Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing.

Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: LUXURY

WE CAN THINK of luxury as the self-indulgence of the idle wealthy who are surrounded by lots of stuff, personal possessions bought at high price.

When we think of this what comes to mind are those with inherited wealth or those with the cunning and guile to have become rich through business deals. The former includes a very rich, now aged, land-owning, gray-haired woman living in a big house in London. The latter includes a particular North American who wears what looks like some kind of small furry mammal on his head.

But there is an alternative way to look at luxury and those who have and do not have it. I want to step into that before thinking about what luxury means to me. Doing so means a brief excursion into sociological theory (read on: nothing academic here). Here we go…

Luxury, basics and the new social classes

Let’s start with basics. Without basics you cannot have luxury. Basics are the foundation not only of luxurious living as defined by wealth, income and the pursuit of stuff, but of any secure lifestyle whatever your social class.

Abraham Maslow’s is probably the best known description of the basics — those things we need access to and without which no further personal development can take place. They include:

  • food
  • clean water
  • shelter
  • clothing appropriate to climate
  • personal health and access to health services
  • personal security.

Who has all of these in the technologically-advanced societies? We can use academics, Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine’s social class definitions derived the University of Manchester’s Great British Class Survey to think about this question. British the focus might have been, it is a reasonable proposition in a globalised economy that their findings apply to other more-developed nations as well.

Theirs’ is a more nuanced description of modern societies than the old triple division of upper, middle and working class. This is because those classes, which describe the class structure that emerged from the Industrial Revolution, have fractured. So, when it comes to access to Maslow’s life basics, who has all of those things listed? Let’s use Savage and Devine’s social class terminology to find out.

We can see that the social elite who live in their high-income luxury have no difficulty in securing the basic needs of life. That’s the one percent of the global population identified by the Occupy Movement. Nor does the salariat, the salaried, employee layer of the middle class, nor the middle class proficians, the relatively small number with an entrepreneurial attitude who make a livelihood of project and contract work. Nor the traditional working class with its regular income, paid holidays and other benefits.

The social classes that have difficulty attaining these life basics or who lack them include the new class known as the precariat. The precariat emerged with the casualisation of working life and the growth of parttime work. So-called because their lives are marked by a precarious relationship with income and life basics, the precariat engage in unstable labor working as casuals, working parttime and as temps and engaging in intermittent work for employment agencies. They are the ‘flexible’ workforce of modern industry, an employee class with unstable, generally low incomes, little accumulated capital or savings and who generally have little superannuation, no paid holidays, no retrenchment benefits and no medical coverage other than that supplied by the state.

The precariat appears to be the creation of neoliberal economics over recent decades and their number is increasing. They are the working poor we hear about. Below them is the underclass, such as the homeless, those who have dropped out or been forced out of the economy who lack those life basics the most.

Luxury, however you define it, is clearly linked to your wealth, your income, your education and the opportunities you encounter in life. As we move into the Twenty-First Century, this is the emerging social class structure on the so-called advanced economies.

Down to the individual level

…rejoice in the exuberance of a luxurious minimalism…

That’s the social level to do with luxury. Now, let’s bring this conversation down to the individual level. In considering this writing prompt I had to define my personal appreciation of what that term means to me. Doing that brings to mind Celilia, a friend, a stylish middle class woman in early middle age who, inspired by Japanese traditional culture, has simplified her life of possessions and the redundant ideas foisted on us by marketers, advertisers and society. Cecilia now goes around teaching people how to declutter their lives and their homes, to shed redundant possessions and rejoice in the exuberance of a luxurious minimalism.

Cecilia and ideas I picked up reading led me to think about this luxurious minimalism and how I could achieve it. In doing so I divide our personal possessions into two categories: non-essentials and tools. What constitutes these categories will differ between individuals and depend on livelihood, family circumstances and life activities.

Non-essentials

Non-essentials are those things we can do without. Some of them we can discard as they are largely unused and are thus nothing more than clutter about the house.

For me, the non-essentials include a small collection of books, what was left after I decluttered my bookshelf. The discards now sit in a cardboard box by the door, awaiting transshipment. Non-essentials also include my bushwalking kit. Sure, I don’t need to go trekking in the mountains or the forest but it is something I like to do. Unlike those surplus books, I will be holding on to my bushwalking kit because although not essential, it is something of value to me, a modest and rather functional luxury.

Essentials

Essentials are tools. They might be the tools of our livelihood or of the voluntary community work we do. For me they include a laptop, an iPad and a mobile phone, my camera kit and my carshare membership. The small but good quality stereo I have that connects to my music library on my phone is really one of those non-essentials but one I value as I like listening to music and podcasts.

This is less the luxury of nonessential, seldom-used stuff and more the luxury of freedom from it…

Of course, my partner and I have the usual possessions of bedding and kitchen stuff, though not a great deal of it and even that kitchen stuff was subject to one of those decluttering episodes stimulated by Celilia. We are not making do without, we are making do with just what we make use of. This is less the luxury of nonessential, seldom-used stuff and more the luxury of freedom from it.

Use-value becomes a defining property of ownership though it is not a defining characteristic of what we commonly regard as luxury. Ok, I know that’s a bit utilitarian but that’s how it is.

I have those things that Abraham Maslow lists as life basics, the authentic luxuries that so many lack, and with those comparatively few possessions I mention above I realise that I have a different kind of luxury. It is a luxury defined by possessions that support a modest lifestyle and a luxury devoid of all those excess possessions we so commonly mistake not for the disused clutter they are, but as luxury.

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