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by Robert Young

The general public are becoming aware of areas of technology which affect us so immediately, so intimately and so vitally that the problem of how new products and procedures come into being may at last become an urgent social priority. The effects of microprocessors are very immediate in the printing industry and in automation. The promise of artificial fertilisation and implantation of human ova intimately affects childless couples. The achievements and dangers of spare part surgery are vital to the life prospects of the potential recipients of organ and tissue transplants. The likely benefits of genetic engineering are very impressive indeed, extending to every area of the food, chemical and drug industries as well as to the better-known possibilities of cloning and other less lurid applications .

Each of these areas of science, technology and medicine is replete with prospects and problems. I want to review some of them and to argue that they point to a fundamentally different approach to new discoveries. My conclusion is that this approach is likely to turn out to be essential to human survival but that it can not be taken within the existing social and economic order.

As things now stand new discoveries and procedures come into being as a result of forces which are not directly geared to the interests of ordinary people. Their originators claim that they are, but it's not so. They maintain that the existing arrangements serve all the people in the long run, even though the path to the public good is an indirect one. That is, research and development in the industrial area are aimed at making profits, while in the academic sector they are directed by the preoccupations of researchers who are concerned with their own intellectual puzzles and careers. The defenders of the present system claim that commercial investment is ultimately dictated by consumer demand and that academic research is controlled by granting agencies which are answerable to government and to other regulatory agencies which, in turn, have the public interest at heart. I think that the feedback loops, through the market in goods and services and in academic grant-getting, peer review and conferring of status, are not cast widely or early enough in the process of deciding what questions to ask and what technologies to create. A different system is needed: nothing short of socialism will remove the determinant role of exchange value from social relations.

I want to try to be as concrete as possible in opposing the defence of the status quo. My point is not that any of these new technologies are bad but that we cannot sort out the good possibilities in them from the bad within the existing arrangements. The pursuit of monetary capital and research or career capital are guaranteed to define 'public welfare’ in terms suitable to capital.

Before turning to my argument, I want to illustrate the point with two stark examples. In the inquest after the Harrisburg nuclear accident, one of the questions was about the delay on the part of the company, Metropolitan Edison, in informing the governmental Nuclear Regulatory Commission: The reply was that the company's first responsibility was to its shareholders. They informed the authorities only when it was inescapable (Guardian 9 April 1979). Turning to another sphere, one finds the same sort of competitive pressures in recombinant DNA research. The techniques of genetic manipulation are the way to 'the next paper, the next grant, the next step up the academic totem pole. The intensity of these pressures struck foreign scientists who attended the Asilomar conference where a temporary moratorium on such research was declared. As a leading British molecular biologist said afterwards, "People (were) being driven hard there. I kept hearing them use the word business. You know, as in "You'll put me out of business with these restrictions." Many times!’ (Wright, 'Molecular Politics', pp. 60-61).


Microprocessors are amazing. It has been clear for a long time that 'computers could do wonderful things' . But the two problems of size and cost have limited the imagination about new applications. The qualitative change has occurred with silicon chip technology which can put 80 many items and operations on so small a chip for 80 little cost — approaching a negligible fraction of a penny — that it can be worth automating almost any process which can be reduced to rules, however complicated. The electronic circuits of a small computer can fit onto one chip a few millimetres square. You can put more than 16, 000 units on one now; over a million are projected by 1990, and many chips can fit into a small space. By the end of the century we should have virtually zero-cost memory and processing as far as the chips them selves are concerned.

Want to go shopping, write a letter for delivery or an article for publication, read or broadcast something, see a film or a tele programme, make something, experience a particular set of sensations? It's all technically feasible where ever you are, at whatever time of day or night, by means of micro-circuitry, visual displays and your own terminal for conveying instructions and receiving images and information.

Rather than B into illustrative detail about future applications, I want to revert to some of the new technologies which are already on the market. It is worth mentioning, however, that the information and consumer sides (including shopping and arranging holidays) are about to be deployed on existing television and telephone facilities via the Viewdata, Prestel and Teletext systems (including Ceefax and Oracle). The daily news (or interruptions thereof) is already full of items about machines for information processing in the newspaper and office equipment industries. The new print technologies eliminate 'hot metal' typesetting and, for example, allow a reporter or columnist to typeset straight onto the presses from a machine in the editorial offices. Typesetting as such disappears in the automated process.

In the general secretarial office setting, word processors can do impressive things. A word processor is a microprocessor-based typing system. Not only can they reproduce originals of standard letters, or build them up from a stock of sentences or paragraphs — all from memory. They can also eliminate all paper filing but provide a paper print-out if you require one. They can take in a single correction or a set of tiny ones in a long document, make the substitutions in the original version, and then reproduce the entire text from their memory, integrating old and new in a finished version. These machines are now being advertised on prime-time television. (The typist without one can't cope and ends up resigning. The benefits of word processors and automated typesetting in a law office and in preparing long articles and books are obvious to anyone who has ever worked with drafts or proofs. The government Think Tank report on microprocessors refers to 100% gains in productivity in comparing microprocessors with typewriters. The next steps are voice-activated and voice synthesizing chips which can translate easily between print and sound. This could be followed by very cheap telecommunications, making ’teleconferencing' an attractive alternative to the printed word.

