Dialectics – the philosophy of change that underpins Marxism – teaches that things invariably turn into their opposites. That which was once progressive becomes reactionary. From once being a factor contributing to the development of the productive forces, capitalism has become an enormous fetter on technological and scientific progress.
In its heyday, capitalism ushered in the second Golden Age of science, following antiquity. Today, however, we live in a world where scientific results have become increasingly irreproducible; fundamental science is starved of resources; and research crucial to the maintenance of our standards of living – and even our very survival as a species – is not being conducted.
All that ails science at this time – a time when we need scientific breakthroughs more than ever – can be traced back to the capitalist system, and its fundamental motor force: the profit motive.
To understand how we got here, and what must be done to break with this status quo, we must examine the different ways in which the profit motive shapes science.
It is profit that determines what research is being done, how this research is pursued, and who is able to pursue it. The profit system also profoundly shapes how scientific knowledge is distributed, as well as the distribution of gains derived from scientific research when they occur.
As we will see, a common motif emerges when examining modern science and its institutions: capitalism has little to offer those who wish to see science advance. In fact, quite contrary to the capitalists’ grandiose proclamations, in each and every area the capitalist system has become profoundly detrimental to progress.
Profits vs needs
The simple fact of the matter is that many types of research are not profitable, or are less profitable than the alternatives.
Antibiotics are a particularly striking example of this. The way in which they are intended to be used – sparingly, and over a limited period of time, until the patient is cured – makes developing them almost uniquely unappealing to private companies.
There are much higher profits to be made researching and selling treatments for chronic illnesses, which can often reliably be sold for the rest of a patient’s life. And there is also far more private investment in so-called ‘lifestyle drugs’, such as medicines against impotence or obesity, which are targeted at the wealthy.
The result is simple, yet terrifying: antibiotics simply aren’t being researched anymore. This is especially troubling because, due to evolution, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics. The WHO referred to this as “the greatest risk to health” in society. Widespread antibiotic resistance, the international public health organisation warns, would force modern medicine back into a situation where “people fear common infections and risk their lives from minor surgery”.
Incidentally, while Big Pharma risks transporting us back to pre-WWII-era medicine in search of profits, they are making a killing: the 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies are making more profit than the rest of the Fortune 500 put together.
With this in mind, some of the suggestions meant to remedy the growing antibiotic resistance crisis under capitalism take on an almost tragicomic character.
On the website of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a pharmaceutical giant that made just over £5 billion in profits last year, we find out that “governments [should] commit to a series of guaranteed payments to the company developing the medicine over a period of years once the medicine is made”, regardless of whether the antibiotic is used or not. From the point of view of the pharmaceutical giants, this would certainly be a wonderful business model!
Given that the big pharmaceutical corporations spend the largest share of their profits not actually on research, but rather on buying back their own shares, boosting stock prices, and yielding billions for shareholders and CEOs, the subtext of such suggestions is effectively: finance our decadent lifestyles out of the public purse, or millions will die entirely preventable deaths.
From the perspective of social needs, the idea of such a corporate welfare programme, untethered from actual consumption, is not only wasteful, it is absurd. Once a drug is developed, the optimal use of society’s resources should surely be to pay for as much as necessary, but no more. The less we need to spend on a certain drug, the more can be invested in other areas.
This could be achieved by taking the pharmaceutical industry into public ownership. This should be done without any compensation to the shareholders, who for too long have lined their pockets as a result of human suffering.
Redirecting the billions stolen by shareholders and CEOs towards research, we would be able to rapidly develop new drugs – medicines and treatments aimed at the needs of people, not the profits of the Big Pharma bosses.
A perhaps less immediate – but just as troubling – problem is the unprofitability of basic research. Such research is inherently uncertain: attempting to understand nature at a fundamental level requires scientists to set up hypotheses based on educated conjecture, many of which will inevitably be incorrect; and this promises only low returns on investment, because it is difficult to establish intellectual property over fundamental knowledge.
