The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Review of "Alternate Pathways in Science and Industry" by David Hess

Often science is presented as a pristine authority due to its completely objective nature that is deserving of exception from the social, political, cultural, and economic pulls of the outside world. Dealing with the question of science as an autonomous field that is somehow transcends these external factors is extremely complex. However, it is safe to say that this notion of science as a purely objective exception to other influences has been resolutely dismantled by David Hess in Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry, as well as by other historians of science such as Stephan Jay Gould. This idea extends even further back to Marx, who argued that the ruling ideas in society, including those within the scientific realm, are the ideas of the ruling class. Hess rejects the Marxist analysis and instead adopts a pluralistic approach by explicitly objects to the term ruling class, replacing it instead with elites. These elites, he argues, comprise an often unconnected and combative web of various wealthy businessmen, industrialists, and high-level professionals. Despite this pluralistic approach, it does not seem necessary to reject ruling class as a conceptual category unless one ignores what Marx said about the ruling capitalist class as a “warring band of brothers.” Therefore, I do not find Hess’s rejection of ruling class particularly helpful and will continue its use. If this is the case, as I argue it is, then science is not, and cannot, be above or outside of the dominant ideological and hegemonic power structures in society. Therefore, science is inevitable constricted and/or pushed forward by the ever-changing, dialectical material and social conditions in which it operates.

Hess makes some valid assertions when attempting to situate scientific knowledge and the research process within its historical and social context.  For instance, Hess is absolutely correct to argue that science “sets the stage of modern politics by circumscribing the horizons of the possible.” In that way, science directly impacts political decisions. For example, what sort of alternative energy sources are possible replacements of fossil fuels and, subsequently, what sort of policies should be constructed to further these developments? Questions like this are determined, at least in part, by scientific knowledge and advancement in these areas. Despite this, it is not entirely clear how politics, economics, and social relations affect science. While Hess addresses these issues in a form of WHAT is studied, it should be briefly mentioned that HOW things are studied was an important debate in science for a long time. Both racism and sexism have historically played in the development of science. Gould has written expertly on this topic. He explains that racism and sexism, and the scientific study of them, helped perpetuate long-existing notions of female and racial inferiority that served to marginalize these groups. In other words, the scientific process and the facts that came from it were skillfully manipulated to serve the ideological convictions of the dominant political and economic class. Hess’s focus, however, is not on this construction or use of knowledge, but on what sort of research is undertaken and what is not.

The crux of his argument is that of “undone science,” in which he argues that the debate is no longer how scientific knowledge is created or constructed, but by what research is undertaken to be studied and what is not. Hess argues, in his pluralistic fashion, that research agendas have been influenced by industrialists, consumers, and non-profit groups. This is, undoubtedly true. However, it does not take much time to figure out which of these groups is dominant in influencing research decisions. For instance, the concept of “clean coal” technology, an oxymoron if there ever was one, is being pushed by the coal industry. There was literally no debate between John McCain and Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential elections over clean coal; it was simply accepted as a matter of fact that such policies would be pursued. Environmental organizations that argue against the destructive nature of coal are highly marginalized. Concerns they are concerned about, such as the environmental damage caused by mountain-top removal, the safety concerns for working class people forced to mine in often under-regulated and non-union or de-unionized mines (Massey Energy’s mines, for example), or the fact that coal-sequestering technology does not, and will not for a long time, exist on a scale that would even remotely justify such policies, are pushed aside or simply never enter the debate at all.

Furthermore, I think Hess accurately responds to autonomist perceptions of science when he explains that research is often determined by variables outside of the scientific realm. In other words, science is not a purely rational, objective, independent force. Hess is correct to point out that “when one steps back and follows the money, it is clear that funding flows help some fields to prosper while others whither on the vine.” Researchers, he points out, tend to follow the money at an “aggregate level,” even if all individuals do not pursue the same course. Therefore, who does what research depends heavily upon who can fund it. Corporations, the military sector, and other anti-democratic and dehumanizing forces are the ones with the power and money to manipulate scientific research. This does not even account for the “specialists” or scientists who have been bought off and attempt to downplay or disprove human-influenced climate change because they are in the pockets of certain dominant energy sectors.

Not only is science caught up in the web of economics, it is also not a purely rational pursuit. If, for instance, we assume science is a search for consensus of rational opinion among competent researchers, a common sociological definition, then we are simply covering science with a glittering generality. For instance, who defines what constitutes a rational opinion or competent researcher.  This would, of course, imply that an objective, eternal reality must exist which one could then, consequently, pursue a rational search for. However, this does not address the problem that arises when one considers that different opinions or ideas could prove rational within a particular framework. For instance, inside a capitalist mode of production where inter-state rivalries pursue nuclear weapons to maintain hegemony in a region or over the globe, such massive weapons of human destruction, and their creation by purportedly rational scientists, may appear rational to some observers.  In some other context, a society such a pernicious and destructive economic system is a thing of the past, nuclear weapons may prove a futile, irrational waste. Hess makes this argument well when he explains that scientists are often caught up with industrial priorities and pursue programs that are in conflict with social justice and social movement goals. With the advent of the security state, this trend will only increase.

