' researchers to ensure continuing funding for their research - (usually by upholding a narrative found profitable by certain stakeholders in 'Big Pharma'...)

But, at the heart of much of modern western 'medicine', lies the practice of 'kill everything - and then hope the body can heal itself'.
Anti-biotics, excise surgery, chemo-'therapy', radiation 'therapy'; - every one of these 'therapies',  reduces to the principle of:  'kill everything - and then hope the body can heal itself'.
To many of us, this speaks for itself.
absolutely- but for me the issue i have is the very detached attitude that doctors have from their patients, they are masters of our body and want to help us...but in the most inhuman way possible

i feel that these things we say resemble attitudes as well as positions or stances
Interesting point regarding the likely bias of so called 'independent' researchers'. Medical science is one thing, but it exists in our society as an industry like any other, with all the usual attached corruption and exploitation.
This could perhaps be an example of the distinction between 'in authority' and 'an authority', in our society doctors are often seen as being 'in authority' largely due to the lack of widespread medical understanding in the general public and due to the hierarchical nature of most hospital settings. Perhaps this could be resolved with more 'Anarchist' doctors, free from the state and capitalist demand for you money or taxes etc, doctors who are part of our communities as well as being there to help with medical assistance.
yeah, the whole medical question troubles me because medicine does help people live their lives without incredible pain or seems to fix some of our society's ignorance of the body. Right now i can't do a whole lot cuz i have what is probably a pinched nerve...i went to an urgent care facility and the doctor said when i was talking to him "your massage therapist doesn't know a 10th of what i know", however he prescribed me with a topical lotion to treat the pain when clearly i have nerve flammation deep under the skin...idiot! Luckily i have medicaid...even though im still not sure what im actually paying for in the future!

it would be sufficient if the doctors didn't look at their patients as if they were stupid and understood that they didn't know everything either...the other thing is that when someone has a terminal illness doctors are pretty much nihilists these days. They just think "well...your fucked! might as well spend my time with patients who have a REAL chance of living." Most doctors just seem to be beaurocrats these days

"it exists in our society as an industry like any other, with all the usual attached corruption and exploitation."

this is what I was thinking. the medicine you refer to exists in a certain economic and hierarchy framework that it would not be able to stand independently of. the fact that I have so many issues with that framework, I don't feel the benefits to be outweighed by the negative consequences of that framework, not to mention the negative consequences of the medical practice.

4 Answers

+5 votes

For me, perhaps the largest issue is that technological medicine is one, if not the largest, of polluters contributing to ecocide on the planet. It's a vast uncontrolled experiment, really, and hardly anyone desires to talk about it, most definitely not the corporate media. However, even 'alternative' media is mostly silent given the anthropocentrism of most leftist politics. For instance, the focus on fracking, while obviously a huge problem, doesn't carry around with it the weight of 'rights,' (such as health care in general, but also, say, contraception) which the pollutants of techno-medicine do.

There is some talk of the many pharmaceuticals which cannot be scrubbed out of or broken down in waste water, examples being antibiotics, psych-meds, birth-control, statins, bronchodilators, muscle relaxants, etc, but also personal care products, such as shampoos, deodorants, perfumes and sunscreens. All are going into our ecosystems and manufactured by the same industrial culprits. There's another, less discussed, component to this as most people only think in human terms  Rarely are the pharmaceuticals used in veterinary medicine mentioned. Not only the technology and medicines for pets, but also, for instance, those used in cattle on 'open range' and ending up directly on the ground and into the soil and streams.

(One aspect of these 'wild' pharmaceuticals which pertains to my region, and thus me particularly, is the use of this waste water in the snow-making process of 91% of ski-resorts in the western US...all of it eventually flowing downhill from the bro-infested snowboarding courses directly into streams and rivers. But hey, they voted for Obama and perhaps listen to NPR or--gasp!-- Democracy Now! on occasion.)

