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The Printing Press
A single technological leap, however grand it may be in itself, foretells a much larger social revolution. This is the historical lesson that this book seeks to impart. The printing press was not just a radical innovation in the production of text. It was a forewarning of an entire industrial society in waiting, the outlines of which could be understood from the printing houses themselves. What the printing press was to industrialism, the personal computer and the Internet are to an entire system of production that has only begun to emerge today. This new system promises to shake the foundations of our society. But we must not get ahead of ourselves. As with any story, we must begin at the beginning.
Sometime before 1450, a German man named Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press that worked with moveable type. So, at least, the traditional story goes. Between 1450 and 1455 presses were established in Germany and put into operation, each turning out hundreds of books. By 1471 the printing press had spread to Cologne, Paris, Rome and Seville. By 1480 the empire of the press stretched from Krakow in the east to Lübeck in the north, Naples in the south and Salamanca in the west. The first press in the Americas was established in 1539 in Mexico City, and Goa in India received its first printing press by 1557. In the span of a century, mass production was underway in cities and towns separated by 9000 miles (14,400 kilometers) of land and sea.
Text was the first globally mass-produced product and the printing press was the means of its manufacture. Prior to the invention of the printing press, book production was an extremely labor intensive and expensive process. In the early Middle Ages, scribes were almost completely confined to monasteries and abbeys, and the production and transfer of written knowledge was limited to the priestly class. The rise of the first universities in cities like Bologna and Paris from the 11th to the 13th century created an additional, though limited, market for the written word. Universities employed their own scriveners to produce the manuscripts demanded by scholars.
In the hundreds of years preceding the press, the production of manuscripts scarcely changed. Copyists laboriously copied text from an exemplary manuscript onto sheets of parchment or paper in their own hand, with great variations in style and handwriting between copyists. The manuscript was passed to a rubricator, who would highlight particular passages or headings for emphasis. An illuminator would then add any necessary images or artistic flourishes, depending on the quality of work demanded. Finally, a stationer or leather-worker would assemble and bind the manuscript. Each of these professions had its own guild to regulate work and was often organized in separate workshops with separate production lines.
The invention of the printing press changed everything. Moveable type made it possible to reuse and recombine impressions of letters and numbers, allowing for the standardization and simplification of scripts. The design of the press meant identical pages could be produced in rapid succession. Even the earliest commercial presses could turn out a page every 15 seconds. Compositors produced a "form" — a blueprint for several pages — by arranging pre-made characters into lines held together by a wooden frame. The form was then set in the bed of the printing press and inked. Next, the printer laid the paper sheet over the inked form and pressed a plate firmly over the paper to impress the type. The printer then lifted the inked page from the printing press and hung it to dry with thousands of other pages. Finally, a binder bound the pages and the book was ready for distribution.
The creation of books, which had been extraordinarily labor intensive, became a machine-aided process. As a result, the cost of books dropped dramatically. In England, for example, a printed folio cost only 2 per cent of the price of an average manuscript prior to the advent of printing. As the market for printed books developed, it became increasingly easy for members of the learned professions to amass substantial libraries, though books were still a luxury item for some time.
It is hard to overstate the immense increase in production printing made possible. "A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 330." Other estimates suggest that around 20 million books were printed before 1500. Historians conservatively estimate that between 150 and 200 million books were printed in the 16th century alone. These numbers dwarfed the possibilities offered by the technology of manuscript production. "Once set up in type, a text could be reproduced in an almost infinite number of copies; there were no technical difficulties about producing large editions even with the earliest, or almost the earliest, presses." The main limitation to producing printed books was developing a market capable of absorbing this remarkable output.
The printing press necessitated a larger market than that supplied by university towns and local clergymen. Publishers and printers did not want to absorb the costs of unsold books, and tried to erect a network of outlets where their products could be sold as quickly as possible. Books were dispatched across Europe from their printing shops in relatively small shipments, as most towns could not absorb them in any large number. Printed books had the additional constraint of being heavy, delicate products. Because of their weight and the danger of being exposed to the elements, transportation costs were quite high. Transport by boat was significantly cheaper then overland, and publishing houses positioned near ports and waterways had an advantage over their landlocked competitors. The book trade and its distribution networks were thus heavily influenced by the natural limits of geography.
While a printing press was relatively inexpensive by itself, setting up a successful printing operation required resources that far outstripped those possessed by most printers, who were largely craftsmen. The raw materials — typesets and paper — and labor required for a single edition cost more than it took to equip a printing shop. Financiers stepped in to provide the necessary capital. These early capitalists loaned money and equipment to printers in exchange for a substantial share of the profits, and took a large role in selecting books for publication, and arranging their sale and distribution. The publishers were able to gain effective control over the means of production in the world of printing simply by virtue of the large amount of money they required, and the largest among them set up their own printing shops to turn out new works.
