"MODERN SCIENCE is a product of capitalism"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Aug 30 12:30:17 MDT 1999

("The Commoditization of Science", chapter 8 of Lewontin and Levins' "The
Dialectical Biologist")

MODERN SCIENCE is a product of capitalism. The economic foundation of
modern science is the need for capitalists not only to expand horizontally
into new regions, but to transform production, create new products, make
production methods more profitable, and to do all this ahead of others who
are doing the same. Its ideological underpinnings are congruent with these
needs and also with the political philosophy of the bourgeois
revolution--individualism, belief in a marketplace of internationalism,
nationalism, and rejection of authority as the basis of knowledge.

As capitalism developed, so did the ways in which science participated.
>From a luxury consumption for the aristocracy (along with court musicians
and fools), science became an important ideological weapon in the struggle
against feudal theology and a resource for solving practical problems of
the economy. After the long depression in the last part of the 18th
century, there was a definite upsurge of inventions and innovations in
industry and agriculture. The number of patents registered in Great Britain
rose from 92 during the 1750s to 477 in the 1780s. Agricultural societies
were established around that time, and advances in animal breeding and
management resulted in the formation of cattle breeds, such as Hereford.
The weight of cattle marketed in London doubled in the course of the
eighteenth century, and that of lambs tripled. In the early nineteenth
century agricultural journals began to be published.

The leaders of the bourgeois revolutions recognized the potential of
scientific research for military and commercial power. Among the earliest
scientific societies were the Royal Society, in 1662; the American Academy
of Arts and Sciences, founded in 1780 by leaders of the revolution in New
England; Franklin's American Philosophical Society (1768); and the Naval
Observatory in Greenwich (1675).In France the Directorate founded the Ecole
Polytechnique in 1795, and Napoleon urged scientists to develop munitions,
as well as a synthetic indigo dye to replace the imports from India that
were cut off by war. The systematic surveying and cataloging of the
biological resources of tropical regions conquered by European countries
led to a flowering of systematic biology under the leadership of Linnaeus.
By 1862 the Morrell Act in the United States set up the land grant colleges
of agriculture and mechanical arts in recognition of the importance of
scientific knowledge for the improvement of farming and mining.

Throughout the first century of the industrial revolution, science enlarged
its role as an externality of the capitalist expansion, like roads and
lighthouses, and as a way to solve particular problems (as in Pasteur's
identification of the Phytophora that threatened to wipe out the French
wine industry). But science was not yet a commodity. Its application was
still uncertain, its potential still mostly untapped, its product still
often an after-the-fact explanation of empirical innovations.

The production of commodities, the expending of human labor to produce
objects or services for sale certainly antedates capitalism. But under
capitalism the commodity form of economic activity penetrated increasingly
into all aspects of human life. In 1607, in the rarely performed Timon of
Athens, Shakespeare lamented this commercialization:

"Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
Thus much of this will make Black white, foul fair, wrong right,
Base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! Why this? What this, you gods?
Why, this Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads.
This yellow slave Will knit and break religions; bless th' accurs'd;
Make the hoar leprosy ador'd; place thieves
And give them title, knee, and approbation
With senators on the bench..."

Two centuries later Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto (1848):

"The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all
feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the
motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors' and has left
no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous
'cash payment.' It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious
fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy
water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into
exchange value and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered
freedoms set up that single, unconscionable freedom--Free Trade. The
bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and
looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer,
the priest, the poet, the man of into paid wage laborers."

Activities that previously were the direct result of human
interaction--entertainment, emotional support, learning, recreation, child
even human blood and transplantable organs or the use of the womb--have now
entered the marketplace, where human relations hide behind impersonal
buying and selling. Each time a new aspect of commoditized, some resistance
is expressed as outrage at the debasement of previous values. When the
price of bread was freed to respond to the market, bread riots broke out
among the English working class; the commercialization of the means of
communication and the information monopoly led to the concerns raised by
Third World delegates at UNESCO in the 1980s and the call for a new
information order. The commercialization of health care forced people to
raise the issues of national health service or insurance.

