History testifies that luxury has not been a novel phenomenon. Throughout the ages the kings, aristocratic rulers, tribal leaders have been living a life of luxury. The life style of the human kind was mainly based on the mode of production each epoch had maintained. With the advent of industrialization humans have stepped into an era of production, competition and consumption. Since recently we have become aware of the latest consumption patterns of the world through the internet and it is extremely unbelievable as to why certain goods are produced and why some individuals crave to possess and enjoy the unique benefits of these ‘classy’ and ‘costly’ brands. The demand for luxury goods at the globe is growing immensely yet it is extremely difficult to measure the exact amount people spend on those. Sociologists, psychologists and economists have been studying the very phenomenon from their own disciplinary perspectives and this article wishes to draw the attention of the scholars who have a better knowledge to update the general public.
As children when we read R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines we got a preliminary idea of what wealth is. Each page made our imaginations run riot of dreaming such wealth. The history books inform us what type of gifts the kings and rulers have exchanged during their visits or when they sent their delegates to foster goodwill between different countries. The most precious items during those days were gold, silver, copper, pearl, diamond and gems. The Chinese marbles, craft made from tusks, brass ware, jewellery, ceramic ware and even paintings by eminent painters were the symbols of luxury till recent times. The houses in various civilisations whether they were palaces, castles, mandirs or mansions had enough of such luxury for the inhabitants to consume.
Even in Sri Lanka we have heard about the hoards of wealth called ‘hathara maha nidhanaya’. The kings, aristocrats or any other individual who had enormous wealth buried their treasures since banking was not present in those days as that of now. ‘Nidan vadula’ is a text which mentions certain places where such wealth is hidden. It was said that the kings used to announce through drummers, the anaberakaraya, offering the wealth that equals the weight of an elephant – athek barata wasthuwa, if a certain deed is performed successfully. Such was one leaf of our history book. Before and after the 2015 Presidential election a dialogue on ultra-luxury consumption patterns of certain politicians and government officers have been on air. When watching the television or listening to the radio channels and reading newspapers one wonders what psyche make some people develop an indulgence towards this type of consumption. The information circulate through social media is awesome yet heart breaking.
At the University when studying Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo we looked at how human relationships are governed by wealth. The rulers like President Marcos of Philippines and Shah of Iran and many others were accused of misappropriating public funds. There were sufficient evidences to prove that they have abused public money to spend luxurious lives inhumanly. The movies like Blood Diamond (2006) convince us how a certain section of people in our own society risk lives in accumulating wealth for private gains. The movie ‘Slum dog millionaire’ (2008) by Danny Boyle strengthens the idea that even the poorest in the social rung can enjoy upward social mobility and get into the ‘elite’ or ‘new rich’ at least temporarily or nominally if one has a skill he can sell reminiscing the ‘rags to riches’ analogy. The notion promoted by American Idol type reality shows set the tone for many programmes all over the world. The impartial Sri Lankan reader or viewer could comprehend the irreparable damage the reality shows have done to our social structure and culture.
The psyche of luxury has transferred from the selected elite’s conspicuous consumption to the middle and lower classes through the effects of industrialization and post-industrialization. When the surplus is traded to the global markets and all economies becoming open to free trade, the number of people who are aware of the luxuries began to grow. At the beginning of the industrialization some of the electrical goods that were afforded by a limited, privileged few became the common day-to-day items of many through the age of electronics. In such contexts iron, radio, television, stereo sets, kitchen ware, computers, mobile phones and vehicles ceased to be the luxury items.
Sports such as football, tennis, cricket and baseball too have established another sphere in which we can witness novel consumption patterns at work. One inevitably remembers the concept ‘culture-ideology of consumerism’ introduced by Leslie Sklair. It was the transnational corporations that developed a transnational, affluent consumer class in the era of globalization. Appadurai’s global cultural flows justify how the media and ICT have shaped and re-shaped the ever-changing human life irrespective of nominal, geographical boundaries and local identities. In the post-capitalist, postmodern world anything and everything is made a commodity. We have passed the age of high mass consumption in Rostow’s growth model long time ago. The Asian Tigers have initiated a revolution through East Asian brand models which was so far dominated by the European brands and later US since colonial times.
The writer personally feels that politicians in most of the Third World countries are responsible for setting false standards in consumption styles. The governments that want to hide their inefficiency and unproductivity allow the market segments to play havoc with the whims and fancies of the middle and low income segments. The people are placed in a higher level of expenses through taste and social status. For example, if an individual wishes to enjoy a musical show in the newly built ‘Lotus Pond Theatre’ he or she has to spend a ‘considerable’ amount from his monthly earning. The hotels, restaurants, theme parks, and food arcades too seem to be catering to an affluence class where so many individuals try their purses at. Health and education are two other sectors through which the weaknesses of human psyche are exploited enormously.
If the money is well-bred the individual has to think seriously before taking a final decision in spending. Simultaneously the market is full of latest electronics and week-end newspapers decorate them with eye-arresting advertisements. This has become a way of dumping second grade, non bio-degradable items to the Third World countries introducing serious environmental issues and health hazards. Food, dress, jewellery, sport, transport and travel, homes, interior decorations, vehicles and even weddings through event management have become a part of this menace. It is noted that identity, social class, social status, affluence, prominence, wealth and exclusivity are the key features that drive individuals pursue after ultra-luxury consumption.
The writer wishes to draw the attention of the general public to the Oxfam report released in 2014. I quote “From Ghana to Germany, Italy to Indonesia, the gap between rich and poor is widening. In 2013, seven out of 10 people lived in countries where economic inequality was worse than 30 years ago, and in 2014 Oxfam calculated that just 85 people owned as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity”. On 19 January 2015 it says “the richest 1 percent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 percent in 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7 million per adult in 2014. Of the remaining 52 percent of global wealth, almost all (46 percent) is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world’s population. The other 80 percent share just 5.5 percent and had an average wealth of $3,851 per adult – that’s 1/700th of the average wealth of the 1 percent”.
What makes us ponder by now is not the jealousy for those people who consume the resources of the world in an illogical manner but the uncountable numbers who struggle to survive in acute poverty. According to the Social Psychologists who study this feature scientifically there may be an ‘authentic pride’ in accomplishing a luxury status or ‘hubristic pride’ of displaying. It may be a mania or sickness from Homo sapiens sapiens’ perspective if still he is the wisest creature on this earth. The idea of obsession has been too much facilitated by installment schemes, hire purchase and various modes of e-transactions. Since luxury is a dynamic process yesterday is not today and tomorrow would never be today.
Rather than criticizing globalization as the originator of all evils of inequality and injustice we have to reflectively look at human psyche. As George Herbert confirms in his poem, ‘Avarice’, Man has lost his reasoning after he has invented money. Longing for some brands has been developed into a ‘brand romance’ among the large majority of the world wide community. Most people are unable to understand that they are living in a ‘camouflaged economy’ where the consumers are unaware that they are the victims of a network developed by capitalism, globalization, transnational corporations and media who fashion the each and every nuance of human psyche.
DrUpulLekamge is a Senior Lecturer of Sociology for the University of London international curriculum, and a visiting lecturer ofthe Universities of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo and Buddhist and Pali. His academic interests are culture, globalization, literature, identity, movies and diaspora.