Superyachts have made the front pages of daily press in recent months since some of them, owned by Russian oligarchs, were confiscated under sanctions against warring Russia. They had occasionally attracted public attention away from the motley news from the world of the super-rich, for example when politicians accepted the invitation to one of these luxury vehicles.
Like Nicolas Sarkozy, who had billionaire Vincent Bolloré buy him such a holiday immediately after his election as French President. And ten years later, they became a topic of conversation again in France, when a levy was imposed on them to mitigate criticism of the previously decided transition to a tax system in which they are largely ignored as mobile assets. It was more of a cosmetic thing, but even that failed, with the proceeds amounting to a ridiculously small fraction of what the government camp had originally claimed as revenue.
Why this French tax on yachts over thirty meters long – the minimum for the “superyacht” category – was a flop can be read in Grégory Salle, whose volume on the superyacht phenomenon, published last year, is now also available in German. For the sociologist and political scientist, the fact that this levy did not work proves once again the tax privileges of the super-rich and is therefore in line with his line of not taking the superyacht phenomenon as just a curious excess, but as a “touchstone” and “significant sample” at present achieved conditions in which fortunes can be accumulated that support this top segment of luxury consumption.
Of unmistakable size
However, the author is prudent enough to bracket this claim himself. Because the random sample is too small, too eccentric to give really valid insights into these conditions, which one could only gain from it. And that the super-rich establish their own, largely isolated world, are not affected by economic crises, hardly bear an appropriate tax burden – for this it is not necessary to look at the superyacht market or even the “microniche market” of its top segment, in which meanwhile almost all yachts are longer than one hundred meters.
But at Salle you can find interesting information about this market and its players, whose largest and most expensive products have been growing steadily since the 1980s and which overall – at six thousand boats – has been on a growth course again in the past two years. The top 100 are about acquisition costs in the range of several hundred million euros, to which there are hefty maintenance and operating costs. Even income from the charter business does not change the fact that it is a variant of conspicuous consumption. In a price range that can only be reached by top hammer prices on the art market. (By the way, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose art collection was recently auctioned off for €1.6 billion, was also the owner of a 126-meter yacht with the helipads that are almost obligatory in this size category.)
But Seurats in the saloon are clearly different from superyachts on the pier. They are of immense size, which in the case of the owners in Putin’s network invited them to be confiscated: In them, Salle sums up, what otherwise eludes such tangibility has become tangible in “imposing materiality”, namely something that has largely been dematerialized in times of financialization Assets. Their demonstration value, as expressed in the “mimetic rivalry” of the owners – not least in the race for ever larger specimens among the frontrunners – can only be had at this price.
The ecological footprint of such a lifestyle is huge
It remains to be seen what makes the ship attractive in contrast to the Seurat: It is boldly materialized wealth, but at the same time stands for unlimited mobility with almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. These promises of limitlessness and self-sufficiency are rather illusory when you take a closer look at the necessary infrastructure, but it is apparently enough for the symbolic value. Or in Salle’s words: Hypermobility is “at least as expressive as it is instrumental”.
One finds interesting observations about the “demonstrative seclusion” that the yachts made possible. Showmanship and discretion can be effortlessly combined with them, and in any case one keeps to oneself. This not only applies to the small company that embarks – always surrounded by a numerically larger crew beyond the hundred meters in length – but also to the owners and renters as a whole. Of course, seclusion does not mean withdrawing to remote corners of the world’s oceans, but the fleet follows courses in very narrowly definable regions, with the expected centers in the western Mediterranean in summer.
It goes without saying that the ecological footprint of such a lifestyle is huge, and there is also damage to the sensitive Mediterranean marine flora. Salle goes into both quite extensively. (Which is why the French original edition also uses “ecocide” in addition to “luxury” and “quiet”; the “Capitalocene” of the title, on the other hand, remains just a dashing signal word.) Winter begins, the majority of the fleet is heading for the Caribbean. And it remains to be seen how the legal disputes over the confiscated Russian-owned superyachts will end.
Grégory Salle: “Superyachts”. Luxury and tranquility in the Capitalocene. Translated from the French by Ulrike Bischoff. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2022. 170 p., br., €16.
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