Work and Time-Discipline

Essential workers are experiencing a speed-up as demand for their services increases, while millions stay home— as their own sense of time, and the separation between “life” and “work,” blurs. How is it that we came to be ruled by clocks, and how did people experience time prior to industrial capitalism? Team Advantage explores the phenomenon of capitalist time-discipline, consulting E. P. Thompson, Moishe Postone, and Mark Fisher (among others) as resources.

Thanks to our central Canadian correspondent Brendan (@Neeedleseye) for joining us!

Sources for this episode:
E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”
Moishe Postone, “Time, Labor, and Social Domination”
Mark Fisher, “Cybertime Crisis Lecture” (YouTube)
Ivor Southwood, “Non-Stop Inertia”
Barbara Ehrenreich, “Bait and Switch”
Daniel Greene and Daniel Joseph, “The Digital Spatial Fix”
Jonathan Crary, “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep”

Kate: That’s the good shit, just getting high and thinking about railroads and capital.

Rory: I do actually do that.

Kate: Yeah, I know! I’m not being ironic, like —

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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is supported by listeners like you. Independent listener-supported media like this podcast is possible only thanks to the generous support of our listeners. If you think what we do is important, please head over to and support our work with a monthly donation.

Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson, and with Team Advantage today we have Rory —

Rory: Hi.

Kate: Tyler —

Tyler: Hello, hello.

Kate: Joel —

Joel: Hello, hello.

Kate: And our central Canadian correspondent, Brendan.

Brendan: Hey.

Kate: So we have convened today because people in our society, very generally speaking, are finding themselves in one of four positions: either you are part of the large section of the workforce that is staying home and working from home, or you are part of the large section of the workforce that has been furloughed or laid off or has lost hours or employment, or you are an essential worker, a worker whose work is either truly essential or you’ve been deemed essential. The fourth category doesn’t really come up a lot in any of our lives, and that’s just people who are extremely rich, and I guess their lives are going pretty well, so this episode is going to focus on the first three categories of people and what is happening to our sense and our perception and our lived experience of time and how that perception and that experience is a result of a long legacy of capitalist development and specifically capitalist ways of constructing time.

Joel: So as Kate said, our current pandemic labour situation is very strange. We have large sections of the workforce that are staying home and either working from home, if they’ve kept their job, or have been furloughed. On the other hand, many other workers deemed essential are subject to an acceleration of work and increasing demands on the labour they’re supposed to perform or produce within a given shift.

Kate: A really interesting corollary to that example, though, is that in the healthcare system, for the first time in a really really long time, slack is finally being introduced into the healthcare system in order to deal with this pandemic. So, while healthcare workers have been deemed essential and are experiencing very structured and disciplined forms of work, their jobs are actually, in general, less stressful and less anxiety-inducing at the moment than they would normally be because the healthcare system is currently designed and being operated in such a way as to allow for an influx of COVID-19 cases as the pandemic accelerates, particularly in Alberta.

Tyler: For the people staying at home and working, like myself, it can be very, very hard to stay on task, especially if you happen to have children. And accomplishing things, either in your job or your personal life, especially when you’re working from home full-time when those things blend — life gets very challenging without the pre-existing routines that we’ve become used to.

Rory: But at the same time, for people who are, like, delivery workers or Amazon or grocery store or healthcare workers, their shifts might also be more structured and demanding than ever.

Kate: So, given that we spend a third of most days at work, our jobs are the central part of our lives and of the routines that we have constructed. And it is really the workplace that, generally speaking, creates this idea of routine, which is called time discipline. And, historically speaking, this is a relatively new thing. It didn’t always exist, and it actually took a lot of work and restructuring of our societies to make human beings think and operate within these terms in the first place. We aren’t born with this sense of time discipline, it’s something that is instilled in us through the specific society that we live in. So these are things like the idea of punctuality and requirements that we show up in precise times. And the reason we have this is because this is something that capital accumulation — and, more specifically, factory production, which is where this form kind of originated — it’s something that is needed by those things, and, in order to get that, it subordinates human rhythms, seasonal rhythms, any kind of cyclical rhythms, to those of capital accumulation. So what this looks like, historically, is you’re turning people from — generally speaking — peasant farmers into industrial workers through the process of instilling time discipline in them. And this was a big struggle because people initially resisted it.

Tyler: Yeah. So one thing that Marx actually talks about in volume one of Capital — and I’ll actually quote here directly — is, “What is a working day? What is the length of time which capital may consume the labour power whose daily value it buys? To these questions, capital replies, ‘The working day contains the full 24 hours.’” Which is a little bit of good insight into the rest of this discussion as work continues to take over more and more of our lives and, more specifically, more and more of our time.

Brendan: Part of that is that there’s a necessarily temporal dimension to how capitalist production happens in the sense that it requires a bunch of different ingredients: it requires raw materials and infrastructure and machinery and workers to all be in the right place at the right time. And if that combination doesn’t happen, you can’t have production at all.

Tyler: One thing that I also think is important to mention at this point — because we are going to be talking about Marx, actually, quite a bit in this episode — is that, in the Marxist explanation and investigation into capitalism and how it works, one of the really key pieces that we have to keep in mind is that labour and how it’s constructed and how it actually adds value to things is actually through time. So things are measured in the amount of time that it takes to build them or create them and how much labour-time actually goes into that. So actually, at the very, very fundamental building blocks of Marx’s philosophy around capital, time is essential.

