An Agenda for a Politics of Time

Pre-industrial European societies, for the most part, didn’t conceive of time in the abstract as a scarce commodity that indicated when to work and when not, but as an elastic measure embedded in social relations. The seasons determined work: as daylight waned in winter so too did toil. When spring arrived the farm tools awoke from their slumber in the shed and, with human muscle, greeted the soil for another season. As the centuries rolled on, merchants increasingly convinced the peasants to take in supplementary work and gradually the peasants emerged as proto-proles gaining skills and spending more time producing for a trader than tending their patch. Their new work, following their former practice, was not measured in equal time units per day, but was approached causally between days of idleness with friends and family, until the impending arrival of the merchant when, in a fit of feverishness, their order was completed.

When the merchants evolved into industrialists, cottage production collapsed and factories arose and the industrialists adopted the premise that time, along with their new wage slaves, had to be enclosed. They had to set the pace of work and the worker had to succumb to the domination of the clock and its relentless rhythm. Nothing indicates the defeat of the working class more than the insidious, and superfluously termed, time-clock, which when punched affixed an invisible shackle to the workers.

The labor unions endorsed this shackle when they accepted the state franchise to control the laboring masses. As Benjamin Hunnicutt records in Free Time the last time the US came close to reducing the eight hour day to six – to spread work around during the Depression – Roosevelt failed to sign legislation passed by Congress. Thereafter the unions, knowing the limits of their franchise, never again broached the length of the workday and negotiated over wages and pensions as acceptable gains from rising productivity.

Subservience to the ruling class and their control of production repudiates the vision Hunnicutt discusses of the “other” American Dream:

The most noteworthy champion of this other American Dream was Walt Whitman, who extolled the purpose of the American experiment to create a “higher progress.” Whitman envisioned American history as a three-stage phenomenon. The first stage was to wrest control of the political process, the second was to develop the economic engine as a basis for the last stage, the “higher progress” stage, which consisted of a free people molding a culture to reflect the best in themselves and their highest goals. It was in this stage that every village and town would have a vibrant arts community and an educational enterprise to rival the European universities.

Whitman’s last stage, the “higher progress” stage, required popular control of time – that is, the reduction of working hours – made possible by the gains in productivity of the second stage. The prerequisite of culture is time, which in turn needs a “politics of time” to formulate a democratic agenda to put production in the service of social goals, beyond the economic ones we are currently addicted to.

David Frayne in his new book The Refusal of Work interrogates the dogma of work:

In an age of material abundance, it seems that there is a troubling disparity between our desire for the good life and capitalism’s narrower focus on the constant expansion of production and consumption. What most people crave is more free-time and a greater investment in the social aspects of life, but a growing awareness of this fact has done very little to upset the mainstream political agenda.

Frayne interviews in the last half of his book a number of British work resistors. They detail how their lives have improved after reducing their hours of work or, in some cases, avoiding work altogether. What we glean from these interviews is culture creation on the micro, individual, level. Some write, others make music and all of them cultivate their unique creativity.

For decades Andre Gorz, a French intellectual, supported a radical reduction of work and agitated for a “politics of time.” Frayne conveys Gorz importance:

For Gorz, an understanding of work’s negative effects has to involve an appreciation of the broader ways in which work dominates our everyday lives. The forgotten struggle of the Left, which Gorz represents, is for the right of workers to lead rich and interesting lives outside of work. As a writer and social critic, his main commitment was to the right of each person to his or her autonomous self-development. (The Refusal, p. 35)

Reducing the workday is the reformist demand of a politics of time – the minimal program, not the radical program, not the revolutionary core of a politics of time. The core demand is to abolish work as the organizing principle of society. This means that while individual self-development is the starting point, it is not the end point of a politics of time. For Gorz the idea is to seize time precisely to question the nature of work and transform it, or abolish it, as the case may be. In other words, justice not economics matters. Gorz is explicit about this:

One of the functions of a politics of time is precisely to share out savings in working time following principles not of economic rationality but of justice. These savings are the work of society as a whole. The political task is to redistribute them on the scale of society as a whole so that each man and woman can benefit from them. (Critique, p. 191)

The goal is to create citizenship based on all members of society participating in the ongoing – and useful – work of society. If we understand that the really useful work would be reduced significantly, then we can see that an obligation to do that work would entail a minimum expenditure of time – Gorz speculates a few hours a week. For Gorz useful work would encompass the arts, today seen as superfluous, unless commodified, in total contradiction to previous societies.

