Mark Neocleous (2022) The Politics of Immunity:
Security and the Policing of Bodies. London and New
York: Verso Books, 358 pp.
Biopolitics, Security, Systems Theory
Critiquing Immunity, Critiquing Security
Paul Gorby
Krisis 42 (1): 140-143.
Review of
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 License International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2022 The author(s).
Critiquing Immunity, Critiquing Security
Paul Gorby
Mark Neocleous’ The Politics of Immunity: Security and the Policing of Bodies is a book
about the body and the body politic, about how the discourses, the metaphors, and the
ctions of one tend to inuence the other, and how our political obsession with immu-
nity gives rise to autoimmune disorders at the societal level. If, as immunologist Frank
Macfarlane Burnet claimed, immunology is more a question of philosophy than biology,
then Neocleous demonstrates that it is very much a question of political philosophy.
To call this work interdisciplinary is a noticeable understatement, since it covers,
alongside political and philosophical debates, literature in biology, immunology, psycho-
analysis, thermodynamics, and international law. The broad spectrum of research that
Neocleous draws upon for his arguments should put to bed any concerns that this book
is a ‘cash-in’ on the COVID-19 pandemic. Far from being simply another attempt to
rapidly produce something which can appeal to a broad audience interested in the pol-
itics of the pandemic, this book is clearly the outcome of a long-term research agenda.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is mentioned only occasionally in The Politics
of Immunity, its critique of the dual notions of immunity and security, which Neocleous
identies as being at the heart of modern politics, is deeply relevant for how we ought
to think about pandemic and post-pandemic politics. As this book demonstrates time
and again, the scientic search for immunity has signicant political consequences, and
the politics of security inuences the science of immunity. “Descriptions of viruses
now read like they have been penned by security intellectuals while descriptions of
terrorism read like they have been penned by virologists. (17). It is no coincidence,
Neocleous writes, that the UK organisation for collecting and analysing COVID infec-
tion data – the Joint Biosecurity Centre – is modelled on the Joint Terrorism Analysis
Centre, sharing senior sta and adapting the same “levels of threat” model used to assess
terrorism. Given the contemporary relevance of the politics of immunity and security,
this book will appeal to a broad audience as well as academics working on the issues
and themes Neocleous delves into.
The rst chapter confronts various scientic theories of the cell, which turn
out to have deeply political implications. The chapter begins with a discussion of the
militarised language of much biological and immunological research, which treats the
body and its immunity as a site of never-ending war. While there has been signicant
pushback against this discourse of cellular immunity as warfare, Neocleous points out
that “even those seeking to imagine immunity without recourse to the trope of mili-
tarized violence fall back on other tropes of violent powers of elimination” (52). Many
biological thinkers critical of the discourse of war turn instead to a discourse of polic-
ing, reective of a “liberal position which is happy to critique war and its tropes but
less comfortable with a critique of security (42). The imagery of police–cells engaging in
“immunological surveillance” (46) in the search for “illegal aliens” (48) within the body
remains prominent within scientic discourse and popular understandings of the body.
This conception of cellular war and cellular policing is important because it
naturalises the prevailing ideas of war power and police power, making them seem
inherent to human beings as biological entities. For much early work on immunology,
the cell was the elementary part of the body, which meant it was used to explain human
biology and in turn the human as such. The common understanding of the cell as
an individual and independent entity within the “society” of the body both reected
and helped to cement “bourgeois ideals of self-contained and self-regulating units”
(66) within political society. The cell was also a security concept, as we can see from
its non–biological meaning: an enclosed room within a prison. “The cell was being
consolidated as a political site of enclosure and connement, training and discipline, at
the very moment of its discovery and rise in the realm of physiology” (74).
The second chapter follows on from this by discussing the idea of an immune
Self, an idea which once again blurs the line between scientic and political theory. The
idea of a clear and detectable distinction between Self and non-Self is a key assump-
tion in immunology, one which Neocleous criticises as “imprecise, nebulous, and […]
atheoretical” (87). Despite signicant criticisms of the idea from within immunological
research, it “retains its place at the heart of the immunological imagination” (92) at least
in part because it conrms our political and philosophical prejudices, reinforcing “a
fantasy of agency and will” (ibid.). Moving from early modern philosophers up to the
Cold War, Neocleous provides a fascinating and engaging genealogy of the interaction
between immunological and securitised discourses of the Self.
Chapter two also considers the political and philosophical implications of auto-
immune disorders within the immunity-security paradigm. “Because immunity was
imagined as security, the idea that the system could actually harm the very thing it was
expected to secure was essentially unimaginable” (112). The political assumptions of
immunology, as well as the immunological/security assumptions of politics, signicantly
hindered scientic research into autoimmune disease, while also stunting the philosoph-
ical and political interpretations of immunity, as seen in the writings of Esposito and
Derrida. Beyond the political and philosophical discussions of autoimmune disorder,
Neocleous captures the signicant emotional toll of these illnesses, demonstrating the
sense of dread that comes when your immune system turns against you. “In a literal
sense, you do not know who you are (121).
This discussion is followed by three chapters on the politics of systems from
three dierent perspectives: the emergence of systems theory, notions of order and
entropy within bodies (both human bodies and the body politic), and nervous systems
and nervous states. Each of these is, in turn, linked to immunity and securitised politics.
