Crass Struggle

By R. T. Naylor

Just in the past year or so there have been a couple of prominent books – Cheap by Ellen Ruppel Shell and The Price of a Bargain by Gordon Laird – that bemoaned our “discount” culture and the way it produced shoddy goods, environmental desolation, lower labour standards, increased inequality, and a number of other social ills. In Crass Struggle McGill economics professor R. T. Naylor looks at how the other half-a-percent live and what that means for the rest of us.

It is a truly global and encyclopedic survey, an almost too-thick catalogue of wretched excess. There are chapters on precious metals and jewels, high art and collectibles, fine cuisine and the perfect bottle of wine. All of this merchandise being, as one can imagine, very expensive.

And, we might say, what’s wrong with that? The best things in life aren’t free. As determined by the market they tend to be much in demand, rare or otherwise hard to acquire. Furthermore, broadcasting one’s status, letting the plebs know that you’ve “arrived,” comes at a price. And making one’s consumption conspicuous in these jaded days is no easy task.

Naylor spent “two or three years” compiling this book and seems to have clipped every news story involving the lifestyles of the rich and famous and their “consumania” during that time. This has the effect of occasionally making the reader feel trapped beneath an avalanche of items, unconsciously mirroring the spirit of too much never being enough.

One wishes more time had been spent pulling it all together, and making the main argument a little clearer. Naylor’s thesis is that the consumption habits of today’s hyper-rich actually come at a far higher price than advertised (as hard as that may be to imagine). When the rich splurge their wealth it drives the market into bubbles, promotes all kinds of dubious if not outright criminal activity (forgery, theft, even war), exploits the poor and the vulnerable, and destroys the natural environment.

Naylor is a caustic critic of excess. “Why,” he asks, “do those who are so very well off spend their money in such infantile, narcissistic, and damaging (socially and environmentally) ways; and why do so many of the less fortunate insist on doing the same to whatever extent their limited means allow?”

Francis Bacon opined that “The virtue of prosperity is temperance; the virtue of adversity is fortitude.” But that was four hundred years ago. Today the exercise of temperance in prosperity would likely strike most observers as idiotic self-denial. Consumption isn’t just a right, it’s a political duty.

You’re only rich once, and given how we’ve funded much of this spree with record amounts of debt (at both the personal and national level) it may be that we just don’t care about the consequences anymore. Obviously there’s a bill that’s going to have to be paid for all this, but someone else – in another time, and another place – is going to suffer the sticker shock.

Review first published online October 17, 2011.