The expropriation of time

By Robert Kurz:

After the fall of the utopia of labor, the utopia of free time has also failed in a society that has transformed leisure into the accelerated consumption of commodities. 

The last few years have witnessed the disgusting birth of a literature on the category of time. Radio programs and plays, academic seminars and even talk shows take up the theme; time has, in its own way, become a media star. Nor is it only the scientific theory of a Stephen Hawking, the “pop star” physicist, which sparks so much interest, but above all the cultural and social component of the concept of time, whose dynamic explicitly demonstrates modernity’s profound malaise in dealing with temporal notions. Although it is not new, this problem attained a new dimension at the end of the 20th century. Time, as everyone knows, is money; time therefore always played a decisive role in capitalism. Today, however, the exploitation of temporal resources appears to have reached its historical limits, and it is impossible not to notice that the problem of time, and now with increasing urgency, has insinuated itself into social consciousness.

The decisive philosophical reflection concerning the modern concept of time which is considered valid to this day is found in the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant discovered that space and time are not structures which refer to the contents of human thought, but constitute the a priori forms of our capacity to perceive and to think. We can only know the world through the forms of time and space which are inscribed in our reason, prior to all knowledge. But Kant defines these forms of time and space in an absolutely abstract and ahistorical way, which is equally valid for all epochs, cultures and social formations. Time is, for him, “pure and simple temporality”, since time and space are “pure forms of intuition”. In the Kantian view, time is therefore an abstract temporal flux, always uniform and without content, whose units are all identical; “different times are only part of the same time”.

Cosmic Cycles

Historical and cultural research long ago discovered that this definition of the experience and perception of time is unsustainable. It was recognized, first of all, that premodern agrarian cultures did not think in terms of a uniform linear time, but of a cyclical time of constantly repeated temporal rhythms, regulated by cosmic cycles and the seasons.

If time is a form inscribed a priori in human cognitive capacity, it is no less certain that a cultural and historical change underlies this form. The most recent research on the different cultures of time has confirmed this discovery. In all cultures unaffected by capitalist modernity, time not only “passes” in a distinct way; in addition, there are completely different forms of time which pass in parallel and whose application varies in accordance with the object or the sphere of life to which the temporal perception refers: “For every thing there is a season”.

The capitalist revolution essentially consisted in the disconnection of the so-called economy from any cultural context, and from all human needs. Upon transforming the social abstraction of money, previously a marginal tool, into a tautological end-in-itself, the autonomous economy also inverted the relation between the abstract and the concrete: abstraction is no longer the expression of a concrete and sensible world; the whole concrete nexus and all sensible objects figure only as the expression of a social abstraction which rules society under the reified aegis of money. The subjection of cultural activities which had previously been concrete to the abstraction of money was what made the conversion of production into abstract general “labor”, whose measure is time, possible. This time, however, is no longer concrete time which is qualitatively diverse according to its context, but the abstract temporal flux of capitalist accumulation, as Kant had already blindly taken for granted.

The dictatorship of abstract time, enforced by the mechanism of anonymous competition, created its own corresponding abstract space, the functional space of capital, separated from the rest of life. Thus arose a capitalist space-time without cultural spirit or features which began to corrode the body of society.

“Labor”, the abstract form of activity enclosed within this specific space-time, had to be purged of all the dysfunctional elements of life, so as to not disturb the linear temporal flux: labor and home, labor and personal life, labor and culture, etc., were systematically dissociated. Only thus was the birth of the modern separation between the working day and free time made possible.

Although we no longer notice it, what this implies is that labor time is unfree time, a time imposed upon the individual (originally even by violence) to the benefit of an alien tautological end determined by the dictatorship of the uniform and abstract temporal units of capitalist production.

Empty and Dead Time

Despite the fact that it consumes the greater part of each day’s time, the overwhelming majority of those who work do not feel that labor time is the time of life proper, but see it as empty and dead time, deranging life like a nightmare. From the point of view of capitalist space and time, conversely, the workers’ free time is empty and totally useless time.

Since the principle of this uncontrollable tautological end is to eliminate any limit which might contain it, capitalism has a strong objective tendency to minimize free time or at least to austerely ration it. Hence the paradox that people in the modern world must sacrifice much more free time to production than their predecessors did in premodern agrarian societies, in spite of the enormous development of the productive forces.

This absurdity is revealed by its quantitative as well as its qualitative aspect. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, despite a lower technological level, the daily, weekly and annual time devoted to production was much less than in capitalism. Since religion had primacy over the economy, the time of festivals and religious rituals was more important than the time devoted to production; there were innumerable feast days, which were for the most part abolished on the road to modernization. In addition, the agrarian societies of old Europe were characterized by enormous seasonal variations in work load. The warmest seasons of the year absorbed most tasks, leaving the peasant population a relatively calm winter which was often used for the celebration of private festivals commemorated today by a few popular songs.

The artisan population of the cities was less structured by seasonal differences, but their hours of labor in the workshops were reduced in compensation. British documents from the 18th century note that free artisans worked only three or four days a week, as they wished or by necessity. It was customary to extend the weekend through Monday. The history of capitalist discipline is also the history of the struggle waged against this “free Monday”, which was only slowly eliminated by draconian punishments and which could still be found in some regions well into the 20th century (some barbers still practice it to this day).

