Co-operative Design Archive

This archive aims to collect images, videos and texts that relate to an ongoing research project conducted by James Meadowcroft. The project is a part of Monash Communication Design Honours for 2019. The project aims to explore the effects of commercialisation on the design process, and how design studio structures can be changed.

How could a co-operative design studio structure respond to neoliberalism?






Un-Specialise! Poster


James Meadowcroft

'Un-Specialise!' Is a poster created in response to Stephen Knott’s essay in Specialism by Open Editions, A Critique of Specialism. Knott argues that as a society we pursue this idea of being an expert in a given area, with an idealistic view of growing old and imparting our specific wisdom to the world. However, in making his comparison to the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the master sushi chef Jiro was never able to achieve his ever fleeting goal of perfection. In fact, at the end of a life of practice and pursuit Jiro didn’t even know where the top of ability was. Specialisation is a process used in capitalist workflow, where a worker who performs a specific task in a production line is more efficient in their production. However, specialised tasks such as this can alienate the worker from the product of their labour. This ends in dissatisfaction, and an overall disconnection from the fruit of ones labour. Knott argues that design as a discipline is uniquely positioned to lead culture away from its reliance on specialism as a structuring mechanism for work, as at its core it is the exploration and communication of other specialisations. There is a growing argument that designers should not specialise, and instead be great generalists that can adapt and be multidisciplinary. This poster encourages young designers to experiment and explore different specialisations, and to have less emphasise on specialised skills that risk being replaced by threats such as the gig economy or contract work.


Share Resources and Knowledge! Poster


James Meadowcroft

'Share Resources and Knowledge!' Is a poster created as a republished version of the series of posters of the same name created by amici. This poster responds to a growing culture of commodifying services that used to be free and accessible such as industry and folio advice. A studio based in Melbourne at the start of 2019 started offering a folio review service aimed at junior and student designers for a rate of $150p/h, this service was then promoted by both AGDA and The Design Kids. Both of these groups advertise as being supportive of young designers and students. Jacky Winter has also joined this industry—launching a serviced called Corvid which offers a less personal experience, an up to 45 minute phone call folio review for $200. I view these services as a direct attempt to monetise young designers that are in a vulnerable position, often recently graduated and looking for work in a congested and highly competitive industry. These services tend to offer a solution, a different typeface used in the folio will lead to that design job you always wanted, but is this promise impossible to make? To counter this, this poster encourages young designers and students to use the communities they have, to share knowledge and give advice to each other, to support, rather than compete. Nobody should have to feel that they must buy into the industry.


Stand Up! Poster


James Meadowcroft

'Stand Up!' Calls for students and young designers to watch out for work that is offered on a permanent contract basis. From research gathered from the first stage of research methods, permanent contracting is becoming an increasingly common way to employ junior designers in commercial design studios. This type of employment can appear appealing at first as it gives the designer access to an ongoing position at a fixed rate. However, these contracts are often constructed by the employer and take away the workers’ rights of the designer. This happens because contract work is not subject to many FairWork policies. As a contractor, it is your responsibility to write the contract and define the terms of the arrangement. This poster acts to show what conditions designers should put on their contracts to establish a fair working agreement. While a contract is entirely negotiable, this stage at least starts a discussion with a potential employer. To take this project further and to give young designers a clearer platform for legal negotiation, a freely accessible ‘template contract’ should be constructed. In this document, traditionally accepted workers’ rights such as maximum work hours, a rate for overtime work, public holiday pay, entitlement to annual leave, notice of termination, sick and personal leave, redundancy pay and flexible working hours should be set. This template could then act to create a new standard for the conditions we expect as designers.


Don't smile, organise


Nina Power

Nina Power in the essay ‘Don’t Smile, organise’ writes about the growing numbers of youth unemployment worldwide, stating they are the lowest of all time. Power argues that we are workers that work without confidence, as working conditions and job security seems to be constantly fleeting, and we have to constantly fight to keep our jobs. As of January 2011, 1.5 billion people, half the global working age population were participating in insecure work. Neoliberalism is killing union memberships and participation. There is a culture in the creative industry where you are always working, always looking out for new contacts, you can sleep when you’re dead. How do you then charge or get paid for this work that never stops? Creative work in notoriously hard to measure. As work takes over more and more of our lives, it is beginning to commercialise the human feeling — where a job requires you to change your emotional state for a commercial end.


Folio Review Posters


James Meadowcroft, Selena Repanis, Audrey Chmielewski, Bridget Melville, Alicia Simons & Liz Luby

A couple of weeks ago, a small Melbourne design agency began promoting a new service they would offer to students and junior designers where they would review their folios and answer industry questions for $150 per hour. This service was then promoted by both The Design Kids and AGDA. Similar services being offered by Jacky Winter, including separate pay to be part of online only communities. I view this as a direct commercial attempt to monetise young designers that are in a very vulnerable position, just graduated and are looking for work, for a service that has generally been free in the forms of industry events or interviews with studios. We ask in these posters, how can we create this feedback value for each other, and like Making Space, how do we create a community that actively helps each other.


A critique of specialism


Stephen Knott

Stephen Knott in his essay ‘A critique of specialism’ explores the culture of specialised work in our modern western society. Knott uses the documentary ‘Jiro dreams of sushi’ as a constant reference to show what a pinnacle of specialised work can look like. But as Jiro shows in the documentary, even at his level of arguably the best sushi chef in the world, Jiro still doesn’t know where the top of expertise is or what it looks like; yet he will continue a never ending pursuit for perfection. We put specialism on this pinnacle to achieve, to grow old and be able to share of pearl of wisdom with the world, but should we be doing this? Adam Smith in the book ‘Wealth of Nations’ proposes that work should be balanced with workers learning many specialisations, allowing efficient production and a diverse working day that doesn’t leave workers alienated. We have formed our culture, education and work around the idea it is best to specialise and be an expert in something, we disregard dabblers and amateurs. Art and design is uniquely positioned, however to lead culture away from its reliance on specialism as a structuring mechanism for work. At its core, art and design is a compulsion to explore the terrains of other specialisms and borrow from them. The Bauhaus pushed this ideal, creating workshops of co-operating labour where different skills worked alongside each other. Because art and design has communication at its core, its appeal extends across specialisms.


Not jobs and growth but post-capitalism, and creative industries show the way


Justin O'Connor

The new creative economy is focused around ideas and experiences, relying on left of field innovation. In this economy, we see persistent low wages, high debt, self-exploitation, precarious employment (the gig economy), holding multiple jobs as well as an excessive reliance on networking. The creative economy had a boom with the creation and widespread adoption of the internet, giving rise to a new wave of industries. The internet however is still being held back by capitalist monopolies maximising short term profit on a platform that is essentially free. New, post-capitalist movements are pushing towards a more human future, one that relies on these new technologies that are ideas rich and inexpensive. Peer to peer networks, sharing and gift economies, the open source movement, non-monetary labour exchanges all grow from a need for public and democratic knowledge production. ‘Capitalism squats on these new democratic forces, wringing profit from a knowledge it does not produce but seeks to own’. The job of the creative sector is not to bring jobs and growth, but to produce culture. In the post-capitalist world, the creative industry will bring new ways of making and sharing with commitments to community and place.

