Moving the shadow of eternity: time, change, agency, and emergence in pursuit of liberation

A piece exploring time and change within capitalism, and pointing to their relevance for revolutionaries.

Submitted by s.nappalos on October 25, 2015

Edits of a talk given June 13 2015 for the Sydney Anarchist Book Fair

"Son, observe the time, and fly from evil". Inscription on the clock tower of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, California.

Since the waves of global resistance swelled up and took most of us by surprise, two issues have stood out. First is the idea of two fundamental perspectives for revolutionary politics: There’s us as agents trying to figure out what to do and there’s the world of society as whole with large-scale emergence. Much of my recent writing has been working out the implications of seeing that they have different logic, different powers, and separations; the world of us, agents, and the world of social forces. Second has been to try to re-center radical politics around how we live and want to live; revolutionary politics as a project of improving and transforming how we spend our lives. Bringing these two things together takes us to time and change. There’s something to be learned by looking at our experience of time as how we live our lives fundamentally as well as respond to political events as they are produced by society as a whole.

Giving a talk on time sounds like I’m going to enter some bizarre territory between physics and politics, which isn’t what we’re going to do. As strange as it sounds the concepts of time and change are at the center of a number of debates in society today. Long held social contracts about how and when we work are being torn up, and time is key. The increasingly obvious falsity of the “end of history” idea has given way to a more open future. If our situation is not permanent, what do these changes look like? Are conflicts in the South China Seas, Paraguay, Honduras, Syria and Iraq, etc., representative of a fundamentally new relationship between states and capital, continuation of imperialism, or simply age old international relations? [See discussion for example in 1,2] Recently articles have come out about training programs in Europe where people are paid to work at fake jobs, a response if you can call it that, to long-term unemployment settling across that continent. [3] In the US the Republican Party has attempted to sabotage budget negotiations to secure an increase in the retirement age, a tactic more and more common globally. [4] Governments, businesses, and movements have squared off around how youth enter the workforce with regulations attempting to legalize sub-minimum wages, fights against unpaid internships and training, and mass youth unemployment. The US is one of the few countries rich and poor without any paid maternity leave, something that in recent years has been getting more attention. These are all examples of struggles around how capitalism breaks up our time; which is to say our lives.

Why it matters

Part of tackling these issues is to put forward a critique of time and change today and offer an anarchist or libertarian alternative. Why does this matter? Firstly, capitalism is built upon the dividing of the time of our lives into different pieces, and selling those on a market of labor. Social movements that attack the conditions and divisions of time can undermine capitalism’s legitimacy because of what it does to our relationship to our lives. Think about struggles against youth working for free or pushing the elderly to work till death. Childhood, family, illness, and the ability to have quality time with others are issues that bring to the front what life is about and how capitalism is attacking it. They thus contain a potential lesson about the possibility of a liberated future: a society in which our lives and social time are one-and-the-same rather than divided, sold, devalued, and discarded.

Second, as revolutionaries we try to build struggles not just against our daily conditions but the against system itself. The dominant concepts of change reproduced in society are tools against this. By manipulating what appears permanent versus temporary, the system is able to subtly shape expectations and combat the sense of possibility people have. When this breaks down, for instance in political crises when populations develop the sense of a stolen future or new possibilities, the potential for collective ruptures grows. An anarchist conception of change could offer further tools for struggle and inspiration in exposing that process of ideology and demonstrating another way to live and to work against power.

Capital’s time

Time itself plays a special role within capitalist societies. The core logic of capitalism is based off the sale and exchange of workers time on a global market. As capitalism developed it felt the need to constantly transform time to its own ends of expansion, production, and domination of new markets.

The idea of one single universal time across the globe is not however obvious. It is in fact constructed requiring both conceptual leaps and resources to sustain itself. Human calendars have been based off the cycles of the moon or sun for generations. The length of the day for instance is relative to where one is on the planet: whether valleys obstruct the light, how far north or south you are, etc. In order to construct a global system of production and circulation of goods, capitalism increasingly required having a fixed universal time to coordinate times of work, shipment of goods, and implementing global technologies for exchange within markets. The clock, universal time zones, daylight savings, and machinery standardizing and monitoring time at work are examples of the development of capitalism's impact on our interaction with and understanding of time. As in all things, it is the State that ultimately controls and consolidates tendencies developed within society, preserving its role as a center of power. In schools, prisons, the military, and work the State imposed a regime of time onto people leaving the world of agrarian societies and the cycles of the earth and entering a world of factories, shops, mills, and mines ruled by the clock that grew with the industrial age. Today the State is constantly monitoring and seeking to shape our relationship to time through technology, education, and policing that imposes the interests of the powerful through control over technologies, communication, education, and our cities themselves.

