The Consumer and the Aristocrat

In my continuing readings into brand culture and commercial society (which some designate as the “bourgeois society” and bourgeois values) I’m also struck how the apologists for it generally make the great mistake of thinking that consumerism is the “democratisation” of the luxury, sumptuousness, fashion, conspicuous consumption, even profligacy that is assumed to be the preserve of aristocracy. Mass production and advertising, they argue, has democratised the lifestyles previously associated with aristocracy.

What these promoters and apologists for consumerism fail to understand at all is that the luxuriousness, self-indulgence, conspicuous consumption, the pudginess and profligacy of the aristocracy they deem worthy of emulation (or really, envy) were symptoms of the decadence and degeneracy of aristocratic culture and the ideals of nobility. What was, in fact, the diseased and degenerated condition of aristocratic culture is today held out as the ideal, and as being worthy of emulation!

In its most vigorous stage, aristocracy or nobility, had nothing to do with consumption, luxury, style, or sumptuousness. The ideal of nobility was just the opposite. “Noble bearing” meant the ability to endure great hardship with confidence, equanimity, and equipoise, and to be strong enough to assume the gravest and greatest of responsibilities without falling to pieces. This is still the meaning of Nietzsche’s idea of the noble virtues: “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. It is not the least bit true that aristocratic culture was ruled by the pursuit of the “pleasure principle”. That was true only of the decadence of the aristocrats of the ancien regime who had become soft, pudgy and self-indulgent, and who were ultimately overthrown for that reason.

This is always the first objection to those who hold forth that consumerism is “democratisation”, by which they mean the democratisation of aristocratic “values”, privilege, luxury, conspicuous consumption, self-indulgence, style, sophistication, and the pursuit of the pleasure principle. What they deem worthy of envy and emulation is, ironically however, the degenerated and corrupt stages of aristocratic culture, when the aristocratic classes had already isolated themselves from, and seceded from, history and the populace.

And what madness and insanity is it that thinks that what was a diseased state is worthy of emulation and imitation, and which holds it up as an “ideal”?

The German mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote an essay called “The Aristocrat”. This aristocrat is the same as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “oversoul“. It is what is genuinely noble in the human form. It is that awareness that lies “beyond good and evil”, and beyond pleasure and pain, because it is the inherent strength that can face good and evil, or pleasure and pain with perfect equanimity and equipoise (or what we call “unflinching”) without losing its marbles, and is for that reason what we call “peace of mind”.

And you may note, too, that a lot of contemporary advertising presumes to sell this very “peace of mind” as a commodity — as a good or service. Maybe even as a firearm, an alarm system, an insurance policy, a pill, a gated-community, and so on. Does anyone really believe that they can purchase real “peace of mind” by consuming these things, and which offer “fast, fast, fast relief” from their Angst and anxieties? It’s illusionism. It isn’t real. Yet, “peace of mind” is probably the biggest selling brand in the market today.


11 responses to “The Consumer and the Aristocrat”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    “Every man a king” and every woman a queen — those were the ennobling ideals of primitive democracy, but which became somewhat perverted over the course of time. An example is the meaning of “castle” and the man as “king of the castle”. Castles were very unpleasant things. They weren’t households, they were fortresses — dank, dark, and cold. It’s said that even the poorest amngst us today live better than the kings of the middle ages, and that’s probably not far wrong. But this romantic image of castles as exemplary of luxury, comfort, etc — that’s just completely wrong.

    Later, yes — you have extravagances like the Sun King’s Neuschwannstein (the model for Disney’s castle and fairy tales) and the Louvre, the chalet, etc. But we are then already well into the decadent stages of aristocratic form of society. It was already fantasist. This isn’t just the popular misconception about castles either. A lot of people speak of castles as if they were aesthetic delights. Camelot, for example But there was nothing delightful about them in reality.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    This made me transverse time in a flash to my college days to remember vaguely Thorstein Veblen and his book the leisure class and how the trend in pecuniary accumulation and conspicuous consumption devour society through changing its diction and the meaning of its words as you have skillfully described, This sumptuosity covers ugly facts between the few that spend more than five thousand dollar on a room for a night and the majority that can not gain that much over the span of years in a world where the anthropomorphic divinity is the motto and the departure from the standard of decency is the norm and conformity is the fashion of the scholastic who are supposed to be boats of our deliverance. What one expect when the language of the pulpits and the markets are unified. Polanyi spoke of marxism as a philosophy of moral inversion, I wonder what he will say in his grave about capitalistic consumerism. Reading you make me sad but sadness some time help me not to fall in the consumerism trap and make me more aware of the slippery slope of our humanity, at the same time make me recognize my weakness and infirmity as even grasping the solution for this multidimensional problem and all that I can do is to bear witness in the traditions of the prophets and wait for the divine truth to take effect. It is surprisingly trying is the path of god who keeps his interference in the human story till the last moment as the story of Lot reveals.

