The first part of the article looks at the current hype around automation and post-industrialism. The second part looks at the concrete conditions in the west London factory, which largely employs female migrant workers.
The current public debate about automation is a highly politicised one. The prospect of having your takeaway sushi dropped onto your roof terrace by a drone or to 3D print a custom made hip-bone is celebrated by the metropolitan professional class. At the same time they see a looming apocalyptic side of automation: the uneducated working class feels increasingly threatened by their robotic competitors and will therefore lose all liberal attitudes that ties them to the progressive world. Workers voted for Trump and other populists because of their fear that they can’t keep up with an ever faster, changing world.
The radical left is not very helpful when it comes to critically assessing the current discourse around automation from a working class perspective. Many comrades don’t question the hype. They believe that automation will kill off most manual jobs within the next decade or so. Based on this rather unfounded assumption, they are then forced to instinctively choose between two different camps: an affirmative camp (accelerationism, full communism: the robots will free us from work and we can live in luxury on dole money) or a nihilistic one (surplus population, external insurrection: everyone will be unemployed, angry and smash everything). But in order to be able to demystify the seemingly ‘automatic’ power of capital, working class analysis of current changes in technology will have to start from the bottom up. We hope that this article can contribute to this effort.
This report contrasts the experience of working in a 3D-printer manufacturing plant in west London with the general hype of ‘factory-less’ production and full-automation attached to this technology. In the first part we raise more general questions regarding the role of manufacturing or industrial production in capitalism and how the current debate about new technologies like 3D-printing is ideologically charged: with the capitalist zeal to cover up the contradictions of mass production and, with it, the essential core of capitalist exploitation. 3D-printing and ‘desktop manufacturing’ is portrayed as a symbol of revitalisation of the entrepreneurial spirit and of a utopia of small independent producers who engage freely on the market. In the second part we describe the production process and working conditions in the manufacturing plant. We don’t write these reports as an academic exercise, but as part of our proletarian research and intervention in west London.