The most discussed news this week on social media is that France has banned the sale and possession of counterfeited and fake luxury products. The general sentiment from Pakistanis on social media is that this a good thing, along will general banter about how women who come to lunch and tea parties with their “designer” bags would all be arrested in France.
There are some very mean things going on here, masked under the French desire to protect copyright and trademark designs and how we are Pakistan are responding to this.
Mean thing number 1 concerns France, and some of the Western world and how it has used patent systems to create monopolies over knowledge and design. While in this case, we are talking about items like designer bags and shoes that have no great bearing on the development of the third world, the same laws are applied to machines and scientific knowledge. If the knowledge is not shared, it can’t create capital and development. China has been able to mass produce manufactured good by copying the West, and its rise would not have been possible had strict laws on patent protection existed thirty years ago as they exist today. Forget China, if during the industrial revolution laws about patents existed as they did today, the industrial revolution would have never happened in Europe and North America. Intellectual property rights sound fine when they belong to an individual designer, or inventor. Hard working creative individuals and even firms should get to keep their knowledge secret, but remember this has meant that large corporations can claim monopolies over products that they create, even when they have been funded by governments (like many western pharmaceutical companies), and put themselves above the public good.
While some firms will copy, and make a quick buck, many in China have used copying as a stepping-stone to create brands selling original products. Firms start with what is in demand, and that’s the “designer stuff”. They diversify and sell original stuff once they’ve accumulated some capital. Where once China was selling phones that looked like Iphones but had none of the functionality, today they are making branded phones that aren’t copies and are good products legally produced thanks to their past experience in creating cheap tech goods.
When it comes to Gucci handbags, the public good again takes a backseat. Design companies worldwide have been able to create products that only the rich can afford. Coupled with mass marketing, the media-industrial complex has been able to fool people into thinking that a mere handbag offers them better social mobility. Capitalism itself, and its spawn, consumerism, have made sure that society stay mean and petty (Mean thing number 2!). In todays world there is often very little space to shun what television and billboards are throwing at us. Young people are told a hundred times a day they need a certain shoe, a certain phone, to get the job they want or get the life partner they want. What else will people do to be seen and heard and loved? Spend $3000 on a designer bag or worry about intellectual property rights and not buy the perfectly decent and functional fake bag for $50?
Society, whether western or not, has not been able to protect itself from the onslaught of capitalist greed and has turned on itself. For all our posturing about values, we just cannot resist the over-priced lawn suit or the Hermes handbag, and we cannot stop judging people who choose not to partake in the charade or cannot afford to. Capitalism in in our veins now, to the death or local artisans and products and expressions of identity that are diverse and different.
The designer handbag created its own fake sister. Maybe if it was affordable, and fashion powerhouses in the West weren’t selling things that the Chinese can make for the fraction of the price, France wouldn’t need to arrest people for possessing fake goods. It is often argued that Chinese goods are low quality, and it is true, a fake bag will not be made from leather from a cow that has only been fed grass that was watered with Perrier. However, majority goods that are sold by popular brands are produced at a fraction of the actual price tag in countries like China, Cambodia and even Pakistan. The premium paid for the “brand” is not commensurate with the function of the good. While the designer must get credit and royalty for his idea, the crazy prices and the exploitation of the consumer are part of the package.
And while mean thing number 2, i.e. capitalism, is too big a monster to confront and take down, mean thing number 3 is our plain selves, decked in “designer” wear, happy to gossip about the girl who is trying too hard to look rich and acceptable by carrying a fake Dior bag. Most people are applauding the French tantrum, though many are also saying that if luxury goods were affordable they wouldn’t be copied. One comment on Instagram says in support of a ban: “A lot of us pay for real designer goods!” But everyone cannot afford to pay, and should not be shamed because someone rich spent money on buying something “exclusive”. People cannot be expected to be on the outside looking in at people with their original Rolex watches driving their BMWs and Audis forever. Fake goods fill the vacuums between economic classes, where one can hide their bank balance behind a counterfeit Birkin bag.
All countries should ban fake good, and follow copyright protections. Absolutely, what is right is right and sometimes doing what is right is difficult. But how about also placing increasingly bigger taxes on consuming luxury goods (with France leading the charge) and funnelling that as a subsidy into cottage industries, or agriculture, or healthcare innovations or whatever feeds and heals more people? Can’t Western economies survive without squeezing the life and brains out of consumers and creating knowledge monopolies? Surely they are rich and innovative enough? Laws should encourage honesty and ethical production, but they should also protect people and livelihoods.
No one needs an original Chanel bag in Pakistan, when most of the population can’t even spell Chanel and doesn’t want to either. The fake lookalike does just fine and one still has enough money to pay the bills and feed the kids. The argument here is not that holding fake goods should be allowed, but that no one should feel the need to want that fake good in the first place. We are not in France, and we need to stop judging people for wanting to look rich in a society that works on social contacts and personal opinions of how others look and dress. See how many local banks treat people who walk in dressed in a suit better, as opposed to someone in a shalwar kameez sweaty from riding his bike or cycle all day in the sun? Why would that man not try to put on pants with an Armani logo and buy fake Raybans?
The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.