Posts Tagged ‘time’

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Richard Reeves is right about one thing: time is crucial to capitalism’s legitimacy. The premise and promise of capitalism are that the future will be better than the present. And “if capitalism loses its lease on the future, it is in trouble.”

The fact is, things are not getting better for the vast majority of American workers. They’re falling behind. For example, as is clear in the chart above, the labor share in the U.S. nonfarm business sector has fallen more than 13 percent since early 2001—and there’s no indication that trend will be reversed anytime in the foreseeable future.

Time is clearly running out on capitalism.

It’s not as though Americans are unaware of this and other related trends, such as the looming climate crisis.*

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Back in 2014, most Americans (62 percent) said the economic system in the United States unfairly favored powerful interests; only about a third (34 percent) said it is generally fair to most Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, those percentages are almost the same today.**

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Moreover, the public continues to say that “business corporations make too much profit.” Today, 56 percent of the public says corporations make too much profit; only 39 percent say “most corporation make a fair and reasonable amount of profit.” These views have held largely steady since 1994.

Americans hold similar views about the fairness of the Trump tax cuts (49 percent disapprove versus 36 percent who expressed approval) and the federal tax system (around 60 percent feel that some corporations and some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share).

Clearly, capitalism has lost a great deal of whatever legitimacy it once enjoyed in the minds of Americans.

Time may be running out for capitalism but time is still on our side. Because the same future orientation—the fact that “once the capitalism engine revved up, the future entered our collective imagination”—also includes the possibility that things can in fact be better in the future, even if making things better requires fundamental changes in the way the economy is organized.***

It is that relationship to time created by capitalism, according to which “each generation will rise on the shoulders of the one before,” that both leads to resentment about the unfulfilled promises of the existing economy and sparks the imagination of a radically different way of organizing economic and social life in the future.

 

*Reeves makes what can only be considered a risible argument on this score: “Blaming capitalism for climate change is like blaming distilleries for drunk driving.” The fact is, global warming is the result of the Capitalocene, in which the activities of corporations have made enormous profits both producing and using fossil fuels—and they haven’t been made to pay for the environmental costs, which they’ve managed to shift to the rest of society.

**The only notable change in the last five years is the fact that Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes about the fairness of the economic system have moved in opposite directions: in 2014, there was a 20 percentage-point gap between the shares of Republicans (51 percent) and Democrats (71 percent) who said the economy unfairly favors powerful interests; that gap is now 41 points (40 percent of Republicans versus 81 percent of Democrats). While about eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners say the economic system is unfair, a majority of Republicans and Republican leaners (56 percent) now say the economic system is generally fair to most Americans.

***The problem of time has long eluded mainstream, especially neoclassical, economists. For example, the only way they can envision a general equilibrium of markets is to suspend time, forbidding all trades unless and until there’s a price vector (announced by the mythical “auctioneer”) that brings all (actually, n-1) markets into equilibrium. Once time is introduced and trades take place without supply-demand equilibrium, all bets are off. Then, it’s likely the economy will not be in equilibrium, and may even move further away from equilibrium over time.

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It’s hard to imagine any kind of utopian project in Puerto Rico—especially after a decade of mounting economic crisis and a savage series of austerity measures, and then of course the widespread devastation of and notably slow recovery from Hurricane Maria.

But that’s exactly what’s taking place on the island, according to a recent report by Naomi Klein in The Intercept.

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In fact, in the midst of the disaster, two radically different utopian visions are taking shape: one is a libertarian project of privatization and gated communities for newly minted cryptocurrency millionaires and billionaires; the other aims to create a decentralized form of sovereignty—of energy, food, and much else—for ordinary Puerto Ricans.

Neither vision is new; aspects of both were being articulated before the hurricane reduced much of the island to rubble. But they’ve taken on new urgency, in the midst of the collapse of the old model and the series of shocks—both economic and environmental—that have made contemporary Puerto Rico such a disaster zone.