How can you make a design studio more human? What will be the role of the studio in shaping the future of the capital system?

The term “creative industries” was first applied to the cultural sector by UK New Labour in 1998, and rapidly gained global traction. It was a kind of Faustian bargain for the cultural sector, which gave up its traditional suspicion of commercial imperatives in return for a seat at the grown-ups’ table where the governmental big bucks were allocated. Perhaps it was not so Faustian after all. It seemed the “new” economy was all about ideas and experiences, creativity and left-of-field innovation. That’s less a sell-out and more a win-win. As cities shed their dirty industries, the creative sector would provide new, more fulfilling employment, rewriting the rules of the old economy as it did so. The problems with this narrative are well aired. Software (which had been included precisely to bump up the numbers) and advertising and marketing accounted for most of the employment growth. Outside these sectors (and often within) studies showed persistent low wages, high debt, self-exploitation, precarious employment (the “gig economy”), multiple job-holding (“don’t give up your night job”) and a nepotism that comes with excessive reliance on networking. The divergence between the shiny narrative and the mundane reality is now blindingly obvious (at least outside the consultancy reports). Few in the cultural sector do more than lip-sync to its hymns. But is this simply a story of deflation, of promises reneged? Might there be another narrative?

A new narrative emerges

In recent years the notion of “post-capitalism” has become more widespread. Guy Rundle has been talking about this in Australia, and Paul Mason in the UK. In part it continues the optimism about the transformative potential of new technologies that formed around the internet in the 1990s, and which gave the early “creative industries” agenda such a powerful charge. But since 2008 many have felt that capitalism is no longer capable of delivering on that potential. It has been locking it up in monopoly platforms and extracting “rent” from what is essentially free. Indeed, capitalism is intent on maximising short-term profit from these technologies while allowing the ecological catastrophe of climate change to let rip. Rundle and Mason evoke the enormous potential of technological innovation, not just in communications but in medicine, materials science, agriculture, transport and the rest, but this potential is stuck in the old relations of capitalism. Post-capitalism evokes not just the technology but the new kinds of social relations required for it to live up to its full human potential. They argue that these new technologies – distributed, networked, ideas-rich, decreasingly expensive – are giving rise to enclaves within contemporary society that provide a glimpse into a more human future. Peer-to-peer networks, sharing and gift economies (for real, not Uber), open-source movements, non-monetary labour exchanges – all of these grow out of the essentially public and democratic nature of knowledge-based production and distribution. Capitalism squats on these new democratic forces, wringing profit from a knowledge it does not produce but seeks to own.

Rundle is the more naive politically, while Mason, re-inventing a Marxist political economy long thought dead and buried, recognises that systems are not given up without a fight. What stands out, however, is a sense that things are already changing. We need not wait for the big collapse, but can work in the here and now to effect real social transformation. This connects with the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham and others, who see older forms of social activism as working towards a different kind of post-capitalist future right here, right now.

Creating a more human future

There are, and will be, many objections to the coherence of the term post-capitalism and the agenda it announces. But perhaps it can help us rethink the creative industries. Rather than the narrative of the fast-growing, entrepreneurial, start-up economy moving us into the next stage of knowledge capitalism, post-capitalism gives us a different story. The low-waged, under-employed, precarious creative sector embarrasses the policymakers by not being really serious about growth (“lifestyle”) and failing to live up to the entrepreneurial image promoted at all those glitzy creative industry events. But these low-growth, socially embedded and ethically driven creatives may represent a future far more convincingly than those MBAs in hip clothing setting out to be the next “unicorn”. The job of the creative sector is not to produce “jobs and growth” but cultural value. Those long hours on low wages and short-term contracts are accepted (mostly) as the price to create something of cultural value, to alter the world a little bit, to make us see it in a different way, to critique and to celebrate ourselves, and to bind us together. This ecosystem of micro-businesses, freelancers and serial project workers represents the vast majority of cultural sector employment. They have been systemically sidelined from the grand creative industries narrative, but are, in fact, its main business. Arguments for culture dressed up as economics no longer convince anyone. George Brandis, Donald Trump and 100 right-wing authoritarian cultural budget cuts across the globe testify to this. It is time to give up on the fiction of the creative industries delivering post-industrial capitalism. Instead, we should acknowledge the new ways of making and sharing, the commitments to community and place, the social labour involved in creative work as a powerful resource for wider transformation of our common culture. And, at the moment, the future of that common culture points us toward some kind of post-capitalism – rather than simply more of the same.


Expert culture has killed the innovator in workplaces


Joshua Krook

The western world is becoming an increasingly specialised workforce. As our jobs become narrower, the less capable we become in inventing new technologies, products and ideas. Innovation comes from generalists, not specialists. Because of this, education is now framed around teaching specialist skills. These ultra—specialised skills are then requiring further requirements to enter the workforce, a junior position that once required a high school graduation, now requires a bachelor's degree or even PhD. The more specialised we become, the less we are able to see the connections between one industry and another. The role of a generalist requires them to think broadly over a number of different topics, rather then deeply into topics. To encourage this, grants should be given to those who show creativity, rather than a high degree of specialisation. If our economy is to be innovative, creative and diverse, so too must be our education, workforce and jobs.

How is a generalist designer more effective than a specialist designer? How can a design studio be created to be ‘anti-specialist’? How can a studio share knowledge so that all members can have specialist knowledge? How is specialist work under threat from the gig-economy?

Over the last few decades, the Western world has had an increasingly specialised workforce, with workers trained in narrow skills, for increasingly narrow positions. However, the more narrow our jobs have become, the less capable we have become in inventing new technologies, products and ideas. Innovative ideas tend to come, not from specialised experts, but from generalists. But in today’s economy, education is focused almost entirely on vocational, specialist skills, creating a dampening effect on innovative thought and creativity. The more specialised our workforce becomes, the less capable we are of seeing how our industry relates to other industries. We also become less capable of inventing something to fit the knowledge gap between one industry and the next. Specialisation of the workforce has been driven by a system called “academic inflation”. Where certain jobs used to require only a high school certificate, they now require a bachelors degree, a masters degree or a PhD. Employers have begun demanding greater and greater qualifications even for the most junior of positions. As educational requirements have increased, jobseekers have responded by gaining more degrees and spending more time and money on education. The aim has been to specialise early, and become an expert in a field. This culture of expertise has had an increasingly negative effect on the inventive capacity of our economy.

