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How to Breathe 1—Capitalism as Robbery

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By Camilla Power

We can’t breathe. We humans, the voice and breath of the planet as its most conscious living organism, we can’t breathe. We need to breathe. In and out. Deeply. Take the long view for our planet and all earth’s organisms. Panicking now would be a disaster. To return to a breathable rhythm, we need to decolonise time.

We are dazzled by constant brightness, rarely see the dark sky, screens flickering day through night as turbocapitalism never stops. When we evolved as hunter-gatherers, before patriarchy, our productive activities, joys and sufferings were aligned with the risings and settings, day and night, of sun and moon, and seasons turning. For certain, no indigenous people before being colonised ever used manmade months. They used Earth-Moon-Sun systems, aligning all social life to the cosmos, the tides, nesting and migration of birds, changes of the moon, germination of seeds and fruiting of trees.

The ultimate expression of white supremacy is control of time itself, through the Gregorian calendar which subdued cosmological and ecological time. Conquistadors and imperialist freebooters, venturing forth with express intent to rob, deracinated native modes of cyclical time, propagating in their place such peculiar concepts as time being ‘wasted’ or ‘spent’, that time was indeed ‘money’.

Capitalism as a system emerging out of this background of forced labour robs us of our time. As Marx said: ‘In the final analysis, all forms of economics can be reduced to an economics of time’ (1971: 76). How a society organises – and distributes – time reveals what it truly values. The more that any person has their time taken away from them, eroded and devalued by poverty wages, the greater the degree of inequality.

In Part I of this essay, I will trace a history of how tighter and tighter control of time, from hours to minutes to seconds, has led to ever greater economic exploitation.  In the second part to follow, I will ask how we could organise time in a way that would turn back inequality. What can indigenous and egalitarian societies teach us about the passage of time?

Imperialist time

The hourglass, sadly adopted by Extinction Rebellion as their symbol, started it. Church canonical hours, dictating the fixed times for prayers and activities in christian patriarchal orders, began to remove divisions of time from nature. In their ‘très riches heures’, aristocratic ladies followed the monastic discipline of time and motion through their breviaries, while the peasants who laboured for the feudal landowners snatched work breaks measured by a sandglass. As time grew linear, trickling forever between two bulbs of glass, ‘Tempus fugit’ – the idea of a shortage of time – impressed itself onto European Christendom.

European voyages of ‘discovery’ and exploration mapping out the colonial future depended on the hourglass. On Magellan’s circumnavigation (1519-22), 18 hourglasses from Barcelona were used to keep the ship’s log, keeping track of the hour in the home port against the local noon, the sun at zenith.

The Royal Observatory, built at Greenwich in 1675-6, established what would become the prime meridian, the imperial standard of measurement of time and space across the Earth. It housed the Astronomer Royal, whose express job description was to ‘apply himself …to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for perfecting the art of navigation.’ (Baily 1836: 293) Solving the problem of longitude – location from East to West on the surface of the earth – was vital to the voyages of imperialist exploration and conquest. Initially, a cosmological approach was taken, aiming to understand the errant motion of the moon and its eclipses, and tabulate this precisely. But by the 1750s, John Harrison’s chronometer, the marine watch H4, now enshrined at Greenwich, proved practical and accurate (Sobel 1995).  On his first voyage, James Cook used the lunar distance method to calculate his E-W position, but took K1, a copy of H4, on his later voyages and produced his famous charts of the southern Pacific, planting the first Union flag on Botany Bay, April 29, 1770.

Capitalist time

In his brilliant essay ‘Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism’ (1967), E P Thompson traces how and when clocks, especially clocks with minute hands, began to impact working people’s lives in England. This process was intimately associated with the onset of industrialization, and the accompanying enclosures forcing many off the land into the slums, factories and workhouses. It also lies at the root of our entire education system, indoctrinating children into ‘time-thrift’.

