Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.

By Jason Sibert

My recent pieces on sewer socialism (The Revival of Sewer Socialism and From the Sewers, Equality)  have chronicled efforts to make life better for residents in various municipalities during the industrial age, and also touched on how a modern sewer socialism might be constructed in a time that’s very different, a time when service workers (retail, restaurant, healthcare, and hotel and motel workers) are a bigger share of the workforce. It’s hard to argue that technology hasn’t made our lives better over the years; vaccines, information technology, automobile technology, and many other forms of technology have released humankind from a lot of drudgery. While technology is wonderful, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be regulated for the public good –  a social democratic concept. It also means that we should work to develop the technology that will help us fight the greenhouse effect.

Social democrats shouldn’t shy away from the development of technology and modern sewer socialists should work for its advancement.  Harold Wilson, the leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party from 1963 to 1976, and prime minster in two different stints, from 1964 and 1970 and again in 1970 to 1976, gave a speech at the 1963 Labour Party conference called the “White Heat Speech.” He talked about “a scientific and technological revolution” and the need for the UK to plan for the “white heat of technological change” :

“In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re-stating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society.  The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry. We must harness socialism to science and science to socialism.”

The need for a highly skilled workforce dominated Wilson’s programme of action: produce more scientists, retain more scientists and make better use of scientists. In 1963, he highlighted that Russia was “training 10 to 11 times as many scientists and technologists”. Wilson realized that many of the UK’s global competitor countries were recognizing the importance of research, innovation, and skills to their citizens and economies – and were investing accordingly.  Wilson’s speech captured the excitement and inherent possibility of science, “we are living at a time of such rapid scientific change that our children are accepting as part of their everyday life things which would have been dismissed as science fiction a few years ago.”

Science and social democracy are tied together at the hip. Research and development  (R & D) represent a capital intensive undertaking and private companies don’t always want to invest a lot in it because there’s no telling how much they will benefit from it compared to the dollars spent. So, at least some of the R & D money, if not a significant amount, should be fronted by government entities, making it a social democratic activity. New technological developments can be commercialized by private companies, and the public will benefit from those breakthroughs.

As a former Clintonite, I’ve questioned much of what I believed prior to reading sociologist Lane Kenworthy’s book “Social Democratic America.” However, I will admit that the Bill Clinton Administration did well in R & D, as it redirected military R & D dollars to civilian R & D to make our economy more competitive. It increased civilian R & D 42 percent. President Clinton also worked with Congress to extend the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit.

How does the sewer socialist (most likely and alderman or mayor) deal with the federal goverment’s involvement in R & D? The Brookings Institute’s report “Localizing the Economic Impact of Research and Development” provides the key. The report states: “regional consortia that utilize the lab system should work together to create and co-fund a number of off-campus, small-scale ‘microlabs’—co-located within or near universities or private-sector clusters—that would cultivate strategic alliances with regional innovation clusters. Microlabs would help overcome the problems that most labs are located outside of technology clusters and that most lab research occurs behind the walls of main campuses. These microlabs could take the form of additional joint research institutes or new facilities that allow access to lab expertise for untapped regional economic clusters.” 

The report also states that several federal labs are already creating microlabs in cities: “Argonne National Laboratory has created office space in the Chicago Innovation Exchange, located on the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus. Another example is Cyclotron Road, a program of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory funded by the Department of Energy’s Division of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, which provides assistance to entrepreneurial researchers in advance technologies until they can succeed beyond the research lab. Cyclotron Road plays a pivotal role in providing entrepreneurs with technology development support (often leveraging technologies coming directly out of the Lawrence Berkeley laboratory) and helps them with identifying the most suitable business models, partners, and financing mechanisms for long-term impact.” 

New technologies will help make the lives of the mentioned service worker class better, and therefore social democrats should embrace research and development on the federal and local level. Science and social democracy should be used to pave the way to a more social democratic America! 

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.


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