States financially supported printing enterprises by granting privileges and monopolies to certain publishers, particularly larger ones, and by offering favorable contracts to print certain books. State intervention spurred the centralization of capital and encouraged booksellers to join together into syndicates. This was a matter of political policy as much as it was a means of ensuring financial stability. Reducing the number of printers made it easier for the state "to reconcile printers to becoming docile instruments of policy." The fewer the people who had control of the means of producing books, the easier it would theoretically be to control the spread of dangerous ideas and information. This did not work particularly well in practice. Insurgent printers consistently defied state control by printing heretical tracts. They exploited lax regulations in states just across the border from their intended markets. Protestant printers operating in Geneva exported their books to Catholic-dominated France, helping to fuel the religious wars of the 16th century. A couple of centuries later, freethinking printers in Amsterdam smuggled the works of the philosophers into French salons. The French Revolution toppled the monarchy due in no small part to the ideological war waged by Enlightenment authors against the aristocracy.
Inside the printing house, new social classes began to form. Printing houses produced a class division between the printers and their financial backers on one hand, and the laboring apprentices and journeymen on the other. Printers were concerned primarily with securing the greatest possible profit from their efforts, which drove them to demand long workdays and to maximize the amount of unpaid labor — apprentices — they employed. The printing houses transformed journeyman printers into wage laborers with little hope of one day becoming master printers unless they married into a successful printing family. Journeymen constantly fought to protect themselves from competing sources of labor, like apprentices and foreign workers, and abusive conditions, organizing themselves in brotherhoods and associations within towns and larger printing establishments. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin wrote that "Even in the 16th century they organised strikes which sound quite modern and, in support of their claims, wrote manifestos which the Syndicalists of 300 years later would not have disavowed ... In the 19th century, numerous printers were to be found in the ranks of the first Socialists." They demanded increased wages, reduced production targets and a shorter working day.
The journeymen occupied a position somewhere in between the ranks of the artisans and a yet-to-be-born industrial proletariat. Journeymen were wage laborers with nothing but their labor power to sell. They engaged in forms of struggle that would only become common in other professions in the 19th century. Printing required working habits that resembled those of the factory much more than those of handcraft production. Compositors had to master a series of movements, to the point that they became almost automatic. As Febvre and Martin argue, "This type of manual rhythm had not previously been required in the manufacturing processes of the 15th century."
The larger the capital invested, and the size of the printing shop, the more the work of printing resembled a factory organized along industrial lines. A publisher like Christophe Plantin in Amsterdam could operate more than 20 presses and employ dozens of workmen by the late 16th century. The pursuit of profit drove large publishers to increasingly rationalize production and specialize the tasks assigned to workers. But large printing houses were a rarity for centuries after the invention of printing and many were still operated by single families.
Apprentices often lodged with their masters. Journeymen in these smaller outfits had to work in a much wider capacity, serving in various roles as production demanded. The production process of the printing house developed to the extent that available capital and the size of local populations would allow, but most stopped short of properly industrial organization. The world of the press took the shape of a future yet to come: the world of industrial production.CHAPTER 2
All of the elements that would come to characterize modern mass production and the industrial economy can be found in the development of the printing press. First and foremost, the printing press was the first generalized example of machine-aided mass production in the Western world. Printing houses revolutionized the production of text and images, allowing for the production of substantial amounts of material, with a significantly decreased amount of labor. This radical increase in productivity caused the price of printed texts to drop rapidly. Printing houses also needed a large outlay of funding for their continued operation, much of which was supplied by merchants and other early financiers. Ultimately, the explosion of production created by the printing press made it necessary to establish new distribution networks to overcome the limitations of local markets. Thus, the printing press established the industrial production paradigm.
A production paradigm is a general model of the process employed for the production of goods. Production paradigms differ from individual schemes, blueprints, and shop layouts by being general and abstract. While manuscript production followed its own logic and structure, it was simply one example of a much larger paradigm that we can call the artisanal production paradigm. Artisanal production relies on specialized groupings of skilled workers organized according to trade. In manuscript production, copyists, illuminators, goldsmiths, leatherworkers, monks and clerks each had their own role to play in creating a single manuscript. These workers employed relatively simple tools, and the value of their products highly depended on the skill and expertise of individuals. Artisans often owned their own tools, as it was not particularly expensive to acquire them. Artisanal production largely serviced the demands of local markets. Importantly, artisanal production was quite labor intensive. As a result, the development of the artisanal production paradigm was coextensive, with the growth of the large sedentary populations needed to sustain a stratified division of labor.
