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2. Democracy, human rights and the impact of scientifc and technological development in Venezuela

Theoretical and political implications of the definition of human rights in relation to scientific and technological development
The Latin American experience
Model of development, basic needs, and human rights in an oil economy: the case of Venezuela
Science, technology, and the Venezuelan political system


Theoretical and political implications of the definition of human rights in relation to scientific and technological development

Out of the broad range of problems currently being discussed in the relationship between scientific and technological development and human rights, this paper will discuss some cultural and political issues involved in the decision-making process in scientific and technological development from the point of view of democratic values, that is, the right to democratic participation in scientific and technological decisions that might have a significant bearing on people's lives.

Taken literally, some contemporary definitions of human rights in relation to scientific and technological development would seem to imply a radical questioning of the standard conceptions of science and technology. The dominant conceptions of Western scientific and technological development in terms of objectivity, neutrality, and universalism,1 the technocratic conceptions of science and technology as the domain of the expert and the specialist, as well as the necessary identification of scientific and technological development - conceived in these terms - with freedom and well-being for all, are severely questioned and relativized by the conceptions of human rights as they are now debated within the United Nations system. The main issue here is whether these definitions of human rights will remain as abstract declarations of principle (a product of the third-world voting majority at the United Nations General Assembly), with no practical or political significance,2 or if, on the contrary, they can become instruments for the furtherance of human rights in the realms of scientific and technological development.

This project was carried out by a research team at the School of Sociology of the Venezuelan Central University in Caracas. José Daniel Gonzalez worked as research assistant. The following sociology students were active participants in the research group: Carlos Contreras W., Miguel Contreras, Pedro A. Garcia, Freddy Estévez, Clara Ferreira, Felipe R. Malaver, José Gregorio Masciangioli, Iokiñe Rodriguez, and Paula Vásquez.

To conceive of scientific and technological development as universal, neutral, and objective necessarily implies a lack of choice in relation to these processes, both in broad historical terms (the expansion of Western science and technology understood as an inexorable march towards overall human progress), and in terms of the day-to-day decision-making process in relation to science and technology (experts know best and there is no place for democratic participation by the lay, ignorant, public in the complex affairs with which specialists have to deal).

The Western model of scientific and technological development is not, however, simply a set of neutral instruments compatible with any social goal or purpose that a society might define.3 On the contrary, this model of scientific knowledge and of the technological transformation of nature can only bear its full potential when strictly guided by the aims and ends of instrumental rationality. The historical process of the making of the modern scientific and technological system of Western society is a process through which scientific and technological activities have become detached, separated, from any normative orientation different from the efficient control of nature and society. The unfolding - with no limitation - of modern scientific and technological development is based on the fact that within the realm of science and technology there can be no other criteria, no moral, ethical, or political value or norm different from the search, control, and manipulation of "reality." Any attempt to incorporate any other standard- apart from instrumental rationality - within the scientific-technological process would hinder the full development of its potential. When, in the Western world, instrumental rationality was limited by cultural, political, and religious constraints, its development was severely thwarted. The full development of the potential of science was achieved only as part of the modern process of separation of the different spheres of reason, when the scientific enterprise was able to do away with these external restrictions. This is the essential difference between Western culture and other cultures in which the control of nature and material abundance are not assumed to be the supreme values of life.4

Science as we know it - the scientific and technological development of modern industrial society - is not the natural way in which man relates to nature once he has managed to get rid of the limitations and inhibitions imposed by magic, religion, or any other tradition. According to the eurocentric and objectivist interpretations of science, the full development of this natural human potential has not been possible in other traditions because of cultural obstacles that would need to be eliminated to advance in the direction of human progress based on scientific and technological development.5 This is the approach of the Sociology of Modernization. Any cultural difference between a traditional society and modern society (that is, Western industrial society) is seen as an impediment to modernization (be it family patterns, religion, the conception of time, or whatever). It is assumed that these societies have to supersede these peculiarities to achieve the goals of modernity.

However, scientific knowledge has no ontological foundation in human nature. It is not the "superior" form of human knowledge, but a particular type of knowledge developed in a society that has established the radical and absolute priority of the values of production, work, prediction, and control. The historical development of an instrumental rationality with no limit or external control is not the development of a sort of Hegelian reason through which the abstract laws of universal development express themselves. It is, on the contrary, a particular historical process, in which -as a result of a complex set of cultural, political, and economic conditions - Western culture assumes a basic cultural option, the unilateral priority of those values that could be achieved through instrumental reason.

