The out-of-control proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction is perhaps the worst of contemporary science’s tragic fruits, but there are others. The misuse and abuse of science to justify destroying the Earth’s habitability has also become a source of widespread anxiety.
These and other perils have a common root: the corruption of Big Science by Big Money. More precisely, they are the consequence of a profit-driven economic system that hamstrings humanity’s ability to make rational economic decisions.
Science is presumed to be a reliable source of knowledge based on objective fact rather than subjective bias. By definition, that requires research to be conducted impartially by scientists with no conflicts of interest that could affect their judgment. But a science harnessed to the maximization of private profits cannot avoid material conflicts of interest that are anathema to objectivity.
– Cliff Conner
“Historical capitalism is not only a social formation but an ontological one.”
– Jason W. Moore
The above extract is from an article in Climate and Capitalism, by Cliff Conner, the Marxist author of A People’s History of Science. The rest of the article goes on to unpack the implications and explications of this premise: that something called science is a mighty and productive tool for the good of humanity that has been perverted by the venal pursuit of profit that lies at the heart of capitalist political economy. The key words here are “misuse and abuse,” which exonerates “science” and indicts capitalism.
I’m always quite keen to indict capitalism; and I’m more than a little sympathetic to some form of ecosocialism (the raison d’etre of Climate and Capitalism). Capitalism is horrifically and inherently destructive of the material bases of our existence, as well as being horrifically and inescapably unjust. But Conner’s essentially polemical account of “science” here does not square with history, and it doesn’t stand up to philosophical scrutiny either. If the left wants to get past its limitations, it has to be willing to play outside the Marxist sandbox—a useful and intellectually generative box I played in for quite some time.
As a Marxist in my past life, I never experienced what felt like a credible challenge from liberalism; but the entire Marxist conceptual edifice is constructed on the same ontological ground as liberalism, and where I discovered gaps and vulnerabilities in both Marxism and “science” was through post-Marxists like Carolyn Merchant who began to question precisely this ontology. Engels distinguished the work of himself and his German collaborator by naming its political expression “scientific socialism.” This new ontology, shared by liberals and many Marxists, the (masculinist) basis of modernity, is the subject-object duality (extrapolated as a culture-nature dualism) articulated first by Descartes.
This ontological rift is the symbolic expression of the separation of the direct producers from the means of production. Together, these moments constituted the origins of capitalism not only as world-system but as ontological formation: as a world-ecology. Humanity/ Nature is a doubly ‘violent’ abstraction: violent in its analytical removal of strategic relations of historical change, but also practically violent in enabling capitalism’s world-historical praxis – a praxis of cheapening the lives and work of many humans and most non-human natures. This is a praxis of domination and alienation operative simultaneously through the structures of capital, knowledge and feeling. Humanity/Nature is consequently not only violently but practically abstract. These are real abstractions: abstractions that work in the world because we see and act if Humanity/Nature are given conditions of reality rather than historically constructed.
– Jason W. Moore
Science—as it is now understood—is not simply a method of inquiry. It begins through its own instrumentation, which is not a morally neutral reality, and proceeds via a set of premises that proscriptively separate humans from a fetish called “Nature,” by rendering non-human natures passive and inert through clockwork determinism. Merchant, the feminist historian, in trying to discern the history of science, discovered and described how the so-called fathers of the Enlightenment took a nature that was still “alive,” and killed it. Her canonical work is entitled, appropriately, The Death of Nature. But before we examine the historic instrumentation and the original telos of the scientific enterprise to determine the accuracy of Conner’s polemic, we have to revise the popular as well as scientific understanding of another fetish—life.
In scientific terms, Wikipedia tells us life is “the current definition is that organisms are open systems that maintain homeostasis, are composed of cells, have a life cycle, undergo metabolism, can grow, adapt to their environment, respond to stimuli, reproduce and evolve.” Biologists themselves admit, however, that there is—in a reality that does not conform to ideas—no “bright line” between some phenomena that are “alive” and others that are kind of . . . mmmm, dunno. Self-replicating proteins? Alive? No?