Eva Swidler’s “Radical Leisure” in the June, 2016 issue of Monthly Review covers some of the same ground presented here regarding resistance to work and the fight to reclaim time. Swindler extends the argument against work by theorizing the psycho-social side of reducing the time devoted to work – what she calls “the leisure ethic.” The leisure ethic historically refers to the pre-capitalist practice, as mentioned above, of balancing work with time for activities with family, friends and the larger community. Swindler refers to a range of passive-aggressive actions that today she considers remnants of the leisure ethic – loafing, absenteeism, and addiction – that bosses would like to stamp out. I find it odd that Swindle, and Frayne, never mention sabotage as an effective anti-work practice and by far a more righteous weapon to support the leisure ethic.

While Swidler has no illusions about the feeble legacy of the leisure ethic in the face of capitalist repression and the commodification of leisure time, she does have an interesting suggestion on reviving it. Swidler notes the current interest in the commons and especially what she calls the “cultural commons” – “the elements of social life that we (often unthinkingly) share, from cuisine to language to street fashion.”

Swidler further integrates the cultural commons, and elements of it that resonate with shared political assumptions, to the public sphere:

Without vital public spheres and cultures, leisure is unattractive. . . . An alternate, collective, social world must co-exist with our work worlds, to provide an alternate home, an alternate web of connections, an alternate identity, an alternate constellation of values, activities, and purposes, even alternate markings of time.

Reciprocity, Swidler maintains, must exist between public spheres and a leisure ethic. In other words – “no time, no culture.” Swidler argues, as does Frayne, that shortening working hours will revive the leisure ethic, which will resuscitate the public sphere and subsequently expand the commons. But Swidler, unlike Frayne, stops short of calling for basic income. She falls back on the notion that the working class, as the inheritor of the 19th century struggle for the Eight Hour Day, is the sole source for demanding shorter hours today. It can be argued, however, that today’s working class little resembles the 20th century working class, let alone the one that existed 150 years ago.

Frayne, on the other hand, in his endorsement of basic income, seems to harbor no belief that the working class will carry this banner. He has a more diffused expectation of how basic income will be achieved. And being European, his view may be legitimate as basic income is moving into mainstream policy discourse across Europe – soon several countries will be instituting social experiments to develop policy proposals.

In the US, the idea of basic income is at best a marginal preoccupation of some Silicon Valley denizens, though recently Andrew Stern, the former president of the multimillion strong Service Employees International Union, endorsed it in his book Raising the Floor.

In Swidler’s perspective, mobilizing a social movement for the reduction of working hours entails a grand alliance between environmental/commons activists and labor. She has in mind for this alliance the Fight for Fifteen workers and their allies who are today’s labor movement. The details of how to turn around a semi-successful campaign for higher wages (and a demand capitalists are accustomed too) to one that attacks the very heart of capitalist control of the workday are missing from Swidler’s analysis.

Swidler concludes her essay by shifting into the high gear of radical rhetoric:

Whether that agenda is framed as a rational plea for a steady-state economy or as an apocalyptic battle against the cancerous imperative of growth, it must address the reality that the planet requires both a new economic system and a drastic reduction of material production, which means a drastic reduction in work.

This last statement is problematic given that the introduction of AI in manufacturing threatens to expand production with fewer workers. And if we believe the digital visionaries, production can be divorced from unsustainable growth using eco-friendly energy sources and recyclable materials, etc. Notwithstanding, employment will continue to decline while population grows, at least for a few decades according to recent projections. The enormity of the project Swidler outlined here demands a perspective beyond the hope that environmentalists recognize the history of labor’s resistance to work. Earlier in her essay, she castigates academics for ignoring work resistance and, importantly, for their failure –

. . . to appreciate the necessity of an ongoing community outside the workplace to advance an alternative to a world consumed by work. Rarely experiencing membership in such an external community themselves, they cannot imagine its centrality to breaking the stranglehold of laboring.

