Political Ethics and Capitalist Moralism

Designer Communism is an interesting concept of Mark Fisher’s and undoubtedly a precursor to his Acid Communism. Explaining it in a lecture from 2016, however, he immediately comments on his own sense of being a fish out of water, presenting to an audience that is somewhat alien to his usual crowd. The first thing he is recorded as saying is: “I don’t know why I decided to talk about designer communism to a room that includes a lot of people who do actually know something about design.”

He goes on to note that, as far as he’s concerned, even as an outsider to the field, designers have a really important role to play in raising issues and, indeed, raising consciousness around issues of political importance.

We know this already, no doubt, but it seems obvious that Mark is tailoring these points to his audience. He points out that this term of his is an attempt to reclaim “designer socialism” — a somewhat out-dated phrase for a kind of bourgeois utopianism that lacks any (material) self-awareness. It was a term that particularly pointed at the design industry in the 1980s — perhaps even internally, as it is an industry that has often been seen as broadly politically conservative.

We might think this and that about so-called semiocapitalism, but who is there to take these ideas to the people who need to here them? Who inspires the designers to think critically about the world and their specific place within it? I suppose that was Mark’s intention.

I’ve written about all these issues as they appear in Mark’s late work before — in the most detail here. One of the centrally invigorating questions for Mark towards the end of his life was: in what ways can the mechanisms of capitalism itself — practically speaking — help us to reach its outside? This is a vague gesture deployed by accelerationists of all stripes but Mark wasn’t talking about DeleuzoGuattarian double articulation or accelerations of the process, at least not in this instance; he was talking about the ways in which the skills and knowledge of marketing companies, for example, can libidinally sell us the possibility of a new future. If you want to accelerate the process in a way that’s a bit more materially measurable, maybe get involved in design!

As Mark argues in the lecture, not doing this (at least not successfully) was where the left failed in the 1980s and, as he goes on to say, it is a point from which the left arguably never recovered. Capitalism made itself out to be the only path to the sexy future we have always been promised. The left’s concepts of the future, by comparison, were dreary. (Mark would cite adverts by Levi’s and Apple from 1984 as particularly egregious examples of this, borne out of Cold War anti-Soviet posturing but nonetheless with a clear subtext: “Capitalism is sexy and they don’t want you to have it.”)

This is a general argument of Mark’s that would become tragically prescient just months after his death when two designers from Bristol made and began selling parody Nike t-shirts, keeping the iconic “tick” but replacing the name of the brand itself with “Corbyn”. They were a huge success — even my girlfriend owns one — and they seemed to signal a new approach to raising public consciousness around socialist issues (even if somewhat adjacent to Corbyn’s particular personality cult).

This momentum — no pun intended — didn’t seem to amount to much, however. In fact, it crashed back in on itself all too predictably, with Corbyn’s initial failure to win a general election stoking the usual feelings of left melancholia. This also isn’t to say that t-shirts are going to start the revolution but it has shown that it is not just politicians who function as “libidinal technicians” — as Mark calls them in his related essay, “Digital Psychedelia” — but also PR companies and advertisers, and when they work together or at least have an awareness of one another and their roles in the wider system, interesting things can happen… Maybe…?

I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot recently because, for seven days in May, I was working at D&AD Festival.

D&AD is a somewhat corporate / start-up designer hub of industry talks and advice and they also have an awards ceremony where agencies from around the world submit their adverts and campaigns and typography and book design stuff and it’s all judged by industry experts across 14 categories which are then all shown in the exhibition that then becomes a big book afterwards.

It was a really great week and I worked with the best team who made a lot of hard work really fun and so I hope it goes without saying that the forthcoming critical view of some of the work has nothing to do with those people who worked so hard with me to make the festival happen, because what I want to talk about first is this concept of “Woke Capital”.

I’ve written about this before: the phrase “Woke Capital” is the product of an ostensibly right-wing cynicism regarding the ways in which capitalism now forces everyone to swallow typically left-wing political standpoints and put on a left-leaning face thanks to a totalitarian left-wing cultural tyranny. My own view of this term is that it’s nothing new. It’s “Rainbow Capitalism” viewed from the “other side” of the political divide. Capitalism has been absorbing “outsider”, “queer” and “minoritarian” politics for decades, much to the frustration of activists, and now the right is annoyed about it too because they now have to parrot politically correct viewpoints because not to do so is probably bad for business.

What’s interesting about this shift, with the right leading the charge on criticising this tendency within contemporary capitalism — at least in our little corner of the internet — is that it seems to suggest the left is less concerned about capitalism performing the wholesale appropriation of a lot of these issues. In many ways, I suppose there isn’t much to complain out. It’s all about normalising conversations and concepts and political positions, right? If a car advert helps to normalise anti-racism, is the fact it’s ultimately selling something worth worrying about?

