Teresa Brennan separates the social time of labour and production, from a natural reproductive time. Social time is furthermore characterised as artificial time, which via the speed of the acquisition of money (capital) diminishes or degrades natural reproductive cycles.

Money…is essentially time. Marx measured money in terms of labour-time, but by this argument it should be measured in terms of the speed of acquisition. Thus inflation and interest would be the measures of distance between sources of energy and the speed with which they are consumed, a measure which intersects with reproduction, especially but not only that of labour-power. We will regard money, then, as the phenomenal form of the socially produced time of speed, rather than of labour-time as such. This retains some of the reasoning behind Marx’s definition of money, although that definition conflated the social time of production with natural reproductive time, and it is these we are separating in this redefinition of the relation between value and price. The price of a commodity becomes inflated the further removed it is from its value, and especially inflated if its production has removed the source of value altogether. The price of money, measured in interest, would be affected by the same variable. Once more, time, as money and speed, literally encapsulates the natural energy whose flourishing it must diminish. For if the quantity of use-value overall as the basis of surplus-value is diminished, as I have argued it must be, something has to take its place. This something is the creation of an artificial space-time. This creation is the means whereby money rivals natural time in its imitation of reproduction.

Short-term profitability, with its inflated price, must lead to a diminution in long-term profit and productivity. In that the substantial material embodiment in productivity and profit has to be reduced or rendered unreproducible by the logic of production geared to speed, capital is its own worst enemy. How this is played out in total terms should be reflected in the crisis of capital, in its ‘long waves’ and ‘laws of motion’. In sum, what Marx saw clearly and before all was the inherent contradiction in capital as a mode of production. He saw it in terms of labour and technology, or constant and variable capital, as he defined it, where the former, to keep pace, had to expand at the expense of the energy input of labour. The contradiction is recapitulated in this account, although its terms of reference have changed. Or rather, its terms of reference have been stripped of their phenomenal forms, so that the contradiction emerges as what it is essentially: one between substantial energy and artificial speed. Yet we have established that the contradiction between energy and speed is not simple. Two forms of time are at issue: the generational time of natural reproduction, and speed, the artificial time of short-term profit. Speed, as I have already indicated, is about space as much as time as such. It is about space because it is about centralization and distance. Speed, measured by distance as well as time, involves a linear axis, time, and the lateral axis of space. In what follows, I will begin by emphasizing how, in the consumptive mode of production, the artificial space-time of speed (space for short) takes the place of generational time. For to the extent that capital’s continued profit must be based more and more on the speed of acquisition, it must centralize more, command more distance, and in this respect the artificial space-time of speed must take the place of generational time.

It is clear that generational time suffers because capital tends inevitably to speed up the production of all commodities, including naturally formed or agricultural ones. While there are countervailing tendencies in agriculture and labour-power, in terms of scarce or apparently irreplaceable sources, the speed imperative will override them wherever possible. As production speeds up, it is also clear, capital will diminish or degrade the conditions of the specific or overall natural reproduction of natural and agricultural products. But this is not the only way that generational time is short-circuited by short-term profit.

Brennan, Teresa. 2000. Exhausting modernity: Grounds for a new economy. London and New York: Routledge.


Joshua Keating reports that not all territories have always been interested in adopting a standardised social time. The U.S. national time is provided as an example of this, in which the railroad network demanded a country-wide common clock, despite cities such as Cincinnati wanting to remain with a more natural time.

We measure time not simply in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of concepts such as “early,” “late” – or, for that matter, “fashionably late.” What is the length of a “work day”? In the United States, Europe and Japan you’ll get three different answers.

Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance, if not outright resistance. Historically, countries have not eagerly embraced the global clock—they’ve felt compelled to do so because of the demands of commerce.

The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didn’t emerge until 1883, when it was adopted by the railroads, which needed to maintain common timetables. Before that, cities largely kept their own local time, and many were not happy to have big government and big railroads force standardization on them. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” editorialized one newspaper when the changeover was going into effect (Keating 2013).

Keating, Joshua. 2013. “Why time is a social construct.” January 2013. 4139110/


Mark Smith observes that with the proliferation of clocks and watches during periods of American slavery, plantation owners forced slaves to move from a temporality which naturally revolved around the sun and stars, to an existence governed by the clock. Whilst natural time and clock time are not entirely divorced for Smith, a distinct transition between them is apparent.

