Alister Wedderburn discusses the imact of Covid-19 on our experiences of time.
Photo: Brackenbury School, pictures by sisters Daisy, 8 and Indi, 6. Photographer: Justin Thomas, Flickr
Every Thursday evening throughout April and May, Britain paused to applaud the people working on the frontlines of our National Health Service. We stood at our front doors, we leaned out of our bedroom windows, and we clapped. We clapped a Health Service that has been steadily underfunded by a series of governments that we and our clapping hands voted for. We clapped a Health Service that can’t provide its doctors and nurses with adequate protective equipment, that can’t test them when they feel sick, and that can’t save them when they fall ill and die. We clapped the Health Service’s staff, of whom over one in ten are immigrants, even as we demanded that people at our borders be treated with ever-increasing suspicion. The National Health Service is rightfully Britain’s most beloved institution, but it is also its least politicised. Our love for the NHS is ultimately what will kill it. We will no doubt clap its corpse.
I am inhabiting the temporality of a dog. For the last fourteen weeks, my time has revolved around meals and once-daily walks. Everything else is mush. Sitting at my laptop in my living room window, I can see neighbours in the tenements opposite, sitting at their laptops in their living room windows. I’m not getting much work done, but my performances of professionalism do at least give some sort of glutinous, doughy structure to days that would otherwise be without form. I wonder if my neighbours are enacting similar performances beneath the proscenia of their window-frames. Maybe they’re occupying that imagined state of manic productivity against which I am constantly measuring myself?
The rhythms of everyday life have been altered over the last few months for all of us, but not to the same extent, and not in the same way. It’s hard to reconcile the unbounded shapelessness of my life at the moment with the furious hyper-urgency faced by medical professionals, or with the chaotic and uncertain horror the sick and their families must now be navigating. As a childless university lecturer, I am similarly insulated from the gnawing anxieties of unemployment or eviction, and from the frantic plate-spinning suddenly required of parents, carers and many others. These vast disparities bring the temporal dimensions of pandemic politics into sharp focus. I am finding it impossible to think about the virus - its epidemiology, its economic and social effects, and the measures taken to contain it – without considering its impact on people’s perceptions and experiences of time.
I took part in the NHS clap until the end, but after a few weeks the occasion came to feel like a hollow act of self-gratification: a complacent wave breaking across a howling, burning shore. Notions like ‘Thursday’ and ‘8pm’ belong to another time: a time defined by the rhythms of work and leisure, week and weekend, and by academic and religious calendars. Their invocation at a time of crisis feels quaint, which is no doubt part of the reason why they have been invoked so urgently. To do something together, at a defined hour, is briefly to re-enact the tempo and cadence of a time we left behind several months and many thousands of deaths ago. This is understandably comforting – but is it also enervating? Might a collective desire to return to normal obscure the pervasive injustices that structure ‘normality’ for so many, or blind us to the opportunities for social transformation that our present moment presents?
There remains a commonly held assumption that social and professional patterns will at some point begin to re-establish themselves. Let’s go for a drink once this is all over, my friend idly messages – though what ‘this’ is exactly, and what it being ‘over’ could possibly mean in the context of a five-figure national death figure and a global recession is anyone’s guess.
But a much more pressing question than when we might be able to go back to ‘normal’ is whether such a return is desirable or even possible. If not, then one must also ask what changes might be achievable in a post-pandemic world, and how one might go about enacting them. The temporary breakdown of capitalist routine clearly presents opportunities to explore alternative configurations of solidarity and rhythms of social living – opportunities that the Black Lives Matter movement are grasping brilliantly and inspiringly.
But these questions are not the preserve of the left, of course. The changes in work patterns we have been experiencing may also open the door to the expansion of neoliberal modes of governmentality and the erosion of hard-won workplace rights. In his book 24/7, Jonathan Crary writes of capital’s ongoing battle with time: it has in its sights people’s partitioning of time into seconds, hours, days and weeks; the demarcations we ordain between day and night, weekday and weekend, clocked-on and clocked-off; and the allowances made for infirmities like sickness or even sleep.1 The logical endpoint of the neoliberal fever dream is, for Crary, the total abolition of these and all other differentiations, facilitating ‘a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning’. This is the textureless omnipresent of 24/7: ‘a time without time, a time extracted from any material or identifiable demarcations, a time without sequence or recurrence … an unalterable permanence composed of incessant, frictionless operations’.