Knowledge is not a simple mental mirror of what is. Knowledge is not fixed and permanent. We no longer “know” our bodies through humors, or “know” the stars through celestial spheres. Half of all scientific knowledge today will likely be considered somehow wrong in forty-five years. We know things in different times and places in a particular way, knowledges that are a less than stable potpourri of history, practical experience, cultural norms, social “roles,” language complexities, etc. The challenge of genealogical approaches to the history of knowledge (taken up by postmodernists) to the post-Enlightenment hegemony of more encyclopedic account of knowledge, predominating from the sixteenth century on, was its attention to the dynamics of consciousness at the mysterious interface between “reality” and “consciousness.” Phenomenology laid bare the inescapability of the very subjectivity that the Cartesian post-Enlightenment epoch claimed to have transcended. Even now, for most of us who are not engaged in scientific inquiry 24-7, it is an “intellectually arduous task” to set aside our confidence in the “objectivist” episteme that grows directly from the subject-object duality that Descartes foisted on us during the emergence of capitalist modernity (Descartes lived in the Dutch Republic, arguably the first genuinely capitalist nation-state). This lengthy excursus is to say, “life” has not always been Life.
Life, as we now use the term fetishistically—the abstraction, LIFE—did not exist prior to Homo economicus and the ascendance of Baconian science. There was no word in the pagan world for it—bios meant something akin to one’s destiny in Greek. What the Hebrews did to universalize life was not define an abstraction, but to make life an articulation of God’s breath (spirit meant breath), shared throughout a creation that was itself a unitary matrix understood, as it has been by most pre-modern cultures, as a great womb.
Even in the Aramaic used by Jesus and his Judean cohort, the term abwoon—translated subsequently to mean simply father—meant something more akin to “birth-giver” . . . like a womb. The vitality of the universe remained unquestioned, and there was no existent perception of “life” as a property possessed by a particular creature. What emerged with capitalist modernity—and science, its conjoined twin, which created the conditions for life-the-abstracted-property, was the modern idea of . . . property, and with it, a proprietary individual—the very basis of capitalist political economy. Ivan Illich wrote in 1994:
The ideology of possessive individualism progressively affected the way life could be talked about as a property. Since the 19th century, the legal construction of society increasingly reflects a new philosophical radicalism in the perception of the self. The result is a break with the ethics which had informed western history since Greek antiquity, clearly expressed by the shift of concern from the good to values. Society is now organized on the utilitarian assumption that man (sic) is born needy, and needed values are by definition scarce. It becomes axiomatic that the possession of life is then interpreted as the supreme value. Homo economicus becomes the referent for ethical reflection. Living is equated with a struggle for survival or, more radically, with a competition for life. For over a century now it has become customary to speak about the "conservation of life" as the ultimate motive of human action and social organization.
This recapitulation about life is preface to grasping Merchant’s metaphor in The Death of Nature, because she is not saying nature “possessed” the property of life; she is saying that the pre-capitalist perception of the universe as a vital matrix, very like a womb, was effaced by Baconian science, a philosophic move that could not have been accomplished without the accompaniment of the Cartesian separation of Man-the-subject and Nature-the-object. Nature became a thing when Nature became a thing apart—the object of domination by Man (and they meant males in this case).
Bacon himself boasted that his project was the outworking of the human “domination of nature” expressed in Genesis, unaware of how his own episteme was so alien to that of the authors of Genesis, that this comparison was between a steam boiler and a womb.
There was no doubt that the Hebrew account of creation was organized hierarchically, and that humans had been granted authority within those hierarchies as stewards of a creation that belonged always and ultimately to God. But all creation had God’s vitality. Mountains will occasionally leap.