The National Graphical Association (NGA), the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS), the Association of Professional, Executive and Computer Staff (APEX) and other unions are very ambivalent about these new technologies. The print unions argue that 60% of jobs in Fleet Street will be eliminated, while a recent careful study by an ASTMS researcher suggests that around 22 million British information workers could lose their jobs by 1985, and that by 1991 the figure could have risen to nearly 4 million. The West German trades unions predict that by 1990 two million of the country's five million secretarial jobs will be lost.

On the other hand, a recent survey by A. D. Little (which was commissioned by several governments) forecasts one million new jobs in the microelectronic industry itself by 1987, but 60% of those would be in the USA. The gamble is, of course, that the new technology will generate jobs throughout the economy, and who can say what the net effect will be. For example, another factor is that in addition to current unemployment in Britain, there is the prospect of two million extra workers looking for jobs by 1990 because of the rising birth rate.

There is no doubt at all, however, that the new technology will produce massive changes in employment patterns. The British Labour government’s commitment of 100 million from the National Enterprise Board to three newly-created firms — INMOS (chips), INSAC (software), and NEXOS (office equipment) — is part of an attempt at national re-tooling at a level 80 fundamental as to amount to ’reindustrialisation’ .

But the silicon chip gamble' is a desperate one — an attempt to stay in the running with the front-running nations that the country’s political leaders and electronic industrialists feel they must make. There is already much doubt about whether or not their technology will win out. Even if it d~ here is a partial list of jobs most at risk: accountants, financial advisors and administrators, draughtsmen, computer programmers, postmen, telegraph operators, printers, proof-readers, library assistants, cashiers, meter readers, TV and phone repairmen, machinists, mechanics, inspectors, assemblers, operatives, material handlers, warehousmen, travel agents, shop salespersons (list adapted from Large, Guardian 2 May 1979). This list comes from the predictions of one of the three leaders of the government-backed micro processor enterprise, Iann Barron. Mrs. Thatcher, however, can blandly reassure us that the new technology ’is really a friend of the people; it doesn't do anyone out of a job but allows people to do things they couldn’t do before' (BBC-l News, 21 April 1979).

The Secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science says this about the future of work, ’There is a real likelihood that the workforce will become polarised into a relatively small technological elite able to move with, and enjoy, the advancing technologies and to adapt to the changing circumstances, and a much larger proportion of work people whose skills have become outmoded and who lack the education or the mental attitudes to adapt to change. A widely based initial education, greater use of further education and retraining, and an acknowledgement by society that people who have served well for as long as they are able to do, deserve to be well treated in later years, are all matters that will have to be appreciated. If they are not, then unmanageable social stresses are certain to arise and the consequences are likely to be catastrophic.’

That sort of rhetoric is being taken up by others as well. Our new overseer of employment, James Prior, said, ’If we do have to face higher unemployment, let's not despair. It may well be that in the next 10, 15 or 20 years we will have a new philosophy toward unemployment. We may have to move away from the Protestant work ethic (Guardian 22 March 1979). [He still got his portfolio, even though he had contradicted Her on unemployment and even on the work ethic.] No one seems to have thought at all clearly about these disruptions; so far, the aim seems to be to produce euphemisms for old-fashioned unemployment but to express it so that the jobless will be kept off the streets and out of the pubs by cradle-to-grave education'

Why this appalling gap between the potential benefits and the likely dislocations caused by microprocessors? The answer lies in the strict criteria of productivity and control which led to the creation of these technologies. Word processing machines came into being because the paperwork side of production and services had become the bottleneck — in terms of time and cost — to the faster circulation and expansion of capital. It was an area of low automation and of relatively high control over the labour process by the worker. If one compares it to other domains, the move is something like that from craft production of automobiles to the moving assembly line (which is itself now moving onto microprocessor automation and even assembly, thereby further reducing worker control). At the other extreme, the construction industry remains relatively unaffected by the process of placing the control of work in automated machinery.

Newspapers attempt to introduce the new print technology, because it will make them more efficient and more resistant to unions whose militancy has made the press exquisitely vulnerable to go-slow, ’overmanning’, work-to-rule, stoppages and straight refusal to typeset or print certain items. That is, the owners are seeking to gain control over the labour process of reproducing and disseminating what they want said. Comparatively speaking, this would bring them to the sort of control which television presenters have now. Unless particular technicians pull the plug or the camera operator balks, what the presenter says is what ends up on the home screen. (Of course, television has its own struggle with new technologies. The compact Electronic News Gathering equipment used by reporters in other countries allows direct transmission by satellite and requires only one operator at the scene of the action. British television news trades unionists have 80 far successfully resisted its introduction.) Since newspapers have such narrow profit margins, the proprietors are determined to gain control over the labour process even if it requires an old-fashioned lock-out, as it did in the case of the Times and its associated publications.

Similarly, the installation of word processors in offices can reduce the areas of relative autonomy enjoyed by secretaries. Work, speed, time spent not typing-_ all can be monitored by the machine itself, keeping a record of everything the secretary types, including mistakes. Getting up to do filing, have a smoke or a chat can be monitored or eliminated.

When an industry, a newspaper or a particular office is faced with the imminent installation of such equipment, the workers are placed in a very difficult situation. There is no doubt at all that the new technologies are more efficient, easier to operate, etc. The defensive options open to the workers all look bad and have little prospect of long-term success. Their opposition strikes the general public as committing a cardinal sin of being against ’progress’. They appear to be Luddites or to be fighting a delaying action merely to protect their livelihoods. . But what else can they do in the short run? Few would argue that being a typist is deeply rewarding work, and the boss-secretary relationship is one of the most patriarchal going. But the non-patriarchal and very real subordination to a word processor is not much better and involves considerable deskilling. While protecting the craft element in some jobs in the printing industry is one argument against the new technologies, the benefits to be gained from such machines are undoubted. Indeed, a contradictory situation has arisen, whereby a small radical magazine (The Leveller) arguing the case of the Times newspaper print workers can get printed more cheaply and quickly because the journal's anarchist typesetters (Bread & Roses) have installed a machine embodying some of the new technology.