The qualitative difference between capitalist and premodern times of production is yet more evident. The low level of the productive forces in the agrarian sector resulted in many restrictions (local traditions and blood ties, for example) and sometimes in supply problems (ruined crops, for example). But the goal of production, even with such modest means, was not, like it is today, an abstract tautological end, but pleasure and leisure. The ancient and medieval concept of leisure must not be confused with the modern concept of free time. Leisure was not a parcel of life separated from the remunerative process of activity, but was present, so to speak, in the pores and interstices of productive activity itself. Before the abstraction of capitalist space-time split the time of human life, the rhythm of effort and rest, of production and leisure, took place within a full and all-inclusive life process.

In a system of identity between production, personal life and culture, what might appear to us at first glance as a 12-hour workday did not mean 12 hours of intense activity under the control of an objectified economic power. The time of production was interspersed with moments of leisure; there were, for example, long breaks, above all for lunch, which encompassed hours of communal dining, a custom that was preserved longer in the Mediterranean countries than in the north, until it was obliged to give way to the rhythm of the flow of the abstract labor of capitalist industrialization.

Precapitalist productive activity, besides being impregnated with leisure, was also characterized by being less concentrated, which is to say that it was slower and less intense than today. In self-determined activity, without the pressure of competition, this moderate rhythm of productive activity clearly reveals the “natural” manner of human behavior.

Today we no longer know this kind of activity; under the mute imposition of the competition of anonymous markets, the modern workday, functionally degraded, became increasingly more condensed; first by mechanical cadence and, later, by the perfected mode of consuming life energy with the help of so-called rationalization. Since the North American engineer Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) developed the “science of labor” at the beginning of the 20th century, employed for the first time on a grand scale in Henry Ford’s (1863-1947) automobile factories, the methods of this “rationalization of time” have continued to be refined and profoundly embedded in the social body.

A Neurotic Young Man

We are no longer conscious of the absurd character of this monstrous concentration of capitalist space-time. Taylor was a neurotic who, in his youth, compulsively counted his every step. In Germany, the concentration of labor time was legitimized by the scientific association of the so-called “energetics”, whose leader, Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932), philosophically based Taylor’s and Ford’s praxis upon an “energetic imperative”.

This maxim unambiguously says: “Do not waste energy, use it!”, totally abstracted from and independent of concrete needs. Since the universe will perhaps succumb in ten million years to complete entropy due to the lack of “free energy”, it would strictly speaking be a waste to wander about “aimlessly” or to spend too much time in the bathroom! The neurotic character of this thinking, which represents the objectified neurosis of business rationality and its logic of the “economy of time”, seems to reach the very limits of paranoia at the end of the 20th century.

In the name of the capitalist tautology, this foolish logic results in the increasing “condensation” of space into the identical units of the abstract temporal flux. It is thus a system of permanent and meaningless acceleration. The universal refrain about “our rapidly changing world” has its basis in an objectified universal paranoia, which the philosopher Paul Virilio fittingly defined as “full-speed inertia” and described its paradoxes: “captivated by the monstrous force of velocity, we go nowhere; we content ourselves with the task of living to the benefit of the emptiness of velocity.”

But Virilio commits the same error as other theoreticians of the absurd acceleration after the beginnings of industrialization: in a mistaken immediatism, he links the concentration of time to technology, without taking the historical form of capitalist space-time into account. It is not technology in itself, however, which dictates the necessity of a vacuous acceleration; one could just as well unplug the machines or make them function more slowly. In reality, it is the emptiness of capitalist space-time, separated from life and without cultural bonds, which imposes a determinate structure upon technology and transforms it into a mechanism which is autonomous of society and cannot be disconnected.

The Emptiness of Acceleration

The grotesque disproportion between a permanent augmentation of the productive forces and the corresponding decrease in free time produced a certain malaise even in acritical souls. But since the capitalist form of time appears to be untouchable in the functional space of abstract labor, peoples’ hopes in the 20th century were increasingly concentrated upon free time, which, according to theoreticians like Jean Fourastié or Daniel Bell, would undergo a continuous expansion.

These hopes were, however, doubly frustrated. With the transformation of free time into a constantly growing consumption of commodities, the emptiness of acceleration was able to seize possession of what still remained of life; the passive forms of rest were replaced by a furious hedonism of the idiocy of consumption, a hedonism which compresses free time in the same way the workday was previously compressed. On the other hand, this paranoid logic of the “corporate economy of time” transforms the productivity gains of the third industrial revolution into a new disproportion. The result is not, as was expected, more free time for everyone, but a yet greater acceleration within capitalist space-time for some, and massive structural unemployment for others.

Unemployment in capitalism, however, is not free time, but a time of scarcity. Those who are excluded from empty acceleration do not gain an increase in leisure, but are defined rather as practical non-humans. So the utopia of free time fails, after the utopia of labor. It is not by way of an expansion of free time oriented towards the consumption of commodities that the terror of a runaway economy can be contained, but only by means of the absorption of sundered labor and free time into an all-inclusive culture without the viciousness of competition. The road to leisure passes through the liberation from the capitalist temporal form.

Note: This article was published in 1999 in the Brazilian journal Folha de São Paulo. Translated from German into Portuguese by José Marcos Macedo. Translated from Portuguese to Spanish by Round Desk.

Originally posted at Libcom

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