Living in Luxury

The consumer economy is a marvel in con-artistry. No, no, really; it is! Take for example the idea of luxury cars, luxury homes, and other high end neo-con American dreams. These are the bait images taken by the mass market status shoppers who are clawing and climbing their way above their fellow citizens to a luxury life-style, or at least the appearance of one. In hope of a financial nirvana, they faithfully offer up emulative smoke to their financial gods in the upper classes, to whom true luxury is available. These exalted gods of luxury are, of course, as immaterial as any dreams. We do not know these gods; we never even see them through the tinted windows or in cloud raking towers; and they neither see nor hear us. They are a creation of imagination made manifest through the liturgies of marketing priests—ad men. But luxury dwellers are there, above the clouds, and they know luxury we can only imagine. They know how to get milk from the cow without going to the barn. These are not the Wall Street Moghuls or the corporate super-rich. Most of those don’t understand or have access to a life of luxury. Ironic as it is, many super-rich mistake excess for luxury, and we are duped into the same mistake to our expense.

Meanwhile, the commodities we know as luxury goods are part of this mythology. They are material goods that represent luxury, much as miniaturized replicas represent the genuine pieces, but they are not the materials of luxury living nor do they provide access to a style of living that is luxurious. The marketplace term of luxury is but a glorification of excessive consumption meant to feed our status vanity, while providing profits for others.

A true luxury car, for instance, is a silver Phantom with a driver. Yes, it costs something like the houses of dreamers who think an E-Class sedan is a luxury. Yet neither such a car nor the way it is used is luxury. Here’s an example: a stay-at-home mom (a bit of a turquoise and coral term in itself) doesn’t drive her kid and a neighbor’s to soccer practice in a luxury car. A driver (the term “chauffeur” is a nouveau riche presumption) delivers a wife from the Waldorf to Saks, actually on Fifth Avenue, in a luxury vehicle, and waits at the curb. The children (truly rich people, unlike goats, don’t breed kids) are at boarding school, and if they go to soccer practice at all, they’ll tell Mother about it when they see her over the holidays. Children have mothers; kids have moms. Moms drop their kids off at practice, and then swing by SuperValu to pick up something in a family pack for dinner before returning to pick the kids up. A forty or fifty thousand dollar car does not make this a luxury Life-style. However, such a car could be used by a high school aged child of a home accustomed to living in luxury, especially if were a convertible.

As another example, a luxury home does not have a cash value. Its possession is simply a write-off. A home of luxury has size, location and amenities. It has servant quarters and back stairways, out of sight of the grand hall, the grand staircase, the library, the grand dining room and the breakfast room, and so on. If it is truly a luxury home, it has a pedigree, such as Lyndhurst. Far from shopping and cooking, the lady of the house (we won’t call her Mom) informs the cook, shortly after breakfast, who will be at which meals, what to prepare and where to have it served. Dressing for meals is probably unnecessary, except for special occasions, or lunching or dining out. This lady seldom goes into the kitchen and never into any other work place in the house. By contrast, our mom has returned to a tract of faux-luxury homes via crowded highways, commonplace streets, and a driveway, parked the faux-luxury sedan in the three car garage, gone directly into the adjoining kitchen carrying her groceries and begun to prepare dinner. She has spilled a milk on her hands.

And the man of luxury? Well, the true man of luxury does require wealth. He may go to an office suite, in a building he owns, or in his home, wherein his advisors—lawyers, money managers, etc.—come to him to offer information and take away instructions. These instructions may include the purchase of new cars, new houses, new companies, or more draconian investments, all expenditures that should yield some form of return. Such regal responsibilities may not take the whole day, and socializing, golf, shooting may fill the rest. To one of these he may drive his new Vanquish Carbon, black of course. Our Dad, on the other hand, may have driven himself to his office in a fuel saving hybrid, because fuel, insurance and the environment are at issue. He is willing to defer some appearance of wealth and luxury in his responsibilities to family, the environment and possibly his insurance company. He would have parked in a lot or ramp in a space reserved for him perhaps, and walked into a tower to take an elevator, but not to the top floor. He would also have people in a position advisory to him, but his would be the advisory position to someone higher up. He would probably work sixty plus hours a week, have weekend meetings and be required to travel from time to time, if not frequently, first class at least in a commercial flight, but not in the corporate jet. That would be real luxury beyond his station.

So how does the family in true luxury get to be there? Well, inheriting wealth helps—and inheritance certainly helps with style. We are led to believe that living in luxury is only about acquiring vastly excessive wealth. If that were the case, then spending lavishly must be an indication of living luxuriously. Luxury, however, is understanding the value of things irrespective of their cost. Marketed luxury is valued primarily on its cost.