I am not going to say that print workers and secretaries should do X instead of Y. When faced with the machines being wheeled in, there is very little else one can do other than hold out for jobs and/or compensation. But how do you compensate the working class for a lost job? Here we come up against the system which can expect ’overmanning’ if the alternative is unemployment. What I want to say about this (and the other technologies I’m considering here) is what the local said to the tourist asking directions in a labyrinth: ’I wouldn't start from this point’. When confronted with a completed, highly integrated piece of technology at the point of application, one wants to go back down the line to the point of origination and to constitute it along different lines for different purposes. Instead of opposing only the uses (or ’abuses’) of existing technologies, we need to reconstitute them. Only then can we avoid the trap wherein we are opposing the obviously useful machine because it has dire consequences for our jobs. We can only tease apart those aspects if we — literally— go back to the drawing board. In doing so, we would seek to design technologies which did not de-skill the operator or increase her/his subordination to the machine. And our priorities in choosing which machines to set out to design would not be dictated solely by the narrow criteria of improved efficiency and profitability, regardless of social consequences.

All of this may seem impossibly utopian, 80 I had better give a concrete example of what I mean by reconstituting technology. When Lucas Aerospace lost some of its markets and began talking about redundancies, the Combine Shop Stewards Committee decided that it was time they had a go at planning for the future of the firm and set about making a Corporate Plan. Their approach was to save jobs by making different products — ones which were socially useful. They invited the general public and various organisations concerned with social responsibility in science and alternative technology to suggest new products. Among those which came in were solar heating systems, a gas turbine, kidney machines, invalid vehicles and medical appliances. The management at Lucas were not prepared to consider the Plan--for very good reason fundamental issues were at stake. Here was the work force-.or a portion of it (and internal. divisions arose here, too)--not merely selling labour power and going away when declining markets dictated that capital should flow elsewhere. Instead, the workers were usurping management prerogatives and proposing what should be manufactured by the firm. Worker directors would have been bad enough, but this was an overall strategy for the future of the plants and, most importantly, their social purpose — moving away from military technology to constructive, socially useful products. After a very long and fruit less struggle and eventual television coverage, the management was brought to discuss some of the issues by the intervention of the Department of Industry.

Notice that the ambiguous ’we’ which slipped into my description of reconstituting technology now becomes the workers themselves. The issue then becomes, ’Who decides in what technologies society's energies and resources should be in vested?’ This is a terrain which I think the owners of the means of production are extremely unlikely to concede under capitalism or those in power in any other hierarchical and authoritarian social order.

The Lucas Combine has not been content to rest at the point of confrontation with management over redundancies and over the question of what products to make. They have taken part in the establishment of a Centre for Alternative Industrial and Technological Systems (CAITS) in association with North East London Polytechnic, with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Trust. At CAITS they are beginning to address another of the problems mentioned above — deskilling. They are looking closely at the insides of technologies and at the interface between the worker and the machine, and attempting to ensure that the machine does not de-skill and mystify the labour process. Many new technologies reverse the relationship between worker and tool so that the worker is merely a servant or tender, doing what he or she is told by-the machine. The Lucas group are pursuing a principle they call ’telechirics', literally ’hands at a distance’. The point is that if you want to have a machine which tightens nuts at a distance or in a hostile environment, the worker performs a motion which is like tightening a nut. That may seem silly, but the principle is fundamental — that the interface be worker-controlled, familiar, recognisable. The project is attempting to tease apart the worker’s role and social usefulness on one hand, from control, subordination and deskilling on the other. Combine this approach with the principle that new technologies should not be constituted so as to produce redundancies without compensating with new employment, and you have a socially responsible policy for research and development.

What we are talking about here is the conversion of machines — fixed capital — back into the social relations which they embody. In capitalism, machines are designed to convert relations between people, and between people and raw materials, into relations between things; that is a definition of reification ('thingification'). The design of technologies — like the design of cities and houses — is the shaping of what can happen to people and things and in the interactions between them, in what sorts of spaces and times. Technologies can be more or less accessible, fixed, permissive. The relations between inputs, parts and processes and outputs are the factors which the designers conceive and bring into being; the designs constitute — and objectify — the relations, but the designers' tasks are, in turn, constituted by the social relations of capitalism. The Lucas project aims to retain control for the operator so that the machine is still a tool for a craftsperson rather than having control fixed inaccessibly in the mystifying structure and logic of the machine. By the same token, it is important that servicing and repairs should not be a closed domain whereby out side service agencies breeze in, replace an expensive closed box, and breeze out.

The project of reconstituting technologies requires, as a first step, the demystification of the machine — not in the abstract but a particular machine — to disassemble the social relations it embodies. Then comes the process — an evaluative and deeply political one — of deciding what purposes one wants it to serve and designing it accordingly. In our present arrangements this setting of goals comes from above, from the designer's boss, who got his orders from further up the line, and so on. The designer is not normally forbidden to originate projects, but is basically supposed to operate nearer the 'hand' end of the separation of head and hand which is characteristic of the authority system of modern industry. So it is a very important new departure to reintroduce the setting of purposes into the design process.

