Regarding China, and the Social Justice Impact of 3D Printing on Factory Workers

Posted on April 24, 2012



Badri, you criticized the enthusiasm of the Economist article ( for hailing a “new industrial revolution” due to 3D printing because of social justice concerns, and the costs that would be incurred on the “toiling people.” I agree with your concern, at least in the short run, but believe that technological advancement is inevitable and necessitates active adaptation by the working classes rather than passive resistance.

The market will push towards better technologies no matter what, therefore jobs will be lost, and that’s a fact no protestors in history have been able to change for very long. We can, however, push the State to provide a better social cushion for that transition, and best protect people who are most vulnerable in this transition to losing their livelihoods. Education is key to building a skilled labor force, and people can continue to push the state to gurantee equity in education. However, since we haven’t been too successful at reaching educational parity thus far (crazy tuition rates/loans/educational-industrial complex) – I think the better solution is to develop better educational technologies that are freely available online, and allow everyone access to entrepreneurial entry to the market.

However, those menial jobs will have to go when they have to go. To insinuate that the lower classes MUST do menial labor and can not learn, or even aspire, to do otherwise – is a bit insulting. In the name of social justice, is it not the goal to reduce the number of people in the lower classes that must “toil” in this type of labor? If more of the toiling masses were paid white-collar wages, and doing white-collar work, would that not be a better result? Creative, skillful labor has been shown to be more satisfying and health-producing than menial labor. Couldn’t this transition also mean less of those harsh working conditions, which, according to the Nike protestors of the ’90s, the British miners of the ’80s, and Marx himself – would actually be a good thing?

I think the advancement of this 3D manufacturing technology actually blurs the lines of many ideological black-and-white critiques and tropes, such as Localism, Collectivism, Small business entrepreneurship, Anti-development/anti-exploitation, etc. The normal knee-jerk reactions don’t apply. Here’s why:

1) It questions Localism – This article predicts that manufacturing jobs would begin to return to U.S. and Western Europe, because the reduced cost of labor abroad will be less important, and having local service to quickly address the regional needs of the customer will be more important. Thus, customization and having “perfect fit” products, requiring an intensified degree of customer service on the local level, means more “localized economies.” Isn’t that what bioregionalists want? This seems to hail so perfectly in the vein of that popular hippie trope: “localism” – however, the consequence of localism when there is global disparity in income may be not so ideal here. – so do we need to rethink localism?

2) It questions Large Corporatism – This article predicts is that 3d printing and “additive printing” will diminish the cost of manufacturing products, allowing smaller companies to gain an edge, and compete with large corporations on a local level through customization of products to niche markets, in a way that they have never been able to do before. In fact, the product of this change is that economies of scale (cutting costs by buying materials in bulk and producing in bulk), which have always favored large corporations, and caused the vertical integration of supply chains, would now potentially be disrupted by this new production structure. This would be very a significant change in the business model at the core of our contemporary economy. Here again, we encounter one of the tropes of anti-corporatism: go green, go small – this “localized” and small-scale entrepreneurship-favoring structure can actually coincide well with 3D printing.

3) It brings in popular do-gooder ideas of Collectivism and Anti-Development – Many of the principles behind this new industry seems to come out of the DIY cultures, and Make/Instructable cultures of geek indy America. There is a strong emphasis on “collectivism,” crowd-sourcing ideas, collectively-owned 3D printing presses, and community-shared production. As you know, Marx would be very happy that the means of production of the 3D printer, the capital, need not now be owned by capitalists – that there is a possibility that workers, on a local level, can actually control the means of production, in community-operated 3D printers such as Shapeways. If that model could spread and be operationalized more generally, it would actually be exactly the kind of industrial revolution needed to get rid of the exploitative factories of Marxist conception – Marx complained that modern production made men into machines, and so defined “alienation” as being machine-like, and taking away the true human nature of workers who should spend their time in leisure (Marx was, obviously, quite the bourgeois leisurely intellectual, who thought his own intellectual work to be least alienating). Thus, along this Marxist line of thinking, when machines take over the alienating manufacturing work that should be done by machines anyways, it would be a very positive thing indeed! Since 3D printers are a lot cheaper than Foxconn factories, this transition may actually make economic democracy and participatory economics more possible…

