The Third International after Lenin

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Here ends all freedom in law and in fact...."

How capitalism created the tyranny of time
Kate Jeffreys

Since the beginning of capitalism, workers and bosses have fought about time. While workers fight for the right to have a life outside work, bosses fight to extract more working hours out of our day.

In Australia, the building trades won the eight-hour day in 1856, yet we still struggle to protect our time from erosion by the pressures to work unpaid overtime and longer shifts. The length of the average full-time working week is now 44 hours.

Capitalism is obsessed with time. School and work demand a constant awareness of time, and of how we should be spending it.

At school, we are taught the importance of arriving at the same time every day, of waiting in line, of working on one subject for forty-five minutes until the bell tells us to stop, and (less successfully) of handing things in on time.

At work, we have to account for our time to our supervisors, take breaks when we’re told to, and stay at our desks or worksites until permitted to leave.

The experience of the workforce 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 a capitalist buys 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, a capitalist wants 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. Capitalism supports these profiteering techniques with ideology, reinforcing ideas about time characterised by anxiety and stress.

This conception of time is unique to capitalism. Pre-industrial societies saw time quite differently, measuring intervals in terms of domestic and agricultural tasks. As capitalism developed, the rising bourgeoisie had to inculcate new, more precise 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.

Friedrich Engels vividly described the experiences of British factory workers of the day. This 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 strictly enforce time discipline – 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 that “…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 gave his account:

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.

Bourgeois moralists directed an endless stream of time-related propaganda at the working class, intending 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. One commentator wrote in an 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 and ideology 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 today.

Just as contemporary bourgeois 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,” Julia Gillard told A Current Affair on June 24. “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, patriotism and punctuality. Unfortunately for the capitalist class, workers are human beings, not robots – and most would react to this sort of time-moralism by rolling their eyes and hitting the snooze button again.

We can observe the class dynamic of time under a 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 call it something amorphous like “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 Telefundraising for 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 fragment 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. A study of UK call centres contains this paragraph about the experience of the typical call-centre 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. Targets pressure workers to churn ceaselessly through call after call.

One UK call centre introduced a policy under the slogan “Talk and Type”, 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 for analysis, workers must not let their tone of voice slip even for an instant to convey their boredom or irritation.

The effects of management policies like these are well documented, with 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.


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