The Tyranny of Time

article by med-o

Submitted by ludd on February 6, 2010

Every moment is a chore

when you're nagging time

and pursuing every second

with a will to conquer.

Yet the hardest task is this:

to be neither hunter nor hunted

boss nor slave

but outside the warp

of time woven by work.

Time is money. So intimate is this knowledge, one of our most popular activities is "spending time." Rather than ‘wasting time’ reading this ‘on your own time,’ let's hope you are doing so on ‘company time.’ One fun way of ‘stealing time’ on the job is creating ‘downtime’ which could leave you with a lot of ‘time on your hands.’ In this case, ‘killing time’ sounds more active than merely ‘biding your time,’ but then you could end up ‘doing hard time’ instead of working ‘overtime.’ Now, I'm seldom ‘on time’ but then I'd rather be on drugs than a ‘prisoner of time.’ When the ‘time crunch’ is so severe you are running ‘doubletime’ to ‘make time,’ instead, I'd suggest ruffling some feathers by ‘blowing some time’ to make it with a lover—the real ‘prime time.’

People have not always perceived time in such peculiar ways. In Europe throughout the Middle Ages the very notion of a secular time, of owning and dividing it into measured units, was considered sacrilegious. The developing merchant class was criticized for "mortgaging' time which was supposed to be eternal and belonging to God alone. In the 14th century a lector-general of the Franciscan order remarked:

"To the question: Is a merchant entitled to demand a greater payment from one who cannot settle his account immediately than from one who can? No, because in doing so he would be selling time and would be committing usury by selling what does not belong to him.’

The battle for domination over time wasn't only between religious and merchant interests. In tandem with the public application of mechanical clocks, workers began to fight for a shortening of the work day and, consequently, a more precise measurement of time. Until the end of the 14th century, the fundamental unit of labor time had been the day! The struggle against this is quite evident in the ordinance of the provost of Paris of May 12, 1395:

Whereas several men of crafts such as weavers of linen or cotton, fullers, washers, masons, carpenters, and several others kinds of workers in Paris have wanted and do want to start and stop work at certain hours while they are being paid by the day as thought they were on the job the whole day long, the provost reminds them that "the working day is fixed from the hour of sunrise until the hour of sunset, with meals to be taken at reasonable times."

Despite the efforts of merchants and workers (although for opposing reasons) the social application of standardized time lagged behind its technological development. While mechanical clocks and large clocktowers became widespread in urban areas, they were less a tool of daily life than an ornament of status for cities. Even though the 60-minute hour became firmly established, it was completely unsynchronized from one city to another. In what seems like a Chaplinesque absurdity today, the zero hours of clock varied widely and could begin at noon, midnight, sunrise, or sunset.

Modern culture, however, strives to measure out a meticulous metronome of human activity. The common term, clockwork, reveals the insidious degree to which metered time meshes with the American work ethic to fed a subtle, yet powerful form of social control. In one way or another, most days, most of us punch in at our job, school, or domestic worksite, rather than punching out the clocks that help channel our behavior. Long before the institution of school bells, timed tests, and homework deadlines American children are programmed with a doctrine that "'there is a proper time and place for everything." Partly this is the socialization necessary to participate in cooperative group endeavors. Mostly, it reflects and perpetuates the mass conceptualization of time as something that must be compulsively filled with planned, structured activities.

Unworking The Work Myth

The relationship between the social conception of time, work, and identity is seldom put to public scrutiny. A recent book, Time Without Work (1983, South End Press, Boston MA), explores the experiences, feelings and values of those living outside wage work. While the editors did not include the unpaid labor of "housewives," parents, or volunteers in their definition of work, the book could just as aptly have been titled "Not Working' since it supplements Studs Terkel's Working by compiling first person accounts of the jobless. Two women, Walli Leff and Marilyn Haft, traveled across the U.S. interviewing 145 individuals from diverse situations. The good, bad, and ugly of life without an income-producing job is spilled out by fired clericals, laid-off construction workers, a millionaire, gamblers, the disabled, artists, welfare mothers, former executives, street people, and many more. All in all 73 oral histories were selected to illuminate the love hate, and often ambivalent feelings toward (not) working that pepper the American consciousness.

