Science, technology, medicine and the socialist movement by The Radical Science Journal Collective

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by The Radical Science Journal Collective

For the past decade the Radical Science Journal Collective has been attempting to reinterpret science, technology and medicine. Our aim has been to do this in a way which does not view science as above the battle for socialism or as the criterion of other practices. We began by wanting to move on from the belief that science in itself was value-neutral and objective but was being abused by reactionary forces. In the ferment of the late 1960s, the content and social relations of science were being treated deferentially as compared with other areas of knowledge. We set out to examine critically the meaning, in the class struggle, of the status of scientific knowledge and the role of science, technology and medicine, their rationality and their experts (see Editorials of RSJ 1 and 2/3). This directly political impulse intersected with developments in the history, philosophy and social studies of science which involved treating philosophies of nature and the scientific preoccupations of other periods in terms of the social formations of the times, e.g. ancient, medieval, Chinese and Arab science; the Renaissance, the 'Scientific Revolution' (Teich and Young). Analogous questions were being asked about nineteenth-century science and even about Weimar physics (Young, 1969; Forman). Social sciences' attempts to model themselves on natural science were also being criticised as ideological mystification (Gouldner, 1962). Finally, new ideas in the sociology and the anthropology of knowledge intersected with conceptions from the newly-translated writings of Lukács and the revival of Marcuse's critique of scientific rationality and pointed toward seeing 'nature' as a historical and social rather than a timeless, purely objective category.[1] All of these tendencies led us to ask whether scientific practices and theories had a social component at a very basic level. We never doubted that the findings and theories of science are true and efficacious.

In our efforts to integrate our political activism with our theoretical understanding of science we asked, in the first instance, how and to what extent the values of the society enter into scientific theory and practice. In working our way toward treating the issues in marxist terms, we scrutinised the distinction between that knowledge which does not serve class interests and that which does. That is, we set out to challenge the science/ideology distinction made by the sociology of knowledge. We were concerned not with ideology as distortion but as representation of reality: 'When a particular definition of reality comes to be attached to a concrete power interest, it may be called an ideology' (Berger and Luckman, p. 123). Our working assumption was that situationally conditioned knowledge is the norm and our question was whether or not any knowledge was situationally detached. These questions were reinforced by developments in the philosophy of science and in psychology, which treated facts as theory-laden and perceptions as value-laden.[2] In a series of exploratory articles we cast doubt on the science/ideology distinction in various disciplines and ultimately found it useless, in anthropology, medicine, physics, mathematics, technology, biology, management science and science in general.[3]
We were also concerned with the problem of socialist struggle against the prevailing hierarchical and authoritarian forms of social relations in scientific, technological and medical institutions. We therefore tried to integrate our critique of the social relations with that of the substance of science and finally attempted to bring them into a single framework. The long-term results of these efforts (partly a response to critics who treated ideology as distortion and false consciousness, and who thought us crazy) has been to recontextualise our work in terms of the analysis of science as labour process (RSJ 6/7, especially Editorial). The trajectory has been from use/abuse to science/ideology to science as social relations and, recently, to science as a labour process (see Young, 'Science is a Labour Process'). It is on the basis of this approach that we write about science and socialist struggle, and consider recent socialist debates and the current restructuring of capital around new developments in science.
It is important to be clear that, although we shall review various past and current approaches, our argument is premised upon a labour process perspective. The questions we want to ask of science are, therefore, about the forces that constitute particular labour processes, the components of those labour processes (the raw materials, means of production, purposive activities), the resulting use values, the articulations of a given labour process with others and the problems they pose for socialist organising, agitation and transformation (London Labour Process Group). We are interested in productive, reproductive and legitimating aspects — for example, nuclear power and biotechnology; medicine and domestic technology; IQ and sociobiology.[4]
We are primarily concerned not with the properties of substances in nature but with their use values; we argue that the choice of use values plays a constitutive role in the framing of nature. We are trying to move on from concentrating on facts and artifacts as such and to focus instead on how the needs of capital constitute the research and development as well as the practices, labour, labour processes and use values in science. The analysis can extend from the most simple artifact (e.g., a paperclip) to the most abstract categories of knowledge, whose particular forms are 'the product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations' (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 105). We find this approach more useful than one which polarises science versus ideology or science versus technology, because it contests capital's framing of nature and avoids endlessly replaying epistemological debates; the science/technology distinction becomes as uninteresting as the science/ideology one.
