I haven’t yet read Vanessa Ogle’s new book, The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950. However, in his review, Michael Schulson [ht: ra] establishes the basis for exploring interesting parallels between the uneven standardization of time and the development of global capitalism.
A spirit of universalism animated this transition. You can’t have global time without some notion ofthe global. In an era that celebrates interconnectedness and global citizenship, it can be difficult for many Americans, especially on the left, to think of universalism as anything other than a rosy statement of planetary harmony. Ogle is more skeptical: “universalism was never neutral,” she writes, and it’s such an important line that I’m going to quote it again, this time in italics and with a bunch of exclamation points: “universalism was never neutral[!!!]” A universalist ideology was tied up with colonial projects. It was linked to a process of globalization that favored certain parts of the world and hurt others. It put strain on local customs. Sometimes, it simply destroyed them. . .
“The global history of time reform shows how uneven, slow, and full of unintended consequences interconnectedness was,” writes Ogle. She may be overstating the case a bit: time reform was not a perfect, triumphal march for Universal Progress, but it’s not exactly progress-at-a-snail’s-pace when you bring the planet under a single temporal umbrella within the span of a single human lifetime.
But that’s a minor quibble about an important point: the apostles of interconnectedness, whether they’re preaching time reform or the virtues of the Internet Age, will always butt up against resistance. And their agendas reflect certain beliefs about power and the order of the world—because universalism, in case I haven’t mentioned it, is never neutral.
Ogle is giving us, in elegant detail, a snapshot of a fundamental-but-largely-forgotten collision between religious traditions and the forces of scientific standardization. But instead of framing that collision in terms of a straightforward conflict—new science crushes old religion—she’s mapping the delicate interplay that takes place when local traditions confront large, standardized systems.
When confronting this kind of interplay, the most common mistake is to see only two possible outcomes: one in which science wins, and another in which the locals hold out, and continue scheduling their days in the manner of 14th century peasants. What actually happens, of course, is more complicated: the clock in the village square changes to Beirut time, which itself conforms to GMT. But the muezzin keeps using the sun—except that people predict when prayers will start by checking their watches, and they eventually set their watches by the time of their favorite TV show, which happens to come on right after dark, because it’s the network’s marquee program, and the executives want to make sure more people are inside to watch it, so they set the schedule against the sun.
And on it goes. Our time system is a representation of all the ways that the global influences the tiniest rhythms of our days, but also of the ways that, for all its pervasiveness, it cannot.
First, like the standardization of time, the development of capitalism has never been neutral. Both have always involved particular class interests, even as the capitalist class has proclaimed its universalist pretensions, both within and across countries. Second, the attempts to create a standard time scheme, then as now, was and remains just that, a project. It has been, like capitalism, a forceful project to remake the world but, against the prognostications of many—both celebrators and critics—that project has always been incomplete. Many forms of noncapitalism continue to occupy and define the economic landscape. And, of course, to capture the imagination of many people.
Those, it seems, are the timeless lessons of both the global transformation of time and the global development of capitalism.