In defence of luxury

The growth of luxury travel is cause for celebration

1st March 2024
Jim Butcher

Elite critics have long sneered at tourists. But the growth of luxury travel is something to celebrate, writes Jim Butcher.

Tourists often look for a little bit of luxury. And why not? After working hard all year, many of us long for the chance to kick back and enjoy the very best things in life while on holiday and there are plenty of companies looking to fulfill our dreams. Recently, the launch of the new cruise liner The Icon of the Seas has caused a splash. Its owners, Royal Caribbean, claim it sets new standards in high tech luxury. But, it seems, there are those who begrudge tourists their fortnight of pleasure. Cruise ship tourism in particular has attracted critics, with one account condemning the ‘vulgar displays of opulence’.

The enjoyment of luxury has long been subject to moral critique. Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume believed that as long as a penchant for luxury did not interfere with our responsibilities, or prevent us from exercising appropriate charity, we should be free to enjoy ourselves. The problem, Hume argued, was ‘vicious luxury’ that got in the way of good deeds or led to moral decay. This view is still in evidence today with luxury consumption condemned as environmentally destructive and, against a backdrop of poverty, morally bankrupt.

Immoral luxury

Fellow Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau was less forgiving of the luxury leisure class. For Rousseau, luxury was ‘diametrically opposed to good morals’, producing as it did ‘the corruption of taste’ and the decline of ‘true courage’ and ‘military virtues.’ Everything beyond what was absolutely necessary was, he considered, ‘a source of evil’ and it was, therefore, ‘exceedingly imprudent’ to multiply our needs. According to this argument, governments should, through taxation, head off such decadence.

Rousseau’s theme – that modern, rational ways have caused us to lose our innocence and our morals – was taken up by nineteenth century Romantics. In the USA, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: or Life in the Woods, argued against luxury in the form of ‘overcivilisation’ in favour of a ‘raw’ ascetic life featuring ‘savage delight’. John Muir, instrumental in the establishment of America’s national parks, saw his role as ‘saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism’. He shared a desire for basic living close to nature, rooted in Calvinist self-denial and Romanticism. Cycling round the Scottish borders last summer I came across the John Muir Country Store in Muir’s birthplace of Dunbar, selling luxury hampers. I’m not sure Muir would approve!

Thorsten Veblen satirised the conspicuous luxury consumption of the idle wealthy in his 1899 book A Theory of the Leisure Class. Luxury consumption was decadent and irrational, he argued. It was the means by which the wealthy differentiated themselves from lower social classes. And although the rich could afford luxury, their tastes shaped the desires of workers seeking higher social status. Veblen was a forerunner of today’s critics of consumerism, ideas that have become a staple of radical thought.

One manifestation of the emerging counter-culture influenced by such critiques occurred in Paris in 1968. During widespread protests, students broke the windows of the offices of the holiday company Club Med. They daubed on the wall ‘A cheap holiday in other people’s misery’. A distaste for luxury and carefree holidays for some, during the horror of the Vietnam war for others, inclined the protesters to see Club Med as emblematic of bourgeois, imperialist society.

The phrase ‘a cheap holiday in other people’s misery’ was reprised by The Sex Pistols in their 1978 single Holiday in The Sun. The punk rebellion was a significant riposte to stultifying conformity. It represented the ‘no future’ nihilism of a generation for whom the idealism and radicalism of the prior two decades was neither cool nor convincing (especially the hippies – ‘never trust a hippy’ declared John Lydon on The Sex Pistols track Who Killed Bambi?). If The Who had put the spirit of the sixties to bed (‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ they sang on their 1971 record We Won’t Get Fooled Again) the Pistols engaged in a beautifully infantile and raucus revolt against authority.

Scorn for tourists

Today, luxury consumption is caricatured by some as greedy, bad for the environment and culturally decadent. The scorn for ‘a cheap holiday in other people’s misery’ lives on in an elite critique of luxury.