Private companies, therefore, try as much as possible to avoid investing in this kind of basic research. That is why fundamental science in private hands has only ever been able to function – to a limited extent – as part of a big monopoly; that is, screened from the direct drive to produce profits. Once such science is subjected to the mercy of the market, it quickly falters.
Neglecting fundamental science, however, means imposing a limit on how far science can progress. Quantum mechanics, for instance, started out as a theoretical pursuit intended to understand thermal radiation, and the way light shone on metal caused a current. Now, it is the basis for much technology in modern society: without quantum mechanics, there would be no transistors; without transistors, no computers as we know them. If physicists had not been able to research it in the early 20th century, without worrying about how it might yield a profit, our technological progress would quite literally be stuck in pre-WWI times.
The more far-sighted capitalists are aware of this. Therefore, the state picks up the slack where the market fails: 75% of basic research in the United States is carried out at universities.
Nominally, such research is carried out under the guise of some notion of the ‘public good’ – the pursuit of knowledge without regard for profit. However, in the last analysis, publicly funded research under capitalism is simply an instance of the state acting, in the words of Marx and Engels, as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.
In order to maximise profits, precious few capitalists will want to invest in basic research. This research, so crucial to generating long-term growth, would therefore not be done if it were left to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. The state steps in, with the requirements of the capitalist class as a whole in mind.
This relation is expressed clearly, once again, in the pharmaceutical industry: because drug development is risky and costly, it is mostly done in government-funded labs. In other words, the cost of developing new drugs is placed on the working class, in the form of taxes.
Once the difficult part of the development is done, the state simply licenses it to a private company on the cheap, allowing it to reap the profits. A year’s dose of a certain cancer drug, discovered by a state-funded laboratory, is sold for $20,000 – 20 times its manufacturing cost. The state, in this case, obtains only 0.5% in royalties. Very frequently, the state receives no royalties at all.
According to economist Mariana Mazzucato, in her book The Entrepreneurial State, “it is simply assumed that the public investment is meant to help create profits for the firms in question”. This racketeering scheme leaves the very people who (through their taxes) funded the development of a drug unable to afford this drug when they need it.
It is also interesting to note where exactly the research focus of the modern capitalist state lies. DARPA (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), is an institution of the United States government, set up in the aftermath of World War II. It funds research with the main interest of developing high-technology weaponry.
Although DARPA-funded research has over the years spun off many civilian applications – most notably, the internet – so-called ‘defence’ is its primary purpose. Recently, the US government founded a research agency called ARPA-E, explicitly modelled on DARPA, with its main goal being the funding of cutting-edge renewable technology research.
It is clear which of these is a more burning social need. Nevertheless, it comes as no surprise to find that DARPA is allocated billions of dollars annually, whereas ARPA-E was able to spend just $270 million in 2012.
Ultimately, under capitalism, it is research that has the potential to generate profits or maintain the position of the imperialist powers that will always come first when it comes to state spending.
When capitalism was still able to provide significant economic growth, this was a (relatively) minor problem. However, with the global economic system in a deep crisis and austerity on the order of the day, the public sector purse is shrinking, and university budgets are increasingly being squeezed. Total R&D spending by the US government, for example, is set to decline by $95 billion by 2021, compared to 2013 levels.
In this situation, basic science is seen as more expendable than other fields of research. It is not as conducive to growth and profits in the short term, and is therefore hit especially strongly by cuts to research and education. In America, funding for fundamental science declined from $40 billion to $30 billion dollars in the space of five years.
We have already seen that basic research lies at the heart of unpredictable paradigm shifts in science. These, in turn, are necessary for the continued development of the productive forces and raising of living standards – not to mention satisfying the innate human curiosity to expand our knowledge of nature.
Science is therefore increasingly falling by the wayside. Capitalism has become a barrier to future breakthroughs of the kind seen in the quantum revolution. Indeed, the profit system is preventing us from even laying the basis to conceptualise such scientific revolutions. This is an inexcusable fetter on humanity’s collective knowledge, and our ability as a society to use such understanding to improve our common lot.
