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Enclosing Time


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The theory that ‘Time is Money’ has a pervasive
grip on the world. C Douglas Lummis traces its origins
back to its patron saint – old Ben Franklin.

Enclosure Then and Now
In his The Needs of Strangers, Michael Ignatieff borrows from Shakespeare the notion of ‘the heath’. The heath is wildness itself, the fearsome place where all security ends, the right place for Lear to go mad. In Shakespeare’s time, he says, this ‘no-man’s land’ ‘began where the line of enclosed fields ended’.

‘The heath was the huge expanse of England beyond the reach of enclosing agriculture and the centralizing state, a realm of wild growth and darkness without patrols or police, kings’ highways or lights [sic].’

If someone were to describe, say, the Canadian Rockies in this fashion you could be pretty sure you were dealing with a case of nature paranoia. But in addition to fear of wildness, these sentences also demonstrate the power of a fixed idea to crowd factual knowledge out from one’s consciousness. For surely Ignatieff knows that what lay outside the enclosed land was not wild chaos and madness, but the commons. This was not ‘no-man’s land’, but was populated by many small-holders, subsistence farmers and masterless men and women, ‘living out of sight and out of slavery’ (according to Winstanley, the anti-slavery campaigner). The commons was not a place devoid of order, rights or reason: it was a place whose social order and system of rights – including common rights of ownership – interfered with the newly expanding money economy. Not only that, but the people’s ideas (not ideas in the mind, but ideas that shaped daily life) of what work is and what a worker is, of the relation between work and need, work and nature, work and time, were also obstacles to the establishment of a money economy. Enclosure – called ‘a plain enough case of class robbery’ (historian EP Thompson) and ‘a revolution of the rich against the poor’ (commentator Karl Polanyi) – was first of all the expropriation of the commons into the hands of the future capitalist class. It was at the same time the transformation of those lands from something which could not be exchanged for money into something that could. And as Marx pointed out, this ‘primitive accumulation’ not only gave the new class the wherewithal to get its start in business but also, by ‘divorcing the producer from the means of production’, left the producer no way to continue other than to work for wages on a plantation or in a factory owned by another.

This ‘revolution against the poor’ also destroyed a certain mode of work and of experiencing time, both of which had been derived from nature. It supplanted them with modes of work and time derived from the machine. More accurately, enclosure began a long, brutal process of forcing through this change which continues today. I will return to this point. I mention Ignatieff’s otherwise forgettable essay because it quite wonderfully shows the deep-structure connection between pre-capitalist enclosure, post-World War Two ‘development of underdeveloped countries’ (today popularly called ‘globalization’), and the post-Cold War ideology of ‘humanitarian intervention’. For Ignatieff argues that still today we are faced with a ‘heath’. Guess where:

‘Take one step outside our zone of safety – the developed world – and there they are, hands outstretched, gaunt, speechless [sic] or clamouring in the zone of danger. Think of the millions upon millions of hands outstretched to receive milk from the pitchers, the cup of grain from the sacks that come from the rich countries. Their states are unable to feed them; their tribes have been smashed by famine; they are on the heath.’

The Chinese character for ‘work’ is a combination of the characters for ‘human being’ and ‘motion’

His solution? Enclosure.

‘The heath must be plowed up, put under the sovereignty of a nation armed and capable of protecting its people.’

Again Ignatieff’s fascination with his image has driven the historical record from his mind, for one can be sure that wherever in the world there are people in a condition resembling that which he describes, there the plow has already been clanking through many times, ripping up not only culture, custom and tradition but also natural landscapes that once supported the livelihoods of those people. Whoever heard of sending a plow as a cure for uprootedness – especially when it is the same plow that did the uprooting? But we can thank Ignatieff for reminding us of the smoke screen under which enclosure still hides – ‘we bring order to chaos, law to the lawless, rights to the rightless, work to the indigent, etc.’ It is no surprise that since writing this essay Ignatieff has become one of the chief liberal apologists for humanitarian intervention – a real bleeding-heart warmonger.

Work, Time and Nature
As Marx wrote, and as he knew from many contemporary accounts dating back at least to Thomas More, enclosure ‘conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital, and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians’. In short, produced a ‘heath’. In doing this it destroyed – destroys – an entire mode of living and working.

The Chinese character for ‘work’ is a combination of the characters for ‘human being’ and ‘motion’. Work is the quintessential human motion, the activity by which humans create a world for themselves out of nature, and thereby create themselves out of nature. It seems a misuse of words to call any form of work ‘natural’, for what then could ‘artificial’ mean, if not ‘produced by work’? But there is a form of work that finds its rhythms, its methods and its limits in nature. If one is working with wood, one is guided as to what can and cannot be done by the characteristics of the material, by its strengths and weaknesses, by the way it responds to tools. And if you are making, say, a chair, there comes a time when the job is done. It is the same with pottery, weaving, blacksmithing and the other crafts.

