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A New Economy of Knowledge

Longtime Monthly Review and Monthly Review Press author Richard Levins died on January 19, 2016, at the age of eighty-five. A polymath, he studied agriculture, mathematics, genetics, evolution, ecology, and philosophy. He worked as a farmer and helped advance agroecology, highlighting how capitalism and social inequality affected access to food, health, and ecological conditions. A revered teacher, he taught at the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Chicago, and Harvard University, and was at the time of his death the John Rock Professor of Population Sciences at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Beyond his academic work, Levins was a committed antiwar activist and an internationalist. He collaborated with Cuban scientists and served as a scientific advisor for Cuba. With his close friend and coauthor Richard Lewontin he wrote a column, “Eppur´ Si Muove,” for the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, and he actively participated in the progressive organization Science for the People, working to confront the misuse of science. He was, above all, a leading Marxist intellectual, ecologist, biomathematician, philosopher of science, and comrade.

Levins consistently employed a materialist dialectic, inspired by the radical British scientists J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal, and Joseph Needham, as well as by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. His groundbreaking research on evolution in changing environments helped further a sophisticated dialectical ecology. In every aspect of his career, he emphasized the necessity of recognizing continual change and the relations between the part and the whole. In his 1998 essay “The Internal and External in Explanatory Theories,” published in the journal Science as Culture, Levins explained, invoking Hegel, that “the truth is the whole,” yet the totality cannot be fully grasped immediately. Thus scientific inquiry must involve an analysis of mediations and an examination of the contradictions, within and between internal and external relations, throughout time.

Through this deep understanding of biological processes, Levins and Lewontin presented an analysis of the world that emphasized, as they wrote in their book Biology Under the Influence, “wholeness, connectedness, historical contingency, the integration of levels of analysis, and the dynamic nature of ‘things’ as snapshots of processes.” In their numerous articles and books—such as The Dialectical Biologist (1985) and Biology Under the Influence (2007)—they examined both science as a social product and the social products of science, arguing that science must serve humanity. They offered a systemic critique of biological determinism and reductionist understandings of the world, and situated science within political economy, highlighting its commoditization as well as its liberatory potential in a revolutionary context.

Four months before his death, Levins submitted this essay to Monthly Review. In it he discusses La economía del conocimiento y el socialismo by Agustín Lage, published in 2013 by Editorial Academia del Hispanismo. The book is currently unavailable in English translation. In the pages that follow, we feature this last essay by Levins, under the circumstances substantially unedited, along with his classic article “Living the Eleventh Thesis,” an excerpt from Biology Under the Influence that first appeared in the January 2008 issue of Monthly Review.

—Brett Clark

The case for socialism is usually presented as a denunciation of the miseries of capitalism—exploitation, inequality, unemployment, and the use of state power to suppress the working class, minorities, and foreign governments. The labor movement and social-democratic parties stress full employment as a long-term goal and at times they even take up opposition to by-products of capitalism such as racism and the subordination of women. The concentration of wealth and the business cycle are noted, but none of this identifies trends that lead to the replacement of capitalism. But theory would lead us to expect that capitalism would be replaced by socialism as a result of the development of the means of production coming into contradiction with the relations of production.

This issue is at the core of Agustín Lage’s work: that just as the factory and the farm marked the end of feudal systems of production, the economy of knowledge is the emergence of the new means of production. This takes place even though capitalist enterprise creates and attempts to utilize the economy of knowledge to increase profits. We live in the era of the replacement of capitalism by socialism on a world-historic scale.