To achieve the sort of luxury the marketplace offers, aspirants need some form of revenues, and these may be substantial, and since these expectations are market driven, we need only look at how things are marketed to understand how to gain the imageware. In a healthy market, the wealthier, who are already on the luxury ladder, can be gently, maybe pleasantly, bled of some excess wealth. However those aspirants living in the economic suburbs of Luxor must be encouraged to spend big. Bigger price tag items often yield bigger profit margins; luxury goods purchases make the rich richer faster. Those up the ladder, but not at the top, must bleed those beneath them in the economy to afford there faux-luxury goods. Their factories must produce more at less cost; therefore workers must be fewer in number and work longer at stagnant or reduced rates, as they make essential and especially, non-essential goods for the mass-market. Some rungs down, shop owners must put in more time to avoid overhead costs. Hence, we see the stagnation of the middle and lower middle classes at the same time as wealth is diverted from them to buy commodities such as food, utilities and gasoline, and even increasingly, false needs such as lottery tickets, cable TV, trend electronics and other redundant and superfluous technologies. The latter are offered in the name of better and luxury living, leaving out any reflection on the spiritual result of the scramble for luxury. The economic ground dwellers, who are also subject to dream messages, often squanders their resources on non-essential tokens of a more luxurious life. Such strivings hurt those at the bottom materially, while adding no real value to the aspirants’ lives, and not even resulting in true luxury in the super-rich ether at the top.

Here in the middle: is my life better because I have an Apple Watch? The answer is—and we are given this script—“Yes, because it’s so cool.” This is important to understand, because we know the watch would be just as cool whether we paid for one or not, but because the cool thing is now connected with us, we gain that cool. And cool is…well, cool if not truly luxurious. By creating a cool luxury image to which we aspire, promising a reward of acceptance and respect when we meet that aspiration, and providing the materials to do so, at a slightly excessive but just affordable cost, the marketplace has conned us into feeling rewarded for passing wealth up the food chain. Pretty cool, huh? We are being conned into living in faux-luxury, or trying to, which ultimately serves the crust of excessive wealth, where luxury means nothing if it produces no return. Striving for the nirvana of the vane and vexed—economic inequity for the rest.

Yes, these con artists prey on our vane self-interest. How do we get conned over and over? The method is simple. Shape a message that says “This a good thing for you. It will make your life better” Repeat this message over and over in a hundred ways, and it becomes a belief, equivalent to truth, and you have already agreed to this message. After all, life should be fun and feel good. Right? Don’t think about it; just eat your lotus seeds; you deserve it.

Finally, we can perceive some missing pieces to this human puzzle. For millennia, people have seen that life is suffering, and that that suffering is a result of our actions, which are themselves intended to improve our condition. Yet only if we ceased to act in this way can we move away from suffering toward real happiness. We have been convinced that striving for luxury is the thing to do. So our actions are pointed to such an end, but even the end we are aiming for is a mirage. Even if we make it, we will have achieved nothing, “…vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Watching “Downton Abbey,” we may have missed the fairly pedestrian message. Here’s what Bing.com says:

The struggle of the upper classes in contrast to the people in their service pre WW1. We struggle with them as we see their lives take shape and become part of their personal pain, anguish, joy and sacrifice. We see clearly that we are all part of the same human condition whether we are upstairs or downstairs.

Certainly life at Downton defines luxury and the luxury life-style better than any Cadillac commercial. Yet it seems clear, whether you look at it through religion, philosophy, sociology or TV: luxury is not the road to happiness. Luxury is how we live with what we have, not what we have to live with.

Some money is certainly needed in a market based society to avoid undue pain and suffering. However, pushed too far, acquiring the emblems of wealth available in the luxury goods market may be seen as the marijuana of wealth addiction. Rather than leading to a better life with any degree of luxury, it may be leading to an addiction—greed, as it seems to have done for some. These addicts are not only missing the luxuries of life available at the top; they are suffering the constant fear of withdrawal pain as they face increasing competition for wealth—market slumps, corruption in the ranks, government regulations. And they are willing to strip their fellow humans of the means of providing their basic needs, shaping an ironic message that, with your purchase, you can move closer to the life the super-rich get to lead. Really?

These wealth addicts are not living in luxury and they have given up their humanity to be where they are. And this on this basis is the image of luxury living constructed. Can our souls be so easily bought? Is the dollar idolatry so powerful that we would run ourselves and our families into massive debt to attain the appearance of wealth gained at the price of spiritual poverty and moral irresponsibility?

Now when you hear the word “luxury” attached to anything, what will you think about? Are you being conned?

Education in a Post-Modern World

I was struck recently by an article by Terri Seddon (2015) from Australian Catholic University in which she presents a description of a shift in contemporary in education, from an emphasis of teaching to a whole population to one of learning as individuals. I would characterize this as a shift toward a post-modern paradigm, deconstructing the old world. Seddon certainly details a framework of deconstruction of traditional education in Australia, which largely parallels American education.