In many ways, it’s a familiar story. We’ve seen this kind of battle of utopian visions in many cases of “disaster capitalism”: from Chile in the 1970s through post-Katrina New Orleans to the largest ever municipal bankruptcy in Detroit. Each created the possibility of criticizing the existing model and then radically remaking the economic and social landscape.

Puerto Rico is the latest site of this battle of fundamentally different utopian visions.

One such vision is sponsored by the administration of Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, backed by the Financial Oversight and Management Board (which consists of seven members appointed by the President of the United States and one ex-officio member designated by the Governor of Puerto Rico, created by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act of 2016). Even before Hurricane Maria hit the island, the goal was to cut back on and eventually privatize government services, especially the power grid and public school system, and attract wealthy individuals and create corporate tax havens with massive tax breaks to an island that is functionally bankrupt. The latest step in this plan was announced at Blockchain Unbound, a three-day “immersive” pitch earlier this month at San Juan’s ornate Condado Vanderbilt Hotel for blockchain and cryptocurrencies with a special focus on why Puerto Rico will “be the epicenter of this multitrillion-dollar market.”

Department of Economic Development and Commerce Secretary Manuel Laboy Rivera

used the conference to announce the creation of a new advisory council to attract blockchain businesses to the island. And he extolled the lifestyle bonuses that awaited attendees if they followed the self-described “Puertopians” who have already taken the plunge. As Laboy told The Intercept, for the 500 to 1,000 high-net-worth individuals who relocated since the tax holidays were introduced five years ago — many of them opting for gated communities with their own private schools — it’s all about “living in a tropical island, with great people, with great weather, with great piña coladas.” And why not? “You’re gonna be, like, in this endless vacation in a tropical place, where you’re actually working. That combination, I think, is very powerful.”

The various elements of the other, opposing utopian vision also preceded Maria. Casa Pueblo, a decades-old community and ecology center with deep roots in the Cordillera Central, is one source.

Already a community hub before the storm, the pink house rapidly transformed into a nerve center for self-organized relief efforts. It would be weeks before the Federal Emergency Management Agency or any other agency would arrive with significant aid, so people flocked to Casa Pueblo to collect food, water, tarps, and chainsaws — and draw on its priceless power supply to charge up their electronics. Most critically, Casa Pueblo became a kind of makeshift field hospital, its airy rooms crowded with elderly people who needed to plug in oxygen machines.

Thanks also to those solar panels, Casa Pueblo’s radio station was able to continue broadcasting, making it the community’s sole source of in- formation when downed power lines and cell towers had knocked out everything else. Twenty years after those panels were first installed, rooftop solar power didn’t look frivolous at all — in fact, it looked like the best hope for survival in a future sure to bring more Maria-sized weather shocks.

But there’s also the Segunda Unidad Botijas 1 farm school in Orocovis (where students learn and practice (“agro-ecological” farming), Organización Boricuá (a network of farmers who use traditional Puerto Rican methods), the Citizens Front for the Audit of the Debt (which in the year before Hurricane Maria called for an audit of the island’s debt), and now JunteGente (the People Together, which has begun drafting a people’s platform, one that will unite their various causes into a common vision for a radically transformed Puerto Rico).

So, Puerto Rico is now the home of two radically different utopian visions—one that promises a playground for the super-rich, the other a new model of self-management for the majority of the island’s population.

But there are two problems confronting the second, more popular vision. First, it requires a level of political participation of the population “that has a lot of other things on its plate right now.” Thinking big and scrambling just to survive in the midst of disaster are often difficult to articulate and sustain simultaneously.

The other problem is time—the difference between “the speed of movements and the speed of capital.” As Klein explains,

Capital is fast. Unencumbered by democratic norms, the governor and the fiscal control board can whip up their plan to radically downsize and auction off the territory in a matter of weeks — even faster, in fact, because their plans were fully developed during the debt crisis. All they had to do was dust them off and repackage them as hurricane relief, then release their fiats. Hedge fund managers and crypto-traders can similarly decide to relocate and build their “Puertopia” on a whim, with no one to consult but their accountants and lawyers.

