Chapter II

Peer Designing
Becoming 'designer-commoners'

The analytical framework I introduce for the analysis of postcapitalist design practices distinguishes between three valorisation processes, involving designers, blueprints and machines. This chapter focuses mainly on the first stage: design labour, or the creative activity of designers that results in the production of design knowledge, and eventually the production of artefacts. Designing is a quintessential example of post-Fordist biopolitical production (Hardt and Negri, Empire); designers are engaged in both cognitive and affective labour, in that they work both with knowledge and creativity (Elzenbaumer, 'Precarious Designers'). However, while design is often mentioned as an example of post-Fordist labour in general, rarely have the labour conditions under which designers operate been approached specifically from the angle of value production. It is nonetheless essential to reveal the context of the political economy in which designers are implicated through their work. Studying design labour thus pays particular attention to this strategic intersection, as the particularities of design labour ultimately delineate what is possible and what lies beyond the reach of design. Furthermore, the social relations around design practices shape design solutions, as much as design solutions shape social relations.

André Gorz observes that “many more skills and talents exist than the capitalist economy can use — and also much more creativity” ('Exit' 2010). In other words, markets are unable to appropriately valorise creativity, and hence impede the full development of productive potential. The “creative turn” in the cultural and urban policies of recent decades was intended to valorise and capitalise on the previously untapped potentials of the sector (Lovink and Rossiter). Under the radar of predominant the labour markets, however the diverse practices of amateurism, participation and co-creation are gaining increasing visibility. As clear-cut boundaries dissolve, new subjectivities emerge from the margins, contending for the title of archetypical knowledge worker. Such is the peer producer, first originating in software development, and then spilling over into product design. It is worth questioning the intrinsic motivation of peer-designers that are involved in collaborative activities, sometimes at the expense of their autonomy or authorship, and with or without monetary compensation. In this regard, how do perceptions shift of the actual (social) value of designing? How does the outcome become valorised without being monetised?

The ambiguities of peer designing can be best understood and resolved by approaching peer-designers as (proto-)commoners. For Michel Bauwens, the director of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives, the practice of commoning is indispensable for those seeking to become transformative subjects: “the new political agent of change is neither the proletariat nor the precariat, but the commoner, an empowered figure fit for the challenges of our times” (P2P Foundation), although they could be seen as the one and the same, since “precarious-to-precarious” (Foti 150) self-organisation can be a harbinger of commoner subjectivities and communities. Elsewhere, Bauwens and Ramos claim that “if we have capitalism, it’s because we had capitalists; if we have a post-capitalist commons transition, it will be because we have commoners” (6). A simplified distinction could be made between the current peer-designers and future designer-commoners; the former are unable to reproduce themselves fully, and are therefore predominantly precarious, involved in ad-hoc and voluntary basis; whereas the latter have established themselves as providers of indispensable social functions, carrying more responsibility and intentionality. The following questions can guide the exploration of the intersections, hybridities and gradients between designers and commoners:

What are the tensions and contradictions we encounter or create when designing for the commons? In activating commons to create and sustain alternative livelihoods, how does the role of designers change as well? If we take the commons and 'community economies' as a tool rather than as a goal, what do they allow us to contribute to? What practices of self-organization and division of labour are useful in getting people involved in commoning for progressive social change? (Elzenbaumer et al.)

The labour relations in the emergent practices may promise novel processes of collaboration, although their originality alone is not sufficient to constitute a counter-current to the capitalist valorisation of design labour. Regardless of however incomplete or imperfect the current state of these projects may be, I question whether such processes initiated by peer-designers present a pathway for design labour that is decidedly situated beyond the commodity-machine. Considering that peer designing counters the isolation of would-be producers, and empowers them in ways no previous mode of production had made possible, it would at first seem relatively easier to socialise material production without the mediation of the market, the state and even the unions. By aligning themselves with common needs, peer-designers that are interested in sustainability, social design and sharing can converge around common means (shared governance) and common ends (shared value creation), and thus consciously and concretely co-design exit strategies and pathways away from the commodity-machine, and towards postcapitalist design practices.

II.A. Designers
Shared valorisation of design labour

In this section, I identify the organisational characteristics of the emergent design practices, and question how (and under what conditions) designers become commoners, i.e., how they collaborate to achieve common ends, or to co-produce shared value. Three overlapping subjectivities will be considered. First, the designer in their current state of entanglement within market relations; then the peer, as the emergent model of the worker beyond hierarchy and competition, that originated in software development; and ultimately the commoner, or the latent potential of peer-producing designers as the creators of shared value.

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