At this year’s festival, the best examples of this work being done — and I’m selecting the least contentious topics here — were projects related to mental health and inclusivity. (Two of my favourites from the product design category below.) In giving tours, it felt very easy to structure explorations of the space around dominant political issues that could be threaded throughout the categories and consider how the industry has responded to this and that issue that has loomed large in the public consciousness. (The other most prominent topics addressed in advertising campaigns, perhaps unsurprisingly, were climate change and school shootings / gun violence.)

On the one hand, the role advertising agencies can play here — particularly in supporting charities and not-for-profits — is really important. However, there is evidently a fine line between this successful so-called “brand activism” and the shameless appropriation of liberal politics.

Unsurprisingly, McDonalds’ was one of the most cringe-worthy examples here. The print version of their “More In Common” campaign was horrendous. Whilst the video goes for a “different walks of life” vibe, the juxtaposed photographs of their print campaign were split incredibly unsubtly along racial lines, taking the “if you think about it, we’re all from Africa, really” approach to identity politics but shifting it subtly to “if you think about it, we’ve all eaten at McDonalds, at some point”. Truly, this will heal the nation.

Elsewhere we have adverts for Staedtler and Stabilo highlighter pens which chose to “highlight” lost women of history (that was a good one) and also “highlight” genocide (that one was nice looking but actually pretty fucked up — bit weird to aestheticise atrocity in order to sell pens.)

It’s very easy to be cynical about all this and none of it is new but questions arose for me when considering the wider talks and workshops that took place in orbit of these examples of “Woke Capital”. It seemed to me that the ways in which designers were approaching these issues were, on the whole, pretty innocuous but this wokeness-as-business-strategy vibe was particularly pernicious when it came to discussions of neoliberal professionalism. There were so many talks about the individualisation of branding — the “brand” of the individual over the company — which leads to an internalisation and reduction of the broader processes that these wider campaigns demonstrate. The main issue I have with this is that we see a feedback loop emerge where bad attempts at ethics are subsumed into a blanket and innately capitalist moralism.

This is interesting, I think, because it’s not just an issue in the design industry. It’s rampant on the left as a whole. There is a sense in which it is not just leftism that has infiltrated the public image of capitalism but capitalism which has infiltrated the public image of leftism — that is to say, it’s logics and norms.

This is such a common error around these “weird theory” parts too and something I’ve wanted to address for a long time. It amazes me how often people will throw around accusations of unethical praxis or a lack of ethics altogether. It’s been a frequent accusation thrown at me too but I’m not sure what it’s based on. I spent a large portion of my MA writing on and studying various systems of ethics and yet how often how I’ve heard those words thrown at me based on… I don’t even know. (FYI: I had written these words prior to Crane’s latest tantrum in which he threw this accusation out before deleting his account again — he is of course a case in point.) In my experience, it is often people who accuse others of having no ethics that lack an ethics of their own.

What’s worth is that this is something intrinsic to these issues of capitalist design and optics. “Ethical” advertising is a very powerful but also dangerous thing, and I think we can perhaps lay the blame for the left’s innately capitalistic moralism squarely at the hypothetical feet of Woke Capital’s negative feedback loop. Because, to be absolutely clear, moralism is not an ethics. Not as far as I’m concerned anyway.

My understanding of ethics comes from a course I did at Goldsmiths as a student which really shaped my thinking. I’d wanted to do the course because I was sick to death of the lack of conversation around ethics in documentary photography exhibitions that I was spending a lot of time around as part of my day job. I found so much of the world I was working in to be completely abhorrent but didn’t know how to articulate why, so a course of ethics and the art world sounded like an interesting course to take.

Going through my old notes, we understood ethics to be “the process of defining, systematizing, defending, and/or recommending concepts of right and wrong to an individual or society at large.” But within this very broad dictionary definition we find there are three primary branches of thought which take very different approaches to this overall task — meta-ethics, normative ethics, applied ethics, etc., etc.

My own personal interest ended up being anethics — best explored by Paul Mann in his amazing book Masocriticism and with its antecedents in the thought of the likes of Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot and others.

Anethics is a sort of meta-meta-ethics that interrogates the innate limitations to ethics as a systematised “moral philosophy”. We can point to Nietzsche’s call for an unconditional ethics in The Gay Science as an example which may resonate around these parts. He writes: “Long live physics! And even more so that which compels us to turn to physics, — our honesty!” Being in itself is ethical for Nietzsche in this sense — or rather, it is an ethical question — and whilst this appears impotently broad as a consideration it brings into play things of an ethical nature which fall outside the realm of moral philosophy’s rationalism.

Love, for instance, is a slippery example. We can identify and critique “bad” parents or partners but what is it to determine an otherwise supposedly innate protectiveness of parenthood to a code of ethics? Ethics, in this sense, can be understood as a straight jacket even with the best of intentions, and so anethics is a properly ethical praxis and way of being which does not allow itself to become rigid, which does not settle for “being” ethical but exists as a “becoming” ethical through the consistent interrogation of all ethics and that which falls outside of them.

