Since the fire of April 15th, armies of armchair critics all over their living rooms have been doing what they do best—telling other people what they should have done with their own money. But I haven’t seen anyone ask why. Why did LVMH and Kering pledge €300 million towards the reconstruction of Notre-Dame? Just what do luxury goods and cathedrals have in common?
Before I wade into more controversial territory, let us cover some common ground: nobody needs cathedrals. If you don’t share such a firm grasp of the obvious, I would point out that the word cathedral
is derived from the French cathédrale, from the Latin cathedra (“seat”), from the Greek καθέδρα (“seat, bench”); it refers to the presence and prominence of the bishop’s or archbishop’s chair or throne, raised above both clergy and laity. The chair, on a raised dais, was the distinctive mark of a teacher or rhetor and thus symbolises the bishop’s role as teacher.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and boldly state that there is nothing to be learned from bishops. So–having removed the intellectual component from the equation, we’re left with an architecturally interesting building with a lot of bling. There’s quite a few building that would fit that description, but very few are able to provoke the undeniable public emotional response that we have witnessed over the last few days. Granted, some of it was a blatant case of bandwagoning from people who needed to demonstrate artistic sensibility, but if you’ve ever seen Notre-Dame you should not have to undestand where the feeling of loss is coming from
Not all appeals to emotion are fallacious. And since the emotional response can’t be denied — nor can the essential futility of the object itself — we’re left to explain the curious case of why the two largest luxury conglomerates in France have rushed to pledge €300 million towards the reconstruction of a building that is not only useless, but one that’s insured and owned by the government. Since the cathedral generates upwards of €100 million a year in tourism revenue, it’s conceivable they were first in line to foot the bill (the Archdiocese of Paris in theory is responsible for its upkeep too, and I’m guessing they wouldn’t be too hard pressed to find the cash if needed).
I would not expect armchair critics of capitalism to push their reseach beyond the minimum effective dose of outrage needed to get few clicks — but if they had, they might have bumped into a question: why should such amoral individuals part with their beloved cash?
To get a tax break on their donation, of course. Newsflash: they aren’t. But even if they did, why did they choose this particular initiative, and why was it so important that rival billionaires basically got into a bidding war over it?
The answer is that there is an intrinsic connection between luxury and cathedrals, which lies in their functional futility. Both were born out of the pursuit of excess. Professor Jean-Noël Kapferer, a brand expert and luxury theorist, in his book The Luxury Strategy traces the origins of luxury to relition, specifically the practice of burying people with gold and jewerly. Surely the dead don’t need luxury items.
The basic definition of luxury is probably in opposition to necessity.
Christopher Berry in his book The Idea of Luxury went further and made two fundamental distinction: first, luxury is divided in four basic categories; second, luxury can exist for the benefit of the individual or for society at large.
The four categories are food, clothing, shelter and leisure. These are universal categories, in the sense that everyone needs these things — and you can’t recognise excess unless you compare it with necessity. A hut made of leaves is shelter; a home with plumbing and heating is comfortable housing; a penthouse overlooking Central Park is luxury housing; a cathedral is the epitome of luxury.
A keen reader might observe that a cathedral is not meant to be lived in, so it doesn’t qualify as shelter. That’s debatable. To reconcile these we have to exhume Veblen and his Theory of the Leisure Class, which at the respectable age of 120 years (it was published in 1899) is a surprisingly good description of our times — the concept of “conspicuous leisure” basically describes Instagram.
In that chapter, Veblen describes how the clergy constitutes the servitude of God — the help, basically. In his description of high society, if you had a high social standing you would have a staff large enough to have an internal hierarchy: you wouldn’t sully yourself with dealing with the people who mop your floor(s) and wash your dishes. You would have higher-level staff that deals with those people instead. Since God enjoys as high a social standing as possible, his staff is quite layered. Just below the ambassadorial post of the Pope, bishops are butlers, ministering to the requirements of God by directing the clergy.
Luxury brands, like religions, are building modern cathedrals.Jean–Noël Kapferer
Cathedrals are symbols of luxury and aspiration in which we all partake. They have exercised this function for thousands of years, but as ever, the times are changing. As The Economist noted following the fire, cathedrals are neglected in much of Europe.
This is the context in which luxury brands stepped in, building modern cathedrals in the shape of their flagship stores and rushing to save ancient one when necessity arose. Luxury brands sell the same product as cathedrals, often to the same customers — therefore it only makes sense that they donate money to preserve the very symbols of the industry they both represent. A successful writer or publishing house spending their money to save a ruined historical bookshop, for instance, would follow the same rationale. That’s why LVMH is rebuilding Notre-Dame.
Yeah but with that kind of money you could have ended poverty in Africa for, like, years.
Now, normally I would not think that such an old, trite, weak argument deserved a response of any kind, but I equally recognise that the world will never be rid of stupidity, so it is up to each of us to fight it whenever we can. In that spirit, I shall try to point out why the one above is an asinine argument.
First of all, €300 million is a drop in the bucket of global foreign aid (if that’s what we’re talking about), which in 2017 it totalled $146.6 billion. That does not mean that it would not have helped: of course it could have.
But the world, outside the glass walls of online outrage, is a complex place. Finding the money to give is the easy part. But the deployment of those funds has to survice a thicket of misappropriation, corruption, administrative costs, bureucracy and plain old politics. In their 2012 book Why Nations Fail, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu brings the sobering example of what happened in Afghanistan after the attack of 2011:
(…) Afghan people were longing to leave the Taliban behind. The international community thought that all that Afghanistan needed now was a large infusion of foreign aid. Scores of aid workers and their entourages arrived in town with their own private jets, NGOs of all sorts poured in to pursue their own agendas, and high-level talks began between governments and delegations from the international community. Billions of dollars were now coming to Afghanistan. (…) While much of the infrastructure remained in tatters, the first tranche of the money was used to commission an airline to shuttle around UN and other international officials. The next thing they needed were drivers and interpreters. So they hired the few English-speaking bureaucrats and the remaining teachers in Afghan schools to chauffeur and chaperone them around, paying them multiples of current Afghan salaries. As the few skilled bureaucrats were shunted into jobs servicing the foreign aid community, the aid flows, rather than building infrastructure in Afghanistan, started by undermining the Afghan state they were supposed to build upon and strengthen. Villagers in a remote district in the central valley of Afghanistan heard a radio announcement about a new multimillion-dollar program to restore shelter to their area. After a long while, a few wooden beams, carried by the trucking cartel of Ismail Khan, famous former warlord and member of the Afghan government, were delivered. But they were too big to be used for anything in the district, and the villagers put them to the only possible use: firewood. So what had happened to the millions of dollars promised to the villagers? Of the promised money, 20 percent of it was taken as UN head office costs in Geneva. The remainder was subcontracted to an NGO, which took another 20 percent for its own head office costs in Brussels, and so on, for another three layers, with each party taking approximately another 20 percent of what was remaining. The little money that reached Afghanistan was used to buy wood from western Iran, and much of it was paid to Ismail Khan’s trucking cartel to cover the inflated transport prices. It was a bit of a miracle that those oversize wooden beams even arrived in the village.
So what? Does nothing work? Of course not — there’s always something to be done. Some charities are more effective than others.
But the point is, LVMH is not one of them.