Private jets have become an obvious target. Only the super-rich – like Chris Martin of rock band Coldplay, or pseudo-Royal influencers Harry and Meghan – can afford to travel this way. What could be more decadent, or expensive, than travelling in your own private jet ? What could be more hypocritical than doing so while preaching green mantras for others to follow? Opposition to private jets comes from groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Stay Grounded. The ‘jet set’ stands accused of not just of contributing to global warming but of privileging their own convenience when so many others lack basic amenities and food. Private jets apparently represent obscene wealth in the midst of poverty.

But is that the full picture? The late sociologist of class, Erik Olin Wright, begged this question in 2016: ‘In your ideal society, do you imagine there would be no private jets anymore, or would there be private jets for all?’. Answers differentiate between those who see luxury consumption as a problem per se, and those who would like to see a society with luxury for all.

Promethean Marxist Leigh Phillips argues for luxury jet travel for the masses, and points to the potential for technology and growth to expand the ‘jet set’ from the few to the many. Making a similar point versus the luxury-sceptic Left, Daniel Ben-Ami titled his book Ferraris for All: In Defence of Economic Progress.

The scourge of cruise liners

More central to today’s tourism debate are cruise liners. Here is a luxury product that – unlike Ferraris and private jets – has already become affordable for some working class people. So, we could ask: ‘in your ideal society, would there be no cruise ships, or would there be cruise holidays available for all?’. The commentary around the Royal Caribbean’s recently launched cruise liner Icon of The Seas, suggests more than a few have sympathies with the former view.

The luxury of cruise ships is counterposed to the damage they are said to do to the environment. Denunciations of cruise ships as ‘monstrosities’ or ‘climate catastrophes’ are not uncommon. For one commentator, cruising is a ‘dystopian’ industry in a ‘lavish world on the brink of collapse’. Cruise ships, and by implication their patrons, are according to one critic ‘about the performance of consumerism and consumption’, a ‘floating microcosm of our global economic hierarchy’ associated with ‘the persistent ideology of imperialism’.

The antipathy to cruising runs deep. There is a sense in the criticisms that it is simply unnecessary to cruise – as one protester puts it: ‘We are simply denouncing this industry which has no reason to exist’. The same could surely be said of all luxury consumption.

Others pan cruises as typical of a dumbed down, massified approach to travel, labelling cruise ships as ‘icons of idiocy’ containing a ‘festering cesspool of humanity’. We may not have reached Victorian levels of antipathy for the leisured masses (the eighteenth century critic Reverend John Ruskin openly labelled mass tourists as ‘vulgar’ and ‘obnoxious’) it is certainly suggested that these ‘icons of idiocy’ are, indeed, full of idiots.

Luxury for all

So much for the cruise critics. But is a defence of luxury a defence of the status quo opposed by the punks, or of decadent elites despised by the Parisien soixante huitards? Champion of working class revolution Karl Marx’s notion of communism was far removed from the worldview of today’s opponents of consumerism and critics of luxury. Communism, he argued, could only be achieved through raising society’s productive capacity, in other words – creating abundance. Not for him the asceticism of degrowth or moralistic objections to conspicuous displays of wealth. Marx looked to a cornucopia of opportunities rather than moralising about what is a ‘need’ and what we could do without.

The point remains that what we think of as ‘luxury’ or ‘need’ is socially determined – it is a product of the times we live in. What many feel they ‘need’ today would have been beyond the wildest dreams of even the wealthy a few generations ago. In recent decades the mobile phone has morphed from a yuppy accessory to an essential device for all. And many of us, after a hard week, declare without irony, ‘I need a holiday’.

Veteran Marxist and gay rights campaigner Don Milligan provides a forthright, radical defence of luxury in his excellent blog:

We cannot live without art, without literature, without drama and poetry, without fine jewellery, Persian rugs and handmade furniture, without haut couture, without champagne, or without philosophy. Excellence in material production, in cheese, in poetry, or in reflection upon the nature of truth, is essential for the progress and development of human society. Without luxury in thought and manufacture and consumption we would be without a scale to measure the quality of anything. The fact that most people on the planet survive with insufficient food and without access to clean drinking water is not a relevant consideration when considering the necessity of luxury.

