Donating large sums of money for a good cause is not an act deserving of vicious condemnation. Yet, that is exactly what some of France’s richest individuals have faced after they pledged hundreds of millions of Euros towards the rebuilding of Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral. “What about us?” demand the protesting gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. “What about the homeless in France, or the starving millions around the world?” ask hundreds of journalists and social media influencers. Notre Dame may be a good cause, but there are hundreds of better ones, the argument goes.
Bernard Arnault, Francois-Henri Pinault and the Bettencourt Meyers family must be bewildered by the public relations disaster unleashed by their patriotic charity. After all, nobody suggests the burnt-out cathedral be left as it is. The French state owns it, and is responsible for its maintenance and repair. In the absence of private donations, costs of reconstruction would be drawn from taxes paid by ordinary French citizens. Every cent saved from those expenses is a cent spared for social causes, including sheltering the homeless and providing aid to the poorest nations. In that sense, private donations are indirect contributions to causes held out as more deserving of attention than a Gothic church.
However, it is insufficient to expose the illogic at the heart of negative responses to the donations, for their negativity is motivated less by desire for a say in how private wealth is spent than anguish at the state of a society in which some treat millions of Euros as spare change while others sleep rough on the streets or cannot feed their children or themselves. A similar anguish or anger targets high-profile weddings in India whose extravagance appears to spit in the eye of the destitute.
It is no coincidence that the billionaires who bid the highest amounts towards the reconstruction of Notre Dame own high-end brands of attire, accessories, fragrances, and cosmetics. Their products embody luxury, which has been central to debates about the ethical bases of modern societies ever since the origin of consumer culture in the 18th century. That discourse continues today around issues like Notre Dame, whose reconstruction is easily classified as a luxury when compared to pressing human needs.
Private vices, public benefits
One of the most compelling defences of luxury, as also among the earliest, is Bernard Mandeville’s book The Fable of the Bees, published in 1714, which contains a long poem titled The Grumbling Hive. It isn’t great verse, but makes an incisive point using humour and paradox. Mandeville describes a society of bees filled with vices like avarice, pride, vanity and fickleness. These vices lead to extravagant spending, creating jobs that keep members of the hive occupied and solvent.
“The root of evil, avarice,
that damned ill-natured baneful vice,
was slave to prodigality,
that noble sin; while luxury
employed a million of the poor,
and odious pride a million more:
envy itself, and vanity,
were ministers of industry;
their darling folly, fickleness,
in diet, furniture and dress,
that strange ridiculous vice, was made
the very wheel that turned the trade.
Thus vice nursed ingenuity,
which joined with time and industry,
had carried life’s conveniences,
its real pleasures, comforts, ease,
to such a height, the very poor
lived better than the rich before.”
Despite the high standard of living engendered by vices, the bees all complain about a general lack of morals, which leads God to turn them all virtuous. As they cut back on spending, content to make do with less and shunning all forms of luxury, entire occupations disappear. Demand falls across the board, creating deflation and recession, followed by outward migration and internal collapse. Mandeville’s conclusion, expressed in prose, is that private vices create public benefits.
Individual effort, inherited privilege
Mandeville’s poem was translated into French by the philosopher and physicist Émilie du Châtelet, whose lover Voltaire, having been impressed by life in England during his brief exile there between 1726 and 1728, became an eloquent propagandist for luxury. Voltaire decried the feudal lifestyle in which absentee landlords would gallivant in Paris while the exploited peasantry worked farms, but defended the emergent bourgeois society that afforded social mobility and was characterised by broad-based prosperity. The consumption of commercialised luxury products was, in his view, a just reward for individual effort rather than inherited privilege, and a feature of a wealthier, more equitable society.
France developed to approximate precisely such a refined, secular, and rationally oriented culture, as also one that produces luxury goods coveted around the globe. Its status as the nation visited by more foreign tourists than any other places sights like Notre Dame at the centre of its economy. The necessity of luxury is, as a consequence, more evident in France than virtually any nation. Even considering India, though, the fable of the bees is pertinent. Think of all the vendors and workers dependent on lavish weddings for their living.
The crucial factor in Mandeville’s framework is its profoundly paradoxical nature. We can alter his moral categories to include contemporary ideas regarding inequality and ecology, but need to acknowledge that the public benefits derived from private vices remain substantial. That does not stop them from being vices, impelling us to keep imagining futures in which they will cease to be essential. The danger is to opt for simplistic condemnation of the sort directed at the Notre Dame billionaires, forgetting that alternatives to consumer society were instituted in many parts of the world in the 20th century, and without exception produced a greater degree of deprivation and unfreedom.