Swidler doesn’t expand this reference later in her essay and we are left to think that she is referring to pre-figurative models of cultural creation that struggle to survive on the fringes of modern capitalism. A recent report on such a model in Washington, D.C., and its fight against gentrification, seems to reflect Swidler’s notion of an “ongoing community outside of the workplace.” It is perfectly reasonable to say that this project – to create a grassroots music school – is an effort by the working class to expand its creative potential beyond the workplace. However, this and a multitude of similar projects are not focused on direct workplace agitation. The residents of D.C. developing their venue for music don’t appear to identify as workers (or as “cultural workers”) but as musicians, as artists. They are similar in this respect to those work resistors Frayne interviews.

Class society is the context in which efforts to develop cultural commons takes place and if we recognize that that reality is submerged when protagonists assume roles that traditionally privilege individuals as painters, as musicians or as authors, then we need to rethink class structure. How do we situate marginally “professional” artists within today’s class structure?

Guy Standing, author of The Precariat Charter, refers to a growing category of the proletariat working precariously (part-time, full-time but w/o a contract, free-lancing, hustling contraband and so forth) as the precariat. The precariat encompasses most of the bullshit jobs that David Graeber rants against even though that category extends to many relatively secure professional positions or salaried jobs. And the precariat applies to immigrant labor, though their legal status puts them in an ultra-precarious situation.

The point of reconfiguring the class structure for the 21st century is to clarify which part of the working population is most amenable to radically resisting work, most willing to go beyond simply shortening hours (this is the sector already doing part-time work at probably several locations), the sector most attuned to environmental degradations, most suspicious of electoral efforts and most involved in volunteer work. This is the precariat. This therefore is the sector of the “working class” most receptive to reviving Swidler’s leisure ethic. But what is the program that creates a grand front for radical leisure?

The over-riding demand of a politics of time, as we have seen, is to separate income from jobs by instituting universal basic income. In terms of strategy, however, the precariat needs to gain control of labor just as the industrial workers intended to do by forming labor unions. (That promise was betrayed by union leaders who pursued “business unionism” and upended by capitalists who globalized the workforce in a race to the bottom.) Today, gaining control of labor may be accomplished by adopting a version of the old union practice of hiring halls. The building trades still have these, as do some hotel worker unions. And this is the strategy of work centers where hiring takes place under the supervision of the workforce. A new strategy to seize privatized platforms like Uber and Mechanical Turk by cooperative structures follows this same course – the workforce controls the job assignments by controlling the platform.

Frayne concludes his book by asserting the positive benefits of utopianism:

The point of utopian thinking is to remind us that there are always ways of doing things differently; it prompts us to assemble something new out of a crisis instead of seeking ever more absurd ways of accommodating social problems within the present system. (The Refusal, p. 235)

So, imagining an utopian scenario, what if the centralized “hiring halls” expanded to accommodate a range of job assignments for non-profits to tech companies, shifting the balance of employment rights from the boss to the worker? If everyone had at least a modest income to meet basic needs, this power shift could possible. And to continue our utopian musings, what if the “hiring halls” also functioned as communities of opposition where solidarity becomes incorporated into everyday life, as distinct from work places where bosses attempt to isolate workers and micro-manage their workday? For instance, during the day the “hiring halls” could serve the needs of employment and at night they could become schools, theaters or dining halls.

The first step in gaining control of work time is to set the standards for the work to be done and the second step is to form a practical structure that gains power for the powerless and the third step is to develop a leisure ethic by forming alliances with like-minded folks who are developing alternative projects in other social arenas. That’s the agenda for a politics of time.

Bernard Marszalek, editor of The Right to be Lazy (AK PRESS) can be reached at He was a member of a worker cooperative for seventeen years. Essays at