But the transition from one kind of social system to another may take a very long time and even undergo reversals. Capitalist relations arose at various times in human history—in Sung dynasty China, reformation Bohemia, and Ottoman Egypt before finally taking over the world. Classes arose in the wake of agriculture some 10,000 years ago (perhaps 500 generations). Tributary and slave society persisted until quite recently. But during this time “cultures” in the archeologists’ sense lasted on a time scale of only a few centuries. Places were settled in the Middle East, abandoned, and resettled many times, producing mounds of relics sandwiched between layers of sand, such as the Tels (mounds) of places like Tel Aviv. Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria succeeded each other, imposing their own forms of rule and systems of belief while maintaining the basic forms of exploitation through the extraction of tribute and forced labor. The three tribes of the valley of Mexico evolved rapidly from gatherers-hunters to the highly stratified agricultural Aztec empire, while petty Mayan kingdoms of the Classic period endured for a few centuries. Wherever there was slavery there also was slave rebellion, and the wars of colonization had barely ended when the wars of national liberation began often by people who remembered the older struggles.

The first attempts to replace capitalism were also defeated: the Paris Commune after only weeks, the Bolshevik Revolution after decades. During the epochs of transition, different social systems coexist, interact, and influence the dynamics of each other. The Soviet Union, free of capitalist business cycles, buffered the capitalist economies against the Great Depression, while capitalist technologies contributed to Soviet economic growth and workers from the capitalist world sought employment in the U.S.S.R. Each has its own ways of exchanging goods, relating to the rest of nature, developing its own demography and systems of government and ways of thinking about it all.

The transitions imposed on the native peoples of the Americas by European conquest very quickly changed how nature was used, what were seen as resources, the meanings of ownership, the purposes of production, and the meaning of wealth. We are now in a prolonged period of global transition in which social forms zigzag between advances and retreats. As Rosa Luxemburg warned, we are trying to construct the new with the materials of the old, including ourselves. Even the builders of socialism are products of capitalism and are guided by perspectives and values derived from both systems. During this epoch, different forms of society coexist in conflict and mutual dependence. The economy of knowledge was initiated by a capitalism that cannot contain this new context of production. Therefore, rather than see the world as the sum of two independent competing systems, we have to look at it as the result of strong interactions between them as they change each other’s dynamics.

Agustín Lage is both a participant and an observer in the development of Cuban science. He is an outstanding molecular biologist, the director of the Center for Molecular Immunology in Havana, a deputy to the National Assembly, and a militant in the Cuban Communist Party. He is a creative Marxist, applying the tools of that approach to the problems of advanced science in a small, poor, and besieged country. His book, La economía del conocimiento y el socialismo, is a collection of articles, mostly published in Cuba Socialista, the theoretical organ of the Cuban Communist Party. Because of his own career in molecular biology, his writings take the high-tech fields (biotechnology, nanotechnology, computer software, new construction materials, information technology) as his starting point, but the lessons from molecular biology can be extended to other areas of science and production where knowledge is a crucial element. Lage sees the economy of knowledge as representing a new stage in the development of science and industry. Just as capitalism gave us the factory system that replaced the artisan guilds, so the economy of knowledge is increasingly incompatible with capitalism and is characteristic of socialism. He demonstrates this first by showing the evolving contradiction between this new means of production and the obsolete social relations: the increasingly social production of knowledge and the attempts to privatize its products. This shows up in the widespread failure of biotechnology enterprises to show a profit from their research. While most such companies fail, those that survive do so by selling stock or attracting venture capitalists rather than from their innovations.

At the same time that Lage’s essays are a preliminary foray into the analysis of the new means of production, they also work gently yet polemically against those currents of pragmatism that afflict Cuba in periods of economic urgency. I have met committed communists who believe that the enormous expansion of free universal health care, education, and other social benefits are an idealist mistake, the attempt to construct a vast superstructure over a narrow productive base, and see themselves as consistent materialists. However, Lage rejects this dichotomy and argues that the priority given to expansion of Cuban culture and education, since the revolution is a vital development of the productive base, both a social necessity and a prerequisite for the economy of knowledge that is a major characteristic of socialism.

