18 April 2007

Tracing our roots in space and time

A recent article in the Guardian noted that Britons' two favourite leisure pursuits are genealogy and gardening. This encouraged me greatly, since I had previously thought that the no. 1 was shopping. Thinking more deeply I wondered about the link between these two and what they tell us about contemporary society. The common thread seemed to be roots. Globalisation has led to a loss of identity and our response is to re-embed ourselves in space and time. The huge number of people using online databases of family records and the record-beating queues for allotments are both evidence of the same impulse.

Of the four dimensions recognised by conventional science, time is by far the most interesting. During a recent spell of car-free living I noticed that, quite contrary to my expectation, moving more slowly actually caused time to expand. By rushing less I was doing things more slowly but my experience was of having more time to spend rather than less. It appears that the modern lifestyle actually compresses time, reducing our sense of lived experience. This seems to go beyond the concern of the slow movement with the quality of time and actually have more to do with the perceived quantity of time.

What implications does this have for the organisation of the economy? David Harvey wrote long ago about the way in which culture, whether of the 'high' or 'low' variety (opera or fishing) is a substitute for what capitalist work structures deny people in the workplace. When time is pressured and measured and outside your control you are not really living at all. Your time has been stolen by your employer. Harvey was in fact only expanding on a point made by Marx that the factory system represents the annihilation of space by time.

Stealing time is far more subtle and effective than stealing space. From the Norman Conquest through the Enclosure Movement we have witnessed and protested against our exclusion from the 'common treasury' of land and resisted the domination of castles and corporations. The stealing of time is effected through the creation of money as debt. When a bank creates a debt in this period to generate cash it is buying people's labour in the future to pay back that debt. It is this system of money creation and the vast quantities of debt it generates that has turned us all into wage slaves.

The escape route lies in re-embedding ourselves and our work in our own space and time which is why localisation is philosophically as well as environmentally important. The more you can work at your own pace and exchange things with people you know the more you will be taking back control over your own time and space and emancipating yourself and your community.


  1. Molly, I thoroughly agree. Globalisation has lead to a shedding of local cultures which has possibly spurred a backlash whereby people are seeking out their "roots" and looking for meaningful and authentic connections to their own cultural heritage. Difficult trying to swim against the tide though. Regarding the importance of time, I think it was the philosopher Epicurus who believed we need 3 things to be happy; freedom and control over our destiny, close friendships and time to reflect on our lives. This third element does seem under attack from the treadmill created by a debt burdened money supply. p.s. what do you mean by "how I can keep getting it so wrong" ?

  2. I didn't find 'how I can keep getting it so wrong'. Where did you find this?

  3. Not in this article, but in your comment underneath the last post.

  4. Ok. I meant, how come if I am so wise about the meaning of time in capitalism I am still rushing!!!