A Love/Hate Tango – Science and Ruling Classes
The ruling class loves science that increases its profits but hates the science put forward by Karl Marx, a science that dissects and explains capitalism and how to replace it. | Wikipedia (CC)

In the classic fictional movie, The Graduate, there is a scene that underscores so much of what is wrong with capitalism. The recent graduate, Ben, is ushered by an adult male out of a house party, in the graduate’s honor, toward his parent’s swimming pool. The adult says he has one word for Ben, “plastics”.

Did Ben’s unwanted advisor have in mind the infinite ways plastics are applied in modern medicine? Did he have in mind the discarded microplastics swirling around the Sargasso Sea? No. The setting is the early 1960s. His adult guide, with a heavy arm over this young man’s shoulders, was pointing to science, and in particular, to its technology side.

What was Ben’s adult “friend” really pushing? Was it a message to get into science, chemistry, and technology to help humanity? No again. His unwanted advisor with that heavy arm had a clear message – get into financialization boy. He meant stocks and other investments to ride a booming war economy stimulated by the Cold War. Plastics – read fossil fuels – was one of those commodities. In essence, he meant profits from plastics. Those are made off other people’s backs, be it a worker on an oil rig or a scientist in a lab.

Ruling classes started out loving science, especially if accumulating fortunes were associated with it. Of late, owners of great wealth have become ambivalent to their relationship with science, leaning toward anti-science. Why? To take license from a famous song, as time went by, science began delivering some diminishing returns, profits that is.

The pandemic served up a perfect example. Scientists quickly discovered the new pathogen, COVID-19. When shutting down the economy, temporarily, became apparent to save lives, the extreme right, led by its leader in the White House, poo-pooed COVID-19 as just another flu. Thus there was no need to quarantine, physical distance, or wear a mask. Everyone should continue to work, consume, and what isn’t said too loudly, produce profits. We are living the disaster of having profits prioritized over science, people, and the planet.

In the same period of Ben’s fictional encounter with a capitalist advocate, another very real movement was stirring. In 1958, Olga Owens Huckins wrote a letter to The Boston Herald about the death of birds due to the aerial spraying of the pesticide DDT. She sent a copy to her friend Rachel Carson.  Using her science and writing background, Carson began exposing the dangers of pesticides. It resulted in the seminal book Silent Spring (1962) that connected the sharp fall in bird populations to the massive use of pesticides.

While the book brought positive notoriety to Carson, it brought scorn from the chemical industry. It was putting a dent in their profits. Given the hyper Cold War atmosphere of the times, ruling circles began to marshal their forces. “Carson was probably a communist”, wrote former Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson to his former boss, President Eisenhower.

So the signal went out to join the ideological struggle on the side of mega-profits. The following letter to the editor of the New Yorker is representative.

Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.

Has a more concise anti-science, anti-environment, warmongering, anticommunist, and male chauvinist statement ever been written?

Ruling classes like science when it can show how applied science – technology – can produce commodities, like plastics and pesticides, to make megaprofits. But, please, don’t use science to show the downside, the greed, and the threat to all humanity!

The roots of this love/hate tango go back to the later middle ages when the budding bourgeoise was breaking feudal fetters. Both the dependency on science to develop the means of production and care not to become too infatuated with this new human endeavor are represented in Galileo’s rise to prominence and to his later repudiation. When Galileo’s science challenged some prevailing outlooks of the powerful Catholic Church, especially explaining planetary matter in motion, he was threatened with torture. He ended up under house arrest.

Fast forward to the early 1830s. A young man, Charles Darwin, is working as a volunteer naturalist under the aegis of the imperial British navy. New navigational and sounding technology allowed the now famous HMS Beagle to travel the world mapping bays and coastlines for the British Navy and British colonialism. Charles took the opportunity to go ashore and study the geology, flora, and fauna of many countries and islands.

When Darwin returned home to develop his theories of natural selection and evolution, it became another matter. His materialist conception of how all beings evolved, including human beings, did not sit well with ruling circles. The Church of England went on offense.

Another intellectual, a contemporary of Darwin’s, was hard at work applying science to, horrors to be, capitalism itself. Karl Marx left no ambiguities. Yes, the bourgeoise greeted science and its many technical applications to industry and agriculture. But when young Marx exposed the brutal reality of the powers that be enclosing land and forests, that was another matter. Marx showed that peasants and workers were now denied access to deer, berries, and mushrooms for food and wood for fuel and cooking. The young writer was challenging private property. Marx was quickly shown a one-way door out of his German homeland.

In the USA, there was another instance of this thrust to apply science to other disciplines like sociology. A young African American educator and sociologist, W.E.B. Dubois, used scientific methods to study a seven-block neighborhood, populated mainly by African Americans in Philadelphia. He would continue his analytic ways to declare the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.

Forty years later, DuBois turned his attention to the quality of the environment in his hometown. He was asked to address the 1930 reunion of his Searles High School class in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Some thirty years before Carson’s seminal book, he made a little-known presentation on the past beauty and recent degradation of the Housatonic River.

To go back to our recent 1960s “Graduate”, for Ben, and many other young people in real life, there were more diminishing returns hidden in the weeds of life and capital. The falling rate of profit would have capitalists scurrying all over the world to do something about it.

Here’s the way a real, budding imperialist put it in Fortune magazine (March 1966).

Herbert Fuller is an American promoter who wants to set up a $10 million sugar mill in South Vietnam. He is a “fervent believer in South Vietnam’s future. When the troops arrive to clear the area, as they sooner or later must, this American capitalist will literally be one step behind them . . . ‘I am in it for the money,’ Fuller says. ‘We could get back our investment in two years’.”

It is a modern example of the land grabbing that is still on-going. What followed was a bloody war over two decades. It ended because of the tenacity of the Vietnamese sloughing off colonial bonds and establishing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

How different is the above from multi-billionaire Elon Musk’s recent response concerning the 2019 coup in Bolivia ousting socialist Evo Morales? Military and police killed dozens of Morales’s supporters. Concerning suspected USA CIA/military involvement, Musk tweeted,

“We will coup whoever we want.”

What was Musk’s interest in Bolivia? Massive amounts of lithium are needed for the batteries of his Tesla cars. “Bolivia has between 25% and 45% of the world’s known lithium reserves, an estimated 21million metric tons, most of which is in the Salar de Uyuni salt flat.”

The Bolivian people did not take kindly to all this. Luis Acre of the Movement for Socialism, Morales’s Party, won the October 2020 election in a landslide.

One has to wonder if Musk’s statement on coups also includes the USA? The events of Wednesday, January 6, 2021, at the Capitol certainly was a coup attempt. Does he fund any of the extreme right groups involved in that assault on democracy?

We need the science of Marxism to help us understand the necessity of conscious working-class leadership. A good example was the 2020 elections.  Unions played an important role in stalling the growing fascist movement in the USA. The Unite/Here union, with 85% of whose members consisting of restaurant, hotel, and casino workers, lost their jobs and income during the pandemic. They knocked on 3 million doors in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Florida, and played a key role in victories there.

We need science to help us with electric vehicles, solar power, vaccines, and the overall quality of our lives. We also need the science of society, Marxism, to help show the path to a more human way of life. When it is all put together, it is called socialism.


Len Yannielli
Len Yannielli

Long time environmental activist Len Yannielli is professor emeritus, Naugatuck Valley Community College, Waterbury, Conn. He was the 2009 National Association Of Biology Teachers Evolution Educator of the Year. He is sports crazy!