The very way government funding for research is set up imposes another obstacle to great scientific breakthroughs. Most grants run for limited periods of time, often no longer than three years. But research on the biggest discoveries can take decades, and must be allowed to go down ‘wrong’ paths occasionally. Short-term funding structures make scientists averse to taking such risks and pursuing longer-term projects in general.
This short-term outlook is a natural outcome of the public purse being squeezed by capitalism’s crisis. With less money to spend, governments can no longer afford to take a risk on long-term projects, which do not promise the kind of immediate results that can be handed to the private sector.
This is deeply problematic for scientific progress. Scientists such as the double Nobel prize-winning Fred Sanger, according to a former collaborator (himself a Nobel laureate), “would not survive in today’s world of science”. Sanger spent decades at a time publishing little, hard at work on long-term projects of immeasurable importance to our understanding of genetics. When he did publish, his papers were profound enough to garner him the Nobel Prize – twice.
Peter Higgs, who predicted the mechanism by which matter has mass, decades before evidence for it was discovered, voiced similar sentiments. Higgs stated that he would not “be regarded as productive enough” by today’s universities and funding bodies. Taking this to its logical conclusion, Higgs asserted his doubts about whether “similar breakthroughs could be achieved in today’s academic culture”.
‘Publish or Perish’
This is far from the only way in which capitalism shapes scientists’ decisions. In fact, government funding structures are not even the only reason scientists increasingly eschew uncertain research.
A scientist’s career advancement has become tied to their ability to publish at a breakneck pace in prestigious journals. These prestigious journals are highly selective about what they publish, in that they want to publish what allows them to sell expensive subscriptions and make a massive profit.
Thus, getting your research into such a journal requires positively demonstrating a new, eye-catching hypothesis, ideally several times a year. Scientists will therefore shy away from risky, long-term projects, which do not reliably allow for the production of publishable material. Instead, they will pick a topic that is popular with journal editors, and which allows them to publish regularly.
Part of the reason that government funding has become so closely pegged to scientists’ publishing history appears to be the bureaucratic nature of grant decisions. The panels which make these decisions are rarely able to fully judge the merits of every applicant’s work. Instead, they come to base their judgements on shorthands, such as “the number of papers published in important journals”.
With the bureaucratic and short-term nature of research grants, much time academics could spend advancing science is instead wasted on writing grant proposals. According to some accounts, this can take up to 50% of the working day for academics.
This ‘publish or perish’ model for scientific careers in the 21st century allows journals’ interests – nothing but a proxy for their ability to make a profit – to radically impact the course of science. It affects both what kind of research scientists pursue, and how they do it.
For example, journals are loath to publish work that seeks to replicate the results of previous research. This was once considered a bedrock of scientific progress: if a scientist made a mistake, this would be uncovered as other scientists tried and failed to replicate the results.
However, nowadays, since it won’t help in advancing a scientific career, replication is rarely done – precisely at a time when it is more necessary than ever. When it is in fact attempted, a large proportion of scientific results are thrown into question. A couple of years ago, a biotech company tried to replicate the results of 53 ‘landmark’ cancer studies. They only succeeded in six cases.
The reason for this degradation of scientific quality must similarly be sought in the need to publish for career progress. Journals do not like publishing negative results – that is, when a hypothesis was shown to be untrue. Since not publishing means putting one’s career in jeopardy, scientists are incentivised to ‘fudge their results’, exclude inconvenient data points, or fit their models to the results, rather than honestly assess what the data is saying.
Beyond this (semi-)deliberate fraud, the immense pressure that scientists are under to publish means that they must cut corners. This leads to researchers neglecting to check over their results and conclusion, leading to the reporting of accidental errors.
Furthermore, conclusions could be drawn with greater certainty if datasets were larger. But this can only be achieved by using a larger sample, or repeating the experiment. This, however, costs both money and time – things we have already seen are in increasingly short supply within the confines of the crisis-ridden capitalist system.