Kate: So, in this episode, we’re going to talk about why time seems so strange right now, how our sense of time is created and normalized by capitalism, and how COVID-19 as a crisis has really revealed the weirdness and the strangeness and the eeriness of this particular phenomenon, and maybe even try and imagine a better future by imagining a new relationship to time — or, at least, suggest that imagining a better future requires imagining a new relationship to time. And I really want to hone in on this idea of time discipline, which I used a bit earlier in the episode, because it’s really, really crucial to understanding this phenomenon. And time discipline is, basically, this idea that describes, kind of, the social mores and rules and customs and expectations that govern both the measurement of time, but also, our awareness of time. So these can be things that are really formal, so: if your shift starts at 7am, you have to show up to work at 7am. But they can also be more informal; how late can you be for a date or for drinks with friends before it’s considered to be rude? And how strictly these things tend to be enforced is very situation-dependent. So, if you’re ten minutes late for work every single day, you’re going to be in a lot more trouble than you are if you’re ten minutes late when you go out and get drinks with your friends. And time discipline also varies culturally, so some cultures put much more of an emphasis on punctuality than others. I think literally everyone who is not some type of Protestant has, like, a cultural stereotype of being late. Just speaking —

Brendan: Yeah, I think I’ve heard people, sort of, use some kind of ethnic or cultural difference to explain why they were so late from, like, five different ethnicities in my life. And I’ve also seen it used by leftists as a subculture, so everybody can kind of have that out if they want to.

Kate: But you should also still be punctual. It’s rude.

Joel: Ingrained notions of time discipline very much shape how we as individuals feel about time. Think about how often you feel unproductive because you  were, quote, “wasting time.” Time discipline is not simply a good habit that we should cultivate, but is a deeply rooted thing, and it’s deeply rooted in the historical development of industrial capitalism and in creating human subjects that accept the rigours of factory work and see the clock as, sort of, the master of how to organize oneself throughout the day. British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, in 1967, published “Time, Work, Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” which really developed the concept of time discipline.

Rory: Yeah, so we’re going to draw a bit from — when we’re looking at the history of time discipline, we’re going to draw a fair bit from Thompson here. So, from the appearance of the clock to the development of mature capitalism, there’s a shift in how we measure and mark time, particularly around labour discipline. And then there’s this restructuring of work habits related to changes in this sort of inward notation of time. So pre-industrial stuff — time would tend to be more task-oriented, so that, basically, you measure the passage of time in how many tasks you did per day, so — and this kind of seems a bit more human, to use a vague word here. So it also means there’s less, sort of, division between work and life. However, when you’re accustomed to working against the clock, this sort of task-oriented form of work appears kind of wasteful and lacking in urgency.

Kate: So, from the appearance of the clock to the development of a mature capitalism, there is basically a shift in the way we measure time and in the way we mark time. And these things affect the way that labour is disciplined. So what happens is there is a restructuring of work habits, and this restructuring is related to changes in the inward, or internal, notation of time: basically, how we are personally and as a society conceiving of, noting, and even — to a sense — experiencing time. And what this change really is is that pre-modern work time is often task-oriented. So this is a sense that is very intuitive; it is more humanly comprehensible than timed labour, so it has, kind of, the least demarcation and your life. This is things like: how long does it take to bake a loaf of bread? How long does it take to pray a certain prayer? These types of things.

Joel: Another good example is, like, how long does it take to do the harvest? Like, that’s just a big task, it’s not necessarily x number of hours, right?

Kate: Exactly. And to those like us, who are accustomed to labour that is timed by the clock, task orientation can seem wasteful of time itself and, also, it can seem like it is lacking in urgency. And I think, for me, one of the most interesting things, maybe, about task-oriented time is that it’s not just tasks that occur within, say, a 24-hour day period — which is often how we’re used to thinking of work, because we tend to work a certain number of hours out of a 24-hours period — but, as Joel pointed out, it can also be seasonal things, it can also be cyclical things that occur on multi-year cycles. So it is a sense of time that is much more connected to the world around you.

Rory: So, basically, there’s kind of the switch between this task-oriented sense of work time and time discipline when labour becomes employed by an employer. So this creates this distinction between what is the employer’s time and what is the worker’s own time. Thompson locates the wide proliferation of watches and clocks in the late 18th century and notes that a general diffusion of these timepieces, from fashionable gold watches to simple wood-cased clocks for cottagers, comes at the exact moment when industrialization demands this synchronization of labour. And that’s because industrial production usually requires significant levels of temporal precision that previous craft manufacturing processes did not.

Joel: However, the proliferation of timepieces is not the definitive factor for the emergence of time discipline. Early industrial workers still maintained a significant diversity of labour patterns when they engaged in wage labour and when they needed it rather than when the boss did. Persistent traditions of extended time off, such as the observation of Saint Monday, still occurred; Saint Monday being my favourite kind of Saint day. [pause] That was a joke.

Brendan: I just want to go on record in saying that the observation of Saint Monday is good and it should be revived as much as possible. And — for another thing that it’s important to mark — this is not just a story of technological change, and we’re not just talking about industrialization in general; we’re talking specifically about the development of industrial capitalism, and the technological conditioning of our use of time is intimately connected to the way that time measurement is used as a means of exploiting labour. The sort of fundamental thing here is the necessity to maximize the exploitation of labour that is connected to the sort of mercantilist and early capilitast demand to hold down wages, the increasing efforts to deter idleness among the emerging working class. Thompson describes all of this as the effort to impose a sense of time thrift on workers, and another sort of aspect of this whole social process is the process of enclosure, where common lands in the countryside were now denied to, you know, rural people; they could no longer access it, they could no longer use those resources. And so they had to turn to wage labour in order to live. And if they didn’t, they were stigmatized as being idlers. And there are other social formations that are involved in this. Thompson especially, both in this text and in “The Making of the English Working Class,” talks about how Methodism played a role in doing this, and he points out that there’s a big theme in early Methodist literature that time is very, very scarce and, you know, life is full of sinful temptations, and you have to withstand those and make sure that you’re using your time in a way that’s righteous and productive.

