Sombart’s Luxury and Capitalism in Spatial Pespective on Global Cities
The manner in which Werner Sombart (1913: 2) connects luxury and capitalism draws attention to late-medieval and early Renaissance royal and papal courts as the locations where future developments that would shape governmental structures in the future took root. These precursors of modern courts have first created social groups that exclusively served the self-referential interests of these crucibles of economic, social and cultural life whether as courtiers or as ladies lending with their manners a defining spirit to these places. In this focus on courtly life, Sombart (1913: 2-3) connects the spirit of capitalism to the luxury with which courtly society was associated. Moreover, these royal residences and metropolises also drew the intellectual luminaries of their epochs to where the fine society has literally held court.
The luxury and refinement with which the courtly life has become stably associated ever since (Sombart 1913: 3) have been the prototypes of the worldly glamor that contemporary fashion, film and entertainment industries continue to embody. In other words, it is particular places where long-standing types of sociality, casts of thought and cultural traditions were initially forged in order to continue to have their effects on social, intellectual and cultural life whenever and wherever suitable conditions arise. An apposite comparison could be art exhibitions of European old masters that necessitate specific technical qualities of exhibition halls, financial commitments of hosting museums and cultural affinities of the general public. In this sense, contemporary society continues to reenact certain features of courtly societies of earlier periods under the guise of public culture.
Luxury stores representing global brands, such as Luis Vuitton in Shanghai, are definitely similar to art museums and galleries in that there are preconditions that apparently lay the foundations for their proliferation in a particular city. Even though the press coverage of this phenomenon in China predominantly sketches its economic development as the background for its growing consumption of luxury goods, I would contend that the connection between luxury and capitalism runs deeper than their superficial association might suggest. In this respect, Sombart’s position appears to be that a growing presence of luxury is indicative of larger cultural changes that go beyond the purchasing power that global cities demonstrate in their shopping malls, restaurant districts and leisure opportunities. Comparing Shanghai to how New York that became a preeminent city of global culture after a certain tipping point in its history one would be looking for spatial indicators of such change.