indexWe’re continuing our series of reviews of important books, this time reprinting a review from 1997 that first appeared in issue #4 (Oct 97/Jan 98) of revolution magazine, one of the precursors of this blog.

Manjit Kumar and John Gillott, Science and the Retreat from Reason, London, Merlin Press, 1996; reviewed by Grant Cronin

Science and the Retreat from Reason is an important intervention in our increasingly irrational times. As the discourses of New Ageism and mysticism proliferate, Gillott and Kumar argue that these have little to do with the objective failure of science and more to do with the impasse of capitalist society.

Science, in the past, was always tied to the larger project of progress and human emancipation. The philosophers of the Enlightenment held that natural science could improve society and the power of reason could emancipate humankind. Today, however, even after the significant scientific advances of the twentieth century, attitudes to science are very different. A fatalistic attitude towards scientific progress and technological advance is reflected in popular culture, in films such as Jurassic Park, Twelve Monkeys and Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Frankenstein.*

This new attitude to science is totally divorced from the reality of science and instead reflects a crisis of confidence amongst the ruling capitalist elites who are unable to offer any dynamic vision of society. As Gillott and Kumar argue,

“Behind the current crisis of science, we have ventured, lies the collapse of confidence in progress. The very idea of trying to improve human society is now held to be at best misguided, at worst dangerous. The emphasis of the Green movement on the natural limits to human activity in all spheres – in economics and in population especially – acts as a check on human goals. Today’s rejections of science, in short, are founded on a lack of faith in humanity.” (p9)

Unable to understand the social and historical limits placed on humanity by capitalism, anti-science ideologists claim, in a kind of Malthusian logic, that these limits are natural and that humanity is too flawed to understand or overcome them. In these arguments nature is a force that cannot be understood let alone overcome and must therefore remain uninvestigated. This argument defies the history of humanity which is defined by the overcoming of natural limits and the controlling of natural forces.

“Today, as food mountains attest, there is no natural reason why the Earth cannot support its human inhabitants. Half the land which could be farmed quite productively in the world is not yet farmed. As for soil degradation, it is not a consequence of over-use, but rather of economic policies and thus bad agricultural practices. . . Given the right economic conditions, African land could be farmed five times more intensively than it is.

“This level of intensive farming exists in America, yet America suffers far less degradation of its soil than does Africa. Again, and related to this, vast parts of the Third World are under-populated, not over-populated. It has been estimated that, using agricultural techniques already in existence, the Third World alone could feed 32 billion people, without the help of the vast fertile areas of Russia and the Ukraine. . . The real economic limits and political fatigue which characterise the West today are the main factors that lead to a mass psychosis about limits in nature.” (p193)

The importance of a book like Science and the Retreat from Reason is that it positions the argument for science in a political arena. The defence of science and rationality is part of a larger project of struggling against the ideology of fatalism and the culture of limitation which protect the present economic, social and historical limits of capitalism from critique.

Since the end of the post-war economic boom and the Cold War, Western capitalist elites have been unable to offer any positive future vision and have struggled to cohere society and present any rigorous defences of market capitalism.

In the absence of any critical current in society, science and technology have come to bear the brunt of the failures of capitalism to deliver on the Enlightenment promises of equality and freedom. The dystopian vision of contemporary culture is fuelled by the failure of capitalism to provide a decent future for the majority of people on the planet and nothing to do with innate dangers of ‘tampering’ with nature. In fact under capitalism the future can only ever be worse for the majority of people because profitability can only be restored through driving down the living standards of the working population. In this sense the new ‘post-modern’ science critics are actually allies of capitalist ideology since they suggest that the only option to save the planet is not to get rid of capitalism, but that we should all do with less.

The only way to properly comprehend the crisis of science and technology is to understand it in relation to the historically-existing system. Science is put to specific uses under different social systems. Under capitalism, the potential for science to free humanity from poverty and starvation is subordinated to the needs of profit-making and, increasingly over the last century, Western military barbarism. This is the real outrage of the present sgtate of science, not the manipulation of genes or the hubris of humanity.

Science and the Retreat from Reason brings together the themes of anti-science and the economic and political impasse of capitalism in a compelling and politically significant critique, making an important intervention against fashionable discourses of irrationalism.

This article was written in late 1997; part of our series of reviews of important books; it first appeared in issue #4 (Oct 97/Jan 98) of revolution magazine, one of the precursors of this blog.

Further reading:
Science, capitalism and human liberation 

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