Kate: Well, that sounds like it sucks, frankly. But fortunately, workers resisted and rebelled against the imposition of this new time discipline. But the way in which the struggle unfolds temporally really shows the way that workers were disciplined by capital to internalize and to accept this. So you have this phenomenon where the first generation of factory workers is rebelling against time discipline through the observation of Saint Monday, through not engaging in wage labour on the terms of their bosses but, rather, simply when they need work to supplement the pre-existing agricultural rhythms of their lives. However, the second generation of factory workers formulates these demands as a limit on the workday. So you get this struggle over an 8-hour workday in this period. The third generation of workers has this sort of struggle about overtime pay. So people are consistently accepting the categories of capital and accepting the categories of their employers and, when any kind of struggle or fight back is taking place, it takes place within those categories that are defined by capital. So this sense of time discipline becomes internalized and reproduced, not only by capital, but also by the working class.

Brendan: Britain, here — which is what Thompson was studying, and was sort of the prototypical industrial society — would of course, as industrial capitalism spreads around the world, you continually have first-generation proletarians coming out of agrarian economies and pre-industrial economies of various kinds who are forced to go through this entire process. And you see these same sort of strategies coming up again. So for example, in Italy, during the great sort of economic boom in Italy in the 1950s and 60s, a huge part of that industrial workforce were peasants from the south — which was very, very underdeveloped. And initially, you still have people doing the same thing, where they engaged in wage labour to the extent and to the duration that was necessary to get what they wanted out of it, right? And there wasn’t, you know, that sort of internalized sense that you have to work because that’s this obligation that’s independent of whether you are getting what you want out of it.

Kate: Absolutely. And to build off your point, Brendan, an example of the historical development of time discipline in Canada can be found really compellingly in John Milloy’s “A National Crime,” which is about the history of the residential school system in Canada. And one of the purposes of this system was to structure the lives of Indigenous children by the cycle of Christian and British-Canadian holidays and by this time/work discipline. So government authorities had this extremely racist and paternalistic idea that Indigenous children had inherited, from their parents — what did they say — an utter disregard for time and an ignorance of its value, and that there should be an object for the employment of every moment. So, really, those ideas of time discipline that we talked about. And a big part of what happened in the genocide that took place within these residential schools was, basically, stripping away the cultural clock that Indigenous children had that they had inherited from their own societies and their own ways of living through seasonal hunting. And when we say seasonal, too, one of the things I think is really interesting here that it’s seasonal, not only through the length of the year, but many Indigenous nations had cycles that were, you know, ten, twenty, thirty years as part of agricultural cycles through which they managed land. So these, kind of, cultural clocks had an extremely long temporal framework, particularly when you juxtapose it with industrial capitalism. And the object of residential schools was to basically remove that and to replace it with this time discipline that existed within the previously-dispossessed working class of the imperial core of places like Britain, so residential schools had these extremely structured days of work and learning and prayer and recreation in order to instill this sense of time discipline within Indigenous children. And this too, you know, is the process of proletarianization, of what Marx would call accumulation by dispossession of, in this case, you know, the land of Indigenous peoples. And I think that one thing that is really important to emphasize here is that time discipline as we know it is not a) superior, and b) it’s not a natural evolution on the time sense that came before it or, hopefully, the sense of time that will come after it. And our social sense of time, you know, is shaped by the material circumstances we find ourselves in; so, peasant farmers care about time as it relates to their crops — which, generally, is not measured by the minute like the job of an industrial worker. Similarly, I’m sure I care a lot less about the cycles of weather and rainfall as they relate to the seasons than peasant farmers did. And the last point here is that, you know, we have forgotten, to a large extent and in a societal way, previous social experiences of time, and, to some extent, this really does create an unhealthy relationship with time. And this naturalization of our current experience of time discipline is very much a project of capital which seeks to make the world we live in seem natural and inevitable and, therefore, the only way things could be, so it closes off other possibilities of a way we could experience time.

Tyler: So: we’ve examined how time discipline appeared relatively recently and how it is specifically linked with the emergence of industrial capitalism, but now we want to look at what this means for us in our present age. So this section’s going to be a little bit theory-heavy — bear with us, we’ll do our best to explain things. We think of our pay, currently, in terms of money per hour or salary per year, so time is a fundamental aspect of how we think about our work compensation. In Marx’s analysis of capitalism, like I mentioned earlier, the idea of time was very central to how it operates, to the very point that the value of commodities is actually measured in the amount of time taken to produce them. Marx located the source of profit in temporal differentials between worker and capitalist, which he called surplus value. So, in short, surplus value is the difference between the total value produced by a worker in a given period of time and the lesser amount of that value the worker receives as a wage, with the capitalist, obviously, appropriating the remainder. If you work eight hours a day, the value of your labour to your boss has probably paid your own wage by hour four, and the rest of the day, all of your work is now, essentially, providing profitable labour to them.

Joel: Has anybody ever heard of this before, this surplus value theory? It sounds interesting to me.

