Science and technology

Submitted by AWL on 28 February, 2007 - 7:13

By Bruce Robinson
BSE, the disposal of the Brent Spar oil rig, biotechnology and genetically modified foods, car use and pollution — all major issues of environmental controversy require some assessment of scientific evidence.
Technology is pervasive in the workplace and home, medicine and agriculture — do we embrace it, reject it or seek to change it? How do we decide what is benign, useful and necessary and what destructive, dangerous or unnecessary? In deciding, we must — implicitly or explicitly — make a deeper assessment of the roles and functions of science and technology in society and, more specifically, in capitalism today. This also has implications for the type of science and technology we would like to see in a socialist society.
Already many scientists — and some Marxists — will object to what I say. Isn’t there just one kind of science — an objective form of knowledge and inquiry that tells us about the world and which will be the same under any form of society? Isn’t science the ultimate barrier to religious superstition and other forms of irrationality? Haven’t science and technology brought us material and social progress and more control over nature?
Yes, but most scientists today work under the control of large corporations or the government, who control the direction of scientific development and are reckless over its consequences; science and technology are harnessed to profiteering and war; only 45% of UK citizens in a recent poll thought that scientists as a profession were trustworthy; science and technology appear as juggernauts over which we have no control; new technology doesn't make our work more pleasant and less stressful; isn’t science used for ideological purposes to convince us that things cannot be different from the existing order which conforms to human nature?
A Marxist analysis of science and technology has to start from a “Yes, but” and see science and technology neither as activities privileged to stand outside of society and history nor as forms of practice so tainted as to be unable to yield valid knowledge or useful products. The “Yes, but” indicates that there is a massive contradiction at the root of the development of science and technology in capitalism. While capitalism has advanced our mental and material tools for understanding and intervening in the world beyond any previous form of society, it does so while subordinating them to the needs of capital — profit, competitive gain and monopoly, control of the workplace — as well as the military and ideological needs of the state.
Capital and science
Since the end of the 19th century, the goals and direction of science and technology1 have become increasingly defined by the needs of capital. Scientific work is increasingly dominated by the production of commodities which can be bought and sold (including scientific knowledge itself) or of military hardware. Techno-science becomes increasingly organised like other forms of industrial production. It is capital-intensive in that the infrastructure needed for most science — ranging from simple laboratory environments to particle accelerators — makes finance central to the ability to practice science. Thus today most scientific and technical workers work in large groups on large projects, whether in universities or private research. Through a hierarchical division of labour, lower-ranking workers perform detailed tasks and have little control of or even in-depth knowledge of the project as a whole. As knowledge grows, it becomes increasingly specialised and it gets more and more difficult to have a complete grasp of even one scientific or technical field.
Research in universities and public research institutes is controlled through the purse strings, which are held either by government, private industry or private foundations. Certain fields of research, which are seen as unproductive, face a drying up of funding. Others, which are popular with business or the military and may therefore attract funding (often in return for a share in the results), grow. Even the most “pure”, “blue skies” research — research without an immediate (or any) “pay-off” other than improved understanding — is subject to these constraints. The Thatcher government in the ’80s took the view that funding should go to research with an applied aspect rather than to “pure science” and the Research Councils that control much government funding of university research implemented this policy. Researchers are forced to follow the money if they want to remain active in their field, particularly with the squeezing of university budgets and the consequent encouragement to find private funding.
Science as private property
One form the contradiction takes is that between the increasingly collective nature of scientific and technical knowledge and its taking the form of private property. A clear example of these processes is the pharmaceutical industry, which is the most research intensive in the UK, spending around 20% of its total income on research and development. Nobody would dispute that the production of drugs and medicines is socially useful, yet the direction of the research underlying it and the products that emerge iis governed not by human need but by the economic requirements of a small number of increasingly monopolistic firms and their shareholders. Thus research is not necessarily oriented to the most pressing medical requirements, but to gaps in the market. It is hedged around by the whole machinery of intellectual property rights — for example, patents and restricted disclosure of research — which is designed to turn the fruits of research into private property and opportunities for profit and to ensure that this is maintained for as long as possible. Thus the NHS continues to pay monopoly profits to pharmaceutical companies even after the scientific knowledge for which they pay has become commonplace and the research investment is long paid off.
