Gun Control vs. 3D Printing: How Technology is Transforming the Anarchist Struggle (Part 2 of 4)

Yes, this essay was written for academia. Don’t judge its construction too hardly. For more writing that follows along these themes, check out Intersect.

Literature Review

To familiarize myself with intellectual frameworks useful in analyzing this debate, I conducted a preliminary literature review. Isaiah Berlin, one of the most influential philosophers on liberty, separates liberty into two “concepts”: positive liberty and negative liberty (1958). Positive liberty, Berlin writes, is “the freedom which consists in being one’s own master”; negative liberty is “the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”. There exists a subtle distinction between these two concepts which, in the political context, manifests as such: political rights (e.g. the right to bear arms) typically create positive liberty, in that these rights allow people to extend decision-making power and control within their own lives. On the other hand, laws (e.g. restrictions on bearing arms) are political obstructions that act to decrease negative freedom, in that laws interfere with freedom of choice and the pursuit of desire. However, Berlin emphasizes that, though the two are “profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes”, governments must balance both positive and negative liberty for both represent “an ultimate value… classed among the deepest interests of mankind”. Gun control efforts are, under this basic definition, invasions into citizens’ negative liberty.

Given the centralized, hierarchical nature of current gun control efforts, I dare to assign James Scott’s label of “state-initiated social engineering” to government gun control campaigns. Scott deconstructs these state-orchestrated social engineering projects into four elements, three of which are particularly relevant for my investigation (1998). The first relevant element is “a high-modernist ideology” representative of desires to “bring about huge, utopian changes in people’s work habits, living patterns, moral conduct, and worldview”. High-modernist ideologies gain potency when coupled with the second relevant element: an “authoritarian state” that can “use its coercive power” to achieve the realization of this ideology. While government-imposed gun control satisfies the first two elements necessary for a successful state social engineering project, it lacks the final element: “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans”. With the advent of 3D printing, opponents will only grow in their capacity to resist gun control.

Gabrielle Hecht’s argument that “national identity discourse constructs a bridge between a mythologized past and a coveted future” provides a cultural understanding of resistance to gun control (1998). While the state can attempt social engineering to provide “cultural legitimacy” to gun control efforts, ethos within communities (the most notable example in my mind being the distrust of government and confidence in armed resistance in the early United States) supplies inertia.

At this point, I am equipped to question the motivations behind creating and resisting gun control. Because gun control represents a limitation upon the range of actions a person is allowed to engage in, I will challenge its foundational reasoning. Proposed and existing restrictions on firearms typically act as system-wide limitations with small exceptions for “valid” uses; this organization presumes firearms are inherently dangerous, rather than acknowledging firearms as technologically neutral. However, Pinch and Bijker refute this technologically determinist view of material artifacts (1984). An extension of Pinch and Bijker’s arguments would situate the safety of firearms not within the technology, but within the social and cultural contexts surrounding the technology. Yet Langdon Winner’s theorizing on the politics of artifacts does not fully coincide with Pinch and Bijker’s claims (1986). Winner reasons that a material artifact has politics inherent to its design and “technical arrangement”. Winner classifies two extremes to the “technical arrangements” of socio-technological systems: large-scale and centralized vs. small-scale and distributed. Given these extremes, I observe an incoherency between the design of gun control (centralized and hierarchical) and the material manifestation of firearms (small-scale, requiring little expertise, and infrastructurally inexpensive). This dichotomy qualitatively reflects the state-against-anarchist struggle.

By these same frameworks, 3D printing capability is not necessarily anarchist by technological function, but has been arranged in distributed and digital formats, which both potentially support anarchist goals. Howard and Hussain examine the political consequences of this digital context (2013). Similar to the Arab Spring demonstrations, anarchists have utilized the Internet as a “means and medium for political resistance”. Howard and Hussain note that “the Internet has changed the way political actors communicate with each other”; this insight, which recognizes the power to “realize shared grievances and nurture transportable strategies for mobilizing against dictators”, is a factor to consider when investigating the role of technology in anarchism. Contemporary examples of political power through digital presence suggest that, currently, digital media steer towards democratization and decentralization.

Despite this suggestion, Uri Gordon asserts that “contemporary anarchist practices display a strong ambivalence toward technology, with active resistance residing alongside active use and development” (2009). Gordon’s analysis leads to the realization that anarchists “judge technologies according to their promotion of hierarchical or nonhierarchical social practices”. In turn, anarchists respond in three general ways: “abolitionism, guarded adoption, and active promotion”. Application of Gordon’s approach and conclusions will provide a larger intellectual discourse on anarchism with which to compare crypto-anarchism. The work of Uri Gordon supplies a launching point from which to closely consider how, once used by anarchists, technology might in turn influence and shape anarchism.