The Times Were A’Changin’… to Fit Profit Margins and Gauge Moral Worth

written June 11, 2009


“Time discipline,” as discussed by E. P. Thompson in “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” addresses the shift of concepts brought about from early industrialization, from “task orientation” and “general irregularity” possible in an agrarian-yeoman society to a structured, “time-oriented” labor construct. Further, time discipline was the tool of an often overly harsh reaction to the irregular practices of the past, fueled by an additional over-arching emphasis on correcting moral lapses and occupational laziness.

The sharp and sudden changes occurring in England during this time is in part because there were no other examples of mass employment “to serve as demonstrations as to the object of the operation” (p 80). The need for “accurate and representative time-budgets” required a reordering from work viewed as multiple, irregular tasks. The change of time concepts, once flexible or even nonexistent, to paralleled as a unit of capital being “spent” corresponded to money now being earned for an employer. Hence the greater awareness of a minute’s value to earn.

With the instrumentation of mechanical time, the passing of the day was not longer exclusive to the sun, and with it the concept of a farmer’s field productivity. The earliest English factory owners were making it up as they went along of course, and although it seems insensitive now, I cannot help but in a way understand the lengths employers went to conform their workforce comprised of independent agrarians. With time, and other strictly imposed factory rules they were “broken,” like so many indignant stallions.  Yes, the concept of “time orientation” went too far, but that seems human nature. I cannot help but think of Hegel and his idea of action/reaction that will finally settle as a symbiosis between the two ideals. Here we are seeing the reaction to centuries of farmers, artisans leading irregular laboring lives: “the irregular labor rhythms of the described in the previous section help us to understand the severity of mercantilist doctrines as to the necessity for holding down wages as a preventative against idleness” (81).

Initial worker response to this seems to be acceptance as Thompson presents it, due mainly to necessity: “Enclosure and the growing labor surplus and the end of the 18th century tightened the screw for those in regular employment; they were faced with the alternatives of partial employment and the poor law, or submission to a more exacting labour discipline” (78). We can see comparisons to this outlook even in 2009, even with the modern programs available to the unemployed. Additionally, what choice did people really have with the destruction of the cottage industry? People flocked to dirty cities because they had to, and this indignation might be a clue to their appearance to have a “right to loyter” (81).

This friction between the needs of the elite factory owners and the new working class provoked a call for increased “time-thrift.” This idea came from the elite and moral class- again one in the same- and were against the lower class. It may have come wrapped in virtue, but at the root it was about power and control. What came to surprise the elites was the “problem” of the lower classes attaining the very leisure they themselves always enjoyed. This is an interesting concept. The bourgeois class was afraid of in some ways workers becoming like them, yet Marx’s call for worker unification is opposite of this, non-leisure and lives as production. Thomson’s ideas indicate that work is subjective to the individual labor and era, to contrast Marx’s more stringent views of labor itself as unchanging. In this way Thompson attempts to answer Marx by putting the changes of labor in the context of a shift of time perception.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s