The next step is to bring a wider community into this process At present that relationship is so highly mediated as to;be relatively useless, or, rather, what counts as 'useful' is arrived at by a process which is difficult to defend, given the tricks advertisers get up to in trying to persuade us about what we need. The consumer movement tries to improve on this highly biased mediation but is on the whole restricted to product-testing and comparison and the identification of the rankest abuses, as Ralph Nader has done, for example, with automobiles in America. At the other end of the scale we find tobacco advertising and the cosmetics industry where, for example, shampoo, bubble bath and washing-up liquid are the same thing, except for dilution with water, colouring, perfume, packaging, and a pinch of salt to make the bath bubbles linger. The consumer movement has not yet made the crucial move from monitoring technical standards to initiating design and production. That part of the feedback loop is missing. The initiation of knowledge, technologies and products is left to the initiative of 'individual' entrepreneurs, whether they be scientists, technologists or manufacturers or all three at once (it's hard to stretch the idea of creative 'individuals' to vast multinationals — IBM, ICI, ITT, Unilever, Texas Instruments, Motorola).

I want to mention in passing a potentially useful sort of institution for strengthening the weak side of the feedback loop. In Holland, 'science shops' have been set up in various cities, where any individual or group can walk in off the street to call for research on problems or new products. The shop acts as a clearing house and brings the requests to the attention of researchers in science and technology. This scheme is fraught with contradictions and potential for co-optation. But it has its progressive moment and — like the Lucas Stewards' Plan — needs very careful consideration as a possible area of transitional struggle for stimulating a new sense of initiative on the part of the working class.

But there is a fundamental contradiction in the development of microelectronic technology under capitalism. Economists point out that the entrepreneurial control of 'wealth production' has no justification if it cannot maintain and increase the availability of jobs. The new technology generates its profits by eliminating jobs and giving greater control over those that remain. It does so with a rate of cycles of technological innovation and risk of falling profit rates that justifies the direst marxist predictions about the fate of economies geared to such fierce competition (Mandel, Chapters 6 and 8). It is the triumph of exchange value and fixed capital — experienced by the working class as real subordination — over the labour process. It is also a genuine technological revolution on a par with steam power, the factory system and the moving assembly line. But it is one in which the ratio of dead labour (machines) to living labour is very high. This ratio, ’the organic composition of capital', produces a form of Russian roulette in which only the most agile companies and economies survive. Since — in the long run — profits can be derived only from living labour, a stark prospect is ahead. The interests which always get subordinated in this sort of risk taking are those of the workforce. The entrepreneurial control of wealth production looks likely to lose what little justification it had, while a few firms and a shrinking elite of affluent consumers will reap dramatic short-term benefits.


Which brings me to the second example I want to discuss — genetic engineering. I'll let it jump the queue in front of artificial fertilisation and implantation, because the role of capital is starker here. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the potential benefits of genetic engineering. I've heard it said that the patent on the basic system (an attenuated strain of the bacterium E. coli which can survive only in a narrow band of 'safe' conditions but would perish outside it and so couldn't run wild) is potentially the most lucrative in history. Nearly everything that is now done in the chemical, pharmaceutical, energy and food industries could, in principle, be done by a suitably altered biological system. There is scope for virtually unlimited artificial protein, plastics, wall coverings, paper, building materials, drugs, fuels. Put in its broadest terms, any thing that nature has produced by biochemical means we might produce at our own discretion from simple materials. The sorcerer's apprentice has found the philosopher’s stone; it cannot (as far as I know) turn base metals into gold, but it can do the biological equivalent. This productive potential of genetic manipulation has not received the publicity which has been given to the more filmic possibilities of cloning Einsteins, Thatchers, 'The Boys From Brazil’ or the alphas, betas and gammas of Brave New World. This possibility, of course, has drawn attention to the awesome responsibilities of a true Prometheus making humans and other beasts to order, in addition to humankind's existing creative powers and our difficulties in exercising them responsibly.

It was a group of scientists who drew attention to the potential dangers from genetic manipulation, e. g., rogue bacteria or viruses escaping down the sink and into the water supply of a defenceless populace. Or — worse — governments designing even more lethal infective agents than they have already in their chemical and biological warfare research.

A remarkable and rapidly accelerating change has occurred since the original alarm was sounded. The scientists met and deliberated and told the public that they could, after all, handle the responsibility. But when the public continued to be aroused and wanted to monitor and control genetic manipulation, the scientists took fright and moved onto the offensive. One group of major American universities, normally in receipt of very large grants from the US government, dubbed themselves the ’Friends of DNA' and hired a Washington lobbyist. This representative of Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Washington Universities wanted to 'avoid setting a dangerous precedent for demands for community involvement in other areas of university activity' (Dickson, Nature 20 April 1979, p. 664). And in the week before I drafted this essay there was an item in the New Scientist under the marvellously positivistic headline, 'Scientific Evidence Damns Control of Genetic Engineering', as though the criteria for control are obviously to be generated from inside the lab and not by social priorities in the wider community, taking due note of scientific evidence and opinion

'British scientists consider that restrictions imposed on many genetic engineering experiments in the UK are too severe; they also believe that although the Genetic Engineering Advisory Group (GMAG) provides ". . . a flexible contribution to safe work in this area", it is sadly deficient in relevant scientific expertise. These were the principal points made by the Association of University Teachers (AUT) when it gave evidence last week to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

