The Impact of Science on Society, Part 1 – Scientific Technique and the Concentration of Power

Scientific Technique and the Concentration of Power

Originally posted January 14, 2008

“So long as the rulers are comfortable, what reason have they to improve the lot of their serfs?”- Bertrand Russell, 1952 (p61)

Bertrand Russell in his 1952 book The Impact of Science on Society* describes the effects of “scientific technique” on the increasing control of societies by an ever shrinking number of people. As we will see, “scientific technique” is much more than just the development and widespread use of new technology, but first some of its effects.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell (1872-1970) was a renowned British philosopher and mathematician who was an adamant internationalist and worked extensively on the education of young children. He was the founder of the Pugwash movement which used the spectre of Cold War nuclear annihilation to push for world government. Among many other prizes, Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950 and UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Kalinga prize in 1957.

Increasing Organization

From Impact of Science on Society:

“This [the telegraph] had two important consequences: first messages could now travel faster than human beings; secondly, in large organizations detailed control from a centre became much more possible than it had formerly been.

The fact that messages could travel faster than human beings was useful, above all, to the police…” – 33

“Electricity as a source of power is much more recent than the telegraph, and has not yet had all the effects of which it is capable. As an influence on social organisation its most notable feature is the importance of power stations, which inevitably promote centralisation… as soon as a community has become dependent upon them for lighting and heating and cooking. I lived in America in a farm-house which depended entirely upon electricity, and sometimes, in a blizzard, the wires would be blown down. The resulting inconvenience was almost intolerable. If we had been deliberately cut off for being rebels, we should soon have had to give in.” – 35

“But what is of most importance in this connection is the development of flying. Aeroplanes have increased immeasurably the power of governments. No rebellion can hope to succeed unless it is favoured by at least a portion of the air force.” – 36

“In industry, the integration brought about by scientific technique is much greater [than agriculture] and more intimate.

One of the most obvious results of industrialism is that a much larger percentage of the population live in towns than was formerly the case. The town dweller is a more social being than the agriculturist, and is much more influenced by discussion. In general, he works in a crowd, and his amusements are apt to take him into still larger crowds. The course of nature, the alternations of day and night, summer and winter, wet or shine, make little difference to him; he has no occasion to fear that he will be ruined by frost or drought or sudden rain. What matters to him is his human environment, and his place in various organisations especially.

Take a man who works in a factory, and consider how many organisations affect his life. There is first of all the factory itself, and any larger organisation of which it may be a part. Then there is the man’s trade union and his political party. He probably gets house room from a building society or public authority. His children go to school. If he reads a newspaper or goes to a cinema or looks at a football match, these things are provided by powerful organisations. Indirectly, through his employers, he is dependent upon those from whom they buy their raw material and those to whom they sell their finished product. Above all, there is the State, which taxes him and may at any moment order him to go and get killed in war, in return for which it protects him against murder and theft so long as there is peace, and allows him to buy a fixed modicum of food.” [emphasis mine] -44

“The increase of organisation has brought into existence new positions of power. Every body has to have executive officials, in whom, at any moment, its power is concentrated. It is true that officials are usually subject to control, but the control may be slow and distant. From the young lady who sells stamps in a Post Office all the way up to the Prime Minister, every official is invested, for the time being, with some part of the power of the State. You can complain of the young lady if her manners are bad, and you can vote against the Prime Minister at the next election if you disapprove of his policy. But both the young lady and the Prime Minister can have a very considerable run for their money before (if ever) your discontent has any effect.” [emphasis mine] – 45 “The increased power of officials is an inevitable result of the greater degree of organisation that scientific technique brings about. It has the drawback that it is apt to be irresponsible, behind-the-scenes, power, like that of Emperors’ eunuchs and Kings’ mistresses in former times. To discover ways of controlling it is one of the most important political problems of our time. Liberals protested, successfully, against the power of kings and aristocrats; socialists protested against the power of capitalists. But unless the power of officials can be kept within bounds, socialism will mean little more than the substitution of one set of masters for another: all the former power of the capitalist will be inherited by the official. [emphasis mine]” – 47

“As we have seen, the question of freedom needs a completely fresh examination. There are forms of freedom that are desirable, and that are gravely threatened; there are other forms of freedom that are undesirable, but that are very difficult to curb… The resultant two-fold problem, of preserving liberty internally and diminishing it externally, is one that the world must solve, and solve soon, if scientific societies are to survive.