Over the last century, there has been a decrease in the rate of patenting of new technologies, correlating with an increase in the number of experts working in-house on innovation teams. The more people specialise to gain access to these innovation teams, the less creative they become once they get there. The more private companies are engaged in hiring expert inventors, the less inventions are produced. Along with an overall decline in patenting, there has also been a decline in the number of young people producing inventions. If inventors require PhDs and certifications to enter into companies, then society loses out on their inventive capacity in their early twenties and thirties, adding an extra layer to an existing problem. An analysis of Nobel Prize winners shows that the average age of winners has increased by five or six years per century. The data indicates that PhDs and other qualifications have had a major impact on the age at which someone is at their most inventive.

Where Einstein was most productive in his twenties, over the last century only 7% of prize recipients were in their twenties. A potential “lost age” of inventions is now evident in the data – where younger employees do not have access to grants, funding or jobs. A final concern of a specialised workforce is the decrease in “breakthrough” inventions. Over the last century, as inventors have become in-house experts, they have increasingly turned away from inventing something new, and are increasingly recombining old technologies instead. This is leading to a decline in the number of technologies that revolutionalize human society. To put it simply, we are creating iPhones instead of light bulbs. Where the iPhone simply recombines existing tools to create something new, the lightbulb was revolutionary in creating several new industries. New research also suggests the usefulness of having generalists on innovation teams, rather than specialised experts. Breakthroughs arise when someone can combine many ideas together. The key to being one of these generalists is to think broadly (not deeply) about a variety of topics, rather than a single topic. As Bertrand Russel once wrote:

There is something lost, when many authors co-operate. If there is any unity to be gained in a particular idea, there is a necessity to synthesise all the relevant information “in a single mind”.

The solution to our lost innovative capacity might therefore be relatively simple. Instead of focusing on hiring specialists or experts in a particular field, we should hire generalists of a broad mind, capable of thinking outside the box. Hiring independent innovators outside of institutional structures might be one way of protecting them from the pressures of specialisation. Funding and grants should also be less tied to how much someone has specialised, and more to how inventive or creative they actually are. Our system should move more towards this kind of merit-based ideal, rather than focusing on expertise and certification. Beyond this, businesses can consider challenging staff with lateral thinking. The key is to push staff beyond their narrow jobs and into new fields and endeavours that challenge them to think in new ways. Younger workers in particular should play a greater role in contributing to the ideas, products and inventions of a company, rather than being excluded until they have gained the relevant degrees or qualifications. The benefits of a specialised workforce need to be reconsidered in the light of this new evidence on reduced inventive capacity. If our economy is to be innovative, creative and diverse in thought, then so too must our education, our workforce and our jobs. If we are to have breakthrough technologies, we need to create breakthrough thinkers with the capacity to understand a variety of fields.


Public launch of Amici Studio


James Meadowcroft, Selena Repanis, Audrey Chmielewski, Bridget Melville, Alicia Simons & Liz Luby

Amici is going public. Between February and March the team has been working on the creation of a website and instagram. They would function to introduce the studio and its practice, while beginning to build a network of friends, designers and industry. Making an identity for a client is easy, but making an identity for yourselves is incredibly hard. Working in a group for a single external purpose, the goal is to empathise with the client and their audience to create a single image. However, a group trying to represent themselves opens up many different ideas and images each person has in their identity of the work they do. Because of this, establishing the language and the visual identity was a long process. This self-branding exercise pushed the idea of democratically led creative direction as nearly every part of the process was negotiated on. We were all happy with the outcome of the project—however it must beg the question of design efficiency in such a big group.


Design Discourse for Organization Design: Foundations in Human-Centered Design


Rodrigo Magalhaes

Organisational design is a response to the need for the governance of companies to be designed in order for a fair and equitable structure to be achieved. Organisation design is a holistic phenomenon, it is not static, it is driven by technical structural and generative rules and it shapes and creates new environments, rather than adapting to existing ones. The design of organisations out to leverage the interdependencies between organisational elements. These organisation elements are not scientific, but a guideline to work by.

This reading introduces the basic structures that underpin organisational design. These elements are: communitarian, bureaucratic, market-like and democratic. They must all be considered in the design of an organisation in order to produce an equitable structure.

Introduction: In the traditional, social science-oriented approaches to organi-zation design, the word “design” was often used as a metaphor, with a meaning equivalent to “structure” or “configuration.” In more recent times, a number of writers taking a more design-oriented perspective have emphasized the following aspects of organization design: It is a holistic phenomenon or a “gestalt”; it is not a static configuration but a never-ending process of designing; it is driven not only by technical-structural rules but also by generative ones; and it is able to shape and even create new environments, rather than being determined by the environment. This trend seems to indicate a movement away from structure and toward a more action-oriented interpretation of organization design.

Given the significant volume of literature in the past few decades about the interplay between design, management, and organization, the question at hand is why design as a discipline has never taken center stage in organization design research and publishing. One reason, we submit, is the strong influence of the status quo in the form of the contingency paradigm, characterized by a search for variables—that is, measurable elements or factors that are deemed to produce the best fit between environmental contingencies and organizational configurations. In this school of thought, the organization’s design, which is considered to be the same as its configuration, is the result of external forces, with little regard for the internal workings of the organization. It over.looks perspectives that focus on the action and interaction of stakeholders, as well as on the consequences of managerial behavior or leadership on the design of the organization.

The second reason, and the most important for the purposes of this paper, is that a clearly identifiable theoretical body of knowledge from the design discipline that can serve as an under.pinning for research into organization design seems not to be available. A well-known exception is the work pioneered by Galbraith on the information-processing view, inspired by the decision-making model originally conceived by Simon. This research trend, which is rightly credited with advancing several aspects of organization design research, fosters a notion of organi.zation that reduces the organization to a set of structures, emerging as a result of the application of management control policies and procedures. In our view, the field has suffered a growing “scientification” tendency (similarly reflected in a remark by Nonaka and Takeuchi about the field of strategy), which has led to a grow.ing disconnect between the practice and the theory of organization design. As wittily noted by Karl Weick, “We [organization design thinkers] now function as a discipline of critics who lower confi.dence, rather than a discipline of designers who raise confidence.” To make our way out of this situation and render organization design more relevant to the world of practice, we must go back to basics and (re-)establish the design discipline as a foundation of organization design.

In the search for useful theories that can serve as a bridge between design and organization design, we were struck by the evolution toward a human-centered view of the design discipline and a degree of its convergence with some old and new trends in management and organization. We refer, especially, to the conceptual frameworks proposed by Buchanan and Krippendorff. Buchanan’s model of the four orders of design signals not only an evolution of the discipline to include the design of action (e.g., service design) but also indicates that the problems of context and change need to be taken into account. In the case of Krippendorff, the meaning-driven interpretation of design pioneered by that author is particularly insightful in suggesting the content of a human-centered approach to organization design.

Meanwhile, a careful look at some literature trends on man.agement and organization reveals a number of concerns that coincide with human-centered design (HCD) principles or ideas. In other words, they consider situations where novel solutions have been put forward by academics or practitioners for the designing needs of organizations (e.g., the need to design the governance of companies in a fair and equitable manner for all stakeholders). Thus, our key research effort was focused on a matching of designing concerns, extracted from the literature and seen through the lens of HCD, and the traditional areas of orga-nization design research. The next step was to group and label the concerns in accordance with HCD criteria. The final result is the “The Five Human-Centered Organization Design Concerns” presented and commented below. The expression “concern” was favored over labels such as, element, factor, or principle to high.light the fact that organization design is something carried out —on an ongoing basis—by practitioners (managers and non- managers) who have concerns about how best to design myriad organizational artifacts.