In a very real sense, one might say that Bacon, in trying to fulfill his interpretation of Genesis, actually reproduced the sin of the original couple—trying to become omniscient and omnipotent like God.
Bacon was a lawyer for the Tudor Court and an enthusiastic witch-hunter, in addition to his natural science pursuits.
This critique of life-the-property also goes to the heart of the whole pro-life/pro-choice polemic that agrees, if on nothing else, that life is this property (as defined scientifically), though they diverge decisively on when an actual unborn human life qualifies for the protections of citizenship.
Prior to the invention of the fetus, a life (not Life) was not signaled by an event that required instrumentation (medical “tests”) to discern. The real “beginning” was the quickening, that first sensation of the baby “kicking” in the womb. Since the appearance of the fetus (now also a polemical term for the denial of citizenship to the unborn), given that every pregnancy progresses at its own particular rates within normal limits, the legal difficulty of determining when an abortion is or is not a violation of the “rights” of citizenship is resolved by mapping. Time is subdued by space, divided onto a calendar; and the process is subordinated to arbitrary periods, or trimesters, that roughly correspond to the ability of a prematurely born infant to survive outside the womb—and this marker has likewise been determined by the instrumentation of medical intervention.
So what about instrumentation? I write this with an instrument. I wear reading glasses to do it, another instrument. What instruments facilitated the rise of the hegemony of Cartesian science? Well, it might have begun with those maps, and the instruments of mapping. Literally. The beginnings of private property, as it is today understood, as well as the colonial conquests upon which capitalism developed, required surveying and cartography. Always the maps, eh?
Cartography combined with shipbuilding to give conquerors range. Shipbuilding and weapons construction, in turn, required huge inputs of resources and fuels. Some merchant ships had main masts that exceeded 175 feet in height, requiring a single tree with enough mass that the wrights could acquire that length in a straight line with the girth and composition to survive high winds. Forests were cleared until the British landscape had become denuded, not just for lumber but for the fuel to make iron cannons. Competitors cleared forests all the way into Norway and Poland.
The development of new instruments for conquest and expansion, then, predates Baconian science, because that new practice was an attempt to improve the technics of war and conquest for profit, using a paradigm familiar to the lawyer Bacon himself—the trial.
Comparing nature to an irascible woman, Bacon described the scientific enterprise as an interrogation to rip away her secrets and plunder her treasures. Seldom realized now, the peak period of the the European witch hunts was not Late Medieval, but early Enlightenment; and Bacon was ardent in the prosecution of witches, which was preceded by interrogations, often using the instruments of torture to reveal her truths.
The instruments of science, from the very beginning, were not designed pursuant to a modern hallucination like “pure science,” but precisely and specifically for profit and war . . . a history that appears inconvenient to Conner and other eco-Marxists making the erroneous claims above, like “a science harnessed to the maximization of private profits cannot avoid material conflicts of interest that are anathema to objectivity.”
The illusion of this “objectivity” is precisely what was necessary to prosecute the colonial capitalist enterprise. Without this conceptual firewall, the rapacious speed with which capitalists transformed the earth’s landscapes could not have happened. One term that Bacon used to describe the witch-interrogation of (feminized) Nature was extraction. We will extract her secrets and plunder her riches.
After Descartes, the stewardship that defined that archaic Hebrew “domination” of nature disappeared with along with Nature’s vitality. Afterward, there was only property.
Even many socialists still see “society” (read: subject/culture/human) in this separate and proprietary way. The laudable focus of socialists on justice—taken not just as fair-play, but also through the surviving Christian idiom that every human alive has some foundational equality with all others (each equally precious in God’s sight)—has apprehended the fetishization of the commodity, but left on the loose the fetishization of life and of instruments. It’s only climate crisis—with its terrifying shadow now stretching over the world—that has shaken us out of our torpor and nudged us to re-examine that Cartesian ontology.
Overcoming liberalism was nothing compared to what overcoming Science-the-Idol will be.