Nor should we be misled, as Michael O’Malley has wisely counseled, into thinking that a naturally derived understanding of time (time defined by sun, moon, wind, and a host of other naturally occurring phenomena) necessarily precludes a commitment to clock time. Not only is the dichotomy false, not only is nature itself sometimes as frenetic as the clock (as humans find when planting and harvesting, for instance), but there is evidence suggesting that natural time and clock time are in many respects complementary. Both are largely cyclical in their movements, and the regular, perpetual movements of the clock are to some extent mirrored in the rhythms of the seasons or sun. Naturally derived, task-oriented, and clock-regulated forms of time measurement, in short, coexist in any society, the most modern included…

Under modernity, the clock becomes a fetish: the clock is time itself, and clock time develops an apparent autonomy and hegemony. The dictates and needs of the capitalist mode of production ensure that the clock is used to control workers, measure labor, increase efficiency, and heighten personal time discipline in order to coordinate workers and society generally. Given these imperatives, clock and watch ownership under capitalism tends to increase considerably. Conversely, in pre-modern societies, clock time is usually bound to religion and has little secular significance or function…

Before anyone, whether master, industrialist, or worker, could reduce time to money, however, they had to dilute, or at least modify, age-old Christian imperatives stressing that all time was God’s time. According to Jacques Le Goff, this process began in the Middle Ages, when “[a]mong the principal criticisms levelled against the merchants was the charge that their profit implied a mortgage on time, which was supposed to belong to God alone.” But God was not the only impediment to secular commercial time. According to Le Goff, “Like the peasant, the merchant was at first subjected by his professional activity to the dominion of meteorological time, to the cycle of seasons and the unpredictability of storms and natural cataclysms.” To rationalize time, European merchants used God’s time by recruiting the aural power of his church clocks to coordinate city life and the times of markets. “The same process for the rationalization of time,” Le Goff points out, “was responsible also for its secularization.” Once this rationalization was under way, mercantile activity, while “distinct and, at particular points, contingently similar,” to God’s time, became regulated by the clock. And it was the dual forces of God’s temporal imperatives and merchants’ commercial time that provided the historical basis for the rise of clock consciousness among workers and managers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Slaves remembered the clock and watch and testified that they had come to accept, albeit grudgingly, timed agricultural labor under slavery. Although they originally came from societies where natural time was predominant and that same reliance on natural time remained important to them, southern slaves, like nineteenth-century urban-industrial workers, found their reliance on sun and stars as exclusive arbiters of time attacked and, ultimately, undermined (Smith 1996, 1435-37 & 1461).

Smith, Mark. 1996. “Old south time in comparative perspective. American historical review 101(5): 1432–69.


Jonathan Martineau describes capitalism’s commodification of time according to measures of commercial value as having alienated humans from the concrete time  that is associated with bodies, emotions, and the ecosystem. In reducing time to calculations of market based exchange value, capitalist, abstract, clock-time, is said to be separate from what is naturally individual about time.

Although I have focused on capitalist abstract clock-time, throughout this study I have kept alive notions of concrete times. I have highlighted the temporal aspect of dynamics of domination and resistance between capitalism’s tendency to commodify – and therefore alienate – time, and the concrete times of human lives and socio-natural processes that resist it. Capitalism’s drive to commodify and alienate time is relentless, and it is expressed in processes occurring all across the social field. Indeed, the drive toward the privatisation of natural resources can be read as an attempt by capital to abstract the concrete times of socio-natural cycles in order to ‘valorise’ them, i.e. to integrate these times in the logic of capital accumulation. In such processes of commodification, the complex cluster of useful labour, socio-natural cycles, human bodies and concrete temporal relationships become means to an end: capital accumulation…Examples such as these with regards to the relationship between humans and a socially mediated nature, between humans and humans, and between humans and their own bodies, illustrate a struggle between capitalism and human lives, of which the temporal dimension deserves more attention from critical scholarship.

Perhaps we can now propose a solution to the modern paradox of time with which we started this enquiry. Why, in a context where time is measured and organised to such an unprecedented degree, is it experienced by us as the most uncontrollable and alien force? The measuring and organising of time is a social need; it is a fundamental component of the organisation of society and also of the reproduction of the human species. However, under the compulsion of class relations, and today of capitalism, social time relations have been serving the interests of dominant powers, often at the expense of the concrete times of exploited or oppressed groups. The power of capital in modern societies has relied heavily on the development and refinement of the measurement and organisation of time to an unprecedented degree. The first purpose of this measurement and organisation, however, is to reproduce the power of capital and to increase the power held by the law of value over social relations, not to enhance the potential of humans as world-making and time-making beings. As such, measured and organised time faces us as an alien structure, coordinating value relations instead of facilitating human relations and contributing to human development.

Measured and organised time therefore goes hand in hand with its alienation in our modern temporal order for the simple reason that time is measured and organised not by us, but by capital, not for us, but for capital. Our times are therefore subject to the imperatives of the law of value. Reclaiming human concrete times of emotions, work, social relationships, human bodies, friendships, love, parenting, childhood, laughter, sleep, childbirth, childrearing, food production, art, the concrete time of our ecosystems, and so on, thus forms an integral part of the reclaiming of our lives and our world. The struggle for ‘decommodification’, to employ a somewhat rebarbative term, also entails a struggle for the decommodification of human and socio-natural concrete times, the end of temporal alienation and of the subjection of human and social lives to the dictates of the capitalist market, capitalist abstract clocktime compulsions and capital accumulation (Martineau 2015, 167-68).

Martineau, Jonathan. 2015. Time, capitalism and alienation: A socio-historical inquiry into the making of modern time. Leiden and Boston: Brill.