Slaves to the Clock

As I have pointed out in previous reviews, Icarus, the New York film distributor, is far and away the most important source of anti-capitalist documentaries. In keeping with their commitment to class struggle cinema, “Time Thieves”, their latest, hones in on the ways in which the capitalist system makes us slaves to the clock.

When I worked at a Boston bank in the early 70s, I kept Marx’s words pinned to my cubicle wall:

The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.

–Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

At the start of “Time Thieves”, we see people of all ages at leisure enjoying themselves. After a minute or so, we see another cross-section of humanity trudging off to work or to school as narrator Sarah Davidson comments: “Under capitalism, time has become a resource with a huge economic value. And those profiting from it want as much of our time as possible. They even steal it from us.”

Director Cosima Dannoritzer begins by showing the chaos that ensues when a new restaurant billed as completely staff-less opens up. Patrons save money by preparing the meals themselves, going one step further than the automats that enjoyed a heyday in the 30s through the 50s. In the kitchen, it is a miracle that those conned into trying this out did not lose a finger or suffer third-degree burns. I say conned because we soon learn that a restaurant workers union staged the whole thing to illustrate the importance of having trained professionals doing the work.

While this is an extreme case, how far are we from Jeff Bezos’s automated version of Whole Foods when all you need is a smartphone and the willingness to do the work that clerks usually do but without pay? I got my first taste of this workerless future when I went to see Tarantino’s latest at a multiplex on West 23rd Street. There were only ticket-dispensing machines in the lobby that looked like ATMs. It might have saved me standing in a line to buy a ticket but I wasn’t getting paid for my labor, as minimal as it was.

This is probably the most innocuous manner in which your free labor adds to capitalist profit. The remainder of the film is devoted to showing far more sinister examples.

We learn about the long hours some engineers working for a Japanese company put in just to keep pace with their workload. The company only decided to take ease up when the employees came in glassy-eyed and groggy in the morning after putting in unpaid overtime through the wee hours of the morning trying to complete a project on time. To make them more productive during normal working hours, the company cut off internet access and electricity after 7 pm. This did not stop the workers desperate to keep pace. They brought flashlights and portable routers with them and kept going.

While engineers and computer programmers are notoriously gung-ho, other workers in more alienating occupations took other measures to get off the treadmill, namely suicide. The Japanese called this karoshi, or death by overwork. A restaurant manager forced to work 18 hour days could not take it any longer and jumped out of the upper story window of an office building.

We meet immigrant poultry workers in the USA who were in constant surveillance every minute on the job, including being seen on CCTV on their way to a bathroom, where their minutes were closely monitored. This was part of a production system that was engineered to keep both workers and the animals they slaughtered as tightly controlled as those in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, a film way ahead of its time.

To subject workers to the clock’s iron rule, it is necessary beforehand to make time-keeping itself an adjunct of the capitalist system. An hourglass is not suited to measuring activity in a 19th century Manchester textile mill.

Among the experts, we hear from in this eye-opening documentary is Robert Levine, the author of “A Geography of Time”. He points out that standard time did not exist until 1883. Different cities had their own timeframes. This did not matter much to those living in a particular city but as cross-country or cross-oceanic transportation systems became the norm as capitalism developed, it was an obstacle to predictable and efficient outcomes. In one case, a train departing from Chicago crashed into one departing from New York on a section of track that only allowed one-way traffic coordinated through telegraph communications. In one particularly bad year, there were 180 such crashes. As part of the film’s narrative power, we see archival footage of the aftermath of one.

Eventually, there was a recognition that time had to be standardized globally. The Eiffel Tower beamed a signal that the day had started at 12:00 am globally and local participants in this system recorded it on a “time ball” that was visible throughout a city. You can see still one at the Titanic Memorial, a lighthouse at the intersection of Fulton and Pearl in lower Manhattan.

Today, time management is done through atomic clocks that are accurate to the millionth of a second.

In Chapter 10 of Capital, titled “The Working Day”, Marx describes the importance of controlling the time workers spent in the hellish textile mills of his age.

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.

If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.

As the decades advanced from the time Marx wrote these words, the bourgeoisie invested heavily in “scientific” methods that could sharpen the fangs of the vampire.

One of the biggest breakthroughs was the time-clock that was invented only five years after the adoption of standard time globally. The two advances in capitalist control meshed together perfectly. Standard time made it possible to regulate global trade and transportation and the time-clock made it possible to regulate the human beings that produced the commodities that steamships and locomotives transported.