We have been criticised in the Socialist Register and elsewhere for going too far with the concepts of ideology, fetishism, reification, social relations, labour process and reflexivity.[5] We contend that our perspective is more amenable to making subversive politics in science, technology and medicine than the traditional views, and that our approach takes the debate off the terrain of 'legitimacy' and 'objectivity' and onto that of class struggle. We maintain that the Left's prevalent ways of talking about science represent reality in a way which limits what it is plausible or possible to contest.
We propose a reorientation of the analysis of science in an agitational direction concerned with struggles around the process of origination of scientific products, the labour process, the social relations and articulations of scientific work. As things now stand, the socialist movement — and especially the labour movement — is profoundly ambivalent about capital's initiatives which expand the role of science in the current process of restructuring British industry and the state. Since science has been treated as a progressive force which increases efficiency, it has been difficult to combat wholeheartedly its role in deskilling, increased real subordination, pacing, surveillance, etc. Unions are reduced to a sense of resignation, redundancy schemes, 'technology agreements', and/or neo-Luddism. Some are even optimistic that as many jobs will appear as are eliminated or that unemployment can bring richer lives (Jenkins and Sherman). We believe that our perspective has the potential to take us beyond these defensive strategies — perhaps necessary in the short run — toward struggling for the reconstitution of science, contesting capital's control over the origination of new knowledge, products and treatments. In our view, the prevalent left positions stand in the way of this new strategy, even though in some cases they are positions held by people who have done important intellectual and agitational work.
There is a problem about the relationship between science, technology and medicine on the one hand and the critique of the capitalist mode of production and the struggle for socialism on the other. The knowledge and the practices of science (a term which we will use often in a generic sense to avoid tedious repetition of 'science, technology and medicine') are treated as privileged and are not subjected to the same scrutiny or seen as appropriate sites of socialist struggle as compared with other domains, e.g., culture, sex roles, the sphere of production. The standards, methods and objectivity of science are, on the contrary, seen as models or touchstones for other practices, often including socialism itself. At first glance, then, it would appear ludicrous to analyse science in the same way that we do spheres which are obviously constituted by historically contingent forces in the mode of production. We want to argue for more than a second glance — for a searching scrutiny and reorientation.
The problem we want to discuss can be seen in successive articles in Socialist Register 1979. The first opens by saying that it sets out to assess the impact of the new microelectronic technology on social relations — 'or, more correctly, to analyse the technologies as social relations. Thereby it intends to treat them as forms assumed by the capital relation as it seeks to impose itself ever more firmly and extensively on social life' (Webster and Robins, p. 285). Yet the very next article, 'Radical Science and its Enemies', by Hilary and Steven Rose, argues to the contrary that attempts to treat science in just those terms are based on an incoherent, relativistic and reactionary position whose claims to be marxist are incorrect. Their article is the occasion of our writing this one. We want to show the basis for disagreement about these issues, to open them up and to provide an alternative account of them. We also want to show that this is not merely a set of problems within the radical science movement but that the Left has come up against them in other guises. The most fundamental problems of science have been at the centre of left debate, although it has seldom been clear that science itself was at issue.
In this article we want, firstly, to indicate what is at stake in the restructuring of capital, particularly the role of science as the embodiment of values; then, to reflect on the history of these issues in the Left and among Left scientists; and, lastly, to spell out some examples of what it means to treat science in labour process terms. The shape of our argument is to make a general case about science, then about socialist views about science, and then to treat the conflicts within the radical science movement as instances of a wider problem among socialists. This accounts for the order of sections in our article, while the scope of our argument explains why we have resorted to presenting lists (to a degree which readers may find rather trying). Our overall aim is to open up matters which would otherwise seem intractable, to make them amenable to contestation. We want to analyse apparently fixed phenomena — be they technologies or techniques, theories or therapies — back into the social relations which they embody and sclerose.
