No such thing as poverty


There is no such thing as poverty. There is, however, impoverishment; an active, deliberate process of dispossession and depletion. Being poor is not an inevitable and unfortunate condition, and it is certainly no accident. Some are impoverished so that others can be enriched. There is no poverty, but there is inequality on a historically unprecedented scale. The richest one per cent of humanity owns, rules, consumes and pollutes more than half of humanity. In other words, the problem is not that there are too many poor people, but that there are too many rich people. They control finance capital, carbon flows and private security, all of which must be abolished. The only true trickle-down economics is to break the dams of power and privilege. Consider the slogan “Change your diet for the climate — eat the rich.” Could design help with that?

If anything, poverty exists by design. It is planned, implemented and maintained as a non-negotiable condition of (late) capitalism. The global economy is a total design, and neoliberal hegemony is the master-designer of our lives. Poverty is not a bug but a feature; it is what lubricates resource extractivism, labour exploitation and capital accumulation. So I refuse to talk about poverty in isolation without mentioning in the same breath: the enclosure of the commons, white supremacist colonial empires, overdevelopment, commodification, competition, deregulation, consumerism, financialisation and, ultimately, climate breakdown. For lack of a better term, let’s call it poverty*, with an asterisk to remind us that it can never be understood superficially or dealt with directly. We have to dig down to its roots.

There is, however, another kind of poverty: the poverty of the imagination. It afflicts the capitalist mind. For homo economicuswealth can only be expressed in terms of the universal equivalent of money. It can put a price on everything and mystify the value of anything. It can be in the form of stock or liquid, property or plastic, coin or crypto, but always in the pocket of an individual. This is why experts in glass towers define poverty as “living on less than a dollar a day”. One dollar is good, two dollars is better. It’s simple panacean arithmetic. The more money you have, the healthier and happier you are. Economic development and social progress depend on you increasing your share of a shrinking pie. What a massive failure of imagination.

Often the absence of poverty* is the presence of the greatest riches and priceless goods. These are things that no one can own or buy for themselves: access to clean air and water, rights to land and liberty, and equality among people and species. To live well is to live when all is well and when everyone is well. So the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice. Justice is not only future fairness but also historical redress. It is not indifferent equality, but intricate equity. If poverty can be designed, then I see no reason why justice cannot be designed. For centuries, revolutionary politics has meant just that: to (co-)design justice by disciplining hope and building people-power. So why don’t we revisit some revolutionary insights from the past, to draw lessons for designing the eco-social justice of the future? The selection below is by no means exhaustive. In fact, it is limited to (predominantly white, cis, male) Western discourses. I will ask whether we can salvage any latent (self-)critical undercurrents capable of grasping their own finitude, without the mediation of decolonial or pluriversal perspectives.

The Soul of Designer Under Socialism

In his famous, oft-quoted but only political essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde outlines his utopian vision of (libertarian) socialism and the place of work, technology and art within it. In another age (where he was not persecuted for being queer), Wilde would have made an exceptional design critic. While this polemical essay contains some of my favourite quotes from him, it is fair to say that some of his arguments have aged badly since 1891 (namely his artistic elitism and his defence of individualism over interdependence). And yet his critique of liberalism remains as relevant as ever:

(…) with admirable though misdirected intentions, people very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. (…) This is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. (…) It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.

I can almost hear Wilde poking a hole in my earlier argument about poverty*. “Darling,” he says, “it is not enough to redefine poverty, with or without a fanciful asterisk. Our aim should be to redesign society so that we can genuinely proclaim that there is no such thing as poverty. Not as a speculative provocation, not as utopian thinking, but as a material condition!” Point taken. Then let me rephrase: if design that peddles charity ends up reproducing poverty, and if fighting poverty means suppressing the systems that produce poverty, then nothing less than system change should be designed. Indeed, it may be the only thing worth designing at all. System change does not mean innovating the next (greener, smarter, smoother) iteration of capitalism. It means fundamentally, radically doing away with it. Is design up to the task?

The poverty of imagination is also pervasive in the world of design. Despite the proliferation of design fields, most are still subordinated to the will of their capitalist master-designer. The poverty of design lies in its capitalist realism; it cannot imagine or manifest itself outside or beyond the current order. It is riddled with techno-fixes, short-termism and solutionism. It is full of low-hanging fruits, false promises and dangerous distractions. No wonder it is so obsessed with ‘sustainability’. All it cares about is sustaining an unsustainable system, preserving it with the smallest possible tweaks. But we should have no interest in sustaining any of it. Instead, we should unsustain it, dismantle it, compost it. Unless design can imagine and usher in the end of capitalism, it cannot meaningfully realise any of its do-good ambitions.

Refuse, Reduce, Recycle Capitalism

Imagining how capitalism will end and precipitating what will follow is a contentious matter. It is easy to dismiss millenarian prophecies in secular politics, but speculation about the future should be no stranger to design. Yet postcapitalist projections are hard to come by in the discipline, probably for the same fear of not being taken seriously. Let’s turn to some of the most confident revolutionary discourses of the 20th century for inspiration. In 1936, when a journalist asked Buenaventura Durruti, a Spanish anarcho-syndicalist hero of the Civil War, if victory was worth it if the country ended up in ruins, he is said to have replied:

(…) you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.