Corporate publishing industry
The rise of the ‘publish or perish’ model of science is closely correlated with the rising economic power of corporate publishers. The former both facilitates the latter, and is now reinforced by it.
Such margins are possible based on a most ingenious business model – from a capitalist point of view – whereby the public purse is squeezed with minimal risk or investment. Making scientists’ careers entirely dependent on their association with scientific publishers is foundational to this business model.
The current publishing model works like this. Since publishing is how scientists communicate their results with each other and advance professionally, they have little choice but to furnish these magazines with their content, entirely for free. Furthermore, scientific publishers minimise their editorial cost by farming this process out to volunteers – themselves practising scientists – under the mantle of ‘peer review’.
Better yet, the intellectual property to the scientist’s work is written over to the publisher. This establishes a tiny private monopoly on every single piece of science. Since scientists, to move science forward, require access to each other’s work, corporate publishers are able to charge artificially high prices for their products.
Indeed, institutional subscriptions for a single journal can reach prices as high as $20,000 per year. As a result of this, university libraries spend millions – of the public money which funds universities – each year on subscriptions to scientific journals; that is, on access to knowledge produced predominantly by scientists working at universities!
Even in the ‘wealthy’ West, funding for research is declining and young academics are in insecure, poorly-paid contracts, having to strike for decent pensions. In poorer countries, universities lack the millions to spend on journal subscriptions, leaving academics there unable to access much vital scientific knowledge.
Profit-seeking corporate publishers, then, actively impede the spread of knowledge, undermining the basis for further scientific discovery.
Throughout all of this – and despite their perpetual assertions to the contrary – corporate publishers add little value to scientists’ work. As Pierre Vinken – former CEO of Reed-Elsevier, the world’s biggest publisher – so eloquently put it:
“You have no idea how profitable these journals are once you stop doing anything. When you’re building a journal, you spend time getting good editorial boards, you treat them well, you give them dinners. Then you market the thing and your salespeople go out there to sell subscriptions, which is slow and tough, and you try to make the journal as good as possible. That’s what happened at [other publishers]. And then we buy it and we stop doing all that stuff and then the cash just pours out and you wouldn’t believe how wonderful it is.”
Attempts to fight back against corporate publishers on a capitalist basis have borne little fruit – and inevitably so. One such attempt is the ‘open access’ movement, wherein scientists publish their work in internet-based open-access journals, which make research and results freely available to the public. However, as long as the careers of scientists (and, in particular, young scientists) depend on corporate publishers, they are quite simply incapable of publishing in open-access journals.
We see, therefore, how beneficial ‘publish or perish’ has been to corporate publishers in securing scientists’ utter subservience to them.
Just as ticks grow fat when the blood of their victims is plentiful, the comfortable conditions in which corporate publishers make their money has led to enormously bloated monopolies. In 2013, the three biggest publishing houses published nearly half of all papers, with Reed-Elsevier accounting for fully a quarter.
This monopoly position endows these corporations with vast market power. With so much scientific knowledge securely in the hands of so few private publishers, university libraries have little choice but to pay whatever these profiteering publishers demand.
As we have seen, corporate publishers’ power is inherent in the capitalist system. Breaking this stranglehold requires a break with this system.
The current publishing setup may once have streamlined scientific publishing. But these days – in this internet age – they retard the process.
In fact, given that the costs of scientific publishing are minimal; that scientists do much of the work for free; and that the internet provides a platform for sharing knowledge quickly and cheaply: it is clear that corporate publishers have outlived their usefulness for the exchange of scientific ideas. They should be taken into public ownership, with their enormous profits used to fund what few costs of publishing remain.
Such a step would free science from their malign influence, enabling us to break with the ‘publish or perish’ model and accelerate the spread of scientific knowledge to the whole of society.
Competition vs innovation
Scientific progress is further hindered by competition: competition between nation states, each struggling to protect their domestic industries against foreign competition; between companies striving to obtain the intellectual property on a discovery; and even between different research groups vying for limited funding.
