For my birthday today, I got a few antique Punch’s, from the First World War*. Browsing, I saw this excellent cartoon:
I spent most of Friday celebrating a wedding anniversary in the Conspicuous Consumption capital of the World, aka that bit of London north of the Ritz where the jewelry shops jostle for space alongside absurdly overpriced galleries and rag shops called things like Issey Miyake, Chanel and Ralph Lauren, and where the imposing door staff render the uncertain buyer certain to move on.
We were hoping to find a picture to put up in a space at home, but the prices were lunacy, and clearly a massive reflection of (a) the rent in the West End (beating the hell out of New York’s) and (b) the well-observed need (going back to Veblen) for the rich to “conspicuously consume”. So a Prada T-shirt needs to cost £300, otherwise it would not indicate how you were a prize fool one a of society’s winners. It’s not because only Prada knows how to put the arm-holes in the right place, or knows how to brief the underpaid workforce to do it really, really carefully.
The whole of that quarter of London is an elaborate and unsuccessful attempt to deny this illusion, but as Punch showed in 1914, the illusion has been understood for centuries. It makes me wonder if the rich are in some way better at expropriating themselves than anyone else: as Will Wilkinson argued in a provocative piece against the cult of inequality, pointing out that the “lived” quality of objects is far closer than the prices would suggest:
You can see leveling in quality across the price scale in almost every kind of consumer good.19 At the turn of the 20th century, only the mega-rich had refrigerators or cars. But refrigerators are now all but universal in the United States, even while refrigerator inequality continues to grow. The Sub-Zero PRO 48, which the manufacturer calls “a monument to food preservation,” costs about $11,000, compared with a paltry $350 for the IKEA Energisk B18 W. The lived difference, however, is rather smaller than that between having fresh meat and milk and having none.
There was a storm of response to this piece: I mentioned some in a post on Freethink. Just because the rich can be idiots, and miserable idiots at that, in their pointless and impossible quest for relative advantage in display, does not make the underlying wealth inequalities that make it possible any less important – in fact, I left Kensington thinking that luxury taxes had a stronger justification than I had thought. If one of these impossible to wear shoes were a few hundred quid more expensive, who would lose out? The higher price would make the sheer physical risk of wearing them still more attractive . . .
*alongside a complete Shelley printed during the same period, an interesting cardigan, and a lie-in past eight-thirty)