Perhaps worse still, are the radioactive wastes produced by and for the medical industry. In fact, I read recently that the primary uses of radioactive materials indeed are medical. In addition to mining of these materials, itself producing a great deal of waste, we have everything from the manufacture of new and disposal of old x-ray machines (many of the latter end up in 'third world' countries), to radio-pharmaceuticals (ex. tracers), to irradiated medical disposables and lab supplies...all  made possible by way of nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. It's all really big and with the 'outta sight, outta mind' mentality fostered by schools, politics and media, it remains the largely invisible behemoth in front of us all.

While this anarchist understands that modern technological medicine has aided and saved some individual lives, there are several questions which need to be addressed, such as: how many of these ailments have been due to the very pollutants the medical industry (not too mention industrial society at large) has produced? Another question may pertain to how anarchists feel and think about having such a vast, uncontrolled experiment foisted upon them without their input and as the conditions within which they must live their very lives!

Edited to add:

Then one needs to see how techno-medicine enmeshes, grafts, itself to and within other institutions, such as work, in order to keep shit moving along, reinforcing, and normalizing what our ancestors (Luddites, etc) knew to be enslavement and denigration through another means.

by (7.5k points)
edited by
f@, i see where you're coming from, i think, and perhaps i wasn't quite clear enough. the part of my answer you're responding to references the anthropocentrism of 'alternative,' that is left-leaning, media.  rights-based arguments for and against fracking are anthropocentric; the right to make money or have clean air/water springs from the same source in terms of their anthropocentrism.

where i am coming from is that fracking isn't quite as enveloped in so many other hot-button political issues (contraception, mental health, obesity, etc) as is the reality of med-pollution within 'public' discourse and opinion. in fact, fracking more than likely may be enveloped within, or at least overlaps, med-pollution given the extensive use of plastics in techno-medicine, for example.

btw, texas has just rendered all local opposition to fracking moot by way of state mandate overriding all local, community-based bans on the practice. i expect this will become the trend, particularly in the western US as oil becomes increasingly difficult to obtain.

thanks for clarifying about anthropocentrism, af. that got lost on me. 

Regarding the last bit, Monkey wrench?
anarcho-goth, what does this comment mean?
My apologies, it was a reference to the practice of monkeywrenching, and the book, the Monkey wrench gang. The act of sabotaging industrial machinery and equipment and general direct action against industrial infrastructure in order to prevent environmental destruction.
+3 votes
Modern medicine has become a physical science separated from healing.  Doctors dis-integrate their patients and attempt to treat medical problems in an atomic way. In the long run this just can't work. Most medical problems require a type of healing the re-integrates us. Exactly the opposite of what modern medicine does. Psychiatry exists as some kind of stop-gap, but that doesn't nearly solve the problem and ultimately probably just creates more issues.

Now, there's lots of other ways to get healed. Hanging out and bullshitting with friends, making love, introspection, time in nature...these things all bring healing. Still I can't help but think there's a really significant type of healing we've almost completely lost when we allowed our healers to become scientists.

I don't know if there's anything particularly anarchist about this view, but you asked for it. One connection is that the move in our society allowing medicine to go this way has interesting parallels with our acceptance of court systems to resolve problems, police to enforce rules, and a political class to represent our interests. And it's probably just as dangerous.
by (560 points)
edited by
An excellent answer.

The difference between industrial 'medicine' and actual healing, is telling.

The Parallels you list are entirely valid.  (I fear we may be rubbing off on you ;)
–1 vote
It depends on what you mean by modern, scientific medicine.

The Scientific Method is a crowning achievement of humanity. When science is practiced correctly, it allows us to objectively view the universe and find ourselves closer to the truth.

Modern medicine has saved millions of lives and in an anarchist society, scientists and doctors would be able to flourish without the constraints of capitalism, statism and religion, all of which can, and do, try to remove objectivity from the equation.

We can see this in medicine today, with the influence of large pharmaceutical companies, who perform biased trials and try to influence doctors, for instance. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are another worrying development, and yet certain organised religions try desperately to undermine the scientific consensus on the theory of evolution, which explains why bacteria become resistant to antibiotics in the first place.

