‘Time is not money; time is life.’ This sentence is from an article written in the 1960s. The article quotes a recent passage from ‘The Times’ in which it was shown that Americans in fact work just as hard in the 1960s as they did in the 1850s despite the introduction of machines and other labour saving devices. The author explores why: Americans have been trained to consume; consumption eats money; money costs work; work loses time. ‘The individual sells his time for shiny objects and while the cycle continues to spin, to hope for leisure is useless’. Or in the words of one of the Situationist philosophers: ‘The carrot of happier tomorrows has smoothly replaced the carrot of salvation in the next world. In both cases, the present is always under the heel of oppression’.
This latter quote highlights how the motivation for continued hard work has seamlessly changed over the past couple of hundred years from one dominated by the twin forces of the Enlightenment belief in progress and the perfectibility of Man combined with the Protestant belief in working towards a future when one’s efforts would be judged, to one dominated by the injunction to work for more financial security and a better tomorrow. Or, to put it another way, we are no longer driven by the work ethic, but rather by ‘the ethos of conspicuous exertion’ – we appear to be ‘driven by being driven’. Rather than fearing the wrath of God for not putting in the hours, a more insidious moral message is conveyed by the likes of David Cameron, encouraged in often repeated phrases like ‘good, hard-working citizens’. Rather than eternity in the fires of hell, the price for not working nowadays is a sense of guilt combined with public censure for a perceived moral failure, including accusations of being ‘idle’.
The idea that we work because we want to pay for our consumption of goods is obviously true up to a point, but I think it is worth exploring why else it is that we work so hard – why is it that we are so afraid of leisure. A good place to start is the French thinker Blaise Pascal’s quote: ‘All the unhappiness of men comes from one thing: not knowing how to stay quietly in a room’. Or as a local philosopher recently put it: ‘Consciousness in its inability to relate to itself, invented reality’. In this case the reality of work. What both quotes suggest is that we are profoundly uncomfortable with being still in the world. The Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor suggests that: ‘Sitting still on your own confronts you with the intolerable contingency of your existence’. Michel de Montaigne described how his planned tranquil retirement to the countryside was ruined by his mind being ‘like a runaway horse’ confronting him with ‘chimeras and imaginary monsters, one after another, without order or plan’. As Batchelor argues, rather than face the contingency of our existence, we flee it – a bewildered, fearful existential flight from pain into pleasure, if not pleasure then work, boredom, anything that can offer us the illusion of fixity, security and satisfaction. In much the same way that we frequently bemoan psychiatry’s role in maintaining social control while at the same time feeling a certain relief that it alleviates our responsibility for interacting with society’s mad, bad and sad, so we tend to moan about the hours we have to work while also feeling a certain relief that this very work and the structures associated with it offer us protection from our own madness, badness and sadness.
Outside of work, the story is little different. Unlike any other in history, modern society offers us the 24-hour cocktail of activity to release us from the gnawing anxiety of our existence. Stripped of the consoling mythical and religious fictions of eternity and the afterlife, we now run into the more dangerous modern fiction that we can control time. Before clocks were fully introduced in the 17th century, the nature of humans’ relationship with time was dramatically different. Time was generally seen as cyclical with events understood in the context of the changing seasons and general historical or mythical patterns. With this co-existed a culture of fatalism and an acceptance of the lack of control over one’s social circumstances. With clock time, first introduced in the 16th Century with just an hour hand, then gradually over the next couple of centuries incorporating the minute hand and the second hand, humans changed their relationship to time, feeling a greater sense of control over it, an ability to look into the future and plan and a subsequent linear vision of time co-existing with a belief in individual effort and the power of the will. Fast forward to Google proudly announcing the speed of its latest search in milliseconds and computers reducing measurements of time to nanoseconds and it appears we have truly gained control over time.
But at what cost? In our movement from an idyllic communion with nature, we have become enslaved by the very technology designed to liberate us. Alongside the greater opportunities comes greater stress; with greater choice, a greater sense of paralysis. People no longer like giving time away for free; sleep is seen as useless and unproductive and as for the siesta, you may as well forget it (as many Spanish people are now having to accept as the demands of the global economy eat into sacred traditions). People consume energy drinks and cognitive enhancers in ever greater quantity and even when they have time for leisure, it is experienced in much the same way as work time – as efficient and adhering strictly to clock time, no time for small talk, even less for silence. In its most gross manifestation, we find the term ‘quality time’ implying a commodifying of family life and intimacy. People have sacrificed, as one author put it, ‘nothing more or less than the experience of experience itself’. By this she is referring to ‘the capacity to enter into the textures or sensations of the moment; to relax enough so as to give oneself over to the rhythms of an episode or a personal encounter, to follow the thread of feeling or thought without knowing where it leads, or to pause long enough for reflection and contemplation’.
It has been argued that ‘patterns of pathology tend to expose the fault lines in each period’s ideas of the normal’. Just as Hysteria can be seen as ‘the disorder that best expresses women’s distress at the clashing demands and no longer tenable restrictions placed on women’ in the Victorian era, so ADHD, it has been argued, is a ‘disorder that highlights our uncomfortable relationship with time’, our intolerance of extended duration. It is standard for office workers to check emails or Facebook numerous times an hour, for the modern citizen to start twitching restlessly in a queue, to express annoyance at a computer’s slowness in booting up, to flick through channels for hours on end. As one author argues, ‘the attention deficit in ADHD belongs not to the children but to the parents… The children pick up on the stresses and time anxieties of their parents and reflect them behaviourally, emotionally, physiologically’.
There are other damaging consequences of our overconsumption of time: with access to ever more information at the touch of a button and a desire to keep up with the pace of global affairs, opinions become trite and homogenized, gleaned from yesterday’s newspaper columnist or from a friend on the cutting edge of some field. We live, as one author observed, ‘in an age when formed opinion is a replay of last night’s talk show’. When we sacrifice our autonomy, thoughts and dreams to the global marketplace, we become what Erich Fromm termed a ‘marketing character’, created by the impersonal forces of the global market; our ‘new self’ characterised by ‘mercurial changeability rather than the solidities of character’. This of course plays into the sound bites, buzz and spin that pass for ‘deliberative democracy’. The sociologist Frank Furedi asked, ‘Where have all the Intellectuals Gone?’ Ultimately, when we sacrifice our capacity to think, we end up with the intellectuals and politicians we deserve.
There has never been a more propitious or exciting time to become one of society’s idlers, questioning tired old aphorisms like ‘idle hands are the devil’s tool’ and replacing them with more relevant ones such as ‘when man is in a hurry, the devil makes merry’. The idler takes time out to meditate, nap and reconnect with her body’s natural rhythms. Exploring the possibilities of a life filled with pauses, halts and silences, the idler can become more available, aware and attentive, resisting the diabolic allure of global time, ever questioning its apparent self-evidence and incontestability. A sceptical malcontent, the idler spends long hours in cafes and parks deconstructing the outdated ideologies that have sustained the fevered work ethic and the fearful flight from freedom and exploring new ways to restructure society in accordance with values of creativity, cooperation and conviviality. Ultimately, the idler reconnects with our society’s most precious commodity: time.