Tyler: Yeah, we should read more about that.

Kate: Guys, I’m hearing of a new scam where people hire you and they pay you less than the value that you produce for them. Has anyone else heard of this?

Tyler: I heard that they’re trying to just pay you the socially-determined of reproducing your labour, and then everything else after that, the capitalists get to keep.

Brendan: That’s fucked up.

Kate: Bro, that’s fucked up. So Marx really sees the class struggle over the workday as one of the key social antagonisms that exist under capitalism. So your boss — by which I mean the capitalist class as a social entity — is always trying to extract more time out of you, either through lengthening the workway or through intensifying the work process that you experience and that you participate in without having to pay more for it. So that would look like the intensification of warehouse labour that occurs in Amazon warehouses, where they are always trying to make their workers work faster and faster and faster and really gamifying that process without actually paying them any more money. So that is a way of extracting more time out of you. And another way they do that, as I said, through lengthening the workday, is just through stealing it, and wage theft massively outweighs, by any metric, really, any other form of theft. And that is when the boss functionally steals time from workers by doing things like not paying for overtime (extremely common), forcing off-the-clock work, not giving you your legally-mandated breaks for lunch, or simply by not paying the legal minimum hourly wage. Organized labour, of course, has always had the reduction of the work day as a demand, and the protection of things like overtime, off-the-clock hours, and legally-mandated breaks, but we have been stuck at this 8-hour day and this 40-hour workweek since at least the end of the Second World War, and there are a lot of indications that the amount of time we spend at work has been increasing — so that can be through those processes that I mentioned earlier, but it can also be through the increasing precarity of the workforce, where people are no longer working one job but rather cobbling together two or three jobs, and that means that people are simply spending more time at work than they used to. But the point I really want to make here when I’m talking about bosses and the capitalist class is that time discipline isn’t simply a problem of greedy bosses. This isn’t happening to you and to me and to everyone we know because we just have a bad manager, or because a certain group of people with identifiable characteristics are greedy, but because this time discipline is embedded in the logic of the capitalist system. It is a systemic issue, not one of individual bosses or managers.

Brendan: Just one other thing about class struggle over the working days — sort of mentioned that, after the generational struggle for the 8-hour day, that was sort of accepted as the standard in the advanced capitalist countries after the Second World War. And one thing that sort of happens in North America at that time is that labour, basically, agrees not to contest the labour process itself, right? And they agree that there’s these legitimate management rights over things like the actual intensity of work as opposed to the duration of it. And then, in the 1960s and 70s, during the great wave of rank-and-file movements in the unions and wildcat strikes and this sort of very intense wave of industrial struggle across the advanced capitalist world, that was one of the key issues, was actually speed-ups — because, in the last phase of the post-war boom in the very late 1960s and very early 1970s, the degree to which speed-ups were happening in heavy industry was just staggering. And there was a lot of resistance to that, even though it was sort of going outside the framework that the organized labour movement had kind of accepted for the previous few decades. The way in which capitalist production organizes time has a number of other ramifications, and the Marxist theorist Moishe Postone argued that a useful way to look at this is that, between pre-capitalist societies and capitalism, we have a shift from what he called “concrete time” to “abstract time.” And so, as we discussed — I’m not going to go through the whole historical example that he gives here because we talked about the history of perceptions of time already — but just to reiterate, in pre-industrial and pre-capitalist societies, the understanding of time was very, very different. Time was understood in a way that, again, he calls concrete, that it was tied to natural cycles, the cycles of human life, specific tasks and processes. Another point that he makes about that is that time, in this conception, is not an independent variable, but a dependent variable, right? That time’s sort of controlled by other things. The example that he gives is that, in both Jewish and Christian eschatology, the coming of the Messiah is not an event that occurs within human, historical time, it’s something that actually structures that. And even in classical antiquity and medieval Europe, the system of hours was actually variable; what that meant was that daylight and nighttime had an equal number of hours, and the length of those hours varied over the course of the year because the length of daylight and nighttime varies over the year. So this is very, very different from abstract time, in which time is independent of history, events occur within time, and time is divided into equal constant and non-qualitative units. And so he discusses a very, very early example of the creation of abstract time tied to an early example of the creation of capitalist wage labour in the way that we look at today in the textile industry in late medieval Europe. And this was one of the very first industries in which you had wide-scale wage labour, and in which it was possible to conceive of the productivity of labour — so, in this case, how many yards of linen or what have you a worker can produce in an hour. And so it’s only at that moment that a unit of abstract time becomes something that’s socially meaningful. And so we talked earlier about how time was used to discipline labour, but what’s also happening here is that time is now being used to measure activity. And this also has to do with, you know, expanding international trade in this period, in that factors like the duration of a voyage or prices changing over time became increasingly important to measure, you know. So you also see the spread of the use of clocks — first in European society, and then in other parts of the world — during this period of the transition to capitalism. And that, again, as we’ve sort of discussed a little bit earlier, is a technological change that has to be understood in its social context, that it didn’t really take off until the increased importance of commodity production, the increased importance of wage labour in the lives of more and more people, made that way of measuring time actually meaningful to them. And so he wrote that, in this process,  quote, “Just as labour is transformed from an action of individuals to the alienated general principle of totality under which individuals are subsumed, time expenditure is transformed from the result of activity into a normative measure for activity.” And so ultimately what this means is that our entire sense of time is regimented by the need to work in ways that produce capital.

