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

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  • 3D PRINTERS, THE THIRD INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND THE DEMISE OF CAPITALISM. By Ciaran Tully. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 12, no. 1, 2016

URL = http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/487/883


"Recently some authors have discussed the idea that capitalism is nearing its end and will be replaced by a post-capitalist society through the forces created by new technologies.

This paper will specifically address 3D printers, which have the potential to change the way manufacturing occurs. This paper will argue that such deterministic arguments, which mirror ideas present at the beginning of the twentieth century, are incorrect in their predictions that they will overthrow capitalism, and are corrosive to radical political action because of the fatalism they engender. It will argue that these notions do not hold up to scrutiny in purely economic focused terms (in an economic analysis based primarily on the economics of Karl Marx’s Capital), but also are faulty when one acknowledges and analyses the problem from a more complex view of society as argued in Arran Gare’s formulation of Hegel’s three dialectics within society, and Gramsci’s formulation of Ideological Hegemony and the dialectic of consent and domination."


From the introduction:

"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.” 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. It would be foolish to disregard the potential of technology to change societies, since the first Industrial Revolution was one of the largest changes to society in human history. However, the trap to avoid is not to descend, in Hegelian terms, into the absolute primacy of the dialectic of labour above recognition and representation. As Arran Gare argues in Nihilism Inc., human society is more complicated than simply being driven solely by the dialectic of labour.

Additionally, this paper will argue that any claim that the third Industrial Revolution will break capitalism does not make sense even when viewed solely through a Marxist analysis rooted firmly in the dialectic of labour."

The three dialectics

"In his Jena lectures and in parts of later works, Hegel outlined how the three dialectics of recognition, labour and representation are central in understanding the development of humans in society.10 Recognition describes how the development of self-consciousness takes place through an interactive process in which one sees oneself in the recognition of the other.11 In the Hegelian scheme of development it is not merely the dialectic of labour that is part of the development of the ‘self’ and the world, but also cultural interactions, which shape and give boundaries to the ‘I’ and guide its moral development and outlook (recognition). Representation refers to how language both structures and is structured by our thought. Both are phenomena and processes irreducible to the dialectic of labour, even though they necessarily interact as forces within the same world.12 The third dialectic process, which for Marx was the most important, is the dialectic of labour. It refers to the sphere of human development shaped by economic relations and technologies that are necessary for human society to continue and renew itself. It was considered the most important for Marx because human all beings required base of material goods in order to perpetuate their existence, and because Marx analysed how the power of the revolutionary bourgeoisie which allowed for the transition from feudalism to capitalism was based in the social power that they obtained through a change in social relations of production;13 or in other words, a development in the dialectic of labour.14 Although Marx’s thought was not entirely consistent on the subject of determinism; sometimes appearing in favour, sometimes not.15 I would agree, however, with Gare that the core of Marx’s thought must be interpreted as non-deterministic, since at base it is about overcoming the economic relations which serve to cripple human potential."

3D Printing cannot overcome capitalism

"So what would technology capable of undermining the capitalist relation look like? What would break “M –> C –> ΔM” relation? The answer is a removal of the component in the capitalist relation that transforms M into ΔM; the valorising component of labour. Capitalism would only end in a technological-deterministic fashion if all labour were removed from the production of goods; not only in production, or even harvesting – but also in development and services and any other part of human life in which people do labour that is deemed socially necessary and is unable to be automated. A critical threshold only intervenes to undermine the mechanic of capitalism in a ‘deterministic sense’ at a point of full automation in every sphere of socially necessary labour. Something that is either a far, far distant concept, or impossible due to the likely asymptomatic nature of automation. Therefore, even in an analysis centred solely within the dialectic of labour, the claims that 3D printers will dissolve capitalism is at best, something that would require far more technology and automation than perhaps even the most committed ‘Technocopian’ is predicting – full automation.

There is also no guarantee that such a post-capitalist society would not be even worse for the majority of the world’s people than present conditions. Not in the bourgeois-conservative Panglossian sense that the present is the ‘best of all possible worlds’19, but rather that if the ideological constellation (property, legal system, bourgeois sentiments of entitlement, etc.) of today persisted into that new ‘social’20 productive relation, those who had been capitalists would still own everything but then be under no compulsion to see to the regeneration of the, now ex, proletariat – since the latter would be superfluous to their production. The situation here changes in relation to money.

Whereas Marx in Capital said:

- Whenever there is a general disturbance of the mechanism [the flow of capital, i.e. payments], no matter what its cause, money suddenly and immediately changes over from its merely nominal shape, money of account, into hard cash.

