In the 2011 sci-fi film In Time, Justin Timberlake plays a factory worker in a dystopian future where each person is born with a set allotment of time-currency. The poor work to buy more time from their bosses, while paying their time to others for rent, or food, or other necessities, constantly checking their time-balance (a digital clock embedded into their flesh) to ensure they have enough to survive the next day. In the constructed world of the movie, when you are out of time, you die.
Elsewhere in this future world, others have plenty of time–the wealthy hoard hours and days from the masses of the poor, living long and opulent lives. Their own days seem near infinite; their worries minor compared to the workers in other ‘Time Zones,’ who scramble constantly in time-debt trying to have enough minutes to feed their children.
The film is a fantasy, of course. But despite its fictional nature, In Time is uncomfortably real—no work of film or literature comes quite so close to depicting the unspoken truth behind the Capitalist economy and its adage that “Time is Money.”
Most of us work for a living, selling our time to employers in return for wages, for currency that we use to purchase the necessities of living like food and housing. We exchange pieces of sacred paper inscribed with glyphs, or digital ciphers abstractly representing those dollars and euros and pesos–all which become for us a currency bearing crystalized meaning of minutes, hours and days.
It seems a pristine and precise system. My time compensates the time of others, and I spend spent hours on goods and services created with the spent hours of others in a great bazaar of equivalent exchange. The very abstraction, the symbolic extraction seems near beautiful—an hour of me is worth an hour of you, and we humans share and trade the time of our lives for the time of others in ever-equalizing currents.
Hours and minutes and seconds swirl ’round like clock-hands, like a finely-honed machine so eternally-present it seems as if Nature itself birthed such exchange of time for money.
But we know this is untrue. An hour of me is not worth an hour of a tech worker. He can buy 5 of my hours with an hour of his, and I can buy 40 hours of a Haitian’s life with an hour of mine. According to this system, my time is worth more than many, worth much much less than many others. Embedded in our symbols of money are invisible accountings of time we cannot quite unravel and cannot quite see.
Like many other changes wrought into the world these last 400 years, we have trouble understanding how this happened, or that it even happened at all. The ubiquity of systems like Capitalism and Monotheism seem to obliterate the past, or re-write themselves into history so that they always seem to have been there, our Modern life merely a completed tapestry of threads woven from the dawn of humanity. And Time seems the same; we cannot easily remember a Time before Time.
But this particular sort of Time is new, and this accounting newer still, and it is not Pagan, and it is not good.
We live in the Time of Capital; in Machine Time. We are refugees from a war on a Time we cannot remember; a war nearly erased from our collective memories. The Time of Nature is hidden from view, and we are crippled by our loss of Time.
Seems a bold statement, I’m sure. But follow me back a few hundred years to the War on Time.
Clockmakers and Preachers
In his study, Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, British historian E.P. Thompson traces the birth of Western Time conceptions through the upheavals of the 16th through 19th centuries. These centuries also saw the Enclosures, the Witch-Hunts, the mass slaughters of European Imperialism, the Reformation, and the birth of new forms of state control over people — 400 years of pitched battle, in which leaders of the Church and powerful warlords (called ‘kings’) fought to repress, restrain, and exploit increasingly politically and religiously independent peoples.
It was, also, the birth of Capitalism.
The Birth of Capitalist Time is inextricable from the birth of the factories, and the story of the birth of factories cannot be told without mentioning the Clockmakers. In fact, many of the machines of the factories were made by clockmakers, who had experience with the timing of gears, and E.P. Thompson notes that many of the most powerful industrialists of the early period of Capitalism, as well as early 20th-century ones like Henry Ford had also been chronomancers.
The human body is not a machine; no matter the usefulness of such metaphors. Our heart-rates are irregular, subject to alterations in times of fear, passion, lust, happyness, sorrow, or even sudden stimuli. Neither do we rise from slumber or fall into sleep at regular intervals, as the natural ways we measure time are ever-shifting, subject to daily, seasonal, and biological variations. In summer, the sun rises hot and bright, in winter cold and distant. Clouds may obscure the light, or the work of the day, or an illness, or a new lover may all cause us to rise later.
Nature is no strict manager of our lives. Nor do we humans labor always at regular intervals and at equal strengths; fatigue, sorrow, distraction, illness may all slow work; impatience or eagerness may hasten it.
But the logic of the factory and industrial Capitalism requires standardized working hours, regular and predictable output. A factory or business cannot operate if workers come in whenever they choose; a Capitalist cannot plan production or profits if he cannot be certain he will have enough workers present–those unpredictable Human components–at the wheels and levers of his pristine, regulated, inanimate machines.
