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27 August 2013

Marx, Engels, and 3D Printers

So, you require a spare part, a toy dinosaur for your daughter, or is it the new frame for your glasses? Why don’t you just print it? At your home. Once the respective model is loaded from the Internet and sent to the 3D printer sitting on your desktop, you’ll hold the object of your desire in your hands in no-time. Quite an intriguing mode of production and consumption, isn’t it?

Certainly, supplying the machinery involved, or instruments, to dive right into Marxist terminology, required capitalist division of labor and potentially a mode of production marked by the exploitation of man and nature. However, what follows seems so very different from what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels described in their A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (orig. Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie). In the following, I intertwine two rather central strings of argumentation of Marx’ and Engels with the emerging field of individual and privately-owned 3D printers.

Eliminating the Forced Exchange of Goods

The notion that the value of a good can be based on various and varying assumptions is neither an original nor an exclusively Marxist idea – not lessening the significance of the discussion on the genesis of value making however:

When a product becomes a tradable good it obtains a monetary attribute in imitation of its trade value (orig. Tauschwert, p. 35). From this point on, money acts as a gauge and thence establishes comparability and equivalences between goods. Potential complexes of problems arise if equivalences, resp. exchange values of goods, get into great disproportionateness to values based on other measurement principles or methods (p. 65). Such methods could for example involve assessments on the basis of labor, material, instruments, and additional cost factors that were externalized, i.e. not included in the calculation before. Hereon describes Marx the detachment of money and product as well as the sanctimony of many exchange relationships, creating a variety of interesting points of contact. Focusing, as a start, on the immanent complex of problems of exchange of goods, however, already gives rise to a fascinating thought:

In the past, specialization of individual competencies in the wake of the division of labor pushed individuals inevitably into a situation in which they were forced to become trade-dependent consumers (p. 417). Criticality was yielded by the phenomenon of that an indirect valuation of goods through the forced exchange and the resulting valuation on the basis of the trade value could deviate form the inherent and uncharged value of the good. If one would, however, lift the necessity for trade, even if only in subdomains, through the creation a potent, flexible, and individual mean of production such as the instrument 3D printer, two possible scenarios emerge: Either, produced goods would be valued close to a labor- and material-based assessment plus some charge of diverse couleur (emotions, etc.) or they would elude valuations all together, as these goods would only be used and not traded at all.

The Production of the Consumer

As one is amplifying the idea of newly established trade and consumption dependencies of individuals and connects it to the capitalist creation of needs, new spaces for thought open up:

Marx and Engels observed the phenomenon of a production that creates its own consumers and derived the so-called consumptive circle (orig. konsumtive Zirkel). It starts off with the quantitative expansion of existing consumption, continues with the expansion to other markets, and closes with the creation of new needs and utility values (p. 322). Marx and Engels connect this circle with the general tendency of capital to turn what previously seemed superfluous into a necessity (p. 433). Hence, the following question arises: if local production in put in the hands of individuals would this circle break? The owner of a 3D printer might aim for a lower output of products due to her knowledge of the resource input, and would not only prescind from creating additional needs, but potentially pursue a reduction of needs. Naturally, a completely diametral trend would be possible as well.

Let us now elaborate a little more on the aspect of ownership. Though Marx probably had a different kind of machine in mind, he proclaimed that machines wouldn’t seize to be agents of societal production as soon as they became property of associated workers (p. 723). Marx and Engels might have used this predication to counter criticism accusing them of designing a technology-hostile societal model. Quite on the contrary, they included and utilized the productive accomplishments of the industrial revolution in their concept – with the difference that the ownership of production and its instruments would be transferred to the community instead of being concentrated with the bourgeoisie. An atomized production in possession and ownership of individuals would thence come relatively close to such a notion and would additionally, and unquestionably, thwart the alienation from the product (p. 723 & p. 422).

Nature, Space, and Time

In this paragraph I will take a quick look at, no pun intended, three more dimensions that could provide connecting points for further discussions. First and foremost, the classification of 3D printed goods might be a bit complicated. Most of the products wouldn’t really be regarded as absolute natural necessities in the Marxist terminology, but their antipode of luxury goods doesn’t always have to be adequate either (p. 434). Answering the question of what kind of need is satisfied by an object would probably have to be a case by case decision. To stay in the dimension of nature, multi-facetted spaces for argument arise in connection to the sustainability and unnaturalness of this mode of sophisticated good production, including hints that can be found in the Critique of Political Economy already, when the transformation of natural materials into organs of the human will is discussed (p. 602).

A closer look at the strive of capital to overcome local bounds (p. 445) described by Marx could also be quite rewarding. Especially when one connects it to overcoming those borders through ideas and 3D models in the form of digital information – produced collaboratively and made freely available.

In the context of collaborative centralized production, Marx elevates the economy of time as a law to much higher levels than capitalism does (p. 105). However, this might contrast the fragmented and possibly more time intensive and inefficient production of such decentralized 3D machines.

Well, the informed reader was (hopefully) able to spot various contradictions and I hope to have inspiringly described two plays of thought that emerged from the connection of 3D printers and basic Marxist ideas. I’m looking forward to your opinions and close with a quote that I found rather fitting:

“One must bear in mind that the new forces and conditions of production do not emerge of the void, nor the air, nor themselves; but within and contradicting existing evolutions of production and passed on, traditional ownership structures.” (own translation)

Orig.: “Es ist zu bedenken, daß die neuen Produktivkräfte und Produktionsverhältnisse sich nicht aus Nichts entwickeln, noch aus der Luft, noch aus dem Schoß der sich selbst setzenden Idee; sondern innerhalb und gegensätzlich gegen vorhandne Entwicklung der Produktion und überlieferte, traditionelle Eigentumsverhältnisse.” (p. 203)


  • Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1983). Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Werke, Band 42. Berlin: Dietz Verlag.

This post is part of a weekly series of articles by doctoral candidates of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. It does not necessarily represent the view of the Institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Robin P. G. Tech

Former Project Manager: IoT & eGovernment

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