Biological usage of the word “parasite” is a metaphor adopted from ancient Greece. Officials in
charge of collecting grain for communal festivals were joined in their rounds by their aides. Brought
along to the meals by these functionaries at public expense, the aides were known as parasites, a nonpejorative
term for “meal companion,” from the roots para (beside) and sitos (meal).
By Roman times the word came to take on the meaning of a superfluous freeloader. The parasite
fell in status from a person helping perform a public function to become an uninvited guest who
crashed a private dinner, a stock character in comedies worming his way in by pretense and flattery.
Medieval preachers and reformers characterized usurers as parasites and leeches. Ever since, many
economic writers have singled out bankers as parasites, especially international bankers. Passing over
into biology, the word “parasite” was applied to organisms such as tapeworms and leeches that feed
off larger hosts.
To be sure, leeches have long been recognized as performing a useful medical function: George
Washington (and also Josef Stalin) were treated with leeches on their deathbeds, not only because
bleeding the host was thought to be a cure (much as today’s monetarists view financial austerity), but
also because leeches inject an anti-coagulant enzyme that helps prevent inflammation and thus steers
the body to recovery.
The idea of parasitism as a positive symbiosis is epitomized by the term “host economy,” one that
welcomes foreign investment. Governments invite bankers and investors to buy or finance
infrastructure, natural resources and industry. Local elites and public officials in these economies
typically are sent to the imperial or financial core for their education and ideological indoctrination
to accept this dependency system as mutually beneficial and natural. The home country’s educational
cum ideological apparatus is molded to reflect this creditor/debtor relationship as one of mutual gain.
Smart vs. self-destructive parasitism in nature and in economies
In nature, parasites rarely survive merely by taking. Survival of the fittest cannot mean their
survival alone. Parasites require hosts, and a mutually beneficial symbiosis often results. Some
parasites help their host survive by finding more food, others protect it from disease, knowing that
they will end up as the beneficiaries of its growth.
Read more Killing the Host