People working on the land could fairly well disregard clocks. Church bells chased them up in the morning, but so too did cockcrow. The natural limits of dawn to dusk gave customary expectation of what could be done in one day. Fishermen and sailors had to attend to the lunar rhythm of tides. But time was fundamentally ‘task-orientated’ (1967: 60), work being organised by what needed to be done in accordance with seasonal and organic rhythms. Task orientation involves least demarcation between ‘work’ and ‘life’; social life and labour run together; and there is little conflict between labour and ‘passing the time of day’.  This holds true above all for an independent peasant or craftsman. But as soon as someone’s labour is employed by another, a sharp distinction emerges of the employer’s time and a worker’s ‘own’ time. The value of time is monetized:  ‘Time is now currency: it is not passed but spent’ (1967: 61).

So long as manufacturing was done in small-scale workshops and ‘cottage’ industries with family members engaged in a division of labour, the socially flexible and irregular labour patterns under task-orientation could prevail (1967: 71). Many such workers had a wide variety of occupations and tasks:  Cornish miner-fishers; Pennine farmer-weavers; domestic workers who joined in the harvest. No single day’s work might look exactly like another, and much was paid piece-work.

Thompson pays particular attention to a traditional irregularity of the working week. If artisanal workers were paid for goods delivered by Saturday, then drank away the Sabbath day’s rest, they frequently treated Saint Monday as another day off (1967: 72). With a wage in their pocket, they were in no hurry to get back to work. This tradition of workmen’s autonomy was a major stumbling block for large-scale machine industry as factory owners and foremen tried to make sure their workforce turned up on time.

At the turn of 18th/19th C., Saint Monday (sometimes followed by Saint Tuesday) was observed among all trades: ‘shoemakers, tailors, colliers, printing workers, potters, weavers, hosiery workers, cutlers, all Cockneys’ (1967: 73). Thompson draws on diaries to show the frequently hectic pattern of the working week. Time off on Monday and Tuesday meant longer and longer hours towards the week’s end to meet contracted orders. Thompson observes that this work pattern of alternate bouts of intense labour and then idleness occurred wherever men were in control of their own working lives. He suggests it may be a ‘natural’ human work-rhythm.

But there were sexual conflicts entailed in the ways skilled labourers drank up their wages, voiced in the late 18th C. Sheffield song, The Jovial Cutlers:

Brother workmen, cease your labour,

Lay your files and hammers by.

Listen while a brother neighbor

Sings a cutler’s destiny:

How upon a good Saint Monday,

Sitting by the smithy fire,

Telling what’s been done o’t Sunday,

And in cheerful mirth conspire.


Soon I hear the trap-door rise up,

 On the ladder stands my wife:

“Damn thee, Jack, I’ll dust thy eyes up,

Thou leads a plaguy drunken life;

Here thou sits instead of working,

Wi’ thy pitcher on thy knee;

Curse thee, thou’d be always lurking.

 And I may slave myself for thee”.


Ah, the bright, fat, idle devil

Now I see thy goings on,

Here thou sits all day to revel

Ne’er a stroke o’ work thou’st done.

See thee, look what stays I’ve gotten,

 See thee, what a pair o’ shoes;

Gown and petticoat half rotten,

Ne’er a whole stitch in my hose.


Pray thee, look here, all the forenoon

Thou’s wasted with thy idel way;

When does t’a mean to get thy sours done?

Thy mester wants ‘em in today.

Thou knows I hate to broil and quarrel,

But I’ve neither soap nor tea;

Od burn thee, Jack, forsake thy barrel,

Or nevermore thou’st lie wi’ me.

While a workman still could apportion his time, a wife – household labours unpaid – had one weapon only: sex-strike. Women’s demands for cleanliness and respectable attire may have been one of the most important factors in promoting work hour discipline, and women’s complaints about their husbands are often posed against rambunctious male idleness. Rural labour, under the pressure of enclosure (removing access to common land) and agricultural improvement, was increasingly forced to greater work-discipline, or the punitive threat of unemployment, and the poor law. As Thompson recognises, rural labourer’s wives had the most arduous and prolonged working hours of all, including childcare, housework, domestic chores and work in the fields (1967: 79).