I do not, on the other hand, find Hess’s arguments about epistemic modernization particularly convincing. While I do believe that this ought to be the case, and the scientific field should be opened up to users, patients, social movements, and other historically marginalized groups, I do not think this trend can be fully realized as long as an economic system remains in place that will always marginalize such communities. Until democratic control over society, including the economic sector, is in the hands of the people who do the work, corporate society will continue to dominate and, subsequently, negate the effectiveness of any democratic forms currently established. Therefore, science is not, and cannot, be above or apart from society, politics, economics, or social relations in general.

The question one could ask is how ought industrial production be regulated? This, of course, can be addressed in a variety of ways. We could, first, address who and how environmental standards are set and if they are adequate. We could also address how standards should be set within a regulatory, state-capitalist or welfare state model that maintains quasi-market relations. Lastly, we could argue for set of environmental standards that are fundamentally different and could only exist in a radically transformed society. I would like to briefly address the first two, and then make an argument for the third.

Currently, it is clear that environmental standards are NOT adequately met. Hess continues his pluralistic trend when he argues that a primary feature of standardization the definitional struggles or what he calls “object conflicts.” He maintains that such struggles involve governments, firms, individual consumers, and civil-society organizations which interact with each to set standards. This is, more or less, an accurate picture. As with scientific research, however, it is not hard to see which group, hailing from the ruling class, maintains more power. Furthermore, it is clear that environmental standards are not nearly adequate. We could take the Exxon-Valdez spill twenty years ago or the BP oil catastrophe today. We could analyze environmental destruction in the forms of desertification or pollution. We could address the immense threat from global climate change. Any of these areas are enough to show that this current system of regulation is inadequate. It is clear, therefore, that this pluralistic model where the industry and government maintain a revolving door (sort of like the way that large financial firms often employ government officials once they leave office or vice versa), and those with money and power can swindle their way into the standards they find least harmful to profit-making, is not working. Similarly, the United States has consistently rejected international proposals on climate change, such as the Kyoto Protocols, primarily from industrial and economic pressure from the ruling class.

The second idea, that a more stern regulatory culture within a capitalist model that allows for more government intervention in the form of regulation, could provide a basis for helping to reduce harmful environmental degradation. Hess maintains that standards “push industries to undergo ecological modernization” and “regulatory push remains the crucial factor in motivating industries to undertake environmentally oriented changes…” I think, therefore, a more strict and firm network of regulatory agencies, and an cap on the amount of profit that could be garnered yearly, would slightly reduce the amount of damage the corporate world inflicts upon the Earth. This sort of government regulatory agency could take charge in, for instance, implementing serious and rigorous labeling standards for products and undertake independent reviews of oil rigs (unlike was done in the BP case) and require that mines are unionized and consistently reviewed by OSHA. Agencies like the EPA would be strengthened considerably, and would have far more funding and options for regulatory possibilities. This would, undoubtedly, be a better situation for the environment than currently exists. Globally, participation in the United Nations would be less adversarial and more cooperative. More far-reaching and broad regulatory agencies at the international level would not be vetoed by the United States as frequently with more stringent environmental measure at home. The obvious drawbacks, however, are that corporate push-back against such limits on their profit-making would be severe. Capital flight, violations, rule-breaking, civil service corruption, bought-off administrative services, etc. could all break-down the quality of such an agency. Lastly, there is little hope that with all the power and money large corporations can throw around that such a strict regulatory agency is possible in the United States at this time. Lastly, if you leave the corporate power structure in tact, just weakened, and capitalism or the “really existing free market” (Chomsky) remains, it is simply inevitable before corporate power once again reaches a new annex and rolls back the gains struggled for.

Since the first two scenarios are either problematic or politically unrealizable, I would like to posit a radical proposition that extends beyond Hess’s proposals. I agree with Hess that a focus on just sustainability is appropriate. I also agree with his critique of the pernicious effects of corporate dominance and his understanding of the serious democratic limits in the United States. I do not, however, share his conviction that social movements, like Industrial Opposition Movements and Technology/Product Oriented Movements, ought to focus there efforts purely on corporate targets and not on the nation-state regulatory agencies. Although he admits that both, in a combination, would be preferable, he seems to relegate radical political organizations that desire to change society to an ancillary spot. Therefore, I suggest that a radical political organization, that focuses on the working class and underclass as its main vehicle of change, which aims for just sustainability is the necessary and pragmatic solution to the environmental standard problem.

