What Happened to Leisure?
When asked to conjure an image of Brazil, the most common one is leisure. It’s a life of wide, sandy beaches, and family gatherings where relaxation takes precedence. However, all of this is about to change. Brazil is embracing consumerism.
There’s a new age dawning, and the signs are unmistakable. Brazil’s growth is the clearest indication of this change. Brazil is currently the world’s seventh largest economy, and capitalism is fueled by consumerism. Economies grow quickly when consumerism takes control.
Over the past twenty years, Brazil has grown astronomically. The economic boom has been so dramatic that the country is considered by economists to be an “Emerging Market,” a country that is rising above its previous status. It has a GDP of about U$2 trillion. It has been labeled a “second world” country and a member of the BRICS alliance, the elite group of developing countries.
What is driving Brazil’s change in course? For the first time, a large middle class has emerged in a country where previously there was none. The new emerging class has arisen thanks to a sustained period over the past 20 years of low unemployment, low inflation, and vast government assistance programs being distributed to one quarter of the population. (Only recently has economic growth stalled.)
For many Brazilians, consumerism can’t come soon enough. For decades Brazilians have traveled through Curitiba across the state of Paraná to the border at Foz do Iguaçu to enter neighboring Paraguay for inexpensive shopping in the border town of Ciudad del Este. Small businesses were started based entirely on these smuggled consumer items. Equally enticing but more recent are shopping trips to Miami’s designer label outlets. (With Brazil’s weakened economy, Miami shopping trips have become less attractive.)
Besides the increased purchasing power of the emerging Brazilian middle class, the other major contributing factor in the rise of consumerism is simple logistics – the availability of consumer goods. Without a readily available selection of goods, there’s little for consumers to consume. It’s only in the past few decades that cars and credit cards have become commonplace in Brazil. Home telephones didn’t become available until the late 1970s, and there were years-long waiting lists with only one phone company, which was owned and operated by the government. In the early 1990s, then President Fernando Collor opened Brazil’s doors to consumer imports.
Internet shopping recently arrived in Brazil, opening further still the yearning to consume. Brazilians all over the country can now purchase items with their credit cards from companies in São Paulo, the economic hub of Brazil.
The arrival of the middle class and consumer goods has triggered the opening of new horizons. A rising economy brings additional purchasing power, which inevitably triggers the creation of consumer desire. This desire then extends itself beyond the vista of mere goods and services – it creates a reason to see beyond one’s previous physical and psychological borders.
It’s only in the past few decades that middle-class Brazilians have been able to afford to fly. Previously, few Brazilians from the South traveled to the North because the distance was too great and the roads unreliable. Now traveling to distant lands, even inside Brazil, people are exposed to new customs and new ways of seeing the world.
Only recently has public education become compulsory and accessible for all children in Brazil. Without access to education or books, it’s less likely to be exposed to new ideas.
Today, all of these factors are converging – education, travel, and a wide availability of consumer goods – to bring Brazil to the dawn of a new era.
While Brazil comes face-to-face with a completely new way of looking at the world, it’s critical to consider what the country is leaving behind. Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. By the time it was abolished, in 1888, an estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa to Brazil, 40 percent of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas. Unlike in the US, where slaves were only utilized in one part of the country, slavery was spread throughout Brazil, and the 19th century economy depended heavily on its free labor.
Thus, Brazil entered the 20th century very much as it had entered the 19th and 18th, with a pre-industrial economy, or what economists call a “natural economy.” A natural economy relies more heavily on manual labor than machine labor and automation.
Besides limiting an economy’s growth and therefore inhibiting consumerism, a natural economy has other characteristics, some far more significant. A country’s economy, how its goods and services are produced and exchanged, governs nearly every aspect of a country’s organization. Economics dictates people’s lives in the way people spend their days. The ideology behind an economy arranges how people interact – what they eat and wear, daily routines, etc.
A natural economy differs dramatically from an industrial economy. The former is slower to change and less flexible. Habits and rituals are passed down from generation to generation, whether they govern religion or food preparation. In Brazil, the dominant presence of the Catholic Church and a close-knit family structure have contributed to a slower pace of life and the less frequent introduction of new ideas. In a natural economy, there is little emphasis on consumerism and the accumulation of wealth. Familial and spiritual concerns take center stage.
The most obvious example of a natural economy is Brazil’s (and all the Americas) earliest inhabitants – the native indigenous people. These “primitive” tribes, some of whom still exist in the Amazon region today, provide a perfectly preserved view of a natural economy. There, nothing is consumed beyond absolute necessity. Men and women work only to provide themselves with food and shelter. With favorable weather and hunting conditions, native cultures can work 10-20 hours a week, spending the rest of their time in leisure. Leisure time includes spending time with children, as well as the dance/music of celebrations and rituals, such as boys entering manhood.
Today, developed countries like the US continually exhibit signs of an over-worked population. The richer a country is, the greater availability of goods there is, which creates greater consumer desire. Consumer lust prevails in many wealthy countries. The desire to own more requires greater wealth, which requires increased work, and there is no end to the cycle.
The more we work, the more we earn, and thus the more we can consume to satisfy our desires. In a consumer culture, there is only one thing that separates us from the prize – money.
Perhaps this consideration of a natural economy versus a consumer economy can offer some insight into why North Americans view South Americans as lazy or less productive, and vice versa: North Americans are overworked and obsessed with timeliness. Leisure time, whether it is spent making music or playing with one’s children, is considered more important than work in a natural economy. Brazilians are closer to a natural economy than North Americans. By comparison, Brazilians are mere amateur consumers, but for how long?
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.