The battle against time

E.P. Thompson’s “Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” is an essay that cannot be easily shaken from one’s mind. It is piece that seeks to reveal the inherently oppressive nature of the concept of clock-time, and for someone who feels in a constant battle against time to make every minute as productive as the last, this revelation is not something taken lightly. For this reason, I feel it is necessary to relay my reading and thoughts.

Thompson’s work primarily focuses upon the synchronisation of England’s work-force in emergence of the industrial revolution. Prior to this, as he explains, much of the subjects of pre-17th century England worked and leisured according to task-orientated time. For example, the seafarers of Sunderland patterned their social time on the rhythm of the tides, as the islanders of Aran patterned theirs to the wind direction. This is a common theme throughout England and the world, with different cultures organising and patterning their social time in coordination with everyday tasks.

The general “working day”, contemporarily from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday has been given to us as the natural state of affairs. This exists as a specificity of capitalist history. Today’s dreaded Mondays would seem alien to those at the turn of the historical epoch, carried on somewhat later by independent artisan labourers, who celebrated ‘Saint Monday’ as a day of idleness and leisure (and often drunkenness) which often was followed by a celebration of, interestingly, a ‘Saint Tuesday’.

Saint Monday, in early industrial capitalism, represented one of the last remaining freedoms of the emergent proletariat following the enclosure of the commons. Early industrial factory workers, now forced to sell their labour as an economic necessity, were able to work to be paid per unit produced. This enabled the workers of the day to earn enough to purchase their necessities for physical and social reproduction and to work only when they deemed necessary.

The birth of the Fordist division of labour, and the synchronicity of the industrial age, went on a mission to condemn idleness to sinful debauchery and poverty, as Saint Monday was put against the firing wall. Clock-towers began to emerge in great numbers within the urban centres of industrial Europe. Employers began to utilise clock-time to micro-manage the time of their workers. Without fail, with the assistance of ‘knocker-ups’, the bells would ring-out to awaken the workers early in the morning and again to signal the evening curfew. Now, the workers’ time has become quantified and measured for exchange within the labour market. The metamorphosis of time to quantifiable value and, in effect, money, was fully set in motion.

Clock-time provided the basis for the synchronised working day, and the further exploitation of labour in the production of surplus, as the clock became associated with those who deployed them. As a developing cultural symbol of wealth and luxury, workers began to purchase them as symbols of class mobility or as material assets for future uncertainty. When the wealthy industrialists allowed their workers to wear their own wrist watches at work, clock-time was so engrained into the cultural-norm that they no longer had to micro-manage the time of their workers beyond the working day. Clock-time, through the wrist watch, now commanded its own authority.

As industrial capitalism matured there became a greater need amongst industrialists to accumulate as much as possible. To increase production, wages were reduced and new restrictions on labour emerged. As E.P. Thompson describes, the emergence of the Law Book of the Crowley Ironworks as an industrial manufacturers’ constitution coincided with the spread of the increasingly authoritarian nature of clock-time. In these works, Crowley describes the working population as “… the most abandoned and licentious wretches on the Earth” who are “drunk with the cup of liberty”.

Henceforth, as written and declared within the industrialists’ constitution, wardens began to monitor the activities and productivity of their workforce. Deductions from earnings, earnings that were already being reduced, began to be made for being at taverns, alehouses, coffee houses, breakfast, dinner, playing, sleeping, smoking, singing, reading of news history, quarrelling, contention, disputes or anything foreign to my business, any way loiter”. This gave birth to the worker’s timesheet, which required all labourers to clock in and out of dedicated work-time. This is the nature of wage-labour which is recognisable today.

The utilisation of clock-time as authoritarian discipline of labour was not only used in the work-place. As similar industrial constitutions spread, they began to become moralistic in tone. Pamphlets began circulating in industrial cities and towns, under such titles as “Friendly Advice to the Poor”, written by Reverend J. Clayton on request of the Officers of the Town of Manchester in 1775, condemning idleness and irregularity as immoral and shameful. Punctuality and idleness became rewarded and punished accordingly throughout society, including schools, as society became socialised to accept the authority of clock-time and productivity.

As the irregular labour rhythms of the pre-industrial epoch were replaced by the intensive, synchronised working day under the command of the attentive face of the clock, idle leisure became squeezed from private reality. Supported by the persistent regime of the protestant work ethic (interestingly, most protestant churches contain clocks themselves) and poor wages, private life was destined to be colonised by productivity.

An analysis of E.P Thompson’s historical development of clock-time reveals that the battles for labour should not only focus on the rate of wages, but against the utilisation of time itself.

Walter Benjamin described the events of the Second French Revolution, within his ‘Thesis on the Philosophy of History’, where “it turned out that the clock-towers were shot at independently and simultaneously in several places in Paris”. Was this committed in recognition of the authoritarian nature of clock-time itself? The answer to this question is lost to history.

E.P Thompson’s essay, for me, is more than just an interesting insight into social history. It has begun to influence me to lay down my arms in the battle against time and instead aim to resurrect Saint Monday as a symbol of defiance in the face of temporal-economic necessity.