Fire Engine Red and the Enrichment Economy

Fire Engine Red and the Enrichment Economy

I first found about Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre: Enrichment Economy when reading a luxury/fashion magazine, 032C—for those that don’t know what O32C means, I'll tell you—it’s a red Pantone printing colour. In fact, it’s 100 magenta, mixed with 100% yellow, which makes the colour that you might see on emergency vehicles and fire hydrants. Hot red. Perhaps that’s how the editors see themselves.

In the magazine’s ‘about us’ page the editors express a need nowadays for us to believe rather than to know. It’s impossible to know in a time when the ‘velocity and size of our data swells to inhuman proportions’. Belief then is much more important and the magazine provides “[a] provocative of the present-tense tensions that contribute to the new. It embraces doubt not as a critical scapegoat for techno-cultural insecurity, but as a starting point towards decision-making.”  Ultimately, this is a manifesto for a luxury magazine. Joerg Koch the “Berlin-based cultural polymath” and founder, said “I have always been interested in the theoretical differences between what’s considered creative and what’s considered commercial,” So it’s interesting that in the 032C is where I discovered French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, Enrichment Society, which, in essence, is a critique the very thing that 032C offers, “a new economy of enrichment, … by our obsession with sneakers, art, and luxury real estate.” Is this critique not without irony? Perhaps. Perverse? Definitely.

Boltanski and Esquerre suggest that there is a change underway in the dynamics of capitalism, one is the de-industrialisation or the ‘relocation of manufacturing, away from the advanced-capitalist heartlands"‘ that the economy of enrichment, a social practice that determines markets discursively, which encompasses fine arts, luxury goods, high-end collectibles and the creation and exploitation of national patrimonies, heritage sites and so on. Focussing on the “social life of things”, they describe the processes that increase the value of objects are known as “enrichment.” Any object can be enriched, and the enrichment can be ‘physical’ or ‘cultural’ – through narrative that focusses the particular qualities of the object, importantly they are valued not for utility, but only for their high-prices. B&E see the enrichment capitalism is the ‘successor’ to industrial capitalism:

“…the term ‘enrichment’ does not refer to the growth of private fortunes, but rather to the processes that increase the value of objects. The two kinds of economy assess value on the basis of different conventional forms, whose nature will be our principal concern. Any object can be enriched, however ancient or modern it is, and the enrichment can be physical—for example, exposing beams in an old house—or cultural, through the use of a narrative device that highlights certain of the object’s qualities, thereby producing and formatting differences and identities, which are primary resources of enrichment economies.”

This phenomena is not relegated to the wealthy, but to ‘metropolitan centres, [and] also in restored and protected sites or villages, contrasting sharply with the decline of industrial zones’ The objects themselves are authentic identity markers, (often manufactured ‘discreetly outsourced to low-wage countries’) They are signifiers of the elite, exceptional and often presented as bespoke or artisanal or they may be contemporary art, attracting interest for their cultural significance. 032C is a type of magazine B&E describe in their essay, one which pays attention to the cultural/creative ecosystem of artists/makers/celebrity around them, as well as looking at the objects themselves. This type of enrichment emerges especially from the European luxury-goods sector markets (in particular Spain, France, Italy) who invest heavily in the luxury market and contemporary art world for higher profits (see Nowness is a great example of this). With an “increasing visibility given to objects exchanged for very high prices, or high relative to the common run.” Heritage Creation is also on the rise in the enrichment society, where brands take a proactive role in shaping civic places, often for ‘protection’, with a sometime fabrication of histories, that include manufactured cultural events and revitalisation of places, known as placemaking (see Civic Placemakers LSN Global or the revitalisation of Valetta with luxury hotels, Laguiole, a village that sells a famous knife or the Gehry(fication) of cities). A key to the enrichment, whether luxury goods or heritage creation is production of wealth, but more importantly, theres a need for a grounding in history, which gives value to the product and its essential narrative.

‘The science of economies was constructed with the model of industrial society and mass production. What we are sketching out here are the contours of another economy that is just as important but that does not produce, one that exploits and valorises things that are "already there." (from Catherine Millet interview with B&E in Artpress Feb 17, p8/9)

Boltanski and Esquerre argue there is a link between de-industrialization, the increased demand for ‘exceptional’ products, and the heritage mania. However, where previous scholars have focused on consumption. B&E focus on the production of wealth:

“…in order to understand changes that have affected not only the dominant classes—the term ‘bourgeoisie’ [5] is barely adequate for today’s elite—but the entire cartography of social division. Hence we will begin not with people—the wealthiest decile, for whom these products are intended—but with the objects themselves, examining how they are invested with a value and status of their own, that of ‘richness’.”

Value of the object depends on the interpretation of the object. Boltanski and Esquerre identify four types or “forms”, to which the economic players use when establishing the value of things: the “standard form” (relying on mass reproduction of an object in an unlimited quantity, but will eventually end up as worthless junk), the “asset form” (applies to items whose resale price is expected to increase over time, to be converted at some stage to cash), the “trend form” relies on a narrative, one which is oriented towards the present and valorized by reference to current fashion which have very limited market potential.) and the “collection form” (establishes its worth, where ‘authentic’ older things that end up with little use, with a narrative and storytelling, become valuable, hence qualified as “enriched objects” and initially shaped by the practices of collectors). The collection form aims at exploiting the past in order to shape its uniqueness and inherent authentic history.

Objects therefore are endowed with a type of significance and in particular those that possess ‘originality, uncommonness’, and distinctive ‘historical provenance’, but enrichment is ultimately the ‘economy of exploitation’ and self-interest, caught up in the world of glamour and cultural cache:

Engaging a large and disparate workforce, this work is performed by curators, restorers, cultural historians, museum and gallery employees, academics, collectors, auctioneers, celebrities and state personnel in ministries of culture and tourism. Especially noteworthy are the contributions of a sizeable precariat of highly educated but underemployed young-ish people who, aspiring to membership in the ‘creative classes’, work largely for ‘passion’ as opposed to money. (Frazer, 2017)

Critiqued by Fraser, while this essay is interesting, it is no way a new form of capitalism, but a look at one sector, ‘possessing its own form of value, mode of exploitation, and potential for conflict.’ She sees their argument as, ‘a marginal niche where fading powers (France, Italy and Spain), shut out from the principal action, devise ingenious ways to live off their former glories, much like cash-poor aristocrats who turn their chateaux into tour stops and B&Bs.’ Fraser suggests that exploitation through enrichment is a restricted, ‘provincial concern’, where are ‘expropriation through financialisation’ is where it is all at.

B&E’s retorts by describing “Integral Capitalism” which “pursues accumulation by expanding the universe of commodities, exploiting new lodes of wealth and interconnecting different ways of valorising things, whilst putting them into circulation for maximum profit. …It is this regime that, together with the development of the financial and digital economies, favours the growth of an enrichment economy.” It extracts much larger profits from standard object which face greater competition. This economy unlike others, relies not on exploiting the poor, but it essentially derives large profits from the wealthy, who in turn are those that decide the commodifiable and the non-commodifiable —to their own ends. Which brings me back to 032C magazine, which epitomises this idea. Is the design industry culpable? Have we as designers refashioned and reinvented neoliberalism for compulsive optimization and achievement? Is then design the actual problem rather than the saviour?


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