The boundaries between “pure” and “applied” science shift historically, with a shrinking area that is conceived of and organised independently of immediate or potential commercial exploitation. Fifty years ago, the discovery of DNA may have seemed to be “pure science”; today it seems merely the prelude to the creation of opportunities to use knowledge of the genetic code in possibly lucrative medical applications. The private company Celera is today seeking to patent knowledge of the human genome, which it has mapped, in order to control its exploitation.
The Harvard Business Review (March 2000) spells out the commercial prospects in order to sell the importance of the “life-science revolution” to business — and which well summarises the relationship between science and capital: “By shifting the mapping of the human genome from the world of science to the world of commerce, Venter [head of Celera] underscored a fact that should reverberate with everyone involved in business today: advances in genetic engineering will not only have dramatic implications for people and society, they will reshape vast sectors of the world economy. Unlocking life’s code opens up virtually unlimited commercial possibilities.”
The only black spot on the horizon is that “escalating public opposition poses the greatest threat to the successful growth of the life science business. Left unchecked, it will force companies to spend ever greater amounts of time and money calming the public and clearing regulatory hurdles. And it will undermine the demand for and the prices of genetically modified foods and even medicines”. They see this as something that can be “managed” by emphasising the good side of genetic modification in a sympathetic way to the public, while at the same time trying to escape the “regulatory hurdles”.
The large investment necessary can be protected by science creating products (in this case, seeds such as those with the “killer gene” which cannot reproduce themselves) that embody the social relationships of capitalism. “A company can modify a plant’s genetic makeup, breed the new plant, encapsulate the new genetic information in seeds and then distribute huge volumes of those seeds to farms. Control over the seeds, moreover, provides control over the intellectual capital they contain which is essential to recouping the enormous investments required for genetic engineering.” There can be few more graphic illustrations of Marx’s view that “modern industry makes science a productive force and presses it into the service of capital”.
As part of this process, scientific and technological development become less and less the province of the mythical individual genius and more and more that of what Marx called “the collective labourer”, organised groups labouring on a common goal outside their control with a detailed division of labour. Science and technology therefore become more and more explicitly social processes. Yet expertise in these areas remains the preserve of the few who are formally qualified however ignorant they may be of the social, environmental or economic consequences of what they advocate. The scientist or technical expert is assumed to know better than the “person on the street” even if they do not have to live directly with the consequences of pollution or BSE or the degraded work conditions they advocate or create. Often their material interests become so tightly connected to those of business or government that they become their cynical paid advocates regardless of the scientific truth. This quite rightly feeds the distrust that the public has of science.
Science as ideology
The elitism of expertise and the authority that is associated with the possession of scientific or technological knowledge enables it to take on an ideological role. One aspect of this is that scientific and technical change is automatically assumed to have a progressive element as in well-known phrases such as “You canít stop progress”. This conceals possible alternative paths of development to those chosen by capitalist techno-science. There develops, particularly in technological development, an inevitability of the path chosen.
Another more directly political aspect of the ideological role of science can be gleaned from this article (Independent, 6 April 2000):
“Monkey business really does exist, according to scientists who have found that primates engage in a version of capitalism where goods are exchanged for labour.
“A study of capuchin monkeys — small but big-brained South American primates — has discovered that the animals have a barter system where food is paid in return for work. Capuchins, like chimpanzees, hunt in groups but only one monkey makes the capture, which is shared equally with those who took part in the effort…
“‘The second monkey helped to pull the tray even though there was no guaranteed reward of food for him,’ said Frans de Waal, who devised the experiment with Michelle Berger. Once the ‘worker’ had been paid in food, he was much more eager to help out in future. The research, [was] published in the journal Nature”.