As an animal liberationist and "veganarchist", I also see medicine being negatively influenced by speciesism. Performing torturous experiments on nonhuman animals is not only immoral, but unscientific, as nonhuman animals have different physiologies to humans, so drugs react in different ways with them. Moreover, given that the pharmaceutical industry creates 'me-too' drugs which do nothing to further medicine, many of these already purposeless experiments are even more purposeless.

And, in other scientific disciplines, for example climate science, we see fossil fuel companies trying desperately to undermine the science, for obvious reasons.

Conclusion: modern medicine is good, but imperfect. Many of its imperfections are due to the system we live in today.
by (140 points)

The Scientific Method is a crowning achievement of humanity. When science is practiced correctly, it allows us to objectively view the universe and find ourselves closer to the truth.

Modern medicine has saved millions of lives and in an anarchist society, scientists and doctors would be able to flourish without the constraints of capitalism, statism and religion, all of which can, and do, try to remove objectivity from the equation.

welcome to @101, but i gotta just say yuck to this for so many feelings, thoughts,...reasons. 

Laugh out loud or shake my head?
@fati::  i can understand why the statements given would result in intellectual/emotional recoilment -- but a newbie in this environment may not understand the context leading to this response.

As one of our more articulate contributors, could you please expand?

(Perhaps not everyone who comes here thinks civilisation should be burned to a cinder and buried beneath our swales - people are funny that way.)
cb: i might point them to my own answer which directly challenges some of the assumptions made here, but, perhaps i was simply fishing for a question or four as to why i, or anyone, may feel and think differently.

edited to add: one blatant contradiction about viddy9's answer is that crying about 'speciesism' does nothing to scrub pharma-drugs, radioactive materials, etc from the waters and soil which all life depends, human and non-human alike. modern techno-medicine is most definitely 'speciesist' not only in terms of animal-testing, but as a whole institution.

I'll bite.

First, the idea that there could be a "crowning achievement" assumes the ideal of an absolute Good (a legacy of Greek Idealism). Included in that is the presumption that other forms of trial and error are superstitious, anecdotal, common sense/folkloric, and non-replicable. This notion of achievement is part and parcel of a Eurosupremacist history of colonialism and imperialism (in this case, cultural rather than geographical); who says The Scientific Method is such an achievement? The people who benefit materially from its hegemony (apologies for how Marxist that might sound).

The Scientific Method is not the achievement of "humanity" -- unless you believe that European men are the crowning achievement of humanity. The Scientific Method cannot be separated from the political and cultural context in which it was formulated, developed, and deployed. It is a cultural artifact like any other.

The notion of "humanity" as a unified beast is absurd. How do people in Haiti, Myanmar, or Nepal benefit from this crowing achievement? Invoking "humanity" is almost always a mask meaning "my friends and me." Humanism is creepy (exemplified by the phrase "saved millions of lives," as if extending life-spans is the guarantee of achievement...).

The idea that Science is a neutral pursuit of objective truth about the universe should by now be a thoroughly discredited conceit of a hierarchical Eurocentric project known as The Enlightenment (quantum physics and the evidence that the simple act of observation alters content should be enough to show that). Not that there aren't some good things that have come out of this project, but the overriding concern of its most vigorous practitioners has been the extension of what German philosophers call "Herrschaft" (domination). The Scientific Method is inextricably intertwined with this project.

Invoking morality among anarchists (well, maybe just among some of us kooky post-left anarchists) will never be convincing of anything other than the invoker's adherence to objectivity and universalism. Moralsm is also inextricably intertwined with the Enlightenment project of domination. Morals are how you want other people to behave.

You cannot blame "the system" for the faults of a "good, but imperfect" socio-political practice. Even if its practitioners try really, really hard to be objective, helpful, humanist, and moral, the institutional context mitigates against any universal benefit to "humanity." In a system designed to be hierarchical and capitalist, it should come as no surprise that results of Science benefit hierarchs and capitalists. 

tl;dr version: knowledge is inseparable from the uses to which it is put. 

Thank you for the respectful replies, everyone. I thought I'd add a different viewpoint to the mix.