In tracing the transition from the ‘highly developed and technically alert’ manufacturing industries arising in the 18th C to mature industrial capitalism of the 19th C., Thompson takes an anthropological view that ‘The stress of the transition falls upon the whole culture: resistance to change and assent to change arise from the whole culture. And this culture includes the systems of power, property-relations, religious institutions…’ (1967: 80). Among the reasons why the transition was peculiarly protracted and fraught with conflict in England was simply that England’s was the first industrial revolution. There were no ‘Cadillacs, steel mills, or television sets’ (1967: 80) already existing as spurs to some Great British dream for the impoverished slum and tenement dwellers of Manchester, Glasgow or Merthyr.

Thompson inspects one of the oldest testaments to time-discipline, the Law Book of the Crowley Iron Works, dating to 1700. At the very birth of the large-scale unit in manufacturing industry, the owner of the ironworks ‘found it necessary to design an entire civil and penal code, running to more than 100,000 words, to govern and regulate his refractory labour-force’ (1967: 81). This had all the features of disciplined industrial capitalism – the time-sheet, the time-keeper, the informers and the fines.

A whole doctrine and propaganda of ‘time-thrift’ emerged, inculcated by religious and educational institutions aimed at ‘the poor’ whose ‘idle ragged children’ were not only ‘losing their Time’ but learning habits of gaming. Charity schools multiplied to teach Industry, Frugality, Order and Regularity: ‘the Scholars here are obliged to rise betimes and to observe Hours with great Punctuality’ (Clayton 1755, cited in Thompson 1967: 84). In other words, England’s education system was founded to train children to use their time for the bosses’ profit.

Thompson notes the stages of resistance to this ‘onslaught… upon the people’s old working habits’ (1967: 85). First came simple resistance. But, in the next stage, as the new time-discipline was imposed, so the workers fought, not against time, but about it. It was in the industries – textiles and engineering – where the new time-discipline was most rigorously imposed that the contest over time became most intense:

The first generation of factory workers were taught by their masters the importance of time; the second generation formed their short-time committees in the ten-hour movement; the third generation struck for overtime or time-and-a-half. They had accepted the categories of their employers and learned to fight back within them. They had learned their lesson, that time is money, only too well. (1967: 86)


Benjamin Franklin, regularly on time when working as a printer in 1720s London, gave full expression to the new capitalist, puritan ethic:-

Since our Time is reduced to a Standard, and the Bullion of the Day minted out into Hours, the Industrious know how to employ every Piece of Time to a real Advantage in their different Professions: And he that is prodigal of his Hours, is, in effect, a Squanderer of Money. I remember a notable Woman, who was fully sensible of the intrinsic Value of Time. Her Husband was a Shoemaker, and an excellent Craftsman, but never minded how the Minutes passed. In vain did she inculcate to him, That Time is Money… (Franklin 1751, cited in Thompson 1967: 89)


Hear the voice of the Complaining Woman again. Thompson summarises: ‘In all these ways – by the division of labour; the supervision of labour; fines; bells and clocks; money incentives; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports – new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed.’ (1967: 90) Through the 19th C., workers were incessantly bombarded by the ‘propaganda of time-thrift’. The leisured classes began ‘to discover the “problem” … of the leisure of the masses’ (1967: 90).

As documented by Marx and Engels, the original proletarian class struggle of the 19th C. took place on this battleground over time. Today, that battle has been transported to every corner of the earth, S and E Asia, Central America, the Middle East and Africa, the same patterns arising as people are forced off the land, which granted them a certain autonomy, into regimented factories. Listen to the words of an Indian woman worker, reported in November 2020 (Vaidyanathan 2020), from a rural South Indian factory scrambling to meet orders from fashion giant Ralph Lauren:

‘We’re made to work continuously, often through the night, sleeping at 3 am, then waking up [on the factory floor] by 5 am for another full day…Our bosses don’t care. They’re only bothered about production.’