Hence, the aims of the present paper are threefold: to contend that a great many aspects of HCD are in line with current concerns in management and organization, as represented in the literatures of marketing, entrepreneurship, and economics; to argue that HCD as a body of knowledge has the potential to bring organization design research and theory closer to the needs of practice; and to propose a prescriptive design tool based on five key organization design concerns, each associated with one or more of Krippendorff’s design principles.

Epistemological Background: A rich epistemological background of organization design research includes not only two traditional schools of thought—Contingency and Configuration and Complementarity—but also another school of thought—Design—as an important new foundation.

Contingency and Configuration: The intellectual stance underpinning the research into design contingencies is positivist in nature, meaning that the research is aimed at finding cause-and-effect relationships and establishing testable theories between contingencies and various aspects of organizational performance. The key contingencies of organization design are the organization’s environment, its technology, and its size. Contingency and configuration are two sides of the same coin, with contingency theory offering a conceptual frame.work on which to hang the analysis of organizational forms. The key hypothesis of configuration theory is that organizations featuring a form that fits their environmental contexts perform better than organizations having a form that fits their environment less adequately.

Contingency and configuration approaches have experi.enced weak developments since the 1980s, as leading writers in the field have recognized. This pace is due, at least in part, to vastly different conditions of environmental change, compared to the days when the contingency approach was conceived, and also to a growing consensus about the situated nature of organizations and the (co-)creation of business environments. Nevertheless, contingency theory still commands considerable influence, and in one of the latest review papers, scholars are urged to return to that research frontier, with a new agenda and new methods, but with the same epistemological stance Complementarity:Complementarity is one of the four strands of post-contingency research identified by McGrath. Complementarity builds on the notion that, in pursuing the aim of achieving optimal fit, the design of organizations ought to leverage the interdependencies between organizational elements, rather than dealing with indi.vidual elements separately. Grandori and Furnari take a similar stand and propose a comprehensive model in which the key de-sign elements are linked to behaviors that are likely to be instilled in the organization’s practices. The elements are as follows:

• Communitarian elements, including knowledge creation and a common culture that together instill identity, cohesion, and homogenization of judgments and interests

• Bureaucratic elements, which are the formal rules and plans, as well as the specialized divisions of labor that instill predictability, transparency, and accountability

• Market-like elements, including price and other market-related devices, which provide incentives for action and instill coordination capacity with minimal communication

• Democratic elements, including the diffusion of owner-ship elements and of decision and representation rights, which instill notions of fairness and the right to voice opinions

Although we do not share the epistemological stance of the article or the perspective that “organizational solutions” are obtained from combinations of “elements” that follow technical rules simi.lar to those used to obtain chemical compounds, we assert that the classification of organization design elements can serve as a useful checklist for the areas of organization design concerns broached in this paper.


Ramblers' Club #1


James Meadowcroft, Selena Repanis, Troung Thang Do, Celeste Decis, Angharad Neal—Williams & Audrey Chmielewski

For our first ramber’s club, I took the group to an electronic billboard in Bourke St mall to show the visible invasion of private interests into public space. Telstra are currently in the process of upgrading 17,000 payphones around Australia to the new large billboard versions. This will produce as much as $50 million dollars a year revenue for the private company without permission, and objection, from local government. As designers, how should we be considering the commercial effects of our work over the public?


Interview: Uriah Gray — Design Director, U–P


Uriah Gray & James Meadowcroft

The interview text is paraphrased from notes taken during the interview. Collaboration is an incredibly powerful tool to use in design, however it is not an easy process. Good collaboration in design comes from negotiation. It is important ideas don’t get watered down and everyone has an equal voice.

What is the role of a creative director? In U—P the role of creative direction is split. I am the design director and Paul is creative director. Direction is usually split between the two of us depending on the discipline of the work. Paul has expertise in photography while I have expertise in print layout, for example. The creative director’s role is to support the concept and the design throughout the process. Younger designers don’t trust each other enough, and have a tendency to redo, or unbuild, a design that has already been done. In order for collaboration to be successful, designers must trust each other and accept work that has already been done. Collaboration comes down to trust. Trust can give credibility to criticism. A studio with no hierarchy is always preferred, but sometimes very difficult to execute. Collaboration is also about empathy, you must be able to see design through other designer’s eyes. Empathy creates good negotiation, which the design process always is. When working as a team, the goal is to look through the client’s eyes.

Do you think it’s possible to run a design studio that has a democratic system for creative decisions? Of course, but the danger with straight democracy is mediocrity. Design by panel doesn’t and will never work. Design is always about perspective, and what is needed is a grey democracy, a system that isn’t binary, but is able to be a negotiation process. This is where it is tricky, achieve a negotiation process where the loudest person doesn’t get their way, where all ideas are treated equally and things are argued on the basis on what is best for the client. Empathy is key for this. Instead of binary voting, there needs to be an alternative way of reaching a democracy.

Do you have an ethical or value driven guideline as a studio? How do you choose what jobs to say yes to and what jobs to say no to? Nothing is written down but it is an intuitive process. First we consider if a job has something to learn from, or if it is an area or topic we are interested in. While we wouldn’t accept a banking job as it isn’t something we are interested in, we may accept a experimental banking job if it is interesting. Secondly, we consider if there is a long term relationship in a client. Clients take an enormous investment to educate and research, so work can often only be worth doing if there is a long term relationship. Lastly we consider finance, while it’s not the key driving force, now U–P is not an independent studio, we must keep up work to pay for the expenses of running a studio. However, generally if there is an opportunity for an interesting or learning client work, we will prefer that above financial work.

Does your studio have a broader ‘purpose’ that is non-commercial? We don’t want to articulate our purpose through our client’s work, as the work should articulate the client’s purpose. We explore our purpose through developing our own studio work. The studio should be the facilitator of the message, but not push their own through a client.

How do you build learning into the process of the studio? We both teach. We try and build in a research component to all of our client work and budget in times for designers to explore, experiment and learn. Learning tends to be a process that naturally happens, as we encourage our designers to explore their other interests and share them with the studio.

Do you believe it is difficult for multiple designers to work together or is this struggle something we are taught? Participation and collaboration is risky. This is because you are adding more stakeholders, and more agendas. To solve this everyone must be able to see a project from the perspective of the client. In a collaborative situation, ideas often get watered down or one trumps another.

