IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > Economic > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Contributors > William Gillis > Sociology > Philosophy > Psychology
Scientists as a Revolutionary Class
William Gillis   Jun 21, 2014   Ethical Technology  

Scientists are driven to inquire, to engage with the world around them and reshape their own minds in doing so. Regardless of whether they recognize it this places them fundamentally and diametrically at odds with power relations.

Consequently those power dynamics that have survived have found ways to hold back and rigorously control science, but this control rarely takes the form of direct oppression. Yes scientists do occasionally get shot, threatened, censored, fired and shipped off to gulags to starve, but as these things go they’re not a particularly oppressed class.

Indeed if we accept for a moment the perception of “scientist” as a mere job description rather than intellectual orientation, then scientists have done extraodinarily well for themselves in the modern era. A pampered and privileged pet class whose fortunes have slowly been wrapped around that of the establishment. In terms of material security scientists have been made a beneficiary of global capitalism and it would be insane to ignore the cultural allegiances this has spurred. But so too would it be folly to overstate them as inherent or even characteristic.

I would argue that scientists constitute a very important class in the context of social struggle — a class not created by paycheck but defined in terms their desires the same way that queer folk constitute a class. Those driven by inquiry who act to expand collective understanding of the material world. In this sense scientists are without a doubt a class with immense revolutionary potential. Perhaps even the most potential.

To reiterate just to be absolutely clear: Scientists are not a profoundly oppressed class. Sure, IP law impedes their livelihoods and empowers parasitic academic hierarchies. Corporate and political powers stomp on results they don’t like. Huge numbers of would-be scientists around the world are refused access and opportunities. And of course for thousands of years scientists have faced systemic and constant threats of murder from the religious wings of social power.

Even in this extrodinary modern political shift to subversion rather than suppression, scientists are still significantly impeded by power relations. Yet no one would compare the travails of scientists as a whole to those faced specifically by women, people of color, the poor, etc.

But revolutionary potential does not follow a 1:1 relationship with the degree of oppression faced. A starving person is not inherently aligned against power relations wholesale, all they can at face value be relied on opposing is the context that keeps them in starvation. Along many if not most class lines the motivating grievance is not inherent but contextual. This can of course be quite potent just as it can develop into an enlightened empathic rejection of power relations but such development is in no way assured. Once those defined solely by their dispossession cease being dispossessed they cease having any fundamental tension with power.

True scientists on the other hand can never cease being scientists. Their defining desire is both contingent upon liberty and insatiable. As such they will never stop being in conflict with power. That the tension of this conflict has been minimized in the modern era is actually the whole point.

While flagrantly oppressed classes like the working poor once held a tactical advantage through proximity to things like the means of production, the ruling class has long since rectified that mistake. Former points of criticality have been dispersed or made redundant and those few folks left in contact with critical components or potent tools have almost all been bought. It’s hard to build working class consciousness in an ostensibly “blue collar” worker who has a summer home and a boat from their snug 60k union contract.

And perhaps harder still to do anything with all those disenfranchised and angry but safely positioned out of reach from anything critical save their own support systems.

​We no longer live in an era in which mass mobilization (simply fielding the most soldiers/voters) is relevant unto itself. Technological progress — always favoring the attacker — continues to seep out to the margins and empower disruption, but not in proportion to the number of users and still in limited directions/degrees. That seepage has so far been the result of short time preferences on the part of competing power structures.

But obviously as the instabilities increase a point will be reached when they recognize the competative advantage technological development can provide between power structures is outweighed by the existential threat it poses to power relations as a whole. A resumption of full blown hostilities between scientists and the champions of power relations is inevitable.

Because of calculational limits and the rigid nature of their composition, power structures have always responded sluggishly to technological development. The faster the development the slower the response and the longer window for that technology’s capacity to bleed to the periphery enabling autonomy through abundance and resistance through weaponry. In short, scientists, whether employed as pure researchers or in engineering fields, are perfectly equipped and situated.

William Gillis is a theoretical physicist based in Oakland California and a fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society. He's organized as an anarchist activist for over fifteen years and has written extensively on ethics and technology.


“I am very pleased that nowadays even the peasants in mountainous areas know that science and technology are part of the productive forces. They may not have read my speech, but through their own practice they have come to realize that scientific and technological advances can help them expand production and become prosperous. Peasants regard scientists and engineers as brothers who help them shake off poverty; they refer to them as the “gods of wealth”.”

— Deng Xiaoping, “The Reform of the System For Managing Science and Technology Is Designed To Liberate the Productive Forces”

What this article says about “IP law” is nonsense, because that concept is incoherent.  It refers to a bunch of different laws that require different things and have totally different effects.  Whatever issue is at hand, those laws enter into it in different ways, and lumping them together invites wrong conclusions.


This flaw doesn’t invalidate the article’s overall argument since it mentions “IP” only in passing.

Could you clarify how you define class. 

As a physicist, you would know the importance of precise definitions in scientific analysis. Quarks, protons, neutrons, electrons, atoms and molecules all have precise definitions, otherwise understanding physical forces at the quantum level would not be possible.

The same is also true in the social sciences.  I write this to point out that you might not be using a precise definition of class which would lead to some confusion.

OC, The Social Sciences are also confused about class. I think we may all be.

In America, some say we have the “upper class, middle class, and lower class”

some say we have the “ruling class, working class, and the unemployed”

some say we have the (in the Marxist sense of the terms) only the “bourgeoisie and the proletariat”

If we stay with “bourgeoisie and the proletariat” as a framework for “class” futurists are acknowledging the fact that both the “bourgeoisie and the proletariat” will soon be subject to “technological unemployment” from algorithms, weak AI, and robotic automation.

Scientists, social scientists, and philosopher’s might be out of job if we ever see Strong AI which can improve on itself, hence “superintelligence” which is also conscious. If we humans do not upgrade ourselves with AI++ as David Chalmers called it, many moral and ethical dilemmas will occur. 

If Weak AI sustains a kind of superintelligence (without consciousness) which humans are in control of, technological unemployment, in my opinion, is inevitable. However, scientists, activists, etc will need to, and should already start, working on seeing that a “ruling class” does not own the means of production as it is today in modern capitalism.

That is to say, we all need to make sure, starting now, that we have a safety net from a ruling class over the unemployed, and many might refer to this as a “unconditional basic income guarantee”

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: It’s Not the Technology That Causes “Technological Unemployment”

Previous entry: Octavia Butlers fictional religion of ‘Earthseed’ inspires real religious movement