Reimagining tax through speculative design: or, how to critique neoliberalism

If you were given £5m to communicate *something* with all income taxpayers, what message would you want to circulate? What form would it take? How radical would you be?

I recently co-organised a workshop with Rebecca Bramall as part of a project we’re doing on ‘Reimagining Tax Through Speculative Design’ that asked a variation of this question. The aim of the project is to design a series of alternatives to the government’s ‘Annual Tax Summary’. In doing so, we aim to critique the assumptions it makes, find out what others visions of tax are possible, and use design to visualise those reimaginings. We are in the process of coproducing those alternatives with designers, academics, campaigners, think tanks, and others; and we held the workshop as a major step in that process.

[The Annual Tax Summary, or ATS, by the way, is a two-page, personally-tailored ‘tax statement’ that is apparently sent to every income taxpayer in the UK, at a cost of £5m. It came under plenty of criticism (here and here, for instance) and analysis (here and here), and I’ve done some research on the framing effects of the ‘welfare’ category (open access brief and gated journal article).]

I wanted to write up some thoughts about the workshop. Everyone who participated in the workshop had their own unique take on what was at stake in communicating with taxpayers — which is what made it such a productive event. For me, I realised that neoliberalism is what is at stake. Specifically, the workshop and wider project has prompted me to think differently about a common question (at least to political economists): how should we critique neoliberalism?

For examples, check out HM Treasury’s flickr page

First, though, what do we even mean by neoliberalism? The most common starting point, both inside the academy and outside of it, is to invoke a shift in the relative power of the state and market – from the latter to the former – through mechanisms such as privatisation and ‘workfare’ reform. Some accounts push further by characterising neoliberalism as a regime of capital accumulation that necessarily involves restructuring society in favour of capital. This process is based on building a shared common sense that individual and national prosperity can be achieved by unleashing personal and commercial freedoms — but it is also a process that is frequently secured through a reassertion of disciplinary state power (see my colleague Burak’s edited collection, for instance).

The recent and (for me) most important contributions to our understanding of neoliberalism have, perhaps prodded by the post-2008 political climate, significantly extended these accounts by systematically and carefully unpicking neoliberal logic. Wendy Brown, for instance, argues that if we reduce neoliberalism to ‘a bundle of economic policies’ — and presumably regimes of capital accumulation, too — ‘with inadvertent political and social consequences’, then we will miss out on understanding the logic that orders and justifies those policies or regimes.

Rather than focussing on market power, neoliberalism is here instead used as a concept to illuminate how life in general is increasingly reorganised via a logic of competition, so to mimic the fantastical workings of an imagined marketplace. And rather than focussing on the misleading rhetoric of freedom, there is instead a focus on how neoliberal government produces and unevenly distributes certain types of freedom: who gets to be free, in what ways, and on which terms?

For Will Davies, neoliberalism is ‘the pursuit of the disenchantment of politics by economics’. Neoliberalism thus entails an attempt to ‘replace political judgement with economic evaluation’. One way that this is done is to use the market price system as a model for reorganising areas of life that are otherwise not constituted via the push-and-pull of supply and demand. To quote Davies:

From a neoliberal perspective, price provide a logical and phenomenological ideal of how human relations can be mediated without the need for rhetorical, ritualised, or deliberately performative modes of communication. […] The reduction of complex and uncertain situations to a single number, as achieved by a market, appears as a route out of the hermeneutic pluralism and associated dangers of politics.

Therefore, neoliberalism does not necessarily ‘seek or achieve a shrinking of the state, but a re-imagining and transformation of it’.

On these terms, the ATS self-evidently reproduces a neoliberal logic: it has taken something political, complex, and uncertain; and put a price on it. That ‘price’ works on the basis that we imagine — or at least have the capacity to imagine — our taxpaying relationship to the state as if it were a form of individualised market exchange; a what-do-I-get kind of vibe, rather than something more civic or collective. This is not necessarily a problem per se. Rather, the issue is that tax and spending is not a market. If we are encouraged to treat it as such — ‘what do I get in exchange?’ — then there’s a good chance that we won’t be happy to pay it, because it involves, say, redistribution to people we might not like and spending on causes we might disagree with.

The existing controversies surrounding the ATS kind of avoid this issue, because they centre around the way in which the spending data at the centre of the pie chart visual was labelled and categorised (especially ‘welfare’). Although important, these debates presume that the problem with the ATS design is that it is not transparent enough: that the (mis-)labelling and (mis-)categorisation obscure or conceal the reality of state spending and our relationship to that as taxpayers. Rebecca and I came to see this as a limited approach. Because, at the end of the day, we could get the categories as transparent – and as accurate, and as fair – as we possibly can, but the ATS, we think, would still be telling a relatively negative story about taxpaying because of the way it is designed.