Do you look for specialised skills or generalised skills in designers? Job titles and software is now making design roles a lot more ambiguous. If you showed current software to a designer 50 or 60 years ago, they wouldn’t be able to see a difference between InDesign and After Effects, for example. This means us as designers can be much less specialised and be able to work across many different mediums. Designers are more creative directors now than ever before, gardners tending to a garden almost. Every designer has their own agenda, looking at something like the gig economy their agenda is to get the work done as quickly as possible. I believe that studios will become less craft driven as specific skills are being exported to freelancers. To get the most out of designers, they need to be involved from the start of the project, and be made stakeholders of the outcome.

Final thoughts? In your studio, you should try and involve the public stakeholders from the beginning of the project. Usually, design work is done downwards in a pyramid where the client sits at the top, the studio in the middle, producing work for the public at the bottom. How could you invert this and put the public at the top, where there input is delivered to the client?


How does a Decision Structure Affect the Outcome of a Design?


James Meadowcroft

Designing a design process. A commercial structure pushes designers to do specialised work. Design is not specialised work, rather it is a holistic approach to solving a problem. How can a decision structure of a design studio affect the culture and design outcomes? This document outlines the set of interview questions to be directed at creative directors and design studio managers.


New Studio



New Studio is a concept design studio that operates multinationally with a multidisciplinary team. Each project is treated individually and a team is constructed for each project. The studio was formed on a primarily economic model to test a flat hierarchical structure.

New Studio seems to heavily promote their individual practitioner’s practises, which gives the collective studio legitimacy and trust. It is interesting that the studio is trying to achieve a flat structure through an economic basis, but the outcome seems to be successful. In order to have a system where individual practitioners want to be involved and invest their resources, is it necessary to have a fundamental economic system underpinning the studio? This may be the only way to have commercial viability.


A Trip into the Gig Economy


James Meadowcroft, Liz Luby & Alicia Simons

'A Trip into the Gig Economy' is a small exhibition set up to explore how three freelance designers sourced from Fiverr could work together to produce an exhibition that responds to the question, ‘why should you work for Fiverr?’. Putting together this exhibition, we started by directly contacting freelancers on the service by sending a proposition, to work in a team and respond to a brief for US$10. We had a lot of freelancers say to us that they were not interested, as it wasn’t a service that they offered. Moving the brief to a public job board gave us plenty of interested freelancers, some willing to do the work for less than the advertised rate. We chose freelancers without too much investigation into their work or reviews. We set up a slack messaging board for us to talk to all of the designers, and for the designers to talk to each other. While not what the designers were used to, all the freelancers were willing to try our proposal. All the designers were very easy to work with, and were very enthusiastic about getting the job done. We gave the designers the control over the choices in the exhibition, however this freedom and work was not embraced by the designers, and mostly ignored. This asked the question, how is holistic design or design research different to graphic design as a specialised ability? Which is more valuable? One designer was particularly enthusiastic about the work, and produced a second poster for free for the exhibition. After seeing the designs that were produced, we had to reflect, how is what we are doing exploitative of these designers? While the local value of $10 may be different to the value of that money to us, it feels that us as the buyer, have too much power in this relationship. How would we be able to give more control to the freelancers over the exhibition? While the freelancers were able to complete the specialised job, it seemed that the broader design problem of the exhibition was out of their scope. How do we need to consider colonisation within this process?


Making Sense: Exhibition


Making Space

'Making Sense' is an exhibition and publication put together to ask the question ‘how can we support, rather than compete?’. It contains the individual works of all of the collective’s members, displaying it and promoting it to both help the individual designer and the collective. The exhibition aims to start a discourse between designers and provides the tools to do so: if it’s a cup of coffee or background readings. The publication talks about the difficulties the collective’s experiences in putting together the exhibition, with ‘all talk, no walk’ being one of the initial problems. How could the group move from being a discussion group to a working group?

Making Space highlights a few of the problems that I am trying to tackle: How do you create an effective working group of designers? As most studios are hierarchical, how does an equal structure work together? Is there more value in discussion or in making?


On ethics, solidarity, working together: a collective conversation


Precarious Workers Brigade

The Precarious Workers Brigade, an artist based collective talk in this interview about their challenges and methods used in setting up a practice collective. Some questions they raise: Can group members use collective work as part of their individual practices? Does the collective require an ethical guideline? When do we say and when do we say no to work or opportunities? How is self-care built into the practice? How can we balance between creating new tools/information and promoting existing ones? The collective talk about how they put together their ethical guidelines. They argue that guidelines are more effective when they ask questions and create a discourse, rather then be a list of yes or no rules. How can you build a non-hierarchical environment that is free from corporate and private interests?

While it may be impossible to have a functional design studio that is free from commercial interests—this reading raises questions around what work should a studio say yes to? What guidelines need to be created? This reading also argues that collectives may need a purpose to strive for—a goal to check if the actions and guidelines are appropriate. What does an ethical framework look like in today’s environment.

Janna Graham (JG): Dear Precarious Workers Brigade, I was recently in Madrid with Manuela, at a session where groups came together to work on this code of ethical practices – to guide their embedded work as artists in local communities, working on issues like gentrification, bodies and mobilities and child care. The scene as I walked in was very familiar and would be to all of you: groups were sprawled across the floor with large pieces of paper and coloured marker pens, intently working through the various dimensions of what ethics could mean. From the outside it appeared like the moment when we came all together in 2010, a moment in which we were preparing ourselves for the joys and struggles of the fight against austerity, knowing little of what was ahead, how much we were to come together and learn and how much we would lose. But of course this moment in Spain is very different from that one we experienced. The intelligence gained from the mobilisations in the squares is palpable. Questions about how to cope with the institutionalisation and the ‘becoming hegemonic’ of social movements gaining political currency (can you imagine us facing this question now in the UK?), with how to maintain the accountabilities but also the intimacies and personal proximities of direct democracy while engaging with the governmental bureaucracies, how to make movements stronger and not weaker by the various moments in which movement activists are defeated by the apparatus they have only recently come to inhabit. With this in mind, we can maybe read this ethics document and reflect on our own experiences of questioning the ethics of our work…. One of the first points we might want to discuss is that we have never described what we do as Precarious Workers Brigade as embedded practice, (in the UK they usually call this kind of work ‘socially engaged’, which tells you something about how normalised conditions of non-embeddedness are in the art world here i.e. is art not always socially engaged? is it not always embedded, just usually to indulge ruling elites?). Despite this, in other aspects of our lives and work in the arts, many of us do intensive work in and within particular contexts. Do you think the two practices are related?

Lola: It’s funny this question, as it’s true many of us make our precarious livings doing ‘embedded’ art or research projects. The rehearsing of questions of ethics within the PWB group was very important to many of us in this. Not because it gave us strategies for working with those groups necessarily, but because it de-centred us as individual or solo practitioners and allowed us to think of ourselves as part of larger collectivities.

Carrie: Yeah, it took the emphasis off the genius, the artwork, all the things that an art world that cares very little about ethics places at the centre. Instead, we built our power, our own collectivities, our accountability to another mode of valorisation in which ethics was a central component.

