Is luxury opulence? The issue surrounding the concept of luxury

By Pavel Veraza Tonda

Regardless of whether it is valued positively or negatively, luxury is what exceeds the necessary. This can be understood in the sense of what is indispensable to fulfill a biological or instrumental function, which means that all human culture is luxurious because it imbues objects or people with meanings that go beyond their biology or minimal pragmatics in various directions (aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, religious, etc.). In a narrower sense, luxury is distinction in the sense of elevation above what is commonly considered indispensable in a society, a quality that surpasses common or average quality.

Now, if luxury goes beyond what is non-negotiable, what is naturally given, and in the case of human nature, the assurance of subsistence by fulfilling basic needs, we must critically consider the historical modification and specificity of our needs system, a matter often overlooked. The critique of the needs system is the fundamental premise of the critique of the luxury system.

A note should be made about the current situation, which contextualizes this critique. The current luxury industry oscillates between the mediocre goal of distinguishing itself, of exceeding a needs system diminished by the degradation of housing, the environment, materials, food, and health due to modifications in industrialization with neoliberalism, losing industrial, environmental, and social responsibility through outsourcing. Alternatively, it has the potential to become what distinguishes itself from all that degradation, not just from mediocrity but to reverse the trend toward an increasingly worse standard. The result of neoliberal degradation has been a degraded, fraudulent luxury, a pseudo-luxury. In contrast, the true luxury could be at the forefront of the revival of quality criteria, setting the standard for what is well-achieved and reshaping all our consumption experience criteria. The legacy should not only reside in the history of a brand, as is traditionally the case in this industry, but in the great legacy of artisanal traditions and ecologically and culturally appropriate manufacturing techniques, as well as in the careful preservation of the quality of what nature has bequeathed to us, forms of the common and ubiquitous good that constitute the true foundation, often forgotten, of luxury.

Given the unstoppable democratization of luxury, only in this sense could it regain the progressive function for the economy that Montesquieu assigned to it in the 18th century, according to which it was necessary “for the rich to spend so that the poor have jobs.” Last century, Werner Sombart revived this idea in “Luxury and Capitalism,” suggesting that luxury was the main incentive for the development of capitalism, surpassing colonial expansion, given its stimulation of the economy. The waves of green reform in the industry place today’s luxury industry not only under the requirement of meeting ESG (ecological, social, governance) standards to maintain competitiveness at a time when expenditure is expected not to be associated with ecological destruction, waste, or social injustice but also to be an example of rethinking or reconstructing the needs system, greatly damaged during neoliberalism.