This statement easily brings tears to my eyes, and yet… am I as brave as Durruti to embrace the ruins of capitalism? Can we afford total collapse? I fear the stakes are much higher now, with runaway climate collapse and looming nuclear winter. Cities and palaces can be rebuilt, but the fabric of life is much harder to restore. So waiting to build a new world after the fall of this civilisation does not seem reasonable to me. If we are to compost capitalism (and with it, design-as-we-know-it), what does its waste hierarchy look like? Which parts of capitalism do we refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose? Let’s contrast Durruti’s tabula rasa approach with another postcapitalist strategy. The Industrial Workers of the World is a revolutionary trade union that was particularly influential in the Anglosphere a century ago. The preamble to its constitution, adopted in 1906, proclaims its mission as follows:

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

While I like the upcycling metaphor of rebuilding from the shell of the old, the emphasis on continuing industrial production after overthrowing capitalism seems a striking paradox from today’s perspective. As if the only problem with industrial production were the bosses, and not the bullshit jobs, ecocidal monocultures, toxic chemicals, planned obsolescence, addictive platforms or manipulative advertising. Surely we don’t want to inherit any of that? Personally, I have no desire to turn legacy industries into community-supported factory farms, publicly-owned fast fashion chains or military-industrial worker co-operatives. Without adequate support for sunsetting industries in transition, it should come as no surprise that workers at risk of losing their livelihoods might want to maintain the status quo. So simply changing the ownership structure of companies is not enough to move to a new society. Is there a postcapitalist way forward somewhere between the (oversimplified) scenarios of Durruti and the IWW?

The good news is that a synthesis of trade unionism and environmentalism in an eco-social framework already exists: it is called Just Transition. As climate justice organiser Quinton Sankofa’s slogan reminds us: “Transition is inevitable — justice is not.” This is because transition is an ambiguous term; if we are not careful, we might as well end up transitioning to eco-fascism. So justice is not a nice addition on top of the already daunting transformations that need to take place. It is a moral compass, a practical field guide, and frankly, the only politically realistic programme that does not involve perpetuating and exacerbating already entrenched mass poverty*. Intersecting issues, struggles and solutions is the way to build power, resilience and diversity on this unjust, damaged but not yet completely broken planet. In other words, there are no quick fixes and no silver bullets, but the patient, careful, intricate work of weaving environmental, economic and racial justice into the tapestry of social progress.

Designing the Biocommunist Transition 

Just Transition involves selective, attentive, deliberate choices. This is where I believe design has a crucial role to play; it can help negotiate between ecological imperatives, economic necessities, political possibilities and cultural imaginaries. Many would agree that design has more affinity with deploying a transition than with fomenting a revolution in the first place. And yet transition remains a misleading label. It seems to imply a stable progression from point A to point B. The century ahead offers no such comfort. I honestly doubt the existence of reliable safe havens on this volatile planet, possibly for centuries to come. So, in case my revolutionary rhetoric and postcapitalist propaganda are not enough, I have one more provocation to make. In a 2022 lecture, Marxist scholar Nick Dyer-Witheford (re)conceptualises biocommunism as a political programme for a collectivist system commensurate with the biocrisis we face:

(…) it can be objected that the term [biocommunism] merely replicates the problematic of “eco-socialism”, already the topic of a large and important literature (…). If biocommunism seeks to rephrase the issue, it is in part to convey that ecological crisis has entered a new phase in which the time for averting disaster has expired, and battles are now fought out on already-catastrophized ground, demanding more urgent “measures taken”.

That is to say: the time for an orderly eco-social transition is already over. Whatever futures we conceive, they will have to spring out from emergency response. This still differs from Durruti’s vision, because the focus is not on the kind of palaces we build in the wake of capitalist ruins, but on how we care for each other in the midst of ruination. To this end, Dyer-Witheford outlines six principles that characterise biocommunist governance: disaster relief, open borders, public takeovers, resource rationing, job guarantees and economic planning. All of these directly suppress aspects of poverty* and attempt to mitigate the unimaginable (ecological and economic) impoverishment that awaits humanity. As a work of speculative system design, biocommunism offers a thought-provoking reconfiguration of how the state, civil society and the commons can respond to the unfolding catastrophe. It also hints at what we can design, collaborate on and fight for in the present, without waiting for revolution or apocalypse.

If there is one lesson that design can learn from revolutionary politics following in the footsteps of Wilde, Durruti, the IWW and Dyer-Witheford, it is this. The combination of speculation and prefiguration, or in other words, visionary and practical strategies, is a fitting formula for our turbulent times. Such a synthesis may even offer us a narrow escape route from the worst of what is yet to come. If design can be simultaneously prefigurative and speculative, then revolution can indeed be designed, the means and ends of transition reconciled. It matters less whether you call it just transition, degrowth, postcapitalism, ecosocialism or biocommunism. The differences are infinitesimal compared to the vast abyss of civilisational collapse and mass extinction. It is time to be brave, and to “fight like hell for the living.”