The commoditization of science, then, is not a unique transformation but a
natural part of capitalist development. And we discuss it not to express
outrage but to examine the consequences of this change for scientific

The commodity form establishes equivalences among very different objects.
Although a camel is not equivalent to a blanket, the value of camel is
equivalent to the value of a certain number of blankets: C != B, but V(C) =
V(B). By way of the qualitatively equivalent exchange values of objects, it
becomes possible to trade them and thus to transform them into each other.
The market achieves what the alchemist could not: in 1980 lead could be
transformed into gold in the ratio 500 pounds of lead for one fine ounce of
gold. This ability to establish equivalences among dissimilar objects made
trade the predominant form of exchange for the products of human labor
outside of the individual household. There are of course other forms of
exchange... customary gift giving, sharing, redistribution in periods of
hardship, ritualized exchanges. But even within the family distribution may
be dominated by commodity relations as when the best food is given to the
wage earner or when women have to struggle to control their own earnings.

Commoditization also implies a giant step in abstract thought, in that the
distinct objects are seen as both economically similar and physically
different, the difference and the similarity both being prerequisites for
trade. Before exchange can be completely commoditized and before exchange
values can emerge as an objective economic property of goods, exchange must
be frequent enough for the law of large numbers to operate. The
idiosyncratic preferences of individual purchasers, their relative
abilities to bargain, their individual urgencies are smoothed out when the
same objects are regularly bought and sold, when a purchaser can reject an
offer and look for the same product elsewhere, when a producer can expect
other customers. The commoditization becomes more profound when investors
can put their capital into those enterprises that promise greatest profits,
and the availability of labor allows investors to treat people, even highly
skilled people, as generalized human labor power, an interchangeable cost
of production.

By the end of the nineteenth century, scientific production was an
essential part of the chemical and electrical industries. But not until the
midtwentieth century did science become a commodity on a massive scale. As
such, it has the following characteristics:

Within corporations of the technical industries, some 3-7 percent of sales
is reported as expenditure on research and development. Investing in
research, which is one of several ways of investing capital, competes with
other ways, such as increasing production of existing products, purchasing
more advertising, hiring lawyers or lobbyists, buying up businesses in
other fields, busting unions, bribing cabinet ministers of potential
customer countries, and so on. All possibilities are measured against each
other on the single scale of profit maximization.

It is widely known that research expenditures are the first to be cut back
a corporation suffers economic reverses, presumably because technical
innovation has no immediate payoff, while increased advertising, labor
costs, and material costs can be immediately reflected in profit. Studies
of corporate decision making repeatedly show that the decision horizon of
managers is at most three to five years. Since research often has no payoff
within such a period, it is most disposable. At the same time, the costs of
long-range research are social--by changing the locus of the work from
individual enterprises to public institutions such as universities and
national institutes. In this by tax subsidization, no individual firm need
risk an investment, the total costs are spread over the entire tax base.
When such socialized research comes close to producing a marketable
product, the development stages are taken back into private hands in order
to realize an exclusive property. This is the picture, for example, in the
development of new varieties in agriculture. State experiment stations
develop lines, which are then released to certified seed producers. The
then become general property and are taken up by seed companies "fine tune"
them and sell the results to farmers.

The extreme form of research investment is the scientific consulting whose
only product is the scientific report. (In 1983 in the Boston between one
hundred and two hundred firms were engaged in consulting.) Here it is most
obvious that the test of quality of the report is the client's satisfaction
rather than peer review. If the report is an environmental impact
evaluation, satisfying the client means convincing the appropriate
regulatory authority that the company is complying with the law and that
its activities are not harmful, and doing this for minimum cost. The
relationship of the consulting firm to the corporate client is complex. The
consultant obviously prefers a big contract to a small one and therefore
may push for a more thorough investigation than the client wants. On the
other hand, because the field is so competitive, the consultant has an
incentive to keep costs down. The result is that the consultant does just
enough research to ensure the environmental ruling will be favorable, to
document those problems that are likely to arise, and not to look for
trouble. Such ventures are highly risky for consulting firms. Their major
asset is the good ill of clients, since the capital consists mostly of
computation facility and office furniture. There is a high rate of turnover
of companies in environmental consulting.

Once the scientific report becomes a commodity, it is also subject to two
other features of the business world: the stagecoach can be hijacked and
the beer can be watered, that is, scientific commodities may be stolen or
debased. Both kinds of entrepreneurship--the appropriation of the work of
others and the falsification of results in order to publish accounts of
success or to beat out competitors--are a growing problem - Although
scientific frauds occurred in the past--everybody knows about the Piltdown
hoax--and priority fights did occur among individuals vying for prestige,
scientific frauds now have a rational economic base and so may be expected
to increase.