Leff and Haft's purpose and analysis are presented in four short chapters. The first, "The Myth of a Nation at Work," articulates their basic premise: "Everywhere we went we were struck by the fact that a growing number of people did not hold jobs. . . [but] how revealing it was that the very fact of not working and any description of what that experience was like were so closely concealed. The reason, we soon began to see, resulted from the prevailing social belief that everybody works."

That myth is thoroughly debunked. First, by ripping apart the standard manipulation of unemployment statistics, revealing how non-wage-workers become "disappeared,' and exposing the reality that nearly 40% of the adult population (64 million of the 168 million sixteen years of age and older) do not "officially" work. Additionally, they present a short history of "The Work Ethic's Checkered Past"—the title of the second chapter. Both pre-industrial and industrial struggles against work are detailed. In particular, they examine industrializing America, its peculiar development of "alienated labor,' and working peoples' various resistances against increasing cultural fragmentation. Excellent material is provided to support this chapter's conclusion that: "Even a regular salary, held out before people like a carrot before a donkey, was not foolproof enticement to join and remain in the industrial labor force. Once alienated labor was experienced, it clearly did not take so easily."

Leff and Haft's insights often provide a wealth of well-researched information and cogent analysis. However, the third chapter (Toward a Natural Way of Working) and the book's conclusion (A Future That Has Begun) are more hopeful than critical. For instance, they take the position that "Theoretically, the potential for great progress is prodigious" and ". . .new technology, managed wisely and humanely, could free an unprecedented amount of free time for challenging pursuits." True enough. But no critique is made of the prevalent ideologies that see "salvation through technology' and "progress as manifest destiny.' The editors make no mention of the complexity in developing new technology compatible with life-sustaining ecology. Nor do they mention the capitalist logic inherent in new technology.

The editors don't grapple with these complexities. But they also fail to challenge the institution of wage labor and this seriously faults their analysis. Despite their repeated acknowledgement of increasing structural unemployment and that some people find joblessness quite rewarding, they fail to attack the myth that full employment is desirable. Instead they lump together "massive unemployment, alienation and hardships" as "failures of our system." Maybe massive unemployment is not a failure, but a signal to dump modern capitalism. Perhaps the solution to material deprivation and social alienation fundamentally lies with eradicating all the buying and selling of human time.

Without confronting the ways in which the money system, forced labor, and the commodification of time perpetuate authoritarian control there is no hope for the big, "systemic changes" the editors call for. This leaves them in a kind of analytic schizophrenia—bound by and either/or schema. They conclude that either civilization might experience prodigious progress or the old exploitative, feudal-like practices will prevail, albeit in newly perverted forms. This is a very complex, dialectical process shaped by an ongoing history of struggle between the minority who wield power and the the majority who are victims of it. By omitting an analysis of this dialectic, the editors can only hope that the (necessary, but surely insufficient) dissemination of personal stories and social research will enable us to oppose the increasingly sophisticated corporate/governmental hold over our lives.

However, it is a theme beyond the vivid and often contradictory description of (not) working which makes Time Without Work so unique: how people deal with unstructured free time in a society bent on mass producing the opposite. Many of the stories reveal the submerged truces we form with a standardized, productivist-oriented construction of time that is against autonomy and personal fulfillment. One common truce is what I call the Busy Beaver Syndrome. It was graphically expressed by a laid-off chemistry professor:

"I am obsessed with filling up my time. Instead of preparing dinner in forty-five minutes, I'll invite people over and take two hours to prepare a feast. I feel I must do something constructive. It's hard for me to read a book; I keep thinking I should be out improving myself. When I'm doing something frivolous, I feel that I'm throwing my time away. I never felt that when I was working. . ."