As I understand it, lawrence, you're saying that only certain people benefit from science. I strongly disagree on this point: science has given us medicine and technology which does benefit everyone around the world.

Whilst I agree that the media and popular culture generally credit Europeans with the development of science, this, again, is untrue, as demonstrated just off the top of my head by the contributions made by the Islamic world and China centuries before "the Enlightenment".

Some promoters of science, I have to say, do talk about "Enlightenment values" in a reverential way, despite the atrocities which occurred during the period, but I am simply talking about science itself, and I'd say that the knowledge science has given us does not necessarily have to result in harm.

Practicing science and mathematics does not have to be hierarchical and capitalist; I see no justification for this viewpoint.

"Medicine and technology" are vague categories. But in the context of what you're offering, it means -- implicitly -- Euro-American medicine (the pharmaceutical-industrial complex, reliant on a modality of the body as a machine with discrete components that should be treated [or removed] discretely), a system that is as colonialist as the capitalism it relies on for hegemony. And "technology" is even more vague; there is nothing in your answer or your comment that shows any understanding of how critical anarchist analysts have engaged with this topic. Here's a little sample:

The contributions of Islamic and Chinese to modern colonialist medicine are few and far between. Look at how the AMA and its gatekeepers have dealt with midwifery and acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine: dismissal ("anecdotal" and "superstitious," as I said above) and, above all, extreme restriction on practitioners up to, and including, criminalization. 

"Practicing science and mathematics does not have to be hierarchical and capitalist" but it has been since the beginnings of both. Specialized knowledge is the most frequent origin of hierarchical relations, and if you couple that specialization with a profit motive, you get capitalism. You ignore history at your own peril. 

In addition to the philosophical (in many ways cosmological) problems inherent in just about every project that has emerged from the Enlightenment (the Herrschaft imperative, if you will), the fact is that Scientists are humans, and therefore prone to all the same failings that humans in class-based cultures exhibit: greed, a yearning for prestige, an easy acceptance of short-cuts and falsification. The history of Science is littered with chicanery, hoaxing, grant grabbing, racism, sexism (see the recent comments by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt), and the creation and deployment of more efficient armaments. 

Saying "it doesn't have to be that way" is not good enough. It has been that way, and you can't separate out the allegedly good parts from the overwhelming destruction carried out in the name of Science. Unless you're a surgeon ("when in doubt, cut it out"). The widespread availability of Teflon cannot be separated from the program to increase the range and payloads of ICBMs. 

Really good response, lawrence.

Look at how the AMA and its gatekeepers have dealt with midwifery and acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine: dismissal ("anecdotal" and "superstitious," as I said above) and, above all, extreme restriction on practitioners up to, and including, criminalization.


The AMA is so thoroughly capitalist that it began as a business association the classist, racist history of which has become thoroughly whitewashed most people today really believe it serves to protect them.

From its outset those involved were hugely worried about their declining profits as well as their high social ranking (they actually openly stated this in minutes of their meetings) due to the 'competition' of fraternal lodges and other mutual aid societies at the turn of the last century. These upper-crusters were politically connected and only became more so as the AMA grew into a gov't bureaucracy which quickly closed many (maybe half) of all the med schools in the country...many of those those run by black fraternities, or connected to them, as well as women.

This history is pretty well documented in 'From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State' and though written by a 'anarcho-'capitalist type, I still think it's useful and interesting enough to read if the topic grabs you.

Anyway, Beito shows very well how the AMA became what it is at the expense of the the working, the poor, the non-white and women, (in various combos) and if one follows the trajectory it is easy enough to see how 'Obamacare' is simply a step in the same ol' shit logic. But have fun trying to tell this to your 'progressive' friends. :-)

@lawrence: well said, esp your first comment. 

