The relations of 3D printing

The economist has a recent cover story on the wonders of 3D printing. It does sound pretty amazing, especially if you are like me and have read Matt Mason’s breathless account of how piracy is the next Schumpeterian revolution in capital. Kids designing and printing their own shoes, skateboards, and jewelry — homemade YouTubes will never be the same!

The problem, as usual, is technophiles like Mason and the Economist writers haven’t read their Marx. Well, Mason probably hasn’t and the Economist probably has, but then it repressed it deep down to the same spot where reside those acccidentally discovered Polaroids of their parents on vacation in Aspen. Anyway, what Marx says is that a mode of production — basically, the way a society organizes to make its stuff can be broken down into two parts:

  • productive forces: human labor power (what people do) and the means of production (the equipment used — here’s where our cool 3D printers live)
  • relations of production: how people are arranged to produce things. This includes stuff like property law, as well as things like the division of labor and the class structure of a society.

Technophiles almost never look at the second one because they get so into the means part — the technology. We could even venture an explanation for why this is so along ideological lines: technophiles are often privileged individuals — educated, white, male — who speak from the perspective of classes who receive lots of advantages from the economic system. They don’t see (or choose to ignore) the exploitative nature of the relations of production, under which most of society labors for the benefit of a small segment. These are the capitalist relations of production, between what Marx labeled the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (suppliers of labor power). Plenty of people, including Marx, have offered other categories, but most of them aren’t really that useful because they often lead to forgetting the fundamental divide between people who work and people who own that work.

So the sci-fi scenario of countercultural youth making their own stuff that Mason provides us slips into relations of production that very few people (and almost no children) fall into — the oft-romanticized (and oft-reviled) petit bourgeoisie (or “small business owner”) who owns his means of production and works on them. But what if we looked at 3D printing from the perspective of the relevant class division under capitalism, the one that hasn’t fundamentally changed from the time Adam Smith was looking at it?

Mason, like most commentators, wants to talk about the petit bourgeoisie because he is one. Other culture producers — writers, designers, academics — tend to like Mason because they want to be like him, and Mason, as a former music critic, has spent most of his career writing for this audience. Now, the owners often like hearing about this perspective too (various CEOs pay Mason to talk to them about his ideas) because they seem to fulfill certain promises of capitalism about working hard and innovating — schema where the relations of production don’t matter because individuals can escape them through will power and effort. But owners fundamentally understand that this isn’t really how things get done.

Here’s where the Economist helps us. It’s not written for culture producers; it’s written for (and by, most likely) the bourgeoisie class of owners. So we can leave out the Disney crap about will power and effort to succeed because the bourgeoisie are already on top. They just have to stay there by buying the latest manufacturing technology, like 3D printers. These are already in use by one of the most capital-intensive industries on the planet, aircraft manufacture.

So the window-dressing of the manufacturing revolution will be Mason’s skaters and hip hop kids turning entire social worlds into customizable MySpace profiles. But the real story will be in less sexy places, like manufacturing plants. Instead of the machines there now, we might see all manner of copy machines. The factory would look kind of like a Kinko’s.

Which means instead of factory workers, people working in these places would be more like copy-center workers. They’d mostly just push buttons and follow simple directions. You wouldn’t need as many of them, they’d need little training, and you wouldn’t have to pay them as much — just like copy center workers now. You could even have part open to the public so those hip kids could have a place to print their sneakers. And as an owner, you’d make a lot more money because you’d pay your workers a much smaller share of what your factory produces. And the other class? A lot more of them would find themselves completely useless, and therefore unemployed. The rest would be Kinko’s employees, working a shitty job for $7.50/hour without benefits. The factory floor houses the copy center. The industrial mode of production would have service sector relations of production. Owners benefit. Workers lose.

And the petit-bourgeois culture creators? They can try to figure out how to get rich like Matt Mason selling flattering fables to the wealthy. Or maybe they’ll get hired by Apple or Google when the app-store version of 3D printing design hits the market. Or, maybe, just maybe, they can try to change things.

This change will never come from technology, the means of production. The real necessary revolutionary change is in the relations of production, which requires struggle against those who benefit from these relations remaining how they are.


2 Responses to The relations of 3D printing

  1. Tony says:

    I’m surprised The Economist article didn’t mention anything about the DIY/maker community efforts with 3D printing. Things like MakerBot where the goal is to build a 3D printer that can replicate itself so anyone can build and own one.

    Also the counterculture youth are already making their own stuff: :)

    • Gavin says:

      Hey Tony, this is just my point, that if you only pick apart the technological problem, the social problem of a class structure will still remain. That’s what’s happening with the Internet. Initially it seemed inherently levelling, but it’s not, so they’re coming up with all these new terms to address it: “digital divide,” “problems of access,” etc. The same thing will happen with the 3D printers — the people who already have the most advantages will reap the most rewards. Most disadvantaged people will see no advantage. I applaud these efforts but by themselves they are not enough. I’m watching the video and it looks like, for all the talk of “the community,” it’s all ‘burb kids (typical of hacker communities) — not because this rich hippie guy is bad or doing it on purpose but because these efforts to “change the world” never analyze class structure, and thus will never change it, and thus will never do the thing they aim to do.

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