Luxury is something enjoyed as a superfluous addition to the ordinary necessities of life. Christian culture framed it as a foolish and worthless form of self-indulgence. Luxury is materialistic and, worst of all, it is a pleasure: two sins in one. A defining feature of modernity is that it cultivates self-criticism, as Octavio Paz explained in many essays. Since modernity and materialism are intimately related, criticism of materialism and its satellites (cult of progress, positivism, instrumental reason, technology) is central to critical assessments of modern time. One can trace a continuous line between the pre-modern, modern and post-modern renditions of the anti-materialist pose. All have in common the prejudice that materialistic craving distracts us from loftier conceptions of the good life: religious or aesthetic revelations, nationhood, class consciousness, community, and so on. When Voltaire wrote «Le superflu, chose très nécessaire» (poem Le Mondain, 1736), the penseur des lumières was not rejecting materialism per se; only the narrowly materialistic definition of life and its necessities. He was highlighting the importance of poetry, art, and love, none of which are immediately “useful” or historically contingent. For Octavio Paz, poetry and eroticism are not merely necessary additions to material well being. Like André Breton and the Surrealists, he viewed the poetic revelation and eroticism (la luxure!) as essentially “revolutionary”, for they subvert (rather than complement) the dominant values and institutions of our time. Similarly, the French intellectual Georges Bataille, who had some influence on Paz and much on Mario Vargas Llosa, identified both eroticism and the dépenses improductives (such as the Potlatch) as “transgressions” in a bourgeois society based on the totems of productivity and repression of natural impulses. The denigration of materialism and instrumental reason led many artistic vanguards of the twentieth century to embrace irrationality and even violence. That risqué penchant would have been hazardous for public safety had not its exponents been so typically and mercifully harmless (at least to others).
Radical critiques of materialistic indulgence also meet in demanding tougher standards for others than for themselves. The Catholic Church, Marxists in power, and bourgeois “anti-bourgeois” poets, to name a few, are not known for snubbing privileged access to material gratification. I have yet to see any of my leftist university colleagues turning down a pay raise (or for that matter, not asking for one) for fear of increasing inequalities in our community. Incidentally, the new “cultural” left did itself a favour when it shed its itchy populist skin: now it can be both subversive and audaciously chic. In short, in many tirades against the “fetishism of commodity” one finds an “enough for me, way too much for you” undercurrent (the Malthusian version: enough of me, way too many of you), one that usually goes undetected.
The fact and the matter is that consumerism does provide satisfaction, even pleasure, to the many. Who said that money is the sixth “sense” that allows one to better enjoy the other five? That’s how most people feel. Greater material satisfaction killed the revolutionary drive in the working class. It probably caused the Berlin Wall to tumble, more powerfully than a yearning for liberal democracy. In both cases the outcome was good for freedom and well-being. Anti materialist and anti-consumerist folks come in different shades, but they all have one key feature in common: they hail from the middle class or higher; they speak with their mouth full. Poor people are not anti-materialist. Nor are poor countries. Of course, for most people the point is to have enough money so that money is not the point anymore. But how much is enough? Marx was wrong to see Communism as the final stage of human development, after capitalism, but he was intuitively right to consider abundance as the necessary step toward a superior, post-“necessity” stage of history. In fairness, the liberals are the ones who were right all along: they praised prosperity without ever presenting it as an end in itself. Well fed citizens can sit and afford the luxury to deliberate about the right path to the Good Society. So-called post-materialist societies are in fact prosperous societies, in which general wealth create the conditions for the emancipation, not from basic material needs but from dependence to the fulfillment of those needs. Whether we like to say it or not, democracy is a luxury that is affordable only at a certain stage of material development. All right but, isn’t prosperity and productivism a threat to the environment? Yes, but in a democratic society, it also provides a fertile ground to imagine both political and technological solutions to this vital problem. Inequality is a problem too, to be sure, but what does luxury have to do with it? If everybody had access to luxury (whatever that means in each historical context), would it be still considered luxury? What do we want to redistribute: wealth or poverty?
I propose to give a break to individuals and societies who wish to improve their material conditions of living. Better deal with difficult social policy issues clearly and directly, away from fuzzy and duplicitous malaises about materialistic self-indulgence. And let’s celebrate all the little pleasures that life brings to us.