Clearly, the libertarian utopian project clearly has time—and the power of capital and government, in Puerto Rico and on the mainland—on its side. But that doesn’t mean it will win. It can be imposed by decree but it still requires popular consent.

Arguably, the power of that consent is more closely aligned with the

dream of a society with far deeper commitments and engagement — with each other, within communities, and with the natural systems whose health is a prerequisite for any kind of safe future.

The future of Puertopia will be the outcome of the battle between two radically different visions of utopia for the island and its people.

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It’s about time someone pointed out the obvious: “Bosses are dictators, and workers are their subjects.”

We generally don’t talk that way, of course. However, as Elizabeth Anderson [ht: ja] explains, contemporary workplaces are like private governments, in which employers have dictatorial powers over their workers—and workers have almost no say in how they are governed.

Like Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis. (Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.

Dictatorship in the workplace—after workers are forced to freely sell their ability to work in the labor market—seems obvious to me and many other heterodox economists. But it’s certainly not obvious to mainstream economists, who like their classical predecessors continue to celebrate the freedom and mutual benefit of wage contracts and the efficiency of firms that are ruled by the representatives of the property owners.*

What is even more interesting, at least to me, is the way Anderson mentions the issue of time and then seems to let it slide.

Here’s how she begins her essay:

Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.

But then Anderson, after mentioning “time theft,” moves on to the various ways employers exercise dictatorial control over their workers and forgets about time. But isn’t time what the employer-worker relationship is all about—the reason that employers act like dictators and workers are forced to surrender almost all their rights while they are working?

What is mostly absent from Anderson’s analysis is time, especially the distinction between necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time. During part of the workday, employees—whether at Walmart, GM, or Google—work for themselves, and thus receive a wage equal to the value of their ability to work. But they continue working and during those extra hours they aren’t working for themselves, but for their employers. That’s time that’s stolen from the workers, which forms the basis of their employers’ profits.

So, the real “time theft” is not what workers do to their employers, exactly the opposite, what employers do to their workers—when, after necessary labor-time is completed, workers are forced to have the freedom to engage in surplus labor-time.

Thus, when Amazon workers exchange casual remarks while on duty, they’re cutting into the surplus labor-time due to their employers. The half-hour Apple workers wait in line to be searched, for which they are not paid, is a way of making sure that particular activity doesn’t cut into the surplus-time due to their employers. By the same token, when Tyson prevents its’ poultry workers from using the bathroom, who are then forced to urinate on themselves, less time is being spent engaged working for themselves and more for their employers.

In other words, under conditions of workplace dictatorship, time is stolen from workers to  benefit their employers.

Furthermore, because employers, and not workers, are the ones who appropriate the benefits of surplus labor-time, it puts workers in the position of continuing to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work and to submit to the dictates of their employers.

Thus, “time theft” is both a condition and consequence of the private dictatorship of employers in the workplace.

A whole book could in fact be written about this idea of “time theft,” inside and outside the workplace.

For example, inside the workplace, new technologies have the effect both of allowing time to slip out of employers’ grasp—as, for example, when workers appear to be working at their desks but, in fact, are surfing the internet or catching up with friends and family members on Facebook—and allowing employers to tighten their grip—especially when it permits control over the pace of work and new forms of surveillance. Technology seems to cut both ways when it comes to “time theft” in the workplace.

But “time theft” is also important outside the workplace. Consider, for example, the standardization of time—which robs many of us of local traditions of time—as well as the fact that there is a large and growing gap in life expectancy between those at the top and bottom of the economic scale—which means time is being stolen from the poor and distributed to the rich.

I could go on. The important point is “time theft” is an ongoing problem of contemporary capitalism, both within the dictatorship of the workplace and in the seeming democracy of our lives outside of work.

It’s time someone wrote that book.

 

*In fact, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics for “proving” that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.

