The emerging critique of time pressure
Part 2 of 3 | Part 1
When Tim Kreider tries to distinguish between people who have time pressures forced on them and people who choose to put that stress on themselves, he has already lost the means to make sense of why his essay resonated with so many people. If it was just a matter of a few neurotic or self-important people who, against their own best interests, load themselves down with things to do, his critique wouldn’t have been relevant on such a broad scale. But Kreider himself writes, “Almost everyone I know is busy.” When a particular kind of behavior or experience becomes socially general, we can be sure it’s not because of personal idiosyncrasy on a mass scale—which is an oxymoron. Rather, something about society itself is causing that behavior to proliferate.
Today time stress is not simply widespread—it’s hegemonic. It is the normal way of being for everyone in mainstream society. Whether you’re the janitor working three jobs to stave off your family’s hunger, the entrepreneur constantly casting about for capital to fund your project, the college student going to two student group meetings tonight even though you have a 20-page paper due tomorrow, the bodega owner who minds the counter all day long and then does inventory after closing, the corporate lawyer cramming in final preparations to win impunity for the big client, the artist furiously networking at all the parties, the logistics worker forced to move more and more freight every day, the politician making the hundredth call today asking a rich person for money, the food prep worker always coping with short staff—that is, whether on the surface it seems that you have chosen your fate or had it forced upon you—we are all completely overwhelmed.
Some people thrive in this environment, other people are destroyed by it, most people are just worn down bit by bit as their lives slip away in frantic service to something they don’t really care about. Yet however individuals are affected by such an environment, it would be a fundamental analytical error to attribute its existence to individual choice. Neoliberal society is a totality that has progressively accelerated the pace of life and the intensity of work required of each individual within it. A lucky(?) few embrace the new requirements, while most people simply endure them. But it is systemic necessity that has produced this state for everyone.
The symptoms are all around us. We see it in the rise of Adderall as the new generation’s drug of choice, or the rapid spread of a whole range of stress therapies, from yoga to Ambien, that seek to calm the constant excitement our society induces. It’s reflected in the manic pacing of our movies, which tend to anthropomorphize the forces chasing us to exhaustion: what action movie doesn’t have the protagonist on the run at some point or another, if not for the whole film? Pop music exhorts us to dance until we collapse, or at least until the world ends (which has about even odds of happening first). We now even have tv commercials depicting the office worker driven to seek liberation from constant pressure—by eating hamburgers.
In trying to figure out why neoliberal society has relentlessly accelerated not only our work but also our lives (there’s that juxtaposition again!), we need to answer two questions. First, why is rising time pressure so important to the functioning of neoliberalism as a regime of accumulation? And second, what are the mechanisms that induce acceptance and even enthusiasm among those subjected to these pressures?
These questions are too complicated to be adequately addressed here, but we can at least try to sketch out an answer. At its most fundamental level, capitalism is a system that compels us to give up our time so that it can be objectified and sold as a commodity. Time is money, as they say—but less well understood is that the obverse is also true: money is time. Money is one expression of capital’s lifeforce, value, whose production and circulation is the basis for every aspect of life in a capitalist society. This compulsion to squeeze value out of us persists despite the ongoing increases in the productivity of our labor. Even though machines now do most of the work, there can be no reduction in our work time. By a feat of alchemy, capitalism transmutes the diminishing need for labor into one of two outcomes: an increasing need for consumption (along with the work to pay for it), or unemployment. Or both!
Yet Fordist society was just as much a form of capitalism as neoliberal society is, and the time pressures of Fordism were far less severe. What explains the sudden and sustained intensification of demands on our time? In large part, it was a response to the declining rate of productivity increases that accompanied the end of Fordism. As this route to increasing the production of value dried up, businesses turned to different strategies, especially the increasing exploitation of the workforce and the speed-up of the product cycle.
The former is pretty straightforward: you squeeze more profit out of your workers if you force them to do ever more work in the same amount of time for the same wages. This is the underlying dynamic generating the work-life “imbalance” that Anne-Marie Slaughter and so many other professionals are concerned about, and it’s the same dynamic that has essentially eliminated the “life” side of that “balance” for the global manufacturing workforce and many low-wage workers in the rich world.
Yet this fundamental dynamic is hard to discern in one’s everyday life, because of the mediating force that actually does the dirty work: competition. Intensifying competition in all realms of life has been the principal instrument by which neoliberal society has driven us all—both those willing and those unwilling—to accept ever greater workloads. If you don’t work harder, someone else is going to get that venture capital, to get that spot in the Ivies, to get that bonus, to get that record deal. If you don’t work harder, your restaurant is going to go out of business, you won’t make partner, you won’t get the hours you need to pay your rent. These competitive pressures were greatly curtailed and managed (though never eliminated) under Fordism. Since the advent of neoliberalism, it has been the deliberate policy of governments and corporations everywhere to revive, intensify, and extend them.
If increasing exploitation characterizes the production side of the neoliberal economy, then the accelerating circulation of capital characterizes the consumption side. An investment that turns over—and earns its profit—five times in a year will be five times as profitable as one of the same magnitude that turns over only once a year. Hence the proliferation under neoliberal conditions of commodities that are quickly outdated (computers, cell phones, fashions) as well as those that are immediately used up and can be quickly consumed again, such as one-off events, spectacles, concerts, movies, theme parks, restaurants, drugs both legal and illegal. Compare the ephemerality of the neoliberal consumer marketplace with the durability and stability of the most prominent Fordist commodities: washing machines, refrigerators, cars, televisions. (See David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity for an incisive discussion of both neoliberal production and consumption. In the twenty+ years since this book came out, the structures and subjective effects he analyzed have only become more marked.)
On the consumption side, as well, intensifying competition has been a central means to facilitate neoliberal accumulation. In a context of stagnating wages for the majority and increasing concentrations of wealth for a small minority, new techniques had to be found to persuade people to spend. The task was challenging—the majority didn’t have any money to spend, so they had to be convinced to borrow, while the rich already had more than they could ever possibly use, so they had to be persuaded to consume in much greater measure. This is the context in which “innovation” became the watchword of the age: only a constant stream of new ideas (most of which would fail) could generate enough interest among an increasingly deadened consumeriat to sustain the demand required to keep the economy going. Cut-throat competition gave the mindless pursuit of innovation the impetus it needed to keep things going as long as it did.
For all the hand-wringing about increasing time pressure and work-life balance, there is essentially no awareness of the underlying systemic forces driving the problem. Until these are put on the agenda, we might as well just put our noses back to the grindstone.
Part 3: The consequences of an incomplete critique