Critique of Time

A critique of capitalist time begins with the idea that time is life and capitalism is built on the sale, exploitation, and manipulation of human life for the needs of capital. Life is organized around the needs of work rather than work around the needs of life. Central to the capitalist project is a disassociation from the cycles of the natural world, unlinking time from our environment and imposing an abstract business time not only at work but also throughout society. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that the timing of agricultural labor imposed months of vacation for agricultural societies which capitalism has since taken back creating virtually limitless work. [5] This is the opposite of the picture we are led to believe where modern society has progressed making life easier and reducing difficult and degrading labor. This is not to idealize agricultural society by any means, but only to show how contingent our reality is and that a life (or ideal) of constant work is both recent and avoidable.

We live in a unique time where people everywhere are questioning not only the misery of the lives we've inherited but also the best the system has to offer. The prospect of a life of meaningless work is increasingly being undressed and discontent has been steadily rising. Within the advanced capitalist countries the proliferation of pointless jobs, bureaucracy, and unproductive work creates both economic tension and conditions exposing the emptiness of work and the possibility of a future where work is minimized and life's bounty shared. In more recent capitalist powers such as India and China, brutal production based off menial labor creates social unrest, moral tension, and countless human cost. Yet waves of mechanization already under way are likely to lead only to displacing millions of workers, new cycles of destruction, or perhaps more bubbles of pointless jobs. The cycles of life under capital and the state both individual and familial are under attack and though no force has emerged to challenge this order seriously, morally and intellectually capitalism is already suffering defeats. With every year the senselessness of work and the ease of its minimization increases.

Anarchist Time

There is a parallel between time and the social program of anarchism. Anarchism critiques capital and the State and offers a libertarian social alternative. Under capitalism entire societies and the globe is organized for the benefit of elite state power and capital itself; time along with everything else. All of society takes its form that reflects those central powers, though at each step contested by oppositions. Anarchism’s response is an attempt to unite individual liberty with collective welfare in the construction of a social order maximizing the potential for all to flourish. Anarchist society is a combination of libertarian content and values with the collective construction of new forms of self-organization.

Capitalist time forms a backbone our lives are shaped around. An anarchist critique of time shows how capitalism proliferates avoidable harmful labor and alienates humanity both from our lives and where we live. Anarchist time is the unity of individual and collective aspirations and necessities relating to time with the construction of societies for all. This is not the same as agrarian or pre-agrarian times. Agrarian time was tied to cycles of the earth specific to micro-regions and ecosystems where human settlements lay. This would be impossible to return to today except in areas already thoroughly insulated from the global order and holding their own specific problems and struggles. Such a regressive return would also not be desirable given that any global solution to the rampant inequality and imposed poverty requires international solidarity and coordination to correct the inequalities and devastation we’ve inherited.

Capitalists faced challenges constructing a global order which their universal time solved: it let trains run in sync, global financial trades happen, etc. A liberated international coordination requires a form of time as well. These challenges could be overcome by using existing technology that allow for localities to maintain their own time specific to the needs of their area in keeping with their desires and norms, while using information technology to federate decentralized time to coordinate international exchanges and production. This is not simply a fetish for localities. The question of time is how we want to organize our lives for activities, both as societies and individuals. Capitalism constrains and filters that through the needs of business, but a liberated society could create countless options for humanity to live as we wish.

Making time

Revolutionary time is an end itself, and something worthy of using effort to think through, radically imagine, and debate. Vision itself has a strong role in driving movements forward through tough years. Still, not having any guarantees of when or if our ideals may come about, a more important task is contesting time in our daily lives. There's already some precedent for this in limited arenas. The most obvious example is the amount of life given to work. Struggles around the length of the work week, holiday periods, length and pay for maternity/paternity, requirements for mandatory education, military service, and retirement are examples of how people have instinctively resisted the conditions of capitalist time in their lives.

Others are subtler. Consider the widespread explosion of unproductive time through use of cell-phones and mobile technology in workplaces, schools, prisons, and the military. As with anything, these activities are recuperated by the market for profit through data plans, shopping, and advertising. Yet the way in which personal time and work time are blurred, struggled around, and recuperated yet again show how time is in play socially today. Management recognizes this and tries to monitor and control workers personal time at work.

