Time discipline and social networks as bridge to new forms of it

The Fast Capitalism article I discussed int he previous post directed me to E.P. Thompson’s essay “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (pdf). It’s makes for turgid reading, but it pays off in the last few sections.

Of note: He points out that the language used to sell the idea of rigorous time-keeping shifted:

There were a lot of timepieces about in the 1790s: emphasis is shifting from “luxury” to “convenience”; even cottagers may have wooden clocks costing less than twenty shillings. Indeed, a general diffusion of clocks and watches is occurring (as one would expect) at the exact moment when the industrial revolution demanded a greater synchronization of labour.

Time-discipline became ubiquitous, so it become “convenient” to obey it more perspicaciously — no longer a luxury of the master imposing discipline; the discipline became internalized and a pressing psychological issue for workers themselves.

In the second to last section, he asks a key question:

In mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to “pass the time”. But how far did this propaganda really succeed? How far are we entitled to speak of any radical restructuring of man’s social nature and working habits?

This is interesting in light of the supposed lax morals of, say Greece or Mexico, whose slack (from the point of view of industrial time discipline) workers are described thusly by one “engineer of growth” as Thompson derides them:

His lack of initiative, inability to save, absences while celebrating too many holidays, willingness to work only three or four days a week if that paid for necessities, insatiable desire for alchohol — all were pointed out as proof of a natural inferiority.

So is the price to pay for an orderly capitalist democracy the subjection to an intense and unpleasant propaganda about time-thrift and to have workers subjected to all sorts of scrutiny to prevent their shirking? Is that price worth paying? Should we envy Greece rather than regard them as Michael Lewis does as self-centered cheats who are incapable of civic duty?

Resisting time-discipline, Thompson argues, is always and everywhere a key site of resistance to capital, to the sort of subjectivation that capitalism imposes, well delineated in some industrial propaganda Thompson quotes:

Wilbert Moore has even drawn up a shopping-list of the “pervasive values and normative orientations of high relevance to the goal of social development” — “these changes in attitude and belief are ‘necessary’ if rapid economic and social development is to be achieved”:
Impersonality: judgement of merit and performance, not social background or irrelevant qualities.
Specificity of relations in terms of both context and limits of interaction.
Rationality and problem-solving. Punctuality.
Recognition of individually limited but systematically linked interdependence.
Discipline, deference to legitimate authority. Respect for property rights . . . .
These, with “achievement and mobility aspirations”, are not,
Professor Moore reassures us, suggested as a comprehensive list of the merits of modern man . . . The “whole man” will also love his family, worship his God, and express his aesthetic capacities. But he will keep each of these other orientations “in their place”.

These are the values Lewis takes as being basic to civic life — but that is only so in capitalist culture, where time discipline and wage incentives are all taken for granted. Duty becomes work discipline, not social life in the moment.

The problem of imposing time-discipline, Thompson notes, “may appear as it did in the early years of the Bombay cotton mills, as one of maintaining a labour force at the cost of perpetuating inefficient methods of production — elastic time-schedules, irregular breaks and meal-times, etc.” Hmmm. That sounds suspiciously like post-Fordist work arrangements that blur work and leisure and allow for more worker flexibility (and less employer responsibility for their welfare). We appear to be returning to a pre-industrial attitude about work and leisure, only without the life-skills to handle it.

One recurrent form of revolt within Western industrial capitalism, whether bohemian or beatnik, has often taken the form of flouting the urgency of respectable time values. And the interesting question arises: if Puritanism
was a necessary part of the work-ethos which enabled the industrialized world to break out of the poverty-stricken economies of the past, will the Puritan valuation of time begin to decompose as the pressures of poverty relax ? Is it decomposing already ? Will men begin to lose that restless urgency, that desire to consume time
purposively, which most people carry just as they carry a watch on
their wrists ?

If we are to have enlarged leisure, in an automated future, the problem is not “how are men going to be able to consume all these additional time-units of leisure ?” but “what will be the capacity for experience of the men who have this undirected time to live ?” If we maintain a Puritan time-valuation, a commodity-valuation, then
it is a question of how this time is put to use, or how it is exploited by the leisure industries. But if the purposive notation of time-use becomes less compulsive, then men might have to re-learn some of the arts of living lost in the industrial revolution: how to fill the interstices of their days with enriched, more leisurely, personal and social relations; how to break down once more the barriers between work and life.

I think social networks are fulfilling this function of helping people deal with the lost time-discipline — it preserves the urgency of time-discipline in the leisure/social sphere (consumption is already made urgent as work — the pressure for novelty, to keep up to be consuming as much as our time allows for and not miss anything, or waste any time not consuming commodities — that is, idling away and lazing about thee way workers used to, the dismay of social improvers/engineers of growth). Social networks make sure that behavior is still measured, monitored, and archived, while still absorbing free time once micromanaged by Taylorist bosses. Facebook is the new Taylorist boss.

It is the fulfillment of this:

If men are to meet both the demands of a highly-synchronized automated industry, and of greatly enlarged areas of “free time”, they must somehow combine in a new synthesis elements of the old and of the new, finding an imagery based neither upon the seasons nor upon the market but upon human occasions.

The social network is that new “imagery” — remains for me to explain that in detail I suppose.

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