Chapter 5: Time and history

Submitted by libcom on July 28, 2005

O, gentlemen, the time of life is short! . . .

An if we live, we live to tread on kings.

—Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I


Man, “the negative being who is solely to the extent that he suppresses
being,” is identical with time. Man’s appropriation of his own nature is at the same
time his grasp of the development of the universe. “History is itself a real part of natural
of the transformation of nature into man” (Marx). Conversely, this
“natural history” exists effectively only through the process of human
history, the only vantage point from which one can take in that historical totality, like
the modern telescope whose power enables us to look back in time at the receding
nebulas at the periphery of the universe. History has always existed, but not always in its
historical form. The temporalization of humanity, brought
about through the mediation of a society, amounts to a humanization of time. The unconscious movement of time becomes
manifest and true within historical consciousness.


True (though still hidden) historical movement begins with the slow and
imperceptible development of the “real nature of man” — the “nature
that is born with human history, out of the generative action of human society.” But
even when such a society has developed a technology and a language and is already a
product of its own history, it is conscious only of a perpetual present. Knowledge is
carried on only by the living, never going beyond the memory of the
society’s oldest members. Neither death nor procreation is understood as a law of
time. Time remains motionless, like an enclosed space. When a more complex society finally
becomes conscious of time, it tries to negate it, for it views time not as something
that passes, but as something that returns. This static type of society organizes
time in a cyclical manner, in accordance with its own direct experience of


Cyclical time is already dominant among the nomadic peoples because they find the same
conditions repeated at each stage of their journey. As Hegel notes, “the wandering
of nomads is only formal because it is limited to uniform spaces.” When a society
settles in a particular location and gives space a content by developing distinctive areas
within it, it finds itself confined within that locality. The periodic return to similar
places now becomes the pure return of time in the same place, the repetition of a sequence
of activities. The transition from pastoral nomadism to sedentary agriculture marks the
end of an idle and contentless freedom and the beginning of labor. The agrarian mode of
production, governed by the rhythm of the seasons, is the basis for fully developed
cyclical time. Eternity is within this time, it is the return of the same here on
earth. Myth is the unitary mental construct which guarantees
that the cosmic order
conforms with the order that this society has in fact already established within its frontiers.


The social appropriation of time and the production of man by human labor develop
within a society divided into classes. The power that establishes itself above the poverty
of the society of cyclical time, the class that organizes
this social labor and
appropriates its limited surplus value, simultaneously appropriates the temporal
surplus value
resulting from its organization of social time: it alone possesses the
irreversible time of the living. The wealth that can only be concentrated in the hands of
the rulers and spent in extravagant festivities amounts to a squandering of historical
time at the surface of society
. The owners of this historical surplus value are the
only ones in a position to know and enjoy real events. Separated from the collective
organization of time associated with the repetitive production at the base of social life,
this historical time flows independently above its own static community. This is the time
of adventure and war, the time in which the masters of cyclical society pursue their
personal histories; it is also the time that emerges in the clashes with foreign
communities that disrupt the unchanging social order. History thus arises as something
alien to people, as something they never sought and from which they had thought themselves
protected. But it also revives the negative human restlessness
that had been at the very origin of this whole (temporarily dormant) development.


In itself, cyclical time is a time without conflict. But conflict emerges
even in this infancy of time, as history first struggles to become history in the practical
activity of the masters. This history creates a surface irreversibility; its movement
constitutes the very time it uses up within the inexhaustible time of cyclical society.


“Static societies” are societies that have reduced their historical movement
to a minimum, that have managed to maintain their internal conflicts and their
conflicts with the natural and human environment in a constant equilibrium. Although the
extraordinary diversity of the institutions established for this purpose bears eloquent
testimony to the flexibility of human nature’s self-creation, this diversity is
apparent only to the external observer, the ethnologist who looks back from
the vantage point of historical time. In each of these societies a definitive
organizational structure has eliminated any possibility of change. The total conformism of
their social practices, with which all human possibilities are identified for all time,
has no external limit but the fear of falling back into a formless animal condition. The
members of these societies remain human at the price of always remaining the same.


With the emergence of political power
— which seems to be associated with the last great
technological revolutions (such as iron smelting) at the threshold of a
period that would experience no further major upheavals until the rise of modern industry
— kinship ties begin to dissolve. The succession of generations
within a natural, purely cyclical time begins to be replaced by a linear succession of
powers and events. This irreversible time is the time of those who rule, and the dynasty
is its first unit of measurement. Writing is the
rulers’ weapon. In writing, language attains its complete independence as a mediation between
consciousnesses. But this independence coincides with the general independence of separate power,
the mediation that shapes society. With writing there appears a consciousness that is no
longer carried and transmitted directly among the living — an impersonal memory,
the memory of the administration of society. “Writings are the thoughts of the state;
archives are its memory” (Novalis).