Seddon uses the following quotation in her summary:

“… teachers are neither ‘gamekeepers’ that protect the balance of nature in a national territory, nor ‘gardeners’ who intervene to redesign a natural order. Rather, the 21st century space of education locates worlds where ‘hunters’ aim to fill their own hunting bag with kill irrespective of others. The hunt, the project-by-project achievement of success, becomes the end in view.” (Bauman, 2005)

This quotation aptly summarizes Seddon’s deconstructed educational institution, and aptly casts a doubt across teachers’ influence over empowering students as independent, free-ranging, life-long learners. There are outriders on this trajectory that cloud the underlying philosophy of contemporary education, in Seddon’s writing and in our observations of the quotation above.

First, learning is becoming a largely outside-in process. While successfully accessing sources of content is vital to learning, the process and purpose of learning itself are at least equally important as simple acquisition. Education is not just loading learners up with tools, techniques and the assumption that they should be used. Determining what content Bauman’s “hunter” should seek and how to use it effectively and appropriately, even civilly, seem critical understandings for learners to acquire, and here Seddon concurs.

We are well aware of the enormous amount of material available to anyone via the Web, a relatively small amount of which is useful or even accurate, and much of which is purely subjective. What is more, we have seen the sour consequences of gathering large quantities of data and then determining what to do with them—occasionally inventing uses well after the gathering. Marketers seem particularly good at framing gleanings from random data into essential everyday consumer “needs.” The shift in learning is a reality to which educators must adapt or become irrelevant. Education could perhaps provide a framework for thinking about a better world in which students learn to become well adapted personally and socially, valuing themselves and others while functionally independent.

Teaching as coaching is an insufficient model. As such, pointing out good grounds to hunters encourages the food hunter, the trophy hunter and the ivory hunter equally. Such a model on its own does not limit the decimating harvest of whales or the choking consumption of gasoline. Reasonable choices in what and where to hunt, and how much to leave for other hunters or other generations are survival decisions beyond the individual. Even fully autonomous individuals must share the planet in some way. And while the individual constructs a world of his own experience and conditions, others are constructing walls and bridges that shape those experiences and conditions. Who creates the choices of hunting grounds, who stocks the game, and who sets the limits? Will not production competitors shape the hunting landscape to their own purposes? Who plants the lures in the Apple orchard or the oil field? How is the hunter to judge? How to respond?

Who coaches the coaches? If educators are not developing a sense of prudent choices and reasonable limits, are they abdicating their role as mediators of the renewal of a culture? Such a question also asks what culture we wish to conserve. On a scale beyond education, we might need to assess and revise what we call culture, perhaps or perhaps not a culture rooted in religiously founded nationhood. Seddon seems to say educators are facilitating access to a landscape that is as much outside teachers themselves as it is outside the students, and because this globalized landscape dismisses a moral common core, it contributes to the deconstruction of a moral common culture, a civil community, resulting in an ever more fractious and contentious set of sects.

We know that learning is not just an outside-in process, an acquisition process. It is also a personal development process. And it is inside that the moral world exists. What growth occurs inside is critical to how the tools and techniques can be used, abused or just set aside. Additionally, learning is, or has been, a social development process. How we develop in a world with others as a part of a greater whole has been at the very heart of acculturation, the Titanic mother of education. The resulting atomization of our society is evidence of a partial failure of our binding social fabric, at least. Without question, we are becoming an increasingly global, our boundaries erased by monetary transactions, trade routes, and satellite signals. Even educational institutions serve local and international student bodies. How will we socialize students for such a global society?

The 19th century not only gave us broad public education fit to its times and places; it gave us the Romantic sense of unity, loyalty to the greater good and a belief that that greater good binds us with a self-correcting power. The natural order would always prevail. The more realistic Modernists response half a century later could see that this binding moral center was not holding us together. Greedy exploitation, brutal colonization and a Great War made that clear, but the notion that there was a universal center that morally binds us to one another and our world remained a real if abandoned thing. Now the Post-Modern world simply denies even that belief. It finds no evidence to support a unified universe, which is simply random and without purpose, a universe in which we must wend through a here and now as painlessly and perhaps enjoyably as possible, a world in which the only constant is self. “Cogito ergo sum.” Period. If each of us defines “the” world as we encounter it, then I must construct my teachers. They don’t construct my world; they don’t construct me.

Seddon begins her paper with a quotation that raises a fundamental questions:

What is the point today of the institutions and systems built in the 19th century to provide various forms of education: the schools, the working man’s colleges, the universities? In the world of the information society is education better left as an unfettered relationship between a consenting individual and their smart phone? (Yates, 2012)

What is the purpose of education, and what the role of teachers? Are we adapting knowingly into a world that has no center, or are we simply being drawn blindly into a vortex of post-modern deconstruction of anything outside our microcosmic selves? The only thing that remains the same is change; anything else that remains the same becomes history.

References:

Bauman, Z. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Seddon, Terri. Learning, politics and globalisation: Why have education? [Das Argument_Submission draft_June 2015.docx, Complied: 20/6/15} academia.edu, viewed 30 July 2015.

Yates, L. (2012). “My School, My University, My Country, My World, My Google, Myself…: What is education for now?” Australian Educational Researcher 39: 259–274.