Time and Capitalism: the Economics of the Clock

Instructor: Lygia Sabbag Fares
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Among the most profound ruptures initiated by the emergence of industrial capitalism was the rearrangement of our senses of time. Once tethered to seasonal, celebratory, or even cosmic temporalities, time in capitalist society was not only characterized by the regularity of clock-time, but specifically as the waged “labor hour” or work-time. Working-time has three dimensions: length, intensity and distribution. Without the ability to measure such dimensions in quantifiable and fungible units, the most basic aspects of capitalist industrial production—and much of the normative discipline of economics—would not be possible. As Marx records, imposing this sense of time even on a small scale was a difficult and bloody affair. Disputes about the workday were at the very roots of capitalist production. Labor-power is the source of surplus-value and of profits; the way to extract it is via surplus labor time. And thus, from the earliest days of capitalist production, there is a struggle over the length of the working day, over wages, over time and how it is spent. Walter Benjamin famously notes that in the early days of the July Revolution in France, “the clocktowers were being fired at simultaneously and independently from several locations in Paris.” This was, as he quoted an eye-witness, “the expression not of an aberrant notion, an isolated whim, but of a widespread, nearly general sentiment.” The languages of economics and everyday business build off these temporal units. From pre-Taylorist factory life to just-in-time manufacturing and shipping, changes in production systems attempt to overcome barriers to the maximization of surplus labor time. In historical and international terms, how do all three dimensions of work-time play out in different production systems and eras? What are the economics of the experience of time?

In this course we will explore the economics of capitalist time beginning with a Marxist theoretical definition of work-time and the production of absolute and relative surplus-value. We will examine the importance of such concepts to understanding capitalism in general and feminist approaches to economics and time in particular. Next, we will look at the work-time disputes after the Industrial Revolution and its focus around the length of the workday. Then we will turn our attention to how the economic and social aspects of the Fordist period, especially after the Second World War, facilitated even more precise standardization of working time patterns. Then, we will look at the trends around the flexibilization of working time driven by neoliberal capitalism in the formal workplace, at home, and in informal labor. What are the social processes involved in the establishment of the workday? Is there a general trend regarding work-time developments? If so, what are its driving forces? Are there cultural, regional, and national differences in regard to work-time? And in terms of development? What are the gendered dimensions of work-time and what is its relevance to the capitalist system? What are the racialized and colonial dimensions to a critical political economy of time? How has the temporality and discipline of labor-time been challenged? How does neoliberal capitalism increase and change work-time on a truly global scale? Readings will be drawn from: Karl Marx, Christoph Hermann, Maarten Keune, E.P. Thompson, International Labour Organization reports, European Trade Union Institute for Research papers, and others.

Course Schedule

Monday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
March 07 — March 28, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open

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