October 7 2021
Capitalism turns time into a finite resource. Its regime of dispossession is not only material – it also changes the substance of things, shaping conceptions of ourselves and others, as well as the values and ethics around which we build our lives. Crucial to its hold over us is an understanding of the past, present and future as distinct temporal regimes that structure labour. We had jobs in the past, and those jobs have some connection to the jobs we have now and the jobs we will have in the future. This account of temporality would have us think that ‘work’, as we know it now, has always existed.
Capitalism takes time to be precious only because it produces profit. In this formulation, time is only capable of being lost and is impossible to return. Progression equals forward movement from point A to point B, whilst regression is a backward turn towards a past positioned firmly behind us. When we accept a job, we make an implicit agreement on these terms with our boss. In return for our labour and the time taken to exert it, we receive a wage that allows us some chance at social life.
The invention of the Fordist work-week was just that, an invention. Before the violent separation between all kinds of workers and the means of production, time might have been easier to steal back. The movement away from collective modes of working towards the creation of the individual worker with personal goals, achievements, commitments to the workplace – and an attachment to its continuation – has transformed our sense of what working hours can give us. Today’s workers are primed for efficiency, their aim is to maximise hours of productivity in order to get the most out of their day; human assembly lines are being replaced by creeping automation for this very reason.
Striking against time
It shouldn’t be surprising then, that political movements have often devised strategies to steal back time from bosses to help further their political demands. Against the drudgery of labour, the urgency of understanding and resisting capitalism’s colonisation of temporality has always been prominent in feminist thought and struggle. In her book, Decolonial Feminism, Françoise Vergès writes, ‘I take a stance against a temporality that describes liberation only in terms of unilateral ‘victory’ against the reactionary.’ Verges argues for the reworking of our relationship to temporality so that we might embrace fragmentation and in doing so, reveal the capaciousness of our resistance against capitalism, rather than merely writing and rewriting histories defined by successive defeats.
Feminists have long elucidated how the collectivisation of labour might help us to push past the notion that time is capturable and that we, as workers, can and should be held hostage for the sake of a wage. The Global Women’s Strike that crossed continents, Black Women for Wages for Housework, the socialist women members of the Paris Commune, and the various strikes undertaken by sex workers and working mothers on International Working Women’s Day are all examples of how political demands made from a collective vantage point can enable us to reclaim and rewrite temporality: to say, our time is our own, how might we dream up a strategy to transform the world?
The strike, a practice of mass refusal, enables a dialectical process, wherein workers think out loud about strategy, about systems that extract their labour and how to defeat them. Through refusal, workers risk their livelihoods, in the knowledge and determination that their actions might produce a temporary break in the cycle of exploitation. The general strike that took place in Sudan in the summer of 2020 last year evidenced this logic: thousands stopped working, formed a broad coalition and gathered in the streets to oppose the rule of Omar Al-Bashir’s government. They provided support and solidarity for one another, fed those on strike, provided spaces for learning, medical care, song and dance. In coordinating the strike, these workers demonstrated how hours might be inhabited against the clock. In the moment of the strike, time circles, dips and loops and adopts an entirely different trajectory. Not doing muddies the hours in the day and potentially, returns them to their owners: the collective. The surplus value lost when workers refuse to work breaks capitalist time’s stranglehold on us. Instead of counting down the hours between work time and free time, the strike scatters linearity, expanding our life-spans and consequently, our ability to be with each other in meaningful and transformative ways.
A feminist ethic of laziness?
Refusal – or “not doing” – is not the same as laziness. The former is a coordinated action that requires the full force of its participants; the latter functions more like a long sigh, a relinquishment of one’s responsibilities. But it would be foolish to disparage laziness entirely: to be lazy, to be unwilling to exert energy, is a strategic response to the tyranny of wage labour. It establishes a vantage point from which to begin to think about the reorganisation of human life. Laziness allows us to ask, what next? What might it mean if exertion were not at the core of our existence? Better yet, what would happen if exertion in reward for a wage was not the only way we were able to make sense of ourselves and others?
Laziness is a severance in the collective desire to work. This affective shift is important because it helps disintegrate the ideological grip of capitalism and its many effects. Against the domination of capitalist temporality, laziness emerges as another tool with political utility – but only when understood within a broader set of relational practices. To be lazy is not to give up on all forms of exertion nor does it relinquish us from the responsibility to believe that another world is possible and struggle to this end, rather laziness refuses the prevailing logic of productivity that defines our neoliberal age. Laziness stands against the side hustle, against going the extra mile, against the monetisation of our hobbies and against the idea that exertion is any measure of the value of a life. In doing so, it implores us to destroy the myth of meritocracy and the notion that rewards (sustenance, shelter, rest and relaxation) must be earnt. Adopting laziness might help us understand what Ruthie Gilmore terms the state’s ‘organized abandonment’ of its citizens for what it is – a coordinated attempt to leave us without resources, isolated and alone via the creation and maintenance of scarcity logic.
Time is always already an unequally distributed resource: women workers often divide theirs between the multiple stressors in their lives; billionaires view theirs as infinite. In imagining the futures we seek to build, feminists, queer theorists and any number of ‘utopians’ (materialist and otherwise) have imagined landscapes and environments in which we work in service of each other. Undoing capitalist temporality is a tall order, but it first requires us to refuse on a mass scale, and then to permit ourselves to abandon the rationalisation of our lives and work through notions of efficiency, innovation and time-management. Laziness and refusal give us back more hours but also enable us to waste time, without guilt or shame – whilst the figure of the entrepreneur withers and dies. In the affective space of laziness and refusal, we allow ourselves to rehearse the actions and modes of being that we truly desire: labouring without the wage, profit in relation, more time spent doing everything and nothing.
Lola Olufemi is a black feminist writer and CREAM/Stuart Hall foundation researcher from London. Her work focuses on the uses of the feminist imagination and its relationship to cultural production, political demands and futurity. She is author of Feminism Interrupted: Disrupting Power (2020), Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, forthcoming from Hajar Press in 2021 and a member of ‘bare minimum’, an interdisciplinary anti-work arts collective.