Contradiction and historical context are major analytic tools for Lage. He refers to contradictions such as the need for centralization and decentralization, flexibility and supervision, and when starting from a low level, equality and production. Rather than choose between material and ideological or moral incentives, he places them in the context of development: Before some critical point in the balance of moral and material incentive (different for each sector) there is a positive feedback between equality and production, but under conditions of scarcity and insufficient conciencia they conflict. Left critics of Cuba do not see the workings of these contradictions. Rather, in the zigzagging between bad decisions and worse ones, they see a betrayal of socialism.

While the typical error that Cubans make is pragmatism, the typical error of foreign allies is utopianism. They are all too familiar with the miseries of capitalism and invert them to project onto Cuba what they want for themselves as the measure of social progress. This reflects a rigid thinking with fixed relations among categories and the foolish attempts to decide if a society “is” or “is not” socialist rather than examine the fluid, changing relations of a dynamic society. Lage’s Marxism is implicit in his whole approach. Just as he recognizes the tacit knowledge of workers in the biotech industries, a knowledge that is in the fingertips and impossible to transfer by formal writings, so there is a tacit Marxism in Cuba as there was even in Russia and the former communist-led countries of Eastern Europe.

This was also the case in the Soviet Union: ritual Marxism with requisite quotations from the classics was often an adornment to the introductory chapters of more specialized books, leading Western readers to imagine that Marxism was a thin veneer of ritual conformity imposed over a diverse and disaffected academic community. Yet when you get deeper into later chapters you can see the Marxist approach to interconnection among seemingly unrelated phenomena, changing relations among “the same” objects in changing contexts, that is visible as a deeper stratum of philosophy. It is the tacit Marxism present in so much Cuban thought, even when the more formalistic Marxism taught in university courses is generally not successful, and often avoided by students. But underneath the formalistic, rigid Marxism, a rich and flexible Marxist thought permeated the thinking of Soviet scholarship. It is this deeper Marxism that allowed Soviet scholars to create notions such as the biogeocoenosis (a broader concept than the ecosystem), soil science as a living system, the eco-historical formation, and the biosphere. The task of socialist science is both to be in the vanguard of world science and to maintain intellectual independence, rejecting both the extreme deference to world science and the nationalist attempts to build a totally different science that we see among advocates of Islamic and Hindu science. Lage works with a flexible and creative Marxism, repeatedly reminding us of the tentativeness of his conclusions because there is not yet sufficient experience for definitive conclusions and because he himself is not an economist.

A world divided, even unevenly, between capitalist and socialist systems, is not a simple sum of the two. Production of commodities and of utilities coexist and interact. A small country can never afford the investment in science required for an autonomous economy of knowledge. As against the goals of import substitution and self-sufficiency that guided developing countries of the 1960s, Lage sees participation in an international export market as absolutely essential. But on the world market, the Cuban pharmaceutical industries produce commodities for profit at prices set in the markets, while for domestic use they produce use values with priorities and prices set by social goals. Cubans who represent these industries in world trade have to live in two sets of economic theory, with different concepts and suitable measures. This is one area where political work is so important, to prevent Cuban trade representatives from adopting the categories of neoliberal economics from the sales representatives of the giant corporations, notions of efficiency, cost cutting, and competitiveness.

Lage argues that monopoly capital is not only immoral but also dysfunctional. This is his most penetrating insight into the emerging contradictions of capitalism: scientific knowledge is cumulative and complex so that any company has to buy licenses from their competitors in order to produce something. It is patented and held as private information, undermining the scientific tradition of a community that shared ideas. Competition leads to turn over of labor, which disrupts the tacit knowledge of collectives and makes it not worthwhile (“cost effective”) to educate workers.

I once attended a meeting on agriculture in which the research directors for agricultural chemicals from major chemical and oil companies were present. We spent an agreeable afternoon discussing shop, issues of biochemistry and plant responses. At the end of the afternoon I asked, “You people know each other; you get together at meetings regularly; in some sense you are friends, but you are also competitors. How do you navigate this contradiction?” They laughed, and one responded, “We’ve had a very enjoyable discussion around common interests, research strategies, chemical principles. But you will have noticed that nobody mentioned a specific molecule by name.”