 

Mainstream economists argue that time makes money. According to the Austrians, production takes time, because of “roundabout” methods, which creates the additional value that flows to capital. Neoclassical economists have a different theory: the return to capital is the reward for savings created by time-deferred consumption. However, in both cases, time is the basis of the value that is captured as profits.*

In Cosmopolis, the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo (adapted for the cinema by David Cronenberg in 2012), Erik Packer’s “chief of theory,” Vija Kinski, explains they have it backwards:

“Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man-hours, using labor more efficiently.”. . .

“Because time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential. The future becomes insistent. This is why something will happen soon, maybe today,” she said, looking slyly into her hands. “To correct the acceleration of time. Bring nature back to normal, more or less.”

DeLillo (via Kinski), as it turns out, is right—at least when it comes to healthcare in the United States.

According to a series of reports in the most recent issue of the British medical journal The Lancet (confirming the results of a study I wrote about last year), increasing inequality means wealthy Americans can now expect to live up to 15 years longer than their poor counterparts.

As economic inequality in the USA has deepened, so too has inequality in health. Almost every chronic condition, from stroke to heart disease and arthritis, follows a predictable pattern of rising prevalence with declining income. The life expectancy gap between rich and poor Americans has been widening since the 1970s, with the difference between the richest and poorest 1% now standing at 10.1 years for women and 14.6 years for men.

The obscenely unequal distribution of income and wealth in the United States is responsible for increasingly unequal health outcomes.**

In addition, both structural racism (the “systematic and interconnected web of institutions and factors that lead to adverse health outcomes”) and mass incarceration (on prisoners, their families, and their communities), according to two other studies, exacerbate class-based health inequalities.

While the authors of one of the studies argue that “the health-care system could soften the effects of economic inequality by delivering high-quality care to all,” they conclude that the U.S. system falls “far short of this ideal.” That’s because disparities in access to care—based on income, race, and unequal rates of imprisonment—are far wider in the United States than in other wealthy countries.

Moreover, according to another study, even after the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansion, twenty-seven million Americans remain uninsured and, even for many with insurance, access to affordable care remains elusive. At the same time, unneeded and even harmful medical interventions remain common (due, in part, to the fragmented health-care delivery system), corporate administration consumes nearly a third of health spending, and wealthy Americans consume a disproportionate and rising share of medical resources.

Thus, the editors of the series conclude,

Although a Series about health published in a medical journal may seem far removed from the political arena where much of the decision making about how to address these factors lies, the message of this collection of papers transcends that distance. . .it is no radical statement to say that Americans deserve better and, most importantly, the time for action has arrived.

It is time, in other words, to make the necessary changes so that money is available to provide decent healthcare for all Americans.

 

*One neoclassical economist, the late Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow (pdf), did have the intellectual honesty to admit that the absence of future markets represented a severe shortcoming of capitalism, a coordination failure, and supported the case for a socialist economy.

**The authors also note that the medical system in the United States itself influences inequality, as an employer of nearly 17 million Americans. Although physicians and nurses are generally well paid, many other health-care workers are not:

The health-care system employs more than 20% of all black female workers; more than a quarter of these health-care workers subsist on family incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and 12.9% of them are uninsured.

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David Wojnarowicz, Untitled from Ant Series (time/money), 1988

Tom Chatfield [ht: ja] makes a compelling case that, in the era of “big data,” we often suffer from what is called a recency bias, the “tendency to assume that future events will closely resemble recent experience.”

It’s a version of what is also known as the availability heuristic: the tendency to base your thinking disproportionately on whatever comes most easily to mind. It’s also a universal psychological attribute. If the last few years have seen exceptionally cold summers where you live, for example, you might be tempted to state that summers are getting colder – or that your local climate may be cooling. In fact, you shouldn’t read anything whatsoever into the data. You would need to take a far, far longer view to learn anything meaningful about climate trends. In the short term, you’d be best not speculating at all – but who among us can manage that?

The same tends to be true of most complex phenomena in real life: stock markets, economies, the success or failure of companies, war and peace, relationships, the rise and fall of empires. Short-term analyses aren’t only invalid – they’re actively unhelpful and misleading. Just look at the legions of economists who lined up to pronounce events like the 2009 financial crisis unthinkable right until it happened. The very notion that valid predictions could be made on that kind of scale was itself part of the problem.

