According to historian Gary Cross, working people endorsed and embraced the consumer society as it took its current shape in the early to mid twentieth century because it promised to a group used to being driven by the threat of hunger a positive outlook on the future, of a widening scope of wants fulfilled. Providing the complementary fulfillment to work time is free time, divided into domestic time, spent fondling the accumulated goods whose ownership was made possible by easy credit and slavish work commitments (Cross refers to households as “museums of domesticity”), and holiday time, during which workers experience the “magic of uninhibited spending.”
You can probably tell I find this a bit dubious, but only because of the positive spin put on the structuring of leisure time, which in reality can often play out as an equally stressful para-employment wherein one is desperate to consume not for enjoyment but for identity and social significance, compelled by the needs of a mass-market system that requires great amounts of by and large pointless consumption. And the celebration of work/leisure bifurcation reinforces capitalist assumptions of work as an inherent disutility, something you do because you have to and not because it gives your life productive purpose and meaning. Capitalism requires deskilled workers who are complacent about the meaningless work they must do to eat, because the deskilling makes it easier to exploit their labor and makes productive processes more efficient. With meaningful work, workers would likely be less inclined to express their identity through consumption (meaningful work would provide them with a more stable identity imbued with a proud sense of competence), and would be capable of doing more than simply decompressing in their leisure time (passively watching television or passively acquiring objects, etc.) if they were engaged in something personally compelling throughout the day. In other words, a lack of meaningful work leads to a compulsion for compensatory meaningless distraction during non-working hours. Or it leads to working in leisure time at something one does find meaningful: Writing a blog, organizing massive collections of DVDs, building home additions, yard work, et cetera. This creates a time-squeeze, as time committed to work doubles, leaving little time for more casual social interaction.
But Cross is certainly on to something when he notes the experience of “the magic of uninhibited spending.” Spending, we are constantly reminded, is the best way, the most appropriate way to exhibit power in our society — it lets the market arbitrate as it naturally should, since as we all know the market is the best way of regulating all things human. We vote with our dollars and thereby have true, perfect democracy, right? It makes perfect sense that those with more dollars have more votes, since they have more of a stake in society and have worked harder for it, of course. Anyway, when we relax our grip on reality and decide to spend impulsively on vacations, we experiece something like unlimited power in our unlimited spending. We get an intimation of godlike immediacy and omnipotence, fulfilling desires as fast as we can generate them, destroying the difference between thought and action. But this is a sham power; it relies on our desires being only those things the market can readily supply — it requires our deepest wishes be for owning those things that are ready at hand. But because we like the fantasy of omnipotence, especially on vacation, the point of which is to feel the power denied us at our drudge jobs, we bend our desires to be those things that money can buy, and we end up struggling to maintain the pretense as we throw our money at lowest-common-denominator tourist traps and mass-produced faux luxuries. We end up buying things we don’t really want because we feel like we aren’t really having a good time otherwise. This is one of the reasons why souvenir shops can thrive. The truly luxurious things, the positional goods of uncrowdedness, uniqueness, unspoiledness, etc., remain out of our reach no matter how much we are willing to spend, no matter how good our credit is, because they had been locked up long ago by old money.
Cross suggests that these spending vacations replace the seasonal and religious festivals that once gave meaning to the passage of time. It seems appropriate that we should enshrine unrestrained spending as part of our yearly rituals — the free-spending summer vacation mirrors Christmas buying bonanzas and both celebrate spending as power and pleasure divinely melded into one and the same gesture, the quintessential expression of cultural participation.
My recent mini-vacation to Arizona started me thinking about this, because I realized that I had been saving up a lot of purchases I needed to make in order that I could make them during the trip — I ended up buying new boxer shorts and a big tube of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste in Tucson, as well as a full complement of sweaters and shirts at various regional thrift stores. I just naturally associated vacation with the need to be spending copiously, as a time when my natural reluctance to spend money on clothes and things is relaxed, as a time when I have the leisure to be contemplating choices in underwear and so on. This seemed very strange to me, that I needed to take a vacation in order to buy toothpaste, that my relation to spending had become that pathological. I’ve so thoroughly internalized the idea of vacations as free-spending times that I am loath to spend when not on vacation. Vcations now cue spending for me rather than arising organically out of it. Vacations have ceased to be about relaxing for me, and have become about acquisition. Or, more scary, I’ve simply made acquisition the only way I know how to relax.