Year XXIX, 1997, Number 1, Page 49



In the opening pages of his recent book on the consequences of the scientific and technological revolution,[1] Adam Schaff asks himself the question: “What are we heading for?” Such a question indicates a clear awareness that we are faced with a series of such radical changes which put the future of all mankind at stake. Not by chance, Schaff, an authoritative scholar of Marxist inspiration, raises the problem of identifying new categories of interpretation of the current historical phase which transcend, though only dialectically, the old categories tied to traditional ideologies now incapable of providing adequate replies to the type and dimension of the problems we are facing.
The book is divided into two parts. Having briefly presented the three aspects of what Schaff defines the “technological and scientific revolution” (microelectronics, microbiology and genetic engineering), the first part discusses this revolution’s economic, social, political and cultural consequences and concludes with a chapter on the problems of the Third World. The second part analyses the position and prospects of the individual in the computer age.
Each of the questions dealt with (from structural unemployment to the relationship between cities and countryside, from the new model of urbanization to the role of information, etc.) deserves full analysis. But faced with the variety and complexity of all these problems (some of which Schaff in actual fact skates over, limiting his treatment to a few suggestions), a guiding thread has been chosen that discusses the progressive disappearance of the working class with man’s new condition in the computer age in which, according to the author, the meaning of life and values in which we must or may believe are questioned, as are the capacity to manage the changes and, finally, the size of the problems to face.
Schaff’s starting point is that the emerging means of production in which science is becoming a productive force and in which man’s repetitive work will be progressively substituted by the robot, will cause the disappearance of the working class, with a consequent upheaval and overthrow of all current social reality. This new prospect, which places the individual (albeit taken as “social individual”) above his own productive role in society, lies at the basis of the creation of a new sense of life. The sense of modern life, argues Erich Weil,[2] consists in the struggle with nature: this is the value on which modern society reflects and which it uses to guide itself. In modern society, the individual finds himself faced with a mechanism which he is subjected to and which at the same time he confides in to earn a place in society: whoever fails to contribute to the success of the struggle with nature cannot expect any share in the benefits. If man wants to live and participate in the advantages of social work, he must turn himself into an object which can be used in work. Thus, until the present time, man’s sense of life has always been correlated to some form of activity as the vital source of his means of subsistence and as a measure of his social status. But “what is to replace man’s sense of life he will lose when work in the traditional sense of term withers away?”, asks Schaff (p. 106).
The abolition of work, or at least of a certain type of work, raises the problem of leisure time, and can become the grounds for widespread malaise, dangerous for society that every individual wants to take part in and which he really must feel he belongs to give his life sense. For the individual leisure time cannot become empty time and still retain a meaning. Currently, leisure time is considered only as an interval, a more or less brief break from more or less gratifying working activity and, as Schaff writes, “the problem is to teach people to use their leisure time reasonably and with imagination” (p. 116), by means of sport, tourism and hobbies of various kinds. But the full statement of the scientific and technological revolution and the consequent abolition of repetitive work will change the concept of leisure time: the computer society will not be “a fool’s paradise where people free from occupations rack their brains how to spend their leisure time. That would mean a specific pollution of leisure time, which would destroy people by depriving them of their sense of life” (p. 116-117). Leisure time will thus have to become one of the essential components of the self-realization of man (homo autocreator).
In this prospect, Schaff attributes a fundamental role to “continuous education, combining… studies proper with teaching activity” (p. 107). This project would create a new type of man (homo studiosus or homo universalis), “i.e., one who has an all-round education and is prepared for changing his occupation, and hence also his position in the social division of labour” (p. 110).
Another equally significant result of the raising of the cultural level of individuals would be the “stabilization of a democratic society” (p. 107). In this respect Schaff refers to Plato’s idea according to which all men admitted to political life ought to be mature and wise, or effectively able to manage public affairs. This principle, which in the age of Plato lay at the basis of an aristocratic conception, can be turned into reality in modern democracies, in which the need for active participation in the management of power by all citizens is becoming increasingly significant.
But the theoretical guarantee of political equality (cultural and social equality) does not coincide with the effective exercise of political equality. Within centralized political institutions the requirements and potential for active participation by citizens are necessarily frustrated. And Schaff realizes the problem when he considers the relationship between the computer revolution and the way the state is run: “Advances in computer science also work for the decentralization of public functions… This applies primarily to what is related to the local government at various levels, in the sense of its relative independence of central authorities” (p. 54). But his conclusion goes in an entirely opposite direction vis-à-vis his premises: “Computer science opens new vistas to direct democracy, that is to the self-government of the citizens in the basic sense of that term, as it makes it possible to spread the institution of popular referendum on an unprecedented scale, because previously such referenda were practically impossible from the technical point of view. This can revolutionize the political life of society in the sense of its democratization” (p. 55).