’The committee, which for the past two weeks has been taking evasive and often blundering evidence from civil servants at the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Social Security, found itself facing a group of assertive witnesses. The AUT contingent, clearly believing that as scientists, they, unlike all previous witnesses, really knew what they were talking about, rarely waited to be asked for their views — their forthright presentation occasionally approached the point of hectoring. '

But when challenged, the AUT representatives turned out to be very unclear about guidelines in other countries, especially the USA, where the issue has been most heatedly and publicly debated. Their authoritatively presented reactions seemed to rely on impressions, conjectures and intuitions. Indeed, the columnist’s comment ended up undermining the scientistic presumption of the headline:

'The AUT presentation illustrated clearly the dilemma that genetic engineers find themselves in at the moment. They genuinely believe that the hazards associated with genetic engineering are much less than was once conjectured. Although there are some facts to back up this position, it is based mainly on intuition — the intuition may prove to have been sound, but so far the evidence is too slender to substantiate it. The weakness of the scientists’ argument is exposed when they suggest, as did the AUT witnesses last week, that more research needs to be done in order to establish what the risks really are.'

But the point I most want to stress is about capital. A member of the AUT delegation, B. W. Bainbridge, a medical geneticist, said that ’the UK is getting out of step with the international scientific community over containment levels and that scientists were likely to act accordingly.

"'Do you mean to say that scientists would move from one country to another in order to escape restrictions on experiments?" asked Frank Hooley MP, rising from his seat in indignation as he did so. "That doesn't seem very socially responsible to me," he snapped. Bainbridge defended the scientific community by arguing that "If a scientist believes hazards are out of line with controls imposed on them, he would feel justified in going elsewhere; this is not socially irresponsible."'

Scientific research and career capital are becoming as internationally mobile as the assets of multinationals. Moving on from the threat of brain drain of scientific capital to the role of money capital, I want to reflect on the fact that genetic engineering has crossed the threshold and is becoming big business.

I am not claiming (as one might do in a long, abstruse analysis) that science is here a mediation of the needs of capital. On the contrary, it's scientists making capital out of science — quite literally. Two firms have been set up by scientists in California to exploit the commercial potential of genetic engineering and other biochemical processes. One of them, Genentech (get it? genetic engineering technology) has made human insulin. The other, Cetus Corporation, has been capitalised at $45 million, of which $10.5 million came from Standard Oil of Indiana and $8 million from National Distillers Corporation. The following British and European corporations have invested in recombinant DNA research: ICI, Glaxo, Unilever, Hoechst UK, G. D. Searle (UK); and at least three British university laboratories have important financial links with industrial firms to do such research. Some leading British scientists belong to a research consultancy collective, Biogene, set up to market their expertise.

In these circumstances, what are we to think when mandarin scientists like Lord Todd in his Presidential Address to the Royal Society, argue that science should have unrestricted right of search in nature and that the work of scientists should not be subject to any ’ideological control’: ’I am wholly opposed to any attempt to regulate or control the direction of scientific enquiry and I believe that in saying so I speak for the Royal Society'? This is the lovely traditional argument for academic freedom in the liberal tradition. The claim for 'unrestricted right of search’ was most eloquently made by John Tyndall in his Presidential Address to the British Association in 1874. But his ’Belfast Address’ was a defence against religious obscurantism, and many layers of mediation lay between science and government and science and industry. That situation no longer prevails: almost the opposite is the case. Genetic engineering has led inevitably to the setting up of firms whose interests are no more or less ideological than those of a pharmaceutical company, i. e., 100% capitalist ideology. The entrepreneurs are scientists, and they employ a number of Nobel Laureates in an actively consultative capacity. The research, I should add, is not even for the purpose of publication within ’the community of scientists’. There are areas of the Cetus plant which are high security, not just to avoid biological accidents but to prevent industrial espionage. The owners do not even intend to patent certain processes, lest their competitors gain access to them. The logic of profit is at the foundations of the process of the research just as surely as it is in microprocessors research, where research resources are concentrated on the components which are patentable.

I am not denying that genetic engineering could be a boon to humankind. I think it is likely to be of enormous benefit, but I am very struck by the scientists’ claim that they should be left to police their own house. I was about to write that the commercial pressures are too great to allow this, but it’s not outside commercial pressures impinging on a pure Martin Arrowsmith; it’s straight opportunism on the part of scientific entrepreneurs. Less than a decade has elapsed since I saw the French World War II underground hero and Nobel Prize winner, Jacques Monod, intone portentously at the conference on ’The Social Impact of Modern Biology’, that there were some developments from molecular biology which were so worrying that responsible scientists would voluntarily refrain from pursuing them. In the meantime the autonomy of the Pasteur Institute, which he directed, was threatened: their independence was based on commercial sales, and they could not produce and market enough vaccines and other biomedical products to save the Institute from state control. More recently still, Monod has died, and the very genetic engineering about which he made such an eloquent, individualist, existentialist warning is proceeding apace at the Pasteur Institute. Attempts to segregate the work in a secure bunker have failed as have attempts to get genetic manipulation researchers too wear special badges. They did not want to be sequestered or labelled lest it hurt their career prospects .