  3. alex jay says :

    Just thought I’d pass this on to you:

    Around the 40 minute mark the conversation turns to the Apollonian & Dionysian elements of the cultural psyche.

    Actually, I went through the entire 20 hours or so of the7 part discussion (the luxury of being an old retired fart) and found the entire presentation informative, well documented, and at times tedious and disjointed. However, much to ponder in order to connect some dots of suspicions I’ve entertained and personally experienced over the years.

    Yes, it’s about music and its role in shaping the collective consciousness.

    • alex jay says :

      Oops! I apologise. For some reason the link is part1. It should be part 6:

      • alex jay says :

        Sorry! The gremlins have taken over. I can’t seem to get part 6 linked, even though the web address indicates “part 6”??? It’s either me or nefarious dark forces of anti-conspiracy theorists. : )

      • Scott Preston says :

        I’m about harf-way through this interview with Utter, but about half of it makes sense and the other half is probably bullshit. It’s easy enough to see why. It’s because Utter and the radio host share with the supposed instigators of such mind control techniques the exact same assumptions about the nature of human consciousness. And they are both wrong.

        That assumption of long-standing, which is fairly typical of liberal political theory, dates at least from Mr. John Locke — ie, that the individual is born tabula rasa and that the mind is formed by impressions made upon it by the outside world, ie, that the sources of identity are external to the individual — that it is imprinted on the blank slate, and assembled, like a jigsaw puzzle, in bits and pieces and fits and starts, shards and fragments. And needless to say, such a view of individuality is the very negation of individuality itself. It’s a self-contradiction. It’s double-think. So no wonder people are paranoid. But here again…even here… “you create the reality you know” still obtains.

        Now, the chief irony of all this is, that it has become such an assumption of modern life that everybody now believes that they owe their identity to externalities and influences, and are therefore susceptible to the very kinds of magical technique that Utter, et al talk about. It’s a very insecure and unstable sense of identity just because it relies on outside sources and influences for its impression and expression. As long as you believe that, it is so, and Utter, et al, ironically serve to corroborate and reinforce that very classical liberal assumption — that, yes indeed, you are tabula rasa and outside forces are shaping and engineering your mind and identity. And the irony of that is, that as long as you believe that is the case, then that is the case. If you don’t believe the bunk about “tabula rasa” or blank slate, then it’s all bunk. In fact, the chief virtue of Jung’s depth psychology is that it demonstrates that tabula rasa is bunk. And its another reason why Blake denounced Locke.

        Since Locke, though, layer upon layer of dogma has accrued around the tabula rasa assumption so that modern identity does indeed look like Ptolemy’s cumbersome model of the cosmos with its cycles and epicycles or a collage of bits and pieces of this and that, and therefore ripe for an overthrow itself.

        • abdulmonem says :

          How do you then explain the impact of parenting, schooling, propaganda and advertising on the human if there no space in him that allows such impact to take shape, I raise this in light of a verse I read in the quran which says and I have brought you out of your mothers wombs, knowing nothing then I established in you the sight, the hearing and the heart in order to thank. To thank not to know that is to be thankful to the gift of knowing.

          • Scott Preston says :

            In order to shape and mold, there must be something to shape and mold, or that is receptive to being shaped and molded. As Rumi put it,

            The mother and father are your attachment
            to beliefs and blood ties
            and desires and comforting habits.
            Don’t listen to them!
            They seem to protect
            but they imprison.

            They are your worst enemies.
            They make you afraid
            of living in emptiness.

            Some day you’ll weep tears of delight in that court,
            remembering your mistaken parents!

  4. Dwig says :

    And for a bit of synchronicity/serendipity, here’s an article on what looks a lot like branding 3.0: Bottoms up!

    • Scott Preston says :

      Rather, the commercials’ primary purpose is to defend and expand a brand’s market share

      “Mind share” actually. That’s the new lingo. Sounds more like Budweiser is trying to usurp Coke’s place as “America’s drink” (or is it Pepsi now? Because I’m just reading a book on the “Cola Wars” and I’m not sure who’s won or winning the brand jihad). I don’t know who Budweiser thinks they’re appealing to with that pickup line — the Doge Ram “Guts n Glory” crowd sounds like, or Harley Clubbers. Not a beer for sissies, apparently, which means every Walter Mitty type will festoon themselves with Budweiser logos and maybe even Budweiser tattoos.

  5. abdulmonem says :

    It is really a sad story. Misplaced intention and attention. Is it healthy to enshrine the patriotic duty of the american citizen,if there is still a citizen since as Scott once said is replaced by the name of the consumer, by drinking a beer called america and then throw the can and the name into the trash pan which is inconsistent with the greatness they are seeking, Is it a war worth fighting. Is this the issue facing america. This is not mind sharing but mind marring.I say that out of respect and love of the human mind.

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