@viddy9:  "science has given us medicine and technology which does benefit everyone around the world."

that comment alone speaks volumes about where you come from, ideologically. those are the words of a true believer, one with the same rigid, blind faith as any religious zealot.  no offense intended.

a good look around the world will demonstrate quite clearly just how much "everyone" has "benefited".  it's like folks that say "computers have made our lives so much better". as someone that made my living using computers for many years, i can testify that not a single person i have *ever* asked thinks peoples lives are better as a result of computers (once they really think about it). the cliche typically pointed to is the "paperless office" that was a promised result of widespread computerization. the amount of paper used now has increased by orders of magnitude since "the paperless office".

no, the faith in modern medicine is a shallow one that ignores (or rationalizes) everything "bad" that has come out of it, and exalts everything "good". not to mention its complete avoidance of the historical causes of (largely) all the illness that it - through profit and control - attempts to alleviate. i am hard-pressed to think of a single major problem which modern science attempts to solve, that is not a result of previous efforts of modern science.

and to bring more ancient forms of "medicine" into the discussion of modern medicine is disingenuous and largely incorrect. as lawrence pointed out, those modalities have been largely dismissed - even downright blocked - by the forces of modern medicine, along with the rest of the inseparable conglomeration of modern sciences that - while no doubt providing some benefits to some people - is a primary cause of the state of fuckedness (SoF) of the world.


lawrence, your arguments about science and capitalism/hierarchy being eternally intertwined amount to nothing more than statement of your opinion as is it were fact. That's fine if you're trying to rally people who already agree with you, but if your goal is to convince people who don't agree, you'll need--you know--some evidence.

To take your example of the AMA and midwifery, acupuncture, and Ayurveda, this seems mostly like a great example of how science has been co-opted by capitalism. We can look at those doctors in the AMA and very clearly see that they're not really following the methods of good science, but just protecting their power. This is a first indication that science and capitalism are not the same thing. A second is that practitioners of midwifery, acupuncture, and Ayurveda themselves are practicing science. In not seeing that, you seem to accept the conclusions of the AMA at the same time that you reject them?

As to whether science has benefited humanity (which is indeed a faulty concept, but not because of "Haiti, Myanmar, or Nepal"), I think it's funny that you bunch of relativists seem unable to deal with something simultaneously being both beneficial and harmful. Why is it that I--an avowed moralist--not only totally understand that, but even expect that it must always be the case, while the rest of you guys are trying to reduce the results to either absolute good or absolute bad?

SF: midwifery, acupuncture and Ayurveda aren't 'modern scientific medicine,' the AMA is as well as the governing body of what may be considered 'modern scientific medicine.' (it always made me laugh that 'ama' in Ayurvedic terms equates to toxicity. i love when equivocation works this way!) isn't this the point of OQ, the answers, as well as the threads following them?

I think it's funny that you bunch of relativists seem unable to deal with something simultaneously being both beneficial and harmful.

OMG! 'relativist.' oooh so scary! hopefully i fall under that label cuz last i looked my answer's final paragraph does just what you assert i'm unable to do. the question relevant here pertains to the conditions under what 'benefit' and 'harm' are adjudged, no?


viddy9's answer moved away from the original question about "modern scientific medicine" and started talking about science and the scientific method more generally. lawrence's answer took that even further--he actually referred to Science-with-a-capital-S. Such is the way of conversations.
i think referring to a non-specific "bunch of relativists" moved it even further away.
the question remains: if my cancerous mutating testicles (this is hypothetical in my case) are due to the pharmaceuticals in the water, is adding more pharmaceuticals to the water for a 'cure' to be considered 'benefit' or 'harm' in the vague, abstract terms you use them?

also, lawrence, may have capitalized the 'S' in Science, but that was already done by viddy9 as 'The Scientific Method' (even when many philosophers of science try to use 'scientific methods' as more reflective of that realm.)
Sorry, but do you deny that you are a relativist? I thought that had been established. I don't think it's a bad thing any more than I think moralist is a bad thing. They're both descriptive of views about right and wrong.

You guys are pretty touchy for a bunch of relativists.

And no, AmorFati, I don't think that is the question at all. We can agree that your cancer caused by pharma pollution is a harm without denying that medicine which saves the life of a mother of young children is a benefit.

