Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

3D Printers, the Third Industrial Revolution and the Demise of Capitalism

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

3D Printers, the Third Industrial Revolution and the Demise of Capitalism

Article excerpt

The idea behind the contention that new technologies, particularly the 3D printer, have the potential to change society radically is an extrapolation from the societal changes that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and the theorised ability for new technologies to change the way goods are manufactured. 3D printers, which function by printing layers of various materials into finished, 3 dimensional shapes, have the potential to be a form of production that could exist on small scales or in people's homes. Just as automation in Manchester began the first Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, and Henry Ford's production line began the second Industrial Revolution, the idea goes that 3D printers will bring about the third Industrial Revolution. (1) Some people on the revolutionary left who have raised the idea that 3D printers will undermine the capitalist relation, ushering in socialism, communism, or some other post-capitalist society. (2) Some non-radical thinkers also see, within the confines of capitalism, a change towards a more just system of distributed manufacture, particularly for those in the 'Global South'. (3)

In this paper it will be argued that while 3D printers might cause parts of the means of production to congeal in a new form, they will neither fundamentally sever the power relations exercised within the dialectic of labour (the economic sphere of society) nor without (through the other spheres of society--culture, language, ideology etc.). It will be further argued that any political strategy devoid of consideration for the other aspects of society that are irreducible to the dialectic of labour will simply fall into the same trap that vulgar Marxism historically fell into; a sense of deterministic fatalism. Further, the existence of 3D printers will not overcome the myriad of relations that tie society to the capitalist model and thus will not create a fundamentally new ordering of society.

In regards to the views of those on the left, the idea behind some inevitable change to a post-capitalist society due to 3D printers, while seductive, is Vulgar Marxism reborn. In his book, A Revolution in the Making, (4) Guy Rundle details and flirts with, (5) but does not embrace fully, (6) some of these deterministic ideas being put forward by some members of the left involved in or watching the development of the 3D Printer. Specifically, those involved in the so called 'Makerspaces', a movement that in some respects can be seen as attempting to construct economies partially outside of capitalism; some of whom see the new technology as creating forces capitalism will inevitably succumb to. (7)

Another, perhaps more subtle example (though not focused on 3D printers specifically) of this deterministic thought can be seen in the recent article in The Guardian, "The end of capitalism has begun" by Paul Mason. Mason predicts that [Capitalism] will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours." (8) The reason that parts of this can be interpreted as being in a similar vein to vulgar Marxism (though it is even more removed from Marxist thought than earlier examples) is because of the fatalism that Mason's approach engenders by his assertion that no revolutionary activity is needed to overthrow capitalism, and that such counter-capitalist historical changes will simply emerge naturally and overcome capitalism. The victory over capitalism is something presented as a priori, as happening regardless of human agency.

Similar deterministic ideas as those outlined above had some popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the radical left. Proponents of these believed that the forces of industrialisation inevitably lead to a breakdown of capitalism due to the crises it generates as part of its normal functioning, and this in turn will inevitably lead to socialism and then communism. …

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