Design Schools in Neoliberal Times
The neoliberal consensus is dying — but how much damage it does on its way out remains to be seen. Corbyn’s anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal Labour Party destroyed the Tories’ majority despite a deeply hostile media environment and internal struggles with the Blairite wing of his own party. In this context, Labour achieved the largest vote share increase since Attlee in 1945 (nearly 10%). Young people hit the polls on mass (72%) in support of Corbyn. Ousting this failed ideology from our political, social and educational institutions cannot happen fast enough for those on the frontline of its assault on our lives.
Earlier this week I enjoyed participating in a panel discussion called ‘Design School Imaginaries in Neoliberal Times’ hosted by Lucy Kimbell at UAL. I have a few thoughts left over. Since neoliberal approaches to education undermine designers’ (and other students’) capacities to address current challenges, this is a topic that is worth addressing in greater depth.
Neoliberalism is an ideology and a mode of governance that is now so pervasive that it is often accepted as simply ‘the way thing are’. It results in a type of politics and institutional power that is dismantling democratic social institutions in favour of unaccountable private power. It is characterised by policies favoring marketisation, metrics driven modes of governance, financialisation, privatisation, deregulation and reregulation (facilitating market processes with benefits for the most powerful actors). This undoing of democratic institutions is accompanied by a rhetoric of freedom and personal choice that obscures these transformations.
The resulting circumstances are extraordinarily difficult to navigate for a public that experiences increasing austerity, precarity and insecurity. This social upheaval is an inevitable response of a system that will always prioritise the interests of those with financial capital. Markets are where decisions are made. The public declarations of the powerful is not reflected in policy.
Design schools sit at a pivotal place in enabling neoliberal assumptions, processes and institutions. Design is a practice involved with making new ways of living possible by inspiring particular feelings, attitudes and subjectivities. Neoliberalism depends on having its ideological premises accepted and internalised and thus one of the primary roles for design is to create an illusion of wholesomeness that masks exploitative dynamics. Designers are involved in constructing the subjective grip of the neoliberal order — but we can do other things. Design schools need to make these options clear. The only way we can do this work is with a critical approach to the power.
Neoliberalism is an intensified form of late capitalism that exploits its own social and ecological context. Since economic prosperity depends on the society and the environment that neoliberal policy abuses, this exploitation creates an endless series of crises. This is the essential contradiction in capitalism. With every crisis more authoritarian mechanisms are used to maintain the current social order (within increasingly tenuous and dangerous circumstances). Deepening public frustration and anger is evident in so-called popularist backlashes that lead to even more authoritarian governments (May and Trump). The alternative is anti-neoliberal and anti-austerity social movements (Corbyn and Sanders).
Corbyn’s Labour demonstrates that neoliberalism can be challenged even by groups under relentless attack. Neoliberalism must be ousted from our political systems and our social institutions to create viable futures where we can start to address the varies crises neoliberal policy has generated. When we make neoliberal assumptions, mechanisms, structures and its violences visible we create a foundation to build alternatives. Design schools that want to be enable these progressive futures that serve rather than exploit young people need to check their politics now.