Gareth Dale notes that narrative time is linked to clock time, with its focus on the control of time in everyday life. This is reported to also be apparent in technological progress, particularly in capitalism’s domination and erasure of nature.

In its own temporality, The Magic Mountain is classically ‘modern.’ Through a protagonist-centred narrative continuum, the present is looped through the past and toward the future. Narrative time is synced to clock time, and a focus on the detailed interactions of everyday life facilitates a tight control of tempo. As a Bildungsroman, it foregrounds processes of development and (self-)discovery.

It represents a late flourish of classical literary realism. The novel’s genre was keyed to a particular social order: bourgeois, individualistic and meliorist; its advent, some 150 years earlier, signalled a profound shift in sensibility. For the first time in literary consciousness, as Mikhail Bakhtin observed, “time and the world” became historical, unfolding “as an uninterrupted movement into a real future, as a unified, all-embracing and unconcluded process.”

The conceptual twin of this ‘modern’ literary sensibility is Progress. It too courses through Mann’s novel. Its champion is the Italian lawyer Lodovico Settembrini, who sees himself as a warrior for freedom, knowledge, transformative action, and ‘Europe,’ in opposition to tyranny, bondage, passivity, and inertia—in short, ‘Asia.’

In Settembrini’s view, time and history are propelled by machines. “As technology brought nature increasingly under its control,” improving communication “and triumphing over climatic conditions,” it also brought the peoples of the world together, driving a global shift from “darkness and fear” to happiness and virtue. Technological progress paves the road to a shining moral order. Through dominating nature, it secures liberation.

In Davos this week, Settembrini’s ghost feels right at home. It laps up the WEF mission statement, “Committed to Improving the State of the World,” and the ubiquitous undertakings to “shape the future of economic progress.”

The Magic Mountain is set prior to 1914, but Mann wrote it between 1912 and 1924, as liberal order crumpled and burned. Its narrative acceleration conjures a society hurtling toward doom. One hundred years on, ecological collapse is provoking a crisis in our perception of the ontological coordinates of human life, including nature and time. I’ll return to these. But first, how did we get here? And what is ‘capitalist time’?

Ringing the changes

The revolution in temporality of the last millennium is conventionally associated with the diffusion of the mechanical clock. By producing minutes and hours in fixed ticks, it enabled the reproducibility and universal standardisation of time. In severing time from the natural and supernatural realms, it helped foster a vision of an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences, the sphere of Newtonian science. Time could now be imagined as a uniform continuum: linear, divisible, and abstract.

But the transformation cannot have been the work of mechanical clocks alone. Clock time is a productive force, enabling the synchronisation of human purposes—but these are under whose command?

In medieval Europe and the Islamic civilisations, clocks were used less to measure time than by clerics to mark it — the call to prayer. (‘Clock’ derives from clocca/klocke: a bell.) But when clock-bells entered the public sphere to coordinate trade and public intercourse, and above all when they entered workplaces to quantify the working day, that changed.

If pre-capitalist systems were visibly kleptocratic — based on the extortion of labour’s product  — in capitalism the goal is labour productivity. Capital is the command of labour time, with the worker appearing as a commodity: personified labour-time. Capitalist rationality is governed by the law of value, the imperative to reduce the labour time of production below the ‘socially necessary’ average required to sell commodities at or below their value—where value is an abstraction of social time.

Put simply, capital’s aim is to increase profit by saving time. This accounts for the core dynamics of ‘modernity’: the systematic disciplining of labour and its segregation from the rest of the human experience, enabling labour time to be demarcated and measured; the endless acceleration of labour processes and of technical and social change; the centrality, and fetishism, of technology (in view of its key role in displacing labour and reducing circulation time); and the systematic derogation of the natural environment. Capitalism eats time, and in the process erases nature (Dale 2019).

Dale, Gareth. 2019. ‘Time Bombs at Davos.’ Brunel University London: News and Events: News. 22 January, 2019. https://www.brunel.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/articles/Time-bombs-at-Davos.


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.


Akhil Gupta notes that industrial, capitalist time, is often conceptually separated from the rhythm of natural time. It is added by Gupta that typically capitalist time is characterised as abstract, linear, and associated with Western development and progress, contradistinguished from the cyclical, less-distanced from nature, sense of the time of non-Western cultures.

Whereas time in industrial capitalism becomes abstract, homogeneous, empty, linear, and progressive, shorn of “nature’s rhythms,” and unconnected to the task at hand, historical and cultural Others construe time as concrete, cyclical, closely connected to nature, and experience it in the context of specific tasks…

It would, of course, be foolish to deny that the far-reaching changes that accompanied the industrial revolution permanently and irreversibly altered western notions of time. It is also true that dominant representations of time in the West emphasize its linear, continuous, unidirectional, and progressive character, its preciousness, and its interchangeability with money. What I wish to question is whether the changes that occurred in conceptions of time are best understood as the move from cyclicality to linearity, from task-orientation rooted in concrete activity to an abstract passage disconnected from the flow of everyday life, and from a close synchrony with the rhythms of nature to an alienated homogeneity imposed by work-discipline. Rather than accepting this narrative as a plausible reconstruction of the western past and a powerful prediction about the “Third World” today, rather than acquiescing to the dominant portrayals of the difference between Self and Other that circulate widely in the western world, we need to ask why discursively available representations of time in the West remain oblivious, despite easily observable evidence to the contrary, to features of cyclicality, concreteness, rhythms, and yes, even rebirth. The political importance of this silence lies in the fact that it allows the western narrative of progress to go unchallenged, and enables the continued management and surveillance of the “Third World” in the guise of “development”…

Another major contrast often drawn between industrial and nonindustrial societies is that in the former time is homogeneous, empty, and regular whereas in the latter it is rhythmic and irregular. The (often unstated) basis for this difference can be traced to their respective relationship to nature. Whereas agricultural, pastoral, and hunting-gathering societies are closely at- tuned to the “rhythms of nature,” in industrial societies these bonds are severed. For example, much has been made in pop sociology of the fact that electric lights, three work shifts, all-night radio and television broadcasting, and twenty-four-hour restaurants, grocery stores, and laundromats-what might be called the “Denny’s revolution”-are slowly blurring any meaningful distinction between night and day. Once again, as with the case of cyclical time, we find a troubling set of essentialist dichotomies being constructed in which agricultural (and more generally, nonindustrial) societies are identified with “nature” while industrial societies are identified with technology (Gupta 1992, 195-96, 199-200).

Gupta, Akhil. 1992. “The reincarnation of souls and the rebirth of commodities: Representations of time in “East” and “West.”” Cultural Critique 22: 187-211.


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.