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Review: The Red Market by Scott Carney

It sounds like the stuff of nightmarish urban legends: in rural India, men desperate for money or a meal are promised both, then held captive in “blood farms” where their blood is siphoned constantly and sold at a hefty profit to blood banks. In various developing nations, young children are taken from their parents by orphanages connected to largely unregulated “adoption agencies” and, for a price, are placed with Western couples looking to adopt transnationally—all while the children’s terrified biological parents grow increasingly desperate.

One refugee camp for South Indian survivors of the 2004 tsunami is known in local parlance as “Kidneyvakkam” due to the large number of people residing there who have sold a kidney for money on which to survive. These stories may sound too outlandish to be true, but they are all indicative of the rise of a horrific, often insidious black market that applies the logic of global capital to bodies, body parts, and bodily fluids.

Wired editor Scott Carney’s first book, The Red Market, updates the reach of the black market to the 21st century. Carney powerfully argues that this “red market” traffics in the commodification of bodies, their parts, and their fluids in a world that has increasingly relied on black market commodities to create—and maintain–flows of capital to the already-wealthy, often at the direct expense of some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people across the globe.

Certain cultural mores may treat the body as something distinctively not for sale, but economic hardship, globalization and the pressures that result from living in a world where the gulf between the haves and have-nots keeps growing exponentially have forced some of the globe’s least financially secure people—particularly those who find themselves on the latter side of the Global North/Global South divide–to sell certain aspects of their bodies in order to survive. As Carney writes in his introduction, “Though we like to think that our bodies are sacred and above the hardscrabble logic of the market, the sale of human parts is booming.” In this newly globalized red market, many people living on the edge of poverty attempt to eke out an existence by selling their organs and fluids; tragically, some end up paying with their lives.

Given the multiple economic, racial, gendered and power-related inequalities that exist between people in the Global North and the Global South, it is not particularly surprising that many of those who provide the red market’s raw material—often at great expense to their health–are from mostly non-Western countries, and that Westerners, even if many of them do not know it, benefit from such a “cheap” supply of raw material. This is most clearly reflected in the chapters on transnational adoption and “wombs for rent” in India, but the not-so-hidden benefits of the buying and selling of body parts have a long history in global North/South relations—one early chapter on the history of articulated skeletons and the still-prevalent use of human bones that are cleaned, processed and then sold to mostly Western medical schools brings this to light in graphic, often frightening detail.

It is an immense credit to Carney’s journalistic skill that he manages to cover such a wide breadth of topics throughout The Red Market; although some chapters have been previously published, the overall variety of topics covered is both compelling and revealing of implications for the complex and systemic power relations between those in Western countries and those in non-Western countries. The Red Market shows that this underground industry of the trade in body parts is, quite literally, a global one. From “bone factories” and “blood farms” in India, to a California biotech startup that experiments with 3-D printing of genetic material using a stem cell-based “ink,” to an enterprising embryologist on the island of Cyprus—the wide reach of this globalized body parts market is rendered in stunning and disturbing detail.

However, one of the book’s most compelling chapters—on the shockingly unregulated and often dangerous transnational adoption industry—is also one of its shortest. While it is a definite plus that Carney manages to bring up questions of power, economic privilege and the implications of the international adoption market’s courting of middle-class American couples as adoptive parents, some readers may find that this short chapter does not go far enough in examining the disparities that allow this unregulated industry to thrive. Because much of Carney’s text focuses on specific body parts—blood, hair, and stem cells, to name just a few–being bought and sold across the global marketplace, at some points the chapter on transnational adoption seems slightly out-of-place, as its focus is on children from developing nations being “placed” with Western families after being taken from their biological parents, and the focus is not quite on body parts in this chapter as it is on actual human beings.

Carney is rightfully concerned about body parts and human material being further grist for the mill of globalization and capitalism, and this chapter, and the book as a whole, would have benefitted from further exploration of what happens when children’s lives are irrevocably changed by an industry that sees nothing wrong with placing them with Western adoptive parents under the guise of “rescuing” these children from their still-developing countries of origin. Further examination of such implications would have been interesting within the context of Carney’s writing on “rent-a-womb” clinics in certain regions of India later in the book, especially since he takes on larger questions surrounding class, gender and globalization so skillfully in that chapter, entitled “Cash On Delivery.” It is in this chapter—originally published as an article in Mother Jones— that Carney’s reportage of and attention to matters of gender, race, economic privilege and the developed/developing nation tensions comes through.

The Red Market is an engrossing, often disturbing, and wholly necessary read for those interested in medicine and the body, the world economy, and the darker side of globalization. While it may be impossible to predict how the “red market” will expand its global reach in the coming years—especially with widespread economic unrest in many of the world’s economies—Carney has made an important intervention with this unsettling book.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Red Market by Scott Carney

  1. Great review by Anna Hamilton, an obviously talented writer herself. Thanks for a very informative post from a reader who READ the work and understands it and its gruesome implications.

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