Enlightened Capitalism

Rancière (2009) discusses capitalist modes of production in terms of ‘left-wing melancholy’ and ‘right-wing frenzy’. That despite our best efforts to come up with new and innovative concepts and ideas of production and presentation we are in fact opening up new cracks for exploitation by capitalism.

We can see this playing out in advertising, with Sex Pistols aesthetics and music by The Buzzcocks used by McDonald’s UK (2017) to promote their Big Flavour Wraps. The ultimate in anti-establishment appropriated by the establishment.

Rancière challenges us to investigate this power dynamic further, suggesting there is more to be unearthed than “…the endless task of unmasking fetishes or the endless demonstration of the omnipotence of the beast.”

This investigation tends to fuel a kind of ‘inverted activism’ (Rancière, 2009), which aims to improve capitalism rather than try and fight against it. De Botton (2013) calls this ‘enlightened capitalism’. “A system attuned to economic reality… but focussed on providing optimal good and services.” In other words, quality over quantity, more considered innovation. There’s a strong desire in my work and those in other sectors to usher in this second enlightenment, to redress the balance between needs and wants in society whilst upskilling collective taste. I propose that this should be reflected in what people see in their field of vision on a daily basis.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014) tells a story of the knowledge economy in America, in particular the paywalls that block people from accessing academic journals. Swartz (founder of Reddit) was a programming prodigy who saw digital libraries like JSTOR as holding knowledge to ransom. He embarked on a campaign of ‘information activism’ to set this knowledge free and bring public access to the public domain, an act which ultimately lead to his death. Here we see the double edged sword of capitalism, a system which measures the value of everything in monetary terms. Swartz went about using his knowledge and skill with computer programming and coding to ‘hack’ these systems to highlight unfairness. This speaks to the frustration we all have with rigid, inefficient systems, but asks; what are you going to do about it?

Interdisciplinary group (Just Powers, 2018) and their Speculative Energy Futures project ask ‘how might artistic research help to re-invent the future?’ in order to wriggle free from capitalist modes of production. Loveless (2018) suggests we find ourselves somewhere between ‘denialism and despair’ when thinking hard about global problems like climate change, but proposes personal remedy can be found in ‘micro-political acts of care’.

Pollution is a major by-product of capitalist modes of production. We can see on our streets, hedgerows, beaches, and in the stomachs of dead animals. The micro-political act of care here might be to pick it up, but what next? Curatorial dreaming tells us we can do anything. It could be melted down and used to form a town centre statue of some description, building on current international statue debates. It could lead to the design of new high-visibility clothing, launched at catwalk fashion shows in the street. Would acts such as these just prop up a failing system in a world that “…drops depleted uranium all over the Earth, letting nuclear weapons off under the sea, and the rest of us, what are we going to do? Sit at home with a special light-bulb and a bag-for-life!?” (Hughes, 2011). Or do they inspire a culture shift?

Zthoven media reality
Film still from Media Reality (2007) by Ztohoven

Guerrilla artist collective Ztohoven don’t necessarily break from capitalist modes of production, but use (or hijack) them for their own means in order to show to the dominant culture that which it has done. In Media Reality (2007), by animating a nuclear explosion in to a live broadcast on TV, they used curatorial dreaming to project a nightmare with the aim of entering public consciousness and sparking change. There are echoes of Orson Welles famous radio dramatisation (War of the Worlds, 1938) in this work, a desire for their ‘art’ to enter public consciousness in a more nuanced way.

Rancière (2009) suggesting it’s always the profit hungry ‘right-wing frenzy’ doing the stealing and appropriation might not be such a melancholic theory after all, for it reveals two things: One, tools can be modified to serve whoever is using them. Two, in doing this, others can inadvertently test methods of presentation before you in a variety of contexts with good size budgets. But what others do cannot be our only source of enthusiasm, for our sensibilities may ultimately direct our destiny.