Similarly, workers at supermarket suppliers (including Marks & Spencer, Sainsburys, Tesco) said: ‘We don’t get toilet breaks, we don’t get time to drink water on shift. We barely get time to eat lunch.’ Often forced to work overtime, and not allowed home until all contracted work is finished, these women were harassed and bullied under threat of losing their jobs. One objected, ‘they shouldn’t treat us like slaves…’. Conditions resemble modern slavery, with almost complete alienation of time. But rich first-world economies do not alleviate exploitation of workers trapped and intimidated into accepting less than the minimum wage, as witnessed by conditions in Leicester textile sweat shops during the summer of 2020, found to be rife COVID hotspots (Pittam 2020). In China, Uighur, Tibetan and North Korean workers forced into factories to meet vast emergency orders for PPE are treated as virtual slave labour  (Pattison, Bremer and Kelly 2020).

Meanwhile, the world’s original proletariat – English, Scottish and Welsh workers – have lost their jobs and former organisational solidarity in manufacturing industries that have gone global. Now they scramble for the crumbs of a post-industrial ‘gig’ economy. No longer clocking in by the minute, they become subject to intense surveillance as they try to meet delivery targets and times, with actions and GPS locations now recorded to the second. In this new order of time-and-space discipline every second is made to count by punitive fines and pay deductions when failing to get deliveries to the right addresses through gridlock traffic. Ken Loach’s film Sorry we missed you (2019) tells the story of a self-employed delivery driver succumbing to the stress of work patterns that lack any fallback for sickness, time-off or family troubles. There is no time to be human.

At the other end of the scale of casino capitalism, high frequency trading on the world’s stock exchanges now operates on a basis of nanoseconds, with investment banking and hedge fund manipulation and shorting of stock values at incredibly small fractions of time (MoonX 2019). The priority of these systems is completely given over to roller-coaster, algorithmic profit-seeking at the expense of any form of stability or security for producers of commodities or assets. ‘Securities’ and ‘futures’ become oxymoronic labels for complete insecurity of an unsustainable future. At the stroke of a keyboard in the London or New York Stock Exchange, livelihoods can be wiped out on the other side of the world.

This is the ultimate expression of capitalism’s control of time, triumphant in its ability to extract more and more value from tiny divisions of time, leaving a workforce (if lucky enough to have jobs at all) zombified and bloodless. Desperate to pay rent, on zero-hours contracts, the precariat lacks a pulse or breathable rhythm for human social life as our planet hurtles into ecological catastrophe.


Baily, F. 1836. ‘An account of the Rev John Flamsteed’ reprinted in R Walsh, E. Litell, J. J. Smith (eds), The Museum of foreign literature, science and art vol. 28.

Marx, K. 1971 (1857-1858) Grundrisse, trans D. McLellan, London: Macmillan.

MoonX 2019. High frequency trading races to nanoseconds. Jan 3

Pittam, D. 2020. Coronavirus: Big problem at Leicester factories, say workers. BBC News, Jul 7

Pattison et al 2020. UK sourced PPE from factories secretly using North Korean slave labour. The Guardian, Nov 20

Sobel, D. 1995. Longitude. Fourth Estate

Thompson, E.P. 1967. Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism. Past & Present 38: 56-97.

Vaidyanathan, R. 2020. ‘Indian factory workers supplying major brands allege routine exploitation’ BBC News, Nov 17


Camilla Power is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Dept of Anthropology, University College London, and was for many years Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in Anthropology at University of East London. Her research focuses on the emergence of symbolic culture – ritual, art, language – in early Homo sapiens. She is currently writing The Revolutionary Sex, on women’s role in human evolution. She regularly lectures for the Radical Anthropology Group

From: pp.3-6 of WEA Commentaries 10(4), December 2020

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