The rising refusal to have children might be considered another area where time is an element with social force. As the State has in some countries withdrawn from support of child rearing, a growing number of couples have rejected the work and financial burden of having children; something which holds broader social, economic, and political implications. Where social welfare systems still exist similar fights challenge the amount of time for parental leave, compensation, and conditions for exiting and re-entering wage work thereafter.

These examples are largely fragmented and fail to attack the heart of the concept of time built in society. It is not however hard to imagine limited struggles within capitalism that can contest the conditions of our daily lives and more importantly create conditions for further struggles and protagonists fighting towards libertarian time. Some issues could include the right to leave work for periods such as travel, personal pursuits, and family without punishment within the workforce, shortened work week, time for childhood and raising children, localizing the cycles of the day and years to areas and peoples, and earlier retirement. None constitute any liberation from capitalism, but can provide the basis for antagonism to the system and an expansion of life within the situation we find ourselves in.


If time in general is central, change is time in motion and makes up who we are. Change is important to revolutionaries because we seek a specific kind of change, the creation of a new social order. People are agents, creatures that not only do and experience things but who also have to think about, decide, and enact different actions. Our actions can create changes in the world around us or at least contribute to them. There's tension here though because social order is more than just the sum of our actions.

Given that the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup is happening as we speak, think about a soccer team scoring a goal. You can't figure out how the players move across the field without looking at the total movements of all the individuals. Each player adjusts their position as the person they’re guarding or avoiding moves. When a player passes or shoots that triggers other shifts. From the perspective of the individual player there are limited decisions they're making and changes their perceiving. If we could look inside their brains and add it all up, we still wouldn't understand how the game went because the game itself happens on another level. The match is a product that emerges from those actions, but isn't only the actions of the players themselves. The broad movement on the field is different from the steps a player takes. It has shapes and forms that the individual movements don't.

The change we seek is also emergent, it is a social order that is reproduced and comes out of the actions of millions or billions. As agents we face a challenge. On the one hand we know our actions are crucial for any alternative to happen. We have to do things and can't simply wait for society to improve. On the other hand our actions alone aren't enough, it has to come together in some sense like a team producing a goal: something that’s hard to predict and in which our individual role is small, quite small on a team of billions. Sometimes though it’s crucial. Occasionally we are the ones scoring the final goal or making a pass that opens up the field.

This is where time and change fit in. Our agency has one perspective and experience of change, social emergence another. To be a person is to experience life unfolding in time. We parse that time in terms of change and persistence. Some things appear to stay the same, while other shift. We can recognize too that there's change we perceive and change that slips past us. Part of our experience of reality is to pick out and understand changes and we use that to make decisions and take actions.

Usually this makes sense. There's lots of changes we don’t pay attention to for good reason. The nature of reality is constant and unrelenting flux. Forests are always changing in innumerable ways like all living things, yet our experience of the forest is of a relatively stable thing, why? A forest is an emergent eco-system. Out of constant change and activity a stable order emerges that self-regulates and shapes change; it creates an order out of the chaos.

Our brains have to decide what is and isn't relevant. If we're following every ant in the forest we'd never get anything done. Most imperceptible change is that way for a reason then; it helps us see for example when a lion has been tramping around in our backyards versus the path of each gnat. People chasing gnats and ignoring lions end up as dinner. In complex systems like societies however small changes can explode in emergent events that catch us off guard. Revolts are often like this surprising both participants and authorities in waves of activities seemingly out of proportion to what came before. Changes happening all the time under the radar are critical for emergence, and a new society needs that emergence to produce new societies; social orders reproduced by countless actions. What are we to do then? On one side we have our world as agents and on the other side emergent social forces beyond our reach.

Critique of change

Part of the problem is society shapes not only our actions but also how we see the world. Capitalism reproduces itself and with that emergent order comes relationships to our time and change. Revolutionaries attempt to imagine and enact one of many potential futures. In doing so we use also our past experiences to shape our vision of what is or isn't possible or desirable for the future.