Let us consider for a moment the social psychology involved in this situation.

…The armed forces of one’s own nation exist – so each nation asserts – to prevent aggression by other nations. But the armed forces of other nations exist – or so many people believe – to promote aggression. If you say anything against the armed forces of your own country, you are a traitor, wishing to see your fatherland ground under the heel of a brutal conqueror. If, on the other hand, you defend a potential enemy State for thinking armed forces necessary to its safety, you malign your own country, whose unalterable devotion to peace only perverse malice could lead you to question…

And so it comes about that, whenever an organisation has a combatant purpose, its members are reluctant to criticise their officials and tend to acquiesce in usurpations and arbitrary exercise of power which, but for the war mentality, they would bitterly resent. It is the war mentality that gives officials and governments their opportunity. It is therefore only natural that officials and governments are prone to foster war mentality.” [emphasis mine] – 51

“I incline to think that ‘liberty’, as the word was understood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is no longer quite the right concept; I should prefer to substitute ‘opportunity for initiative’. And my reason for suggesting this change is the character of a scientific society.” – 68

More Organization is More Power

“The effect of the telegraph was to increase the power of the central government and diminish the initiative of distant subordinates. This applied not only to the State, but to every geographically extensive organization. We shall find a great deal of scientific technique has a similar effect. The result is that fewer men have executive power, but those few had more power than such men had formerly.” [emphasis mine] – 35 “We have seen that scientific technique increases the importance of organisations, and therefore the extent to which authority impinges upon the life of the individual. It follows that a scientific oligarchy has more power than any oligarchy could have in pre-scientific times. There is a tendency, which is inevitable unless consciously combated, for organisations to coalesce, and so to increase in size, until, ultimately, almost all become merged in the State. A scientific oligarchy, accordingly, is bound to become what is called ‘totalitarian’, that is to say, all important forms of power will become a monopoly of the State.” [emphasis mine] – 56

“In the first place, since the new oligarchs are the adherents of a certain creed, and base their claim to exclusive power upon the rightness of this creed, their system depends essentially upon dogma: whoever questions the governmental dogma questions the moral authority of the government, and is therefore a rebel. While the oligarchy is still new, there are sure to be other creeds, held with equal conviction, which must be suppressed by force, since the principle of majority rule has been abandoned. It follows that there cannot be freedom of the Press, freedom of discussion, or freedom of book publication. There must be an organ of government whose duty it is to pronounce as to what is orthodox, and to punish heresy. The history of the Inquisition shows what such an organ of government must inevitably become. In the normal pursuit of power, it will seek out more and more subtle heresies. The Church, as soon as it acquired political power, developed incredible refinement of dogma, and persecuted what to us appear microscopic deviations form the official creed. Exactly the same sort of thing happens in the modern States that confine political power to supporters of a certain doctrine.” – 57

“The completeness of the resulting control over opinion depends in various ways upon scientific technique. Where all children go to school, and all schools are controlled by the government, the authorities can close the minds of the young to everything contrary to official orthodoxy. Printing is impossible without paper, and all paper belongs to the State. Broadcasting and the cinema are equally public monopolies. The only remaining possibility of unauthorised propaganda is by secret whispers from one individual to another. But this, in turn, is rendered appallingly dangerous by improvements in the art of spying. Children at school are taught that it is their duty to denounce their parents if they allow themselves subversive utterances in the bosom of the family. No one can be sure that a man who seems to be his dearest friend will not denounce him to the police; the man may himself have been in some trouble, and may know that if he is not efficient as a spy his wife and children will suffer. All this is not imaginary, it is daily and hourly reality. Nor, given oligarchy, is there the slightest reason to expect anything else.” [emphasis mine] – 58

What is Scientific Technique?

Scientific technique is much more than just the impact of new technology on the machinations of society. It is the use of science, in its most calculating and inhumane ways, to analyze, control and guide societies in a desired direction. This topic was elaborated on in a couple of talks given by Alan Watt ( here and here ) particularly through the writings of Jacques Ellul.

The rest of the articles in this series will also elaborate on other aspects of scientific technique, especially its application to education and human breeding . But first, I will examine Bertrand Russell’s views about the stability of scientific societies and the possibility of a scientific world government.

*Quotes from Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society (1952). ISBN0-41510906-X


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