The idea of an immune “system” feels so natural to us today that to say that it was
“invented” (145) around 1967 feels disconcerting. Nevertheless, there are signicant
political implications behind the idea of a “system”, a concept which now “seems to
ow naturally and seems able to attach itself to everything” (148).
Systems theory has its roots in research on biological organisms in the 1920s
and 1930s, subsequently being picked up by the RAND corporation in the 1940s with
the express purpose of developing a science of war. “The extent to which modern state-
craft and the political administration of capitalist modernity operates through modes of
quantication, information, codication and standardization can be seen operating here,
in the origin of systems theory” (152). Neocleous moves through the numerous areas
of study that systems theory came to inuence, including urban planning, economics,
political science, and psychology, among others. He notes its importance for thinkers
such as Friedrich Hayek and, most notably, Niklas Luhmann. Ultimately, he writes,
the lesson of systems theory “is that we cannot and should not seek to control things.
Control is an attribute of the System” (189).
Chapter four considers the central ction of systems theory: self–regulation.
Neocleous considers Enlightenment liberalism and bourgeois political economy
through the lens of “systems” thinking and the idea of self-regulation. These modes of
thought, he argues, “encourage us to imagine society as constituted through a system
of natural liberty operating as a vast, orderly, and living system in which economic
behaviour and vital need go hand in hand” (226). Chaos, from this perspective, entails
the dissolution of ordered structure. This leads to a uniquely accessible discussion of the
political and philosophical implications of entropy and thermodynamics. “The laws of
thermodynamics and the concept of entropy point to the disorder in any system and
the fact that all systems […] come to an end” (236). Thus, entropy has been a point of
fear for many political thinkers, who have sought the political equivalent of Maxwell’s
Demon, an entity capable of violating the law of entropy and thus “able to govern the
system (248).
The idea of a political and philosophical fear of entropy and chaos leads us
naturally into a discussion of nerves, nervousness, and the nervous system as it relates to
immunity and its politics. Once again, systems theory serves as the centre of Neocleous’
critique, specically its anti-Freudian attempt to reduce the idea of nerves to a singular
meaning. For systems theory, nerves are simply means of processing and communicating
information; the idea of nervousness in the common sense is completely absent. Systems
theory ignores the emotional, subjective, and psychological connotations of nerves such
that it makes no sense to say that a system feels nervous.
Neocleous provides a strong counterargument to systems theory here, addressing
the social and political implications of nervousness, nervous breakdowns, and burnout.
He provides an invaluable political reading of the memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber,
restoring the work’s original intention as a critique of medical incarceration. The
chapter wraps up with a discussion of the idea of a state having a nervous breakdown.
Moving beyond the journalistic trope – which only ever casts the Western state on the
verge of breakdown, but never quite there yet – Neocleous argues that in the excessively
nervous state the “security system responds […] by searching for enemies, by nding
enemies and by fabricating new enemies” (300). Through this process, he argues, the
state, whether Fascist or liberal democratic, can turn self–defence into self–destruction,
falling victim to a societal autoimmune disorder.
Finally, the sixth chapter considers immunity as a legal ction propping up
sovereign power, with a particular eye towards the notion of non-combatant immunity
in warfare. Here Neocleous engages in a fascinating reconstruction of the genealogy
of immunity’s political meaning, moving from its origins in Roman law as a term of
privilege, through its seldom discussed medieval developments as implying defence and
protection, and on to the emergence of the idea of non-combatant immunity in the
eighteenth century. Taking up literature in international law and norms surrounding war,
Neocleous demonstrates that the ideal of non-combatant immunity is in fact a ction,
developed at a period in which “no one in their right mind could ever believe that
states would adhere to it” (327). Indeed, rather than protecting civilians, the conclusion
we are drawn to is that the securitised notion of immunity is primarily concerned with
protecting the state’s right to exercise violence.
Overall, this book is a remarkable piece of scholarship which contributes to
a broad spectrum of literature within and beyond contemporary political thought.
However, a noticeable absence from its wide-ranging discussions are the subjects of
race and colonialism. While these topics do come up on occasion – as when quarantine
is described as having been “a means of managing indigenous peoples” (61) or when
colonial wars’ status as police operations is deconstructed – they are seldom dwelt upon
for long. The points that are raised in relation to race and colonialism are fascinating and
would improve the book were they more thoroughly developed, so the brevity with
which they are discussed is very disappointing.
Despite this limitation, however, The Politics of Immunity will still be of interest
to scholars concerned with colonial and neo-colonial violence due to the signicant
conceptual apparatus it employs. Philosophers and political theorists working in a
wide range of research areas will no doubt nd signicant value in this work, as will
more empirically oriented scholars working on political violence and security studies.
Ultimately, perhaps the greatest value of this work is that it becomes impossible to
unreexively use certain words and terms which have become completely standard in
academic vocabulary. Cell, Self, system, nerve, order, security, and, of course, immunity;
the politics underlying these words become clear to the reader such that one cannot
read or write them without taking into account the assumptions and implications
which Neocleous so astutely highlights in this outstanding work.
Paul Gorby is a PhD candidate in the School of
International Relations at the University of St.
Andrews. His thesis develops a critical theory of
the dual concepts of police power and vagrancy and
applies it to key topics in contemporary political
thought, including governmentality, human rights,
migration, and constituent power. His work draws
on Continental political philosophy, Marxist theory,
and the Black radical tradition.