My lecturer when I was studying ethics was Jean-Paul Martinon and this was broadly his own understanding, in particular ethics understood as a futurity. His lectures still remain central to a lot of my own thought on this. His functional definition of ethics for our class was “the other comes first” and so the question for us to carry forwards in our studies was “how can I make sure the other comes first, i.e. before me?” However, in considering the Other, we immediately fell upon a number of problematics which we approached via Levinas (which I found heavily resonating with my already well-established interest in Bataille and would later fuel my love of Blanchot.)

Whilst the “other” is a phrase considered to be outdated and uncomfortable for many, that doesn’t make the problematics of the Other just disappear. Ontologically, the Other is always central because you can never get rid of the Other, because I cannot die in your place. You die alone, I cannot die for you. There is an inherent Otherness to being, then, which is irreplaceable, unalienable and unrelated to issues of identity and identity politics. In this sense, for J-P, the word “Other” was necessarily replaceable with the idea of the future.

For our class, the Other was defined as “the destitute for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all”, quoting Levinas in his book, Ethics and Infinity. Here, the word “Destitute” does not refer to the poor or those who have nothing. It is not an economic term. Levinas is therefore radical in his terming of “for whom I owe all”. Destitution does not necessitate an indebtedness but rather it indicates someone for whom I owe all without an exchange; without the necessity of a return. Levinas is asking his reader to consider who the “destitute” is in their world. Returning to “love”, the strongest example of the destitute is the child — the child who always comes first.

This is only one approach but also ended up being the one I liked the best. We looked at Aristotle’s Ethics of the pursuit of happiness, of flourishing, living without excess or extremes, fine tuning your being through processes of habituation, a project seeking the transcendence of desire and pleasure.

If this sounds somewhat monastic, that is perhaps because this is the ethical backbone of Western philosophy. It was likewise Foucault’s starting point in his genealogy of ethics, his histories of sexuality, beginning with the Greeks before considering how Christianity would shape this aesthetic transcendence to be a restraint of the flesh and later, in modernity, becoming the regulation of bodies by the state. In Foucault’s argument, like Nietzsche’s own moral genealogy, there is a view to uncovering this ground again — removing the unethical ethics of state power and its grasp on our interiority and once again pursue a legitimately “aesthetic” life which cares and adapts and develops and is free.

We’ve seen many attempts at this. Heidegger talks of being-as-care in Being & Time. Spinoza is a particularly important instance too, interrogating the theocracy of his time when many were considering the discrepancies between Greek moral philosophy and the then-dominant ethical thinking of Christianity and Judaism, controversially taking the theism out of monotheism and instead building a monism. Kant’s attempt to define a moral law of pure reason would go against Spinoza with his Categorical Imperative but here we find various paradoxes of representation when trying to encapsulate that which resists wholesale rationalisation.

Now, an ethics which I personally try to live by — and which I like precisely because it is so difficult in our present moment — is that developed by Maurice Blanchot. I wrote about this for Alienist and it is something that I’m now researching a lot more again for the first time since I finished my Masters. I’m not in agreement with many of the other texts that appear in Alienist 5 for what it is worth but all the more reason why I am happy to be in there. There is a sense in which our conversations are suffering and it is this intrusion of capitalism into our ethics that seems to be ruining opportunities for the production of genuinely radical political practice that escape the present moment of “frenzied stasis”, as Mark used to call it.

With the ethics of Bataille-Levinas-Blanchot being so fixated on the necessity of communication to being, Jodi Dean’s writings on “communicative capitalism” become the central challenge for this ethics today — and again, I’ve written on this a lot before too. There is a sense in which Foucault’s genealogical and ethical project can be extended today to include this infiltration by capitalism into channels of communication. We move from the regulation of bodies to the regulation of thought and whilst this is, in many respects, a positive process whereby we are encouraged to account for and put the other first, it is nonetheless a regulation.

If this blog has an ethical project — and I think it does — it is this. How do we account for our ethics in ways that do not consolidate around the whims of capital? To what extent can we really put the other first, in their futurity, from within this system? How do we raise up an ethics of comradeship and friendship within a socioeconomic infrastructure that is so often antithetical to this?

Each person who throws accusations of a lack of ethics should particularly take more responsibility for this within themselves.

When a different ethics is seen as a lack of ethics, which in itself is only ever a moralism, we see the subtle end result of capitalist realism on our own interiority. There is no alternative ethics other than that which is absorbed by our brands. In this sense, the end game of Woke Capital is perhaps already in sight, demonstrated by the miserable Academic Marxists of Twitter who infect their own gospel with the moralism of the system they proclaim to stand against.

But that’s not to say I have all the answers. The complicity is pervasive and I remain haunted by the spectre of the slacker as perhaps the best anethical response to our age of communicative capitalism.

There is much more to say here and I’ll see when I can get round to saying it. Jumping off my Alienist essay, I’m thinking this might become something of a series.


Leave a Reply