Last week, a solid-gold toilet was stolen from the birthplace of Winston Churchill, the sprawling English Baroque country house and seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace.
In fairness the 18-carat toilet, which was fully plumbed and open for use by the public (so long as they booked a three-minute slot in advance), was part of an exhibition by the Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Catellan, which also featured a sculpture of Adolf Hitler praying. Entitled “America” (big “my roommate Banksy” vibes there), the toilet was previously on display at the Guggenheim, and had been offered as a loan to noted Gold Things enthusiast Donald Trump, who did not accept the gift.
This is a satire that Edward Spencer-Churchill, the founder of the Blenheim Art Foundation and half-brother of the present Duke of Marlborough, appears to have been very much willing to lean into. As he told the London Times: “Despite being born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I have never had a shit on a golden toilet, so I look forward to it.” While very clearly “in” on the joke, Spencer-Churchill’s comment does also appear to reveal him as genuinely wishing to indulge in what seems, as far as I can tell, to be something close to the height of decadence: solid-gold defecation. If one wished to really live it up, they could first eat some food covered in edible gold, wash it down with that vodka that has gold flakes floating in it, and then take the highest-carat dump there’s ever been.
Indeed, in typical “dumb rich guy” fashion, Spencer-Churchill all but dared thieves to steal the glittering loo, declaring that “it’s not going to be the easiest thing to nick,” and that since it was plumbed-in and that any potential thieves would “have no idea who last used the toilet or what they ate,” he had no plans to be guarding it. How could any local (s)cat burglars resist?
Overall, it’s hard not to root for the thief (a 66 year-old man, quite possibly this guy, has been taken into custody in relation to the offense). This much seems a reasonable ethical maxim — if anyone is rich enough to have a solid-gold toilet in their house, then it is a requirement of justice that it be taken from them, melted down, and put to an alternative use.
Or is this quite right? Certainly the opposite conclusion might be drawn by disciples of Aaron Bastani, the co-founder of the left-wing media group Novara Media, whose recent manifesto Fully Automated Luxury Communism appears to demand: “solid gold toilets for all!”
Bastani’s overall premise is that, while the world is at present in the throes of a profound crisis, in time we will be able to use new technologies (artificial intelligence, solar energy, asteroid mining, gene editing, artificial meat) to build a society “beyond both scarcity and work.” Bastani calls this society “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” (FALC). Naturally, the book contains a discussion of the concept of luxury itself:
The pursuit of luxury makes people do, and pursue, stupid, empty, pointless things — for no better reason than the fact that they do not need to.
For Bastani, “luxury” and “communism” march in lock-step together. “Communism is luxurious,” he tells us at one point, “or it isn't communism.”
“The concept (of luxury), under conditions of scarcity, expresses that which is beyond utility, its essence an excess beyond the necessary. So as information, labor, energy, and resources become permanently cheaper — and work and the limits of the old world are left behind — it turns out we don’t just satisfy all of our needs, but dissolve any boundary between the useful and the beautiful.”
And so, with the arrival of “luxury for all," Bastani writes “it will look like a music video” when you’re relaxing. “under FALC we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent — if we so wish — to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic as the feudal peasant and the medieval knight.”
Of course, this vision of the future already contains some pretty outdated ideas. As the writer Molly Smith pointed out: “If relaxing under FALC ‘communism’ is going to look ‘like a music video’ then why are all the women under this communism going to be 19 years old and size 8?”
Meanwhile, it seems frankly a bit odd that anyone’s vision of utopia might include the possibility of living lives analogous to those of today's billionaires. Consider, for instance, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, whose wonkish lifestyle hacking sees him drinking salt juice, bathing in infrared saunas, and fasting all weekend in order to make “time slow down”. I suppose Bastani’s “if we so wish” is doing a lot of work here — maybe it’s good to have options. But do we really think that any good-enough society could possibly raise someone who might see, in Dorsey’s “Mr. Burns in that episode where he opens the casino” lifestyle, an image of the good life? At a certain point, utopia is going to have to close some options down.
Here’s another example, from what is I suppose the opposite end of the spectrum: earlier this year, at the NBA finals, Drake (who isn’t quite a billionaire, but still) was pictured wearing a $750,000 Richard Mille 69 Erotica Tourbillion watch. The timepiece — the “eroticism” of which is roughly that of a retractable pen where the lady in a bikini takes her top when you click its mechanism — features three rolling titanium bars that can be used to spell out messages such as “I want to caress you madly” and “I want to lick your pussy.” Presumably, under FALC, we would all be able to get watches like these, and yet, would this really be welcome news to anyone who isn’t a 12 year-old boy?
