It is fashionable these days for economic historians to indentify the London riots of 2011 as the tipping point of late capitalism. Some have labelled the unrest “violent consumerism” and others “acquisitive rioting”, but the consensus is that it represented a temporary subprime economy in which Reebok trainers were as fungible as barrels of oil, except purchased not with electronic money wired from computer to computer but with bricks delivered from garden walls to plate-glass windows. The fires, however, have attracted the most scrutiny. They were numerous, of course, and included the mighty Sony distribution centre, which taught Enfield what a million melting DVDs smell like. But of all the warehouse fires during that week’s troubles, none burned quite as brightly as the inferno that consumed the Ikea in Edmonton, now known as “the bonfire of the commodities”.
The Ikea fire has become the sine qua non of the demise of conspicuous consumption. Ikea’s very business model had been based on the fact that furniture was less expensive than air. For air, or empty space, was the one thing that had to be eradicated from its flatpack boxes, as it made the furniture too expensive to ship. Logically, then, the oxygen fuelling the Edmonton fire was more valuable than the millions of pounds’ worth of stock inside. This argument was slow to dawn on the public, but once it had grasped just how devalued its beloved commodities had become, behavioural patterns started to change. The Ikea fire became the blaze that consumed consumption.
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The commodity, it was universally acknowledged, had been degraded. And the design industry – the commodity’s wet nurse – took a blow in the groin of its confidence. It was not long before designers in all sorts of fields began to question whether they were not complicit in a spectral economy with the same perverse logic as Ikea’s. At the following Salone del Mobile in Milan, for example, furniture designers staged a protest over their perceived exploitation by manufacturers. Their specific complaint was that brands were trading in prototypes that designers had effectively produced for free, and from which, even if they went on to sell, they would receive precious little income. The brands themselves always argued that those objects were invaluable to designers as promotional devices, which explained some of the more facetious placards being held aloft in the demonstrations: “My kids can’t eat PR” and so on. It was precisely this inversion of true capitalist logic – that the value of an object lay not in itself but in its image – that was becoming economically precarious. A few firebrands even plotted to burn down the giant fairgrounds at Rho, in a copycat blaze to top Ikea’s. But they were apprehended: no, the Salone would not succumb to yet another spectacular image played to death on the global news networks. Instead it would dwindle into a parochial trade fair, the victim of a far more profound global economic shift: the demise of globalisation.
The balkanisation of Europe was as rapid as it was unexpected. The continent-wide free market – that paragon of multinational unity – splintered into a galaxy of village economies. The collapse of the Eurozone in 2013 followed a wave of debt crises and national defaults, after which the Euro-dominos tumbled into one hard-line right-wing government after another. The raising of trade and immigration barriers and the disappearance of cheap air travel thanks to the oil crisis and the sudden increase in carbon taxing all precipitated the demise of a borderless Europe. And then a curious thing happened. The capital cities lost some of their state-like power and there was a resurgence of the town.
Take the case of Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. What in most respects was a rather unremarkable town marked both the end of a phenomenon and its beginning. In the late 2000s, little Eindhoven had a global reputation as a design hub, centred around its Design Academy. What set it apart from other design centres was that it was not a metropolis or nexus of the culture industry in the way that even Rotterdam was, let alone London. Yet despite this, it was a hotbed of international design talent, which, having graduated from the school, often stayed on to live in the town, availing itself of subsidised rent in vast industrial spaces. Many of these designers were foreign, and yet still they benefitted from Dutch funding. Successive governments had been extremely shrewd in recognising that “Dutch design” was an exportable quality, not just in commodity terms, but as a national trait. This all came to an end in 2011 when Mark Rutte’s government slashed the culture budget in half. No longer centrally supported, the foreign designers scarpered back to their homelands and Dutch designers were forced to compete on the same free-market terms as their counterparts all over the world. As we now know, of course, “Dutch design” rapidly became as much a historical cliché as “Scandinavian design”.
