Chapter I

The Commodity-Machine

Sustaining the unsustainable

In Design and Crime, Hal Foster claims that we live in a total design; that design has become so prevalent and central that “it can no longer be considered a secondary industry. Perhaps we should speak of a ‘political economy of design’” (22). Following his suggestion, this chapter provides a critical introduction to the political economy of design, by developing “commodity-machine” as an analytical tool on which to ground a critical exploration into design cultures and the social and economic relations that condition them. Foster uses the expression “commodity-machine” in the same design-critical essay when questioning the generalised unsustainability of this “contemporary inflation of design”:

What happens when this commodity-machine —now conveniently located out of the view of most of us— breaks down, as environments give out, markets crash, and/or sweat-shop workers scattered across the globe somehow refuse to go on? (21)

While Foster does not usually shy away from naming capitalism in his writings, he employs this peculiar and striking expression of “commodity-machine” as a euphemistic device, though declines to specify whether he alludes to any of the partially overlapping yet differentiated qualifiers to an ungraspable “capitalism”. The preferred framing in this thesis for the current economic paradigm is “late capitalism”, defined by Mandel as an epoch “in which the contradiction between the growth of the forces of production and the survival of the capitalist relations of production assumes an explosive form” (562), leading to a spreading crisis in these relations of production. Given that the term was coined well before the rise of neoliberalism, this choice could appear to be somewhat naive and outdated, with an optimistic undertone suggesting that the end is nigh. In defence of the term, Jameson notes that late capitalism marks “continuity with what preceded it rather than the break, rupture, and mutation that concepts like “postindustrial society” wished to underscore” (Postmodernism xix). I share this reluctance to employ more recent markers like immaterial, digital or knowledge-based economy, as while they may be appropriate for explaining the prevalence of design, they nonetheless imply that the so-called new economy has supplanted the earlier, heavier modes of production. In fact, the old, carbon-based industries remained uninterrupted and indispensable, having merely moved “out of sight” of (over)developed nations. As I will elaborate further below, late capitalism is also a prerequisite for the conceptualisation of postcapitalism, and as such, “commodity-machine will be used hereinafter to refer to the total entanglement of design with late capitalism, and as the opposite of postcapitalist design.

Commodities bind together lively resources and deadly waste, workers and consumers, and money and capital, but simultaneously mask the relationships between nature, labour and finance. The whole (machine) cannot be grasped from the individual parts (commodities). Still, just as Marx begins his investigation of the entire political economy of capital with the analysis of a single commodity as its smallest unit, the political economy of design also requires an analysis of the commodity as a departure point. Marx defines commodities as having a dual character, having a “plain, homely, bodily form” as well as a “value-form”, being “both objects of utility, and, at the same time, depositories of value.” If a commodity implies both of these at once, it can be approached both as an object of political economy (value-form) and as an object for design studies (bodily form). Anything that is given a market value becomes a commodity, be it a raw material, land, labour, product or service of any kind. Certainly, not all commodities are designed (commodity markets trade specifically in raw materials rather than manufactured goods), and not every design artefact is necessarily a commodity; it is the moment of mediation, the market exchange between private owners that make a product a value-bearing commodity. Design artefacts, in their most familiar form as consumer goods, can therefore also be investigated as commodities. The fascination with design artefacts through the lens of commodity fetishism has been a recurrent theme in Marxist literature (Baudrillard; Debord), and the political economy of design has been theorised as “commodity aesthetics” (Haug), following a Frankfurt School lineage. Paradoxically, design studies have inherited an overemphasis on aesthetic, semiotic and ideological qualities, and not enough critical interest on the materiality and social relations that surround commodities, thus normalising the entanglement of design in the circuits of the commodity-machine, and the manifold consequences. As this chapter demonstrates, the political economy of design could benefit from striking a better balance between the symbolic force and the worldly materiality of commodities.

Taken literally, a commodity-machine can be understood to be a mechanical instrument that is designed to produce commodities. A machine that produces commodities, conceived as a conveyor belt of the Fordist assembly line, or the “treadmill of production” (Schnaiberg 229–234), is by definition repetitive and relentless, churning out commodities at ever-increasing rates. Such is the Faustian deal of industrial design: the better the machines got at imitating skilful craftspeople, the more the humans had to work at the pace of the machines. Foster’s provocative question, however, is meant to cast doubt on the prospects of this perpetual machine: "What happens when this commodity-machine breaks down, as markets crash, sweatshop workers resist, or environments give out?"[1] (192). In other words, what are the potential consequences (on design, as well as on everything else) of a hypothetical breakdown of economic, social and ecological systems – all of which are indispensable factors in commodity production? To put it even more bluntly, can really-existing-design survive without finance, workforce or material supply? The question is not formulated as a speculative, conditional “if” clause, but specifically with a temporal “when” mark, in which Foster implies that it is only a matter of time, as such calamities are inevitable. More than a decade later, Foster’s apprehensions are more pertinent than ever. Whether it is the financial crash, the Foxconn factory worker riots and suicides, or the impending climate breakdown, there is much evidence that his critique was particularly insightful. Departing from the assumption that all these combined crises are already in progress, it is now more important than ever to conceive what comes next.

[1]     Here quoted from a slightly rephrased variation than in the essay, taken instead from the entry on “environment” in “The ABCs of Contemporary Design”– a glossary supplement accompanying the eponymous essay collection, Design and Crime (Foster).

I.A. Late Capitalism

Introducing the political economy of design

In this section, I follow the trail of commodities to expose the unsustainability of the commodity-machine. Drawing from design and ecological critiques, I extend this diagnosis to include predominant, “green capitalist” sustainable design practices that have proven to be inadequate for the eco-social transition. I conclude that beyond the materiality of commodities, it is the relations of exchange that remain the main obstacle hindering the search for sustainability beyond the commodity-machine.

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