Reflections on (uncritical) Aristocratic Hedonism

**This is a set of loose lecture notes that I have synthesized into a written piece. These notes are not consistent with my usual standard of writing, but I wanted to get them down on paper in a shareable way, so that others may chase up my references and concepts.**

Are we living in liberated times? Or is it possible that those of us lucky enough to have access to sexual, aesthetic and interpersonal expression and permissiveness are part of an elitist enclave that is only possible because of the exploitation and exclusion of others?

I’m going to argue that many of us partying, urban, sex positive, festival-attending liberals enjoy being on the winning side of multiple overlapping hierarchies, particularly around material wealth/education and desirability/attractiveness.

In 1847, the Jacobin artist Thomas Couture created the massive painting Romans of Decadence, in which he portrayed an orgiastic scene of late Roman citizens engaging in hedonism, in a grandiose architectural setting. The orgy is flanked by upright corinthian columns and statues of great men, whose contributions to the Empire allowed for the wealth and comfort being enjoyed by this ecstatic later generation of Romans. For Couture, the scene was meant to represent the slackening of morals and virility necessary for maintaining the kind of empire that could erect such grand architecture and statuary.

Couture’s representation of this decadence can be contextualized by the political and cultural situation in France (and continental Europe) at that time: one year after the painting was completed, there was a massive revolution in France that temporarily installed a democracy. That same year, the first edition of The Communist Manifesto was published. Contemporaneously, Gustave Courbet was producing realist paintings of the poor and working class (see, for example, Courbet’s Stone-Breakers of 1849), celebrating them as heroes and carriers of virtue—a sea change in the subject matter of art.

Returning to Romans of Decadence, what is important is not so much the painting’s accuracy so much as the narrative that it represents and propagates: great societies are brought to their knees by excess. What we know about the Roman empire is that it was pulled into decline from a combination of factors, including its structural need to expand, its over-reliance on slaves, its constant engagement in war (and the massive expenditure of such military campaigns), immense inequality, and general overspending. In essence, the empire, which was built upon the labor of slaves, needed to expand endlessly in order to secure a constant supply of slaves (who were often taken as prisoners of war from defeated military forces), but these wars and the expanding network of infrastructures were extremely costly to build and maintain, and each successive generation of Romans became accustomed to higher standards of living without being personally equipped to secure this for themselves.

And in many ways, the fall of Rome is central to the story that I hope to tell about privileged, ‘aristocratic’ hedonistic enclaves, because it set in motion a series of mechanisms that continue to have an interplay today.

For one thing, and as mentioned earlier, Ancient Rome was absolutely a clear example of privileged enjoyment propped up on the exploitation of others. But, another fundamental emergent phenomenon from the period is Christianity, and an assortment of interrelated concepts that Christianity would use to both condemn and protect (depending on the time and the place) the elitist enjoyment of the upper and ruling classes.

Jesus, for his part, was supposed to have said that “man cannot serve both God and Mammon [wealth],” a dictum that many have embraced throughout history as an inherent challenge to power embedded in the heart of Christian theology. The current pope, for example, drawing from a long lineage of so-called ‘liberation theology’ (popular in Latin and South America), often offers a Christian challenge to unchecked wealth and power.

Yet a different lineage was (perhaps inadvertently) set in motion my Augustine of Hippo, who introduced the concept of ‘theodicy’ to the world. Theodicy is the term used to explain how, in a world supposedly created and looked out for by a benevolent and omnipotent God, suffering and evil could exist. To explain this, Augustine turned to the Book of Genesis, and honed in on the story of Adam and Eve, which until that time had been relatively unpopular because of its implausibility. In a nutshell, Augustine explained that evil and corruption were the result of humans turning away from God’s will and grace, and choosing their own free will and yielding to temptation instead. This was because of the ‘original sin’ (a concept introduced by Augustine), which left humanity inherently flawed. Augustine believed that original sin was behind humans’ desires for earthly pleasures, and could be blamed for their diversion from ‘higher,’ spiritual existence. Augustine, on this basis, gave up on sex and devoted himself to a life of chastity.

Augustine, who was born in 354 in Roman-controlled North Africa (present-day Algeria), lived out his life entirely within the context of the downfall of Rome. Some version of Couture’s painting was likely to have been the literal and inescapable reality that Augustine was living in, and there is no doubt that this period of instability influenced his thinking. The suffering, disarray, conflict, vulgar brutality and unproductiveness of late Rome would have posed an immense threat to the Christian claim that God was all-powerful and benevolent, and it was within this context that his highly influential concept of theodicy was introduced.

The concept would be highly influential upon Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, both of whom would offer their own thoughts on theodicy to explain the meaning and origins of strife in their own times (inter-state warfare between Italian city states and the repression of Protestants by the Catholic Church, respectively).

