The Tyranny of Time
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 loverthe 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,
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
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 schizophreniabound 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 anythingto 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 manythe 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 Januaryforget 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 operandia 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 todayI'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
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
A more common daily experience presents a ripe opportunity for rebelling against
the systemtime 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 alloh 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 goalshorten
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,