Indeed, the laws of capitalist competition do not come to a halt at the hallowed walls of society’s public academic institutions. As funding is slashed, due to the global crisis of capitalism, universities and the academics who work in them increasingly have to justify their endowments.
As a result, different research groups researching the same topic will compete rather than collaborate in order to obtain for themselves the prestige – and, crucially, the funding – that comes with a scientific breakthrough.
Quite contrary to the exhortations of the capitalists, competition does not accelerate innovation. Indeed, in this day-and-age it acts as a major impediment.
As we have already seen, capitalism’s pressures on science can lead to sloppy work and a decline in its quality. Furthermore, scientists are separated from one another, forced to compete for scarce resources, and prevented from working collectively for the best possible outcome.
Competition causes an enormous waste of scientific resources: different entities do the same research, racing each other to the finish line, and doubling up efforts in the most inefficient way possible. For instance, when pharmaceutical companies Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham merged to form GlaxoSmithKline, they discovered that “there tended to be an enormous amount of overlap” between their drug libraries.
Competition also reduces the ability of scientists to rely on each other’s work. In recent years, “the types of inventions that can be patented have widened to include […] upstream research tools (rather than only final products and processes)” (Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State). Furthermore, it means that data, software, and results aren’t shared.
All of this – exacerbated by negative results rarely being published – leads to a situation where scientists, under capitalism, only have a very incomplete overview of the state of science in their field. This inhibits replication and actively undermines further progress.
The need for scientists to justify the use of state – and increasingly private – investment involved in their research has further adverse effects on the scientific process.
Scientists need this increasingly scarce investment to fund their departments, institutes, research groups, and even personal livelihoods. If the science they base their research on becomes superseded, all of this is put at risk.
Under capitalism, therefore, scientists have an economic interest in defending the status quo and protecting established ideas. This means radical new thinking will struggle to be accepted. Even when the evidence against old theories mounts, new theories struggle to be accepted because of this built-in bias towards academic conservativism.
In particular, challenges to established ideas can put the careers of young scientists at risk. They may struggle to get published – after all, peer reviewing and the scientific publishing process are controlled by scientists who also have their own self-interest in mind. Less established researches will also, in turn, struggle to obtain funding. And they may even be ostracised from their community and find themselves unable to build the networks necessary for career advancement.
This is why ideas ripe for a ‘paradigm shift’ can hold on much longer than they should. A scientific establishment, generated by capitalism’s artificial scarcity and competition, unconsciously imposes a major roadblock on progress.
This roadblock could be removed by eliminating the competitive rat-race for scarce funds, and by providing scientists and scientific institutions with the resources necessary to pursue research based on a long-term plan.
Science is, and always will be, a work in progress. Even the neatest and most useful ideas are liable to be superseded at some point. There is no shame in having done a life’s work of valuable research on the basis of an idea that later turns out to be flawed. It is only in this way that science can progress and our understanding of the world can advance.
But the short-term, competitive pressures that capitalism creates, means that this kind of healthy mentality is not possible. Instead of welcoming scientific revolutions and the new theories and knowledge they bring, laboratories and institutes must worry about being made redundant by paradigm shifts – cast by the wayside as victims of capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’.
With a socialist economic plan, however, involving proper investment and the democratic involvement of researchers and scientists, such detrimental pressures could be eliminated and science could flourish. Resources and researchers in redundant fields could transition to new pioneering areas of science. And scientists would be able to pursue the kind of ‘blue skies’ research necessary to take technology and our understanding of nature forward.
The social relations that govern the thinking of scientists, what work they do, and how they go about it, also affect their personal and professional lives. The crisis of capitalism affects the training of young scientists in particular.
With education increasingly marketised, budding scientists are no longer trained to solve problems creatively. Instead, they must be able to perform well on tests so that the university can sell itself to new applicants.