Design is never neutral. In this case, the way in which the ATS is designed tells a particular story: we, the state, take away your money each year, and we have spent it on these things, this year, of which you have an abstract share and/or have contributed to. This story will, to some extent, have an effect – it will be affecting – on whoever interacts with it.

It is perhaps worth noting here that tax is usually coercive; a form of dispossession (think of the land baron taking your corn). But in liberal democracies taxpaying gets bound up in the social contract and becomes (in Margaret Levi’s great phrase) ‘quasi-coercive’. By which I take to mean: the state will make you pay it, and punish you if you don’t, but the easiest way to get revenue is to make you feel like you want to pay it.

The majority of progressive politics presumes that redistribution through state revenue remains, rightly or wrongly, the most potent way to make the world a better place. So it matters how people relate to that quasi-coercive process, of which the ATS is a part of. To my knowledge – and do correct me if I’m wrong – the (British) state does not set out why it taxes us, or what we should expect in return for consenting to taxpaying. The ATS is perhaps the closest thing we have to an answer — and in my view it is an answer that gnaws away at the sense of collectivity that makes redistribution possible. So, how do we critique this?

For the majority of social scientists who use the concept, neoliberalism is a process that should  be opposed. James Ferguson is critical of this tendency, naming it as ‘the politics of anti-‘. For Ferguson, critical scholarship and progressive politics tend to articulate well what one should stand against, but have often struggled to articulate what to stand for — especially in respect to compelling and achievable alternatives and strategies. To quote Ferguson directly:

In thinking about the rapidly expanding literature on neoliberalism, I am struck by how much of the critical scholarship on topic arrives in the end at the very same conclusion—a conclusion that might be expressed in its simplest form as: “neoliberalism is bad for poor and working people, therefore we must oppose it.” It is not that I disagree with this conclusion. On the contrary. But I sometimes wonder why I should bother to read one after another extended scholarly analysis only to reach, again and again, such an unsurprising conclusion. This problem in recent progressive scholarship strikes me as related to a parallel problem in progressive politics more broadly. For over the last couple of decades, what we call “the Left” has come to be organized, in large part, around a project of resisting and refusing harmful new developments in the world. This is understandable, since so many new developments have indeed been highly objectionable. But it has left us with a politics largely defined by negation and disdain, and centered on what I will call “the antis.” Anti-globalization, anti- neoliberalism, anti-privatization, anti-imperialism, anti-Bush, perhaps even anti-capitalism—but always “anti”, not “pro”. But what if politics is really not about expressing indignation or denouncing the powerful? What if it is, instead, about getting what you want? Then we progressives must ask: what do we want? This is a quite different question (and a far more difficult question) than: what are we against? 

Ferguson’s answer to this apparent impasse is to turn to the recent experiments with Basic Income Grants in South Africa (and also Botswana and Namibia). Such experiments show how a progressive and redistributive politics need not be couched in familiar but limited terms of a market exchange or gift economy, but can instead be justified through a discourse of ’the rightful share’ for all denizens (i.e. residents, as opposed to citizens). Basic Incomes Grants may or may have affinities with neoliberalism but, for Ferguson, it is nevertheless a hopeful and (to some extent) proven way to make lives better.

Ferguson’s response to the politics of anti- (‘what do we want?’) is not the only one available. Davies, for example, provides a kind of immanent critique of neoliberal logic in his book; how its attempts at reinvention when faced with obstacles to its ambitions will lead to its eventual demise. My colleague Andrew Hindmoor, meanwhile, flips the politics of anti- on its head by cataloguing and exhibiting the progressive gains of the so-called neoliberal era so to avoid a defeatist ‘miserabilism’. Opening up beyond neoliberalism, we can also include, for example, Stephen Duncombe’s argument that the left relies too heavily on reason and empiricism in critiquing reality as we know it, thereby neglecting the kind of fantastical and spectacular visions that required to change the world — a task that has arguably been taken since up by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future. J.K. Gibson-Graham, meanwhile, start by conceptually separating ‘capitalism’ from ‘economy’, so to discover and promote non-capitalist forms of economic relations; especially localised experiments that seek to bring into reality alternative and diverse non-capitalist economies. The approach we have taken in our project was not intended to be a critique (of both neoliberalism and the politics of anti) like these examples are, but I increasingly am reading it in that way.

