Simplicity or Excess?

The spectrum stretching from simplicity through moderation to excess is perennial. Even today, people use Sparta, Athens and Corinth (or, sometimes, Babylon) to illustrate the different lifestyles and societies pertaining to each. In the past, societies have had to enact sumptuary laws in times of economic prosperity, in order to restrain the outward show of wealth by the rich or by those with wealth but who were not also of high social rank.

It is not necessary to go back to ancient Sparta to find societies where a drab uniformity or conformity has been enforced. The socialist societies of the 20th century were cases in point: China, from 1949 to –roughly– 1989, with its hundreds of millions dressed superficially identically in Mao suits (though in fact small differences such as the materials used or the tailoring still indicated rank or status), was the template. Other examples were Albania, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge etc. To a lesser extent, the Soviet Union and its satellites. Those societies have passed into history now.

The opposite idea, the society of excess or of conspicuous consumption, is the dominant mode at present. Indeed, some of the “worst” (least aesthetic?) expressions of excess are to be seen in precisely those countries so long repressed into austere uniformity, such as China, where it is now not uncommon to see people who are able to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a single car and millions of pounds on a house or apartment.

The wealth generated by globalized capitalism, by computerization, automation, robotics etc has resulted in a global class of “owners” whose everyday excess is in stark contrast to the lives of the vast majority: private jets and helicopters, massive motor “yachts” the size of ocean liners, multiple houses and estates, very expensive cars etc. The wealthiest resident of London is said to be a Ukrainian Jew worth somewhere around £15 BILLION. Fifteen thousand million pounds. When one considers what a sum of even one million pounds means to the average British citizen, that sort of figure is put into perspective.

On a lower but still opulent level are the “celebrity” TV faces etc, often better known than the ultra-rich. Occasionally, their financial level is spotlighted by a news report, as when the Sky News person Kay Burley was reported to have spent a few hundred pounds on a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Somewhere in the middle, between severity and excess, we have a society where moderation does not become austerity and where comfort does not slide into decadence. Where that is, is not always easy to say. What might be regarded as great comfort to many would seem like pinched poverty to, say, a Donald Trump, to a “Russian” Jew oligarch or, a fortiori, to the King of Saudi Arabia or the Sultan of Qatar.

In the societies of Scandinavia, it has long been thought socially-unacceptable to flaunt wealth; the same could be said of Switzerland. The same was so in the Roman Republic before it became the Roman Empire notorious for decadent excess.

It is necessary, of course, to distinguish between wealth and the outward show of wealth. However, both should, ideally, be moderated, in the interests of social cohesion and, indeed, social functioning.

Basic Income will moderate poverty; caps on income, capital and landowning will moderate both excessive wealth and the flaunting show of wealth. The society of the future will not be one of a few wealthy people and a large number of poor people; neither can it be one of enforced uniformity. It must be a society in which everyone has enough and some have more than enough but without thereby being or seeming vulgar.

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