The unmaking of the working class and the rise of the Maker | Re-Public

Re-public: re-imagining democracy – english version

by Johan Söderberg 

One of the many attractions at the New York Maker Faire in 2011 was the ”Print-village”. It gathered twenty-something stands displaying the famous Rep-rap 3D printer and its many derivatives. Next to the Print-village was a much bigger pavilion. In addition to two companies catering to the home 3D printing market, the pavilion housed several exhibitions of advanced CNC machinery. One booth stood out from the rest. Hanging over it was a large banner in red-white-blue calling out to the passer-by: ”Keep it made in America”. The installation was organised by an alliance of American manufacturers and the metalworkers’ union. Visitors were asked to save jobs in the country by buying American products. In the booth stood a woman handing out badges with the same message. I approached her with a question and was rewarded with an interesting response. Almost blushing, she conceded to me that: ”yes, she did think it was ironic to find herself in this pavilion, of all places”. The machines on display in the booth next to hers were the descendants of a technology which, arguably, has contributed massively to the destruction of factory jobs.

Laser-cutters, 3D-printers, CNC-mills, all pivot on the same technical principle: to guide the movements of a machinery tool with the help of software instructions. The history of this principle has been documented by David Noble in his seminal work, Forces of Production. Numerical control (N/C) machinery, later to become computer numerical control (CNC) machinery, originated in the context of the Cold War and of industrial conflicts. The early development phase was financed through defense contracts. Not only was this technology seen as crucial in the battle against communism abroad, but it was also meant to disarm the enemy within – militant trade unions. The bargain strength of unions rested to a large extent on the knowledge monopoly of workers in the shop floor. The need for codifying that knowledge so that it could be put under the control of managers had been elucidated by Frederick Taylor many years earlier. N/C machinery held out the promise of accomplishing this goal. If the movements of the machinery tool could be steered by punched cards, the software of the day, then the tacit knowledge of the machine operators would not be called for anymore. It was thus hoped that the production process could one day be managed by workers requiring little or no training. The ultimate dream was to have a fully automated factory without any workers at all. Needless to say, there were more rationales for developing N/C machinery besides attacking unions. Increasing output was one reason, acting out techno-utopic dreams was another. Historians of technology and industrial sociologists have also debated to what extent the visions of managers and engineers were eventually fulfilled. Empirical studies have shown that the outcome of this technology depended on multiple factors, such as different national political cultures, union strategies, labour markets, etc. Still, the hostile intentions behind the development of this technology are well documented and not in dispute among historians (Noble, 1986; Scranton, 2009).

My proposition here is that this piece of union history is a “repressed memory” among the “makers”. As could be expected, this memory reveals itself only in distorted, unarticulated and traumatised forms. A token hereof is the aesthetic investment in industrial wastelands and scrapyards, bordering on an obsession. The heartland of deindustrialisation is Detroit – a place featuring endlessly in Make Magazine (Dawkins, 2011; Tocchetti, 2012). This is not to say that the makers are the heirs of the workers’ movement. They are better seen as a historical result of the negation of that movement. The link is quite direct, in so far as MIT students and alumni are overrepresented among high-profile makers. MIT was instrumental for pushing N/C machinery in the direction it eventually took. Institutionally speaking, there is a direct lineage pointing back to the white-coated engineers who were enlisted by management in the industrial conflicts of the day (Layton, 1986; Biggs, 1996). Given that a disproportionate amount of makers tend to be college-educated and well-paid professionals – the same lineage can probably be traced in the family history of many among them (Sivek, 2011).

