Reflections on Beyond Neoliberalism: how might we conceive and reconceive the relationships of contemporary design and economics?

There is always the danger in heated debate that positions get polarised. Clear lines of attack and defence can be useful. But I often wonder if we are exploring the grey areas sufficiently.

When it comes to considering the interweaving of design culture and neoliberalism there are lots of grey areas. Where do we extract the good, the bad and the ugly in this but also acknowledge the compromises and confusions? Can we live with the liminality that design so often produces? In design culture’s constant processes of becoming, is it possible to draw distinct lines of politics and intention within economies?

I don’t have clear answers to these questions. Perhaps all we can do is observe and analyse what is going on in this interweaving and build an anticipatory form of design politics that no longer condemns design to an on-going reactive state.

Design and neoliberalism are both processes of transformation. Indeed, it is probably more accurate to talk of neoliberalisation in this respect, rather than neoliberalism. Rather than think of it as an unchanging, inflexible aim we might read it as a mutable, dodging-and-weaving practice. In bringing a discussion of design and neoliberalisation together, then, we have to acknowledge their multiple possibilities and realities.

l. to r.: Jamie Brassett, Guy Julier, Liz Moor, Louis Moreno, Rosario Hurtado, Roberto Feo. Central St Martins, University of Arts London (picture: Jocelyn Bailey)

Liz Moor described this relationship more viscerally:  design is brought into the firefight of capitalism. It works both to produce asset value while plugging the leaks of the welfare state. In the first of these, it is hoping to make something worth more in the future, either in its use or exchange value. In the second, it is basically there to save money as the state shrinks while attempting to continue to provide some semblance of traditional state provision (education, health etc.).

Roberto Feo and Rosario Hurtado extended the notion of design moving into capitalism’s many spaces suggesting that its seepage everywhere means that it ends up always being about context rather than itself. This forces design practice into a constant state of service rather than into a propositional mode. Even where it is ‘propositional’ this may still be provisional and subaltern to whoever is paying. This service mode continues to be the dominant paradigm for design education — merely producing ‘industry ready’ graduates.

Louis Moreno placed design’s complicity with the commercial marketplace in the framework of Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book, The Great Transformation. Here, Polanyi spoke of the ways by which nature, labour and money get turned into fictitious commodities. These are things that are not specifically created for the market but are turned into commodities. Indeed, they are embedded into social relationships that were, hitherto to capitalism, part of moral control outside the market. Subsequently, however, out of nature, labour and money we get design highly active in turning these into assets: land banks, cultural capital, funds and so on. As a reactive field, design is constrained into the micro-economic whose sense of futurity is compressed into the near present.

There are institutions that lie or attempt to lie outside the neoliberal order. The National Health Service is one of them. I would hazard that the majority of its 1.7million employees and the UK public understand an inviolability of the concept that it exists not to be an active agent within capitalist systems but to do something else. Perhaps we should ask the same of education. To what extent should it function to produce social goods rather than in service to a particular view of the economy? And what would it mean for this emphasis to be revived? Can it do both?

 

 

 

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