The limits of “design ethics” under capitalism

Working as a product designer in media for the past five years, I’ve witnessed the topic of “design ethics” raised at industry conferences, presentations, and meetups. Yet I’ve noticed that in our discussions, designers rarely mention the economic context within which we design. We hold up examples like news feeds promoting fake news and financial apps encouraging users to trade the riskiest stocks and we ask: how might we design better? Conventional discourse presents these unintended consequences of our work as technical problems: how might we design and code ethically, while maintaining profitability and growth? (Perhaps the most well-known example of this framing is The Center for Humane Technology’s “The Social Dilemma,” which confuses correlation with causation by attributing negative mental health and political trends to technology, with no mention of technology’s place in capitalism.)

We will not solve problems of authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia, misinformation and addictive technology, mental health and public health, or climate change with design ethics. While designers should thoroughly consider the consequences of our work, the problems facing the design and technology industry are not ones of individual bad actors (though some exist). Rather, we must acknowledge that design decisions are economic decisions––and in our current economic system, the economic interests of individuals often conflict with their social consequences. Technology firms are not cultural or ideological actors, but “economic actors within a capitalist mode of production…compelled to seek out profits in order to fend off competition” (Srnicek 2017, 3). If we truly want to design ethically, we must first consider how technology is embedded in capitalism. Our ability to make technology work better for society as a whole depends upon our willingness to reorder our priorities and redefine value as more than profit maximization.

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Struggles Over Value: Suppression of locally-led capital accumulation in the Congo

By Ben Radley and Sara Geenen

Over the last few decades, African governments have liberalised and privatised their mining industries, attracting significant foreign direct investment. Transnational corporations (TNCs) have become the dominant forces. Their en masse arrival across the continent has been accompanied by the displacement and marginalisation of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). This has been a political process not just to create value, but to transfer value to foreign firms. In this same process, particular production modes are devalued. According to Jennifer Bair and Marion Werner (2011), this is a deliberate process linked to ‘everyday practices and struggles over value’, whereby certain forms and logics of value creation are prioritised and asserted over others.

Yet a consideration or even acknowledgement of these everyday practices and struggles is generally absent from the Global Value Chain (GVC) analysis which dominates the African mining literature (especially the more influential policy papers and flagship development agency reports). This literature is mainly preoccupied with how African firms can integrate into and ‘upgrade’ within TNC-led industrial mining GVCs. It remains largely blind to a consideration of how and from whom value is transferred when recently established TNC-led mines interact with pre-existing and more locally-anchored ASM economies.

Locally driven mechanisation and capital accumulation in the Congo (Sara Geenen).

In our recently published research in ROAPE’s journal looking at the case of South Kivu Province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), we redress this imbalance by documenting precisely these ‘everyday practices and struggles over value’. We demonstrate how a coalition between foreign corporate capital and the Congolese state has marginalised and held back locally-led processes of technological assimilation, capital formation and mechanisation in ASM. By so doing, we direct attention towards the developmental potential of domestically embedded networks of African mining production, and how these networks are disrupted by incoming TNCs.

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What Is Value? A Marxist Perspective

Marx’s critique of capitalism, and more specifically his theory of value, is still very relevant today, as I argue in my new book Fetishism and the Theory of Value: Reassessing Marx in the 21st Century.

But his work is often misunderstood, not only by orthodox economists but also by others – such as ‘greens’ – who seek inspiration in his writings. Economists, if they refer to his work at all, have tended to focus on the quantitative labour theory of value, ignoring what Marx called the qualitative theory of value: his critique of the economic categories of ‘bourgeois’ economics which mystify –  and hence also justify – the reality of what is really going on. The concept of fetishism is crucial to this theory, but by economists this has been either ignored or treated as the work of Marx the philosopher or Marx the sociologist. Marx introduces the concept of commodity fetishism in the very first chapter of Capital Volume I, where he seeks to get to grips with the mysterious phenomenon of exchange value. Rather than simplistically equating value with price – as is the practice of the market system and mainstream economics – he delves deep into the beliefs and practices that constitute and sustain the capitalist system. In other works, he applies the concept of fetishism to capital, money and interest-bearing capital. By reference to what he calls the ‘Trinity Formula’ he shows how, by presenting profit as the return on capital and rent as the return on land, both profit and rent are taken for granted, and go unchallenged. That the surplus value generated in production accrues solely to capital is treated as somehow ‘natural’.

In my book, I show the continuing relevance of Marx’s theory today, especially with regard to finance and the environment. Both the financial crisis of 2008 and the continuing crisis of environmental destruction are related to the way in which the market increasingly extends its grip over our lives: through the financialisation of everyday life, and through the use of market instruments and market principles that shape our relationship with nature.

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