4) It is in line with many of the wishes of the Anti-Globalization movement – bringing manufacturing back home rather than “exploiting others abroad with our Capitalism and our Development” is exactly what this transition seems to be predicting… so what is the problem? Could it be, possibly, that the 3rd world wants development? Wants to consume like Americans? Could it be that the environmentalists who hail the end of the world, and want to stop “development” and “consumption,” are actually condemning those who are not American to a preposterous injustice, while giving up prematurely on the possibility of human beings innovating through natural resource shortage, environmental doom, etc.? Could it be that the expansion of markets are actually making people a lot happier and healthier all over the world in the long run, in spite of very real (and very important) critiques regarding power imbalance and exploitation? I say yes, that’s certainly where I stand right now. And environmentalists who think people should all just stop consuming now are being unrealistic right now; also, extreme environmentalists who believe all human beings should die so animals can live a more “balanced” life on earth are pretty inhumane.

So, this old Center-Periphery model of “Development,” which dominated even 5 years ago, is already outdated in some sense, because many of what we have called the “developing” countries are also themselves making use of this same technology and cultivating stronger domestic markets, making it less necessary to cater to American/European consumer interests. It would be arrogant to underestimate these countries’ potential for domestically-driven growth. In the case of countries like China, which continues to rely largely on exports, its domestic market has grown considerably, and it will do a lot better than many predict even if foreign consumption of Chinese manufactured goods decreases somewhat.

However, it would still be disastrous for China if manufacturing somehow completely and quickly shifted to this “new model,” which it will not. In fact, I’m sure the “transition” will probably be quite slow, and never complete. China has become extremely efficient with its factory systems, and there is still a lot of power to economies of scale, which 3D printing has not yet made obsolete. Most complex objects at this point still require human hands to assemble, and there will probably always be some need for human factory workers. For the Chinese, there seems to be a distinct danger of collapse if manufacturing exports decrease, however, if this happens at the same rate as the growth of domestic markets, China may be okay. As a Communist country with an aging population, it will be in tight financial corners, and a drastic economic downturn will be extremely dangerous for the state, as it has other social unrest to deal with, which is only kept in check by its miraculous economic progress. However, if China needs to quickly transition from cheap unskilled factory labor to skilled manufacturing via 3D printing, and skilled design/engineering, it would be very burdensome to provide an entire generation of laborers with a new job set. If China succeeds in doing this, the lower wages and greater productivity of Chinese workers would still create relatively cheaper products, and may still outcompete “local” products in the global market – however, without some adequate preparation and an innovative push in education, China may be open to a very precarious situation.

So those are my social justice considerations on this topic. I think that the global lower classes involved in manufacturing will surely suffer from job replacement by machines, but technology will advance, regardless, and it can potentially have enormous benefits for “the people” if harnessed by “the people” themselves in the right direction – maybe even towards material independence and self-sufficiency in that local, bioregional way. However, the extraction of natural materials (mining) still requires intense labor and capital investment, which will still be controlled by big corporations. They will always try to integrate vertically and monopolize all markets, and it will be a struggle with the bourgeois state to keep them under control and allow for a healthy amount of competition. The challenge of having a truly “small-scale collective economy” will be to contend with those who control essential resources for production. (IE Mining, energy, water, etc.) But I think there is a greater possibility for economic democracy and economic justice in this new model.

The key for activists, if they want to play a role, is to try to harness the State’s power in influencing this transition from this so-called “2nd Industrial Revolution” to the “3rd” in a way that best protects the lower classes:

1) Firstly, by pushing the State to provide freely available practical education (engineering, design, entrepreneurship, marketing).

2) Secondly, by reducing barriers to entry for new small businesses that must compete with old giants; and enforcing anti-trust legislation that prevents vertical integration, which would allow certain corporate giants to monopolize natural resources; as well as introduce laws that allow for collective ownership and management by workers.

3) Thirdly, by negotiating just labor laws and unemployment laws, and providing some social safety net for those who lose their jobs.

This must be the role of the State, as it can not be adequately played by private enterprise or civil society (and this is also why I believe there needs to BE a State, because “Anarchism” would definitely hurt the lower classes of people) In these next decades of this manufacturing transition, activists can potentially play a role in pushing the State to take responsibility for some of the social costs imposed on the generation of unskilled laborers that would lose their jobs.