The abolition of luxury production would not make one jot of difference to the impoverished billions of people on the planet. The closure of opera houses worldwide, the trashing of every Louis Vuitton outlet on the planet, the ploughing up of all the vineyards in Bordeaux, and forcing all the world’s metaphysicians into the ranks of the working class in order to perform “useful work” would make no contribution to human happiness. It would however, impoverish human culture, and make the development of art, science, and technology considerably more difficult.

None of the above involves denial of the gross inequality and injustice that characterizes our society. Faced with the continued existence of global poverty, it is often said that ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’. If true, that might provide some moral justification for opposing luxury consumption, or at least diverting resources from rich to poor. But it is not the case.

As the late Hans Rosling showed, the trend generally is for societies to become more wealthy, with increasing numbers of people benefitting from things – luxuries – that were previously the preserve of the few. It is true that there are widening disparities within countries undergoing economic growth, such as India and China, but the general trend is for the poor to get richer. This historical trend is important. It has allowed first domestic, and then international tourism, to become the norm for more people. Many working class people can today travel for leisure, something that would have been beyond the dreams of previous generations.

This is sometimes called the ‘democratisation of tourism’. It is a misnomer, surely, as tourism has little to do with ‘people power’; you can’t change the world through holidays, and ethical consumption is generally performative ethics for those with plenty of money. But it is a sentiment worthy of celebration nonetheless. And the critique of luxury would be more convincing if it was accompanied by an alternative. Without an alternative, critique readily lapses into ironic detachment, cynicism aimed at the masses who have ‘bought the lie’, or conspiracy theories aimed at shadowy elites.

Some would claim we do have alternatives, in the form of degrowth for the economy and ‘social justice’ for culture. But these alternatives share the dubious merit of being worse than the thing they rail against. Degrowth promises downsized, ‘poor but happy’ conviviality. Unlike social justice of a different era, the modern social justice movement does not seek to liberate the working class from its chains, but instead seems intent on policing the behaviour of the masses (hence the popularity of ‘social justice’ in corporate DEI and amongst the professional managerial class in general). And anyway, these proposed alternatives lack a base of popular support.

International tourism was definitely a luxury one hundred years ago. Far less so today. The Romantics felt that travel should be reserved for those of means and education. Yet the masses proceeded to seek out their own pleasures and luxuries based on the share of wealth and rights they struggled for. Cruising was associated with the height of fashion and luxury in the 1930s. But even back then one passenger noted: ‘The thing about cruising is that everyone is dressed in the same kind of light and bright clothing, and so you cannot tell the dukes from the dustmen. Today the great grandchildren of the Glasgow shipyard workers who built a generation of liners, save up and enjoy a relaxing, luxurious cruise on their modern equivalents.

In defence of pleasure

Disdain aimed at luxury consumption, whether it is cruise ships, or even private jets, is misplaced. It’s not that the Parisien students didn’t have a point when they compared the luxuries of the rich to the poverty of others. But surely today we need to look at ways that the pleasures of luxury – living beyond need alone – becomes something we expect for aspirant others as much as we aspire to it ourselves.

A bit of performative asceticism is fine … as a holiday. I enjoy a little ‘bike packing’ myself (with a mobile phone to guide me and a credit card to book into a hotel in bad weather, of course). Lots of exciting experiences involve roughing it. Wellbeing yoga retreats and ‘digital detoxes’ sell back to well-healed urbanites respite from their well-healed urbanity. But, as is often the case in debates about tourism, personal preferences unfavourable to luxury of the more conspicuous, unapologetic variety, readily morph into moralizing about others’ preferences. That’s a part of the moralisation of tourism, the subject of my first, and next, book.

Jim Butcher is a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK. He writes on tourism, free speech and education. Jim edits the substack Tourism’s Horizon: Travel for the Millions and blogs at Politics of Tourism. He is on the advisory board of Academics for Academic Freedom, and co-convenes the Canterbury and Kent Universities’ branch.

Photo by Alonso Reyes on Unsplash
Photo by Adam Gonzales on Unsplash