The aim of the project is to co-produce a series of alternatives to the ATS. We decided to describe this process as one of ‘speculative design’ for several reasons. We are interested in destabilising the story of the ATS to open (or speculate on) future possibilities for taxpaying. So we are not interested in creating a single conclusive and definition alternative that fixes all the problems of the ATS (hence alternatives in the plural). Rather, our aim is to create a series of prototypes, by which we mean proposals for the future: ‘things-that-are-not-quite-objects-yet’, in the words of Corsín Jiménez.

I have come to see design as a surprisingly good fit for interdisciplinary and co-productive social science — by which I mean not simply as a ‘public engagement’ add on, but as a way of generating new knowledge and as a method of critique itself. And this is because of the character of design itself, which is not something I’ve especially dwelled on before. Rather than being positioned against the status quo (such as the ATS or neoliberalism), design can provide a way to escape or move away from the status quo (‘lines of flight’, if you will).

Our methodology has ended up, I think, at the intersection of two similar approaches: speculative design (e.g. Dunne and Raby’s Speculate Everything), and design research (e.g. the Protopublics programme). Dunne and Raby outline some ways in which design can reach beyond (commercial) problem-solving to instead be used as a means of speculating how things could be. In their words:

This form of design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems, to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely. Design speculations can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality.

One way they make sense of this is to think of speculative design as a way of linking the present to the plausible and probably by bringing into reality a preferable (see below).

The Protopublics report (by Guy Julier, Lucy Kimbell, and others), meanwhile, offers a similar approach called design research that (duhhhh) is about bringing together design and research. Their starting point is that all design is to some extent future oriented because it is the process of (quoting Herbert Simon) ‘changing existing situations into preferred ones’. The future oriented character of design makes it distinct from research, which ‘is in essence about understanding the past or the present but which may be used to inform decision making about the future’. Design research can therefore do something better than either research or design can do alone, which is explore, theorise, and produce new knowledge about the spaces between between actuality (how things are) and potentiality (how they could be). They visualise this move below, as moving from the image on the left (which depicts research) to the image on the right (which depicts design research).

If some form of speculative design research is the methodology (the logic of enquiry) then prototyping might be the method (producing and analysing data). Although it is probably not as simple as that, because ‘data’ misleadingly suggests something that is already there in reality, that is ready to be collected, catalogued, analysed. It therefore might make more sense to see ‘prototype’ as both a verb and a noun in our project: it is as much an object that is or will be produced, as it is the process of that production. To put it differently, prototyping is as much an exercise in critique (what’s wrong?) as it is an exercise in knowledge production (what are the alternatives?). It produces lines of escape away from the status quo, rather than setting up against it; and the constraints of design are an important part of that.

Prototyping is an ideal method for speculative design research because it involves (to quote the Protopublics report) producing ‘insights into what might be possible in the future emerge in relation to new configurations of resources, people and organisations’. The design aspect means that lines of escape are, in fact, limited: if the imagined future cannot be made (cannot be visualised, be made physical, or whatever) in a way that makes sense to people then it is a failure. Dunne and Raby write of the need for such design to simultaneously sit ‘in this world, the here-and-now, while belonging to another yet-to-exist one’ — then it is a failure. If the design is too in the here-and-now then it will fail to prompt questions about the order of things; but if it is too in the yet-to-exist then it will not make sense. That seems to be the challenge of speculative design research.

So, the workshop. Most simply, the purpose of the workshop was to collectively come up with some ideas about what these alternatives or prototypes could be. We didn’t frame the workshop in terms of neoliberalism, but we did say that we are interested in moving beyond tinkering with the labels and calculations of the spending categories on the ATS; and that in doing so we were keen to be ambitious with regards to design. Everything else was up for grabs, and there was no instruction on how radical those alternative ideas should be.

The workshop prompted many interesting questions and observations. For example, trying to work out who the fictional user or audience of these alternatives is or should be. Presumably it is the income taxpayer, a subject that we can all imagine I think. But who (which type of peoples, which types of lives) gets to be an income taxpayer, and, of that group, whose experience and world does the current ATS speak to? Or, the role of the letter. The ATS is posted to individuals; it arrives personally addressed, in a windowed enveloped adorned with HMRC insignia. In other words, to most people, it is terrifying, or at the very least affecting in some way — because most post from HMRC is Very Important. Is this ‘capture of affect’ something that our alternatives should seek to replicate or not?