If society could be fundamentally re-altered in a way that removed the profit-motive and replaced it with democratic control over the resources in society, human beings would tend towards environmental protection and regulation, understanding that not only theirs, but their childrens' and grandchildrens' livelihoods depended upon it. Standards would be democratically decided upon once all the experts had weighed in. Academic debates and conferences would be open to the public, and since the corporate sector would have been dismantled, society as a whole, or the regulatory commissioners they elect to represent them, could decide what sort of standards needed to be met. Accountability would be vital, and those who do not promote the safety and security of both the population and the environment would be immediately revoked. Furthermore, since profit would have been eliminated as motive, and goods were produced for human need, society could easily redirect resources from military spending and harmful energy sources to productive ones. Regulations and standards would keep pace with the constantly expanding alternative energy sector. These regulations would eventually eliminate fossil fuels and the funding would exist to replace them appropriate and sustainability energy sources. It is hard to tell what exactly, if any, the role of agencies as they exist today would be. However, this alternative form of regulation and standardization could only exist if a working class organization, large enough to take control of society and erect democratic institutions in the place of private tyrannies (or corporations), could be organized for the purpose of revolutionary change. Globally, the United Nations would have to be fundamentally restructured. Agreements like Kyoto would have to be binding, and the security council would have to be removed. This, however, would require more than just radical changes within the United States and extends beyond the scope of the question. In short, environmental regulation should be a mix of democratic participation by civil society and regulatory agencies that are manifestations of that civil society.

It is on the issue of the agents of social change where Hess and I seem to have a serious split. He maintains that social change advocates often alter history, but not according to their original vision. Environmental movements inspire change, but never is it far-reaching or radical. IOMs, for instance, usually only get partial moratoriums (like the anti-nuclear movement not getting rid of nukes completely) and TPMs are usually absorbed into the mainstream and simply become an alternative niche in the market (energy-efficient light bulbs or organic foods). After such a partial-victory or partial-loss, depending on how you approach it, a new “historical field for action” is available for activists and movements. Hess seems to believe that movements that desire ownership, like those that target the WTO, are inspiring but are simply not pragmatic. Constraints on pollution have helped clean the air and water in many instances, and have negatively impacted the profit-driven economic growth model followed by much of industry. However, while non-scientific voices and voices from the industry have made changes, they are not enough.

Hess argues that democracy is limited to three simple forms: voting once in awhile, regulatory decisions by indirectly elected officials, and consumer purchases. He even raises a serious critique of capitalism as it currently exists, but argues that democratic control over the means of production (namely, socialism, and not the state-capitalist models that one finds in Cuba or did find in the USSR) is not the answer. Instead, an incrementalist approach where non-profits slowly take over and edge out the corporate sector is the way forward for humanity. Lifestyle changes, which are required but need life-affirming social policies to back them up, are given positive light in his book. While critical of industry, he does not out rightly oppose it. He even goes as far to articulate what he calls a “dialectic of opposition and compromise.” Apparently, he cannot go far enough in renouncing any ties to Marxist theory he may hint at. By stripping Marx’s dialectical materialism of its fundamental tenant, that history revolves around struggles in which one group takes power and new social relations emerge, Hess seems to be articulating some sort of social democratic vision of society where reformism is the way towards social change.

Essentially, Hess makes a compelling, but ultimately flawed call for social change that argues social change movements should simultaneously target business institutions and governments, with a special focus on corporations and their public images. Democracy, then, is limited to simply making small changes in the structure of private, unaccountable tyrannies. Even if radical changes were to be desired by a majority of the population, they are unrealistic and would probably result, given the current organization of society, in partial changes to the way business is done. Hess’s solution, them, is to change industry in a way that may be harmful to profit-making, but leaves it in tact.

I agree with Hess, that without a fundamental change in the way society is organized, this is what society is condemned to. Therefore, I reject incrementalism as the most appropriate method of social change. Therefore, as I articulated in the response prior to this, I believe the evidence is there to support that a radical, fundamental change in the way society is organized is needed and, consequently, call for a working class organization that can democratically take control of society, both the economic and political realm. It is in this way that the non-scientific and non-industry voices can most effectively make their voices not only heard, but implement serious social change that aims at just sustainability.

I, and many others, call it socialism. I think industry should be in the hands of the people who do the work. I also think that given the current economic crisis, the massive material wealth that exists on Earth, and the environmental threat posed by capitalist expansionism, that there has been no better time in human history to call for such radical change. In this way, non-scientific voices, namely working class people, could liberate science from the tentacles of a hyper-rationalism that inevitably continue the trajectory toward militarization and environmentally harmful production that exists within a capitalist framework. Instead, science would be put towards socially useful use and the clutches of corporate power and money would no longer negatively impact scientific research.

In short, as Hess has shown, people are capable of organizing, motivating others, and fighting for social justice and change. I think the victories with the Clean Air and Water acts are sufficient to prove that social movements work, despite the potential effects they may have on industry. He cites numerous others examples, from the anti-nuclear movement or the fight against genetically modified food, to the New Urbanist reform plans and fair trade movements, to the battle in Seattle against the WTO. Of these, the social justice movement against corporate globalization in Seattle was perhaps the closest to a radical, wide-ranging social movement that could have potentially achieved radical change. Something along those lines must be recreated and push for fundamental social change if we are to save the environment. If we are to save ourselves from utter destruction and environmental degradation, we will have to take industry out of the hands of private corporations and into the hands of the people. You can look at this as harmful to capitalism and the economic model of industry that currently exists, but I feel this will not only help the environment, it will galvanize a sustainable and democratic form of industry that is beneficial to all of humanity.
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