A corporation can estimate how long it takes on the average to develop a
new drug or computer, with how much labor, and at what cost. Therefore a
research and development company or corporate division can look at
scientific activity as generalized human labor, rather than as a way to
solve particular problems.

As such, they are subject to costs of production, interchangeability, and
managerial supervision. The division of labor within science, the creation
of specialties and ranks now becomes increasingly rationalized. The
creative parts of scientific work are more and more restricted to a small
fraction of the working scientists, the rest are increasingly
proletarianized, losing control not only over their choice of problem and
approach, but even over their day-to-day, and sometimes, their hourly,

Scientific management, first developed for the auto industry in the
infamous Taylor system at Ford, has been extending into commerce, office
work, and scientific research. The managerial approach self-consciously
sees the labor force as objects to be used for the ends of the managers.
The fragmentation of skills, and the resulting increase in specialization,
is derived not from the intellectual needs of a field but from the
managers' cost accounting: it is cheaper to train one laboratory
hematologist and one urinalyst than to prepare two general medical
technicians. Therefore their labor power is cheaper, wages are lower,
obsolete parts can be fired and replaced. Furthermore, the fragmentation
and deskilling consolidates control over the divided work force.

But deskilling in scientific work makes for greater alienation--the
producers do not understand the whole process, have no say over where it is
going or how, and have little opportunity to exercise creative
intelligence. Once the labor is alienated in this sense, once science is
just a job, increased supervision is necessary. The burdensomeness of that
supervision makes for further alienation and encourages corruption or
indifference. It also takes control out of the hands of scientists and
gives it to managers. The researchers themselves, and even the
administrators of science, are no longer responsible primarily to their
peers rather, upward in the hierarchy, to the controllers of resources. One
by-product of this phenomenon is that research proposals submit-granting
agencies become longer, more detailed and cautious and less honest
reflection of the research intentions. The awarders of such money,
concerned with justifying their decisions, opt for caution and demand
increasing documentation.

Universities and vocational Is aim at preparing the various grades of
scientific labor at minimum cost, turning the education process itself into
an external service e personnel departments of private enterprise. This
exerts a pressure on the educators for economic efficiency--don't have the
students overqualified, concentrate on what they need to know (that is,
what require), shorten the duration of graduate study, get Ph.D. 's for the
buck. At the elementary education level this pressure means "back to
basics." The utilitarian approach is not universal and is not always so
crude. Educators often have their own goals that with the prevailing social
trends. But even the more innovative programs produce people for the less
clearly defined assignments of keeping the system flexible.

Scientists react to this commoditization in opposite ways. On the one they
deplore it. Many of them, recruited from the middle class, science as a way
to escape the world of trade. They chose to engage in a kind of labor whose
product was a use value, worthwhile for its own sake rather than for
exchange. They resent the loss of the old esprit de corps and the selfless
dedication to truth which was the organizing myth of precommodity science.
They resent the proletarianization of labor and their loss of autonomy, and
they resist, in individualistic ways, the imposition of managerial controls
and bureaucratic determination of worth. If they organize, they avoid
calling their associations unions.

On the other hand, scientists rush to take advantage of new entrepreneurial
opportunities. Some, especially during the brief period of an affluence
following sputnik, chose a career in science as one of several alternatives
that would provide financial and other rewards. two-thirds of all
scientists working in the U.S. are employed by industry and business, where
the pursuit of profit is the frankly recognized goal.

The transitional condition of scientists as a stratum of professional
intellectuals who are in the process of losing their professional status
being incorporated into the structure of capitalism exacerbates the
contradictions in their ideological positions and their social action.
These vary from defiant assertions of individual responsibility and
dissent, through cautious criticism, and studied indifference, to servile
sycophancy; from elitist resistance to being bureaucratized and
proletarianized to realistic or enthusiastic participation in the new
order, to alliance with other alienated sectors in the struggle against

As a result of these developments, the class divisions that plague Our
society as a whole also cut across the ranks of science. The majority of
the one million or so working scientists in the United States form a
scientific proletariat; they sell their labor power and have no control
over their product or their labor. At the opposite end, a few thousand at
most form a scientific bourgeoisie, investing in research and determining
much of the direction of research and development. In between these
extremes is the group of petty bourgeois professionals working alone or in
small groups in universities and research institutes. Although they may be
motivated by a great diversity of concerns, their activity depends
increasingly on obtaining funding from government agencies, private
foundations, or corporations. For them the research grant has become a
necessity. And the relation between the grant and the research has
gradually been transformed: whereas initially the grant was a means for
research, for the entrepreneurs of science, the research has become the
means to a grant.