The chronicle is the expression of the irreversible time of power. It also serves to
inspire the continued progression of that time by recording the past out of which it has
developed, since this orientation of time tends to collapse with the fall of each
particular power and would otherwise sink back into the indifferent oblivion of cyclical
time (the only time known to the peasant masses who, during the rise and fall of all the
empires and their chronologies, never change). The owners of history have given
time a direction, a direction which is also a meaning. But this history
develops and perishes separately, leaving the underlying society unchanged, because it
remains separated from the common reality. This is why we tend to reduce the history of
Oriental empires to a history of religions: the chronologies that have fallen to ruins
have left nothing but the seemingly independent history of the illusions that veiled them.
The masters who used the protection of myth to make history their private property
did so first of all in the realm of illusion. In China and Egypt, for example, they long
held a monopoly on the immortality of the soul; and their earliest officially recognized
dynasties were nothing but imaginary reconstructions of the past. But this illusory
ownership by the masters was the only ownership then possible, both of the common history
and of their own history. As their real historical power expanded, this illusory-mythical
ownership became increasingly vulgarized. All these consequences flowed from the simple
fact that as the masters played the role of mythically guaranteeing the
permanence of cyclical time (as in the seasonal rites performed by the Chinese emperors),
they themselves achieved a relative liberation from cyclical time.


The dry, unexplained chronology
that a deified authority offered to its
subjects, who were supposed to accept it as the earthly
fulfillment of mythic
commandments, was destined to be transcended and transformed
into conscious history. But for this
to happen, sizeable groups of people had to have experienced real participation in
history. Out of this practical communication between those who have recognized each
as possessors of a unique present, who have experienced
a qualitative
richness of events in their own activity and
who are at home in their own era,
arises the general language of historical communication. Those for whom irreversible time
truly exists discover in it both the memorable and the
threat of oblivion:

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents the results of his researches, so that
time will not abolish the
deeds of men. . . .”


Examining history amounts to examining the nature of power. Greece was
the moment when power and changes in power were first debated and understood. It was a democracy
of the masters
of society — a total contrast to the
despotic state, where power settles accounts only with itself, within the impenetrable
obscurity of its inner sanctum, by means of palace revolutions, which are beyond the
pale of discussion whether they fail or succeed. But the shared power in the Greek
communities was limited to spending a social life whose production
remained the separate and static domain of the servile class. The only people who lived
were those who did not work. The divisions among the Greek communities and their struggles
to exploit foreign cities were the externalized expression of the internal principle of separation
on which each of them was based. Although Greece had dreamed of universal
history, it did not succeed in unifying itself in the face of foreign invasion, or even in
unifying the calendars of its independent city-states. Historical time became conscious in
Greece, but it was not yet conscious of itself.


The disappearance of the particular conditions that had fostered the Greek communities
brought about a regression of Western historical thought, but it did not lead to a
restoration of the old mythic structures. The clashes of the Mediterranean peoples and the
rise and fall of the Roman state gave rise instead to semihistorical
which became a new armor for separate power and basic components of a new consciousness of


The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, between the
cyclical time that still governed the sphere of production and the irreversible time that
was the theater of conflicts and regroupings among different peoples. The religions that
evolved out of Judaism were abstract universal acknowledgments of an irreversible time
that had become democratized and open to all, but only in the realm of illusion. Time is
totally oriented toward a single final event: “The Kingdom of God is
coming soon.”
These religions were rooted in the soil of history, but they remained
radically opposed to history. The semihistorical religions establish a qualitative point
of departure in time (the birth of Christ, the flight of Mohammed), but their irreversible
time — introducing an accumulation that would take the form of conquest in Islam and
of increasing capital in Reformation Christianity — is inverted in religious
thought and becomes a sort of countdown: waiting for time to run out before
the Last Judgment and the advent of the other, true world. Eternity
has emerged from cyclical
time, as something beyond it. It is also the element that
restrains the irreversibility of time,
suppressing history within history itself by positioning itself on the other side of
irreversible time
as a pure point into which cyclical time returns and disappears.
Bossuet will still say: “By way of time, which passes, we enter eternity, which does
not pass.”


