First published in War Commentary - For Anarchism mid-march
In no characteristic is existing society in the West so sharply distinguished
from the earlier societies, whether of Europe or the East, than in its
conception of time. To the ancient Chinese or Greek, to the Arab herdsman
or Mexican peon of today, time is represented in the cyclic processes of
nature, the alternation of day and night, the passage from season to season.
The nomads and farmers measured and still measure their day from sunrise
to sunset, and their year in terms of the seedtime and harvest, of the
falling leaf and the ice thawing on the lakes and rivers. The farmer worked
according to the elements, the craftsman for so long as he felt it necessary
to perfect his product. Time was seen in a process of natural change, and
men were not concerned in its exact measurement. For this reason civilizations
highly developed in other respects had the most primitive means of measuring
time, the hour glass with it's trickling sand or dripping water, the sundial,
useless on a dull day, and the candle or lamp whose unburnt remnant of
oil or wax indicated the hours. All these devices where approximate and
inexact, and were often rendered unreliable by the weather or the personal
laziness of the tender. Nowhere in the ancient or medieval world were more
than a tiny minority of men concerned with time in the terms of mathematical
Modern, Western man, however lives in a world which runs according to
the mechanical and mathematical symbols of clock time. The clock dictates
his movements and inhibits his actions. The clock turns time from a process
of nature into a commodity that can be measured and bought and sold like
soap or sultanas. And because, without some means of exact time keeping,
industrial capitalism could never have developed and could not continue
to exploit the workers, the clock represents an element of mechanical tyranny
in the lives of modern men more potent than any individual exploiter or
any other machine. It is valuable to trace the historical process by which
the clock influenced the social development of modern European civilization.
It is a frequent circumstance of history that a culture or civilization
develops the device which will later be used for its destruction. The ancient
Chinese, for example, invented gunpowder, which was developed by the military
experts of the West and eventually led to the Chinese civilization itself
being destroyed by the high explosives of modern warfare. Similarly, the
supreme achievement of the ingenuity of the craftsmen in the medieval cities
of Europe was the invention of the mechanical clock, which, with it's revolutionary
alteration of the concept of time, materially assisted the growth of exploiting
capitalism and the destruction of medieval culture.
There is a tradition that the clock appeared in the eleventh century,
as a device for ringing bells at regular intervals in the monasteries which,
with the regimented life they imposed on their inmates, were the closest
social approximation in the middle ages to the factory of today. The first
authenticated clock, however, appeared in the thirteenth century, and it
was not until the fourteenth century that clocks became common ornaments
of the public buildings in the German cities.
These early clocks, operated by weights, were not particularly accurate,
and it was not until the sixteenth century that any great reliability was
obtained. In England, for instance the clock at Hampton Court, made in
1540, is said to have been the first accurate clock in the country. And
even the accuracy of the sixteenth century clocks are relative, for they
were only equipped with hour hands. The idea of measuring time in minutes
and seconds had been thought out by the early mathematicians as far back
as the fourteenth century, but it was not until the invention of the pendulum
in 1657 that sufficient accuracy was attained to permit the addition of
a minute hand, and the second hand did not appear until the eighteenth
century. These two centuries, it should be observed, were those in which
capitalism grew to such an extent that it was able to take advantage of
the industrial revolution in technique in order to establish its domination
The clock, as Lewis Mumford has pointed out, represents the key machine
of the machine age, both for its influence on technology and its influence
on the habits of men. Technically, the clock was the first really automatic
machine that attained any importance in the life of men. Previous to its
invention, the common machines were of such a nature that their operation
depended on some external and unreliable force, such as human or animal
muscles, water or wind. It is true that the Greeks had invented a number
of primitive automatic machines, but these where used, like Hero's steam
engine, for obtaining 'supernatural' effects in the temples or for amusing
the tyrants of Levantine cities. But the clock was the first automatic
machine that attained a public importance and a social function. Clock-making
became the industry from which men learned the elements of machine making
and gained the technical skill that was to produce the complicated machinery
of the industrial revolution.
Photo by Noam Kostucki,
CC BY-NC License
Socially the clock had a more radical influence than any other machine,
in that it was the means by which the regularization and regimentation
of life necessary for an exploiting system of industry could best be attained.