Kate: I want to make a brief point here about the eschatological element of time that you brought up, particularly in the Jewish tradition — and I believe I mentioned this in the episode where we talk about the future — but this idea of living in Messianic time is this idea that we are living in a time before the arrival of the Messiah, i.e. each moment of time is a moment through which the Messiah could arrive, i.e. a moment through which things could change. So time is not a place through which the Messiah enters into our society, or enters into life, but time is merely the condition of not experiencing something or the experience of waiting for something. And that is how I understand Postone to talk about time as a dependent variable, i.e. it is dependent on a certain condition of life and of a certain way of living. And the second point I wanted to make was about how abstract time makes measuring productivity conceivable — and how this is a crucial way which is used by bosses to discipline labour — is that, at a certain point, the experience of labour was participating in a certain type of work for a certain number of hours per day, but, as we mentioned earlier, one of the ways in which more time is extracted from workers is through the acceleration of those work processes, and the easiest way for that acceleration to be measured is through the completion of certain kinds of activities which may or may not be actually related to the social function of your job. So it is a way of discipling labour, but it is also a really ineffective way of disciplining labour as opposed to what that worker is actually supposed to be doing. So, to me, its introduction and intensification since the 1970s is certainly a very neoliberal way in which productivity is measured and commodified through this abstract time.

Rory: So, one of the things that happens with all of this is the way that our time becomes more and more colonized by capitalist expansion; it becomes 24/7, in a way. So Marx points out in chapter 15 of Capital — the best chapter of volume 1, and also far and away the longest — that, under capitalism, machinery evolves from hand tools — say, like, a hammer — to simple machines that are basically ten hammers working at once to complex machines that bear only an abstract resemblance to the original tool, but they’re so efficient that they totally transform the productive process into something kind of alien to us, and it sort of subordinates human workers to its needs. And capitalism also does this to time, that it must transcend all natural barriers — like, for example, sleep — so that global capitalism is already functionally 24/7, but humans themselves are not, which becomes a barrier to further accumulation. So Jonathan Crary, in his book “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep,” suggests that capitalism creates a kind of eternal present that, quote, “24/7 announces a time without time, a time extracted from any material or identifiable demarcations, a time without sequence or recurrence,” end quote. So the period we sleep is, in a way, outside of capitalism, and, as a basic human need, it can’t be appropriated for capital accumulation because it’s not directly part of production or consumption — although it is part of social reproduction, which is a whole other kind of thing about how capital appropriates non-waged surplus value. So, unsurprisingly, the amount of time that we sleep, as the average North American, has fallen steadily over the past century. So, for capitalism, sleep isn’t really a natural thing, it’s a variable to be managed, a cost to be reduced.

Brendan: I just — when I saw in the show notes that the time the average North American sleeps has fallen over the last century, I wanted to cry. That’s, like, the most abject stat I’ve ever seen in my life. Just a miserable, miserable s—

Tyler: Yeah. I think there’s an interesting point here, which is, you know, in the early days of industrial capital and the era that Marx was writing about in Capital, one of the big focuses that he has in the book is that work time is completely unsustainable. Like, there are kids working 16-hour shifts three days in a row; people are being forced to work all through the night, have a couple of hours sleep, and then come back into work; and this is not only having obviously horrible effects on their health, but is just demoralizing the entire population of labour. And, you know, there’s all this organization of labour which fights back against this, which kind of gets us to the point we’re at now — or that we were at — which is the 8-hour work day, somewhat stable 40-hour work week. But that time of sleep is now kind of being recolonized by capital in these really insidious ways that the book “24/7” and some other other thinkers we’re going to talk about, where sleep is something we fought really hard to take control of and then, over the course of time — literally a hundred years — we’ve started getting back into an arena where capital can start to make hay off of that time, whether it’s you thinking about work or being stressed about work or actually selling you products, which you can see copious amounts of, trying to improve your sleep.

Rory: Yeah, so Marx had a lot of lines about that, about the small thefts of capital from the labourer’s meal and recreation time the factory inspectors designated as “petty pilferings of minutes,” snatching a few minutes — or, as the labourers technically called them, “nibbling and cribbling at meal times.” So —

Joel: Sorry, I just want to make a quick note here about similar processes that are still happening. Something I’ve read about in Amazon’s delivery centers, for example, is that you’ll get your 15-minute break, but you’ll be in the middle of an enormous warehouse, and it takes a solid 5 minutes to get to the nearest washroom or breakroom or door, and so to get to and from the washroom or the breakroom or the door is a 10-minute return trip, which leaves you with 5 minutes to play with. It’s a similar process for actually exiting the building and through security and all that, and actually getting a lunch break; it becomes impossible to actually take your time off in a lot of ways.

Rory: Geez, they could put the commuter algorithms to identify goods you could pick up on the way to the bathroom and drop it off and steal even more of your break.

Kate: Monkey’s paw curls one finger.

Tyler: Sounds like nibbling and cribbling to me.