This I think is always going to be a problem for the idea of “luxury for all.” The problem, really, is that luxury is bad. Its existence is bad for those who lack it, certainly — especially for those who are hungry, or without shelter; since the resources used to bring it about could certainly have been expended elsewhere. But also: luxury is bad (just in a different way, more to do with the formation of ethical character) for the people who possess it. The pursuit of luxury makes people do, and pursue, stupid, empty, pointless things — for no better reason than the fact that they do not need to.
Bastani, as we have seen, talks of luxury precisely as “an excess beyond the necessary.” He interprets Marxist communism as being marked by “not only by an absence of economic conflict and work but by a spontaneous abundance similar to the Golden Age of Hesiod or Telecleides, or the biblical Eden.” Thus communism and luxury go together because, under communism, we will have more than just our “basic” needs satisfied — as our hunger might be satiated with stale crusts. In Bastani’s vision, communism is a version of the medieval myth of the Land of Cockaigne, in which “roasted pigs wander about with knives in their backs to make carving easy,” and “grilled geese fly directly into one's mouth.” The ultimate telos of all hitherto existing societies is finally revealed as: only the very best, at all times.
But this vision seems to be based on a rather ahistorical conception of human need. According to Marx and Engels, human life is distinguished by the fact that — in contrast to the “lower” animals — when we produce the (basic) things we need in order to survive, we inadvertently produce new needs for ourselves. And for them, this process is what drives human history: “the satisfaction of the first need (the action of satisfying, and the instrument of satisfaction which has been acquired) leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act.”
Thus one might satisfy one’s hunger with bread — but this then means we need land to plant grain on, need mills to grind flour with, need ovens to bake the dough in, etc. Quickly, we must establish certain forms of community, defined by a certain division of labor — and over time these communities will develop, grow more complex, be defined by different and greater levels of inequality, etc. This then provides the material basis for all the conflict, struggle and suffering which has characterized human history to date. In The German Ideology at least, “communism” names the state in which it is possible for this particular dialectic to be arrested — when we can finally satisfy our needs without, in turn, inadvertently producing new ones.
The just society would not be one which made “luxury” available to all — rather, it would eliminate luxury as a possibility.
It thus seems hard to see how such a society might sustain any form of “luxury” worth talking about. Luxury, after all, is premised on excess beyond the necessary — but our very understanding of this excess seems premised on certain people being material unable to access it. As soon as luxury is made available to all, it is no longer luxury — “the best” would not be “the best” if it were also accepted as the baseline (Bastani himself even seems to be aware of this, since his definition of luxury is itself indexed to what things are like “under conditions of scarcity”).
Notoriously, the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive all-male dining club at the University of Oxford, of which Boris Johnson and David Cameron were both members in the 1980s, asks prospective members to burn a £50 note in front of a beggar as part of an initiation ceremony: in a way, all “luxury” is just this act by another name (in this, both as art and as satire, Catellan’s toilet is easily overshadowed by the KLF’s K Foundation Burn A Million Quid, the 1994 action in which the sometime British chart-topping musicians announced their entry into the conceptual art world by filming themselves destroying almost all the money they had earned in royalties). The point of Drake’s sex watch is hardly to communicate messages like “I want to lick your pussy.” It is rather to communicate, to the public at large, “fuck you, I can afford to spend what is quite plausibly more money than you will earn in your lifetime on the stupidest thing that maybe anyone can imagine.”
The just society would not be one which made “luxury” available to all, rather, it would eliminate luxury as a possibility. “From each according to their ability,” as Marx famously proclaimed in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, “to each according to their needs.”
Of course this can make it sound as if any prospective communist utopia would be a rather drab, gray place, which I think is the sort of concern which makes Bastani so keen to sew “luxury” into the fabric of his ideal world.
But perhaps we ought to turn this on its head: perhaps the pursuit of luxury is itself a dull, numbing grind, every bit as depressing as the thought of sitting squeezing out runny hungover shits into the bowl of the most expensive toilet in the world (ironically, Drake’s music often communicates exactly this ennui). In his aphorism “Sur L’Eau,” Adorno envisions a blissful, pastoral utopia in which a liberated mankind has “(grown) tied of development and, out of freedom, leave(s) possibilities left unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars.”
Adorno gives us an image, then, of a society which has cast off the need for luxury completely: “Doing nothing, like an animal; lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, ‘being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfilment.’” No more sex watches, no more infrared saunas, no more toilets made of anything fancier than porcelain — who, after all, would care?
“There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand,” Adorno writes. “That no one shall go hungry any more.” In contrast, perhaps, there is luxury only in the stupidest demand imaginable: that no one shall shit in anything other than a solid gold toilet.