It is warranted to insist on this institutional and cultural lineage because it comes with a predisposition to omit some aspects of industrial history. This shines through in the way fab-labs and 3D-printers are now being presented to us. One recurrent claim by promoters of personal fabrication is that this technology can save people from unemployment. It is suggested that laid-off workers can become self-employed makers (see CNN’s interview with Makerbot’s Bre Pettis, 14th Jan, 2011). This is seen as an improvement over dumb and dull factory jobs of the past. Personal fabrication is purported to restore craftmanship and inventiveness in the manufacturing economy. What has been forgotten about here is that factory jobs were not dumb from the start. A testimony hereof can be found in David Montgomery’s classic study of nineteenth century workplaces. Many branches of industry were practically run by contracted teams of workers. Although not formally educated, they had mastered trades that required many years of apprenticeship and practice. This gave workers a degree of ‘functional autonomy’ vis-à-vis supervisors and managers. Granted, most factory workers were not artisans, and even those jobs could be wretched in other ways – hazardous, physically exhausting, etc. (Montgomery, 1989). The point is that craftmanship existed in the factory in no small measure, and, furthermore, that its gradual disappearance did not come about by chance. It was designed by purpose. Factory owners rightly identified craftmanship as a source of worker independence and recalcitrance. Again, there is plenty of historical evidence to back up this claim. Indeed, it was explicitly attested to by the first generation of management philosophers (the most renowned name being Andrew Ure). Hence, it could be said that the dreariness associated today with factory jobs owes greatly to the introduction of a technology which we are now told will restore craft jobs in the economy.

The relevance of this excursion into labour history is underlined by the related story of how corporate intellectual property came about. In her recent book, Catherine Fisk makes the connection between the appropriation of workers’ knowledge and the consolidation of intellectual property in US. She has read court cases from the beginning of the nineteenth century to early twentieth century where employees and employers clashed over the ownership of ideas. The turnabout in the legal texts is quite remarkable. Initially, courts confirmed what was de facto practiced: ideas and innovations emanating from the labour process stayed with the workers. The knowledge they had acquired at one workplace was at their disposal when they applied for jobs elsewhere. The employers’ bid for owning the mental faculties of free, skilled and white labourers was rejected by courts because it sounded too much like another legislation in force at the time, slave ownership. Over the course of the nineteenth century, courts and legislators began to vindicate the claim that firms owned the ideas of employees (Fisk, 2009).

This gives the proper context in which to situate the intellectual property regime and the ongoing, grassroots experiments with alternative intellectual property licenses. It is not the critics of intellectual property but the critics of the alternatives who have been the first to apply a union perspective. Starting with Tiziana Terranova, a number of scholars have warned that the rise of the commons and of open source would lead to the self-exploitation of workers. Confirmation of this prediction can be easily found nowadays in crowdsourced business models (Terranova, 2000; Brabham, 2012). But the collectivisation of ownership over ideas and innovation through the use of free/open licenses could also improve the lot of (some) wage earners. It might give rise to labour relations more reminiscent to those which reigned before the legal ownership over ideas was handed over to corporations. At least to those workers whose skills are in high demand, primarily engineers, this might lead to increased mobility and more ‘functional autonomy’. By this I mean to suggest that commons, free labour and alternative licences can be made to swing in both ways. Most importantly, the final verdict will depend on what section of the labour market we are looking at. For better or worse, new economic and legal relations are being created in the greyzone between the (salaried) workplace and the (self-employed or unpaid) community. It is urgent to study how this pans out in light of the impending ”revolution” in personal fabrication. The experimental ways in which techno-savvy and entrepreneurial subcultures on the Internet are making a living might soon be generalised to a much broader section of wage earners “in meat-space”.

Much of the events which are now unfolding was set rolling by the Rep-rap 3d printer project. The initiator behind the Rep-rap project is Adrian Bowyer. Three years ago I met him in Bath and asked him if his concept of having a self-reproducing and universal factory running on top of every kitchen table would not put a massive, downward pressure on working peoples’ wages. Yes, he said, it would. But that must not be such a bad thing for them because they would at the same time not have to buy as many things in the store. Bowyer’s succinct answer to my question is revealing. In those words are condensed the terms of social struggle for economic redistribution in the future of crowdsourced, digital manufacturing.