Martha: It’s true, as a group, though we made things and ideas all the time, we never called ourselves artists. This meant and means that when we do enter into this other art world (the one that does not place ethics at the centre) - whether as individuals or as different versions of the collectivities formed in PWB - we felt more powerful to negotiate and to demand different terms and conditions for ourselves but also for and with our collaborators from outside of the art world. Our meetings, places for sharing experiences of oppression in and through cultural organisations and finding ways to work against them, produced a different kind of configuration of the artist/social/community, one that was based in radical social aims and in practices of solidarity.

JG: I remember the importance for the group of thinking through of the term and practice of solidarity, that we neither wanted to work solely on our own conditions nor do ‘outreach’ with those outside of the arts. From this ethical framework that you describe, solidarity was less a way to encounter ‘others’, ‘communities’ or ‘the social’ and more a way to link our struggles within the arts to struggles in what were perceived to be in ‘other’ fields, like those of cleaners, who in fact do work in the art world, so the very in / out dichotomy is often a fallacy. Our discussions were about challenging the parameters of how this art world is defined and also who is perceived to be entitled to cultural practices. I remember this very specifically in an encounter with Latin American Workers Association at the beginning of our years of collaborations, when they asked what we ‘artists’ could bring to their movement and then quickly questioned themselves, suggesting they too were were artists in their social movement work. How do we think of the making of the ethics code in terms of solidarity?

Maggie: A group of us have been reading a text on solidarity (2), as it’s become a very trendy term. It’s very interesting to watch people perform the theorisation of solidarity who clearly do not write from the position of this kind of expanded and transversal practice. They reproduce themselves as theorists, or as cultural workers playing with a new term.

Lola: For PWB solidarity is always a practice. It is very local and about reproducing social movements, people who learn and fight together. Practicing solidarity is not about reproducing privilege but a move toward communing and sharing.

Irene: And it has operated on a number of levels. It is intersectional and transversal solidarity with people who are not like ourselves.

Kara: I love this quote from collective Aboriginal activists groups in the 70s: “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (3)

Lola: But solidarity is also about solidarity between our very similar positions of exploitation, caring with and for people and being cared for ourselves. At times is has also been about supporting people as they are becoming politicised (like interns or cultural workers who did not want to admit that what they experienced was exploitation).

Adele: Solidarity started through committed mutual support, by creating spaces of sharing and listening. It was not about imposing artists into communities or particular situations.

Maggie: But as an artist or cultural worker you also have a certain power to be in solidarity, to divert resources to solidarity projects, to negotiate access to resources, visibility and cultural groups that don’t have it. I recently negotiated to have a part of the budget liberated from claims and outcomes so that I could re-distribute it within a collective ‘commoning’ process. We can use that privilege to take resources out to be shifted to people. How do we use our privilege, how do we use these institution that don’t deserve to have this work?

Martha: I think solidarity has to involve a kind of sabotage.

JG: It’s true. One of the things that we discussed in the events around the ethics code in Madrid, is how to engage in this work without it becoming individualised once again, without it being about the solo rogue or heroic practitioner who interiorises and both profits and pains from being the one inside the institution, the one who has the capacity to re-distribute. Even if negotiating individually as an artist for me PWB and other social movement collaborators have helped us to keep this interiorising tendency in check, to remain accountable to a community, and not to slide into modes of individualised subjectivation that, when beard alone, seem to result in either institutional heroics or ‘personal’ illness and depression. This seems really important to work out.

Carrie: Yes, there is an important difference between the ‘solidarity’ of the upper classes and those in struggle. Upper class solidarity - through which people establish strong alliances between themselves in order to maintain their position (the position of the ruling class) is not about recognising the other’s conditions in order to care for them but in order to reproduce the privilege of the ruling class (even when that is the radical left). Regardless of their sometimes good intentions and radical rhetoric, many groups continue to manage the common resources using a top down approach. In the case of Common Practice, the group who wrote the text about Practicing Solidarity (2), ‘solidarity’ may not come from the upper classes per se, but still refers to a functional alliance between small art spaces. This is functional to maintain and secure public funding from the Arts Council of England against the giant cultural institutions. Little reference is made to how we might generate new forms of sustainability which are more inclusive, e.g. working with different kinds of art spaces which are not representing the art world or have never received Arts Council support or working with groups ‘outside’ of the arts who include creative practices within their social movement work. Solidarity implies some kind of symmetry, reciprocity, a commitment to the distribution of resources at all levels… not a top town approach in the name of professionalism, excellence, nor personal heroism.

JG: Shall we speak for a moment about the ethics code itself? (4) What do you think was its role in PWB? Why and how was it produced?

Martha: Well in some ways the forming of Precarious Workers Brigade itself mapped out the initial contours of an ethics code. A smaller group, then operating under the name Carrot Workers Collective, had been invited to do a residency at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), a pretty well known gallery in London during their ‘Season of Dissent’. The Carrot Workers opened up the question of how to use such residencies to genuinely support political work in the art field to anyone who might like to join a conversation about it. Out of that conversation around the ethics of tokenistic/politically themed residencies we created Precarious Workers Brigade. In this larger collective, after a number of blocked attempts at using the ‘Season of Dissent’ residency at the ICA as a space for cultural workers, arts students and other communities to gather and prepare for the occupations and demonstrations of the anti-austerity movement, we used it instead to stage a people’s tribunal on the precarity (and hypocrisy) of the art field itself. (5)

Adele: In those early days the question of ethics came up a lot. I remember a very heated conversation around whether or not members of the group could claim the collective work as part of their individual practices, particularly when our political work was taking us away from our artistic responsibilities as art students or workers. This was not resolved and has remained a bit of a tension in the group, but even then signaled the need for something that we could refer to in order to navigate the complicated terrain we operate in as activists in the art field and to hold ourselves accountable to one another. Remnants of these discussions appear in the ethics code under the heading ‘authorship’.

Maggie: But the actual ethics code came later in our collective process. After the tribunal, we started to get all sorts of invitations to write texts, give talks, be on panels and do workshops. A lot of this wasn’t really helpful, was distracting and extracting energies away from other things we wanted to do. At the same time, many of us were in the habit of perpetually saying yes. So we put in the ethics code some guidelines to ourselves to help us evaluate the usefulness of certain activities. There are sections on ‘When we say yes’ and ‘When We Say No’. We asked, for example, do we want to engage in consciousness-raising, if people are already conscious but inactive? Or what’s the balance and relationship between doing representational work i.e. in art galleries and on the ground/organising work i.e. running clinics for precarious workers, staging protests and actions etc.? We also asked questions about the conditions of production at the site of the invitation and who the work serves. This helped us to make decisions, to free up time, resources and energy. And it was also helpful in resisting the production logic that demands and places much value on the constant production of new things, rather than doing more with the tools and analysis we had already developed. We wanted to strike a balance between developing new tools and knowledge and making more readily available and usable our existing ones.

Kara: The process of writing the code also enabled us to make visible and remind ourselves and others what the collectives’ aims were. Writing it helped us articulate why we are here and what kind of work we might need to focus on to achieve this.