Now, while it is true that new information and communication technologies will have a great bearing on the relationship between citizens and the management of public affairs, Schaff’s conclusions need to be commented on.
Firstly, the idea of a direct form of democracy on a wide scale, through the institution of referenda, does not take into account the fact that this form of participation can be effectively applied without the risk of degenerating into ideological or demagogical instrumentalization, only within a relatively restricted community. Only in this case can the citizens feel they are effectively responsible for the decisions to be taken, firstly because they directly know the problems they are asked to face, and secondly because every decision falls directly on each of them as member of the community.
In the second place, self-government in restricted territorial environments is possible only if “their outer environment is in a relative state of balance, i.e. if the problems having a wider application are tackled in their turn by democratic planning authorities of a corresponding jurisdiction”.[3] Currently, many problems are taking on a world dimension.
Finally, if we want to give people the possibility of a really democratic and rational government of the community in which they live, we need to question the culture of nationalism. Schaff intuitively feels this, where he indicates that one of the consequences of the scientific and technological revolution is “an evolution toward a supranational culture” (p. 64) made possible by a “freeing from the encasement in national culture” (p. 57). But in reality he is not entirely aware of the fact that the culture of nationalism will continue to be fed by the persistent division of the world into sovereign national states. Moreover, he is not aware of the fact that unconditional loyalty vis-à-vis his own exclusive national community can only encourage the tendency towards the centralization and bureaucratization of the decision-making process.
All in all, what is missing in this analysis, which is otherwise stimulating on many counts, is the attempt to visualize the political framework that may give space to the realization of the potential emerging from the new means of production.
The same limit underlies the analysis of the problem of the Third World and also the extremely pessimistic attitude with which Schaff considers the prospects of solution. He considers two possible alternatives separately. One consists in the substantial reduction of arms in the world, creating funds for the purchase of goods needed for the creation of new infrastructure in underdeveloped countries, goods which will not be in short supply in countries with automated production. “But”, he adds, “the point is that only those who are politically naive can believe that armaments would decrease during the next twenty to thirty years… On the contrary, it is reasonable to assume that they would increase dangerously thus using up a large part of the growing wealth of the nations. No rhetorics on the part of noble-minded but practically powerless humanists, pacifists, etc., can change that. I like them, but I do not believe in their realism” (p. 80). The other alternative (which cannot, however, be objectively separated from the first) consists in participation in the solution to the problem of all the richest nations, which ought to make available the funds necessary for the undertaking. On this point, Schaff argues that it would be necessary to create a true world development plan, and that this would imply the transfer of “powers to a special international organization” (p. 81). But he concludes by asserting that “that field, too, would see intricate problems of supra-national undertakings and national sovereignty” (p. 82). Hence this is an unrealistic solution and unfortunately, he writes, “one is helpless when it comes to anything more than appeals” (p. 83).
Such total and irreparable skepticism is the logical conclusion of an analysis that starts with mistaken general premises. It is not possible to identify or to try and achieve world level political objectives (peace, creation of supra-national bodies) starting with the assumption that it is impossible to change the system of power. The division of the world into sovereign national states whose domestic and foreign policy are regulated by raison d’état so as not to permit the creation of true participatory democracy within the states themselves, is also the hurdle that prevents man from envisaging and achieving peace and a more equal distribution of world resources.
Schaffs pessimism certainly expresses an awareness which is more advanced vis-à-vis the superficial optimism that all too often accompanies international agreements of any kind, whose application is not guaranteed by any effective supra-national political power. But it is a negative, paralyzing awareness that contradicts his own conclusions: “the future is not a destiny determined by progress in technology, but comes out of the action of men”.
Together with the awareness of the potential that emerges from the new means of production, it is therefore vital to seek political alternatives — which must necessarily be federal in nature and have a world dimension — that lay the bases for an institutional framework within which it is possible to make conscious and responsible decisions.
Nicoletta Mosconi

[1] Adam Schaff, Wohin fuhrt der Weg? Die gesellschaftlichen Folgen der zweiten industriellen Revolution, Club di Roma - Europa Verlag GesmbH, Vienna, 1985. (For the quotations I wish to thank Editori Riuniti, Rome, for permission to consult the English manuscript).
[2] Erich Weil, Philosophie politique, J. Vrin, Paris, 1966.
[3] Francesco Rossolillo, “Federalism in a Post-Industrial Society”, in The Federalist, XXVI (1984), p. 129.

Share with