Auto Show, Daytona, 1965 (Photo by Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The death of luxury

When did we all decide to stop travelling, and living, in style?

In the 1960s international travel was perceived, and heavily marketed as, luxurious, desirable and exciting. Men and women dressed up to travel, and planes and aeroplanes served you lunch at your seat with white tablecloths and silver cutlery. The interiors of vehicles were replete with wood and leather, and the exteriors imitated rocket ships. Fashion, even as hemlines crept up, was still playful and maximalist, with bright colours and good quality materials. Hats were still a universal feature of male and female dress. 

Capitalism after the war meant luxury. It was associated with rapid economic growth, a post war boom that extended across the Western world. It’s hard not to unfavourably compare the aesthetic and qualitative nature of commercial life then with its luxury consumer products, grand department stores and optimistic technology designed for the good life, with today’s miserable, grubby globalised capitalism. 

There’s little sign of luxury when you’re cramped into a Ryanair flight to Spain or stuck standing up on an inevitably delayed train to York. Go to London’s commercial heart and you’ll find Oxford Street a miserable press of bodies surrounding poorly stocked shelves where you’ll struggle to find a decent off the rack suit or furniture that’s much of an upgrade on what you’d get at Ikea. 

America and Britain were more equal in the 1960s

Being a consumer is not much fun. It generally involves a degree of queueing and shoving your way through crowds that was once the distinctive feature of the Soviet, not the Western, economic system. 

Rationing, and single massive state-backed monopolies which produced one kind of shoe or TV or car, have gone from being signs of a failed communist system to the apparent fruits of our new hyper-globalised market. 

You’ll find this new system justified in curiously similar ways by its defenders. It’s simply cheaper and more rational to concentrate production in a few factories, and it’s a great gift to the global poor. The reason we have less luxury is because more people than ever can access international travel, consumer goods and mass entertainment. 

The level of service received in shops, transport and hotels reflected both an era in which consumption was an elite venture, and in which many households were used to having servants. This servile culture has gone the way of deference, and capitalism is now fairer and more egalitarian, focussing on the needs of the many rather than the whims and comfort of the fortunate few.

It’s certainly an argument, but it’s one that forgets that the initial explosion of luxury was related to a vast redistribution of wealth. America and Britain were more equal in the 1960s than they are today.

The different imaginative world they inhabited extends far beyond slick ad campaigns and home comforts. The 1950s-60s were a utopian era, in which technology, when directed to the right ends, had the power to positively transform our lives. Space travel reached heights that have never been scaled again. Capitalism, substantially moderated and qualified, was reimagined as an engine of humanist liberation, rather than merely a mechanism for maximising utility. 

Though proponents of right and left wing economics disagreed on much, there was a considerable range of agreement that a modern economy would reduce the need for labour, freeing us to pursue other things, and universalizing and democratising the life of leisure once exclusive to the aristocracy. John Meynard Keynes famously predicted in 1930 that future generations might be working a 15 hour week. 

This was not just a flight of fancy. Even in preindustrial societies working hours were highly irregular, with agricultural labour varying throughout the year. Even the very poorest might be working short hours depending on the season. The relentless output of machines created a demand for long working weeks (as well as boosting wages), but as productivity grew, it seemed no less logical that working hours would go in the opposite direction. Laws were passed limiting hours, and reforming industrialists did the same. 

In the 1960s capitalism and economic change appeared to be delivering expansions of the space and time available to each individual. Houses were getting larger, transport was growing swifter, and the working day was becoming shorter. In America, where this promise seemed most potent and seductive, it has all gone wrong. Though TVs, toys and electronic goods are now cheaper than ever, food, housing, college, healthcare and childcare have all become more expensive. 

Almost as important are the goods that have simply failed to become cheaper, often whilst considerably dropping in quality — furniture and clothing chief amongst them. 

In Britain productivity has declined, and hours have basically plateaued. The remote work revolution has been hailed as a gift to workers, but it risks worsening productivity, preventing employees from organising, and further blurring the boundaries between work and leisure. Even if hours are somewhat shorter than the 60s, most white collar workers now know the tyranny of the out of hours text, phone call or email. 

It’s not just that we’re no longer living in a boom — our entire attitude to economic life and social organisation has changed, and not for the better. Where once systems were built around individual and collective aspirations, we now force or manipulate individuals to fit the needs of the state or market. 

Part of the problem is that the sunny progressive vision of the 60s created the monster that would blot out the sun: rampant individualism. The sort of society that prizes individual success and ambition is not an atomised one. The initially humanist and luxurious mode of capitalism was dependent on a strong culture that could restrain the market and force it to accommodate the human person. 

Modern capitalism has come to resemble Communist Russia

Curiously, the test case for this is that most collectivist of systems — the Soviet Union. Just as modern capitalism has come to resemble the ultracentralised and bureaucratic model of Communist Russia, so our social attitudes have much in common. 

The Bolsheviks set out quite systematically to destroy civil society, from churches to trade unions. They stoked a sense of mutual fear and suspicion, breaking social solidarity and inspiring loyalty to the state above even familial bonds. This created a society of fearful and isolated individuals who sought to avoid standing out, and punished those who did. 

Although there are straightforward economic explanations for the ultra-utilitarian nature of modern commerce, we cannot ignore the potent effect of culture and politics on markets. As religion and traditional culture have declined, so too have richly figurative and humanistic forms of consumption and production. Architecture and design have become highly minimalist, and distinctive cultural signifiers and references are largely absent from the economic realm. 

Luxury still exists, of course, but just as in the Soviet Union it has been privatised and hidden. The democratic luxury which can be enjoyed by all — the beautiful city centre, the comfortably constructed public transport or the richly supplied shop — has been replaced by an invisible network of ultra-consumption. Luxury now belong to yachts and private jets, not cruise ships and commercial airlines. The super rich no longer display their wealth, but hide inside gated communities, Range Rovers with tinted windows, and exclusive resorts. 

When they do venture out in public, the rich don’t don suits and dresses, but rather invest in designer trainers and tracksuits. Their houses are more likely to be stuffed with modern furniture than antiques, and they’ve traded live-in uniformed servants for au-pairs and cleaning services.

The old world of conspicuous consumption has changed drastically. Once, it was the rising middle classes and their “Keeping up with the Joneses” culture which saw suburban families showing off the latest car or handbag. But today data suggests that the greatest consumers of designer brands are the very wealthiest … and very poorest. The middle classes no longer want to show off their wealth.

This culture of self-denial is complex, with cause and effect hard to determine. The rise of environmentalism, vegetarianism/veganism and a vogue for the vintage, second-hand and homemade, can be seen as an organic reaction to ethical challenges. However they are no less responses to changed economic circumstances (making a virtue of necessity), in which middle class families now face a harder time buying a home, and are likely to see lower wages and a higher cost of living than their parents. 

Little surprise, then, that another inverted bell curve describes average fertility, where it declines with wealth before suddenly shooting up again at the higher end of the income distribution. Culture and economics are again mixed up. Are young middle class families forgoing reproduction in order to save the planet, or to save money? 

No doubt today’s environmentally minded middle classes are rightly waking up to the dystopian potential of technology, and no doubt the 60s’ love of luxury overlaid much injustice and folly. But in turning away from the utopian potential of technology, we risk producing a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

We have entered a grim era of queues and quotas, vegetarianism and vacuousness, incuriosity and individualism. We have to shake off the Malthusian gloom lurking in Anglo-Saxon liberalism, and learn from the optimism and adventure, the comfort and the courage of a more vigorous era of Western history.

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