When human rights related to scientific and technological development are thought of in terms of the right to "self-determined development," the right to carry out traditional economic activities, the "right to uphold cultural traditions" (especially by indigenous, peasant, and fishing communities), "the rights of protection against possible harmful effects of scientific and technological developments," "the right of access to scientific and technological information that is essential to development and welfare (both at the individual and collective levels)," and the "right of choice or the freedom to access and choose the preferred paths of scientific and technological development," 6 there is a common and basic premise implied: there is a choice, and people have a right to decide among different possible alternatives. This would seem to imply a radically new perspective in relation to scientific and technological development. Science and technology are not seen as having one linear, predetermined universal path. Since different alternatives are possible, and the options between these alternatives have a cardinal bearing on the shaping of the future, these decisions cannot be left in the hands of experts and technocrats. Likewise, if there is no universally valid paradigm of a "good life," people must have the right to choose and not have the set of values related to material production, to the manipulation and control of nature and society, imposed upon them as the supreme, unquestioned universal values of mankind, as values which can justify the denial of all other values or cultural alternatives. There cannot be such a thing as democratic society and people cannot be thought of as sovereign - if the future is predetermined and there is simply no option. In the words of Adam Przeworoski, individuals acting on the basis of their current preferences are collectively sovereign if the alternatives open to them are constrained only by conditions independent of anyone's will. Specifically, people are sovereign to the extent that they can alter the existing institutions, including the state and property, and if they can allocate available resources to all feasible uses.7

Scientific and Technological Decisions as Political Issues

As long as the Western model of science and technology is seen as equal to human progress and as necessarily positive in its impact on living conditions and human rights, there will be little public concern over these issues. Because of scientific and technological development there is more freedom, less work, and an ever-rising standard of living. In these conditions there is little or no demand for public, democratic participation in relation to scientific and technological decisions.

Scientific and technological development and their relationship to human rights have become political issues in recent decades as a result of two parallel and often interrelated processes. On one hand the possible negative or perverse consequences of scientific and technological development with no control or limits is becoming increasingly clear. The destructive potential of nuclear arms (which threaten that most basic human right, the right to life for present and future generations), and the massive destruction of the natural environment because of industrial society's aggressive exploitation of nature, act together to unsettle our blind faith in science and technology. Simultaneously, in different parts of the world, as a consequence of different processes, and at diverse rhythms, there is an ever-increasing demand for citizen participation in those issues that can have an impact in their individual or collective lives.

Decisions once defined as technical are increasingly forced into the political arena by people who are sceptical about the value of technological progress, who perceive a gap between technology and human need, or who mistrust authority in bureaucracies responsible for technological change. Policies concerning science and technology once based on the assumption that technology equals progress now involve difficult social choices.8

... participation as an ideology seems to be of growing importance just when technical complexity threatens to limit effective political choice.9

This new political significance of scientific and technological decisions has a double dimension. On the one hand is the acknowledgement of the possible positive or negative affects of science and technology on the rights of citizens (the right to life, the right to welfare, the right to privacy, the right to a non-contaminated natural environment, etc.). On the other hand, it refers to a new political demand, seen as a human right: the right to have access to information in relation to important technological matters and the right to participate in the decision-making process in relation to scientific and technological issues that might have a significant impact on people's lives in the short or long term.

Nuclear plants; the use of animals for scientific research; toxic waste disposal; the impact of massive chemical use in modern agriculture; research and development in biotechnology, especially in the field of recombinant DNA; major airport construction; big dams - these are just some problems that have become the focus of organized resistance that has transformed them into significant political issues. Diverse social movements, especially anti-nuclear movements (both the peace movement and movements against nuclear energy) and ecological movements struggling against the destructive impact on nature of unlimited economic growth, demand the right to full public information and citizen participation in major scientific and technological decisions that might have an impact on human rights.

Because of public pressure, many countries over the last two decades have commenced the development of initiatives leading to "increased public involvement in planning and decision-making" 10 in relation to science and technology. Some of these participatory experiments have led to genuine democratic participation that has, in some cases, resulted in major changes in technological decisions. Frequently, however, far from implying a significant increase in citizen participation in the decision-making process, they have been oriented toward legitimizing questionable technological decisions.11

Technological Options as Political Issues in the Third World

There are some fundamental differences in the impact of science and technology on human rights and in the types of issues that tend to become the focus of public attention, and the way in which they become political issues, in most of the third world as compared to Western industrial societies. These contrasts have to do both with cultural and political differences and with the diverse nature of the impact of scientific and technological development on disparate societies. From a basic cultural point of view, the uncritical acceptance of Western scientific and technological development implies a disavowal of the distinctive character of many third-world cultures. Given the enormous power of modern science and technology to reconstruct social relations (acting as a genetic code with the capacity to reproduce many of the cultural traits that gave rise to them), and because these are a product of a particular cultural-historical experience, an unquestioned embrace of the scientific and technological paradigm necessarily implies a basic reshaping of most previous cultural patterns. Whether and when this becomes a salient political issue depends basically on the degree of Westernization of third-world societies and of the relative vigour of alternative cultural traditions.12 Thus while these issues have only marginal significance in industrial urban sectors of Latin American society, they remain poignant and conflicting where traditional cultures maintain some vitality (as in Andean cultures), or where not only cultural but physical survival is at stake (as is the case with the aboriginal populations of the Amazon basin).