How then could a Capitalist, intent on turning the labor of humans into the fuel for his wealth, cause unruly and undisciplined people to work his machines?
He turned to the clock.
At first a curiosity for the wealthy, a tool for the astrologer and the alchemist, the modern clock became more prevalent and more available as demand for its other uses increased. Like many other human inventions (one thinks of gunpowder and the combustion engine), it did not become ubiquitous until the powerful learned they could wield it against others. Time-pieces had existed for thousands of years, water-clocks and sundials and hour-glasses, but mechanical time was unneeded but for a few specialized professions and studies.
Soon, bell-towers which had rung out to townsfolk the calls to prayer or alarums of fire became also clock towers. As wealthy merchants, nobles, and industrialists saw time-discipline crucial to their profits, many of them funded the placement of clocks in every town, village, and city, often upon the sacred houses called Churches.
That placement’s important, and religion too had its role in the birth of Capitalist time. The prevalence of clock-time was not enough to compel the average person to measure out their days and ways by the regulated hour. Just as it was fortunate for the Capitalist that the Clock existed, it was doubly to his fortune that Protestant preachers roamed the countryside and the warrens of the towns, observing the chaotic and un-Christian lives of the commoner and seeking, through sermons and tracts, to bring the light of an ordered, regulated life to the poor.
Those same centuries saw a flurry of tracts, primers, almanacs, and sermons against the venial sin of sloth and the most deadly moral failing of the poor, sluggardly staying in bed. Like the Puritan attempts to regulate the sexual activities of the poor (sleeping with boards between husband and wife, having sex only on certain days, avoiding touching), these guides were authoritarian and prescriptive, codifying the best times for waking, for eating, for working (incidentally, every day but the Sabbath) all to attain a purity of life in accordance to the will of God and the proper functioning of Christian society.
John Wesley was one of the most famous of the religious preachers to issue such strictures, and more importantly developed an entire religious movement based upon perfecting the human soul in relation to God through methodical order and disciple—Methodism.
Religious teachers were not the only ones to write such guidelines—statesman, humanists, and industrialists issued their own screeds against the tendency of the poor to laze-about and drink tea (a serious problem, judging by how many warnings were issued about the sinful Tea Table.) And consider “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” Benjamin Franklin’s decades-long publishing of facts mixed with maxims, including that most tyrannical truth mentioned earlier. It’s from Franklin (incidentally a clockmaker in his younger days) we first learned that Time is Money.
Capitalists needed workers to show up on time, on regular schedules, in order to run the new mills and factories. Protestant ministers and preachers (many of them invested both in the factories and in the Capitalist ethic, which is distinctly Protestant, as Max Weber has shown) saw the introduction of time-discipline as a way of better managing the faithful and ridding society of non-Christian activities which they alternately described as Pagan or Devilish. Thus, both became allies in the War on Time against the masses, whose transition from unregulated life and work-as-you-will seemed never complete.
But we should consider what non-Capitalist time actually was and what the stakes actually were in this war.
Machine Time, Machine Discipline
Clocks had been around much longer than factories, mills and work houses. Personal clocks were much rarer, often out of economic reach of the poor until watchmaking became a more common skill and the lower classes had enough money to purchase them (often, as E.P. Thompson notes, as an investment for wealth, as a watch could be hawked or put up as collateral against credit).
The keeping of time, then, was the province of the upper classes, the urban dwellers, lords, aristocrat who sought power over the poor. During this period, there were actually two conceptions of times: the rural/common/peasant recognition of tasks and Nature (the time of the sun and the times of human activity like meals) and the time of the upper classes, measured first in imprecise hours until the perfection of the pendulum allowed time to be divided into discrete minutes and eventually seconds.
What’s the difference? In Machine Time, the human day is broken into machine-regulated denotations trumping natural patterns. Waking happens not according to the rising of the sun but of the stroke of a bell or the sounding of an alarm; 6.30 am and one must leave the bed, shower, eat, prepare the children for school all to meet another impending time-marker, 9am, when you are expected at work. Leave at 8:30 and you arrive ‘on-time,’ leave a little later and you are late and perhaps disciplined, punished, or at least scolded not only by your manager.
Lunch, not at ‘noon’ when the sun is directly overhead but at 12:00. Return half-an-hour later and the work-day commences. Work ends not when work is done, but at another set time, 5:00, as you, along with millions of others leaving work fill streets with cars rushing home on highways built wide to accommodate the predicted flood.
