Earlier this week, the Australian millionaire Tim Gurner said those who dream of buying their own home some day should stop buying overpriced plates of smashed avocado on toast. It’s a familiar argument: Don’t buy iPhones if you want healthcare; forget about a TV if you’re struggling to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
The idea is that those who can’t afford basics shouldn’t indulge in luxuries. Of course, buying a home is far from “basic,” but Gurner has simply taken an argument that’s usually applied to the poorest in society and given it a middle class twist. Indulgence is wasteful unless you have the money to waste, according to this line of thinking, and so luxuries must remain the privilege of the wealthy.
It’s a handy way of blaming those who are less well off for their predicament. But while responses often focus on the flawed logic (Detroit Patch calculated that it would cost more than 57,000 avocado toasts to buy a loft in Detroit), Gurner and co’s reasoning also misunderstands the value of luxury. Far from being an indulgence only of those who are supremely wealthy, luxuries are often most valuable precisely to those who struggle the most to afford them.
Some 80 years ago, the author George Orwell wrote about the importance of relatively expensive treats in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier.’ His writing focuses not on the middle class and their avocado splurges, but on the poorest in society:
The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.
From the outside, it might seem more sensible to save every penny towards healthy essentials. But, as Orwell writes, “unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated.”
Capitalism encourages buying, and it’s highly hypocritical to expect those who earn less to opt out of this model. Michael Silverstein, anthropology professor at University of Chicago, points out that luxury has long been used as a marketing ploy to entice the lower and middle classes. The idea is explored in Paul Fussell’s book, Class, on the American class system, he notes, with real estate marketed as “luxury apartment living” as one such example. Pampering and rarity both help create a sense of luxury, says Silverstein, and so does the idea that buying “lifts one to a new plateau of possession.”
Expecting poorer people not to buy luxuries is class warfare, in Silverstein’s view. “It is all about how class aspiration (lower-to-higher) meets class disdain (higher-to-lower),” he says. A relative luxury can be “a little symbol of ascendance, a small but welcomed and rewarding intrusion of how the uppers live into one’s rather pronouncedly lower life.”
But when higher classes see those who are less wealthy enjoying a similar lifestyle, they have a different reaction: “Those above tend to get anxiously angry when the exclusivity of their class position, as indexed by all the paraphernalia of their lifestyle, seems to be appropriated by those aspiring to get there.”
In this reading, perhaps millionaires with magnificent properties would be happier if renters scrimped and saved to ascend the housing ladder, rather than seeming to enjoy a daily treats like avocado toast. Excoriating the poor for their indulgent purchases is a way of keeping lower classes in their place.
Splurging can of course be imprudent—but that’s true for everyone. Dan Hausman, philosophy professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that we could all question advertisers’ message that consumption leads to satisfaction. There can certainly be harmful pressure to buy frivolous items, and cases where it’s better to resist. But, he says, “it’s very hard from the outside to say, ‘no, you’re making a mistake.’”
Spending on luxury items is a break from a tedious, nondescript life and, from this perspective, is entirely sensible. “In terms of what actually makes for a good life, it’s unclear whether it’s steady as you go, every day behaving cautiously and prudently, as opposed to having occasional splurges,” says Hausman. “In certain ways it’s harmful, but it makes life more exciting, more bearable, more of what one thinks a life should be.”