Reading E.P. Thompson’s ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’ (1991) and a new piece by Escalate Collective, Salt, it occurs to me that to talk about time is hard, though perhaps it doesn’t always seem so. Note how often you mourn the passing of time, your lack of it, as though it is what it does, rather than what we do - by choice or compulsion- that makes it run so quickly, or so slowly. These days, people speak of ‘the times’ a great deal; or perhaps we always did. It’s the times that are hard, one might say, displacing blame. We often think of our time as personally hard-won and wrested (‘I took a 3-day weekend’) but not of collective, often violent struggles to do so – it was only recently that I was introduced to the phrase ‘Anarchism: from the people who brought you the weekend’ (NB: the term’s first recorded usage is in 1879).
Thompson asks ‘how far, and in what ways, did the shift in time-sense affect labour discipline, and how far did it influence the inward apprehension of time of working people?’ Time has always been employed or co-opted differently according to what needs doing. Agrarian rhythms demand(ed) quite different forms of time from the demands of the factory and of growing industrial capitalism. He maps the point in the mid-17th Century in which farming became an employer-employed relation, rather than task-orientated work for individual tillers of the soil. ‘Those who are employed experience a distinction between their employer’s time and their ‘own’ time…Time is now currency; it is not passed but spent’. This economy of time pressed particularly hard on women, yoked to both a time-based (working for pay) and a task-based (caring for children and household) regime.
This change, along with the rise of the railways and the invention of the telegraph, engendered the need for accurate timepieces, helped along by the invention of the pendulum in 1658. Later contestations of work regimes in mills and workshops were often typified by bosses confiscating time-pieces so workers did not know how long they were working.
Thompson weaves the demands of capital and technological innovation, the rise of the virtues of ‘timeliness’, ‘efficiency’, and of course the unquestionable morality of work. He recounts songs and stories of ‘Saint Monday’, the day after the Sabbath where many tradespeople slacked off a bit, had their kids and spouses in their workplace, and caroused - a sort of spectre weekend haunting the time before the full weekend was established. Indeed, the unit of leisure was not the 2-days-off-in-7 we know today but a full ‘irregular’ year-round of particular feasts, festivals and jollies. As industrial capitalism took off, though, these leisure-times were eroded. But ‘Saint Monday’ became a perjorative term and the open-field system seen as a breeding-ground for idleness. ‘Efficiency’ became one of the central rationales for enclosure. Laws and other proscriptions regulating ‘idleness’ became numerous. By 1700, a landscape of ‘disciplined industrial capitalism’ had become established, especially in urban areas. Education was expanded and promoted as a mechanism for establishing time- and labour-discipline in children, and the rationale for their enslavement in workhouses was to ‘habituate them to constant employment’. Employment does not equal payment for labour; see also workfare.
Thompson lightly traces change over this two centuries into the invention of particular leisure and consumer habits, and to the present and recent past, where theorists of economic growth and proponents of ‘development’ despair of the time-sense of those they are trying to ‘develop’. However, time-discipline has not been wholly detrimental to us (many things we now value have arisen from it) nor, more importantly, should or could we attempt to change it in the ways we might desire.
‘What needs to be said is not that one way of life is better than the other, but this is a place of the most far-reaching conflict; that the historical record is not a simple one of neutral and inevitable technological change, but is also one of exploitation and of resistance to exploitation; and that values stand to be lost as well as gained.’
Now turn to the promise of salt. Escalate Collective’s polemic takes on the current crisis and time, not so much in terms of personal time-sense, but in terms of debt and deferral. It is polemical rather than historic and I am not going to try and summarise it exhaustively, only to point out a few bits that made me think, and some links with Thompson. As with Thompson, it is important to look at the past to understand not only tactical and strategic failures and successes by those opposing capital but also to understand how our private and public ideas are shaped. In particular, Salt seeks to see ‘what structures of ideological mediation financialisation imposed upon us’. Its authors describe austerity as a theft of human time and energy (mainly in the form of unpaid labour), pointing out that capital always needs this time and energy or ‘it will cease to be capital’. Underscoring the whole piece is that capital can only remove itself from crisis by robbing those whom the crisis has caused to suffer most in the first place. It also points out that all forms of theft have their basis in a deeper structure of deferral, and this initiates a discussion of the present crisis through the frame of time. Debt (and this is a debt crisis) is a deferral of payment, but it’s important to remember that capital profits from it, both historically, now, and in the future.
Debt typifies our experiences of housing, education and consumption, but also work – the financialisation of wages, for example, in which pensions are a deferred payment for services already rendered, over which the worker has no control. Interestingly, Thompson’s take on early labour struggles is that the new regime of time and work-discipline put workers on the back foot; their resistance was ‘not against time, but about it’. This struggle resulted in something like a 10-hour, rather than a 12-hour day by the end of the 18th century: ‘They had learned their lesson, that time is money, only too well.’ Salt’s take on the predicament of organised labour relates to this in that it identifies in current trade unions a capitulation to the deferral already described; struggles are typically over pensions, for example, an acceptance of ‘misery of the present for future redemption.’
Salt is a densely-argued (occasionally abstruse) piece which I can’t do full justice to here. Its conclusion that financialisation’s ‘asset-stripping’ project of the last few decades, carried out under successive Labour and Conservative governments, can only happen once, and that thus the state has no utopias to offer and few instruments except naked violence and fear created by indebtedness is a pretty grim one. So.
I started thinking about all this stuff a few years ago when I realised I had a problem with the concept of ‘leisure’ – it was a capitulation to the other thing. Now I’m a postgraduate student, the thing I feel I have bought is not a qualification, but time. These pieces make me reflect under what terms it can or could be traded, and who I bought it from. And the more I think about time and work, time and capital, the more I notice it.
In an old printing factory in Birmingham recently I saw a time-clock and either side of it, the holders for people’s cards to punch. It looked old-fashioned; no cards remained. Time-keeping in work, here, has partly moved on as deindustrialisation occurred. It looked quaint to me, and I thought about how hard it is – understandably - to think about time without nostalgia, without longing for a time that never was. We never kept perfect time. As Thompson reminds us, allusions to the time as wicked tyrant predate enclosure and industrialisation. Understand, yes, but never long to go back. Salt identifies a particular nostalgia which is problematic:
‘anti-austerity’ relies on its own conception of time; and that concept of time, like capital’s, is incapable of grasping continuity. Just as the working day is spliced from its component hours, each with its discrete value, anti-austerity discourse cuts the pres-crisis boom free of the historical context in which it properly exists, isolates it, and insists that this is the moments to which we ought to return.
Someone mentioned on a radio discussion the other day how policies which (ostensibly) aim to resolve crises of capital are always couched in terms of states of emergency, they are temporary measures, rather like transitional demands. No-one admits that the state of emergency, perhaps this time more than ever in modern history, is permanent. These policies, of course, are also premised on the idea that capital is infinitely adjustable, and that a little fine tuning, of the cogs will make the whole machine run perfectly, efficiently and on time. Salt makes me think; what future are we being promised by the policy of austerity? We are promised capitalism’s notion of a future, its ‘self-correction on its happy steady journey to eternal growth’. In Salt, exiting this notion of the future means exiting capitalism’s construction of time itself, a struggle for temporal autonomy: ‘When we seek material autonomy, we achieve nothing but material disruption. Temporal autonomy would be revolutionary.’ This time-form can only, they write, be described in negative terms. It is not work, nor leisure as we understand it. Its urgency is its own urgency, like the freedom to make long-term plans, as I said in another context recently, because it’s not urgent, let’s do it now.