In the heyday of the workers movement, the masses could lay claim on a share of social wealth by threatening to withhold their labour. The weapon of the strike gave teeth to the demand for decent salaries, job security and welfare reforms. This threat was countered in part through automation, in which N/C and CNC machinery played a key role. Of course, I am grossly simplifying, as there is much more to this story: globalisation, the bureaucratisation of unions, electoral defeats, etc. All of which can be said to have contributed to the negation of the working class as we knew it. The booth at the Maker Faire where passers-by were urged to buy American products is a token of the extent to which unions have been beaten to submission. Consequently, the clout of the average person to claim back a share of the social wealth through her (non-)participation in the production process is steadily declining. What Adrian Boywer’s answer points to is that new avenues for contesting economic redistribution are opening up, namely on the consumer side of the balance. If we are not paid for our labour, by what right can anyone ask us to pay for the products stemming from it?

The contest over economic redistribution does not exhaust the many questions raised by the spread of personal fabrication tools, the key one being: what new political subjectivities can be invented in the wake of the working class für sich? I am certainly not suggesting that makers, hackers and pirates could step up to replace the working class. My claim is limited to insisting on that there is a link between the two, what I have dubbed the ‘repressed memory’ of the makers. The opportunity to restore this memory is the real potential contained in the step ”from bits to atoms”. As Adel Daoud and myself have argued at length elsewhere, with this step, the critique of intellectual property becomes indistinguishable from a critique of private property tout court (Söderberg & Daoud, 2012). It therefore becomes pressing to consult historical records from the last time when ownership over the means of production was put in question. One lesson to be learned from that history, compellingly argued by David Noble, is that there was nothing inevitable about the design of N/C and CNC machinery. Alternative technological solutions existed at the time which could have increased productivity without jeopardising the skills of machine operators. That those other roads were not taken owed to a trial of strength between the various groups involved, unions, defense contractors, politicians, MIT researchers, etc. This is no less true for the design of home 3D printing technology today. Hobbyists, start-up firms, venture capitalists, and, soon enough, legislators, are trying to push this technology in different directions. It is up to us to lend our support to those who are pushing in the “right” direction. One time before, this technology set labour free (as in ”gratis”), now we must make sure that it sets the atoms free too.


– Biggs, L. (1996). The rational factory. Architecture, technology, and work in America’s age of mass production. Johns Hopkins University Press.

– Brabham, D. (2012). The myth of amateur crowds. Information, Communication & Society, (15) 3: 394-410.

– Dawkins, N. (2011) Do-It-Yourself: The Precarious Work and Postfeminist Politics of Handmaking (in) Detroit . Utopian Studies (22) 2.

– Fisk, C. (2009) Working knowledge: Employee innovation and the rise of corporate intellectual property, 1800-1930. University of North Carolina Press.

– Layton, E. (1986). The revolt of the engineers: Social responsibility and the American engineering profession. Johns Hopkins University Press.

– Montgomery, D. (1989) The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. Cambridge University Press.

– Noble, D. (1986). Forces of Production – A social history of industrial automation. Oxford University Press.

– Scranton, P. (2009) The shows and the flows: materials, markets, and innovation in the US
machine tool industry, 1945–1965 , History and Technology 25 (3): 257–304.

-Sivek, S. (2011) ”We need a showing of all hands”: Technological Utopianism in MAKE magazine.Journal of Communication Inquiry 35 (3): 187-209.

– Söderberg, J. & Daoud, A. (2012) Atoms want to be free too! Expanding the critique of intellectual property to physical goods. TripleC 10 (1): 66-76. Available:

– Tiziana Terranova (2000) Free Labor: Producing culture for the digital economy. Social Text 63 (2): 33-58.

– Tocchetti, S. (2012) DIYbiologists as ‘makers’ of Personal Biologies: How MAKE Magazine and Maker Fairies Contribute in Constituting Biology as a Personal Technology. Journal of Peer Production (1) 2. Available:


4 thoughts on “The unmaking of the working class and the rise of the Maker | Re-Public

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