As I start my four-year-long journey of researching and writing about postcapitalist design cultures, perhaps it is time to reflect on what has brought me here. Let’s return four years backwards; I had just graduated from my design studies in Strasbourg. Having done two internships, intentionally in market-driven sectors (marketing/advertisement and luxury architecture/decoration), I had zero interest in a commercial design job. Being a freelancer would still be acceptable, but it would not satisfy my —yet undefined— social/political interest in design. I decided to take a year off and try figuring out the politics that would drive my practice.
In a twist of fate, I ended up going to the Copenhagen Climate Summit. To be clear, I wasn’t your average ‘green’ activist —I had strong anticapitalist convictions with an unfounded disrespect for environmentalism. In the foundation process of the New Anticapitalist Party in France, I remember trying hard to find common grounds with degrowth activists that were joining the (post-)Trotskyist core. I had watched Al Gore’s slideshow-with-a-nobel-prize but I wasn’t convinced by the importance of the climate ‘issue’. Surely, I wasn’t buying his green capitalist gospel of changing lightbulbs and driving hybrids as a solution, yet I still couldn’t see (in Marxian lingo) the great contradictions that the climate crisis was indicating, that would eventually impede capital’s reproduction.
My ‘gateway drug’ into climate politics has been a quite unexpected one for a self-professed anticapitalist: the first international day of climate action organised by 350.org, a new mainstream climate NGO. I helped organise a ‘critical mass’ bike ride in downtown Ankara, from a park to the parliament. It was a considerable success, which motivated me to look deeper into the matter. Reading Naomi Klein’s articles anticipating the climate summit, I was happy to discover that I wasn’t alone in my interest; a diverse coalition was converging in Copenhagen. Unlikely allies, both Red and Green, from European anarchists to Latin American governments, were bringing a strong anticapitalist critique both to the streets and negotiations.
And in Copenhagen, I was struck by the Event, in an approximately Badiouan sense. It was first and foremost the realisation of the timeline required for climate action consistent with the science: gradually decarbonise the global economy (peaking within a decade and decreasing emissions for more than 30 years) meant that the story of this great transition would be the story of my adult life. That there was no future that would not be affected by this change. And secondly, it occurred to me that design had no immediate affinity with anticapitalism, no immediate use in confrontative struggle. On the other hand, it had everything to do with sustainability and had so much to offer to prefigurative politics. In other words: design had to be postcapitalist.
Looking back, it seems that I had a more practical interest in politics and a more theoretical interest in design. I had no foundations to support this approach, so I ended up going to a new MA programme on Design Cultures. I wrote a thesis on the role of design in the recent transformations of cultural capitalism, and more specifically about green capitalism and greenwashing. This became the opportunity to formalise and conclude my anticapitalist design critique. Here is how it ends, and a new journey begins:
The visible, designed constituents that were the subject of this research are therefore instrumental in making the invisible ‘business-as-usual’ practices appear as a dramatic overhaul of the economy. They serve as a new breed of “new & improved” campaigns for unsustainable industries, and that being so, it can be argued that they are an immensely sophisticated —albeit mostly unwitting— form of greenwashing. In this sense, the ‘new brand of capitalism’ is what it literally says it is: a generalised rebranding operation for capitalism by means of design. Design infuses both individual commodities and capitalism as a whole with a new sense of purpose, thereby contributing to the further mystification of capital.
It can be argued that the very notion of ‘design of cultural capitalism’ not only covers the designed goods produced under cultural capitalism, but also implies that cultural capitalism as such can be considered a designed artefact —a total design. As much as the isolated designed goods might authentically aspire for sustainability, they remain bound to the logic of unlimited accumulation of capital within a global, unregulated market economy, that operates as an unrivalled ‘master-designer’. As a result, any effective sustainability of design practices is ultimately dependent on its decoupling from, or the overcoming of, the structural unsustainability of global capital.
Two years later, I am finally picking up where I left off, asking the question; what does it mean to decouple design from capital? In the next posts, I will go through my research proposal and explain my work plan for the coming years.