Similarly, it is not so long ago that Lord Rothschild advocated a closer 'customer-contract' basis for the funding of scientific research. The cries which answered him on behalf of academic freedom ring very hollow these days with the increasing integration of science into industry. Indeed, it is the declared policy of British granting agencies to give priority to projects geared to the needs of industry, while most scientific and technological departments are clambering for industrial contracts. In this context, the defence of academic freedom — claims based on the separation of academic work from the marketplace — serve as rationalisations for the sort of free market philosophy which is considered very right wing when it is advocated in the general political arena by Sir Keith Joseph.

So what about controls? The debate is still going on, but as with the introduction of microprocessors, the pressures and needs of capital to circulate and expand are relentless. There was a brief period when the scientists policed themselves, and a later one when — as in Cambridge, Massachusetts — local councils could hold up the work until they were satisfied about its safety. Since then, however, there has developed a general consensus that the dangers have been greatly exaggerated. Which dangers? I have no informed reason to suppose that the dangers from a terrible viral or bacterial plague are any greater than the molecular biologists assure us they are, i. e., that many are as safe as eating dinner, and that the risks involved in others are likely to be amenable to assessment and control. The situation is reminiscent of that in nuclear engineering and nuclear waste disposal experts differ and the general public has the greatest difficulty in deciding whom — if anyone — to trust, much less what to do about it. Their official representatives are not always reliable or entirely candid. 'Quantitative risk assessment', adapted from nuclear research and chemical engineering, is a very impressive and reassuring method. Yet one cannot be totally confident about it in the light of the recent documentary film on how hard it was for interested laypeople to show that safety on water-cooled nuclear reactors was far from complete; they eventually succeeded after a very long fight in which it was revealed that the government had suppressed dire warnings from its own experts. (Since I wrote that, the Harrisburg incident and various British leaks at nuclear plants have come to light. In the realm of biological hazards, we should recall the smallpox outbreak at Birmingham University, where the head of the lab as well as national and international bodies knew that standard precautions were not being taken but had not closed the lab. As in the nuclear reactor case, we might not know this unless a non-scientist had broken the official silence (in this case Clive Jenkins, whose ASTMS members were at risk, leaked the Shooter Report on the incident).

There is a crucial point about how economic pressures impinge, which is exactly analogous to the threat of brain drain capital flight mentioned above. The likely profits are so great that any country which lays down very stringent control criteria will lose out to one which doesn't. These pressures already exist. At an ASTMS conference on genetic engineering in October 1978, the Research Director of Hoechst (UK) called for the abolition of the British control body, the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group (GMAG). I wrote that sentence into the second draft of this article. Since then, there has been a cascade of reactions in Britain and America aimed at diminishing controls. The Royal Society and Cogene (representing genetic engineering researchers) convened a conference — initially declared closed to the public and press — to consider the removal of compulsory controls (Tucker). The debate has been conducted in the rhetoric of academic freedom. As one observer put it, 'During the past five years researchers throughout the world, but particularly in the US, UK and parts of Europe, have become entangled in a network of safety regulations, an experience which most saw as an unwarranted intrusion into the sanctity of academic freedom’ (Lewin, New Scientist 5 April 1979, p. 3). The person who drew the longest and loudest applause at the conference said, 'There is only one thing the public deserves, and that is the truth as we see it' (Lewin, NS 12 April 1979, p. 115).

Fine words, but there are at least two other sets of issues at work on the question of regulation. The first is about power and the second is straightforwardly commercial. As things now stand, the trade unions have a voice in GMAG. This means that they are in the very unusual situation for scientific workers of having a say in what research gets done. They gained a place on GMAG because of health and safety issues, but once there they have real power. And the bosses don't like it. Sir Gordon Wolstenholme, Chairman of GMAG for its first two years, recently wrote, 'Unions draw their strength from fear, whether they wish to or not. If a labourer falls on a building site the consequences are largely imaginable and predictable, and bad enough; but if there is the remotest chance of injury from radiation or from a new species of organism then fear of the unknown and of the insidious creates an impossible demand for no risk at all.

'Unions also see in their legitimate participation in matters of health and safety at work a chance to extend their influence, perhaps to the point of control, on decision-making in relation to scientific projects. Union representatives sometimes seek to judge the scientific merit of proposals for research The research councils and grant-giving foundations have a difficult enough job to do this by peer review. Neither safety committees nor GMAG are constituted to undertake any such task' (Wolstenholme, p. 1037). Eliminate GMAG and you eliminate this toehold of working class power. (The parallel to the threat posed by the Lucas Combine is a good one.)

Scientists are also quite candid about the commercial reasons for diminishing controls. over genetic engineering. As Sydney Brenner mentioned in 1977, 'If there are to be economic benefits coming out of this work, it would be a tragedy if the United Kingdom was not there to reap some of these. . . We know this has happened in the past. It would be a great pity if in the end this country found itself paying licensing fees and royalties to other countries for (the) end products' (Wright, 'Molecular Politics', p. 69). In the USA, companies are challenging key sections of the National Institutes of Health guidelines, 'claiming that compliance under present procedures could lead to the disclosure of proprietary information to potential competitors’ (Dickson, Nature 29 March 1979, p. 385). Cetus plans to hold back on any experiments for which providing full details to NIH would, they feel, prejudice their proprietary rights. Such companies argue that if the guidelines continue to be too stringent for the desired level of commercial secrecy, they may go to other countries 'with less stringent requirements. Already some US corporations with interests in recombinant DNA research are supporting the activities of foreign companies' (p. 386). The Island of Dr. Moreau could be Britain, Japan, New Zealand, Malta, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Hispanola. A Jean-Claude Duvalier or a Somoza will find the prospects attractive; a ’cloning republic’ could be much less prone to the vicissitudes of the weather than a banana republic.