The message is clear: humans are primates; primates naturally engage in capitalist behaviour; therefore capitalism is a natural state for humans and part of our nature. The authority of scientists is here used to bolster the belief that ìwage labourî is not a phase in human history, but a product of natural conditions.
Perhaps the most pervasive form of ideological science today is the way in which genetic make-up and the selection of genes through the process of evolution is used to explain whole ranges of human behaviour, from alcoholism to homosexuality to shopping to management. (This last produced a multiply ironic response entitled From Monkeys to Managers; A Step Too Far?) The narrow determinism of these arguments is hotly contested both on scientific grounds and because of the way that current social and economic conditions are read back into our very physical constitution.
Sometimes more serious practical consequences follow. IQ testing, culturally biased and testing only a highly limited and specific sub-set of human capabilities that might be termed intelligent, has been used not to justify racism and poverty, but also as a tool to sort children for selective education.
Stalinism and science
The contradictory nature of science and technology under capitalism can lead us to the one-sided reaction of simply rejecting the advances science and technology have brought under capitalism. There are two forms of this: a “Marxist” form and a Green form. The former is particularly associated with Stalin and Mao who in certain periods saw human will power or a distinctly socialist science as a means to overcome the backwardness of the Soviet Union and China by forced economic development which would not require the use of advanced capitalist methods. The laws of nature were often seen as something that could be bent to the will of ësocialist maní or that had to be made to fit ideological needs. For example, there were Soviet experiments in manipulating the flows of rivers, which have proved a long term ecological disaster. In the ’30s and ’40s Stalin supported the rejection of genetics by Lysenko in favour of the scientifically discredited theory of inherited acquired characteristics with damaging effects on Soviet agriculture. In China, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late ’50s sought to overcome the lack of sophisticated technology by building small backyard steel furnaces ñ a return to the type of technology that capitalism had outgrown 100 years before. These methods were quickly abandoned once it was clear that what — if anything — they produced was totally useless. Generally, the results of this kind of experiment were disastrous in human, environmental and economic terms.
Science cannot therefore be something purely instrumental for socialists ñ something that we can shape to meet our ends. Nature is not totally mutable and does constrain what is possible. Science and technology do embody valid knowledge about nature and production and the constraints on human action set by nature cannot be overcome by will power or ideological assertions.
Back to nature
The green version of this attitude takes a different form, much more widely found today. Many, disgusted with the recklessness of capitalism and Stalinism in destroying the environment, attribute the cause of this to humanity’s attempts to control or “interfere with” nature or to science and technology per se. Alongside this there is also a suspicion of large-scale agriculture and industry. This may take a more instinctive form amongst road and airport protesters and a more ideological form amongst adherents of the theories of “Gaia” and “Small is beautiful” and the most extreme animal liberationists.
This romantic reaction to capitalismís development of science and technology is both reactionary and utopian. Reactionary in that the whole of human history represents precisely conscious attempts to escape from the dictates of nature (which is obviously never 100% possible) and to fashion the tools — both literal and metaphorical — that enable this. If we lived in a rational society today, it would already be possible for every human to have the basics of life, education and health using the knowledge, productive power, science and technology humanity has developed. Scientific and technical development have extended the range of possibilities we have. Perhaps the irony of these attitudes is best summed up by the idea of leather-shunning vegans wearing the plastic shoes produced by modern chemistry in order to avoid going barefoot.
It is utopian in that it is impossible — and certainly undesirable — to roll back to a mythical past in which humanity and nature were in balance. When might this past be? Before people lived in towns? Before the domestication of animals? When Britain was covered by forests? Once human beings begin to transform it, there exists no pure “state of nature”. Marx noted that the world we experience “is not a thing given direct from all eternity, ever the same, but the product of industry and the state of society… nature, the nature that preceded human history,… today no longer exists anywhere.”
