Technology, Research, and the Penetration of Capital: The Case of U.S. Agriculture

By Lewontin, R. C.; Berlan, Jean-Pierre | Monthly Review, July-August 1986 | Go to article overview

Technology, Research, and the Penetration of Capital: The Case of U.S. Agriculture


Lewontin, R. C., Berlan, Jean-Pierre, Monthly Review


TECHNOLOGY, RESEARCH, AND THE PENETRATION OF CAPITAL: THE CASE OF U.S. AGRICULTURE

The farm crisis that is so much in the news is not new, but is the culmination of the long process of the transformation of agriculture. This transformation is marked by an increasing penetration of large capital concentrations and an increasing differentiation between farming and agriculture. Farming is producing wheat; agriculture is turning phosphates into bread. Farming, carried out by millions of petty producers, is now completely dominated by the total system of agricultural production under the control of a few oligopolies, who sell farmers their inputs, and buy their outputs, and control (directly or indirectly) their conditions of production. This process of transformation has been made possible by, and has been driven by, agricultural research and technological change. Ironically, while public agricultural research responds to the demands of farmers, it is in the very process destroying their status as independent producers and putting them more and more under the control of capital.

One hardly needs to be a Marxist to argue that technological change drives and is driven by commodity production. Indeed, it is a basic assumption of neoclassical economics that there is a constant pressure to introduce cost-saving technology. Moreover, the theory of "induced innovation," which has become trendy in economics in the last twenty years, argues that the detailed direction of deveopment of technology is not the result of an autonomous process of invention, depending only upon the "facts of nature" and the chance operation of individual genius, but is directly responsive to economic pressures. If the marginal cost of labor is high, then technological change will be driven to labor-saving innovation; while if energy is more costly, techniques of substituting labor for oil may result. It is also universally agreed that technological change is ultimately based upon "basic research" into the fundamental properties of the physical world. Discoveries in solid state physics were absolutely necessary for the computerization of the factory, the office, and the den; basic research into the structure of DNA made possible genetic engineering and built the fortunes of biologist entrepreneurs.

The conventional picture of research and development is thus a two-stage model. Basic research, largely carried out in public institutions such as government laboratories and state universities, or in private universities and research foundations supported by public monies, is an autonomous cultural process based upon the desire to "unlock the secrets of nature." The direction of this research is dictated by the facts of nature and by the culturally conditioned desire of scientists to discover the most basic features of the natural world. Once these discoveries become available, they are picked up by the institutions of applied research, the applied government laboratories, corporate research centers, and individual inventive entprepreneurs, who develop specific new techniques to reduce actual production costs, to create new consumer products, or supposedly to serve the common good directly, for example, with new drugs. Small changes in the "production possibilities frontier" are allowed to occur, new products make their appearance, but the basic structure of production remains unchanged.

In reality, however, this picture is ahistorical and relevant only to a world in equilibrium. The reality is quite different. Rather than being just another factor of production, research and development have transformed capitalist production by facilitating the penetration of capital into all aspects of the productive process. "Basic" research, far from being autonomous, is in a constant state of reciprocal interaction with social and productive exigencies. Partly, this is because the funding of "basic" research depends on the perception of its usefulness. …

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