If these be thought hysterical fantasies, recall the origins of such regimes in the primary product needs of advanced countries and remember that new drugs are tested in such countries before being marketed in the industrial nations (and are sold there after being declared unsafe and/or restricted in the rich countries). Perhaps I should also mention the Flixborough disaster, the result of repairs in one pipe in a highly dangerous synthetic route designed to get round another firm's patent for a precursor of nylon. It was recently reported that there are up to 5000 plants in Britain where such a disaster might occur (Singer). Recall also Seveso: one escape of a chemical whose level of deadly impurity, dioxin, was allowed to drift above the safe level (which is zero). A large area was contaminated, and it was a long time before the public was told of the danger. The number of malformed babies born in the area was two in 1974, the explosion was in 1976, and the number of malformed babies born in 1978 was 157. As long as the profit motive constitutes technologies, there can be no long-term safety. As things now stand, the same person could (1) sit on the Royal Society committee currently recommending relaxed guidelines for GMAG; (2) provide that committee with reassuring probabilistic arguments for quantitative risk assessment; (3) head the lab most likely to benefit from low or no restrictions; and (4) run at the front of the pack seeking the basic patent for an attenuated organism for genetic engineering research and development. In the City of London this sort of thing is called ’insider training'; in science it is an example of breathtaking hubris or false consciousness cleverly disguised as 'unbiased advice'. J. R. Fryer is risibly wrong to claim that in scientific research ’judgements are arrived at by many people who have neither financial nor political bias in their decisions' (Guardian 28 March 1979).


If all of that seems far-fetched, I want to bring the argument even closer to individual survival, to spare part surgery. The film 'Coma' is a thriller in which an intrepid young woman doctor slowly discovers that unexplained comas among low-risk surgical patients are being deliberately induced by surreptitiously adding carbon monoxide to the anaesthetic mixture in a particular operating room. By doing research in the computer and studying charts and the disposition of the patients, she eventually traces them to a new federally-funded facility for long term patients, the Jefferson Institute. This futuristic building contains many comatose patients suspended on wires (thereby spared bedsores) in a scientifically controlled environment which minimises the need for nursing care for people who might live indefinitely. It is a sort of cost-conscious way of avoiding facing the question of euthanasia. But behind this facade the heart of the mystery is a room with a word processor and visual display unit with the beautifully chilling Elizabeth Ashley conducting an auction for a spare part — heart, kidney or liver — among rich bidders in Zurich, Rome and Texas. The tissue cross-matching is excellent in all three cases, so the bidding is brisk. It turns out that the healthy specimens are selected, their tissues are typed, and they are either kept at the Jefferson Institute until needed or specially ordered from the hospital. The heroine had stumbled onto a clearing house for a world-wide market in human organs.

Aside from its brilliant plot, tension and suspense, the story is particularly arresting, because there is nothing futuristic about it. All of the procedures and technologies in the film are already in use except — as far as I know — for their synthesis in a given institute supplied by the Chief of a major teaching hospital. Indeed, Robin Cook, the author of the book on which the film is based is a clinical instructor at the Harvard Medical School, and he added a note at the end. He points out that the novel 'was conceived as an entertainment, but it is not science fiction’. 'Consider a classified advertisement that appeared in the San Gabriel (California) Tribune, May 9, 1968, column 4: "NEED A TRANSPLANT? Man will sell any portion of body for financial remuneration to person needing an operation. Write Box 1211-630, Corvina." The advertiser did not specify what organ, or even whose body they were to come from.'

Dr. Robin Cook goes on to point out how intense the pressures are: ’The larger problem, the danger, arises from the simple matter of scarcity. There are thousands of people waiting for kidneys and corneas today. The reason that these two organs are particularly coveted is because they have most frequently been transplanted — successfully. Thanks to dialysis machines, potential kidney recipients (some of them. . . others are left to die because of shortages of dialysis machines, personnel, and funds [remember the Lucas Combine's list of socially useful products?]) can be kept alive, but their lives are far from normal. In many situations they border on the desperate, so much so that kidney dialysis centres have reported a so-called "Holiday Syndrome". What that means is that when a holiday weekend approaches, the patients' spirits rise as they anticipate the rush of auto accidents and the victims who may supply the eagerly awaited and desperately needed organs.'

Why not eliminate the chanciness? Don’t forget that poor people and drug addicts in major US cities already sell blood, as do peasants in many of the world’s poor countries. Why not a kidney, a cornea, or even purpose-reared, genetically controlled stocks ’on the shelf' in Taiwan or South Korea where the labour intensive part of microprocessor etching gets done?

Dr Cook’s comment once again makes the point about the hopelessness of facing such issues at the point of application of new technologies rather than at the point of origination: ’The problem of organ scarcity for transplantation represents only one flagrant example of the failure of society in general and medicine in particular to anticipate the social, legal and ethical ramifications of a technological innovation. For some inexplicable reason, society waits to the very end before creating appropriate policy to pick up the pieces and make sense out of chaos. And in the instance of transplantation, failure to recognize mounting problems and enact appropriate solutions will certainly open Pandora's box, with its countless unconscionable possibilities: the Stark et al. of my fiction [his organ entrepreneurs] suggest only possible, execrable aberrations.’