We can also say both of those things without denying that there is also some harm to saving the life of that mother since she may continue having children and so contribute to greater suffering as a result of overpopulation. Just like we can also say that your testicular cancer is a benefit since it means you'll have to get castrated and so NOT be able to contribute to overpopulation.

This could continue ad infinitum and its what simultaneous benefit and harm means.
why the "you guys" and "bunch of...."? i only speak (or write) for myself.
ba@, i'm unsure who SF is referring to.
SF, you relativist, you.;-) you just showed us how 'benefit' and 'harm' are adjudged precisely by way of the circumstances, perspectives, of those adjudging and the relations within which those judgements are made! thanks!

there is no 'harm' or 'benefit' outside of circumstance, condition, relationships, qualities, etc., no more than there is 'good' and 'evil' or a non-conditional 'The Scientific Method' that 'humanity' groped for through endless dark ages until 'we' got hold of it as some 'crowning achievement.'

if the proof is in the pudding, the wastes of civilization, the ecocide, are marks against it in my estimation even if today we live slightly longer far more boring lives than our pre-civilized ancestors. i, for one, think this will be a flash in the pan though, compared to much longer period derided as 'pre-history.'
on a personal note, i haven't gone to a doctor in about 30 years, despite twice feeling i had arrived at death's door.

and three different family members of mine have died in the past few months despite taking multiple medications and visiting doctors and hospitals on a regular basis.

i don't know what that means about my "perspective on modern scientific medicine"...but that shit happened.
Okay, AmorFati, I think that actually answers my question. You seem to be saying that the benefit is not real because there is harm when viewed from another perspective. (Although I'll point out that this undercuts all the arguments that have been mad so far about the harms of science and medicine, since there are also benefits when viewed from another perspective.)

I don't think the harm is unreal or that the benefit is unreal or that they cancel each other out or anything like that. The harm is real (the fact that it only becomes apparent in our linear language when we describe it in a certain context doesn't mean that it's not always there and always real). The benefit is also real. These things co-exist.
i didn't read AF's comment that way at all (real vs. not real), SF.  i find it interesting how differently we interpreted it.

i liked both of your answers to this question, btw.
i still think you're swinging and missing, SF. i can only see 'modern scientific medicine' as 'harmful' overall. why? because the very conditions, the web of all life, not just this life my own, not just human life, are threatened irrevocably. i can only speak from here, this place, as 'my' self. i am intimately connected to and participating in relationships of which i'm barely aware, if at all most of the time, which cannot be apprehended in terms of 'modern science,'  the latter of which is most definitely based in the quantification, fragmentation, alienation, exploitation, reification, domination, etc., upon which all industrialized civilization is based.

this 'harm' is not an unattached, abstract notion distanced 'out there' as a universal truth, idea, 'good.' it's as close to me as the creek i cannot kneel to drink from like those before me, only a few generations ago, prior to US conquest. i start from the pudding i can taste, smell, hear, not a quest for some 'proof-in' the pudding. the meaning of 'harm' in this sense spirals out as i augment 'my' self with every quality and relationship of which i'm able.

in sum, modern scientific medicine. to say that it can be another way is to deny its very raison d'etre which is to continue the anthropocentric, Eurocentric, presuppositions upon which it is based and through which it perpetuates itself. one simply cannot extract 'modern scientific medicine' from the very worldview through which it is manifest and the industries and institutions which make it possible, no more so than an ancap can extricate 'the market' from the state, colonialism, religion, genocide, slavery. actually, the extricated ancap 'market' and your 'modern scientific medicine' pretty much have the same bases.

i don't mean this as an insult. it's how i see it.

edit for extra thoughts.
+1 vote
Medicine as a system or enterprise in the West is a state sponsored religion. Surprisingly, even anarchists accept medicine as is without questioning it's purpose to maintain social control and current state of things, methods of disabling autonomous action and thought, and forcing mass surrender to the power of the therapeutic state. There is no oversight over how much suffering and debility is caused directly or indirectly by medicine in the quest of doing good.
by (220 points)
You're not wrong about this, but you're also giving a pretty one-sided, definitive position on a pretty huge and complicated one and I'm gonna have to ask you to cash it out more.