The essence of luxury is misunderstood!
The word Luxury is etymologically derived from the Latin word Luxus and considered to have the same meaning as Luxation (medical dislocation). This is when a node (i.e. an arm) has been moved from its proper place – a debauch. (Hellquist: Swedish etymological dictionary). So to think of luxury as something that went wrong in the beginning gives many ideas and raises many questions.
Several different processes of democratization have occurred in recent centuries and have changed contemporary society in many ways, such as voting rights, pension rights, unions and democratic elections. Most of these have been improvements of historical problems, although we simultaneously find (huge) exceptions!
From several aspects, experiences in Sweden during the 20th century are not always flattering. Sweden did not participate in World War I and, during World War II, was ‘neutral’ (which in itself is impossible and a separate issue). The country balanced on the edge between being annexed by Nazi Germany, as several neighbouring countries were, and ‘doing business’ with the Nazi’s and remaining ‘free’.
Thanks to this ‘freedom’, Sweden came out of World War II in good shape. We were not bombed, still had a working infrastructure and the raw materials needed for production. The labour market was flourishing, even though many farms were closed down in favour of industrial jobs. The main thing was that everyone had work, growth prevailed and the future was bright.
But what has all this to do with luxury? Having built our welfare state, directed by the political power of social democracy and in close cooperation with private industry and other power structures, we today see the result. It was important for Sweden to have a political consensus and avoid becoming indentured into the second world war. During the creation of the welfare state, much was done so that more people would have a better life, better housing and safe working conditions. The absolute majority of these efforts were, and are, both desirable and necessary. Time, however, has done its work.
Through my own various work and research through surveys and interviews, a clear picture emerges. The social democracy democratisation process stopped its development and stagnated around 1968. During the construction of the welfare state, a statement or norm was born that proclaims that the engineer is the one all of us should look up to. The engineer can build, can count and is rational!
Luxury has become a degenerated word via the economic and rational procedure that society, politics and culture had been incorporated in Sweden the last 100 years. Cay Bond
Cay Bond is one of Sweden’s best-known trend analysts and author with a focus on fashion. She started the forerunner of today’s Swedish Elle magazine Clic. In the 1980’s, as an agent for Promostyl, she launched today’s trend research process by studying socio-cultural valuations and the changes of attitudes that precede them. She has stated that, in France, luxury is connected with tradition and quality, and is something unique and valuable. In Sweden, luxury has become synonymous with abundance or, simply, consumption.
To consume, and then to consume even more, is the approach in Sweden today. And, to be able to ‘consume more’, prices must be depressed. This often means that most production takes place outside Sweden and thus abolishes native professional pride and craftsmanship, resulting in the poor quality of what is still made at home. This process of decline also impoverishes a future in which we could produce quality within a tradition. It’s cheap, it happens.
So, to understand the meaning of luxury, you have to understand the culture and the historical changes of a society. Nothing has happened automatically or by ‘natural selection’. Since the end of World War II, American ‘culture’ has unfortunately put Europe at its feet.
In Sweden, the construction of the welfare state, mainly by the Social Democratic Party with unions, education, private houses for everyone etc, was a national issue and construction project, which was good and needed. Unfortunately, this movement stopped in the late 1960’s and since then has only been an administrative colossus. All the visions of the future from the 1940’s and 1950’s have become an administrative grey mass.
As the welfare state emerged, several Swedish companies like IKEA and HM founded their future on their strategies to be for ‘the people’ by producing cheaper products. Consumption increased, ‘growth’ became the mantra and the Swedish were taught to accept ‘okay quality’. The result was that everything became cheaper. Then, when manufacturers moved their production outside Sweden, that lowered costs even more, and goods became even cheaper.
Meanwhile the democratisation process produced the welfare state, abolished school graduation, increased student aid, and gave more women the power to leave their housewife role; this was, in short, a positive democratic development. At the same time, and despite other influences, social and cultural homogenisation was strengthened.
The discrepancy between the ‘okay quality’ of mass production and cheaper and cheaper goods and high quality increased and is still increasing. High quality is synonymous with luxury, with exclusivity. It requires more time to produce, more knowledge of skills, a tradition of producing well and a professional pride in being the producer.
In Sweden, we have a strong consensus culture: the group decides and takes responsibility; the individual cannot be blamed. The labour market should be more co-equal, and everybody is equally important in an organisation, young and old, women and men, skilled or not skilled. Trade unions and political parties abolished apprenticeships and introduced wage equilibrium: a newly qualified 18-year-old has the same salary as a person with 25 years experience.
Again, equality is good. Democracy is good. What went wrong was that the rational numerical controlling organiser rules. Quality, craftsmanship, pride and tradition are all qualities we admire, but they do not provide cheaper products. The Swede has been trained to buy ‘okay quality’ because it’s cheap, and not high quality, which is considered a luxury, because luxury is not acceptable in a homogeneous consensus-thinking culture. It’s even considered ugly, a remarkable change, don’t you think?
A very interesting parallell is that Sweden has provided its population cheap consumption, just as the Soviet Union has done with cheap vodka to keep its masses calm. Everyone knows that some kind of control system must exist in order to maintain power in an organisation or a country and prevent the staff, or the people, from mutinying. Whether this is done with cheap products, vodka or bread or circus, as Gabriel La Tarde mention, is unimportant.
It’s both fascinating and very sad to see the decline of so-called luxuries (in term of quality and tradition). Just think of air travel! Today we travel to Thailand like livestock, treated nearly as badly as the animal transports that we humans so loudly protest against! Why have we accepted this degeneration of quality? That’s a very good question, and the answer is that it’s simply about the education that politics and society have given its citizens. Accepting ‘okay quality’ in order to consume more and more is the signal they had given and still give.
In the past, growth was the mantra that politicians after politicians repeated time after time: GROWTH! With an ear to the current political discourse, it seems that something else rules: sustainability. From companies like HM and IKEA, we have learned that everything can be cheaper: a table for 50 SEK (€5.50) or three T-shirts for 100 SEK (€11). But what does it really cost, and how sustainable is it?
The essence of luxury is misunderstood. When consumers living in a consensus culture have learnt to buy everything cheap, they miss the essential point. Quality, craftsmanship, traditions that give an artefact value can’t be cheap, even when the consensus-driven consumer names it ‘luxury’ in order to stay in the consensus sphere.
Claes Foxérus is a Swedish consultant that writes about trends, brands, design and innovation.
This text comes from Second Sight – 2015 and Beyond (ISBN 978-94-91131-00-4)