What will Socialist society do with science?
Most people have no direct experience of science, only of the technology that is an almost incidental by-product of it, yet capitalism pours billions into pure scientific research despite the fact that virtually none of it will ever yield a profit. Why? Because the one per cent that does make a profit will pay for the 99 per cent that doesn’t.
And what will socialism do with pure research? Carry on the same way? Hardly.The problem with science in capitalism is that scientists have mortgages to pay, so they need to chase funding because they can’t afford to work for free.
Much of this funding is from military sources, and weapons systems drive so much research that some have even argued that in socialism we would never have invented the computer! Of course this implies that without military needs no other human needs would surface to take science forward, which is plain nonsense. Valve-state computing may have arisen because of a desire to calculate ballistics, but Babbage’s original ‘computer’ was developed to calculate navigation for ships, a distinctly unmilitary application. So what approach would socialist society take to the great scientific project?
Priorities would certainly be different. Drug research, for instance, will not occur in capitalism if the estimated $800m cost is not
likely to be recouped, thus diseases rife in poor countries are overlooked while the top three drug groups by global sales are fat
reducers ($26b), anti-ulcerants ($24b) and anti-depressants ($20b) (New Scientist, Jan 15, p.41). Similarly, science would no longer be prostrate at the feet of the military. Global military spending for 2004 was $1trillion. The US spends 40% of this, is home to 5 of the top 6 military corporations (the sixth,BAE Systems, is in the UK), and is the biggest investor in military R&D ($62.8b in
2004) while the UK is the second biggest (£2.6b in 2003-4). (New Scientist, Jan 22,p.19).
While some other lines of research would probably end, for example cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, including most animal testing which is for this purpose, there would be a clear need for continued work in climatology, energy, epidemiology and many others, but it is questionable whether a socialist community would have the same passion as George Bush to send humans to Mars, or to build space hotels.
In capitalism, science is a huge gamble that only occasionally results in a win, but bets are never placed on research that helps people who can’t pay. In socialism, science will still be a gamble, but with the difference that no knowledge thus gained can ever be money lost. It may be that the huge time, resource and work investment in such esoteric projects as Atlas and the Large Hadron Collider, the LIGO gravitational wave detector or the AMANDA neutrino telescope will continue in socialism, but if they do it will be because the population understands and respects scientific enquiry for its own sake, and not because they are expecting to get a new groovy gadget out of it.
What we can say for sure is that curiosity is not likely to be dimmed by some inexplicable post-capitalist apathy in a society that releases scientists as well as all other workers from the compulsion to direct their efforts towards only those endeavours that the
capitalist class sees an interest in funding. The freedom from patent and copyright restrictions, which are forms of private ownership and will thus be abolished, will almost certainly unlock a tidal wave of new development which may revolutionise areas of science
which are currently at a near-standstill, for instance drug research and computing. In addition, the justifiable fear of what corporations, governments and the military might do with horizon science will no longer hold back developments in gene research and nanotechnology. Lastly, the ending of male domination of science, in which men are four times more likely than women to be scientists (BBC Online Science, June 16) will produce a vast influx of new talent and new ideas that can only advance scientific effort for the acquisition of knowledge and ultimately the betterment of humanity.
Will Socialism be a Gadget Geek’s Paradise?
William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890) famously describes a deliberately low-tech socialist society in which people have eschewed the benefits of technology and adopted simple ways of doing things, although arguably he cheats by powering his ‘force barges’ with some mysterious energy source he never explains, thus hiding his technology rather than really abolishing it. Nonetheless, this is unusual in that most portraits of the future, whether socialist or not, depict a society of advanced technological
splendour in which all our needs are met by a range of technical apparatuses only a voice-command away. The amount of electronic appliances in the average household now massively outweighs that of fifty years ago, and half a century from now we may
shudder at the poverty of gadgetry suffered in the early 21st century. Whilst it is true that all our digital delights are products of capitalism, it is not necessarily the case that a socialist society will produce an equal amount of high-tech gadgetry. Because socialist
production will meet real rather than false needs, it could be that socialism might be a low-gadget society.
In 1995 few people were demanding a portable telecommunications device small enough to slip into the pocket. Fewer yet desired one that could take still and moving images and transmit them at light-speed around the world. Once the sine qua non of Yuppies
and then the plaything of the young, mobile phones have achieved phenomenal penetration into our lives and our psychologies to the extent that people now look back to those pre-cellular days and wonder how on earth we managed without them. While the same could be said for many other products, mobile phones are unique due to the speed of their success and saturation of the telecommunications market, and the unparalleled innovativeness of their functions and features.
Much of that innovativeness, however, is market-driven, and if your mobile has a built-in video camera it’s probably because profit, not patrons, clamoured for it. People’s belief that they need a mobile is a telling example of the phenomenon of an artificially created
need, that is, the perceived need for a product stimulated not by genuine necessity but by the manipulation of our psychology by a producer battling for financial success in a competitive market.
Although mobile phones, i-Pods, palm-top PCs and so on can satisfy some actual needs, it is mainly sociologically- and
psychologically-induced perceived needs they actually satisfy, such as the need for conforming to group norms, the desire for
prestige, and the belief that a product brings contentment. And because these items are produced to satisfy manipulated needs, they can have little use value. So if socialism will be a society that relies far less on gadgets, it is only because it will be a more honest society than the present one, without artificial scarcity or artificial needs.