And yet, it was not long before the small-town creative community that Eindhoven briefly represented became a social model that proliferated all over Europe. The European capitals lost some of their magnetism, especially now that people were less free to migrate across borders. The international nomadic lifestyle that had become the norm for the creative and business classes proved increasingly impractical. Instead, the ethos of localism grew pervasive, and once-hardened urbanites came to appreciate the benefits of small-town life and trade. Designers no longer sought each other out in Paris, London and Berlin but dispersed themselves to the provinces. Indeed they aimed for towns and small cities where there were few other designers, for communities where there wasn’t too much competition. The European designer was now closer to the traditional craftsman or artisan than the industrial draftsman of old. Designers started to establish guilds, using social media to share good practice and pricing protocols across regional boundaries. And when consumers needed something, they no longer set out for the out-of-town mall or hypermarket, they paid a visit to one of their local workshops.
Globalisation was no just impracticable in the new Europe, it was also increasingly at odds with the emerging ethical economy. Cheap goods, even consumers conceded, inevitably required wholesale exploitation somewhere along the supply chain. More than 70 years after he wrote it, Benjamin’s dictum that there is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism began to be taken seriously.
Globalised manufacturing was now the preserve of the newly industrialised powers, such as China and India. In Europe only the most basic items were mass-produced: ice cube trays, electric plugs and light switches. The majority of household goods and furniture was made locally by designer-craftsmen. The very idea of temporary or disposable objects became socially unacceptable. The mass-market fashion brands that had long fuelled an economy of disposable clothing were forced to find new markets in Africa and Latin America. One of the most notable developments of those years was the revival of the tailoring industry. Branded clothing completely lost its appeal and the high-fashion empires devolved their transnational operations into local boutique-sized franchises offering bespoke designs. Only the poorest wore Nike trainers and Levi’s denim. Clinics were inundated with middle class men and women claiming to be allergic to logos, clutching hive-ridden breasts where Lacoste alligators had once roamed. Brands became toxic memories. Among the European elite the aversion to standardised cuts and colours evolved into a kind of hyper-snobbery. The late William Gibson was the first to identify a class of people who sought out anti-branding: clothing and products so rarefied that their makers did everything they could to hide their efforts. Their output was the subject of rumours, and the new digitocracy paid bounty-hunter-style consultants to pursue these myths to the end of the line, perhaps some workshop in Ghent where the organic cotton drill was algorithm-woven to be as soft as goose down and as tough as carbon fibre. Exclusivity was fetishised.
The exception to this artisanal ethic were technological goods – gadgets and gizmos. The technical capacity of phones and tablets was increasing at such a rate that people were forced to replace them every three months. The design market was effectively divided in two: a few objects with a frenetically high turnover and the rest that were bespoke and intended to last a lifetime. The key difference with the late capitalist economy was the shift from quantity to quality. This perceptual transition had a profound impact on the collective sense of value. The paradox of late capitalism’s pursuit of ultra-affordability – eulogised as the democratisation of commodities – was that it culminated at the point where goods were no longer valued. It led to accumulation for accumulation’s sake. In the new qualitative economy, value tended to be proportional: a sofa might cost three months’ rent, but that expenditure was seen as an investment in the future.
In this new European economy, social superiority took on a moral rather than purely financial status – a trait demonstrated by how few goods you owned, how good they were, how unique. Where once people took pride in seeing how many goods they could stuff into their homes, a new type of “possession ascetic” emerged: self-proclaimed urban Bedouins determined to live with no more than, say, 20 objects. Indeed, this self-sufficient, craft-based community ethos bred “perfect lifestyle” fundamentalists who seceded into their own autonomous zones. These were brand-free territories where Waldenesque fanatics in solar-panelled huts carved or cast everything out of organic materials, and where even the software they used was custom-built out of open source code. Europe was a thousand Tolkienesque Shires, gaining in smug contentment what it had relinquished in global influence.
By the time China had established itself as the world’s leading design powerhouse it was no longer the world’s manufacturer. Rising labour costs had forced some of the country’s largest manufacturers to invest heavily in robotics. Foxconn, the producer of Apple’s now ubiquitous iLobes, was the first. It replaced a staff of two million with the first generation of intelligent robots. Once this practice had become widespread, China’s initially dangerous unemployment figures soon become irrelevant. The GDP was so high that the government could afford to give every citizen a living wage. By mechanising production and abolishing labour as a commodity, the Chinese had achieved a kind of communist nirvana – here was genuine rather merely theoretical wealth distribution. The country became a New Babylon-style paradise, a leisure society where people only worked on the projects that gave them creative fulfilment. It was this above all that led to the mass-inculcation of design among the populace, with the world’s largest middle class becoming hyper-sensitive to the quality of every experience.