The bosses were always looking for ways to make workers even more like robots. It was up to Frank and Lilian Gilbreth to come up with methods that have become universal in mass production today, even to the point of making Amazon warehouse workers feel like they are in the 9th circle of hell. They were “efficiency experts” whose research into time-motion resulted in productivity gains for the boss even if it left workers with carpal tunnel syndrome, shattered nerves, bloody accidents and all the rest. The Gilbreths only hoped to reduce extraneous motions through ergonomically designed workspaces but the capitalists who introduced their methods never considered the need for allowing the workers to carry out a task in a reasonable amount of time. If you’ve seen Charlie Chaplin walking maniacally down the street with a monkey wrench in each hand trying to tighten the buttons on a woman’s dress in “Modern Times”, you’ll get an idea of the effects that time-motion studies can produce.

I am sure that if you see “Time Thieves”, you’ll be reminded of how these things come into play wherever you live. In the late 1980s, I made a couple of trips to Nicaragua to do a needs assessment for Tecnica, the technical aid project to aid the Sandinistas. If we set up a meeting for a ministry official at 10 am, we’d understand that they might be operating on “Nicaraguan time”, which meant they might show up at 10:15 or even later. They never apologized since that was the way things worked in Nicaragua, where time-motion studies, time-clocks, etc. never came into play in an agricultural society. Once the meeting started, however, they were as serious as a heart attack as Michael Urmann, the founder of Tecnica, used to say.

When I got back to NY, I reported to my job as a database administrator at Goldman-Sachs. There, time equaled money. I wore a beeper and got used to phone calls late at night. I could put up with that but I never got used to fellow programmers glaring at me when I left at 5 pm. Like the Japanese engineers, they had a can-do spirit that came with their identification with a company I hated. Leaving aside my feelings toward the company, I had been in information systems for 20 years at that point and had put in more unpaid overtime over the years than had put in as programmers. I was at the point in life when leisure time meant a lot to me, especially when it was devoted to recruiting engineers and programmers to work in Nicaragua.

In 1967, E.P. Thompson wrote an article for the journal “Past and Present” titled “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” that thankfully can be read here. It provides a sweeping historical overview on how we ended up on this treadmill.

To start with, pre-class societies had a different understanding of time that we do. The Nuers of Ethiopia, a nomadic cattle-raising people, have a “cattle clock”, the round of pastoral tasks that define their day. The Nandi people of Kenya, who also are nomadic cattle-raisers, break down their day into half-hours with 5-5:30 am understood as when oxen go off to graze, 7-7:30 am for the goats going to graze, etc. The Cross River natives of Nigeria were reported to say things like “the man died in less than the time in which maize is not yet completely roasted.” (Less than 15 minutes).

Fast forward to the 18th century and everything has changed, at least where the peasants have been turned into proletarians as a result of the Enclosure Act or, in Africa, simply forcing men and women into mines and plantations at gunpoint.

In England, it was where time thievery was most advanced. The man who owned Crowley Iron Works found it necessary in 1700 to write a 100,000-word in-house penal code to keep the workers in line.

From Order 40:

I having by sundry people working by the day with the connivence of the clerks been horribly cheated and paid for much more time than in good conscience I ought and such hath been the baseness & treachery of sundry clerks that they have concealed the sloath & negligence of those paid by the day ….

From Order 103:

Some have pretended a sort of right to loyter, thinking by their readiness and ability to do sufficient in less time than others. Others have been so foolish to think bare attendance without being imployed in business is sufficient …. Others so impudent as to glory in their villany and upbrade others for their diligence ….

To the end that sloath and villany should be detected and the just and diligent rewarded, I have thought meet to create an account of time by a Monitor, and do order and it is hereby ordered and declared from 5 to 8 and from 7 to Io is fifteen hours, out of which take i? for breakfast, dinner, etc. There will then be thirteen hours and a half neat service ….

Not much has changed by the evidence of the Amazon warehouse:

Amazon warehouse workers are forced to pee in bottles or forego their bathroom breaks entirely because fulfillment demands are too high, according to journalist James Bloodworth, who went undercover as an Amazon worker for his book, Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. Targets have reportedly increased exponentially, workers say in a new survey revealed over the weekend, and as result, they feel pressured and stressed to meet the new goals.

“Time Thieves” is essential viewing to understand how all this came to pass. Currently, the film is being marketed to institutions like universities and libraries according to Icarus. I urge those in a position to make such a purchase to do so since the film will be of great value to sociology and political science students trying to develop a class analysis of a society turned to rot. Perhaps the film will become available eventually on Ovid, a consortium of distributors of such films that includes Icarus. Ovid is a very reasonably priced streaming service for documentaries, foreign-language films and indie productions that would be of keen interest to CounterPunchers. I have reviewed many of the films that can be rented there over the years and couldn’t recommend them more highly.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.