The hegemonic model of scientific and technological development that is assumed as universal and inevitable for the planet as a whole is not necessarily viable for all countries in the third world. Every technological decision implies that some alternatives were either rejected or not even considered. When third-world countries embark on large-scale development plans and import sophisticated and expensive technology - guided by inducements by international aid organizations or by national pride or megalomania - a disproportionate amount of national resources is concentrated on a few showpiece projects while the basic needs of the majority of the population are left mostly unmet.13 The consequences of the heavy indebtedness implied by this model of technological development are dramatically illustrated by the present third-world debt crisis.

Equally striking, in terms of its impact on the human rights of the poorer sectors of the population (standards of living and civic and political rights), is the current vogue of export-oriented development. This usually implies an option for the importation of advanced technology required to manufacture goods that are to be sold to industrial countries, again concentrating investment resources on technology that neither creates employment nor produces goods directed toward the satisfaction of basic needs.14 The restrictions in internal consumption required to increase exports, and the low salaries necessary to preserve competitive advantages in the world market, are often possible only in authoritarian regimes. It is not by chance that practically all the third-world success stories according to macroeconomic criteria - have been in countries with right-wing dictatorial regimes. The export drive - under pressure of the weight of the foreign debt - in the case of agriculture often implies the substitution of traditional food production for the internal market by exportable goods, leading to the disturbing paradox of a decrease in food consumption at the very same time that overall agricultural production is increasing. The economic and social impact of the Green Revolution is far from unambiguously positive.15

Quite apart from the fact that this model of development may not be deemed desirable or compatible with traditional cultures or values is the question of whether the paths to development associated with large-scale, capital-intensive science and technology, and the patterns of consumption and levels of utilization of natural resources involved, are indeed feasible for the world as a whole. Even if the dire predictions of the Club of Rome were exaggerated, it still seems hardly likely that a viable development model for the total population of the world is possible if the present level of resource consumption characteristic of Western industrial societies is assumed as the universal norm. This creates key policy problems for scientific and technological development in the third world today. Is it not possible that the model of technological and industrial development, the prototype of the "good life" to which all other alternatives are sacrificed or forsaken, is simply not attainable for most of the inhabitants of the world? What are the implications for the hundreds of millions who can no longer return to the traditional culture that has ceased to be viable and yet have no access to modern scientific and technological culture, thus being stranded between two worlds with a deep cultural and identity crisis?

The differences in political institutions have a marked bearing on the impact of scientific and technological development in third-world countries, when compared with Western experience.

Within advanced industrial countries, hegemonic and exploitative relationships have been qualified and somewhat restrained within the democratic framework of civic and political participation. Many of the third world's developing countries, by contrast, are under authoritarian regimes and traditions and practically all the public decisions are left to the tiny groups of so-called modernizing élites.16

These political differences have additional implications. Human rights-related issues in scientific and technological development obviously occupy a lower political priority in societies where the most basic human rights (as these have been traditionally defined both in civic-political and in social-economic terms) are by no means guaranteed. The possibility of having some say in scientific and technological decisions is likewise severely limited by the current vogue of neo-liberal economics imposed upon almost all countries in the periphery by international financial institutions as a condition for the renegotiation of the foreign debt. At stake are both the possibility of democratic debates and decisions in relation to the goal of a desired society and the means for achieving it (which would obviously imply some technological options), and national sovereignty. If all the main economic decisions (and, by implication, scientific and technological options) are left to market forces, and the resources required for these decisions are highly concentrated in the hands of multinational corporations, a very significant proportion of the relevant decisions pertaining to the definition of the present and future of these societies is drastically excluded from the political arena.

A further significant difference in the relationship between scientific and technological development and human rights in industrial societies and the situation in most of the third world has to do with the availability of economic resources. Thanks to their ample wealth, industrialized countries can invest in technological measures that compensate for economic activities which have particularly negative impacts. They have managed to control and even reverse some of the harm done by certain technologies.17 This is particularly so for environmental hazards related to industrial activities. When technological alternatives, or the technologies required to limit harmful environmental consequences or effects on people's health, prove to be too expensive, there is always the possibility of relocating these activities or the resulting toxic wastes in some third-world country.18 The limitation in the availability of resources, along with the lack of the necessary know-how, sets limits to the matters relating to science and technology that are likely to become political issues in the third world. Even when technological alternatives to specially damaging industrial activities are well known, it is unlikely that there will be significant opposition to such activities if the costs of the alternative are deemed to be beyond the country's capacity to bear, or if, for example, the affected employees in a particularly polluting petrochemical or steel mill have no alternative means of subsistence besides employment in that plant. Likewise, rigorous technological assessment requires both the resources to carry out studies and a basic trust in the results of such endeavour. This, again, tends to restrict the scope for technological decisions to become political issues.

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