Kate: What’s really interesting here is that time discipline as we know it created the barrier between work and life — and made it a very rigid barrier at that — and now capitalism wants to transcend it, to colonize more of the precious free time which we have won through struggle. And now it wants to take that, too. So production and distribution are restructured from mass-production, full-employment jobs — what’s called a Fordist form of production — this restructuring has occurred to turn into just-in-time manufacturing and precarious gig work. And earlier in this episode, I talked about how COVID-19 has finally, for the first time in decades, introduced slack back into the healthcare system to give it the capacity to prepare for a pandemic. What just-in-time manufacturing and precarity in gig work are about is optimizing this slack out of any type of system of production, manufacturing, and even employment. But it turns out that what is happening in these moments of slack is a) the capacity to respond to any kind of crisis, particularly when you’re looking at some kind of service delivery, but also what makes those jobs and that kind of work tolerable and what gives those jobs and that work rhythms that allow people to do them consistently. A really great example of this is call centre work, where, previously, what call centre work was like is, maybe every seven or eight conversations, you would have a really difficult call, but the majority of the calls you took would be simple things that could be fixed very quickly, that were fast to do. But now, those types of calls have been automated out of the system — either they occur online or they’re being taken care of by these robotic automated call centre systems — so every single call you are on, as a call centre employee, is an extremely difficult, strenuous call. So it has optimized all of the slack out of your workday. And that is a much more difficult task for a worker to perform than to engage in a task that has any kind of human or cyclical rhythms.

Rory: I worked at a call centre at the time when that transition happened and, previously, you would have time between calls, and then it was gone; it was just, after a call ended, it was like, bam, another call, another call. And it went from fairly easy stuff you could solve to being very difficult ones. And then, also, the company metrics didn’t change, so now you were taking longer to solve peoples’ problems, but the average they expected for a call did not increase, so it was just like cutting you out of the possibility of earning bonuses, which was part of their incentive package to get you to work harder.

Kate: There’s also this experience that we must constantly be available to work — you know, hustle culture, this idea that we must constantly be hustling, that everything we do must be in some way optimized or monetized. And, you know, when you’re precarious, or you’re a casual, or you’re an hourly worker, you know, every hour you’re not working seems like a waste of time, you feel guilty when you take time off, and, when you do things that you enjoy, our culture has incentivized the idea that these things should be monetized in some way, that they should be part of a personal brand which we are leveraging in some way to earn money. So it’s completely colonized any sense of leisure time that we might have had.

Joel: I just want to jump in here and talk about two books that I think are important and related to what we’re talking about here. The first is a book by Ivor Southwood, who wrote a book called “Nonstop Inertia,” and it’s primarily on the UK experience of unemployment and constantly having to prove that you’re applying for jobs so you can qualify for unemployment benefits, and the kind of very grim disciplining of unemployed people who are not actually working for a wage, but are yet still being disciplined around and being made to feel like they are not using their time appropriately or there is something wrong with them, which is obviously the natural explanation for why they don’t have a job. It’s a very good read, and quite short. Another book that comes to mind is by Barbara Ehrenreich; she first wrote a book called “Nickel and Dimed” about low-wage work in America, which is very important, but the sequel to that book is called “Bait and Switch,” and it’s about white-collar professionals and their experience with employment and unemployment, and a big part of the book discusses how unemployed people, particularly in this more managerial, professional class, are endlessly attending seminars and networking things and self-help — just consuming enormous quantities of self-help culture in order to try to generate the capitalist spirit within themselves to suddenly be employed again. And she makes this really interesting point, which is that if it weren’t for all these distractions that people are engaged in trying to summon, through mystical means, employment again, they might actually sit back and reflect on why is it that we have an unemployment rate that sits at whatever percentage point, and why is it that we have a built-in unemployment in our economy, and why is it that I have to be part of that unemployment or that reserve army of labour, right? Those are just two important books I thought we could mention.

Tyler: So, moving on from a couple great authors, we’re going to talk about another great author. His name’s Mark Fisher, and he’s written a lot of great books, but if you spend some time YouTube-ing Mark Fisher, you can see a lot of great talks that he’s given, and one in particular that I’ve watched a couple times, that I really enjoy, is called “The Cyperspace Time Crisis.” So in this talk, he explores the concept of cyberspace time and the crisis that we have relating to this. So cyberspace — which, if I’m not mistaken, was a term originally coined by the science-fiction author William Gibson — was supposed to be this emancipatory new realm where there was freedom and equality and no masters and we could all kind of get in there and be creative and do some really cool things, but — as Mark Fisher explains, and, I think, as we’re all very aware, as users of the Internet — this has just been turned into another form of control. So the ubiquity of Internet access has transformed our relationship with work and time discipline in a really obvious and important way, and maybe in some less-obvious ways, as well. So one thing to think about was: in the past, when Internet was first starting — Internet and cyberspace, I suppose I’ll be using those terms interchangeably — was really something that you had to go to. It was kind of a separate, cordoned, quarantine thing that you had to actually sit down, connect to your modem, and access the Internet. Now, with smartphones basically being attached to everyone at all times, cyberspace is something you actually have to opt out of at any given time. So, you know, a way to think of this is: in the past, pre-Internet — I don’t even know what percentage of people listening to this will even be aware of this time before the Internet, but — phone calls and letters didn’t really occupy space in our lives like they do now. Mark Fisher uses this funny example of, you know, no one was chasing around the postal truck trying to see, “Were there any letters for me?” But if we think about how we interact with social media now, that’s basically what we do; we’re just constantly refreshing, looking for interaction.

Kate: I have just a brief point here, which is: this idea of it being something that you need to opt out is something that I have experienced as a worker, which is that my smartphone is the phone that I use for work, but it is also the phone that I use when I am not at work for leisure activities, which means that I can always be contacted for work-related purposes, even if I am not in the place of my employment or not participating in activities that are related to my work. It is no longer a place that I go to, it is something that I bring around with me all of the time, no matter where I am, and I think this is something that is very common for many different types of workers, including casual workers who, like I mentioned earlier, always have to be available for a shift; it’s almost the intensification of that, where you can just, at the click of a button or at the sound of a notification, be doing work and be being expected to respond to that and expected to work .

