S is for Suspense

“Before Einstein told us that it wasn’t true, how the devil did we get it into our heads that time passes everywhere at the same speed?”

Everyone knows that our experience of time doesn’t correspond to clock time.

‘Time flies when you’re having fun’

‘Clocks go slow in a place of work / Minutes drag and the hours jerk’

Most physicists now agree there is no time variable in the fundamental equations that govern our universe. There is no universal objective clock time. A clock’s hands turn more slowly at sea level, where they’re closer to the Earth’s mass, than they do high up in the mountains. Time passes more slowly too for an object travelling at a great speed.

Yet our lives are dominated by the clock and by clock time: alarm clock; school bell; time-and-motion study; algorithmic management.

‘The clock, not the steam engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age [capitalism]… The clock ... is a piece of power-machinery whose “product” is seconds and minutes.’

Many physicists now believe that time emerges from events. In fact our entire universe – including time – is made of events.

But if nothing is happening – if there are no events – does this mean there is no time. Has time stopped?

There have been many moments during lockdown when this is how it has felt, especially for those us furloughed, trapped at home. Living – existing – in limbo. Waiting for something to happen.

For others of us, of course, time accelerated. For key workers, care workers, medical workers… much too much was happening.

Corona times have made it more obvious that many times exist, many ways of thinking about time, and many ways of measuring duration.

There are cyclical times – the rhythm of the seasons and of the sun and the moon. They are familiar to farmers, gardeners and ornithologists, and those who respect a religious calendar. But for those of us who normally spend our days gazing at a screen or an office wall, it was a joy to observe green shoots pushing their way up through soil.

There is task-oriented time. How long to knead the dough? To walk to the park? To sew a mask?

And there are times in which we allow our human needs to take precedence: when to eat, when to sleep, when to love.

For capitalism, it is only clock time that counts. It needs us all to march to its metronomic beat. Tick-tock-tick-tock-kerching.

But as children show us, capitalist clock time is not something that comes naturally. Capital’s order is fragile, always on the verge of breaking down.

“Punching the clock” usually refers to the dreary routine of signing in and signing out, logging in and logging off. A lifetime of submission to work.

But it also has a more subversive meaning. During the 1871 Paris Commune, insurgents toured the city, shooting at the clocks on the towers of the churches and palaces.

The rebels knew then, as we know now, that it’s only a matter of time…


We have drawn on ideas from various sources but the following are worth mentioning: Carlo Rovelli’s book The Order of Time (from which we’ve taken the “Before Einstein...” quote; Julian Barbour’s book The End of Time; Massimo De Angelis and Dagmar Diesner’s chapter “The ‘brat bloc’ and the making of another dimension”, in the collection Shut them down!: the G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the movement of movements; George Caffentzis’s piece “Three Temporal Dimensions of Class Struggle”, in the anthology In Letters of Blood and Fire.

The “clocks go slow...” couplet is from The Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven” (on Sandinista!). “The clock, not the steam engine...” quote is from Lewis Mumford’s 1934 book Technics and Civilization.