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Time After Capitalism

A hundred years ago, the United States adopted daylight savings time in order to extract more profit from labor. How would we organize time differently if we were free from the demands of capitalism?

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, George Seurat, 1884. Wikimedia Commons.

Forget Karl Marx’s old saw about hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and criticizing after dinner — for many, simply going to bed when we are tired and waking when we are rested is the stuff of utopian, post-capitalist fantasy. A hundred years after the United States adopted daylight savings time — a contrivance developed to extract maximum labor power from workers — we might indulge in some musings on how a different society would make time for workers.

Our world prioritizes profit above all else, and, unless we are wealthy enough to opt out of the labor force, we must organize our lives around securing and maintaining an income-generating job. An entire rhetorical tradition, stretching from the so-called work ethic to “do what you love,” has arisen to distract us from this brutal reality.

The obligation to profit shapes our experience of time: minute to minute, as we hustle to catch the train to work; day to day, as we calculate whether we have enough cat food to avoid the 6 PM supermarket crush; and decade to decade, as we spend years preparing for work and equate our adulthood with climbing the professional ladder. Anyone who has had to cancel plans with friends, put an infant into day care before he or she felt comfortable doing so, or work through a migraine knows how unforgiving the demands of profit are, how they brook no disruption, from personal trauma to simple fatigue.

Workers fought bloody battles over just how much of their days and life spans employers and shareholders can claim. Today, as we know all too well, workers are in a relatively weak position, and so the drive for profit controls more and more of their lives.

Cultures of overwork pervade certain sectors, including finance and tech, which often encourage employees to identify wholly with their professional roles. Seventy-hour weeks do not signal an urgent need for more staff. They are accepted as unremarkable, if not as points of pride.

Casualization in journalism and graphic design mean that these workers devote ample unpaid time to the work of pitching, applying, and self-branding in hopes of securing sporadic gigs. Meanwhile, employers receive reams of article ideas and design specs with no obligation to pay.

Other sectors, particularly service and retail, have instituted just-in-time scheduling, leaving employees with no idea when or how long they will be working. These workers cannot enroll their children in regular childcare, buy a weekly bus pass, or make plans with friends and family. They often get stuck near their jobs in airports or outlying shopping centers with hours of “garbage time” between shifts — time they could be relaxing at home or enjoying a hobby.

Our system of social and economic organization uses a dizzying array of methods to deny and degrade our time. How might we experience time in a world in which this wasn’t the case?

In a society free from the burdens of profit, leisure could become more central to human experience. Today, we often conflate leisure with idleness and idleness with immorality, but it need not be so. Indeed, a Latin word for “business,” negotium, reveals how seriously some societies used to take non-laboring time. Negotium literally means the absence (indicated by the prefix neg-) of leisure (otium). Romans, in other words, described business in negative terms, as the mundane stuff one does when not attending to the enjoyable aspects of living. While we would not wish to return to ancient Rome’s patriarchal, slave-owning society, we could do with taking leisure more seriously.

Modern otium would include a mixture of productive activity (about which more below) as well as a fair amount of lollygagging. Rather than considering supposedly time-wasting pursuits in a negative light, we could assert that they are an essential aspect of human experience to which everyone is entitled, as Paul Lafargue argued over a century ago in “The Right to Be Lazy.”

Indeed, fantastic things can arise when we give our minds time to roam. For instance, British physicist Peter Higgs, nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1980 for discovering how subatomic particles acquire mass, credits his breakthrough to “peace and quiet” and conjectures that the modern academy’s grueling publication requirements would have made it impossible for him to make his discovery, or indeed for his younger self to have an academic career at all.

But we should protect idleness from those who would try to capture our daydreams for profit. Most of our caprices will not be as useful or broadly enlightening as Higgs’s, but that does not make them any less valuable to ourselves. Most of us don’t know what it would feel like to waste time without the nagging feeling that we should be doing something else. What if we were free to find out?

Within a global marketplace that continuously operates at a manic pace, such empty time can be profoundly alienating — a condition inflicted on marginalized persons who can’t keep up, as Bruce O’Neill describes in his book, The Space of Boredom: Homelessness in the Slowing Global Order. O’Neill’s book studies homeless communities in Bucharest, where, two decades after the fall of communism, prosperity has eluded most Romanians, excluding many from the capitalist sociality of consumption and production.

We could seize this empty, slow time and claim it for ourselves, developing ways of relating to each other that aren’t centered on commodity consumption. If there really is less work to do, we can reconfigure our weeks and months to cherish and properly use this free time, while ensuring everyone leads a dignified enough existence to enjoy it. Milling about and chatting with neighbors could be quite lovely, if we’re not embarrassed that we have the time to do so.

Of course, many of us actually enjoy doing productive things in our leisure time, like decoupage, coaching youth sports, cooking, and, apparently, stacking firewood. A large part of what makes hobbies enjoyable is that, freed from the profit motive, practitioners work at the pace they choose, allowing them to experiment, mess up, quit, and start over.

Today, hobbies are squeezed into the small bits of time uncolonized by work and care demands. Even then, they are available only to those who can afford materials and supplies. A serious approach to leisure time could expand the youth-league model to people of all ages, establishing staffed darkrooms, hockey rinks, and yachts available to anyone who wants to learn and practice.

Not everything would change in our post-capitalist future. Food will still need to be farmed, children taught, buildings repaired. It’s not that we would have no responsibilities, but we would undo the grip profit has on our time. We would have to ask how to apportion time in a way that meets society’s needs while granting workers maximum self-determination.

We would still regularly subvert our immediate, spontaneous desires, but we would do so for the sake of our overall wellbeing rather than for the bosses’ profit motives. Hospitals would still operate 24/7, and basic decency would discourage antisocial behavior, like imposing our musical tastes on our neighbors in the middle of the night. The goal is not to indulge individual whims — “I do what I want, when I want” — but to foster daily, seasonal, and epochal rhythms that allow the whole community to thrive.

Would we still live our lives according to workweeks and career paths? Many might. But instead of seeking a work/life balance, we might just have life: our time on earth in which the activities of living — convalescence, child rearing, friendship, daydreaming, bereavement — get their due alongside labor.