Tyler: Yeah, I mean, there’s this real piercing of the veil between home life and work life, and you actually see articles like this all the time in the business publications where people are always talking about, and in a very pro-capitalist way, about how we should just be melding these two concepts together. Like, why should be any differentiation? We should work sometimes, have a home life, but it should be this really fluid process, which I think is really pernicious and ends up extracting more work and labour time out of people. So —

Kate: And this was actually a struggle of French trade unions — I believe a couple of years ago — was this idea that, when you’re not at work, you have the right to not be contacted by your employer through these kind of cyberspace or internet means. So you had the right to not be looking at email from your employer, you had the right to not have your employer call you on the phone, and that your employer doing those things was considered to be work and was considered to be overtime. But that was a significant struggle against, yet again, another encroachment of capitalism onto our time, kind of facilitated through this cyberspace that you and Mark Fisher are talking about here.

Tyler: Yeah, and actually an interesting jumping-off from that, as well, is kind of a mirror scenario of that happened in Japan, where overwork is such a serious problem in Japan that is literally directly being linked to early deaths  in many, many people in their population. Certain companies have had to actually completely ban work phones from being able to be activated or turned on or access your emails after your normal working day is over to try and combat this creep. So, you know, one of the things that we’re talking about is phones, communication, emails, social media, and that’s something that Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism,” which is, I think, a really evocative concept, and I think a lot of what we think of today when we talk about technology and innovation tends to get lumped into this communicative capitalism where the actual thing that you’re doing at — for example, on Twitter, if you’re just scrolling through tweets, writing a tweet, you’re being served ads — all of those processes that you’re engaging in, even though they feel like you’re doing kind of something fun — I mean, Twitter is hell, so it doesn’t feel like fun a lot of the time, but, in theory, it’s supposed to be, “Oh, I’m just, kind of, engaging with the world and my friends and people I like to read their posts,” — that’s all part of the process of these companies extracting value from you, and you’re not even really aware that you’re doing it while you’re doing it. You know, you can lie in bed at night, open up your phone, and there is just an ocean of things for you to consume. And they’re built this way, you know; developers talk all the time about how these things are actually manufactured in a way to make them addictive and to make it so it’s really hard to turn them off. This obviously impacts, like we were talking about previously, how much people are able to sleep at night. And then there’s this tension that gets explored in Mark’s talk about the infinity of cyberspace and the finitude of our lives. So we can’t actually process all of the information that is available to us, right? And we have this constant need, or feeling that that we need, to be consuming this: read this article, oh my God I was given these book recommendations, I have to read these books, and we’re always feeling like we’re falling behind. So Twitter kind of becomes this screaming, low-level panic, and is actually paralyzing and stealing our time even though this is supposed to be something that we’re doing in our off time. And I think, especially in this pandemic, right, we’re all on Twitter way too much and all of the time, and it’s just really awful.

Brendan: Just something about how social media and such sort of becomes a way of extracting value from you and you’re not really aware of it — I wish I could remember the title of the piece right now, but my friend Dan Joseph wrote a piece about this where he, basically, argued that there’s been a kind of primary accumulation that’s gone on where the thing that’s been enclosed, to use that analogy, is our attention, right? And that’s what these corporations are grabbing ahold of in order to extract value in a way that they hadn’t previously been able to do.

Tyler: Yeah, and the last point I want to bring up from this lecture is this really interesting example that Mark Fisher uses to kind of talk about how the work culture, and work-life balance, has really shifted in relation to the time that we have to just be still and think and be creative. And he uses, I think in a very Mark Fisher-y way, Mad Men — which is a TV show from recent past about, essentially, people working in the advertising industry in New York when that was a really booing industry — and Don Draper, who’s the main character, he kind of fulfils this role of this hypermasculine businessman, but he’s also creative, he actually comes up with the ads. And he has nothing on his desk, so his office is literally a bottle of whiskey and a blank desk; he has no computer, nothing to distract him. And what he actually spends most of his day doing is just sitting there, thinking and being creative, thinking of new ads. And this is kind of counter-posed with Peggy, who’s his admin assistant, who really wants to get into that type of work but can’t and is constantly having to do busywork. And Mark Fisher talks about how we have gotten to this point in the way our work lives are managed where we always have to been seen to be doing something productive. Even if what we’re doing is bullshit, we have to look like we’re being productive; we always have to have an Excel spreadsheet, or we always have to be composing an email or reading an email. No one is given the time nowadays to be Don Draper; it’s become something where the gender equality that we’ve seen in the workplace has not been, “Oh, more of the Peggys can be the Don Drapers and have time for creative freedom;” what’s happened is, actually, everyone is having their time micromanaged, so nobody has that ability to be creative and kind of have some stillness and quiet in their work lives. And, obviously, this also extends into our personal lives.

Kate: So, in a less theoretical sense — building on that idea of Fisher’s — what is happening to us is that we always feel pressed for time and leisure is something that we have to really snatch at the margins of our lives and are often conditioned to feel bad about and to feel guilty for experiencing. And that goes back to what I was talking about earlier, where even our hobbies must be productive or monetized or building our personal brand in some way. True leisure activity is seen as decadent and wasteful.