On top of this, there is the difficulty of establishing a foot on the ladder (and paying back eye-watering levels of student debt). For every six new PhD holders, there is only one faculty position. This in spite of constant proclamations from big business that “we need more young people in science”.
These competitive pressures mean that young academics “work long hours and are relatively low-paid for their level of education”. Budding female scientists are especially affected by this. This is sure to drive many intelligent young people out of science, especially given that high-paying sectors such as finance are viable career alternatives for well-trained scientists.
This bleak situation, however, can also give us cause for hope. In spite of all these pressures, and despite the availability of other higher-paying jobs, there are still many people determined to pursue a career in science, due to their curiosity, passion for the pursuit of human knowledge, and hope that they can use this knowledge to fashion a better world.
Scientists are not those who reap the billion-dollar profits their findings generate. In fact, like all other workers, scientists are alienated from their labour, as much as they may enjoy doing it. The intellectual property of their research, and any profits this yields, belong not to scientists themselves, but to those who own the means of production: big business, private laboratories, scientific journals, and the capitalist state.
Abolishing this alienation, improving living and working conditions, and transforming society in order to create the conditions for science to thrive: these are what is necessary to take humanity forward.
Under capitalism, the benefits of scientific progress are not distributed on the basis of society’s needs, but according to the laws of the market. It is not the whole of society that benefits from research and development. Instead, companies extract a profit from scientific research by means of intellectual property laws.
Take the example of medicine. Intellectual property laws grant private companies what is effectively a monopoly over a drug for a certain period of time. This enables companies to charge whatever will maximise their profit from a certain drug.
This leads to extortionate prices. A yearly dose of Truvada, a drug used in the treatment of HIV-AIDS, costs $60 to make, and is sold for $20,000. Research has shown that, taken daily in small doses, Truvada completely prevents AIDS transmission. Distributing it to all at-risk populations would allow us to end AIDS within a generation.
This is entirely possible in terms of the resources required to manufacture the drug. It is only the price chosen by the company that holds the patent for Truvada which prevents this from happening.
Intellectual property laws express a great contradiction of research within a capitalist system. On the one hand, for capitalism to revolutionise science, capitalists must be able to derive a profit from their activities. On the other hand, the financial incentive of intellectual property hinders further progress and the use of existing scientific knowledge.
The only way this contradiction can be resolved is by abolishing the profit motive and directing research on the basis of a democratic, rational economic plan, aimed at satisfying genuine social needs.
The planned economy
Planned economies, even in the bureaucratic form that they have historically existed, provide us with many examples of how scientific research – and its benefits – can be revolutionised on the basis of abolishing the profit motive.
For example, because of restricted access to antibiotics, doctors in the Soviet Union instead treated bacterial infections using viruses called bacteriophages. Recently, with the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance, interest in phage therapy has revived in the West.
Phage therapy is a promising solution to antibiotic resistance because “there are trillions and trillions of phages on the planet and they have evolved over millennia to become the perfect predators to bacteria”. If a strain of bacteria becomes resistant to one type of phage, another can usually be found.
Further, phage therapy can be developed quickly and cheaply, particularly compared to classical antibiotics. Phages can literally be isolated from sewage or rivers. In recent cases, phage-based cures for antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found and successfully administered within a few months.
Capitalism, however, stands directly in the way of private companies developing phage therapy. Since natural genes cannot be patented, no profit is derivable from bacteriophages. They are therefore researched to a far smaller extent than they should be.
Another notable example is early Soviet research into nuclear fusion. The Soviet-designed Tokamak reactor was the first to achieve a stable equilibrium using fusion fuel. Furthermore, its performance was so far ahead of Western designs that Western scientists and politicians believed Soviet results were forged, until a British delegation was allowed to do their own measurements on a Soviet Tokamak.
A large Tokamak is currently under construction in France. And this design is still held to be the most plausible candidate for the large-scale creation of fusion energy. If the potential of such technology can be harnessed, it would provide carbon-free energy on a mass scale.