Of course, this had serious consequences elsewhere in the world. Anything that still required manual labour was manufactured in Africa, which had become not so much the factory to the world as the factory to the East. The Chinese bought Angola, Mali and Nigeria outright, and turned them into production colonies – their outre mer industrial hinterlands, their product farms. Mass urbanisation in Africa, which was well underway before the continent had even embarked on wholesale industrialisation, reached unprecedented scales. Cities joined together like blobs of mercury, unimpeded even by national boundaries – urban conglomerations the scale of which the world had never known. And simply to earn the globe’s respect as the last one to the industrial party, Africa was forced to become the planet’s leading polluter.
The newly industrialised Africa was a major factor in Europe’s effective abandonment of mass-produced objects. With the wounds of their own colonial pasts still open, the association of almost an entire continent with colonised labour – even though it was no longer slave labour – was too uncomfortable for the Europeans. The cradle of design – that universal secular creed, that culmination of the Enlightenment project – had chosen to regress (or evolve) into a techno-craft feudalism. What was not handmade by craftsman-designers was rapid-manufactured by local fabbing shops such as KwikFab and Begetsy. There was a new economy of design, and it was virtual.
Joseph Beuys’s assertion that everyone was an artist turned out not to be true. Instead, everyone was a designer. It was not so much an occupation as an occupational hazard of the post-spectacular economy. Almost everything that you could buy had been reverse-engineered into a computerised wire-frame model – downloadable, customisable and printable. The trading and tweaking of these digital 3D models – Bruce Sterling called them “spimes” – became as routine as shopping at Amazon had been to a previous generation. But retail therapy was no longer therapeutic enough. Shoppers wanted creative input, they wanted to hack their own versions. An increasingly skilled populace came to rely on the new commons of open source design software and hackware. Objects existed in states of endless transformation until such point as the owner of one of these shape-shifters decided to materialise it. Or not. Owning the physical artefact wasn’t the buzz it used to be. Often the real reward came from sharing the object with your network and basking in the applause of your hybridisation technique.
This virtual economy of digital objects was the culmination of the neoliberal economic reforms of the late 20th century. The deregulation and free-market delusion that had reached a peak in the Great Crash of 2012 had begun 40 years earlier. In 1971, when President Nixon decided to decouple the value of the dollar to the gold standard – which some see as the end of true capitalism – he effectively broke the link between the signifier (paper money) and the signified (gold). The open source design economy did much the same thing. The worth of a parametric-baroque vase had little to do with its material value because it didn’t exist at the point of purchase – it only existed if the owner decided to print it out. Its value was measured in design.
The role that designers played in this economy was not just to create the wire-frame templates but to coach people in how to express themselves through objects. Essentially, the designer became a kind of teacher, helping people create artefacts that “personified” them. In some ways this digital agora was the technical manifestation of what Guy Debord termed the “spectacle”. When Debord said that “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation,” he accurately predicted the virtual design economy. There was one key difference, however. This was no longer an economy of brands – except in as much as people were brands. And people were, exemplified by the way in which they hired design consultants to advise on their “image interfaces”, customising their social media pages for the user experience that was pure you. Where previously the most common way of defining your individuality was to consume it through branded goods and media – through choice – now the most creative members of society could actively shape it.
A few contemporary commentators rashly chose to interpret this creative economy as a new utopia. Certainly the rules of consumer exchange had changed. In the 20th century corporations had deployed design to consolidate their power over the consumer in a mass market. But in the second decade of the 21st century that global market fractured into millions of personal ones. The virtual images that consumers were creating were no longer feeding the annual turnovers of corporations directly, in the way that products had once done. The corporations were after deeper code – after the systems that governed experience and exchange. Apple and Google chose not to control the wire-frame models but the clouds within which people traded them, within which people advertised their perfect ideas of themselves. Apple and Google – alpha and omega – owned the very digital territory, the network of all information. Amazingly, people didn’t seem to mind. As we know, it would take another decade – and another revolution – to come to terms with just how insidious and pernicious that control had become.