Maybe it’s because I’m finally going on vacation that I can’t help thinking about time, or rather the lack of it, the crazy speed-up of American life. In 1993 economist Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure pointed to this pervasive problem, which, if anything, is only getting worse, at least for those who still have jobs.
The ‘Take Back Your Time Day’ organization (www.timeday.org) estimates that on average Americans work nearly nine full weeks or 350 hours longer than their peers in Western Europe. Working Americans average a little over two weeks of vacation a year, Europeans five-six. Among the demands of the Take Back Your Time movement are three weeks minimum annual paid leave for all American workers.
Why are Americans working such grueling hours? The decline of labor unions is surely a factor, but as Teresa Brennan argues in Globalization and its Terrors: Daily Life in the West, the theft of time is a structural condition of capitalist globalization. There is an ongoing tension, she writes, “between the speed of production and the way that the reproduction of natural resources, including labor-power, cannot keep pace with that speed.”
The costs of reproducing labor power through investments in health, education and social welfare become a “drag on the speed with which profits could be made.” Capitalism tries to resolve this tension by substituting speed and space for the time it takes to regenerate people and things, moving elsewhere after exhausting local resources.
Meanwhile, the mounting technological speed of production leads to what Brennan calls “bioderegulation.” “The faster the machine can go, the greater the temptation to make all components of production (including human labor) perform at the same pace.” In trying to keep up with this speed, the mind/body problem becomes a problem of the mind telling the body to “deregulate” – to go without adequate sleep, nutrition, and leisure. The result is psychological stress and stress-related illnesses, and the breakdown of community.
In my own life, it is the computer, especially the growing importance of e-mail, which is the main instrument of bioderegulation. Yes, of course, e-mail is a powerful political organizing and communication tool and I can and do sing its praises, but it is a major source of speed-up and it easily erodes the boundaries between work and home, work and leisure.
It is fast and getting faster, and it is a struggle to keep up. There is no sense of completion at the end of the day. Do I think better because of it? Probably not. It eats away at the time I used to take for critical reading and reflection, or to go out with a friend or colleague for a cup of coffee and maybe or maybe not come up with some new actions or ideas.
Even the coffee shop has been transformed into an internet cafÃ©. Cyberspace may be a new public space we should lay claim to, but it hardly substitutes for the old ones – for the cafÃ© and the pub, the park and the plaza, the neighborhood street.
‘Bioderegulation’ and speed-up can also have problematic effects on the way we do politics:
” They intensify the ubiquitous burn-out suffered by political activists. In the women’s health circles where I work there is a constant joke that our own physical and psychic health is the last thing on the agenda.
” They reinforce the culture of guilt. If you are not stressed out, then you must be a laggard – frenzied overwork is a badge of honor rather than a signal of distress.
” They diminish the capacity for tolerance, patience and generosity, the social glue necessary to build personal relationships that will endure through the ups and downs of political struggle. In the mad rush, the rush makes us mad.
” They make political spaces inaccessible. It is often difficult for people with disabilities, parents with young children, and older people to keep up with the harried, breathless pace of nonstop political work in which there is no space for rest or fun. Political activists need to regenerate too.
If we want to model a different way of living, an alternative to the terrors of globalization Brennan describes, then we are going to have to take back our own time as well as put time firmly on the progressive agenda. If I have time, I’m going to think about that on holiday.
— Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and a writer and activist in the women’s health movement.