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.


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.