The Structures of Everyday Life
'What a wretched luxury porcelains are!' exclaimed Sebastian Mercier in 1771. 'A cat, with one tap of its paw, can do more damage than the devastation of twenty arpents of land.' However, the price of Chinese porcelains was falling at that time and soon they no longer served as anything but common ballast for boats returning to Europe. The moral is not surprising: every luxury dates and goes out of fashion. But luxury is reborn from its own ashes and from its very defeats. It is really the reflection of a difference in social levels that nothing can compensate for and that every movement recreates. An eternal 'class struggle'.
This was a conflict waged not only by classes, but by civilizations. Civilizations were incessantly eyeing each other, acting out the same drama as the rich played in relation to the poor. But this time it was reciprocal, and therefore created currents and led to accelerated exchanges, from near and far. In short, as Marcel Mauss wrote, 'it was not in production that society found its driving force: luxury is the great stimulus'. According to Gaston Bachelard 'the attainment of the superfluous causes greater spiritual excitement than the attainment of necessities. Man is a creature of desire and not a creature of need.' Jacques Rueff, the economist, goes so far as to repeat that 'production is the daughter of desire'. Probably few would deny the existence of such drives and cravings even in present-day societies with their mass luxuries. For there is no society without a hierarchy. And the slightest social prestige is associated with luxury, today as in the past.
Does that mean one should accept the view, advanced most forcefully by Werner Sombart, that the luxury displayed by the princely courts of the West (of which the papal court of Avignon was the prototype) laid the foundations of early modern capitalism? Or rather should one say that before the innovations of the nineteenth century, the many forms of luxury were not so much an element of growth as a sign of an economy failing to engage with anything, one that was incapable of finding a meaningful use for its accumulated capital? In this sense, one could suggest that a certain kind of luxury was, and could only be, a phenomenon or sign of sickness peculiar to the ancien regime; that until the Industrial Revolution it was (and in some cases still is) the unjust, unhealthy, conspicuous and wasteful consumption of the 'surplus' produced by a society with fixed limits on its growth. In reply to the unconditional defenders of luxury and its creative capacity, the American biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky has written: 'I for one do not lament the passing of social organizations that used the many as a manured soil in which to grow a few graceful flowers of refined culture.'