And those workers, home finally, regulate their day further by the logic of the machine by returning to their beds at a ‘decent’ time, not necessarily when they are tired or when their thirst for life’s been sated.
The way work is compensated in Machine-Time is disciplined, too—hourly wages, expected time commitments (40/hour weeks—and that only because workers fought and died for the 8-hour day), salaries all managed and configured to standardize payments not of work performed but time given. Piece-work and task work eventually fell out of favor because it was more difficult to manage–workers completed their tasks only as money was needed and would not regularly show up otherwise, and thus the adoption of a new form of compensation–waged Time.
On the other hand, Natural Time is not so easy to describe, because it’s as varied as the people who experience it and the communities and cultures they are a part of, as well as the work performed. There is the time of agriculture, starting and stopping work according to the light of day, with hard and long work performed socially for several months broken up by long periods of little work. The time of the fishing community, measured not by the clock but by the tide and the moon’s light. The time of the migrating cultures, measured by many First Nations peoples according to the moon as well (The Flowering Moon, the Wolf Moon, etc.,).
Even in Europe before Capitalism, time was measured by the feast days and festivals, many surviving still in Catholic countries like France where even non-Catholic workers are notorious for claiming those holidays and ‘faire le pont’ (making the bridge—taking an extra day between a holiday on a Thursday or Tuesday to make a four-day weekend).
Natural time exists everywhere Capitalism has not supplanted it, but on those frontiers the war rages on. Cultures which do not live by machine-time are often called ‘primitive’ or ‘backward.’ One BBC interview program a few years ago provides a great example: international businessmen and local entrepreneurs lamented the lazyness and tardyness of Africans and Arabs. Those interviewed complained that Africans just didn’t get time, even when they owned watches. Or that Arabs couldn’t quite ‘comprehend’ the urgency required to live in a Modern and Advanced world.
Worst of all, one local North African interviewee suggested that the reason Africa was a continent full of so much poverty was due precisely to the lazyness of his fellow continentals. That is, they were poor because they were never punctual. They even called it “African Standard Time.” [Remember this the next time you hear someone complain about ‘Pagan Standard Time’]
Natural Time is culturally-specific, rather than universal, constructed upon events and activities, work and festival. It relies both upon the rotation of the earth and apparent movement of the moon, sun, and stars, as well as the specific needs of a community. Time to migrate, or to put the livestock out to pasture or to bring in the harvest, all recurring activities which generate their own patterns of time, rather than the tyranny of a machine. And it’s the time of Animist cultures, which is why Westerners, after finally submitting for centuries on their knees at the alarm-clock and time-sheet have such trouble understanding ‘mythic time.’
Capitalism’s obsession with the clock and the machine did much more than affect the way workers were corralled into factories in the morning or return to their homes, though—it affected the way the entire world was seen.
Mechanical Laws, Non-Mechanical World
What arose from the conquering of Natural Time has been called the Mechanistic World-view, a crucial aspect of Capitalist thought and a brutal guardian against the return of Pagan religions to the world. In Mechanistic thinking, the world is governed by immutable laws which both predict and constrain everything. Both the basis of modern Science-thinking and the foundation of many political ideologies, including many totalitarian ones (consider that statement about Fascism and punctual trains…).
Iterated by thinkers such as Isaac Newton, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon and eventually filtered out into the rest of Western society as a part of the Protestant/Capitalist Work ethic. Nature and its chaotic tendencies became foes to be vanquished and subdued. Many Pagans make the mistake of equating the Judeo-Christian Bible as having instituted anthropocentric ‘dominionism’ over Nature, but this, like many other things Capitalism has wrought, is several thousand years newer than popular histories ever let on.
Machine-thinking provided not just a moral justification, but also a moral imperative for the subjugation of peoples and of Nature. If Time could be known and regulated like a machine, thus, too, could all the world. James Watts, the ‘father’ of the coal-fired Steam Engine and Francis Bacon, the much lauded (but very vile) founder of the Scientific Method, both spoke and wrote of Nature as a passive woman, waiting to be wooed, subjugated, even raped. Naomi Klein, in her book on Capitalism and Climate Change, tells it best:
If the modern-day extractive economy has a patron saint, the honor should probably go to Francis Bacon. The English philosopher, scientist, and statesman is credited with convincing Britain’s elites to abandon, once and for all, pagan notions of the earth as a life-giving mother figure to whom we owe respect and reverence (and more than a little fear) and accept the role as her dungeon master. “For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings,” Bacon wrote in De Augmentis Scientiarum in 1623, “and you will be able, when you like, to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again…Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his sole object.” -Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. p.170. [Emphasis mine]
Even popular notions of the Divine changed with the advent of Machine-time. Deism, which saw the Monotheist’s one-god as a “Divine Watchmaker,” shifted the understanding of humanity’s relationship to the Other not as one of co-creators, but one in which God left all the world to ‘man’ to be regulated, known, and perfected. It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the same mechanistic thinkers who changed civilization’s view of time and Nature were also Deists, including, of course, Benjamin Franklin.
