Book review: Design as Politics

Our world is nearing a state of structural unsustainability- a truism so obvious that even global-warming deniers deny it under their breath. In Design as Politics, author Tony Frey develops his previous thesis on the role of design in preventing the coming catastrophe  somewhat further.

Sustainability (with a capital S) is to be achieved and catastrophe prevented by placing design at the heart of vital social transformations. Here Fry uses design not in its politically neutral aesthetic definition of design as taste, applied to such products as architecture, furniture and fashion, but to design as it defines our very existence, our life styles, our values and hence the very core that defines our being, our existence and our relation to the environment.

Fry’s critique of the use of design currently in operation ranges wide and introduces many useful ideas. Thus technology has been designed to render us impervious to the way we are being manipulated, and becomes internalised to our very being such that ultimately it is technology that is designing us. The tools themselves effectively design the user. Man becomes defutured through unthinking, unlimited consumption, what has been called ‘consumption as grazing’.

Instead of being the political subject, mankind is instrumentalised into becoming the object of politics. Under these circumstances liberal democracy gives the illusion of change while reproducing more of the same, conjured up to pose as a difference.

Furthermore, under democracy pluralism is seen as a collection of atomised and individualised beings as opposed to collectivities, unities or bonded communities, with communal joint interests and goals.

Design as Politics by Tony Fry. Berg Publishing

For Fry, Sustainment is the acceptance of plurality within one unified goal, a meta-diverse end which he identifies as fundamentally changing our behaviour in order to avoid a defutured world. In this goal he can only be lauded by any sane person. And he rightly recognises that this future is unachievable within a global liberal political structure designed to turn the entire human race into a machine for consumption, using design (and education and the media) to obscure the unsustainablity of their project.

Here democratic politics, as he says, is reduced to providing consumer satisfaction, and hence politics is presented to the consumer as another product for consumption. What we have, he says, is ‘autonomous techno-centrism’ which shows us a ‘future from which we are absent’.

Fry is clearly well read and takes us through a fascinating, though somewhat complex and at times linguistically dense, journey touching on a large number of philosophers, social scientists and thinkers.

So far so good, and not very contentious. But when Fry goes into providing what he sees as a road to solution he goes badly wrong. While recognising the enormity of the problem he separates the political from the class-productive relations that are at the roots of the unsustainability of our current level of consumption.

Moreover, despite his repeated assertion that his solution is the only one that is not utopian, the world of Design as Politics is essentially built on a series of unsupportable assumptions.

He clearly understands that the fundamental cause of the unsustainabilty of our existence is anthropocentrism that was accentuated by the introduction of the capitalist mode of production that, in his words, has no reformative other.

Moreover he spends countless pages showing the undemocratic nature of democracy but then wishes to rebuild it from the inside (see page165). He then, contradicts himself by proposing to reform capitalism. The entire Design as Politics project aims at reforming capitalism (and democracy) so that it is changed from creating a technology for consumption to one for sustainment.

Central to his thesis is that design determines our fate – hence to change that fate we must begin by changing our understanding of design, to ‘rethink and redefine and reinvent the very nature of urban and rural life,’ and at its core a, ‘design becoming more dynamic, more powerful and more able to communicate the significance of designers to society in general’ he writes.

The agency for this change is an (hopefully) ever-widening, but tight, circle of people – designers – who have woken up not just to the horrors of a defutured world (after all many of us are already there) but on the root causes of that defuturing.

And what are those root causes? It is design for consumption, or ‘consumption as grazing’. And the solution is design for sustainment. And since democracy (I guess he means parliamentary democracy although nowhere does he define it as such) is also a system designed to cloud our vision we need to go beyond it. But by going beyond democracy Fry does not mean more, and more meaningful, democracy, which he dismisses as utopian radical democracy, but less – much less.

What Fry proposes is a cabal of designers and teachers who will in what he rightly recognises as a hard and difficult road, convince global capitalism to reform itself before the entire system collapses under the mass migration induced by global warming; and for the rest of us to consume for survival not for pleasure.

They, and we, will do so through teaching and persuasion, turning ‘knowing into the service of economic ends’. The hoped for outcome: a self-imposed ‘dictatorship of Sustainment’, or if people won’t, by imposition from above by an ‘adaptive design directorate’.

And if that change cannot rely on agreement it must ‘aim with material force’. Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat, which was his shorthand for the democratic control of the majority on society, becomes the dictatorship of a committee or at best an idea – ‘thought itself as redirective practice’, as Fry puts it or ‘designed and managed interventions’ to impose ‘unfreedoms’.

His main foe is democracy with its laisser-faire attitude to the rampages of technology gone wild. His heroes are Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, both neo-romantic critiques of democracy and philosophers of authoritarianism. His effectors are a clique of educators – in the form of enlightened designers educating (read imposing) a new form of design that safeguards our future by taming the rampages that capitalist profit motive has sown on our planet. A modern version of Plato’s philosopher king transposed to twenty-first century globalised world.

Somewhere among his solution both the real effectors of unsustainability, capitalism, and its dictatorship imposed through apparent parliamentary democracy is lost. Here Fry not only misses the real critique of Heidegger of the roots of technology, but aims to reform capitalism by educating it to respect the future of the human race by ceasing to be so anthropocentric – a socialised capitalism, so to speak.

It is like educating the thief to patrol the neighbourhood. Marx had identified commodity fetishism as central to capitalist relations. By placing design at the centre of the futuring of the planet, Fry is demonstrating the most extreme form of commodity fetishism to defetishise commodities. No wonder Marx barely gets a mention in these pages.

Fry rejects utopian solutions but opts for the impossible. To ‘induce a being otherwise’ by design begs the question of who is the designer, chosen by whom and answerable to whom.

Dictatorship of sustainment will become just that – an imposed unfreedom imposed by unelected designers, answerable to no one but that very global capital (where ‘the capitalist commodity sphere was constituted as a world of desire’) that presumably employs the designers.

It is not entirely accidental that the word profit does not appear anywhere in this book. Does Fry imagine a capitalism without profit. Without it would they be persuaded to create a world where ‘to live is to suffer’ reigns eternal?

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

Design as politics by Tony Fry is published by Berg 2011. You can purchase the book directly at Design Talks Bookshop here.

Tony Fry is a director of the sustainment consultancy Team D/E/S and adjunct professor of design at Griffith University, Queensland College of Art, Australia. Among his publication is A New Design Philosophy: an Introduction to Defuturing, and Design, Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice.

Also read another interesting take on this by Peter Radziszewski in Rock n Roll!

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