Any production process that falls under a production paradigm will largely follow its general rules. Producing manuscripts and gunsmithing were two very different technical processes, but both can be understood as examples of the artisanal production paradigm. By understanding a production paradigm, we can predict how future production processes will work, and how existing processes and industries are likely to develop. We could have predicted, for example, that a society that needed to produce more manuscripts would have to invest more labor rather than labor-saving capital to do so. We could have predicted that artisan gunsmithing would look like other artisanal professions. Gunsmiths, for instance, could have been expected to mostly control the conditions of their own work. These are not particularly important or shocking predictions today. We already know how artisan production works. But we can apply these insights to understand our own world and newly emerging technologies. We can use these general principles to predict how the production of goods will change in the future.
A production paradigm is the technical foundation of a mode of production. A mode of production is the dominant system that a society uses to produce the goods it needs to sustain itself. A mode of production is made up of productive forces — the tools and raw materials required, the kind of labor needed, the production paradigm — and social relations. The industrial production paradigm, for its part, is the technical foundation of industrial capitalism. But while a production paradigm may have certain tendencies, it does not determine the social relations that actually characterize a given society. Technical aspects of production are always socially integrated. A factory can be run collectively by the workers or it can be run for the benefit of capitalist shareholders. Neither of these outcomes is predetermined; each is the result of a chain of historical events that can be analyzed and understood. The way that a production paradigm is integrated into a society depends on the politics of that society – its class composition, its values and its power relations. There were relatively few people in early modern Europe with the resources necessary to set up a printing house or an early factory. The merchant classes would establish early industrial production lines and employ the poor as wage laborers. But this outcome was a product of the class relations of the time. If the peasants had vanquished their feudal overlords in one of their many uprisings, they might have owned the land and held its surpluses in common. Such a society might have established industrial production in a cooperative fashion, managed as a commons in following with the traditions of European peasant society. A production paradigm does not determine the general mode of production. A mode of production is a social relationship mediated by technology.
It takes a long time for a production paradigm to develop its full potential. The earliest examples of a production paradigm may be comparatively inefficient or have limited applications. It can be very difficult to recognize at the time that the small, gradual changes taking place have explosive implications. All of the changes in production that we associate with the Industrial Revolution were first embodied in the operations of the early printing houses. It took the development of Watt's steam engine, over 300 years later, for this new production paradigm to finally start spreading throughout the rest of the Western economy. In the 20th century industrial production conquered most of the world, pushing artisanal production and subsistence agriculture to the margins of the global economy. Each and every factory, office and mechanized field can be seen as part of a genetic chain, leading back to the first printers in 16th-century Germany.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century"
Copyright © 2017 Ben Reynolds.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I The Production Process 5
Chapter 1 The Printing Press 6
Chapter 2 Industrial Production 14
Industrial Capitalism 18
Chapter 3 The Computing and Internet Revolutions 22
Chapter 4 Distributed Production 28
Some Economic Quirks 34
From Bytes to Bullets 38
Opening Shots 43
Chapter 5 Radical Automation 51
Seed and Steel 56
From the Farm to the Factory 60
Into the 21st Century 65
The Dynamics of Automation 72
Leisure, Abundance and Other Good Ideas 76
Part II Capitalism in the 21st Century 89
Chapter 6 On Value 90
Use and Exchange Value 91
Surplus Value 99
The Collapse of Commodity Production 113
Chapter 7 The Present Crisis 129
Origins of the Crisis 130
The Great Recession 144
The Way Forward 151
Chapter 8 Prospects for Growth 164
General Trends 166
The Developed World 171
The Developing World 174
Does Capitalism Have a Future? 181
Chapter 9 The Future of Labor 186
A Brave New World 187
The Labor Struggle 196
Before the Fall 200
Chapter 10 The Ecological Cliff 207
Capital and Climate Change 210
Exhausting the Seas 218
Our Finite World 221
Capitalism is Barbarism 225
Part III The Corning Revolution 235
Chapter 11 What is to be Done? 236
Reduce Labor Hours 238
Socialize the Means of Production 244
Abolish Debts 252
Dismantle the State 255
Build an Ecologically Sustainable Society 259
Chapter 12 The Revolutionary Struggle 269
Our History 271
Long Live the Commune 287
Chapter 13 Why We Fight 303