Especially in the case of farming, as the ancient wisdom teaches: ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven’: a time to plow, a time to plant, a time to harvest, a time to rest, a time to feast and enjoy the fruits of your labor. For both farmers and craftspeople, time – the time of their days, the time of their years, the time of their lives – is measured out largely, but not entirely, by the rhythm and order of work, which in turn is rooted in the rhythms of nature.

According to Lewis Mumford, the elements of the modern factory system are first seen in the mines of the Middle Ages – the first time people literally stepped outside the biosphere to do work. Here, where there are no seasons, no day and no night, one finds artificial lighting, forced ventilation, carts on rails for wheeling out the product, 24-hour operation, and wage labor. The factory is a mine; it establishes the mine’s un-earthly system of labor above ground, inside the biosphere but equally cut off from its rhythms and strictures. Enclosure not only detaches man and woman and their work from the natural world and reorganizes them in the factory (and office), it also detaches time from nature and attaches it to the machine. Where once one knew the hour by looking at the sun and the day by looking at the moon, now the wage worker knows the day, hour, minute and second by watching the clock.

The Franklin Theory of Relativity
When I first came to live in Japan in 1961, people who arrived 15 or 20 minutes late to an appointment would laugh and say: ‘Well, I’m on Japanese time.’ That was before the great surge of economic growth of the 1960s; nobody says it anymore, and few remember that the expression ever existed. Probably every country had a similar joke during the period when it was being forced to shift from nature-based time to parsimonious, second-squeezing industrial time; what might be called Franklin Time.

Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Time is Money’ is a theory of relativity that has had far more import for our daily lives than ‘Matter is Energy’. This brilliant, pithy maxim projects a world in which the notion that ‘there is... a time for every purpose under heaven’ becomes nonsense at best and shirking at worst. Franklin time is not for ‘every purpose’, but only for one. Time is exchangeable for money; it is a commodity like shoes or soap and using it for any other purpose is as wasteful as throwing shoes or soap in the dump rather than putting them on the market.

If you are making a chair there is a time when the job is done, but if the game is to exchange time (your lifetime) for money, there is no such thing as ‘done’. Money in principle knows no limit: two dollars has twice the value of one, ten dollars ten times the value, a hundred dollars a hundred times the value, and so on to infinity. As to chairs, a few chairs in the house have great use value, but doubling the number would not double that value, and a hundred chairs would make most houses unlivable. But if you mean to exchange your chairs for money, then the more you have the better, up to what the market will bear. Similarly with time: it is natural and good to use some of your time for work and some for the other things of life; but if time is money, ie if time’s only value is its exchange value, then the principle of money – the principle of limitlessness – comes back to apply to time. There is no longer any limit to the amount of time one should ‘spend’ (as the saying goes) working or preparing to work, or training for work, or improving one’s health for the sake of work. Any time applied to some other purpose, or to no particular purpose, is wasted. Which brings us to the first corollary to Franklin’s Relativity Theory: Idleness is Guilt.

Of course the workaholic personality takes its form in this environment, but this is not just a matter of workaholics. When the principle Time is Money comes to dominate the working time of a society it dominates the non-working time as well. It is a standard by which all human activities – all expenditures of time – can be evaluated and judged as useful or useless. It is no longer one way to think of time or one way to use time it is time itself. The anarchist (made famous by Conrad’s The Secret Agent) who, some 100 years ago, tried to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in London because he thought he could destroy industrial civilization by blowing up Universal Time, was surely mad; but he was also on to something.

Yes, Mr Ignatieff, globalization is the last, or anyway the most recent, stage of enclosure, and humanitarian intervention is its police. Now, as then, the commons is a barrier to free trade, subsistence farming is a barrier to free trade, folk medicine is a barrier to free trade (until you can get the folk medicines patented in Washington DC) and time that is not exchangeable for money is a barrier to free trade. Trade liberalization requires not only that land, labor, craft and custom be transformed into commodities: time also must be transformed into a commodity, liberated for trade. Global trade liberalization aims at spreading to every nook and cranny of the earth the situation that already exists in the overdeveloped societies, where all memory of other forms of time has been erased, and there is nothing left but to haggle about the price: ‘How much per hour?’

C Douglas Lummis teaches in Japan and is
the author of Radical Democracy published by
Cornell University Press, 1997.

Hours are long for the women in Tamil Nadu’s textile trade – the factory as a work site pulls time out of nature.
Photo: Ron Giling / Still Pictures

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