Knowledge and alternatives
Yet socialists have to take a more active role towards techno-science than simply believing that the problems will all automatically disappear with the advent of socialism. We need to understand it, criticise it, and actively oppose or support it where appropriate. We need to begin to develop alternative conceptions of how science and technology might become democratic, accessible to those at present excluded, responsive to their needs and accountable to other than large corporations.
This points to the necessity of alliances between those who possess the necessary scientific or technical knowledge but are critical of its development and those who are affected by or worried by its results. In the ’70s, following the radicalisation of Western universities and the experience of the Vietnam war, there were a number of movements that tried to make expertise available in order to challenge the content, priorities and impacts of science and technology in areas ranging from combating local pollution by factories, through the development of plans for alternative technology and production to the questioning of IQ testing and genetic determinism. Many scientific workers (who are often unionised and do not themselves control the goals of their labour) may remain sympathetic to such goals. Even long after these movements have receded, cases of whistle-blowing and cooperation between experts and radical movements still occur. In the US, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility has brought together radical computing specialists to oppose the “Star Wars” programme and government snooping on electronic communications as well as concerning themselves with the working conditions of computer staff.
Often, however, those directly affected that have better knowledge than the experts put up against them, precisely because they are experienced and knowledgeable about the situation they are in. Their involvement challenges the hierarchies and division of labour characteristically created by capitalism, which are reflected in the boundaries experts use to define what is relevant and scientific. Richard Levins mentions the absence of social causes such as poverty from models of disease in epidemiology and points out that in science, “The investigator chooses the system and specifies its boundaries. Thus ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are not properties of nature but of science.”
This limited world view is open to challenge: the South Wales Miners’ Union fought a long battle to get coal dust recognised as the cause of pneumoconiosis in the face of opposition, not merely from coal bosses seeking to limit compensation, but also from accepted scientific and medical authorities. The left Labour MP Aneurin Bevan wrote: “The people are excluded from forming judgement on various matters on the grounds that expert knowledge is required, and that, of course the people cannot possess”. The debunking of the expert is an important stage in the history of democratic communities because democracy involves the assertion of the common cause against the special interest… the first weapon in the worker’s armoury must be a strongly developed bump of irreverence.”
At the end of the 1970s , Lucas workers faced with redundancy used their skills to develop an alternative plan of production in which they would switch from production primarily for military purposes to the production of socially useful goods. They designed the products, which ranged from a bus that could run on both road and rail through to aids for the disabled, and demonstrated how they could be produced using the existing workforce's skills and the same production process as the military hardware.
At around the same time, particularly in Scandinavia and Germany, there were a number of projects in which trade unionists, faced with the introduction of microelectronics into the workplace, collaborated with sympathetic academics and technologists in the development of computer systems that took account of the way that they worked and built on their knowledge and skills rather than replacing them. One of the best known and most far-reaching of these projects, known — perhaps aptly —- by the Swedish acronym of UTOPIA, produced a computerised typesetting system in collaboration with printworkers.
These projects can be seen as examples of how technology can be socially shaped “from below” as well as from above. They succeeded in showing that technological development can be democratic, beginning to break down the traditional division of labour between expert and non-expert. However the problem with these projects was rather that could not escape the capitalist economy and remained dependent on it for their adoption. Thus the developers of UTOPIA were forced to try and market their worker-friendly system to the same employers who had previously been trying to rationalise the printworkers’ jobs by introducing computerisation. For these projects to be adopted on any scale a high degree of workers’ control is necessary as they hit at the heart of the capitalists’ prerogative to organise the production process. However, they retain considerable value as demonstrating that alternatives are feasible, that science and technology developed for the market are not the only way to do things and to give ënon-expertsí confidence in their own skills and abilities.
