Obama’s Last, Desperate Attempt to Save Capitalism

The Obama administration recently announced the creation of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) in Youngstown, Ohio — a “public-private” consortium of manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges and nonprofits from the Ohio-West Virginia-Pennsylvania Tech Belt coinvesting with the federal government. The seed money, $30 million from the US Department of Defense, will be matched by $40 million from the consortium.

“The winning consortium,” reads the White House press release, “is led by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining and consists of leading research universities like Carnegie Mellon and Case Western Reserve University, world-class companies like Honeywell, Boeing, and IBM, innovative small manufacturers like M7 and ExOne, and community colleges spread across Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.”

When this story came to the attention of the Center for a Stateless Society, our immediate consensus was that the federal government, in pursuing this initiative, is working to regulate, cartelize, and enclose the market for additive manufacturing technologies. A major goal of the “partnership” will be to get ahead of the open source manufacturing movement by patenting everything under the sun that might conceivably advance 3D printing — then set the licensing fees high enough that only entrenched manufacturers can take advantage of it. And of course the Defense Department tie-in will be used to create export restrictions.

It’s interesting that popular press coverage of additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) technology focuses so heavily on the potential of such technology to shift a major share of manufacturing away from corporations and into homes and neighborhoods. Some of the most innovative work in 3D printing and other forms of desktop manufacturing technology comes from open source hardware movements whose goal is to take advantage of the liberatory potential offered by radical cheapening of the means of production.

The natural result of such technology, absent massive state intervention to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on behalf of the corporate economy, is radical democratization of production. The original technological rationale for the wage system and the factory system was the shift in production technology from cheap, individually affordable craft tools to extremely expensive specialized machinery that only large institutions could afford to acquire — and hire wage laborers to operate.

Open source 3D printing, along with other forms of cheap desktop machine tools, offers to reverse this shift. Open source CNC machinery possesses the same qualities as craft tools of two or three hundred years ago: Cheap, general-purpose, flexible, and amenable to small-scale production on a demand-pull basis.

This means an outright end to the material rationale for the wage system and factory production. It’s a death warrant for giant corporations, and the basis for a revolution in economic democracy: Relocalized production primarily under worker control. So it’s natural that the old corporate dinosaurs would be desperate for deliverance from this fate. And Obama’s project is clearly intended to offer just such deliverance.

Decades ago, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the corporate economy was characterized by “creative destruction.” Even when production units were naturally very large and innovation tended to be carried out by large-scale industrial cartels, technological progress would cause the giant corporations of an obsolescent industry to be supplanted by new industries. What he forgot to consider was the possiblity that control of R&D and patents might enable incumbent industries to secure control of the successor technologies — in which the “creative destruction” would become a lot less creative and a lot less destructive.

The whole aim of US economic policy under both Democrats and Republicans is essentially Hamiltonian: To counter the radical deflationary threat of abundance and ephemeralization through artificial scarcity. To prevent technologies of abundance from deflating the economy, destroying trillions in exchange value, making most investment capital superflous and radically reducing work hours, it’s necessary to make them artificially expensive and raise the capital outlays and overhead required to adopt them. This is a way to create artificial outlets for the surplus investment capital the rentier classes have lying around, and to enclose progress as a source of rents for the propertied classes.

Fortunately, it won’t work. If you think the music industry has a hard time combating file-sharing, just wait till the old-line manufacturing companies try to prevent hundreds of thousands of hardware hackers in neighborhood garage factories from replicating “pirated” industrial designs on CAD files from The Pirate Bay.

This is a desperate, last-ditch effort by the rentier classes, the lords of scarcity who’ve lived off our sweat for five thousand years, to stave off their inevitable demise. We’ll put their bleeding heads on our battlements.

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