These include chemicals, apparatus, culture media, standardized strains of
laboratory animals, and scientific information. One consequence is that the
development of scientific technology is often separate from the scientific
research it is intended to serve. The technology is not directed at finding
the cheapest or best way to study nature but at gaining profit from
specific markets.

In Third World countries sales representatives urge the new scientific
institutes to have the "best," the "most modern" equipment long before
spare parts, repair service, or reliable electric power are available. The
president of the country may pose at the dedication of a shiny new
sixteen-channel electroencephalogram for the psychiatric institute, but he
would not show up for the trial run of buckets filled with banana mash used
for surveying fruit flies. It is more dramatic to found an institute than
to keep it running. Therefore, there is now a rich tradition of telling
about underutilized or broken or abandoned facilities throughout the tropics.

At present it costs about $100,000 a year to keep one scientist working in
the United States, the equivalent of the wages of perhaps 5 industrial or
service workers. In Third World countries, scientists' salaries are lower,
but equipment and supplies cost more, and infrastructure is not available.
It may require the labor of fifty or more workers to the resources to
support one scientist.

Originally, scientific journals were published by scientific societies to
take the place of personal communications. Now, however, publishing houses
have moved into publishing scientific books and journals. Company
representatives often flatter and cajole scientists into writing a textbook
in, say, population genetics, because "we already have good sellers in
molecular genetics and developmental genetics, would complete the line."
What is published now depends on the publisher's and editor's need to fill
the journal and the author's need to be published in time for tenure
review, a job hunt, or a raise. The question rarely arises, "Is this
publication necessary?" Therefore, part of the much-cited information
explosion is really a noise explosion.

The commoditization of university science results from the financial needs
of universities. They consider scientists to be an investment in four ways:
for obtaining research grants from government agencies and corporations;
for converting scientific reports into public relations and the prestige
into endowments; for raising the "standing" of the university as the basis
for raising tuition and attracting students; and, for sharing in the
patents of inventions made by university faculty. As a result, the
allocation of resources within a university is influenced by the prestige
and earning capacity of the various programs, and scientists in a number of
universities report pressure from their administrators to turn their
research in more affluent directions, such as engineering.

The conditions of existence of the scientific strata in the capitalist
reinforce the beliefs and attitudes scientists receive as part of the
general liberal-conservative heritage. Despite a broad range of variation
in scientists' beliefs, and despite the contradictory beliefs we all hold,
there does exist a coherent implicit ideology that can legitimately be
designated bourgeois. It includes the following characteristics:

The bourgeois atomistic view of society, as applied to science, asserts
that progress is made by a few individuals (who just happen to be "us").
Scientists see themselves as free agents independently pursuing their own
inclinations. "Just as in astronomy the difficulty of admitting the motion
of the earth lay in the immediate sensation of the earth's stationariness
and of the planets' motion, so in history the difficulty of recognizing the
subjection of the personality to the laws of space and time and causation
lies in the difficulty of surmounting the direct sensation of the
independence of one's personality" (Tolstoy, War and Peace). Nowhere is the
sensation of independence stronger and the deception more pitiful than
among intellectuals.

Individualism in science helps create the common belief that the properties
of populations are simply derivable from those of the uncharged atoms
(genes) of populations or societies. It also transforms the subjective
experience of career ambition into the invention of selfishness as a law of
evolution. A crucial element of individualistic ideology is the denial of
that ideology.

This assertion of the superiority of a small minority of intellectuals
often leads to the belief that the survival of humanity depends on the
ability of that minority to cajole and con the rest of the people into
doing what is good for them. This bias is especially pronounced in science
fiction accounts of resistance to political oppression, in which a few
dedicated scientists conspire to outwit the rulers. This elitism is
profoundly antidemocratic, encouraging a cult of expertise, an aesthetic
appreciation of manipulation, and a disdain for those who do not make it by
the rules of academia, which often reinforces racism and sexism. The
dismissal of folk knowledge has contributed to disasters in agricultural
development. The elitist view supports a managerial approach to the
administration of intellectual life and sees the cooptive self-selection of
the academic and corporate elite as a reasonable way to run human affairs.

