This post is a tribute to a wonderful essay by the great British historian of working-class history, E. P. Thompson. His classic work is The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1966. The paper I’m touting here provides a lovely window into the heart of his craft, which is an unlikely combination of Oxbridge erudition and Marxist analysis.
It’s the story of the rise of a new sense of time in the world that emerged with the arrival of capitalism, at which point suddenly time became money. If you’re making shoes to order in a precapitalist workshop, you work until the order is completed and then you take it easy. But if your labor is being hired by the hour, then your employer has an enormous incentive to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of every minute you are on the clock. The old model is more natural for humans: work until you’ve accomplished what you need and then stop. Binge and break. Think about the way college students spend their time when they’re not being supervised — a mix of all-nighters and partying.
Thompson captures the essence of the change between natural time and the time clock with this beautiful epigraph from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Tess … started on her way up the dark and crooked lane or street not made for hasty progress; a street laid out before inches of land had value, and when one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivided the day.
This quote and his analysis has had a huge impact on the way I came to see the world as a scholar of history.
Here’s a link to the paper, which was published in the journal Past and Present in 1967. Enjoy.