Furthermore, products are replaced quickly as they are displaced by competitors or shown to be harmful or ineffective, so that research has to turn a profit in a hurry. One friend, the director of agricultural chemicals in his oil company, explained to me,

I have to go before the board and convince them that our research will give commodities at least as profitable as making the chemical engineering cheaper, getting more profit at the gas pump, or investing in lobbying. If I convince them I then have to justify the particular products we are trying to develop. A pesticide must be useful for major crops like soybeans or corn and for major pests in those crops. Nobody can afford to develop pesticides specifically for asparagus or artichokes. It may cost us ten years to develop a product, $100,000,000 to go into production. This is a high-risk business, and we can’t afford to try something too new.

Therefore most “innovations” (perhaps two-thirds of the new labels) are copies of existing drugs marketed by their competitors. One company even called its herbicide “Mi too.”

Some 80 percent of the biotech companies failed to show a profit from their products and survive from the marketing of stocks and the attraction of new venture capitalists betting on future innovations. Their choices of research directions are determined largely by potential markets and profits. Further, a vital creative vanguard science depends on the “human capital” of an educated population. Education has never been open to the whole population, and in recent years the emergence of for-profit colleges and the cutting of education budgets and the increases in class size have been undermining the quality of knowledge among graduates. University tuition has been rising, discouraging less affluent students from risking the huge debt and doubtful jobs.

The fact of tuition itself reflects the logic of capitalist reason: an education is an individual investment in a well-paying job so it is “fair” that a student pay for it. In contrast, in Cuba education is a social investment producing well-rounded and knowledgeable citizens, so of course it should be free of charge, a basic human right. While U.S. schools cut back on teaching of the arts and other subjects in favor of technical training for employment in the giant corporations, Cuba aims to meet José Martí’s exhortation “ser culto para ser libre” (be cultured to be free) that adorns the bust of Martí in front of primary schools. Cuba has been expanding its scope of education. It already leads in numbers of art teachers and continues to expand the numbers of teachers per capita. Cuban adult education has led the way in literacy campaigns in Latin America. Since the 1960s, when Fidel Castro called for a future of science and the massive literacy campaign, Cuba has been accumulating intellectual resources that later made possible the development of high-tech industries. But Cuban education and science is not narrowly pragmatist. Although there is an emphasis on research that can contribute to the economy, there is also active work in fields such as underwater archeology, ornithology, speleology, and other areas whose practical function is enriching the culture.

Cuba exists in a world with two opposing systems, capitalist and socialist, that interact in many ways so that the world system is not the sum of the two but their integration and interpenetration. During the 1930s the U.S.S.R. offered unemployed workers from the capitalist world a way to avoid the capitalist business cycle. Trade with capitalist countries provided industrial products that fed socialist development. Capitalist tourism provided income. Scientists from both worlds collaborated, with even the underdeveloped Soviet Union providing leadership in mathematics, soil science, the study of the origin of life, and other areas. Today there is the continuing effort of the United States to destroy the Cuban revolution but they also collaborate in hurricane surveillance, plant pathology, and some aspects of medicine. Cuban pharmaceuticals are used in more than fifty countries.

Cuban sales representatives have to work in both worlds, with different assumptions and are vulnerable to the intellectual categories of bourgeois economics. Terms such as competitiveness or efficiency creep into Cuban discourse. In the case of efficiency, for capitalist enterprises the downsizing of the work force or the speeding up of the worker quotas is a saving and therefore increases enterprise productivity. But Cuban workers have the right to retraining, rehiring at another job at equal pay, going to school, or social insurance. Further, the productivity of an enterprise is not completely measurable. It goes beyond productivity per worker to include its contribution to social goals and to the sustainability of the whole effort.