Such a mechanistic worldview runs counter to quite a few important threads of Pagan thought, particularly Animism, which sees the world and all things in it alive, breathing with spirit, rather than inert cogs in the machines of progress which churn out human wealth.
Our pre-Capitalist ancestors were not stupid, nor did they have no conception of time. Societies cannot exist if everyone is late or cannot determine when to sleep, wake up, or plant grains. What’s changed under Capitalist Time is our individual participation in time, our inherent timing of our lives according to natural phenomenon and culturally-constructed needs.
The birth of Capitalist Machine-time should not be seen as Technological ‘Advance,’ because Enlightenment thinkers and Factory managers were hardly the only ones capable of understanding precise time. Sidereal time, the tracking of the stars over a year, was practiced for millenia before Capitalists came up with time-sheets and punch clocks, and we need only think on Newgrange, Stonehenge and countless ancient monuments in the world to recognize that precisely timing an event is at least 5000 years old. Likewise, ancient chronometers which could precisely tell the positions of stars during any time of the year were what helped many sea-faring civilizations travel thousands of miles long before the British and Dutch ships brought slaves and Capitalism to the Americas.
Machine-time must be inculcated, and Capitalist Time is taught to us in school in almost laughable ways. Shifting from one classroom to the next each hour was a pedagogical innovation not because it would help children learn better, but because it would prepare them better for the factories, the mills, and the assembly lines.
In fact, Capitalist industrialists had a very strong hand in the development of universal education in both England and the United States. You may have heard of Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller? Here’s from their mission statement in 1913 as they created and funded educational policy to prepare children for their factories.
In our dreams, we have limitless resources and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions fade from their minds, and unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning, or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, editors, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have an ample supply…The task we set before ourselves is very simple as well as a very beautiful one, to train these people as we find them to a perfectly ideal life just where they are. So we will organize our children and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way, in the homes, in the shops and on the farm.” – General Education Board, Occasional Papers #1
Universal education is hardly only about enlightening children, but also about making them time-disciplined workers, ever more productive than their parents. In schools we are punished for being late, our marks on papers reduced just as pay is docked for tardyness, all to systematically continue the War on Time the early industrialists waged against the lazyness of humans.
Time-discipline is taught in our youth because Capital thinks not with the mind of Nature, but the mind of the Machine. We must be managed, both internally and externally, so that the great cogs and gears of Profit grind on, even as our own time is crushed into death by the logic of the wealthy and powerful.
Internalizing machine-time is not about developing a discipline, it is about undergoing discipline. It is a management, an un-wilding of our nature. We become more like the machines which control us, forgetting who created whom, and like many other modern enslavements, Paganism and Witchcraft stand against it.
And standing against Capitalist Time is an idea from a very unlikely source, from traditions hardly known for their revolutionary stance. Both Wicca and many forms of modern Druidry have, as core beliefs, the vital observance of the natural cycles of sidereal (astrological) and solar time. The Wheel of the Year and the marking of the Moon’s cycles are, if anything, a radical reminder of what Time means outside the Machine and how humans, in concert with Nature and all its beings, co-create our own conceptions of time.
To escape Machine Time isn’t to destroy it—we do not need smash the clocks and watches of the world like Protestants smashing pagan idols in the cathedrals (Protestants who, we should remember, also helped create Machine time!)
Rather, we should challenge those who wield it against our numbered hours for profit. Cheat the time-sheet, abandon the alarm? Those are honorable tactics, and a great start. But it is not always possible for many who are trapped deeper in the machine than others.
Unwaging our hours is perhaps a better strategy, one we can do best by finally putting to rest that horrid mantra which encapsulated hundreds of years of Protestant and Capitalist time discipline. We must remind ourselves, repeat endlessly until our time is again our own:
Time is not Money.
Money is Not Time.
And we will never be machines.
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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.