Luxury politics and the narcissistic left

Commodification with a woke twist

Artillery Row

If anything, it was slick. A tantalising display of wallets in diverse sizes and shapes, all were christened with the unmistakable GG logo “in silver and gold finish” on my otherwise quite stale Instagram feed. Why was I seeing this ad, though? I’ve never had a Gucci anything in my life, and I could certainly not afford any of the wallets on display, the cheapest of which cost £378.

Then I noticed the book with matching colours that rested quietly next to the wallets on the tiny coffee table, as an accessories’ accessory. It took some zooming, but I finally managed to read: Bodies That Matter by Judith Butler. Would this be why the ad appeared on my timeline? After all, I was interested in Butler. Still, something wasn’t quite right, and no, I am not talking about Zuckerberg’s algorithms. A person who could interfere with elections in the world’s strongest democracies could certainly know about my interest in Butler’s work. But Gucci and Butler? Butler and Gucci? How was that possible?

Butler’s whole political project is premised on this absence of awareness

The ad was part of Gucci’s Aria campaign, “Ontology of Desire”, designed to celebrate the centenary year of the company’s founding in 1921. Shot in The Savoy in London where the founder of the company, Guccio Gucci, worked as a liftboy, the campaign featured a star cast of models and the Italian rock band Måneskin. They all read, we are told, works and essays on desire that included, in addition to Bodies That Matter: Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility by Walter Benjamin, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex by Sigmund Freud and Sexistence by Jean-Luc Nancy. We don’t know whether the models and the creative team actually read these works, and if they did, how they managed to navigate their way through the exacting prose of, say, Baudrillard or Butler, but one thing was certain. “The sexual tension [was] high (blame it on the Gucci).” “Knowledge itself becomes an object of desire,” said Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci at the time, in his notes on the campaign. “So the books of Freud, Nancy and Butler describe the universe of desire, and more, they become objects of attraction themselves.”

Books as objects of attraction? Is that what brought Butler and Gucci together? I don’t mean the commodification of Bodies That Matter, for there is nothing surprising there. After all, Gucci is a capitalist enterprise driven by the desire to maximise profit. Just like any other player of market games, it is inherently predatory, programmed to detect anything that sells. In today’s world, identity sells. There was something else, though, something new — the elevation of identity into an object of desire, the eroticization of knowledge, indeed of the books themselves. “Whip-wielding models and this year’s sex symbol, Måneskin’s Damiano David, embroiling themselves in visceral acts of pleasure and educating themselves on the theories that lace the pages of … Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter.” Are the visceral acts of pleasure here the touching, the smelling, or the education, the theory, the book and its author? The perfect commodity for the haut monde, the cream of the crop who can experiment with identity — certainly one who can afford to pay £378 for a wallet.

What is more startling is how little awareness there is about all this. In fact, it wouldn’t be totally wrong to say that Butler’s whole political project in the last ten years, from Precarious Life and Frames of War to the more recent essays, is premised on this (subliminal?) absence of awareness. After all, it is Butler who told us, during the anti-austerity protests in Greece, that the problem is not a fiscal crisis which could be quickly resolved by a bailout. “The problem is that the neo-liberal forms of political and economic power regularly abandon populations to conditions of precarity … As a result, the call on the streets is precisely not to ‘fix’ this fiscal crisis, but to insist that the dismantling of neo-liberalism is imperative for the renewal of radical democracy.”

This anti-neoliberal stance also lies at the core of Butler’s more recent crusade against what they call the “new fascism” and its “war on gender”. Neoliberalism is depriving people of basic social services, they say in a lecture they gave at The University of Cambridge in April 2023, pointing to the many lives decimated by corporate extractivism and the destruction of the planet. Do they know that most of the embroidery work of Gucci’s exuberant collections — “emblazoned with tigers and butterflies” — is produced in Mumbai by workers with no employment benefits or protections? Or that five employees of one of Gucci’s flagship stores in Shenzhen, China, wrote an open letter on the internet about their exploitation and ill-treatment which led to a miscarriage of one of the women employees?

There is nothing revolutionary or progressive about narcissistic pastime activism

We don’t know whether Butler gave permission for their book to be used in the Gucci campaign, but we can safely assume that they wouldn’t approve of the company’s wanton exploitation of workers’ rights. In any case, my aim is not to take a swipe at Butler, though I do want to draw attention to a broader problem with these politics, or their failure to see the extent to which the Left is captured by neoliberalism, a logic which pervades all institutions and aspects of social life. It’s no accident that Gucci thrived under Alessandro Michele’s leadership, fuelling an 11 per cent boost in profits for the brand’s parent-company, Kering. His unique style, “blending Gucci’s classic penchant for extravagance and opulence with a theatrical, somewhat-kitschy pageantry, has proven to be a huge success”, the global fashion and lifestyle platform Highsnobiety tells us, “attracting many young and aspirational customers”. We don’t know the extent to which Michele is concerned with the well-being of marginalised groups, but, as the creative director of one of the biggest labels in the fashion industry, he would certainly care for profit. In the absence of a belief in social justice, commodification is just that — commodification. With a “woke” twist.

How about the “young and aspirational” Gucci generation? They are the model neoliberal subject that some commentators talked about, who prioritise their subjective needs and desires above those of others. Perhaps some are also interested in Butler’s politics and in becoming part of the rainbow coalition fighting against reactionary forces, out of conviction, admiration or as a hobby. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Activism, even as a hobby, is better than being a passive bystander.

There is nothing revolutionary or progressive about this individual empowerment-driven, narcissistic pastime activism, though. In fact, it’s very much part of the problem. As we’ve seen, the stylish Left not only commodifies but fetishizes identity, turning the self into a political project, often at the expense of the collective. It also reconfigures this new commodity — “the-self-as-political-project” — as an object of desire, imbuing the whole process with an aura of moral righteousness. “Words transfigure into an amorous lexicon” and “wisdom offers itself as an erotic body to know and smell”. At this point, the author ceases to be a figure to be engaged with, instead becoming an idol to be worshipped and obeyed. This is the death of intellectualism and critical thinking that Butler and the broader movement they represent project onto the reactionary Right. It’s of course true that we are faced with an extremist backlash, a new form of fascism bent on destroying the values we hold dear. Yet the identitarian Left isn’t immune to the relations of production that nurture the backlash. It’s part of the neoliberal ecosystem, blithely mimicking the ways of the Right, in particular its disdain for dissent and its totalizing mentality (which leads Butler to lump, say, gender critical feminists together with the likes of Putin, Meloni and Pope Francis).

Unless we alter our relationship with neoliberalism, we may well be “schooled, smart, sexy” and “totally desirable”, as Gucci’s Aria campaign tells us — but we will never build a united front strong enough to take on the new fascism.

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