When you write a book about the technologies of today that are building the future, and hear that a Marxist science-fiction writer is going to review it, one is liable to get a little nervous. After all, he knows where the bodies are going to be buried. So I’m grateful to Rjurik Davidson for his generous review of A Revolution In the Making, my breezy (a word for light-on) romp through the new world of 3D printing, robotics and new materials, with an added fun chapter about the political implications of such for Marxist and radical liberatory politics, a section finished by about 11 percent of the readership.
My very general argument in that section was that replication (3D printing and related technologies) and robotics constitute a radical break with existing modes of production, and that they thus represent a process that undermines the value-form of capitalism, in a way that makes other relations of production possible. Eventually, I argued, many simple objects will be able to be produced at a cost approaching zero, and without a countercultural turn to pre-capitalist modes of production. In the future, both home-based replicators and more complex machines housed at depots and makerspaces – places currently developing where people use technology in a variety of ways, from hobbying to expertise – would provide networks of production wherein people could obtain complex objects, either by self-producing or by paying a depot fee and having unlimited access and supply of simple objects.
Rjurik’s core critique of this proposal is this:
Rundle’s future history is driven by two key ideas: the notion of ‘autonomous’ zones – makerspaces using ‘open source’ material – and technological determinism, the notion that the technology itself has the power to transform society. Admittedly, Rundle is never crude in his position, making his own critiques of these things, and pointing towards more dystopian future possibilities. But in the end, he still follows these general arguments.
Autonomous zones have a long history, dating back at least to the utopian socialist communities of the nineteenth century….Technological determinism has a longer lineage, but is found across the world today. Its embodied in notions like the ‘singularity’: the concept, driven by post-humanists (and familiar to anyone in the field of science fiction) that at some indeterminate point technological progress will ascend at such a rate that it will outstrip human control and lead to a radically transformed world of artificial intelligence, the end of death and virtual worlds into which we might download ourselves.
Both of these projects face the same problem, an objection that has as a history almost as long as autonomous zones and techno-utopianism. It’s one that Rundle never addresses front-on. The objection runs like this: the circuits of capitalism regulate society in such a way that transformative moments are always contained and re-integrated.
There’s perhaps a fair criticism that I underplayed the degree to which my forecast was the suggestion of a provisional future, that I should have teased some of that forward more. But I do think that Rjurik has read over, or misread, the caveats I did put in – and I think he’s also missed a larger and deeper critique, which is that of political Marxism in the twentieth century, over against a more determinist Marxism that was underplayed and submerged by the political success of Leninism. My argument is that an overemphasis of activist and voluntarist politics has led us to ignore both the possibilities of technical change, and the limits to activism imposed by material history, and that this reaches back fairly deeply into radical history and tactics.
First to the present critiques. Rjurik suggests that I am seeing makerspaces – collective high-tech/low-tech workshops that have developed over the last decade – as the possible core of autonomous zones, which would be in the lineage of utopian socialist communes and so on of Left history. But that is the opposite of what I said. Here’s what I argue:
The alternative [to dystopia] would seem to be a distribution of the new technologies. This could potentially provide the wider population with the tools to create forms and regions of countervailing power against centralisation…..– but in a way that does not require all those involved in it to be conscious ‘makers’, devoting their lives and expertise to reproducing their own environment…. The maker fraternity would like to see it as a process whereby everyone becomes a maker, intimately involved with the creation of their own objects. But that seems to me to be not only archaic and foolish, but also a step back from the full liberation that such integrated new technologies offer. The result of a generalised, easy-to-use and safe ensemble of new technologies would be to offer people a source of contemporary and up-to-the-minute set of visible technologies of life at a fraction of the production cost they have today, and therefore as something approaching a free good.
In other words, my priority is to avoid the trap of intentional communities of the nineteenth century socialists or after. I am taking exactly the position that Marx took in relation to these experiments – that they are either coercive, or, if freely intentional, demand an abnegation of the modern flourishing self that Marx saw as essential to communism. That’s my argument with the ‘makers’ of the makerspace movement, as well – their moralising idea that everyone should be bound up in the product is a return of a Puritan ethos. Some people will always want to do that, and that is surely what a communistic network of production would look like – something centred around a ‘production hub’, where a wide variety of objects can be printed out with close to zero human involvement, but where people have all sorts of relationship to such hubs. My suggestion is that such production levels would allow people who have zero interest in actual making and those totally into it (and all points in between), to simply interact in a free way, as an expression of their own abilities and needs (this is considerably elaborated in the book).
Indeed, I’ve seen this in some of these research institutes and spaces – places where someone is studying the molecular structure of grapheme on a screen while behind them, a 3D printer chuckles away making a spiral DVD tower. People make objects for each other, those with expertise run them for people who have none, because it takes very little time to do so, and the material and machine-time cost approaches zero.
My argument is that this new mode of production would spread not out of Owenite commitment to it, but because it would be better than capitalism at producing a whole range of stuff. Better, easier, more time free. Imagine having a 2m x 2m x 2m 3D replicator in your garage, loaded with ten different materials, capable of printing out a vast range of simple objects for use in everyday life. Printed out in the same way you’d print a Pdf, just by finding it on an internet site, and clicking print.