Fundamental to American culture is the conviction that an income producing job is the correct way to dispose of time and avoid the anxiety of unscheduled time. The dread of being consumed by a vortex of squandered time is justified, for many, by the reality that work provides greater social possibilities than their non-work existence. A single mother related how work was tied to her need to feel active and social:

"I like to work. I don't like staying in one spot, just doing nothing. It makes you feel lonely or sad. I can't explain it, but I like to stay active. . . If I was working I'd socialize with people. You meet people and get to know different people, not the same friends all the time. I feel like time is wasting. I'm getting older and ain't got no job, can't get no job, ain't doing nothing."

The feeling of emptiness, of being trapped in an aimless void is a serious crisis for many who are unemployed. This can be particularly acute for ‘unrecognized’ workers such as women doing housework and caring for children. That wage work may be a preferred alternative is an indictment of the profound lack of meaningful community and social space that can truly meet our needs. For many, a straight job may be the best setting for several kinds of important social relations: cooperating in groups, relating to peers with similar interests, assessing how a specific goal can be realized, and negotiating for better conditions.

Even for the millions who find their job absolutely wretched, there is a powerful myth that work is the underlying structure for a satisfying life. Those who are not visibly engaged in productive functions are seen as non-entities, or worse, parasites leeching off others busily executing structured tasks. Time not filled with planned activities becomes a paradoxical prison whose doors are too wide open. That joblessness in this society tends to create and maintain such a time vacuum is evident for this fired clerical:

"The hours weigh on me. I don't have to do anything—to keep things clean or to keep myself up. I haven't exercised. It's almost a mental problem at this point. I'm just depressed. I realize that I don't like to do anything and that most of the time I don't like what I'm doing. . . The only time I like is when we're out visiting people and talking. But I don't get out enough. Most of my friends work and I can't get myself to visit because I always think I have to have a purpose when I do it."

In addition to having a sense of using time purposefully, another important desire is arranging your time to be synchronized with others. Rather than allowing this to be a flexible arrangement, contemporary western societies ahve organized isolated "time tracks' that rigidly compartmentalize leisure from work, education from application, persona feelings from your public persona, ad absurdum. The most common and perverse of these separations is the acceptance of life as an unavoidable schism between dreaded work and longed for free time. A laid off sheet metal worker saw it this way:

"You get up, you go to work, and you come home and forget what you did. You fill in the time idly until you have to get up and go to work the next day. You live for the weekend and try to cram as much enjoyment as you can into two day sbecause you know the next five are just a drag."

Winnebago Times Is Forever.

That most of our so-called free time is far from "free' is a fact few want to face. For the most part, a pervasive social amnesia blocks out the routine and stress that often makes off-the-job time just as constraining as working. For many, most of the time remaining after work is devoted to recovering from and preparing for the job. Grooming, commuting (usually during that inaccurately named Rush Hour), eating, shopping, childcare, domestic chores are essentials that are rarely integrated with time on the job. But since work is so awful, we desperately need to find meaning in our non-work time designated as autonomous, even if these activities are largely shaped by mass consumer culture.

In the age of alienation, consumer products are, for many, the closest approximation of satisfying our social, psychic, and erotic needs. In this way, the Happy Hour, eating out, entertainment and travel, fitness and spectator sports, all the various "Miller Times' of consuming culture have become the modern wages of alienated labor. Such wages exact a hefty price though. Not only are our real needs rarely met by the glorified goods and services pandered before us, huge chunks of time get consumed by the very process of selecting, and buying these commodities. Even with the advent of amnesia-inspiring plastic credit, few forget that along with the purchase of a commodity comes a commensurate expenditure of labor time. What often gets hunted aside are the secondary costs. "Modern' goods increasingly demand expensive and time-consuming maintenance. Coupled with planned obsolescence and the glut of new, "improved' products and services, a social realization has unfolded that sees consumption (much like housecleaning) as something never finished and done with. This feeds another rip-off, largely hidden to many—the volumes of time churned up standing in line, "on hold,' and waiting.

Queuing: Could You Please Hurry Up and Wait!

Whether at the bus stop, bank, post office, or that hot lunch spot very few escape queuing in line. Within a capitalist economy, all public services and private businesses strive to maximize their operational efficiency by minimizing their service costs, which often results in maximizing client waiting. The modern order, with its enlarged service sector and precariously complex organization, breeds endless opportunities for what seems to be unlimited periods of waiting.