The Middle Ages, an incomplete mythical world whose consummation lay outside itself, is
the period when cyclical time, though still governing the major part of production, really
begins to be undermined by history. An element of irreversible time is recognized in the
successive stages of each individual’s life. Life is seen as a one-way journey
through a world whose meaning lies elsewhere: the pilgrim is the person who
leaves cyclical time behind and actually becomes the traveler that everyone else is
symbolically. Personal historical life still finds its fulfillment within the sphere of
the ruling powers, in struggles waged by those powers or in struggles over disputed power; but
the rulers’ irreversible time is now shared to an unlimited degree due to the general
unity brought about by the oriented time of the Christian Era — a world of
armed faith
, where the adventures of the masters revolve around fealty and disputes over
who owes fealty to whom. Feudal
society was born from the
merging of
“the organizational structures of the conquering armies that developed in the process
of conquest” with “the productive forces found in the conquered regions” (The
German Ideology
), and the factors contributing to the organization of those
productive forces included the religious language in which they were expressed.
Social domination was divided between the Church and the state, the latter
power being in turn subdivided in the complex relations of suzerainty and vassalage within
and between rural domains and urban communities. This
diversification of potential historical life reflected the gradual emergence (following
the failure of that great
official enterprise of the Medieval world, the Crusades) of
the era’s unnoticed
innovation: the irreversible time that was silently undermining the society,
the time experienced by the bourgeoisie in the production of commodities, in the foundation
and expansion of cities, and in the commercial discovery of the planet — a practical
experimentation that destroyed every mythical organization of the cosmos once and for all.


With the waning of the Middle Ages, the irreversible time that had invaded society was
experienced by a consciousness still attached to the old order as an obsession with death.
This was the melancholy of a world passing away, the last world where the security of myth
still counterbalanced history; and for this melancholy all earthly things move inevitably
toward decay. The great peasant revolts of Europe were also an attempt to respond
to history
— a history that was violently wresting the peasants from the
patriarchal slumber that had been imposed by their feudal guardians. The
millenarians’ utopian aspiration of creating heaven on earth revived a dream
that had been at the origin of the semihistorical religions, when the early Christian
communities, like the Judaic messianism from which they had sprung, responded to the troubles
and misfortunes of their time by envisioning the imminent realization of the Kingdom of
God, thereby adding an element of unrest and subversion to ancient society. When
Christianity reached the point of sharing power within the Empire, it denounced whatever
still remained of this hope as mere superstition. This is what Augustine was doing
when, in a formula that can be seen as the archetype of all the modern ideological
apologetics, he declared that the Kingdom of God had in fact already
come long ago — that it was nothing other than the established Church. The social
revolts of the millenarian peasantry naturally began by defining their goal as the
overthrow of that Church. But millenarianism developed in a historical world, not on the
terrain of myth. Modern revolutionary hopes are not irrational continuations of the
religious passion of millenarianism, as Norman Cohn thought he had demonstrated in The
Pursuit of the Millennium
. On the contrary, millenarianism, revolutionary class
struggle speaking the language of religion for the last time, was already a modern
revolutionary tendency, a tendency that lacked only the consciousness that it was
a purely historical movement. The millenarians were doomed to defeat
because they were unable to recognize their revolution as their own
undertaking. The fact that
they hesitated to act until they had received some external sign of God’s will was an
ideological corollary to the insurgent peasants’ practice of following leaders from
outside their own ranks. The peasant class could not attain a clear understanding of the
workings of society or of how to conduct its own struggle, and because
it lacked these conditions for unifying its action and consciousness, it expressed its project and waged
its wars with the imagery of an earthly paradise.


The Renaissance was a joyous break with eternity.
Though seeking its heritage and
legitimacy in the ancient world, it represented a new form of
historical life. Its
irreversible time was that of a never-ending accumulation of knowledge, and the historical
consciousness engendered by the experience of democratic communities and of the forces
that destroy them now took up once again, with Machiavelli, the analysis of secularized
power, saying the previously unsayable about the state. In the exuberant life of the
Italian cities, in the creation of festivals, life is experienced as an enjoyment of the
passage of time. But this enjoyment of transience is itself transient. The song of Lorenzo
de’ Medici, which Burckhardt considered “the very spirit of the
Renaissance,” is the eulogy this fragile historical festival delivers on itself:
“How beautiful the spring of life — and how quickly
it vanishes.”