In the internal theoretical issues of science, elitism perhaps contributes
to the belief in the notion of hierarchical organization and to the search
for the controlling factor that fits into the reductionist world view,
which retards the study of the reciprocal interpenetration of parts in
favor of a chain-of-command model of genetics, society, and even
ecosystems. Whereas the individualistic view favors a model of the world in
which the parts (say, species in an ecosystem) are essentially independent,
the elitist paradigm imposes an organization that precludes autonomy.

In Western ideology "pragmatic" is a term of praises in contrast to
"ideological," which is pejorative. For scientists, pragma tism means
accepting the boundary conditions imposed by commoditization and
specialization. It means getting on with the job without ask-why, a stance
immortalized in Tom Lehrer's song about the missile expert: "'If the
rockets go up, who cares where they come down? It's not my department,'
said Werner von Braun." Since the major pathway by which scientists affect
policy is through their advice as consultants to "decision-makers," being
effective requires maintaining credibility. Therefore advice must be
limited to the domain of the acceptable; the dread of the raised eyebrow
that withdraws credibility acts to impose not only prudence in giving
advice but also, eventually, arrow the intellectual horizons of the
advisers. In the pragmatist's strong feelings about the injustice of social
arrangements are necessarily suspect as ideological, reflecting immaturity
as against scholarly cool.

Scientists may once have had to struggle to establish the principle that
all claims about the world must be validated by evidence. Neither appeals
to authority nor one's own wishes are allowed to carry any weight in
scientific controversy. Some separation of thinking from feeling was
probably necessary to establish the legitimacy of science. But once it
became absolute, that separation became an obstacle to self-conscious
scientific practice. It obscures the sources of our preferences about
directions to take or methods to use; it imposes a formalized introduction
to scientific papers, pretending to the individual scientist out of the
process of creative work through the pitiful device of removing
first-person pronouns, adopting grammatical form that Susan Griffin
described as the passive impersonal. More important, after questions of
fact are formally freed questions of value, they are not easily rejoined.
While philosophers devote lifetimes to discussing how to relate the "is" to
the "scientists are free to build all kinds of weapons, buffered by the
impersonal vocabulary of "cost effectiveness," "kill ratio," and terms,
from acknowledging the effects of the products of their labor.

Finally, the supposed superiority of thinking over feeling implies that
those who withhold feelings are superior to those who express them. One
result is that women, socialized in our society as the custodians of
feeling, must either suppress themselves in order to be allowed to do
science or must be systematically underestimated, as if "more emotional"
meant less rational.

The specialization of scientific labor and of command functions from
research creates a model of scientific organization that is easily seen as
the model for the organization of the world. Nature is perceived as
following the organization chart of our company or university, with similar
phenomena united under a single chairman, distinct but related phenomena
under a common dean, and unconnected events belonging to different schools
or divisions. Thus specialization in practice joins with atomistic
individualism to reinforce the reductionism that still predominates in the
implicit philosophy of scientists.

As socialists, we do not criticize the commoditization of science in order
to appeal for a return to the times before science became a commodity. That
would be as futile as the antitrust laws, which seek to recreate precisely
those past conditions that gave rise to the trusts. Our intent is
different. The commoditization of science, its full incorporation into the
process of capitalism, is the dominant fact of life for scientific activity
and a pervasive influence on the thinking of scientists. To deny its
relevance is to remain subject to its power, while the first step toward
freedom is to acknowledge the dimensions of our unfreedom.

As working scientists, we see the commoditization of science as the prime
cause of the alienation of most scientists from the products of their
labor. It stands between the powerful insights of science and corresponding
advances in human welfare, often producing results that contradict the
stated purposes. The continuation of hunger in the modern world is not the
result of an intractable problem thwarting our best efforts to feed people.
Rather, agriculture in the capitalist world is directly concerned with
profit and only indirectly with feeding people. Similarly, the organization
of health care is directly an economic enterprise and is only secondarily
influenced by people's health needs. The irrationalities of a
scientifically sophisticated world come not from failures of intelligence
but from the persistence of capitalism, which as a by-product also aborts
human intelligence.

In a world in which some countries have broken with capitalism, it is
important to emphasize that the way science is is not how it has to be,
that its present structure is not imposed by nature but by capitalism, and
that it is not necessary to emulate this system of doing science.

Louis Proyect


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