Technophobia & Socialism

John Edmundson JWE21 at
Thu Jun 15 02:43:59 MDT 2000

The debate over global warming which has been raging on this list
for the last week or so raises the general issue of science and the
left's attitude to it. I don't want to get into the technical issues of
the debate as it is not an area I have any specialist knowledge in. I
would say that I do not adhere to the view that snorkelling holidays
beside the palm studded beaches of Iceland could be had without
significant cost, but I would also agree that the debate over science
does tend to create a paralysis on the left and a tencency towards
small scale 'nutter' actions rather than useful progressive work
towards the building of a new and better society. The issue is
greater than just global warming. It engulfs the whole area of
genetic engineering and sustainable development which have also
been debated here to a greater or lesser degree.
The key to all these issues in my view is the issue of control. Take
the genetic engineering debate for example. In an interview on
National Radio here recently, the issue of genetically engineered
vitamin A enhanced rice was discussed. The interviewer suggested
that this could, as its developers have argued, solve the problem of
blindness caused through vitamin A deficiency. The interviewee
pointed out that if the locals in Malasia could afford, as they
previously could, to buy the paw paws (papayas) that grow
everywhere in the country, there would be no vitamin A deficiency
and no need to buy expensive new rice from the transnational
capitalists. However, according to another programme, scientists in
Canada have developed a genetically modified corn plant among
others, which sucks excess salts out of the soil. In other words, as
the programme pointed out, land which has been desertified by
irrigation, (and I'm thinking here of significant areas of the
Australian farmland for example) could be recovered as a useable
resource, even if the plants were burned afterwards. Yet the luddite
view ascendent in this country (New Zealand) has achieved a
moratorium on all new genetic research. Otago University's science
laboratories were raided by Government representatives who
confiscated all "suspect" materials, putting years of research in
jeopardy. A friend of mine at the University of Canterbury had to
cancel part of his Masters research into campylobacter because
the luminous dye he was using had a genetically modified element.
Students and staff are now required to wear different lab coats for
each room and corridor that they pass through.

Not all genetic research is useful. Much of the development is only
required to fix problems created by capitalism, and which could be
eliminated with the overthrow of the capitalist system. On the other
hand, much genetic research is potentially of enormous value to
society and should be pursued.

Likewise, given that the vast majority of the world's energy
consumption and pollution takes place in the interests of Western
capitalism, it is only by dealing to capitalism that we can hope to
address these issues. Forcing "sustainable development" on the
third world whether in the interests of pollution and climate control
or for any other reason is to pander to the belief that Africans and
others are attempting to live "unsustainably" and beyond their
means. But wait a minute. Who's "living beyond their means?" The
inability of capitalism to deliver the "development model" and its
diminished need to do so without competition from the Soviet bloc
has created "sustainable development". Of course the sustainable
development that the IMF and World Bank talk about and the
sustainable development that the left and the green movement talk
about are not the same. But the sustainable development I'm most
familiar with, through knowing people in the local aid agency, which
supports most of the green and "left" issues, campaigns against
the IMF, APEC etc, is about supporting small scale craft
industries, opposing virtually any high tech or industrial
development on the basis that it's "inappropriate technology." Yet
surely technology which can raise living standards is hardly
inappropriate, just because the uneven development of global
capitalism means people can't get the resources required to
maintain it. What that really means is that the technology needs to
be delivered within the context of social revolution. Some of the
ideas the sustainable development advocates propose are good,
and possibly the only practical option at a particular time in a
particular place, but they are no longer presented in any context.
The mantra of sustainable development is therefore ultimately
reactionary, as it serves further to perpetuate the gap between the
rich and poor nations and between the rich and poor within nations.
It is undoubtedly, in New Zealand at least, part and parcel of the
whole rejection of revolutionary change. In this era of quiescence
and demoralisation, people who were once dedicated Marxists
have embraced it as the only possible path. For this reason, I think
it is important for Marxists to challenge the techno-fear that
pervades society, and argue again for the control of scientific
research by society as a whole,  rather than rejecting science
itself, in the attempt to attack the capitalist corporations carrying
out that science.
John Edmundson

More information about the Marxism mailing list