Articles and Essays by Mark Engler

    The Politics of Your Summer Vacation

    How many people feel guilty about taking vacation? In America, quite a few.

    When the economy is bad and unemployment high, working people are supposed to feel grateful that they have jobs at all. We’re under pressure to buckle down and skip “luxuries” like sick days, vacation, and even lunch breaks. Those who aren’t feeling guilty might well be frightened. They are concerned that they’ll be perceived as slackers for taking the time off owed to them—and therefore become targets in the next round of “do more with less” downsizing.

    Unfortunately, this pressure is hurting the prospects of an economic recovery that would actually benefit ordinary Americans, not just corporate employers. If you believe in full employment, as well as personal happiness, there are good reasons for you to stand up for your summer vacation.

    Last weekend, the New York Times had an interesting story about how corporate advertisers have recognized that Americans are being pressured to work more in the lackluster economy. Businesses have responded with ad campaigns “urging workers to commit small acts of so-called rebellion—like taking a vacation, or going on a lunch break.” The story reported:

    The woman had had enough. Amid ringing phones and clicking keyboards she climbs up on her desk and shouts through her speakerphone: “I have 47 vacation days. That’s insane.”

    “Let’s take back our summer!” she yells as she raises a sign over her head with the phrase “Vacation Now” on it. “Who’s with me?” A handful of employees applaud. The rest look away.

    The scene, echoing a pivotal sequence in the 1979 film “Norma Rae,” is not a union recruiting pitch but instead is part of a television ad for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, from a campaign called “Take Back Your Summer.” Other big advertisers like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are also tapping into a sense of frustration among workers to sell products portrayed as minor luxuries.

    The McDonald’s advertising campaign, designed to promote its Premium Chicken Sandwich and its “Third-Pounder,” features such taglines as “A lunch revolution has begun” and “A sesame seed of revolt has been planted.”

    Such rhetoric is pretty wrenching—or pretty funny, depending on how jaded you are. I’ve written before about complaints by radicals that established community groups and unions have tried to “co-opt” Occupy Wall Street. In those cases, I think “solidarity” is a more accurate description of what is going on. For real co-optation, Madison Avenue rules. In the Times article, Harry Katz, dean of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, notes of the recent advertising campaigns, “It’s an effort by management to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street spirit and redirect it to promote its product. They are using it in a somewhat manipulative way.”

    “Somewhat manipulative” is, of course, a huge understatement. For the same corporations who are forever speeding up workflow and hoarding profits from productivity gains to turn around and try to cash in on workers’ frustration is audacious for sure. But one reason that advertisers can get away with it is that progressives have largely ceded them the battlefield on this issue.

    In past decades, and certainly since the most recent economic downturn, the demand from liberals—and even from those further to the left—has been for jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Rarely have progressives focused on demands like reducing work hours, lowering the retirement age, protecting and expanding vacation, and implementing job-sharing schemes—all of which might be better paths to full employment. The reason is simple: if everyone wasn’t forced to work so hard, there would be more work to go around. 

    In Jacobin and elsewhere, Peter Frase has written some excellent essays on this issue, combating prevalent Keynesian notions and arguing that we should—so to speak—“Stop Digging.” Citing Paul Lafargue’s 1883 pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” as an intellectual precedent, he writes:

    Lafargue is part of a dissident socialist tradition, which insists that a politics for the working class must be against work. This is the tradition picked up by political theorist Kathi Weeks in her recent book, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Weeks identifies advocates of more work and those who want better work, and finds each lacking. As an alternative, she holds up the straightforward and unapologetic demand for less work. In the process, she powerfully articulates the case for a politics that appeals to pleasure and desire, rather than to sacrifice and asceticism. It is, after all, the ideal of self-restraint and self-denial that ultimately legitimates the glorification of work, and especially the ideology of the work ethic.

    Frase’s full essay is well worth a read.

    In a slightly less theoretical vein, Juliet Schor has done fine work advocating for an economic model of “plenitude,” which would break from the endless pursuit of GDP growth. Stealing an illustration technique from the animation geniuses at the RSA, the Center for a New American Dream has put together a solid video in which Schor explains why your summer vacation is a contribution to a more satisfied, more ecologically friendly, and better-employed American workforce. My advice is to watch it on your laptop from the nearest beach or backyard hammock.

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