Carrie: Like solidarity, ethics are practiced. Using the code also meant constantly re-visiting what we had written down at earlier stages in our processes, which was really useful in helping us re-evaluate the context around us and our relationship with it. Do certain things we are doing still make sense given how things have moved and shifted? Are the questions around ethics the same now as when we asked them in 2010? For example, when we began the group, the conversation around internships was not really out there, but now the Arts Council of England has tied labour standards around internships to public funding grants and other professional organisations have issued clear guidelines around the use of free labour in the arts. This does not mean that the problem is solved but does mean that we do not have to concentrate most of our time on consciousness raising and therefore perhaps need to accept invitations to speak in the art world less unless there is a genuine interest in organisational change.

Kara: It’s maybe important to say that we re-visit these questions of ethics in different ways. The first is situational, like Carrie describes, to help us make decisions about individual invitations but they also shape agendas of our larger meetings, usually on an annual basis. In the big meetings, we attempt to map out what we have done and what we would like to and the code plays a role in remembering our priorities, and setting new ones for the year, who is interested in working on what etc. Recently we have had large meetings reflecting on the last 5 years, not to self-congratulate or to put together a publication about the heydays of the PWB, but to reflect on where we are, what’s going on in people’s lives, what are the needs, desires, of people in the group and the context in which we are operating. What does an ethical framework look like in today’s environment? How do we build self-care and acknowledgement of our own conditions into our planning? This is also an important point around ethics of a non-exploitative practice.

JG: It might be useful to say something about the form of the ethics code in relation to the idea of it being determined by its use, especially as our friends in Madrid may be thinking about how to develop their initial mapping into something that it readily available and usable across different platforms.

Adele: We were reflecting on this in relation to the code developed in Madrid, which addresses some very important points but in the translation comes across as perhaps a bit like a list of rules. For us the making of the code was to be neither slippery and non-committal around ethics but also to not be overly dogmatic in its form or its application. We found it very helpful to depart from a series of questions for discussion and collective decision-making. It wasn’t a bureaucratic terms of reference or something, but something direct and accessible to us that offered points for negotiation and discovery of what the ethics of the group were in relation to the invitations we received. Our response to these points and questions were gauged very differently if the invitation came, for example, from another social movement group, versus when they came from an establishment art gallery i.e. if the group was committed to social justice at its core we might not be so concerned about free labour (as we are all free labourers in PWB) but if it came from a gallery we had different responses. The questions of the ethics code and the various responses we received were also diagnostic, they helped us to use the invitations we received to diagram power relations across the field, relations we all know about but were now able to plot across different kinds of organisations.

Lola: It’s probably important to say that we ask ourselves these questions of the ethics code, but also the organisations that we are working with, hoping that they would cause them to reflect on their own working practices. So the checklist of ‘when we say yes and when we say no’ was turned into a set of questions for them. In this way we have not been as direct as, say our comrades in W.A.G.E. in the US, who have very clear guidelines around pay practices to which organisations can sign up and be certified. We have used different tactics depending on the various constituencies we work with i.e. intern campaigns around the ethics of payment have looked quite different from our solidarity work around immigration, cleaners etc. as each dimension and group galvanised around precarity has different conditions and terms around ethics. But we do make it a point to ensure the conditions of production are published alongside the texts and presentations that we make in cultural institutions.

Martha: Posing questions has also been a broader strategy for us, a way for us to gather particular constituencies. We use questions as a way to invite precarious workers into conversations in the first instance i.e. the question ’do you free lance but you don’t feel free?’ helped us to probe whether groups might want to gather around freelancing in the arts? As a group we are committed to processes like militant investigation and popular education, which begin with collective questioning rather than a list of do’s and don’ts. We think it’s important and vital that those most affected by an issue be the primary investigators of those conditions and the ones to pose questions of ethics.

Manuela: It’s maybe important to say that the ethics code sits among other tools and materials for use in organising and collective work in and beyond the arts… the Counter-Guide to Free Labour in the Arts (6), the Bust Your Boss card (7), the Training for Exploitation? alternative curriculum (8), the anti-raids know your rights card (9), a free labour infobox template (10)… many of them have been taken up by people working in different positions in the arts, like students, teachers, interns, workers/employees… and indeed are also addressed to people working at these different levels. The ‘Surviving Internships’ (5) guide for instance talks about the problem of free labour in the arts, offering analysis and proposing solutions for prospective interns, current interns and employees that ‘have’ interns. Ethics here are usefulness in addressing these kinds of structural forms of injustice (internships) from the points of view of the different positions involved, and to propose forms of action and solidarity across the board, not just making it an issue for interns themselves. In the brainstorm for ethics guidelines that we elaborated in that workshop in Madrid, we also thought about three different levels of practice/involvement and the positions they imply - the level of the institution, the level of collective practice, and the level of outside collaborators or ‘outreach’ if you like. Maybe it’s a PWB habitus that made me propose these three levels in order to also try map out problems from different viewpoints, to see how problems play out at different levels. Do you have any thoughts on how this multi-level mapping/proposing has worked with the Surviving Internships guide, and/or how PWB tries to engage thinking and solidarity across different positions/levels in the arts?’

Kara: Yes, we have these different positions and levels involved in the ethics codes and tools because those were also the positions reflected in the group. We would not prescribe ethical positions for people but, as we said before, from the conundrums each of us was facing in our different fields of practice and out of a collective will to fight across divisions that are imposed by the structural inequalities and violences of the field. So the group involved art lecturers and their students, curators and interns at their organisations in the same meetings, for a period someone from the Latin American Workers group we were developing actions with in relation to the immigration raids, all of us working out what ethics meant across these different concerns. This was sometimes unsettling and uncomfortable as we were straddling two systems of work at the same time: one striving for an ethical way to be and another producing us in various forms of opposition with each other. The tensions of this transversality were important to work through in shifting our perspectives from the divisions created by institutional paradigms. Very practically though, having representatives from these various positions was crucial in producing actions as we would work from the various knowledges at different levels of an organisation to stage protests etc. It has also been important in terms of dissemination of tools, messages and actions, as we have not had to promote them outside of our own fields of reference, but rather through our own friendship and working networks. We have not done follow up research on the usage of these tools, but anecdotally we share moments of their use all the time and have grown a larger community of people who in term disseminate them as and when they are useful to people.

JG: On reflection of six years of working together, we began the process of building an organisation that was based in ethics rather than production, individual authorship etc. We spoke a bit about what this meant for us in our ‘other work’ in the art field at the beginning of the conversation, but at this point in history and particularly in the UK it seems important to think about what organisations based on this kind of an ethics code might look like, at the very least as the basis for formulating new demands.

Carrie: Yeah, that’s for sure; organisations based in ethics are far from trendy here! This would be a huge overthrow.

Adele: Well, at the very core is that cultural work be seen within the context of broader socially reproductive work, and the production of commons, not a separate sphere governed by bureaucrats, elites or special ‘creative’ people.