Rory: So, this current crisis really brings into sharp relief how fucked-up our relationship with time is. So, I mean, as we talked about, bosses expect us to work as much as possible, but when the crisis hits, we’re all laid off en masse, despite the fact that we need to exchange time and our labour power for a job to earn the things so we can survive. So one thing that’s also worth talking about, as we talked about with Marx and the idea of time and its centrality to capitalism: David Harvey, who is a scholar of Marx, also points out that the crises has no existence outside the spatio-temporalities that capitalism creates, so that capitalism must be constantly in temporal motion, and even a brief pause, which has been necessitated by a public health emergency, has thrown this whole system into profound crisis; that, you know, kind of on a personal level, we can pause and not do something, and we would think about, you know, you don’t go to a restaurant, you don’t go out as much, you’re actually saving money, but in the context of capitalism, any sort of pause is crisis.

Joel: Yeah, this crisis has been really phenomenal to think about and to witness. I’ve got a few things I’m thinking about a lot, so I’m just going to try to think them through here. The first is: the lost time is catastrophic, as far as capital accumulation goes, and we’re seeing that manifest itself in the mass layoffs that are happening, and in the stock market to a certain extent. Think about every menial job you’ve had and the manager that tells you, like, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean;” and then, just, everybody leaning is kind of what’s happening, no capital accumulation happening is kind of happening, and it is a phenomenal thing to witness. Another really interesting aspect is, just, the weird — because of the nature of the virus and of the pandemic, we have all these really strange time lags between when someone might get something, when they are able to spread the virus and contagious, and then when they are actually hit with the peak of their symptoms — it’s a multi-week process, it seems like — and then extrapolating that out as it ripples through an entire society just creates this, apparently, multi-month long crisis where work cannot happen due to the crisis. So both of these aspects I find to be really interesting, and I’m curious to see if any of you have any thoughts about that.

Brendan: Yeah, I think the last point about the temporality of the outbreak itself is now one of those things that we’re all either obsessed with or trying to avoid, you know, being too preoccupied with, and it’s constantly present in — and this is something that we didn’t really talk about — in the 24-hour news cycle that exists, not just on social media, but in traditional media as well. And so you have this thing dominating the news that none of us really have the clearest understanding of, but that we know has to play out in these ways. And there’s all these different scenarios that are being described in terms of the time in which they’ll last, and countries are being compared to each other on this temporal scale — I remember a few weeks ago, people were talking about how long it would take a given country to end up looking like Italy — so even though it’s all sort of hazy in the fact that most of us are not public health professionals, most of us are not epidemiologists, that we all have to be confronted with this entirely different dimension of time that has now started to kind of influence all these other things in this really, really dramatic way.

Joel: This goes for other crises that are on the horizon, as well. A potential part of a solution to climate change, for example, would be working less so that we get more leisure time instead of consumer goods that involve more carbon emissions. Dear friend of the podcast Jason Kenney says that Alberta is headed towards a 25% unemployment rate, a rate not seen since the depths of the Great Depression. A lot of people are going to have a lot of free time on their hands — free in the double sense of the word, in that it isn’t taken up by work or paid for by an employer. This isn’t another sort of appeal to a new type of time discipline, where we knuckle down and do lots of productive activism — although that’s also important — but it’s a challenge to imagine a new relationship with time and how that fits into a better society that we might want to live in. One of the oldest promises of socialism is that a hypothetical society organized by and for workers means that we would have to spend less time working and more time to do what we will. A socialist society wouldn’t just reduce the hours of the work day, it would also redefine our relationship to the time we are at work.

Kate: And by redinifing that relationship, that means that a) we wouldn’t be exploited for the benefit of a small minority, but also that we would have real democratic over our workplaces. And I don’t mean, by that, this kind of faux-democracy of voting for a boss every couple of years or voting in things here and there, but real collective democractic power to decide how work is organized, what is important, what matters, and what you want to spend — most crucially — your time doing. And, through that, our time would truly be our own, and we couldn’t be coerced into using our time through the threat of starvation or violence or homelessness which is currently how we are incentivized, you know, to spend our finite lives at work. And in a truly socialist society, how we use our time wouldn’t be policed by the real or self-internalized discipline of work. I mean, life is finite; it’s short and then we die. Do you really want to spend most of it at work? Capitalism is woefully unequipped to make sense of this disruption of time because capital is value in motion through time and we are, right now, seeing this motion come to a stop. So, hopefully, you, dear listener, are able to enjoy this current sense of concrete time, put away your clocks, and enjoy the natural rhythms. When the economy resumes, I hope we can all take up the practices of Saint Monday — again, the one Saint I will allow — and I think, to sum it all up, we will end with this delightful quote from Marx, which is, “For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Joel: In that list, I’d like everyone to tag themselves. I’m going to be “fish in the afternoon.”

Rory: I’ll be “criticize after dinner.”

Tyler: I’ll be “paint 40k models in the evening.”

Kate: Folks, you know I gotta be “rear cattle in the evening.”

Brendan: I really want to rear cattle in the evening, but I guess I’m going to have to go with — I’m going to go with “hunting in the morning.”

Kate: On behalf of everyone here at The Alberta Advantage, we hope you’re all staying safe and healthy and well out there during this pandemic. Take care, and we’ll see you next time.

All: Bye!

Kate: The Alberta Advantage is part of a loose affiliation of left-wing podcasts hosted by the bilingual journalism collective Ricochet, who you can find at Our podcast is primarily supported through Patreon by listeners like you. We use the money for equipment and other semi-serious pursuits and, as a thank you, we send out fun packages with grain elevator-themed stickers and tote bags a couple times a year. You can support us at Thanks so much for listening, and take care out there.

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