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SCIENCE versus DEMOCRACY

by Robert M. Young

It is time to consider the relationship between 'social responsibility in science' and the mainstream of political and social debate and action. In particular, we must begin to see the central place of the institutional and ideological role of science in maintaining the most basic features of our anti-democratic society. Once we have begun to see, every one of us must decide what, if anything, he or she is going to do about maintaining, reforming, or transforming the present order of society, beginning with the institutions in which he or she is most directly involved — labs, departments, colleges, communities. This article is a first attempt to provoke debate and action on these questions.

The first thing to do is to contrast this critique with the usual conceptions of social responsibility in science. Most people who have considered these topics think in terms of four sorts of issues: (1) the social, economic and political context of science, (2) the sources of scientific research and its funding; (3) the use and abuse of sciences in technology, war and social control; (4) the social system of science itself — the sociology of science. Those concerned with these issues have made studies, instituted reforms and involved themselves in various kinds of direct action and protest.

In contrast, there has been relatively little activity in the movement which has been addressed to two central issues: (l) the role of science and the ideal of scientific rationality in maintaining the established order of society, (2) the hierarchical, anti-democratic structure of the institutions in which scientists work. The first point raises the very general issue of science versus democracy, and brings us into the main stream of social and political debate. The second point brings the problem of social action directly into our immediate professional context and makes us face the challenge of creating direct democracy in the institutions in which we find ourselves — now.

How are these issues related? How does science oppose democracy? Most people, including the scientific elite, believe in democracy, but most people mean by that term 'representative' democracy — the right to vote for someone to represent one's interests. This form of democracy is compatible with the present order of society, in which modern technology dictates an intricate division of labour in which specialists of different kinds and at different levels of expertise make piecemeal contributions to the creation, manufacture, assembly, distribution and servicing of both the necessities and the luxuries of advanced technocratic societies. This is true of producing knowledge as it is of producing automobiles and television sets.

Those who advocate the present order of society and those who are challenging it are agreed that the division of labour is a central feature of the organisation of complex economies. However, there is profound disagreement over the sort of division and the sort of democracy that are desirable and possible. Representative democracy is closely related to the hierarchical division of labour, which is itself based on the assumption that it is plain good sense that 'intellect shall direct labour' in industry and in scientific laboratories, while it is usually the case that labour can vote for representatives who legislate controls on industry and other employers to make equitable its conditions and the rewards for labour. Everyone in an institution has an equal right to a voice in any decision which affects him. This form of social organisation is not incompatible with the division of labour, but it is irreconcilable with the hierarchical division of labour. You cannot have authoritarian relationships alongside direct democracy.

Science is at the centre of this problem, since extremely complex hierarchical divisions of labour developed as a consequence of industrialisation and the growth of science and technology. The fusion of industry with science and technology is the lynch-pin of advanced technocratic societies. The 'rational' ordering of society uses scientific rationality as its model. The practice of scientific rationality depends on long, specialised education which produces an elite of experts who, in turn, exercise power over other people's lives and labour. The technological criterion of efficiency dictates that society shall be hierarchically organised in order, it is argued, to produce the maximum benefits from industry. Thus, science and technology determine that although people have democratic rights as citizens in society at large, their equal rights and obligations are severely restricted in their work. They can, in theory, work where they wish, and they can spend their earnings as they wish, but they cannot determine how they will work. The ownership of the means of production and the relations of production are hierarchically organised, and the worker is alienated from his work, himself, his fellow workers, and from his abstract democratic rights.

The only way to change this situation is to cut through the myth of meritocratic equality of opportunity and the mystification of representative democracy and bring about direct democracy. To do this we have to work on two fronts: get a clearer picture of the role of science in maintaining the hierarchical order of society and begin in our institutions to implement equal control by all the workers, whether they be cleaners, technicians, office staff, students, administrators, senior staff or department heads. This means getting together with all other potentially like-minded workers and talking about science and democracy and then calling for fundamental changes in how we go about treating one another. If we begin the struggle to democratize labs, departments and colleges now, we will immediately encounter both the structures and the issues which connect academic and scientific work with the transformation of society as a whole.

Some things to read about science and socialism, the ideological role of science and technology, and workers' control:

Roger Garaudy, The Turning Point of Socialism, Fontana paperback, 1970 (35p) — discusses the relationship between modern science and technology on the one hand and the political and economic systems in America, Russia, Yugoslavia, and Europe.

Jürgen Habermas, Towards a Rational Society, Heinemann paperback, 1970 (75p) — relates student protest, science and politics, see especially chapter 6: 'Technology and Science as "Ideology"'.

Ken Coates & Tony Topham (eds.), Workers' Control, Panther paperback, 1970 (50p) — a collection of writings from 1900 to 1969 dealing with workers' control in industry.

1063 words

Reprinted from Science or Society?, Bulletin of the Cambridge Society For Social Responsibility In Science No. 1 , May 1971, pp. 2-3.

Copyright: The Author

Address for Correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London, N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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