The clock provided the means by which time - a category so elusive that
no philosophy has yet determined its nature - could be measured concretely
in more tangible forms of space provided by the circumference of a clock
dial. Time as duration became disregarded, and men began to talk and think
always of 'lengths' of time, just as if they were talking of lengths of
calico. And time, being now measurable in mathematical symbols, became
regarded as a commodity that could be bought and sold in the same way as
any other commodity.
The new capitalists, in particular, became rabidly time-conscious. Time,
here symbolizing the labor of workers, was regarded by them almost as
if it were the chief raw material of industry. 'Time is money' became on
of the key slogans of capitalist ideology, and the timekeeper was the most
significant of the new types of official introduced by the capitalist dispensation.
in the early factories the employers went so far as to manipulate their
clocks or sound their factory whistles at the wrong times in order to defraud
their workers a little of this valuable new commodity. Later such practices
became less frequent, but the influence of the clock imposed a regularity
on the lives of the majority of men which had previously been known only
in the monastery. Men actually became like clocks, acting with a repetitive
regularity which had no resemblance to the rhythmic life of a natural being.
They became, as the Victorian phrase put it, 'as regular as clockwork'.
Only in the country districts where the natural lives of animals and plants
and the elements still dominated life, did any large proportion of the
population fail to succumb to the deadly tick of monotony.
At first this new attitude to time, this new regularity of life, was
imposed by the clock-owning masters on the unwilling poor. The factory
slave reacted in his spare time by living with a chaotic irregularity which
characterized the gin-sodden slums of early nineteenth century industrialism.
Men fled to the timeless world of drink or Methodist inspiration. But gradually
the idea of regularity spread downward among the workers. Nineteenth century
religion and morality played their part by proclaiming the sin of 'wasting
time'. The introduction of mass-produced watches and clocks in the 1850s
spread time-consciousness among those who had previously merely reacted
to the stimulus of the knocker-up or the factory whistle. In the church
and in the school, in the office and the workshop, punctuality was held
up as the greatest of the virtues.
Out of this slavish dependence on mechanical time which spread insidiously
into every class in the nineteenth century there grew up the demoralizing
regimentation of life which characterizes factory work today. The man who
fails to conform faces social disapproval and economic ruin. If he is late
at the factory the worker will lose his job or even, at the present day
[1944 - while wartime regulations were in force], find himself in prison.
Hurried meals, the regular morning and evening scramble for trains or busses,
the strain of having to work to time schedules, all contribute to digestive
and nervous disorders, to ruin health and shorten life.
Nor does the financial imposition of regularity tend, in the long run,
to greater efficiency. Indeed, the quality of the product is usually much
poorer, because the employer, regarding time as a commodity which he has
to pay for, forces the operative to maintain such a speed that his work
must necessarily be skimped. Quantity rather than quality becomes the criterion,
the enjoyment is taken out of work itself, and the worker in his turn becomes
a 'clock-watcher', concerned only when he will be able to escape to the
scanty and monotonous leisure of industrial society, in which he 'kills
time' by cramming in as much time-scheduled and mechanized enjoyment of
cinema, radio and newspapers as his wage packet and his tiredness allow.
Only if he is willing to accept of the hazards of living by his faith or
his wits can the man without money avoid living as a slave to the clock.
The problem of the clock is, in general, similar to that of the machine.
Mechanical time is valuable as a means of coordination of activities in
a highly developed society, just as the machine is valuable as a means
of reducing unnecessary labor to the minimum. Both are valuable for the
contribution they make to the smooth running of society, and should be
used insofar as they assist men to cooperate efficiently and to eliminate
monotonous toil and social confusion. But neither should be allowed to
dominate men's lives as they do today.
Now the movement of the clock sets the tempo men's lives - they become
the servant of the concept of time which they themselves have made, and
are held in fear, like Frankenstein by his own monster. In a sane and free
society such an arbitrary domination of man's functions by either clock
or machine would obviously be out of the question. The domination of man
by the creation of man is even more ridiculous than the domination of man
by man. Mechanical time would be relegated to its true function of a means
of reference and coordination, and men would return again to a balance
view of life no longer dominated by the worship of the clock. Complete
liberty implies freedom from the tyranny of abstractions as well as from
the rule of men.