The Class Struggle of Science
[Appeared in Salty Eggs]
by Stephanie McMillan
Economic systems are in dialectical (mutually interdependent and contradictory) relationship with the political structure and prevailing ideas of each society as a whole, with the economy being the dominant or determining aspect. This is not to say that influence doesn’t go the other way, but economy has a stranglehold on everything else, shaping its nature (both bending all other elements to its needs, while at the same time generating its own opposition). Though we are told (by the ruling class) that science is “neutral,” it is no less a product of class domination than any other set of ideas.
Pre-capitalist conceptions of science were less reductive and acknowledged a living world—the German “Wissenschaft” once referred to a broader notion of scientific knowledge that incorporated philosophy and spirituality. (Not coincidentally, Germany was until relatively recently not a nation, but a fragmented collection of feudal domains, while England had entered its colonial period by the time Francis Bacon declared his intention to extract nature’s secrets through torture.) As capitalism emerged in Europe (concentrated in England and France), science was harnessed to march in step with it, to solidify a mechanistic and utilitarian view of the world.
Under capitalism, it is essential that the natural world be standardized. This is what makes commodification possible. You can’t sell “resources” (or human labor, either) as commodities if they’re not standardized. So science under capitalism becomes exactly what the economy requires it to be. As the economy advances to conquer ever-increasing terrain, the definition of science shifts accordingly, becoming ever more objectifying and divorced from ethics, emotion, and all other ways of knowing. As capitalism has become globalized, this process has accelerated and become orders of magnitude worse.
Since capitalism has a growth imperative (due to competition which causes a tendency of the rate of profit to fall), it must continuously create, expand and diversify consumer “needs.” It has bent all human knowledge to this fundamental task, seeking ever more new uses for natural “materials” to put on the market. Modern science is a suitable servant for capital, and its own nature becomes ever more narrow and focused on the utilitarian, for the sake of product development, profit, and fundamentally for the accumulation of surplus value through which capital reproduces itself.
The class-based economic system runs on domination: land theft (for resource extraction and the forced proletarianization of land-based people) combined with the exploitation of labor. It deforms every social relationship. Everything and everyone is conquered and subordinated to it. This is true of knowledge, art, love, the family structure—everything is twisted to serve hard economic imperatives.
It’s difficult for us to imagine a healthy way of relating to the world and to each other, because we never experienced it. Every aspect of relationship, human and otherwise, has been corrupted, and science has been one of the tools used in our current era to perpetrate this. Capitalism turns living beings into things—objectifies them—to standardize them for sale, and to predict their behavior so they can be more easily dominated. Science is tool of control, much like a gun.
But that doesn’t mean science can’t be useful in the struggle for liberation. Like a gun, it can be seized and turned against its former owner. The proletariat has its own science, comprised of dialectical materialism and historical materialism, which can help us analyze the forms of domination we are living under so that we can transform society. We can’t liberate ourselves without it. Proletarian theory is the window that reveals capitalism’s hidden mechanisms, allowing us to stop fixating solely on its dreadful effects and go after its core.
But like bourgeois science, proletarian science is valid only within its historical context and for a particular historical purpose: to overthrow and destroy capitalism, and to guide a transition to classless society. It constantly evolves during this process to encompass the necessities of its time. And like the proletariat itself, it will become obsolete, replaced by forms of knowledge that correspond to new forms of society.
We should use any tools at hand for our purposes, without being purist about it. (Good riddance to the feudalist superstitions and lies that modern science does challenge.) The practices of science—observation of phenomena, analysis, defining general patterns, constructing abstract concepts, and understanding tendencies to chart possible future trajectories—are certainly necessary for us to understand the inner workings of the complex and multi-layered economic system we are living under.
But let’s not stop there, or believe the claims that science is sufficient for (or capable of) defining all reality. Other forms of interaction and communication with the world, like emotion, physical contact, chemical exchange, dreams, art, poetry and intuition also contribute to our comprehension of truth. Concepts fundamental to modern science, like the subject/object split, are not inherent in the real world, but are culturally determined.*
The scientific method is strictly limited—for example, one of its main techniques, removing variables, changes the object of study by eliminating context, undesired possibilities, and free will. Science can discover what most rats might do in a situation set up in a laboratory, but this would be different from what they might do at home. Also, scientists usually discard deviations in an effort to standardize results. If 20 rats all respond in slightly different ways to some stimulus, then usually the result is presented as some average of these, ignoring individuality and variation.
Science can define certain structural aspects of a phenomenon or being—genetic or molecular makeup, physical construction, its more “mechanical” qualities—and can construct an abstract model from this information. But it cannot discover the full complexity of its object—the nature of its sentience, intentions, behavior in its undisturbed social context, and so on.
To put a living being in a lab (or to otherwise turn it into an object or abstraction) is to tear away all relations with others that comprise that being. If a human being was raised inside a box, outside any natural or social context, s/he could not be human in any true sense beyond the physical. A cloned mammoth in a lab is not a mammoth, but only the structure of a mammoth. A real, or full, mammoth would include mammoth behavior in a mammoth’s domain. This physical mammoth would not know how to behave, or even how to think or feel like a mammoth. S/he would not exist in the world as a mammoth except in form.
The tendency in this culture to conflate science with reality is related to the tendency to conflate the dominant forms of contemporary human society with humanity, or the state of the economy with the state of the world. It is related to the populist impulse to universalize concepts like freedom and democracy. Central to all these cases is the denial of class struggle. To accept the fallacies promoted by the ruling class of the neutrality of science (or freedom, or democracy), and thus fail to recognize the primacy of the real world and its iron laws (of nature and of class struggle), has disastrous consequences that we can see by looking out the window and into our own lives.
We do not need science to change the world, but we do need it to overturn and transform social relations, and our species’ relations with the world as a whole.
* We are individuals each with unique experiences and perception, who observe the world from inside out, but we are not only this. We are also permeable. Our edges are blurry. For example, we have 10 times more bacteria cells in our bodies than human cells, and viruses can affect our personalities—so we are collective beings and cannot always be certain who is the “I” actually having a particular experience or behaving in particular ways. Also, we are social animals, evolved within and made up of our relationships with other humans and the rest of the natural world. If those we’re connected to are harmed or changed, or if those connections are harmed or changed (which they have been, for all of us) then we’re also harmed or changed. The whole determines each of us.
There have been (and are) cultures with members who do not see or feel the world as subject/object, but as subjects in mutual relationships of interconnectedness with one another. Some cultures don’t abstract or objectify others—and don’t comprehend numbers beyond “one.” There is this one person, and that one person, and that one person. Together there are not “three” people because they are not the same.