Recently, the UK’s National Police Chief Council (NPCC) had to publish a clarification on what was considered a reasonable excuse to leave home during the coronavirus lockdown. Among other things, they noted that ‘the purchase of snacks and luxuries is still permitted.’ If a shop is open – and this includes, in the UK, off-licences (liquor stores, for Americans) – as an essential business, you can go there. While this may seem obvious to quite a few people, the Cambridge police issued a tweet (now deleted) expressing delight at how the non-essential aisles at a local supermarket were empty. This matches up with other anecdotes about over-exuberant police cracking down on the purchase of luxuries. Hence, the evident need for the NPCC’s clarification.
But why this focus on people buying, or not, non-essential items? One way of looking at this is to see it as different ways of understanding what humans need and want. (Yes, I am talking about relatively well-off humans in the UK in this particular instance, and expectations will differ from those elsewhere. Nonetheless I think the point is worth thinking about.)
Let’s leave aside the fact that, from almost the very beginning, off-licences were considered essential businesses and allowed to remain open. The situation is similar in the US (or at least parts of it). One could quite easily offer a variety of commentaries on this, from the cynical (bread and wine, if circuses are not permitted) to the, well, most of my interpretations are cynical, so I’ll leave it there.
Rather, even before the NPCC’s guidelines, the current situation, and the reported clamp-downs on luxury goods reminded me of a piece I taught in my class on War and Humanitarian Aid at Brunel a few years ago. The piece is Rahul Chandrashekhar Oka’s ‘Coping with the Refugee Wait: The Role of Consumption, Normalcy, and Dignity in Refugee Lives at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya,’ in American Anthropologist (2014). The article highlights an interesting tension between refugees and aid workers in regards to attitudes towards food aid. In essence, refugees in the camp studied would often trade certain of the food aid they had received for luxuries and non-essentials. Relief agencies and workers viewed this as wasteful. Their focus has been on keeping people alive. Food packages are designed to provide enough calories and nutrients. Luxuries are viewed as just that – luxuries, something you should do without when times are hard. Further, many aid workers view food packages as a form of gift, and so to sell it for chocolate or other luxuries is a form of ingratitude.
There is a lot more to say about the article, including how black market purchases can give people a sense of agency, of control over their own lives. I’m not suggesting that the coronavirus lockdown is the same as being a refugee. But there is a key point worth thinking about in the current context. It is this: luxuries allow a sense of normalcy. In a refugee camp, people will trade some of their food aid for more culturally desirable foods, or items to celebrate a birthday or holiday. Rice or sorghum for sweets doesn’t make much sense from a purely rational perspective. But from a point of being a living, breathing person, and not merely an instantiation of ‘bare life’ (Agamben 1998), it makes perfect sense. People want and need to feel that there is more than simply surviving. Making sacrifices so a loved one can celebrate a birthday may not make rational sense, but it makes emotional and human sense.
Again, let me reiterate that I’m not comparing the situation of being in a lockdown to being in a refugee camp. There is a world of difference. Rather, I wanted to point out something that I think most people recognise instinctively, as it were: Luxuries really aren’t luxuries. Any given one, yes. But the idea of luxuries, of wanting to exist on more than pasta and tinned tomatoes, isn’t. I am not claiming that luxuries make us human. Rather, I’m suggesting they are a way of feeling we are coping with, and maintain a bit of control over the circumstances we find ourselves in. This was the point of the refugee camp illustration. Many, if not most, people in the UK and elsewhere find themselves in a situation they have never been in before, and have probably never imagined being in. As the NPCC has now implicitly recognised, stopping to pick up some wine and crisps along with your pasta and tinned tomatoes is a way of coping. They provide a sense of normalcy when daily life, for the majority of us, isn’t normal. No, luxuries aren’t necessary. But they can be very useful, and useful is important too.
Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, Stanford University Press.
Oka, R. C. (2014). “Coping with the Refugee Wait: The Role of Consumption, Normalcy, and Dignity in Refugee Lives at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya.” American Anthropologist 116(1): 23-37.