Elsewhere, Cuba today has a trailblazing biotechnology sector. This is thanks to massive state investment, guided by needs rather than profits, and a planned economy where companies do not compete and where oversight is centralised. As a result, Cuba has been able to pioneer vaccines against meningitis.
Even capitalist governments recognise, in extreme circumstances, the superiority of such a model. This is illustrated by the SEMATECH consortium, established by the US government to foster a viable domestic semiconductor industry that could compete with that in Japan. Rather than race each other, its members shared their knowledge. This allowed them to “avoid duplicating research efforts” – thus reducing research expenditure while increasing its efficiency. However, given that capitalism is inimical to such collaboration, the US government needed to entice corporations to participate with an annual $100 million sweetener.
Since 2011, the Cuban population has been able to receive a vaccine against lung cancer free of charge. This is because Cuba also has a remarkable healthcare system: from primary care to high-tech vaccines – everything is completely freely available to the population.
The result is that Cubans have a life expectancy equal to that seen in the United States – an advanced capitalist country that spends fifteen times as much on healthcare per capita than that in Cuba. In fact, the US government spends as much money administering the mess of a private healthcare system (per person) as Cuba spends on all healthcare-related costs.
Without the profit motive or intellectual property as obstacles, Cuba was the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV, which the WHO lauded as “one of the greatest public health achievements possible”.
All of this on a poor island nation that for half a century has been subjected to a brutal embargo, led by the world’s most powerful imperialist nation, which lies only 90 miles from its shores.
It is likely that capitalist companies could develop similar ground-breaking vaccines. But they would probably do so more inefficiently. The main obstacle, however, is that they do not produce for needs. They do not act on considerations of the public good, but simply for their own profits.
Cuba’s health care model is certainly not perfect. In particular, due to the embargo, Cuba lacks access to advanced medical technologies. However, its successes in the face of dire poverty stand as a testament to the potential of a planned economy.
‘Experts’ refer to Cuba’s achievement of ‘First World’ healthcare outcomes on a ‘Third World’ budget as the ‘Cuban Health Paradox’. In fact, it is only paradoxical as long as one is unwilling to admit that a planned, rational economy is superior to the anarchy of the capitalist market.
In desperate times, the capitalists will acknowledge this in practice, as shown by the massive nationalisations and planning seen during the Second World War. The task now is to bring about a socialist economic plan that can utilise society’s full scientific and technological resources in a war against poverty, disease, hunger, and climate change.
The need for socialism
The examples above – achieved despite the barriers of bureaucracy, backwardness, and isolation – provide a glimpse of what could be achieved today if society’s immense productive potential internationally were put to use on the basis of a democratically planned world economy. This could solve – or provide the basis for solving – all of the problems discussed in this article.
Spending on research could be massively increased. Instead of benefitting executives and shareholders, the tens of billions in annual profits in sectors like the pharmaceutical industry could instead be used to fund pioneering science, cutting-edge equipment, and long-term research projects.
With an increased quantity of science would also come an increased quality. Removing the profit motive, society could decide democratically what research is most urgently needed. We would be free to rethink how we evaluate the merits of science. And with the corporate publishing monopolies under public control, we could remove the perverse incentives that encourage scientists to rush or fudge their research.
A socialist economy, in summary, would provide the material basis for a revolution within science, where the advancement of humanity’s knowledge and the improvement of living standards would be the raison d’être of scientific activity.
Removing the anarchy of competition – between companies and between nations – we could ensure that all research, results, and resources are fully shared, without any squandering, duplication, and waste.
Intellectual property would be abolished. Science would be recognised as a social endeavour. And the gains of every breakthrough, based on the contributions made by generations, would be distributed equitably on the basis of need.
Most importantly, a socialist society would be able to utilise the full human potential that exists across the world. Think of all those minds that are never able to contemplate beyond the daily struggle against hunger or treatable diseases; the people who are unable to afford high-quality education, or who are stuck trying to make ends meet.
When the vast majority of mankind is set free and liberated from these chains, there is no telling what we will discover.