It may be worth stressing once again that we are not suggesting that science is untrue, nor, certainly, that it is merely social relations. Our priority, rather, is to overcome epistemological quandaries by relocating them in class relations, in capitalist domination and its opposition. Our political agenda entails struggling wherever capital seeks control, and grasping each site of capitalist domination as part of the totality of capitalist production and reproduction, which it attempts to keep fragmented as politics/economics, work/leisure, job/home, science/society, etc. This means that we oppose privileging some sites of struggle (e.g., wages and conditions at the point of production) while exempting others (science in the classroom and the lab) and hardly noticing others (home, sexual relations, community). We think that the special status accorded to science in the Left is connected with that peck order of places to contest capital. It is no coincidence, then, that our critique of science is geared to challenging that peck order and the forms of capitalist domination with which it colludes.
Science and the Restructuring of Capital: What Is at Stake?
The phrase taken from Webster and Robins' Socialist Register article — 'to analyse the technologies as social relations' — is very apposite, because their topic, 'Mass Communications and "Information Technology"', is only one part of a major restructuring of capital. Science is at the heart of the re-tooling of British industry we hear so much about and much else in other countries and in multinational integration. Very large claims and very large investments are being made, extending from cradle to grave and beyond. A Lucas executive has called the microprocessor ‘the biggest single blessing that mankind has ever had' (TV interview). A government advisory committee has attributed to new developments in biotechnology an importance comparable to atomic physics and microelectronics (Spinks, p. 16). In medicine, practically every stage on life's way is undergoing dramatic development: artificial fertilization and transplantation; sex diagnosis (and therefore choice through early abortion); fetoprotein, ultrasound and amniocentesis diagnostic techniques for foetal abnormalities; host mothers; hormone treatments; cerebral stimulation and implantation (including remote control); spare part surgery; international organ banks; purchase of organs in the Third World for transplantation; cryogenesis for indefinite cold storage of sperm and eggs; cloning. Both cryogenesis and cloning have already been successfully applied in other species — cryogenesis with cattle, cloning with mice. New industries are being developed around tailor-made molecules: growth hormone, insulin, interferon for virus infections and some cancers.
A man from Ferranti tells us that the chip will 'change all our lives and all our environments' (TV interview). By mid-1980, there will be 3000 firms in the industry, adding 200-300 new products per month. The micro-electronics industry is expected to have an annual turnover of £200 thousand million by 1990. In the domestic sphere, where about 90% of chips end up, home terminals will break down the role separations between houseworker, homeworker, consumer and student. No need to go out to work or to shop or to an evening class or to a film — just finish the dishes and hoovering and sit right down at the keyboard and type away. In the office, micro-electronics is bringing about the Taylorisation of white-collar work. One machine, the IBM 3750, can monitor all phone calls, control access to any telephone number, monitor and control movements of personnel on the site and keep track of company cars as they go about. Systems for controlling telephone access and for logging calls are already common in British firms and universities, and there are more than 150 'IBM 3750' systems already installed in this country. The Chubb 'System 8000' can monitor over 3000 individual sensors from a central position and combines the functions of security, fire alarm, control of access, building services, environment, monitoring, energy and surveillance (including complete closed-circuit TV).
Much has also been heard about word processors, but they are only part of the restructuring of office work. At the current 'Challenge of the Chip' exhibition at the London Science Museum, you can hear the following advert from a telephone handset:
’This is a centralised dictation system made by the Dictaphone Company. Everyone with a telephone on their desk can get through to the office typing department and record onto a machine there. They operate the machine using controls on the phone. The system has in its memory details of the typists' speeds and outstanding work. By comparing these figures, each person can get put through to the typist who can complete their work most quickly. For the supervisor the control console shows how much work each typist has, how much the department as a whole is doing and (from an additional microprocessor) full details of every piece of work going through the department. The supervisor can get details of who dictated work, of what type, how much there was, what time it was recorded, which typist did it and when, and so on: in fact, an automatic production control system. Using the console controls, the supervisor can switch typists from machine to machine, put two typists onto one machine to clear urgent work first and generally organize the department as the day goes on without anyone having to change desks or machines. In fact, typists have none of the fuss of having to find their next piece of work. It's there ready for them, and the supervisor has full control over everything with plenty of time to ensure a rapid service.’