Theodicy is a concept that helps to make sense of why, when it is so clearly disadvantageous to them, poor people are so frequently religious. The concept makes meaning out of their struggles and hardship, offering an explanation for their suffering. One suffered, according to this narrative, because of the sin of men, and, rather than desiring liberation, one should live an ascetic and disciplined life of hard work, which would be rewarded in heaven, just as the impious actions of others would be punished in hell. Importantly, it justified suffering and poverty as part of the inherent human condition—one set in stone when Eve ate the apple.

One can immediately see how such a justification can be politically useful to the ruling class, who had every incentive to both pacify the poor and working classes, and to keep them working to support the extravagant lifestyles of the aristocracy. Theodicy—which became a central operative concept to be preached by the frequently state-allied church—would help to ensure that this would happen, by giving meaning to the plight and motivating the toil of those whose labor enriched the wealthy and powerful. Under both feudal and capitalist relations of production, the idea of theodicy would help to “divert our living strength to an empty heaven,” as the avant-garde Lettrist artist-activists would put it in a blasphemous sermon delivered to an Easter mass in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in 1950. The ‘diversion of living strength’ would occur in many places and at many times, perpetually, and over centuries and millennia delivering wealth and power into the hands of tiny minorities, whose power and wealth was less costly to protect when religion helped to make meaning of the misery and poverty that such power and wealth was structurally dependent on.

In the late eighteenth century in France, the aristocracy and the Catholic church had a deep alliance, with France being considered the “eldest daughter of the church,” and the church playing a judicial role in the lives of the peasantry. The French aristocracy, at that time, was incredibly decadent and bloated, engaging in extravagant dress, occupying highly ornate buildings full of frilly furniture and ornamentation—all of which helped to fuel the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror.

What is important about this moment of history is the way in which the top-down morality of austerity was suddenly directed upwards at the ruling class. As a governing strategy, religious asceticism periodically backfires for the wealthy and the powerful, when religious dictates are taken seriously and pious followers seek to apply them universally. 1789 was just such a moment, and, it could be argued, so was 1791 (in Haiti), 1848 (in France), 1917 (in Russia), and various other moments throughout history.

Frequently, however, exploitation is never overthrown, as in the case of the British Empire, which was allowed to gain control over nearly a quarter of the world’s land and people at its peak, killing tens of millions of people and condemning tens of millions more to poverty and toil in the process.

I try to imagine what wealthy life might have been like in London at the height of Imperial expansion. In a time when fantastic industrial innovations were being rolled out one after another—from plate glass windows to steam trains to gas lighting to centralized heating, to ornate and affordable machined wooden furniture and architectural decorations. These technologies would have been paired with the fantastic and exotic imports flowing in from abroad—spices, teas, tropical plants, sugars, exotic animals and their skins, furs, ivories, new foods, etc. It would have been an unprecedentedly comfortable and exciting time to live in London (assuming you were relatively wealthy), and your lived reality was unlikely to have been catastrophically disrupted by the millions of deaths that the Opium Wars (and the ensuing famines and disease) were causing in China, or the incredibly violent reaction of British forces to the Indian Rebellion of 1857—a conflict that claimed between 800,000 and 10 million lives. These events, often misrepresented (in favor of the British) in the Imperial press, were likely to stir up patriotism, and must have appeared as a threat to the ‘freedom’ and ‘virtue’ of Britain’s ‘civilizing’ occupation of the world.

In the United States, the wealthy Southern plantation owners enjoyed a degree of luxury and splendor unfathomable to most people in the world in the mid-1800s (or today, for that matter). Yet, as we all know, this comfort was built on the backs of slaves, whose perpetual toil and agony made bubbles of white enjoyment like Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated Monticello possible.

More recently, the utopia of garden cities served as a model for suburban development, which, made possible by automobiles, cheap and abundant oil, and post-war prosperity (often flowing in from war debts and ‘development’ of the Third World), was highly exclusive on the basis of race. One could not get Federal Housing Administration-backed loans if they lived in a “mixed” neighborhood—a policy that was enforced through federal ‘redlining’ practices that parsed ‘desirable’ (white) from ‘undesirable’ (mixed) areas. White people were welcome to inhabit the nicest neighborhoods with the best schools and best civic amenities—places where they could build their equity through rising home prices, whereas black and brown people were frequently excluded from homeownership because they could not secure a mortgage at reasonable rates and on reasonable terms.

Today, these dynamics continue, as well-educated young adults who grew up in the suburbs are choosing to move into cities—often into the very neighborhoods that were redlined by the FHA—resulting in gentrification. Cities, for their part, are typically complicit in the process, choosing to spend money attracting higher income residents and businesses through civic improvements, amenity upgrades and cosmetic changes to the city, instead of supporting the poorer and working class residents of their cities.

The poor are being legislated against in an incredible number of ways—from ‘no-sit-no-lie’ laws aimed at the homeless, to targeted policing, to extensive imprisoning of select populations. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, “In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.” This is because lawmakers—who have tremendous pressure on them to be ‘tough on crime,’ have elected to imprison the problems associated with a faltering economy and an ineffective education system, rather than envisaging a scenario that provides opportunity for everyone.

