What is Opulence?
Wealth, abundance and affluence are all synonymous with opulence; however, all three fail to capture one important aspect of opulence – power. To be opulent means to have such a great wealth of resources that you become capable of asserting your will onto others in order to influence their actions. Such power is often made known through certain coded messages in a society – different symbols of power and wealth are employed in order to do so.
Opulence and Success
Opulence is the aesthetic of being successful; it is announcing to the world that you have made it. This aesthetic is achieved through certain symbols of success that exist in every social and cultural context. For example, in the contemporary world, being able to carry a Gucci handbag or driving a luxury car like a Mercedes are symbols of success. They let the world know that you have enough wealth at your disposal.
Flex Culture and the Urban Poor
The rise of internet accessibility and social media in recent years has prompted a new kind of content – one that is based on showing off (or ‘flexing’) your opulence. Two examples of this are Punjabi rap music and the rise of the influencer.
Punjabi hip-hop is heavily influenced by its Western contemporary, often seeking to emulate the same. Every second line has a mention of a luxury brand or speaks of how the rapper drives the fanciest new car. These, as we have previously discussed, are signifiers of success. Being able to afford these is an indicator of how far the artist in question has come.
Influencers first started popping up on our Instagram feeds a decade ago. Influencers lead an aspirational affluent lifestyle and, through their documentation of it, market certain brand endorsements to their consumers. This further perpetuates this idea of success and opulence. This is how the luxury market creates a rat race to earn enough money to be able to have enough purchasing power to buy from certain brands. The system has to be exclusive in order to be seen as aspirational.
The Aesthetics of Opulence
Luxury brands’ business depends on marketing a fantastical image of what it means to be opulent. This can be done through a variety of different means, such as limiting the number of merchandise that is made available, having a limited number of stores, and creating an air of coldness that instead of welcoming a consumer in, seeks to exclude them.
Hermes is easily one of the most exclusive brands in the contemporary world. The tiniest accessories can deal a hefty damage to your pockets. Yet, it remains next to impossible to get your hands on one of their bags. Hermes has an interesting brand policy, wherein the most exclusive and expensive products – their bags – are only made available to loyal customers that have already spent a considerable fortune on their products. Even then, most customers aren’t offered a choice of bags, they are simply handed the ones Hermes makes available for them.
Class: Old Money and the Nouveau Riche
Old money refers to generational wealth. An individual born into an affluent family is normalised to exorbitant excesses from an early age and might not feel the need to prove their opulence to anyone. On the other hand, the nouveau riche, or new money, find it impossible to not flaunt their opulence in order to prove to the world that they have arrived. A good example of this is the lead couple in the Hindi film, Hindi Medium. Initially, the new money couple finds it next to impossible to breach the tightly-knit circle of Delhi’s old money, as the latter find the former’s display of newly acquired wealth rather ostentatious.
Culture Capital, Taste and Style
Cultural capital can be defined as social assets that make social mobility possible. This includes attributes such as style, education, intellect, and speech among others. Cultural capital depends on that which is considered ‘tasteful’. Taste, in turn, is decided by the already established. It is they who dictate the distinction between good taste and bad taste. Taste is based on exclusion; often times it is something that is difficult to achieve unless it has been a part of your up-bringing. Style refers to an individual’s cultivated taste – it can be bad taste or good taste. But even among bad and good taste, there is bad good taste and good bad taste. Bad good taste is one that a social climber might be able to emulate, but good bad taste, like being horribly put together in the most expensive items, is next to impossible to learn or cultivate.
Opulence invites envy. Most people strive to be envied. But being envied has its risks – like being subjected to the wrath of those who survive on a meagre wage. So those who have held resources through generations, have learnt, from history, to keep their wealth invisible for the sake of their own safety. Here, privacy becomes a major concern. Most old money prefers not to flaunt their latest purchases on social media through haul videos, instead they find subtle ways to hint of it to their own niche circle of similarly rich people.
Wealth and Class
New money isn’t hated by people – Shah Rukh Khan’s Mannat or Sachin Tendulkar’s sports cars aren’t hated by the masses, even though they are obvious displays of immense opulence. Why? Because these are self-made men who worked for this, and so if we all try hard enough, we too can live in a lavish bungalow and drive the latest McLaren model. On the other hand, the internet loves trashing ‘nepo-kids’ the first chance they get; their success isn’t earned.
Khan and Tendulkar are wealthy, but not of an upper class. Belonging to a different class usually attracts anger and resentment. While people might still envy the success of new celebrities, they certainly don’t hate them as they are still, in some ways, considered to be a part of the same social strata.
The Myth of the Absent Material Desires
According to Kant, the pursuit of aesthetics is absent of material desires. In a way this is true – we are all guilty of watching certain films, reading some books, and listening to particular music because it has been deemed tasteful. But it would be foolish to assume that this happens outside the cycle of capitalism, because, as we have already discussed, taste is decided by wealth. Taste is power.
Power is the ability to exert influence. When you decide what is taste, you decide what people see and how they see it. Luxury is tasteful and aspirational, but it is also expensive. Affluent members of society use this influence to sell the idea of luxury to those who are seeking to climb the social ladder.
Despite being sold the idea of opulence through almost every form of advertising, true opulence is unattainable for someone who is starting out from scratch. Class and power are obtained through generations of perseverance and right decisions. But ultimately, for the status quo to remain in power, opulence must seem accessible, or else the structures that uphold these cycles of influence will crumble.