Not surprisingly, the nature and length of waiting varies mostly with the wealth of the individual. For example, in "finer' clothing boutiques a customer is "waited on" by a salesperson who acts as an intimate guide in finding what perfectly suits the buyer's discriminating tastes. In department stores and establishments a grade below the best, customers may have difficulty finding someone to serve them during busy periods. However, once they get paired with a salesperson they are usually accompanied until the transaction is consummated. At the bottom of the run are the Salvation Army and similar type thrift stores which have very few servers. Here, you wait on yourself by hunting through racks of clothes (often in total chaos) and, if successful, line up behind others at a cashier counter.

Immunity from this kind of time drain is enjoyed only by those who possess the money, fame, and/or power to refuse to wait. The privileged can either afford to go elsewhere for faster service or make others, such as servants, secretaries, and other employees wait in their place.

Often, the rest of us are driven to accept even the most congested waiting lines. A whole host of institutions like banks, social services, and medical care produce long and, sometimes, extremely humiliating periods of waiting. Nowhere is this more excruciating than when you expend enormous amounts of waiting time with no assurance it will result in your desired goal.

Being processed for food stamps and unemployment insurance are two of the most degrading of such situations. Like most public-serving bureaucracies, they dish out heaping amounts of delay, uncertainty, and debasement. Adding up the time you travel to and from the processing centers, the extended waiting once "on line,' the petty paperwork and personal probing by the authorized dispensers of the services, and the lag between applying for and receiving benefits, it is no surprise that many eligible recipients balk at the potential waste of their time and dignity.

Subverting the Time Brokers

Our everyday activities will continue to be defined by cash/time relations unless we vigorously fight for free control of our time. While this can never be fully realized in a culture which systematically divides units of time into productive and monetary value, there exist small cracks in the mass clocking of life that can be pried open much further. One opening is the reclaiming of time structured by the cycles of nature. Another is the desire for more unstructured personal time. Both are points of resistance to oppose the frantic monotony and social sterility of an increasingly fluorescent, interior life.

Recreating natural time in a world that has largely killed, covered up, or segregated nature from people is hardly possible. What can be sought, when desired, is the integration of social life with naturally-determined cycles of activity and inactivity: day and night, phases of the moon, ocean tides, and the annual seasons. For instance, I like my work life to have a mixture of physical and intellectual tasks. How much of either depends mostly on my mood and the weather. On warm, sunny days my general preference is for outdoor, physically-oriented activities. But on those cold, rainy days in January—forget it! Such flexibility is exceedingly simple and practical. Yet few of us get to make such choices.

One person I know who does, found he could by living in the hinterlands of Alaska where he varies his waking hours from an average of 12 hours per day in the winter to a whopping 20 hours per day in the summer. As it is for the wild animals of that environ, outside temperatures and available daylight play a critical role in his level and type of activity. Such a lifestyle is incompatible with this system's standard modus operandi—a uniform 9-5 scheduled disrupted only by sickness, tragedy, and the yearly vacation.

Of course, many people might never choose to live so closely to the natural cycles. Still, there are many ways we might want to rejoin the natural ties severed by this system's ceaseless drive for time-efficient uniformity. For women, menstruation is an obvious biological force that is seldom considered in the social construction of time since it doesn't fit the relentlessly even-keeled mold. Similarly, very few of us can call into work and say "Hey, I'm not coming into work today—I'm simply feeling too emotionally vulnerable (or angry!)."

The absence of an external source structuring you into a "time track' is basic for those wanting to self-manage their time. The few people who internally direct their activity and feel good about their use of time invariably have little tolerance for authority or imposed structure. This doesn't mean they are incapable of scheduling time that is synchronized with others. Rather, their use of time arises from the merging of internal rhythms (social, psychological, and biological) and an open repertoire of responses to external factors. An artist interviewed in Time Without Work described his organic structuring of time this way:

"I've never been able to hold to the idea of self-imposed discipline. As soon as I stipulate that I must work three hours minimum at my painting, I'll spend the day meeting with friends and getting high. If I get out of bed early in the morning and the work goes down with a certain amount of clarity, then I'll do that for a couple of days until I hit two or three days in a row when it doesn't work. Then another system comes up. I don't take these systems of discipline very seriously."