Alongside this displacement and discrimination, the consumptive and acquisitive lifestyles of the people living in the United States (especially the wealthy) has been a major factor in the waging of war in Iraq, and the ongoing destabilization of the Middle East as a region. That war, which has cost upwards of a million lives, and which has thoroughly devastated the political and infrastructural conditions of life in Iraq, has set in motion a political violence and instability that continues to claim countless lives there and elsewhere, as ISIS forces—perhaps today’s zealous Jacobins, outraged about the excesses of the ‘aristocratic west’—capitalize on the structural poverty and dissatisfaction of economically peripheralized populations.

Catalyzed by the various dimensions of this unfurling crisis, as well as by the slowly declining conditions of middle class life in America, many dissatisfied voters—living in so-called ‘flyover country (apparently 80% of venture capital went to just three states in 2016: California, New York and Massachusetts)—have turned to the right, embracing Donald Trump and various ‘Alt-Right’ movements that promise to restore their dignity and prosperity.

One strand of dissatisfaction that is rarely talked about is the highly prevalent feeling of sexual frustration, around which the largely right-leaning ‘incel’ (involuntary celibacy) movement has emerged. The incel movement is largely associated with the alt-right, especially the various ‘men’s rights’ sites. Aligned, in many ways, with the anti-feminism of the Red Pill subreddit, the incel movement perceives ‘sexual liberation’ as having created a condition in which 80% of women have sex with 20% of men—the most attractive and wealthy men—to the detriment of the bottom 80%. Unhappy with flexible relationship styles and ‘free love’ in which people freely invest their love into social hierarchies, the so-called ‘incels’ would prefer a return to hierarchical institutions of marriage and patriarchy.

Essential to this pessimistic worldview is a perspective on human nature that has extremely important parallels with Augustine’s reading of the Book of Genesis. Many in the alt-right are of the perspective that women are naturally ‘hypergamous,’ meaning that they always desire the most powerful and attractive men. This view, which is inextricably related to the view that Eve is the tempestuous one who fails to control herself and partakes of the apple, is used to justify the belief that women must be controlled in order to generate mating opportunities for all men. Feminism, in this view, has eroded most men’s access to women by peeling away the institutions of control that men had over women in the past.

While we may be outraged—as many feminists and people on the left are—with the gender essentialism that this worldview naturalizes, as well as with the incels’ proposed solutions to getting so-called ‘hypergamy’ ‘under control,’ our outrage does not undo the felt conditions of scarcity for the many, many people who are left out by the sexual hierarchy that undoubtedly exists. As many have observed, to a privileged person, equality looks like oppression, and this may be relevant to both sides of this issue, wherein men systematically downplay the economic oppression and disadvantages of women, just as many women downplay the sexual disempowerment and felt scarcity of many men (and women!). What identity-political positions typically fail to recognize are the myriad historical forces that have shaped identities, tastes, preferences and environments in order to create the prevalent gendered behaviors and institutions of today. men and women behave the way they do largely because of vast accumulations of cultural and social expectation—from Evangelical reformist efforts to stamp out vice and to protect ‘purity’ (the Social Purity movement of the late nineteenth century), to anti-vice and anti-obscenity laws (the so-called ‘Comstock Laws’), to state-sponsored ‘social hygiene’ campaigns aimed at abstinence-based public health, to media exaltation of virginal, juvenated females as the quintessence of beauty and desirability, to commercialized visions of beauty, masculinity and sexuality. All of these, and many other factors, have produced a set of social and sexual behaviors in which scarcity and unfairness reign. And, with both sides often taking these historically-produced conditions as natural, the result is a zero-sum game of competing over scarcity and control. This is why is so striking about the most prevalent reactions against unfairness and injustice: frequently, they are more ready to accept the prevalence and immutability of austerity (and to be outraged by unfairness and indignities) than they are to imagine and plan for abundance. I would like to place the twin concepts of theodicy and original sin at the heart of this narrative: their presumption that life is suffering and there is no way around it; that material abundance or bodily pleasure are a sin; that humanity is inherently flawed in a way that only extreme authority can resolve; that there can be no winning without losing. I would like to argue that millennia of extreme hierarchy and immoderate ascetic reactions to this have tended to reinforce the perspective that austerity is the sole possibility for humanity, and that we are condemned to embrace power or accept the consequences.

It is within this context that many of us are enjoying our festivals, our launch parties, our play parties, our ecstatic dances, our communes, our beach days, our career successes and our art builds. And it is for this reason that I would like to posit a different approach from the apathy-outrage binary. What if there is a version of abundance that does not depend on the exploitation of others? What if we can come to desire pleasures that are not exclusive or destructive or elitist? And what if the process of unmaking hierarchies can be just as enjoyable (if not more so) than occupying the top of those hierarchies? What if we were to parse through the various hedonisms that we partake in, and swap the destructive, irresponsible, exploitative pleasures (such as the pursuit of power, luxury and wealth) with different, virulently inclusive pleasures? Can we imagine a world of changed tastes and priorities where winning doesn’t depend on losing? This is the starting point of Critical Hedonism(s).