The most interesting question for me, however, was the extent to which we could find lines of escape from a neoliberal logic. Could we find them? Well…yes and no.

So, for example, one of the common suggestions for an alternative was to tell the story of tax and spending over the life course, instead of providing a static snapshot of a single year. This makes a lot of sense, because most people benefit from spending when they are young (through being educated, for example) and when they are old (through taking a pension and being looked after in ill health and old age). Visualising this sort of state-taxpayer relationship would enact an alternative, and probably more pro-tax answer to the ‘what do I get?’ question.

However, other participants at the workshop hinted that this idea reproduces the very logic that might be the problem — that is, it still produces a ‘price’, that is individualised and not collective; it still encourages those who interact with it to ask ‘what do I get?’, rather than something different, more civic or collective. But, on the other hand, when such an idea is translated into design it could potentially mimic the elegant and powerful visualisation and aesthetic of the current ATS.

How big a problem is this? How to resolve this dilemma? As a scholar or researcher rather than a designer, this type of prototyping puts me firmly outside of my comfort zone. More specifically, I found myself in a zone that academics very rarely find themselves: at the overlap between what is actual (here-and-now) and what is potential (yet-to-exist). Academics like me are not good at speculating — or, more specifically, they are not good at producing knowledge that is simultaneously rigorous and speculative.

One thing I’ve noted about myself and the type of academics I associate with is a preoccupation with The Answer and its pursuit. By Answer, I do not mean the pursuit of a valid representation of an objective truth, but rather the pursuit of Purity, politically and conceptually speaking. During the workshop, I found that The Answer was always a present possibility: everything must be critiqued; ‘no, that won’t do, because it’s problematic’.

We could place the pursuit of The Answer as part of something we could call the auto-politics of complicity, which I think might have a family resemblance to the politics of anti. It’s perhaps interesting and telling to note that my thesaurus lists ‘collusion’, ‘collaboration’, and ‘conspiracy’ among the synonyms for ‘complicity’; none of which really make sense as replacements for the way academics use the word — or do they? It might also be worth noting that “complicit” was word of the year for 2017.

Anyway — when prototyping, The Answer, and its Purity, do not matter so much. It is kind of against the point. So, in this spirit, perhaps another way to challenge this logic other than opposing it or speculating away from it, is to instead accelerate it — push it further, and twist it, to the point of absurdity, so to reflect on the future direction of current travel.

My thought is to mimic the promotions you sometimes get on, say, a Mars bar — ‘WIN, 1 of 100000, YOUR CODE IS INSIDE’, you know the type. But instead of opening up and getting a code, every wrapper instead has a message like: 🎉CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE JUST CONTRIBUTED 20P TO THE BRITISH STATE, WHICH WILL PAY FOR 32 PAPERCLIPS FOR A PAPER PUSHER AT KETTERING BOROUGH COUNCIL 🎉

This idea, and all the ideas from the workshop (of which there were hundreds), all face the same dilemma: how to simply and strikingly communicate a powerful and elegant message to taxpayers — without falling back on reproducing a ‘price’ of some sort, and thereby ‘failing’ the very terms of the critique we set out. This is simultaneously the strength and weakness of a speculative research design methodology. Is there a goldilocks zone? Does there need to be a goldilocks zone? Is this something we need to strive for?

Well, no. The dilemma is a false one. We’re not actually HMRC, we’re not constrained in the same way; we can make as many prototypes as we want. The whole point of the approach is to create prototypes, in the plural, so to provoke our imagination, to debate alternative ways of being, and see how we can reconstitute our relationships to our social reality. We can turn the difficult and uncomfortable on its head; incorporate it into the design process; put it centrally, rather than trying to hide it.

What does this all mean for critique? And for critiquing neoliberalism? Instead of being positioned against prevailing order, the lines of escape produced through speculative design research are instead about orienting away from prevailing order. Perhaps this can shift critique away from a theoretical endpoint of scholarship, to a practical means, i.e. a method; something that is practiced; a practice that produces knowledge. In this way, speculative design research (as a methodology) and prototyping (as a method) is another way of responding to Ferguson’s concerns about the politics of anti.

To be clear, what we are doing is no panacea. At the end of the day, we’re talking about a letter about tax; not the downfall of a social order. However, I think that by taking together these things (the methodology, the method, the focus, the wider context) as a package can provide a useful tool for critique: at least as a way of producing lines of escape from the otherwise disenchantment of politics by economics.