Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism

As I type this up on Sunday morning, I realize the irony of my tardiness in regards to this piece.

Thompson begins by giving us examples of how time had historically been measured by perspective and a more personal context, such as the amount of time it takes rice to cook compared to the length of an Ave Maria. While reading through these first couple of sections to this, I seemed to hone in on one particular example Thompson gave from just over the hump of Middle English into New English, “pissing while.” Thompson calls it a, “somewhat arbitrary measurement,” but believe it or not this has been studied recently and the conclusion determined that all mammals take about 21 seconds to do their thing. Not making this up. So with that context, in my eyes “a pissing while” is approximately 21 seconds long.

But of course, with this, as with some other examples Thompson has given, there are variables that may alter the range of any unit of measurement, whether it’s the direction that the wind blows, or the amount of physical labor that an individual might actually be able to perform. This eventually evolves into the notion that time is money.

In this piece, Thompson explains how attitudes towards time have changed as our economies have shifted through and beyond the industrial revolution.

So how has time, or the way that time is viewed within our modern societies and economies shifted? Is the 40-hour work week still the norm? Should we shift to another format? Do experiments like those being carried out in Sweden demonstrate that it is time to reevaluated our work week or what constitutes enough time to complete our the tasks of our labor? Does it matter? If so how does it matter to you?


Thompson, E.P., (Dec., 1967), Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, Past and Present


4 thoughts on “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism

  1. Robert Robinson

    I kept thinking about all of the underlying symbolism in the film “In Time” with Justin Timberlake–yes, another futuristic take on a longstanding theme. I believe the adages of old still carry weight in a contemporary world, and with the ability to nearly-literally carry your job in your pocket, we see a negotiation of the public and private selves. The watch was the physical symbol of our industrial capitalist realization that we are bound by time–our mortality is before us. With this advancement in tools and machinery, we have taken on greater explication of that puritanical work ethic. We are always on the clock…at least in the “first world” (Sakina, I feel you). But I don’t know if we have fully divorced the selves (private and public) as in the earlier industrial capitalist eras. In fact, our hyper-productivity within this growing competition-driven culture has increased our compromises of time, which have thus induced compromises of self. “Working lunch” is not a foreign term, and time carries more value than ever before. Yes, there are exceptions, but the pre-industrial guilt and fear associated with the idle mind that spoke to an earlier generation of settlers still speaks with ever-increasing volume in our contemporary marketplace.

  2. Jojo Karlin (she/her/hers)

    Does my response mere hours before class reinforce your irony?
    The impact of “productive” work weeks has also been circulating a lot with the NYTimes article from earlier this week: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/a-toxic-work-world.html?_r=0. The shifts of labor to respond to need of commodities patterns our habits as it patterns our values. Thompson really does remind us the question of the reversibility of these functions (does the labor yield the product that we value? Does the value of the labor then only become as great as its products?).
    I’m not sure how we, as labor in the university, avoid being defined by those tangible proofs of the hours spent (publication? credits?). If these products are our means of attributing value to the hours we spend, how do we determine productivity? Is there another way? The question of labor (quantity and quality of) becomes of even greater concern in the context of digital work where the measure of time is more readily available and is inscribed in the very tools (come to my GitHub workshop!) and yet gives no indication of the quality of the work (tedious debugging/tinkering or monumental logical shifts).
    These questions just keep making more questions. And time is of the essence.

  3. Sakina Laksimi Morrow

    In response to your question, the shift in conception of time is a paradigmatic shift in what time means (ie. time is money) and to whom it belongs (ie. I am on the clock). The universalization of units of time, determined by an accurate and objective mechanism of measurement, allowed for a transformation in social relations that divorced the private self from the public/working self. This of course is not purely a techno-determinist view on industrial/post-industrial society, but also a dynamic inter-play with the social and cultural shift from a social organization based in small scale manufacturing to large-scale production. Steeped in the growing traction of capitalism both in it’s mechanical capacity as well as it’s logic of insatiable accumulation of wealth, the relation of the individual to nature, technology and society is shaped by an ideology of growth. The factory system, and later the cubicle configuration, are iterations of this logic/ideology. As Marx pointed out in “Machinery and Large Scale Production”, the imperative to produce increasingly more sur-plus created the conditions for exploitation in new ways; “The capitalist application of machinery on the one hand supplies new and powerful incentives for an unbounded prolongation of the working day, and produces such a revolution in the mode of labour as well as the character of the social working organism that it is able to break all resistance to this tendency. But on the other hand, partly by placing at the capitalists’ disposal new strata of the working class previously inaccessible to him, partly by setting free the workers it supplants, machinery produces a surplus working population which is compelled to submit to the dictates of capital.” In this schema, the role of work and worker changed drastically.
    The clock, as a lens through which the examine this change, captures the ways in which time was commodified through a process of disembodiment; the distinction between work and non-work took on increasingly more precise boundaries. The dis-embodiment of the worker into an object of the factory (an “automaton”)could better be facilitated through the mechanism of contractually making distinctions between private time and time on the clock, that which belongs to the owner. Language around time reveals the ways in which the analogy and reality of the clock captures the constant disembodiment of the individual within a work-setting, and the greater distinction between work and other areas of life.

  4. Laurie

    Thanks for getting this conversation started Joe.

    I found Thompson’s reflection on the connection between clocks, labor, and social life particularly intriguing. In a day and age when everyone has access to a clock (usually many of them!) it’s easy to forget that this was not always the norm. Our lives are now saturated with strong sense of time-awareness that regulates our daily life. It seems that before widespread access to and use of clocks, labor and daily life was less regulated by time. With the rise of industrial capitalism, the building of the railroads, etc., time became a commodity – something to be spent, not passed. If employed, our time becomes our employer’s profit and the distinction between work and life becomes clearly delineated and our lifetimes become subject to the employers rules and regulations.

    It seems that access to and use of to clocks started out as a status symbol while also advancing the spread of industrial capitalism and has since deeply entrenched the norm of regulated time. Desire to ‘spend’ our time wisely gets translated into ideas about productivity and “good uses” of our time. Wasting time is undesirable. And while machinery (i.e. clocks, computers) may produce a disciplined industrial capitalistic economy, at this point in time (ha) is it possible that machinery/technology has to ability to release our time from the employer’s grasp? With the ever-increasing ability to work from anywhere and connect with colleagues, are people increasingly able to use their time as they desire? Or does this ability to connect and work whenever, wherever actually further entrench a new form of industrial capitalism that requires the worker to be on 24/7, always producing?

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