Cuba is still inventing its economy of knowledge. While scientific institutions were previously financed out of the national budget, part of the income from exports is used to refinance their development. But the particular way in which national and self financing are integrated is subject to a lot of experimentation and Lage emphasizes the provisional nature of many of their arrangements. Conclusions are repeatedly supported with the statement that a conclusion “comes from experience, not just theory.” This suggests that mistakes have been made because policies were deduced from theoretical argument unsupported by experimentation. Yet local experimentation is also a prominent part of Cuban innovation. Cuba is still inventing its political system, socialist democracy. The present system started with a pilot project in the province of Matanzas in 1976 that is now part of the constitution.

La economía del conocimiento y el socialismo describes the advantages of socialism in high-tech science. Lage describes both the macro-level advantages and also the finer scale ways of running an advanced enterprise. The starting point is the vast pool of talent available through universal literacy, education, and culture. Although Cuba has a small population on a world scale, the proportion of the population available for the discovery and development of talent is larger than most countries where class, gender, and racial/ethnic barriers limit who is allowed to develop their abilities and do science. Further, science is not private property but belongs to the whole people and pursues social ends. There are no patent barriers among Cuban institutions, no secrecy between institutes and cooperative research prevails over competition.

Cuba is inventing the complete cycle enterprise uniting research, production, and commercialization in a single unit. This allows the rapid flow of new insights into useful products. The separation of these areas of work was one of the major obstacles to Soviet advocacy of the “scientific-technical revolution” proposed by Brezhnev as the way out of the stagnation starting in the 1970s. One of my errors in my work in Cuba lay in not recognizing this innovation. I recall opposing the transfer of one talented researcher from research into sales activities in Europe. I saw this as removing scientific talent from fruitful research where there was a shortage of scientists, when it was really a step forward toward this new kind of enterprise. Since the object is not short-term profit, Cuban enterprises are able to take risks and accept the failures of some projects, not as a failure of the researchers but as part of the innovative process. Innovation takes place not only through official institutions, but also through popular organizations such as the Association of Inventors and Innovators, the Brigade of Young Technologists, popular education, and a university for informatics. The open-ended flexibility of the biotechnology centers allows for an easy assimilation of new knowledge produced elsewhere. Finally, the high level of political and social commitment is a necessary element in the creativity of Cuban science.

Lage goes beyond the macro-social qualities of socialist science to discuss the finer scale workings of an enterprise, reflecting his experience as director of the Center for Molecular Immunology. He examines some of the contradictions in leading a unit of the enterprise and striving to optimize its function when the optimization of the parts does not necessarily optimize the performance of the whole, or the primary importance of political work in the enterprise, and the regular meetings to discuss keeping its work on track. He is not an advocate of workers’ management. In this context, he seems to mean cooperative ownership, which in the Yugoslav experience led to the enterprise facing the economy as a collective capitalist. There is also no discussion of the roles of the union, the Party, and other mass organizations within a research center or the processes of political work.

One question arises: Can the development of the high-tech industries (biotechnology, informatics, programming, advanced construction materials, and others) serve as a model of the whole economy? A test of this was the experience of the municipality of Yaguajay, where Lage is a delegate to the National Assembly. At the height of the special period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city government decided to base its development around positive health in the broad sense of the Alma-Alta declaration, the all around well-being in the physical, mental, and social dimensions. In order to do this, they had to know well the problems the region faced. A thorough survey looked not only at health statistics in the traditional sense but such indicators as dysfunctional families, substandard housing, alcoholism, breast feeding, and age distribution. Meanwhile there were workshops, seminars, and other forms of popular education for some 11,000 people in a population of 56,000.

The experience of Yaguajay is also an experiment in socialist democracy, with leadership passing from the national to the municipal, which in turn can mobilize the national resources. Lage’s writings are a vital contribution to Marxist theory and should be translated as quickly as they are written.

2016, Volume 67, Issue 11 (April)
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