Martha: It would position itself in relation to specific issues, and those involved would be effected by these issues i.e. issues in the neighbourhood where the organisation was situated, or the conditions of it workers. It would use this as the basis for forming solidarity relationships.

Kara: It would make, commission and show work in the framework of this solidarity. It would not become closed, but rather invite others to join if they are willing to make commitments to the work.

Lola: It would understand itself as investigating and learning from its work. It would support its workers with care and viable (even joyful!) living and working situations. It would be non- hierarchical, it would create environments of support, and it would take sides and not be aligned with forces of exploitation. It would be free of all corporations and private interests.

Carrie: Like I said, arts organisations basing themselves on ethical questions would be a huge overthrow!


Occupy George


Ivan Cash

Occupy George was an initiative in 2011 started within the occupy wall street protests. The campaign consists of five infographics designed to be stamped on top of a one dollar bill that highlight the widening economic disparity happening in America. The idea of the campaign was to create a conversation around statistics on the most circulated items in society, being currency. Despite the stamps defacing the bills, the stamp’s effect on the bills were completely legal as it did not cover and security features. The infographics act to visually split the bill into where its ownership will end up. The campaign however did not suggest any solutions to the problem, although it was certainly effective starting a widespread conversation. This campaign followed some of the issues with the wider ‘occupy wall street’ movement, with not having a clear message or solution.


If we are reaching neoliberal capitalism’s end days, what comes next?


Allan Patience

Allan Patience in this article asks that if socioeconomic inequality is destructive to economic growth and we are heading into a future of unprecedented economic inequality, then another system must be found after neoliberal capitalism. We have seen that through deregulation and further privatisation that economic disparity increases, so when looking to what comes after should we be planning a co-operative world. ‘The time is ripe for some creative imagining of a new post-neoliberal world that will repair neoliberalism’s vast and catastrophic failures while laying the groundwork for an Australia that can play a leading role in the making of a cosmopolitan and co-operative world’. Patience also calls for a reimagining of the current representative democratic system to a democracy that is made up of the people that they rule.

It is unfashionable, or just embarrassing, to suggest the taken-for-granted late-modern economic order – neoliberal capitalism – may be in a terminal decline. At least that’s the case in what former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott likes to call the “Anglosphere”.

What was once known as the Chicago school of economics – the neoclassical celebration of the “free market” and “small government” – still closes the minds of economic policymakers in the US and its satellite economies (although perhaps less so in contemporary Canada).

But, in Europe, there has always been a deep distrust of the Anglo-American celebration of “possessive individualism” and its repudiation of community and society. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s contempt for the idea of “society”?

So, it is unsurprising that neoliberalism’s advocates dismiss recent European analyses of local, regional and global economies as the nostalgia of “old Europe”, even as neoliberalism’s failures stack up unrelentingly.

The consequences of these failures are largely unseen or avoided by policymakers in the US and their camp followers in the UK and Australia. They are in denial of the fact that not only has neoliberalism failed to meet its claimed goals, but it has worked devastatingly to undermine the very foundations of late-modern capitalism. The result is that the whole shambolic structure is tottering on the edge of an economic abyss.

What the consequences might be

Two outstanding European scholars who are well aware of the consequences of the neoliberal catastrophe are French economist Thomas Piketty and German economist Wolfgang Streeck.

Piketty’s 2013 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, charts the dangers of socioeconomic inequality in capitalism’s history. He demonstrates how this inequality can be – and has been over time – fundamentally destructive of sustained economic growth.

Most compellingly, Piketty documented in meticulous detail how contemporary neoliberal policies have constructed the worst forms of socioeconomic inequalities in history. His analysis has been underlined by the recent Oxfam report that showed a mere eight multi-billionaires own the equivalent amount of capital of half of the global population.

Despite Piketty’s scrupulous scholarship, Western neoliberal economies continue merrily down the road to nowhere. The foundations of that road were laid by the egregiously ideological policies of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan – and slavishly followed by Australian politicians on all sides ever since.

Streeck’s equally detailed scholarship has demonstrated how destructive of capitalism itself neoliberal policymaking has been. His latest book, How Will Capitalism End?, demonstrates how this neoliberal capitalism triumphed over its opponents (especially communism) by devouring its critics and opponents, obviating all possible alternatives to its predatory ways.

If Streeck is correct, then we need to anticipate what a post-capitalist world may look like. He thinks it will be terrible. He fears the emergence of a neocorporatist state and close crony-like collaboration between big capital, union leaders, government and the military as the consequence of the next major global financial crisis.

Jobs will disappear, Streeck believes. Capital will be intensely concentrated in very few hands. The privileged rich will retreat into security enclaves dripping with every luxury imaginable.

Meanwhile, the masses will be cast adrift in a polluted and miserable world where life – as Hobbes put it – will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

What comes next is up to us

The extraordinary thing is how little is known or understood of the work of thinkers like Piketty and Streeck in Australia today.

There have been very fine local scholars, precursors of the Europeans, who have warned about the hollow promises of “economic rationalism” in Australia.

But, like the Europeans, their wisdom has been sidelined, even as inequality has been deepening exponentially and its populist consequences have begun to poison our politics, tearing down the last shreds of our ramshackle democracy.

The time is ripe for some creative imagining of a new post-neoliberal world that will repair neoliberalism’s vast and catastrophic failures while laying the groundwork for an Australia that can play a leading role in the making of a cosmopolitan and co-operative world.

Three immediate steps can be taken to start on this great journey.

First, we need to see the revival of what American scholar Richard Falk called “globalisation from below”. This is the enlivening of international civil society to balance the power of the self-serving elites (multinational managers and their political and military puppets) now in power.

Second, we need to come up with new forms of democratic governance that reject the fiction that the current politics of representative government constitute the highest form of democracy. There is nothing about representative government that is democratic. All it amounts to is what Vilfredo Pareto described as “the circulation of elites” who have become remote from – and haughtily contemptuous of – the people they rule.

Third, we need to see states intervening comprehensively in the so-called “free market”. Apart from re-regulating economic activity, this means positioning public enterprises in strategic parts of the economy, to compete with the private sector, not on their terms but exclusively in the interests of all citizens.

As Piketty and Streeck are pointing out to us, the post-neoliberal era has started to self-destruct. Either a post-capitalist, grimly neo-fascist world awaits us, or one shaped by a new and highly creative version of communitarian democracy. It’s time for some great imagining.


The Complete Lexicon of Crisis Related Studies vol.1


Richard Slujis

Richard Sluijs was interested in the protests that followed the global financial crisis of 2008, and specifically some protestors calling for bankers to ‘jump! you fuckers!’. Like the great depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929, Sluijs wanted to investigate the toll on life that economic corruption had on those involved. During his research, Sluijs found that the economic world was hugely responsible for the crisis, and that it was corruption, deregulation and greed that was the source of the problems. He found that suicides were ‘outsourced from wall street to main street’, once the crisis went global, the number of crisis related suicides went in to the thousands. The book documents each of these suicides from around the world.