All of this is made possible by the versatility and cheapness of the microprocessor. The effects on the porosity of the working day of the typist and the secretary make it clear that 'the Taylorisation of the office' is not hyperbole.[6]
This is just one of a number of innovations which were conceived and developed in the military sphere — requiring research and development (R&D) investments which would be unthinkable in private industry — and which have since been adapted and applied in domestic and work contexts. The result has been improved efficiency and convenience for some, but for most it has also increased surveillance, pacing, deskilling, real subordination, and redundancies.[7]
The generous funding of scientific and technological research by governments includes increasing control over the direction and approach of research itself. The National Science Foundation in America grew from zero in 1950 to grants of $400 million in 1970; that buys a lot of control. The same is true of private philanthropies such as the Rockefeller Foundation. The result can be the constitution of whole disciplines, e.g. molecular biology (Kohler; Yoxen), a reorientation of the approach of a family of disciplines, e.g., primatology and human sciences (Haraway), or the restructuring of a scientific profession and its institutionalisation, e.g., medicine (Brown). It is difficult to take in the scale on which this direct patronage operates. The main inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, worked for Bell Labs, part of American Telephone and Telegraph, the world's largest corporation. It was the military who financed his move to California to found Silicon Valley, and the great chip fortunes can all be traced to his original co-workers. Bell Labs, like some other electronics firms, worked for the government on thousands of projects, involving thousands of billions of dollars.[8] The same is true of the aerospace, atomic energy and biomedical research industries.
Turning now to the area which is likely to have even more effects on our lives than microelectronics, biotechnology has been described as the basis for transforming whole industries and creating new ones, providing bulk chemicals, antibiotics, vaccines, methane gas and other fuels, building materials, foods, food additives, and new ways of recovering fossil fuels and mining metals, as well as recycling waste and treating effluent. This is not the place to spell out the details of the promise of genetic engineering; we want only to point out that it involves the harnessing of biology as a productive force to a degree never envisaged by the most visionary horticulturalist. It has been said that biology will 'launch an industry as characteristic of the twenty-first century as those based on chemistry and physics have been of the twentieth century' (The Economist, 2 December 1978).
Entrepreneurs have been very struck by the risk capital being made available in this field. The list of commercial firms is growing apace and recalls the developments in microelectronics which produced the current giants, e.g., Texas Instruments (first working integrated circuit, 1958), and Fairchild (miniaturised circuit on silicon wafer, 1960). One of the pioneers in biotechnology, Cetus, started with $5 million of venture capital in 1971, then Standard Oil of Indiana added $10.5 million and National Distillers $8 million. The market value reached $45 million in 1978 and $75 million in early 1980. When they went public they raised an additional $135 million; more money than any new American Company has ever raised (New Scientist, 9 April 1981, p. 106). Other firms in the race are Genentech, Hybritech, Bethesda Research, Genex, and (in Europe) Biogen and Celltech. This is in addition to investment in this area by existing firms: Eli Lilly, ICI, Glaxo, Unilever, Hoechst UK, G.D. Searle.
While looking forward to the benefits of biotechnology, we should not fail to see that they are being constituted, produced and marketed within the social and economic relations of private industry. It will also have the effect of helping to foreclose even further any democratic decision making in labour processes, employment, and relations between imperialist and dominated countries.
One reason why this field has been able to grow so rapidly is that commercial interests have persuaded academic scientists to do much of their research as projects in established university and other labs largely funded by public money. It is now accepted that choice of topic, direction of research (what to follow up), how much to talk to colleagues and when and how much to publish are determined by commercial criteria. Commercial pressures are also an important factor discouraging a given country from having stringent safety standards and controls, lest lucrative developments occur in another country with less stringent controls. This has been a successful argument in dismantling safety guidelines of the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group in Britain and of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee in America. Commercial pressures have determined academic research and communications, as well as controls, in sponsored pharmacological research, as some recent scandals have shown. We pointed out above that the home terminal is likely to transform the domestic scene; something analogous is happening to make nonsense of the idea of the remote scientist in an ivory tower, where the jingling of coins is never heard.