The constant tendency toward the monopolization of historical life by the
absolute-monarchist state — a transitional form on the way to complete
domination by the bourgeois class — brings into clear view the nature of the
bourgeoisie’s new type of irreversible time. The bourgeoisie is associated with labor time,
which has
finally been freed from cyclical time. With the bourgeoisie, work becomes work that
transforms historical conditions
. The bourgeoisie is the first ruling class for which
work is a value. And the bourgeoisie, which suppresses all privilege and recognizes no
value that does not stem from the exploitation of labor, has appropriately identified its
own value as a ruling class with labor, and has made the progress of labor the measure of
its own progress. The class that accumulates commodities and capital continually modifies
nature by modifying labor itself, by unleashing labor’s productivity. At the stage of
absolute monarchy, all social life was already concentrated within the ornamented poverty of the
Court, the gaudy trappings of a bleak state administration whose apex was the
“profession of king.” All particular historical freedoms had to surrender to
this new power. The free play of the feudal lords’ irreversible time came to an end
in their last, lost battles — in the Fronde and in the Scottish uprising in support
of Charles Edward. The world now had a new foundation.


The victory of the bourgeoisie is the victory of a profoundly historical time,
because it is the time corresponding to an economic production that continuously
transforms society from top to bottom. So long as agrarian production remained the
predominant form of labor, the cyclical time that remained at the base of society
the joint forces of tradition, which tended to hold back any historical
movement. But the irreversible time of the bourgeois economy eradicates those vestiges
throughout the world. History, which until then had seemed to involve only the actions of
individual members of the ruling class, and which had thus been
recorded as a mere chronology
of events, is now understood as a general movement — a relentless movement
that crushes any individuals in its path. By discovering its basis in political economy,
history becomes aware of what had previously been unconscious; but this basis remains
unconscious because it cannot be brought to light. This blind prehistory, this new fate
that no one controls, is the only thing that the commodity economy has democratized.


The history that is present in all the depths of society tends to become invisible at
the surface. The triumph of irreversible time is also its metamorphosis into a
time of things
, because its victory was brought about by the mass production of
objects in accordance with the laws of the commodity. The main product that economic
development has transformed from a luxurious rarity to a commonly consumed item is thus
history itself — but only in the form of the history of the abstract movement of
things that dominates all qualitative aspects of life. While the earlier cyclical time had
supported an increasing degree of historical time lived by individuals and groups, the
irreversible time of production tends to socially eliminate such lived time.


The bourgeoisie has thus made irreversible historical time known and has imposed it on
society, but it has prevented society from using it. “Once
there was history, but not any more,” because the class of owners of the economy, which
is inextricably tied to economic history,
must repress every other irreversible use
of time because it is directly threatened by them all. The ruling class, made up of specialists in the
possession of things
who are themselves therefore possessed by things, is forced to
link its fate with the preservation of this reified history, that is, with the
preservation of a new immobility within history. Meanwhile the worker at the base
of society is for the first time not materially estranged from history, because
the irreversible movement is now generated from that base. By demanding to live
the historical time that it produces, the proletariat discovers the simple, unforgettable
core of its revolutionary project; and each previously defeated attempt to carry out this
project represents a possible point of departure for a new historical life.


The irreversible time of the bourgeoisie that had just seized power was at first called
by its own name and assigned an absolute origin: Year One of the Republic. But the
revolutionary ideology of general freedom that had served to overthrow the last remnants
of a myth-based ordering of values, along with all the traditional forms of social
control, was already unable to completely conceal the real goal that it had draped in
Roman costume: unrestricted freedom of trade. Commodity society, discovering
its need to restore the passivity that it had so profoundly shaken in order to establish
its own unchallenged rule, now found that, for its purposes, “Christianity with its
cult of man in the abstract . . . is the most fitting form of religion” (Capital).
The bourgeoisie thus entered into a compromise with that religion, a compromise
also reflected
in its presentation of time: the Revolutionary Calendar was abandoned and irreversible
time returned to the straitjacket of a duly extended Christian Era.


With the development of capitalism, irreversible time has become
globally unified
. Universal history becomes a reality because the entire world is brought under
the sway of this time’s development. But this history that is everywhere
simultaneously the same is as yet nothing but an intrahistorical rejection of history.
What appears the world over as the same day is merely the time of economic
production, time cut up into equal abstract fragments. This unified irreversible time
is the time of the global market, and thus also the time of the global spectacle.


The irreversible time of production is first of all the measure of commodities. The
time officially recognized throughout the world as the general time of society
actually only reflects the specialized interests that constitute it, and thus is merely
one particular type of time