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“A free people,” John Adams wrote, “are the most addicted to luxury of any.” The history of American excess suggests that Adams was onto something. But what exactly compels so many to buy so much more than they need?
In our forum, Paul Bloom, Brooks and Suzanne Regan Professor of Psychology at Yale, explores the conventional explanations—signaling social status or taking sensory delight in the look and feel of things—and finds them wanting. Instead, Bloom puts history at the center of our desire for luxuries and other non-utilitarian goods. Drawing on findings from cognitive science, Bloom argues, “We are not empiricists, obsessed with appearance.” Rather, the pleasure we derive from luxuries and other special objects is genuine and owes to our sense of their special history.
In the debate that follows, few dispute Bloom’s proposal that “pleasures reside in things,” as Judith Levine puts it. But respondents question his focus on an object’s history and raise serious concerns about the social and human consequences of excess and visible wealth. Many resist Bloom’s celebration (as they see it) of our attachment to things. While all acknowledge the power of possessions to signal social membership, some observe that signaling membership is the flip side of signaling social exclusion.
Other contributors to this issue also focus on the roots of capitalist excess and economic inequality and explore different avenues of political response.
In “Reliable Rebel,” Martin O’Neill traces the remarkable rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the top of Britain’s Labour Party. Corbyn, a seasoned radical and for decades a target of the tabloids, emerged as “reassuringly normal” in the contest for the party’s leadership. The Labour rank and file found in him a politician with an authentic history of fighting for economic justice and opposing politics as usual.
James Chappel (“A Servant Heart”) sympathizes with liberal despair over the reign of neoliberalism but cautions us not to ignore its origins. The logic of the marketplace came to power by way of a religious moral economy, not in spite of it. Any challenge to neoliberalism must understand its roots.
Stuart White reviews three books offering such challenges. White finds much good in their policy proposals, but he emphasizes that egalitarian economic innovations must be complemented by innovations in democratic politics.
Finally, we congratulate our Eighteenth Annual Poetry Contest winner, Safiya Sinclair. Cathy Park Hong calls her poems “strange, mythological, gorgeously elaborate.” We think you will agree.
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But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.