Not taking the system seriously is central to taking charge of your time. One social expression of this is the rhythm of urban nightlife. Particularly for the young and single, late night/early morning hours have become a time to ‘get down’ and strip away the drab veneer of the daytime work world. Clubs, drugs, parties, dancing, and other pleasurable personal "indulgences' take center stage for many. Often a rich mix of people and counterculture come together for spontaneous, open enjoyment.

A more common daily experience presents a ripe opportunity for rebelling against the system—time theft on the job. There are a number of ways such theft manifests itself. Except for those strictly bound by a punch-card time clock, most workers have some potential to shrink work hours by arriving late, leaving early, and extending breaks and lunch hour to the fullest limit possible. If you work somewhat independently there exists the potential for the wholesale stealing of paid time. Then there is the normal lying about being sick on those days you would rather not go to work at all—oh so common on Mondays and Fridays.

Still, these are only small reprieves from the inordinate amount of time spent at the workplace. Since we are often stuck there, it is important to insert as much of your personal agenda as possible into paid work time. In an office setting, this could mean writing personal letters or generating lots of phone conversations with friends. If your workplace is mobile then you may be able to make social appointments or do personal errands during transit time. A tremendous time saver is stealing resources from the workplace (especially typewriters, phone equipment, computers) that you would otherwise buy through the sale of your labor time. As has been suggested before in PW, why not demand that lunch and commuting time be paid just like the rest of the time on the job?

In isolation, such small pinpricks can only provide temporary relief for those assertive individuals fortunate enough to be in a "loose' workplace. One example of a more collective response happened at a Silicon Valley firm. Due to market pressure, one day management demanded a 10-hour day from salaried employees to keep the corporation on its feet. For only one person to have flaunted this dictate would have resulted in a punitive measure against them. But when everyone refused to comply, management had no choice but to agree the extra hours were a bad idea. Similarly, the leverage in the previous examples of time theft would usually be strengthened as more people at the workplace act in collusion.

The alternative, refusing to work altogether, usually means an impoverished lifestyle that may or may not be better than submitting to forced labor. Unless you possess the personal resources (both monetary and psychological) to transcend the money system and the normal drift toward an external time structure, withdrawing from wage work will not necessarily be liberating.

Broad, systemic solutions to this bind are hard to see for the immediate future. Historically, the struggle for a generalized shortening of hours with no drop in pay has been indispensable for working people. In the 14th century, the fight was to utilize mechanical time to define the work day as something less than the sunrise to sunset. When the industrial revolution came of age, labor began to demand a 10-hour day/60-hour week which came to fruition in the early 1800's in England with the passage of the Factory Act Laws. In the U.S., as early as the Civil War, the intense, often violent fight for an 8-hour day began. By 1886 the 8-hour day movement organized the only nationwide General Strike in U.S. history. Over 400,000 workers truck across the U.S., and Chicago became the flashpoint of militancy with the infamous Haymarket Massacre. However, it wasn't until the 1930's that the 40-hour week became broadly established. Without success, the turn of the century Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) pushed a much wider and sharper vision with their "4 by 4' slogan: "4 hours a day, 4 days a week!"

Contemporary struggles are quite pale in comparison. One of the few, recent collective actions by workers to change time relations, quantitatively at least, started in May 1984. In West Germany a number of trade unions (metal workers, mass transit, printing, auto workers, etc.) initiated selective strikes in key industries for a generalized 35-hour work week at 40 hours' pay. Among several of the strike's shortcomings was the union leadership' ostensible goal—shorten the work week to increase employment. Key to undermining the clockworking of consciousness is the realization that high unemployment is here to stay and could be part of a desirable social policy. Only when we realize that the time brokers (whether bosses, bureaucrats, commodities, or union leaders) cannot be allowed to own any of our time will the possibility emerge for a truly free, humane time.