Questioning science and technology
If today the scope for developing our own practical alternatives is relatively small, we are still regularly faced with the need to take positions on developments we don’t control like GM foods, the Internet, the discovery of genes for everything, BSE and so on. A “Yes, but” approach that displays the “bump of irreverence” necessary for a critical attitude and takes account of the relations between the social and scientific can be encapsulated in questions that we should ask in order to make an assessment of scientific and technological developments. The questions chosen should enable us broadly to understand where and how to draw lines between what is acceptable, what might be in other circumstances and what isn’t period.
Is it valid in scientific or technical terms?
If, as Richard Levins puts it, the contradiction at the heart of science is that “all science is class science, yet science finds out real truths about the world”, the starting point has to be whether, in its own terms, a particular development does describe or embody “real truths” about the world. The ideological role of science often consists of presenting findings as if they cannot be challenged because they embody the rationality of science. Yet science itself is not a homogeneous institution where everyone agrees on everything, nor does standard scientific method say all there is to say about the world. Our knowledge develops historically and it has often been those who have challenged the most sacrosanct assumptions of the preceding science who have moved it forward.
Criticising science in its own terms is a prerequisite for seeing where science is serving ideological functions rather than telling “real truths”. Often, as the above article on ëmonkey capitalismí demonstrates, social assumptions are read into scientific practice and then re(-)presented as scientific truth. Socialist scientists have spent much time debunking the claims of ideology to represent science, demonstrating why it is that IQ testing is not an objective measure of intelligence and how it embodies biases; why genetic determinism is based on a misunderstanding of what genes do and so on.
To do this, socialists must respect scientific rationality as a means of investigating nature which cannot be reduced to the social or ideological. Meera Nanda, a biologist associated with the “Science for the People” movement in India, has pointed to the liberating effect of science for herself as a way out of traditional customs and religious superstitions. Ironically, she points out this is opposed equally by Hindu fundamentalists and post-modern relativist theorists of science who see it as a Western imposition on a culture that is just as truthful as science. Marxists may criticise mainstream scientific method as limited and biased towards limited truths, but they share its goals.
What are its likely or possible consequences? Can these be controlled? If so, how?
Yet this cannot be the final word. Once we start to move towards science and technology as ìproducts of modern industry and the state of societyî, we have to ask some more questions. We cannot just look at the applications of science purely in the terms of science itself. We have to consider their environmental, social and economic implications. These can never be entirely predicted as outside a controlled environment all sorts of interactions may take place that could not be simulated. “Good science” in the laboratory (often under highly artificial conditions) may not be able to predict how, for example, genetically modified organisms may affect an agricultural environment. Despite the sophisticated tools they have at their disposal, scientists cannot be absolutely sure of their prognostications any more than the rest of us. Mike Hales comments:
“…in a highly complex society with contradictory internal processes, the ‘Don’t Knows’ may be the most honest sector of social opinion. Yet it is a disgrace not to be in the know. In this unhappy position — feeling ignorant and ashamed of it — it is all too easy to defer to “the experts” who exude an image of knowing.”
As the many of the effects of developments such as GM foods are irreversible, we should have “Safety First” as our motto. Taking this ‘Don’t Know’ position leads us to call for risky developments to be suspended until we can say either that we do know one way or the other or it is clear that we do not have the means to calculate the real risks. Thus the call for a moratorium on the development of GM organisms is not just another way of calling for their abandonment. It is possible that the claims made in favour of GM foods — e.g. the use of less herbicides and pesticides, more reliable crops — are valid. To find out, we need to ignore both the blandishments of the scientific representatives of agribusiness and the condemnation of “Donít interfere with nature” opponents and return to testing, experiment and scientific analysis. (Clearly, this has to be done under conditions where the effects can be limited, which may result in a vicious circle that would make getting further information safely impossible.)
A moratorium becomes then a way of saying that safety, environmental issues and human impacts are not to be set aside in the interests of capital and that science is not just its property, but can and must be useful and accountable to society.
Is it a “technical fix”?