Once again, the stakes are high. Interferon may cure virus diseases and certain cancers, but there isn't enough in existence to find out. One pound of it (if that much of it existed) would cost $22 billion using existing technology. A break-through in production by genetic engineering seems likely to transform the production of interferon. The current sales of insulin, mostly extracted from pigs and cattle, amount to $137 million per year, with 80% sold by Eli Lilley. It has recently become available from a genetic engineering process developed by Genentech, which has signed a contract with Eli Lilley to market its insulin. Similarly, the price of somatostatin, a brain hormone, is likely to fall from $300,000 to $300 a gramme as a result of another Genentech patent. In another area of biotechnology, Brazil hopes, by the mid 1980s, to replace petrol by ethanol made from sugar cane while the US aims to stretch its petrol by adding 10% ethanol and to produce two billion gallons of it a year by 1985. Sweden intends to devote 20% of its total forest to growing willows as an energy crop. The scale of cash flow in medicine is on an impressive scale, too. In 1978 the US medical business turned over $180 billion. This had less to do with gentle physicians exercising their bedside manners than with four very lucrative industries — drugs, construction, medical equipment and insurance.
It is no exaggeration to speak of the medium-term prospect of near complete restructuring of medicine, agriculture, food processing, energy production and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Analogous changes are already afoot as a result of microelectronics in industrial production, office work, retail marketing, communications, security, information processing, education and the domestic sphere.
If the foregoing account of the restructuring of capital around science and the recital of what is at stake seems relentless and exhausting, we will have achieved our purpose here. In the light of these and other developments (agricapital, video technology, digital recording, technology and the Third World), we just don't think it is good enough to go on talking about value-neutrality, objectivity and such like. We don't deny that they are popular academic topics, but they have obstructed our political agenda. We want to draw different conclusions from this list of areas where capital is at work restructuring around science. The first conclusion is that, if science was ever 'relatively autonomous', it is getting dramatically less so. There are fewer links in the chains of mediations, or — to put it another way — capital sets narrower and narrower limits to the areas of relative academic freedom. Indeed, researchers are now queuing up for the sort of 'customer-contract' relations that so scandalised the liberal scientific establishment when Lord Rothschild proposed them for science in 1971. A decade later, the government's response to the Spinks report on the promise and funding of biotechnology was brief and curt: let private capital find the money (Secretary for Industry). The number and different sorts of mediating authorities pledged to seek out and serve the needs of industry is producing acronymic indigestion: Royal Society, Research Councils, Advisory Council for Applied Research & Development (ACARD), Advisory Board for the Research Councils, UGC, SSRC, CNAA, DES, DOI and its MAP (Microprocessor Applications Project), Department of Energy, NRDC, Research Requirements Board, NEDC, NEB (funding three chips firms — NEXOS, INSAC, INMOS), EEC, NATO. And watching over them all is the Trilateral Commission — political, industrial and financial leaders from Europe, Japan and North America — organising 'the stable management of global change', including the transfer of technology to the Third World (Dickson in RSJ 10; Sklar)
Second, in the case of microelectronics there is a very general point to be made. The range of applications of the microprocessor beggars the imagination yet is easily stated: any process, no matter how complicated, which can be reduced to rules, can be controlled by microprocessors. Who makes the rules therefore becomes a matter of unparalleled importance. This means that the socialist movement, and especially the trade unions, can no longer afford to equivocate about the domain of class struggle. Contestation on the terrain of control over the labour process and the origination of new technologies becomes an urgent political priority. It is in the process of origination that capital's structuring of social relations gets built into the technology. This calls for organising and agitating in new places and new class fractions-among the people who design and develop new technologies.
Third, the point which has become obvious with the range and power of microprocessors can be generalised further to treat science and medicine — as well as technology — as the embodiment of values. The same argument applies, but the complexities of institutions and of conceptual levels make its applicability less obvious.
Finally, to say that capitalism is currently restructuring around science and technology is not to say that this is a new feature of capitalism. The scientific and the industrial revolutions of earlier centuries would make such a claim silly (see, further on, the quotations from Marx, Nasmyth and Ure). What is new, however, is how far science and technology are now penetrating. In the productive sphere there have been successive restructurings, e.g., water power, steam power, factories, mechanisation, moving assembly line, internal combustion engine, electric motors. automation, microprocessors, biotechnology (for a general exposition, see Ernest Mandel's Late Capitalism, pp. 120ff; Chapters 6 and 8). But science and technology are beginning to watch over, pace and control work in the office, shop, school, home — soon to be extended inside the body via electronic implants. Its reach is pervasive and intimate and growing very rapidly. The stakes are far higher than ever before.

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