Is Ethical Luxury Just An Illusion?
The darkest, most secret crime of my career thus far is one I committed in my first year living in Mumbai back in 2012. I was, at that time, doing some part-time copywriting for a small advertising firm, and the first big project to cross my desk was the campaign for an immense ‘mixed-use luxury’ housing development called Island City Center coming up in Wadala. I was asked to think up a tagline.
I suggested the conceit of treating the development as Mumbai’s Eighth Island. The client ran with the idea and, a month or so later, the first mock-ups of the ads came back our way. One of those ads — later to appear in newspapers and on billboards across the city — proudly proclaimed, “The Eighth Island of Mumbai Discriminates”. I tried to explain why, syntactically, this was not quite the same as saying that the Eighth Island was discriminating, but the client wasn’t interested. Naresh Fernandes — journalist, curmudgeon and friend — began his book City Adrift using the ad as an example of the city’s decadent senescence. I blushed deeply the first time I read Naresh’s book, but never admitted to my part in creating it (if you’re reading this, Naresh, please forgive me).
The ad is horrifying. It is also, to the client’s credit, perhaps the single most honest bit of advertising I’ve ever seen. The Eighth Island of Mumbai Discriminates — so it does. So does all luxury. Indeed, that’s the whole point. Luxury, when stripped of all its euphemisms, is a mechanism for separating the rich from the poor, clean from dirty, special from ordinary. The language used to advertise luxury housing is no mistake: ‘escape’, ‘retreat’, ‘haven’. It is a vantage point from which the rest of the world looks polluted and mundane and small. Luxury is isolation with floor-to-ceiling windows.
Derived from the Latin word luxus, meaning ‘excess’, luxury was, until quite recently, fairly straightforward. Think back to the ’80s and ’90s: precious metals and cut crystal and caviar, objects whose beauty resided in their frivolity. Luxury could be as vulgar as Donald Trump, as brashly gorgeous as Jeremiah Tower, or as whimsical and witty as the early Carrie Bradshaw. Luxury was showering a crowd with champagne just because you could. Luxury was Kristal. Luxury was a closet full of shoes you couldn’t possibly afford. The defining feature of luxury was its too-much-ness; it was not just wealth but the performance of wealth for its own sake. Greed was good, in the famous formulation of Gordon Gekko. But luxury was explicitly amoral.
Then the 21st century happened. In 2002, Sex And The City aired an episode in which Carrie realises she can’t afford to buy her apartment because she’s spent a cumulative $40,000 on shoes. She’s made to feel silly, frivolous and bad. It all works out fine, of course — the show was always a product of the Clinton-era optimism — but the acknowledgement pointed towards a changing climate of luxury. Luxury was suddenly tied to an ethic of responsibility.
At some point over the course of the last 15 years, it became unacceptable for anything, luxury included, to be shameless. Flaunting your consumerism became gauche. Instead, you were expected to flaunt the ethics of your consumerism (n.b. we never quite got around to questioning consumption itself; the capitalist imagination has its limits). Luxury, at that point, could no longer be just objects, it had to be experiences. It had to use the language of conscious consumerism, a marvellous bit of Orwellian double speak, to ultimately sell not just a thing, but a ‘story’.
In buying an object, we were told, you bought a story about its creator — the young man from nowhere who invented eco-friendly faux-leather from a byproduct of organic beeswax; the young woman who put herself through college with her ethically sourced carpentry business; the cruelty-free earthenware crock pots, proceeds from which go to women artisans in the remote mountains of a country you’ve never heard of. In reality, we’re buying stories about ourselves. Old luxury meant purchasing the illusion that you were special because you were rich. Modern luxury is buying the illusion that you’re special because you’re good. Old luxury was a fur; new luxury is a Tesla.
Luxury real estate developers in India handled this transition with the same farcical transparency that they use to launder black money. They lifted the term “mixed-use development” from the Bible of anti-corporate 20th-century urban planning — Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities — and applied it shamelessly (probably, to be fair, because they didn’t understand the term’s origins) to the exact type of development that Jacobs spent her career fighting. When Jacobs talks about mixed-use developments, she’s talking about dense, low-rise neighborhoods that emerge organically over time with active streetscapes that remain busy throughout the day and night thanks to varied uses at street level. Modern India’s ‘high-density’ ‘mixed-use’ developments are gated communities of Corbusian towers dropped into private gardens; they are “mixed-use” in the sense that one tower might contain some offices, another a hotel, still another a mall. It’s a misappropriation of the term that’s as guileless as it is cynical.
In food, the luxury terms now are ‘clean’ and ‘natural’, words loaded with moral judgment and devoid of any real meaning. The implication is that those who don’t, won’t or can’t eat according to the rules of ethical consumerism — often because they can’t afford to — are dirty or unnatural, low in a hierarchy of goodness and responsibility. It’s a structure virtually indistinguishable from older systems of caste and class, but overlaid with a highly American meritocratic veneer: anyone, the new system lies, can be part of the luxury class, if only she tries (and cares) hard enough. This is nonsense, of course — the vast majority of people can’t afford to signal virtue through their food — but that’s also kind of the point. In pretending that luxury is achievable for anyone with the correct ethical commitments, the luxury class makes the gulf between it and everyone else even wider: the lay people haven’t come over not because they can’t, but because they are actually and demonstrably not good enough.
The luxury class is not isolated through its consumption but also, conveniently, justified in keeping itself apart. Luxury has evolved to rationalise itself. It hangs on to the language of social responsibility while concerning itself with other people only obliquely. The new luxury satisfies the ethical pretensions of its practitioners with the platitude that, by living your best life, you can be better in the world. It’s the idea that meditating daily is something you’re doing for everyone, rather than something you’re doing for yourself, that if you spend your money in the right places and on the right objects, you no longer have to feel guilty about the fact that you contribute nothing without receiving something in return.
The New Luxury, then, is the idea that you can live in a fancy gated community while still using the rhetoric of responsible urbanism. You can get your food in prohibitively expensive places and not only not feel guilty about being an oligarch, but actually reaffirm your own moral superiority in the process. It’s a brave new luxurious world. No man is an island; the new luxury righteously (and blandly) proclaims. But no man is clean, either.
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