The term “technical fix” is used to describe the belief that a technical or scientific solution can be found to problems that are not fundamentally technical or scientific. In particular, there is a tendency to displace social and political issues into the scientific domain in order to avoid the political consequences of dealing with their real causes.
Third World hunger? Forget about land ownership, the distribution of wealth, imperialist interests. You don’t need to organise the peasants or agricultural workers. The problems can be solved by increasing agricultural productivity and I just happen to have the magic GM seeds that will do it for you.
There is not necessarily anything wrong with the “fix” itself (assuming it does have some palliative effect). Nobody could complain about medical advances, but clearly they have failed to resolve the problems of the links between poverty, bad housing and illness. Rather the “technical fix” for social problems is an element in the incorporation of science into broader capitalist ideology — it prevents us from seeing the real social relationships behind the problem it is supposed to solve. It is often one aspect of selling scientific and technological advances to a sceptical audience. Debunking it enables us to reassert the political solutions necessary to solve political problems.
What social and political priorities does a scientific or technical development reflect?
Not everything that is scientifically and technically possible reflects desirable social or political priorities. Why is so much spent on military-related R&D? How could those resources be used for socially useful products? The Lucas workers made these challenges to the priorities of capitalism when they drew up their plan for socially useful production. Asking these questions does not merely reiterate socialistsí general criticisms of capitalism, but enables us to begin to sketch alternative paths for the development and application of science and technology that do truly serve our needs. Both the Lucas workers and UTOPIA demonstrated that the rejection of their alternative products was not because they were not technically feasible, but because the needs of profit and socially useful production conflict.
What is the history of its development? How might it have been different?
The products of science and technology usually appear in our lives as finished outcomes of hidden processes we cannot affect, as opaque ëblack boxesí with a set of functions that we must either take or leave. Yet the processes of their development and production involve choices, which are not purely scientific or technical, but have social, economic or cultural consequences.
The example of the seeds with the ëkiller geneí is perhaps more obvious than most ñ the seeds are the product of a choice to genetically engineer profitability and dependence on a source of supply into living material. Others require more work: we need to ìopen the black boxî and trace the process of development and how ideas are turned into products. In one famous example, David Noble did this for the first automatically controlled machine tools, discovering how the design of their control mechanism was determined not by finding the best technical solution, but rather by the need to remove control of production from the skilled shopfloor workers. A social and political decision is hidden behind an apparent technical necessity and incorporated into the hardware. “Opening the black box” enables us then to see at precisely which points feasible alternatives exist
Why can’t it be different?
This question provides a means to distinguish between constraints set by nature or the development of our scientific knowledge and those set by the way society is organised. Sometimes the answer will be “because that’s the way nature works”, or “because we don’t know how to”. Sometimes this is a true answer — science and technology are not omnipotent, there are both inherent and historically specific constraints on how far we can change nature. Sometimes it’s not. We can only find out by continuing to press the of question why both science and society are the way they are.
At other times, the answer will be “because it’s too expensive”, “because it would require us to make all sorts of other changes”, “because its not in our (usually disguised as society’s) interests.” As Mike Hales points out continuing to ask why things can’t be different reveals that “behind ‘the why nots’ there is a trail of unfulfilled alternatives… the movement from part-answer to further question yields a mapping of the meanings and values and relationships embedded in a piece of machinery, a thing [or a piece of scientific knowledge]… If any activity or thing or idea has a value then it has a connection with the rest of society. And if it has a connection that connection could be different. Why not?”
Asking this question therefore enables us to begin to answer: Whose interests does it serve? Whose interests might it serve? Under what conditions? We can map the obstacles and alternatives, the choices made and the paths rejected, the possibilities and the constraints.
All the questions we have asked form a whole — we can not fully understand science and technology either by a critique of science from entirely within in its own terms nor entirely by a social critique that assumes subjects all science to the test of whether it is ideologically welcome or whose interests it may appear to serve. Each would be one-sided: the first leading us to ignore the social embeddedness of techno-science, the second leading us

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