Capitalism and the tyranny of time

indexby Kate Jeffrey

When we say “class struggle”, the images that come to mind are usually of strikes and picket lines, of go-slows and mass meetings, of union flags carried proudly on demonstrations.

Even in times of relative industrial peace, workers and bosses engage in a constant tug-of-war over the conditions and terms of labour. The fight for time is part of this: workers fight for the right to have a life outside work and bosses fight to extract more working hours out of our day.

In Australia, the building trades won the eight-hour day in 1856. But today, the slogan of “Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest” seems anachronistic. We still struggle to protect our time from erosion by the demands of work. A 2013 study by the Australia Institute revealed that 3.8 million employees don’t take a lunch break. And while official figures put the number of unemployed Australians at more than 750,000, 14 percent of the employed are working more than 50 hours per week.

In a system ruled by profit, the technological advances that should improve our lives actually make it harder for workers to keep our leisure time our own. It would be hard to imagine a switchboard operator or a machinist eating while working, but 3.4 million Australian employees manage to do so; and one-quarter check email outside of working hours.

In the information technology industry, we can do a lot of our work from home with a computer and an internet connection. Many IT support workers are rostered “on call”, meaning that in return for a (usually pitiful) daily allowance, they are expected to keep themselves available for a call or email from work at any moment of the day or night. Modern technology means that even your day off might belong to your employer.

Time, alienation and ideology

Capitalist work processes demand a constant awareness of time, and of how we should or should not be spending it.

Our education system instils this awareness in young people, in preparation for work. At school we are taught to arrive at the same time every day, to wait in line, to work on one subject for exactly forty-five minutes until the bell tells us to stop and (less successfully) to hand things in on time.

At work, we must account for our time to our supervisors. We must take breaks when we’re told to, stay at our desks or work sites until permitted to leave and perform our work to deadlines. Time is of the essence. The experience of work gives us a continual sense of anxiety about time, which comes directly from the way work is organised under capitalism.

Workers have no control over the way we produce things – instead, our ability to work is a commodity, which we sell to a boss in exchange for wages. When capitalists buy any commodity, they need to know how much of it they are buying. Labour power, as the most important commodity on the market, has to be quantified – packaged for sale into hours, minutes and seconds.

Once labour power has been quantified, capitalists want as much of it as they can get for as low a price as possible. Bosses use all kinds of measures to achieve this end, including unpaid overtime, increasing the pace of production and cracking down on breaks. This makes work stressful, alienating and oppressive.

Frederick Taylor, the founder of “scientific management”, observed in 1911: “Whenever an American workman plays baseball, or an English workman plays cricket, he does his very best to make the largest possible number of runs … Any man who fails to give out all there is in him in sport is treated with contempt by those around him.

“When the same workman returns to work, instead of using every effort to turn out the largest possible amount of work, he plans to do as little as he safely can … if he were to do his best, he would be abused by his fellow-workers, even more than if he had proved himself a ‘quitter’ in sport.”

As a proponent of the profit system, Taylor could not understand that while playing sport with friends is an enjoyable collective activity that we choose to take part in, labour under capitalism is alienated: we don’t get to decide how to play the game, so why should we care who wins?

Taylor devoted his efforts to the science of making people work faster, advocating an analysis of the most minute physical motions involved in manufacturing processes. A long succession of theorists on productivity followed in his wake. As employers implemented these techniques, they divided the labour process into tasks so small as to be meaningless to the individuals performing them. No wonder people would rather play cricket.

Capitalism supports such profiteering techniques with ideology, elevating anxiety and stress about time to a moral code. We must be productive. We must be efficient. We must perform.

Changing conceptions of time

This finely honed conception of time is unique to capitalism. Pre-industrial societies saw time quite differently, measuring intervals in terms of natural events, or domestic and agricultural tasks. British historian E.P. Thompson, in the 1967 essay “Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism”, identified descriptions of lengths of time such as “a rice-cooking” and “less than the time in which maize is not completely roasted”.

A day might be divided into intervals by a combination of the perceived movements of the sun and the tasks of the day – letting the goats out to graze and so on. Different cultures had their own ways of measuring and thinking about time.

Industrial capitalism required, and developed alongside, technological advances in time measurement. The historian Lewis Mumford even suggested that the clock, rather than the steam-engine, should be regarded as the key breakthrough in industrialisation.

The clock was “a new kind of power-machine, in which the source of power and its transmission were of such a nature as to ensure the even flow of energy throughout the works and to make possible regular production and a standardised product”. The clock allowed capitalists to coordinate the production process, matching workers with the machinery they used. The precise measurement of time was as vital to the development of industry as were precise measurements of length, volume and weight.

The rising bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) had to inculcate workers with these new ways of thinking about time. This didn’t come automatically – as late as 1835, one theorist of the factory system complained:

“It is found nearly impossible to convert persons past the age of puberty, whether drawn from rural or from handicraft operations, into useful factory hands. After struggling for a while to conquer their listless or restive habits, they either renounce the employment spontaneously, or are dismissed by the overlookers on account of inattention.”

Nineteenth century revolutionary Friedrich Engels vividly described in The condition of the working class in England the experience of British factory life. The work was “tedium, the most deadening, wearing process conceivable. The operative is condemned to let his physical and mental powers decay in this utter monotony, it is his mission to be bored every day and all day long from his eighth year.”

Managers and overseers had to enforce time discipline strictly: the factory worker “must not take a moment’s rest; the engine moves unceasingly; the wheels, the straps, the spindles hum and rattle in his ears without a pause, and if he tries to snatch one instant, there is the overlooker at his back with the book of fines …

“Here ends all freedom in law and in fact. The operative must be in the mill at half-past five in the morning; if he comes a couple of minutes too late, he is fined; if he comes ten minutes too late, he is not let in until breakfast is over, and a quarter of the day’s wages is withheld, though he loses only two and one-half hours’ work out of twelve. He must eat, drink, and sleep at command. For satisfying the most imperative needs, he is vouchsafed the least possible time absolutely required by them … The despotic bell calls him from his bed, his breakfast, his dinner.”

