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Poverty and Excess in Binge Economies



The history of excess has tended to focus on middle-class groups intent on demonstrating their wealth through conspicuous consumption. I draw on historical evidence from working cultures of loggers, fishermen, miners, sailors, and manual laborers to show how consumption was embedded in daily rhythms of work, in the cultural construction of gender, and the economy. I define a “binge economy” which typically emerged in extractive industries on the margins of the capitalist world system. Then I question whether working-class displays of excessive consumption were self-limiting. Rather than being based on greed, I argue that working-class binge consumption was an attempt to build a social order which would allow workers to survive harsh work discipline, extremely dangerous physical labor, and the socially corrosive nature of money. But rather than being an effective form of resistance or solidarity, excessive consumption created as many problems as it solved, perpetuating servitude in the guise of freedom, and serving the interests of capital. Nevertheless, the close association of masculinity with excessive forms of social consumption continues to inspire many forms of excess and overconsumption among middle-class Americans.