Once again, the technology is being applied and is part way toward being exploited by the needs of capital before the question of a genuinely democratic social process is mooted. Indeed, fiction and popularisation are becoming ways for troubled doctors to make the public more aware of what may happen and what is already happening. Michael Crichton's fictional The Terminal Man is based on an actual case of implantation of electrodes to control behaviour. [Crighton also directed the film ‘Coma’ and went on to create ‘Jurassic Park’ (a warning about genetic engineering) and ‘ER’ (a tv series about high-tech medicine).] The case went badly wrong and became the basis for a lawsuit twelve years after the operation (Patterson). In the introduction to his fictional version of events, Crichton laments that publicity about 'mind control', as well as attempts by scientists to get it discussed, has produced little effect. His story involves speculation about the creation of electrical stimulation addicts who could get their ’pleasure centre' electrodes implanted in clinics in Mexico and the Bahamas (pp. 85-81). This may seem very far-fetched indeed until one reads about the research that the CIA has already undertaken over many years as part of Operation Mind Control (Bowart). The combination of forms of behavioural control and reshaping people has even become the object of a book by the Cassandra of commercial menace, Vance Packard, who began with the Hidden Persuaders and now warns of The People Shapers. But in spite of these warnings, the pressures of capital to circulate, expand and control are relentless.

Spare part surgery, like microprocessors and genetic engineering, is constituted by the highly mediated social processes of the medical industry, one which cost Americans $180 thousand million dollars last year (i. e., 5% of the world's population spend the equivalent of the gross national product of 20% of the world’s population on this one item alone) and which is Britain's second largest employer. Even granting that this has something to do with the improved alleviation of human suffering, soaring costs surely have more to do with profits in the following industries: construction, medical equipment, insurance, drugs, doctors. The other main constitutive factor is medical research careerism. These incentives certainly do create benefits for humanity, but do so in a socio-economic framework which is unlikely to complete the loop which might reconstitute medical technology according to different priorities. Failures of heart, kidney, liver and cornea are, of course, common, but in many parts of the world people don’t even live long enough to be in danger of inconvenience from diseases of these organs.


This brings me to my last example, in vitro fertilisation and surgical implantation of human ova. I can think of few news items which have captured the sympathetic imagination of the public as much as the birth of a healthy girl, Louise, to Mr. and Mrs. Brown in 1978. That event gave hope to many women and men who had been unable to conceive for all sorts of reasons. Among them are blocked fallopian tubes from salpingitis caused by infection, especially in the poignant case of back-street abortion. Others have blocked tubes from voluntary sterilisation, later regretted. And so on. Aside from the need to improve the success rate and eliminate other problems, it is difficult to imagine a more welcome medical development.

But the same conference which heard Monod warning of the dangers of molecular biology was addressed by Dr. R. G. Edwards, the physiologist who worked with Dr. Patrick Steptoe and who was reflecting on the social and ethical consequences of the — then as yet unsuccessful — procedures, and calling for ’an organisation to provide informed opinion and so assist decision-making' around them. Once again, a new technology has been applied with no adequate social processes to assess and regulate it, over which no genuinely public priority decisions took place at its inception.

My argument has moved from the most to the least obviously commercial new discovery. Surely this one is not open to co-optation by capital, at least in a country with a National Health Service available to all? (Since I wrote that sentence there has been announced the opening — next January — of a test tube baby clinic in the context of private medicine in Norfolk, Virginia — Guardian 4 March 1979. It should also be stressed that the research and the new clinic of Steptoe and Edwards are largely privately financed. )

Maybe this technology is not open to co-option by capital, but consider the following scenario: A rich woman, who doesn't want to put her figure at risk or interrupt her busy social life and/or career, decides to have a child. She hires another woman to act as host to an egg taken from her ovary, fertilised by sperm taken from her chosen partner (or AID) and implanted in the host woman's uterus. Nine months later the baby is delivered and the host paid off or kept on as a wet nurse. She might even be allowed to raise her own (genetic) child in the family while employed as a servant. Implausible? There has already been a case in Britain of a man hiring a woman to have his child; the mother reneged and succeeded in keeping the child in a court case. Now transfer the setting to South Africa with the host plucked from a Bantustan to Johannesburg, allowed to bring her own children, all to be well-fed and housed throughout the pregnancy with a white embryo and perhaps afterwards. Surely there will be clinics ready to provide these services to those who can afford them.

Capital can intervene between a foetus and its mother just as it can between a surgeon and his operation, a typesetter and his craft, a secretary and her boss, a genetic engineer and his E. coli. I don't see any long-term way of preventing the constitution of these new technologies according to the purposes of capital and capital's definitions of human needs; nor do I see any way of reconstituting them (and others to come) unless and until progress has its projects set by social needs which are not determined by the purposes of money or research career capital (itself a mediation of money capital). Modern science, technology and medicine are usually seen as the jewels in the crown of the capitalist mode of production. Yet the technologies which are now coming to the general public's attention so deeply affect our jobs, health and survival that we may at last learn that knowledge — science and technology — are social products which necessarily take sides. The crowning glories are not above the battle for anti-authoritarian socialism but at the heart of it, seminal. It is not just the grown up forces of production — human and mechanical — which matter. The struggle has to occur over the genesis, the coding of the eggs and sperms which make up all sorts of technical creations — soon to include workers and consumers as well.


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This paper was presented to the Annual Conference of Socialist Economists, ‘Capitalist Crisis, Working Class Strategies and the Transition to Socialism’, Leeds University 13-16 July 1979. Conference papers, pp. 119-28.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ


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