In the textile mills and engineering workshops of the nineteenth century, bosses used every dirty trick they could think of to cheat workers out of more of their time. A witness from Dundee said, “the clocks at the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night, and instead of being instruments for the measurement of time, they were used as cloaks for cheatery and oppression”.

Some factory masters tried to prevent workers from being able to tell the time at all. One worker recalled: “We worked as long as we could see in summer time, and I could not say at what hour it was that we stopped. There was nobody but the master and the master’s son who had a watch, and we did not know the time. There was one man who had a watch. It was taken from him and given into the master’s custody because he had told the men the time of day.”

Middle class moralists directed an endless stream of time-related propaganda at the working class to enforce discipline, productivity and social order. This propaganda didn’t stop once workers left the factories and the mills; its scope extended into people’s leisure time as well. John Foster, a Baptist minister and essayist, wrote in his “Essay on the evils of popular ignorance” about the scandalous behaviour of manual workers who were left with “several hours in the day to be spent nearly as they please”:

“We shall often see them just simply annihilating those portions of time. They will for an hour, or for hours altogether lie down on a bank or hillock, yielded up to utter vacancy and torpor … or collected in groups by the road side … practising some impertinence, or uttering some jeering scurrility, at the expense of persons going by.”

Time in the modern economy

While the structure of the economy and the nature of work have changed since Engels’ day, the moralising tone of time ideology has not. Intrusive attitudes towards workers’ use of time are alive and well.

Just as contemporary moralists preach about our sexual preferences and drinking habits, they also scrutinise our punctuality (or lack of it) and the way we choose to spend our personal time.

“I believe in a government that rewards those who work the hardest, not those who complain the loudest”, said Julia Gillard in her prime ministerial acceptance speech in 2010. “The people who play by rules, set their alarms early, stand by their neighbours and love their country.”

In their wildest dreams, bosses fantasise about employing workers with these qualities: obedience, self-sacrifice, credulity and punctuality. Unfortunately for the capitalist class, workers are human beings, not robots.

We can see the struggle over time in the modern capitalist economy – in call centres, for example, a type of workplace that people are determinedly unenthusiastic about showing up to.

Analysts for the customer service industry cite punctuality in call centres as a big problem, although they prefer to use management-speak such as “team productivity challenge”. Companies have to offer “incentives” (obviously these incentives don’t include decent pay) to workers to coax them out of bed in the morning.

“It can be a challenge getting those outside the call centre industry to understand this”, complains David Bradshaw, vice president of a Canadian telemarketing company. “You are essentially giving incentives to people for the basic requirements of the job (showing up on time for work).”

The pressures of capitalist competition mean that business owners are constantly trying to outdo each other. Workers are pressured to work faster, to subordinate their physical and mental needs to the requirements of their jobs and to exploit every fraction of every second.

A look at the work process in modern call centres – which some have called “electronic sweatshops” – shows a reality not so far removed from Engels’ descriptions of oppressive, alienating factory work in the 19th century. One study of UK call centres says this about the experience of the typical operator:

“In all probability, work consists of an uninterrupted and endless sequence of similar conversations with customers she never meets. She has to concentrate hard on what is being said, jump from page to page on a screen, making sure that the details entered are accurate and that she has said the right things in a pleasant manner.

“The conversation ends and as she tidies up the loose ends there is another voice in her head. The pressure is intense because she knows her work is being measured, her speech monitored, and it often leaves her mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.”

Call centre managers use the most intricate monitoring techniques to control their workers’ time, literally to the second. Computer systems measure the amount of time workers spend handling a call, gathering their thoughts between calls, entering information into a database, taking meal breaks, even going to the toilet. Throughput targets pressure workers to churn ceaselessly through call after call.

One UK call centre introduced a “talk and type” policy which demanded that workers complete their data entry while talking on the phone. Under “call quality” monitoring systems, with the constant awareness that their every word is being recorded, workers must not let their tone of voice slip even for an instant to convey boredom or irritation.

The effects of management policies like these are well documented, call centre workers disproportionately suffering from work-related mental illness and depression.

The oppressive nature of time under capitalism, compelling us to live our lives subject to the tyranny of the bell and the clock, is yet another reason why this is an inhumane system that needs to be demolished.

The above is taken from Red Flag, the newspaper site of Australia’s largest far-left group, Socialist Alternative; see here

Further reading:
Whatever happened to the leisure society?
Pensions and the retirement age: the problem is capitalism, not an aging population


  1. This is a great article. Capitalist ideology tells us that this system is all about freedom, but we are subjected to a mass of tyrannies, from small to big, and depending on which part of the world we live in. Time is one of those tyrannies.

    I was extremely poor for about six or seven years, while living in Dublin. One of the hardest things about it was how much time it took to do stuff being poor. I had to walk almost everywhere, because I couldn’t afford buses, let alone a car. I had to shop at several different street traders and supermarkets in order to get the cheapest food I could survive on. Time, which I hadn’t thought all that much about before, suddenly became this huge oppressive presence in my life.

    I had options and eventually got out of it, but most people in that situation globally don’t have options. They are stuck with the fact that being poor makes the most basic day-to-day survival tasks take up a huge amount of time.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to wave a wand and put the bourgeoisie globally in the same situation and then say to them, “So tell us again about all this freedom!”

    Best, of course, would be to be able to overthrow them, so all of humanity can enjoy the freedom which our labour makes potentially possible, but is prevented by the capitalist form of society.


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