Profane commodities can no longer replace it. The use-value of commodities becomes valueless, and their value vanishes in the face of their own form of value. The bourgeois, drunk with prosperity and arrogantly certain of himself, has just declared that money is a purely imaginary creation. ‘Commodities alone are money,’ he said. But now the opposite cry resounds over the markets of the world: only money is a commodity. As the hart pants after fresh water, so pants his soul after money, the only wealth.

Instead, there occurs a negation of this concept under full automation, as the ability to produce commodities becomes something transcending the purchasing power of money. No longer is money the “great leveller”.22 Social power flows in this scenario from ownership of the fully automated means of production, the commodities produced mere finitudes compared to its infinite. The social power of money is eroded by the very dynamics of capitalism is pushed towards full automation. Whether or not there would be forces in society capable of negating this negativity (i.e. breaking the concept of ownership) is unclear and doubtful. Since the revolutionary potential of the proletariat no longer exists in this rapidly-becoming dystopia. In this nightmarish world of the late-bourgeoisie, then ‘neo aristocracy’, the only hope of the landless and asset-less ex-proletariat might be in relying on the charity and ‘good nature’ of the late-capitalist. And since they would have inherited the hegemonic ideological constellation from the capitalist epoch, perhaps the best that the majority could hope for is that Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do becomes a best seller among these neo-aristocrats.

Returning from this possible future dystopia to the prospect of 3D printers, there is another reason within the dialectic of labour why the demise of factory style manufacturing will not be the death knell of capitalism. Manufacturing does not spin cotton or cobble shoes out of the conjunction of dead and living labour power alone (i.e the manufacturing machines and the worker’s labour). It also requires raw materials that have been harvested, by machine or human hands. This is no different with 3D printers, regardless of where the manufacture occurs. Additionally, commodity chains, for resources only available in a few parts of the world, would still be necessary in order for commodities to be ‘printed’. On an individual level, a capitalist invested in the current technologies of manufacturing might find their factories and machines radically devalued, and no longer able to continue advancing their capital in that particular process. On a more widespread level, the shift to dispersed manufacturing could be disastrous for the stability of the market – as huge amounts of capital (embodied in the then-obsolete factory process) would suddenly devalue and remove a large chunk of the ‘total goods’ comprising the world economy, while simultaneously millions of people would be put out of work and be unable to ‘participate’ to the same extent in the flow of commodities.

But other capitalists – the mining magnate, the landowner invested in agribusiness, the transnationals who ‘rent’ access to precious resources from the Congolese warlord by paying with weapons25 - i.e. those engaged in extracting profit from workers and wealth from nature in a non-manufacturing capacity – would be as successful (they are simply selling to a larger number of people), or even more successful. Since now they are not dealing with another large capitalist eager to keep their own costs down, but instead with individuals or communities with less ability to resist in an economic arena due to their fragmentation.

Just as previous automation did not lead irrevocably to higher wages, or ‘free people’ to perform other, less automatable jobs,26 the idea that the ability to reduce scarcity necessarily leads to a reduction in scarcity for the masses and a more equal distribution of wealth is naïve and contrary to the historical evidence. Indeed automation has had either the opposite effect or was bypassed due to cheap labour available in poor countries.27 Humans already have the capacity to eradicate scarcity of basic goods; a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations showed that enough food is wasted to feed two billion people, more than enough to feed the estimated 800 million hungry human beings on the planet.

However, it must be stressed that 3D printers, like other forms of automation, do contain a certain emancipatory potential. The potential for human beings to live at high material standards in egalitarian relations. However, as the abovementioned UN report details, this potentiality has certainly not been realised under capitalist relations.

We see similar technological optimism again in regards to the development of technology itself. However, technology does not exist and develop as separate from the interacting economic and cultural institutions within society. This idea is in contrast to the simplistic way Henryk Skolimowski attempts to define technology in The Structure of Thinking in Technology in which Skolimowski asserts that technology is the progression of refinement and increased efficiency. "


  • Chris Anderson, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution (New York: Crown Business 2012), pp. 33-42.
  • Guy Rundle, ‘All Power to the Makerspaces: 3-D printing in its current form could be a return to “small

is beautiful” drudgery, but it has the potential to do much more’, Jacobin, Issue 17, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/3d-printing-industrial-revolution-rundle/ (Accessed 30/05/2015).

  • Thomas Birtchnell and William Hoyle, 3D Printing for Development in the Global South The 3D4D Challenge

(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2014), p. 52.

  • Guy Rundle, A Revolution in the Making: 3D Printing, Robots and the Future, (South Melbourne: Affirm Press


  • Paul Mason, “The end of capitalism has begun” in The Guardian, 17/7/2015.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun (Accessed 30/05/2015).