Capitalism carries the weight of the past and present in shaping that thinking. The revolutionary future is a type of a mental break attempting to think through dismantling our past and present. The world of politics reflects the weight of power with ideas being constructed in terms of the struggles and thinking of the past, missing the changes already transforming present, and distorting the future through the lens of a time that has already vanished. The State in particular attempts to exploit its influence to reproduce an idealized image of the present, the inevitability of its social forms, and the impossibility of radical change. Likewise it embraces and shapes changes that suit its needs even when the human costs are massive and calls it progress. Stalinist industrialization, invasion of privacy through information technology, prison labor as a solution for crime and urban poverty, etc.; all these things are held up as change and advancement in their times.

We often think things are permanent that are in fact extremely contingent. To people living in the Americas of the 1700s the idea that agrarian slavery would be abolished must have seemed absurd. Today the existence of slavery is equally absurd, and yet it persists hidden from public knowledge. Or think about monarchic Europe in the 1400s after hundreds of years of war imaging the potential for State power before the invasion of the Americas and colonial expansions. The chiseled borders and monarchies of Europe must have seemed immobile and the world so small only to be completely turned on its head by the maritime imperialist economies and the first steps towards a global order. The inverse is also true as ideologues of the capitalism were forced to discover the history was not over and struggle amongst the exploited expanded after the fall of the Soviet Union with new forces, new arrangements, and new politics.


How can we conceptualize the break down of the present order and the closeness of a revolutionary future? New ways of struggling are more dangerous to power because their actions are harder to predict and restrain. When groups break from established politics and begin reorganizing social orders existing ways to recuperate and control opposition become strained. The State understands this danger and tries to channel oppositions into predictable organized resistance that can continue within circuits of power: elections, non-profits, ritualistic business union struggles, and reformist movements. We face a challenge because it is difficult to tell what contributes to change versus what is merely internalized opposition reproducing the present. There is in fact no way to know since large scale context determines it and we can’t figure that out until everything’s already played out. Our position as agents in the middle of it all unfolding around us presents a challenge for radical change.

In times of discord emergent orders do start to break down however. During revolts new orders can pop up coexisting alongside the crumbling ones. In Argentina in 2001 neighbors began collectively organizing resources, making raids for food, and living collectively as the power of the state evaporated in a severe crisis with mass unemployment and economic collapse. A network of neighborhood assemblies, occupied workplaces, and collective forms of democracy emerged to fill voids created by the breakdown of life as it had been known. Increasing disorder creates potential space for new orders to grow.

Mental space can open up as well. With the global crisis of 2008 (and since) unprecedented amounts of people began questioning capitalism. Anti-capitalist texts became best sellers more or less overnight. Learning to recognize shifts in context with varying potentials for change is important for revolutionary action. There are critical periods when we can use our agency most effectively and picking them out opens up opportunities.

Revolutionary action also requires seeing the limitations of our agency in sustaining change. A lesson here is the failures of authoritarian socialism to impose change on vast populations through social engineering and the ineffectiveness of State and bureaucratic centralization. Individual and small group agency simply can’t engineer society-wide emergent order; it has to be reproduced by society as a whole. Individual agency (leadership perhaps) has a role but only on a different level. Relying on leaders or party structures to run society by decrees and central planning has disastrous consequences as is readily known today. On the other hand there are times in which agency is crucial and small groups can be decisive in specific moments; a radical version of the butterfly effect. Separating out the issues of agency from emergent forces helps us think about and moderate our strategies. In other words emergence gives us a framework to situate revolutionary agency within a collectivity, and does so decisively breaking from the totalitarian imagination of planned society directed by elites of whatever breed.

Our experience of life is constructed around time flowing through the system. Conceptions of our present, past, and future co-evolve with the contours of power. Just as autonomous struggles always creep up against incursions into our lives, so does resistance to the theft and distortion of our time. An anarchist approach to life is a transformation our experience of the present towards a liberated future, and with it redefining the permanent and the transitory in our social imagination.

1. Kaplan, R.D. (Aug 15, 2011). The South China Sea is the future of conflict. Foreign Policy.
2. Zibechi, R. (2014). Translated by Ryan, R. The new Brazil: regional imperialism and the new democracy. AK Press.
3. Alderman, L. (May 29, 2015). In Europe fake jobs can have real benefits. The New York Times.
4. Montgomery, L. (Oct 23, 2014). GOP changes tune for cutting social security with elections on the line. The Washington Post.
5. Schor, J. (1991). The overworked American: The unexpected decline of leisure. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books.



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Submitted by Steven. on October 27, 2015

Interesting piece, thanks for writing/posting!