Do the needs of society drive science and technology? Or do developments in science and technology provide the motor force of history? Has this relationship changed over time? Knowledge as Commons situates science, technology, and the emergence of modern nations in a larger historical framework.

With profit as its sole aim, capital claims to own human knowledge and its products, fencing them in with patents and intellectual property rights. Neoliberal institutions and policy diktats from the West have installed a global system in which a resource that is not worn out with use – knowledge – is made artificially scarce, while limited resources such as groundwater and clean air are used as though they were infinite.

The privatisation of knowledge

Prabir Purkayastha traces the historical path towards the privatisation of knowledge. He examines the consequences of this privatisation for universities, healthcare, distributive justice, the domestic politics of developing countries, and their prospects vis-à-vis the West.

He begins by asking the question: Are science and technology really the same? Prabir answers unreservedly no. So how are they different? The essence of their difference lies in their objectives. Science looks at how nature works; it could be said that it is objective, unbiased, and rational. Technology, however, is a social issue as its purported purpose is to develop society’s movement toward “economic equality and social justice”.

Yet, as Purkayastha demonstrates, neither of these purposes are fulfilled in today’s neo-liberal context, nor was either ever really concerned with the needs of society as a whole, but rather only the interests of those who run society. As with everything in a capitalist society, science and technology are stamped with the social relations underpinning the productive forces’ capacity to grow and develop the overall society. Science never has and never will transcend the boundaries of class relations. Technology has always been a tool for advancing the economic productive forces under the guise of creating a more equitable society.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting negative impact on the working people of the world, especially the Global South, is the most recent and profound example of the capitalist class dictatorship that governs a large section of the world. While millions of people died globally every day for months, the United States government made a policy decision to allow those people to die rather than provide the technology required to keep them alive.

Purkayastha takes the reader on a journey in his description of the development of technology and science. He proves that science and technology are not “independent” of society as a whole; they are not detached from society’s fundamental contradiction. Instead, it reflects that contradiction and develops not in accordance with the needs of the people but rather to endow the ruling class with more and more profits. Why else would their political representatives allow the deaths of large swathes of the poorest people in the world with a wink of the eye and a nod of the head?

Not only did the for-profit companies withhold COVID-19 treatments from the coloured peoples of the world, but the so-called “non-profit” foundations did likewise. The Gates Foundation, for example, is the second-highest contributor to the World Health Organization’s budget. It was Bill Gates who persuaded Oxford University’s Jenner Institute to give the patents they developed for a COVID-19 vaccine to AstraZeneca as a monopoly, instead of making them publicly available so that all companies would have an opportunity to provide the sorely-needed vaccine to the public.

Purkayastha challenges the present-day definition of science and technology made by both modern scientists and technologists, quoting Derek de Solla in “The Difference Between Science and Technology, The International Edison Birthday Celebration Lecture, 1968 “…Of course, the more perceptive have observed that there seems to be an intrinsic difference between science and technology: the former is general, easily transferred, supranational, while the latter is specific, primarily national, and difficult to transfer.’ In other words, the development of technology is regulated by the marketplace, and the spoils go to the highest bidder. Just ask Pfizer.

Science for profit

“Pfizer’s 2021 revenue was $81.3 billion, roughly double its revenue in 2020, when its top sellers were a pneumonia vaccine, the cancer drug Ibrance, and the fibromyalgia treatment Lyrica, which had gone off-patent.

Now, its mRNA vaccine holds 70 per cent of the US and European markets. Its antiviral Paxlovid is the pill of choice to treat early symptoms of covid. This year, the company expects to rake in more than $50 billion in global revenue from the two medications alone.” (Arthur Allen, KFF Health News)

In the Chapter “The Dynamics of Technology and Self-Reliance”, Purkayastha examines the differences between a developed economy and a less-developed economy, explaining that one of its essential attributes is the level of scientific and technological knowledge. For example, the Netherlands is an advanced country, while Saudi Arabia, with a GDP of a similar order, is not as demonstrated by the Dutch, who produce the most advanced chip-making machine in the world. At the same time, Saudi Arabia only exports hydrocarbons and has to import advanced equipment to facilitate those exports. This is not a result of choice by Global South countries but rather imposed upon the entire Global South’s development by the US-led bloc. In addition to having this technological development, it must be integrated into the production process, and the country itself must own its intellectual property. Too many countries have no ownership of their productive forces.

The fact is that many multinational companies enter into agreements with these less developed countries for less expensive manufacturing capabilities. However, they retain the intellectual property. Without breaking this dependence upon the West’s monopoly on intellectual property, the Global South will continue to struggle to advance its societies on all fronts.

India is one of the best examples of this thesis. After they won their independence from the UK, they enacted trade protection for their home market. Despite its deficiencies, this economic policy allowed India to develop its economy and produce various goods and services for their home market. However, a protected market tends to import technology rather than develop it independently, which became the standard for India.

Neoliberalism eliminated any semblance of independent ownership of public knowledge and intellectual property. Slowly but surely, India is privatising its excellent university system, and fewer and fewer people, especially indigenous minorities, can attain higher education. This is happening across the Global South.

In addition, the type of scientific research that is conducted is dictated by private capital, although the study itself is done by many public, i.e., state-funded, institutions. Once the intellectual property is developed, it is handed over to private interests, and profits rule how it is used. Again, we look at Pfizer as an excellent example. However, unfortunately, those examples abound in all industrial sectors.

Purkayastha ends his book by discussing the Indian Free Science Movement, of which he is a founding member. Like many of his colleagues, he has dedicated his life to fighting for free and independent science and technology for the people. As I write this book review, Purkayastha is not free to continue his fight against the tyranny of capital in all sectors of society. He is sitting in a jail cell, arrested in early October 2023 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for his support of the Farmer’s Movement.

The book is an excellent example of the application of Marxist science to the history of science and technology throughout time, but especially under capitalism. It is a beautifully written and well-organised book. I urge anyone interested in the importance of these two critical issues to read it and learn about how we, the people, can make a difference in our lives and the peoples of the world. I also urge you to read it as a protest against the criminals of the Indian government headed by Narendra Modi, whose attack against science and scientists must be stopped, and Purkayastha must be freed.

Knowledge as Commons: Towards Inclusive Science And Technology, Prabir Purkayastha, Leftword.