The pandemic has hardly brought about incessant or frictionless activity: on the contrary, the economy has largely ground to a halt. Yet the shutdown has enabled or accelerated the radical reorganisation of what Crary calls ‘human time’ in ways that would have been unthinkable just a month or two ago. Given that nine million jobs are on furlough at the time of writing, with another three million people unemployed, it seems improbable that pre-pandemic rhythms of social life will effortlessly re-establish themselves after the re-opening of shops and offices. If market capitalism demands the flattening of human time into a featureless 24/7, then the lockdown is less a rod in its wheels than an unprecedented opportunity to restructure the conditions and meanings of social and professional life.
The most obvious lockdown-induced concession that many of us are making towards 24/7 time can be summed up by a single buzzword: ‘flexibility’. Flexibility is already a central tenet of the zero-hours and gig labour markets, sold to workers as a guarantee of independence and choice; as a way of configuring one’s life in accordance with one’s desires. As anyone who has ever done a ‘flexible’ job knows, however, the unharnessing of labour from defined hours of labouring serves merely to allow work (or the spectre of work) to seep into every nook and cranny of one’s consciousness. Under conditions of such uncertainty and insecurity, planning for the future becomes impossible. ‘Flexible’ workers must instead organise their lives according to the demands of the 24/7 continuous present.
Zero hours contracts and gig work will no doubt continue to proliferate as lockdown loosens: if Johnson’s government has an ideological imperative with respect to work, it is flexibility. ‘Every generation wants their own version of #freedom to shape their own lives. This is about #choice #destiny’, Liz Truss tweeted in 2018. ‘This generation are #Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters’. Johnson’s vision of a post-Brexit ‘Singapore-on-Sea’ is largely about expanding these very same ‘freedoms’ – his utopia is a city-state that is maintained and sustained by a migrant underclass who perform piecemeal labour for day rates and live in desperately overcrowded conditions. This is flexibility’s endgame.
Among the more securely employed, lockdown has demanded a move towards more flexible working patterns. The consequences of widespread working from home have been predictable: gendered imbalances of household labour have worsened, for example, with burdens of childcare, home-schooling and housekeeping falling disproportionately on women’s shoulders. Work is now woven into the rhythms of many people’s domestic lives, making demands on personal time, personal space and personal relationships. Mark Fisher’s memorable equivalence between ‘working from home [and] homing from work’ comes to mind. These changes are certain to endure, to some extent at least. Some companies have already expressed interest in slimming down their workspaces, or doing away altogether with the inconvenience of paying for one.2
The upshot of all this in my industry is that already-casualised labour is being laid off, while more secure staff (myself included) are being told to become more flexible in order to pick up their slack. If the mantra of ‘choice’ has driven neoliberal programmes of consumption, then the mantra of ‘flexibility’ has driven its reconfiguration of labour. The virus provides an opportunity to expand and entrench these changes. After the pandemic, we may find that the temporal demarcations and partitions through which a life that includes more than labour is thinkable prove impossible fully to rebuild.
Yet for all these dangers, and for all the destruction to life and livelihood that the virus has already wrought, its dissolution of established patterns and routines also presents political opportunities - and Black Lives Matter activists across the globe have not been slow to seize them. Bafflingly, the relationship of the current protests to the pandemic has barely been discussed. However, it is surely not entirely a coincidence that the two have emerged in concert. The pandemic has brought the basic, brutal facts of systemic racism into stark relief: the virus is disproportionately killing people of colour, for reasons that reflect our society’s pervasive and racist inequalities in employment, education, healthcare, and housing. Yet it also seems reasonable to ask whether there might be some connection between pandemic time and protest time. These broad global coalitions are being built in a context of mass unemployment and furlough and in relation to the breakdown of everyday routines of social reproduction. They are also being produced by people around the world finding themselves with more time with which to think, plot, gather and organise, in ways which build on earlier organising traditions to fight longstanding grievances.
These connections will no doubt be traced by sociologists in the months and years to come. In the meantime, it is enough to note that a profoundly forward-looking politics has found a global voice at precisely the same moment that the temporal configurations structuring our everyday lives have dissolved. The protests seen in Minneapolis, London and around the world are making radical demands for social change based on an informed appraisal of the historical forces and trajectories through which present social formations have been brought into being. In so doing, they are refusing the temptations of nostalgia, they are refusing any sort of ‘return to normal’, and they are refusing 24/7’s ahistorical omnipresent. Whether by accident or design, the Black Lives Matter movement’s powerful call for social transformation also conveys a decisive rejection of pandemic time.
1. Jonathan Crary: 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep. London: Verso, 2013
Alister Wedderburn is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Glasgow, working on the politics of visuality, the politics of popular culture, and on global social movements.