And the solution?

What’s needed is something that I like to think of as “intelligent forgetting”: teaching our tools to become better at letting go of the immediate past in order to keep its larger continuities in view.

Now, if only we could intelligently forget mainstream economics—and spend more time studying history, including of course the history of capitalism. Then, we’d be in better shape to understand the recurring boom-and-bust-cycles that regularly throw millions of people out of work and subject them to the kinds of crises they’ve been forced to endure for the past nine years, while those at the top once again benefit from the way the game is rigged.

Rise up at night

Posted: 20 April 2016 in Uncategorized
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The other day, I posted a note about Nuit debout (which loosely translated means “rise up at night”), the “vast nocturnal protest gatherings [that] have spread across France.

Gabriel Rockhill [ht: ja] explains the cultural and political significance of the movement:

This movement stands up—through the night—against the one force known for its worldwide insomnia: capitalism. If it is praised for its supposed productive forces and consumer options or condemned due to its debilitating alienation and environmental degradation, it is generally recognized that the time of capital is 24/7. Although stores or stock exchanges might occasionally close, the sleepless juggernaut of capitalist expansion never tires of extracting profit from the four corners of the globe.

Resistance to the night guardian of this shadowy world, on the contrary, is too often presented as fragmentary and intermittent, when it is not simply ignored as if it were non-existent. Indeed, the latter has been the preferred tactic of the overwhelming majority of the Anglophone media, whose paltry coverage of the events is a testament to their role in promulgating obscurities. When there is attention paid to radical insurgencies, the mass media, professional politicians and well-paid pundits revel in stories with clear beginnings and ends, thereby securing closure in terms of a simple narrative logic that commonly juxtaposes dawning aspirations to dusk-like disappointments. In the beginning, we are frequently told, there was light: individuals in a specific location like Paris suddenly ‘awakened’ one day in order to come together in a collective act of protest. After battling for a specific goal and attracting the supposed daylight provided by corporate media coverage, they then sink back into the abyss from which they came, perhaps leaving things worse than before. Spectators are subtly encouraged to wonder why there was even a protest in the first place, the implicit message being that it is best never to try and change things at all (since they are ultimately unchangeable).

The space and time of insurrection are thereby divided and conquered. Individual instances are separated out in space and terminology: the Indignados Movement, the Arab Spring, the Pots and Pans Protest in Quebec, etc. They are also condensed into precise and circumscribed flashpoints, as has been the case with the problematic reduction of the Occupy movement to Zuccotti Park. They are then inscribed within a temporal framework of original aspirations and final consequences. Everything becomes a question of means and ends: what is the goal and was it attained? The only possible success is thus defined in terms of ‘productive’ results within a delimited space and time, as if the revolutionary transformation of society in totocould be reduced to the same logic as capitalist profit margins. This is indeed the spatiotemporal divide-and-conquer strategy that seeks to narratively incarcerate revolutionary insurrection: the condition of possibility of success is its own failure! To have a so-called productive outcome, it needs to hastily vanish into the instrumentalist logic of striving to reach a single industrious goal within the system in place.

The subliminal message inherent in this narrative structure is that whereas so-called capitalist productivity never sleeps and its tentacles hold the entire world in the loving embrace of fierce competition, resistance to it arises—and can only arise—in brief instances and circumscribed locations with the explicit goal of making minor adjustments to an unquestionable reality. The felicitous label Nuit debout suggests, however, a different story, which concerns the sleepless titan that is worldwide insurgency against the death grip of imperialist and colonial capitalism in the supposedly beneficent age of ‘globalization.’ Like so many of the other movements, it rejects punctual and instrumentalized space-time in favor of a continuous time of occupation and an open space for the convergence of struggles (including those for popular education, the dismantling of the patriarchy, the overcoming of the refugee and immigration crisis, LGBTQ rights, the preservation of the environment, social welfare, and so forth).

Capitalism and time

Posted: 6 November 2015 in Uncategorized
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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.