That does not succeed by asking people to make some higher moral commitment to the objectness of the objects. It will succeed only if it makes life easier: that is, if it eliminates or minimises shopping. You may find that hard to imagine – just as people a century and a half ago would have found it impossible to imagine that houses would be places where clean water, power, information and entertainment flowed without human carriage.
Rjurik criticises me for determinism in this respect, and compares such a prognosis to the crazy forecasts of the singularity. But mindful of such earlier forecasts I note:
There is not going to be any great transition to a printed-out world, onedevoid of mass manufacture, whether by human or robot. The development of 3D printing will continue in fits and bursts over the next decades. The mass production of new materials will be slow, and the introduction of everyday robotics capricious. The ‘period’ of co-existence between these two systems may well be an indefinite one – a new historical stage, to be sure, but one created by an accumulation and accretion, a change in quantity, while any qualitative change remains unclear. The most dialectical part of this revolution is that it offers no clean break, no way in which we could simply shift into another mode.
As regards singularity stuff, I note:
Transhuman futurists and the like have an arid vision of a world so dominated by technology as to be exhausted by it, its humanity squeezed out.
Finally, Rjurik argues, and one can agree with him, as a counter to wild optimism, that capitalism has a capacity to draw back just about everything into its dominant framework, recommodifying and reproprietising with a dismaying energy. Unquestionably true.
Rjurik’s answer: ‘The problem is one of political will, and it’s here that Rundle’s book, for all its vitality and verve, is silent.’
OK, that’s where we part company, absolutely, and that is one purpose of the book. Part of my interest in replication technologies comes from a familiar moment in Marx, in which he argues that history up to the rise of proletariat is technically determined – ‘the mill wheel gives you the feudal lord, the steam engine the capitalist’ – but that after that, with the rise of the proletariat, history becomes a process of self-knowing liberation, albeit one set within a growing technical/economic development that would make a socialist transition possible.
From the 1890s to the October revolution, the determinist view of Marx dominated – the contradictions of capitalism could not be forced, and the political task was to build mass parties and to be ready to take over when the moment arrived. The collapse of the German SDP (and just about every-bloody-one else) into chauvinism on the outbreak of the First World War, and the success of the October Revolution tilted conceptions of Marxism in a radically different direction – to audacity, dialectical thinking, and a radical voluntarism, in which historical crises could be engineered from relatively little, so long as people worked hard enough with a correct analysis.
My argument is that even if that was correct for a period, it sure ain’t now, and any notion of separating the technical change required for a post-capitalist free society from the political act of achieving it, is simply replaying an error of the century: an overvaluing of the possibilities of political will, and self-conscious liberation. Various forms of socialist transition failed for various reasons over the twentieth century. My argument is that post-capitalist socially just development – socialism – simply cannot be achieved within a mass-produced industrial context. The development of such distributable technologies offers a new path to socialism, by making possible the autonomy of networks of associated producers. The socialist transformation of mass production is still possible, but distributed production offers a better and more immediate path to transformation. It is already occurring with the mass distribution of renewable energy capacity, especially solar, and the reversal of grid supply involved therein.
Rjurik worries that this will be drawn back into a capitalist framework. My argument is that replication is the stage of automation that makes the rate of profit (prior to any manipulation or sequestration) drop like a stone, and thus undermines capitalism to enclose or recuperate autonomous production. Capitalism’s response to profit falls in base goods – visible now – is to commodify ever-greater areas of time, space and life and sell them back to people. A networked culture of replication, initially adopted by intentional groups seeking time-rich lives without deprivation, would spread until it offered a real alternative to those who wanted to take it up. It would only succeed if it was easier and more genuinely liberating than consumer capitalism, not an ethical step backward. Such production hubs and networks would not be like Owen’s pious communities in the 1800s; they would be like Ironbridge, Dudley and other cities in the English midlands in the 1700s, where one industrial discovery after another was made, as the Industrial Revolution regularised labour power and refined wage labour allowing it to spread out and transform the wider world of artisanal mercantilism and aristocratic pastoralism in which it was set.
The more fluid, abstract and general mode will always colonise the more particular and bound system. Capitalism and commodity production are to replication and open source what pre-capitalist eighteenth century England was to the ferocious energy of manufacture and commerce, and its yeast-like ability to transform everything it touched (and yes, I’m well aware what a gross oversimplification that is). It is the market and proprietorial relations that now slows things down so greatly, compared to the speed, fluidity and creativity of open source, hacking and replication. That’s why people everywhere – medical researchers for example – are rebelling against proprietorial intellectual property, and forcing institutions to restore open exchange between scientists – because science operates better, faster, when borderless co-operation and exchange can occur. Once replication technologies are better, easier and freer than commodity distribution, their enclosure becomes impossible.
That said, I do take Rjurik’s point that the more traditional processes of radical and transformative politics have to be factored into this scenario. But I also think that he has to burrow back into the really transformative layers of Marxism, the brute energies and ballet of object life to be found in the base. The transition between one mode of production and another is a rare thing, and we are living across it. The material revolution is an event of far greater moment than the ‘information revolution’, which was overvalued by a social class whose life practice was the manipulation of information, and who thus saw it as a world transformation, when it wasn’t. This is – and it is just beginning.