A dialogue on ‘barriers’ to participation and capitalist temporalities


Coming together can make it possible to live more and work less. Doing things collectively is the only way we can be free from the obligation to work so hard as self-exploiting individuals. This is not primarily a question of politics or protest.

Patrick Bresnihan Leila Dawney
5 September 2013

Patrick Bresnihan (PB): The statement, 'we have no time to participate', communicates two common understandings. The first is that there is or could be a 'proper' time to participate. This says more about what people consider participation to be than it does about time management.

Participation in this sense is understood to be a formal activity separated from daily life. Perhaps attending a community stakeholder meeting or taking part in a protest or signing a petition. Participation is stripped from the fabric of everyday life and turned into a specific exercise for those who decide they want to 'make a difference'. While this is important it is also true that what goes by the name of 'participation' today is little more than the voicing of opinions.

The recognition of this adds to the growing sense of cynicism we feel about the world: the thought that 'participation' does little or nothing to change the conditions under which we live our lives. The obvious example here is the 'democratic' election every four years where we are given the opportunity to choose our government. Even this brief moment of 'participation' is spurned by more and more people, not because they 'don't have time' but because people are (rightly in most cases) disillusioned with existing forms of representative politics.

The second common understanding is that our time is already accounted for and that this is somehow inescapable: there is no time to do anything other than what we are already doing. This seems apparent when the immediate pressures of getting on with our lives (paying rent, child minders, education, health care and mounting debts) means that most of our time is spent working to make wages that never seem enough.

But the sense that we don't have any time refers to something more specific about the temporalities of contemporary capitalism. Stable jobs and fixed incomes are no longer the norm for workers today. This is not necessarily a bad thing – there is a reason why people struggled against the boredom and drudgery of factory work. However, rather than granting us more time and autonomy, the re-formation of capitalist production over the past forty years has meant that now we never seem to stop working!

The social, technical and material developments that have determined this situation are complex. Three defining elements of contemporary work life can be identified here. First, the shift from industrial production to immaterial production has placed a premium on our intellectual, social, creative and affective activity, activity which does not obey the temporal limits of 0900-1700, or the spatial limits of the office. Second, the development and generalized use of new media technology has meant we are (must be) connected at all times. Thirdly, the liberalization and globalization of the labour market has meant the proliferation of flexible, short term employment contracts. For those lucky enough to have paid employment the chances are this won't last long, meaning the task of looking ahead for the next opportunity is never over.

These three elements combine in the figure of the precarious worker. Moving in and out of work, education and various forms of social welfare, the precarious worker is always having to orientate him or herself to the rapidly changing demands of the labour market. This requires being well-networked in order to respond quickest to opportunities.

As public provision in the form of social welfare, health, education and housing is cut back, more and more of the population are being subjected to this condition. In the UK and Ireland precarity has been institutionalised through the welfare system: if recipients do not show they are working to get work they cannot be assured of payments in the future. The lesson is clear: if we are not improving ourselves through more education or training; if we are not 'putting ourselves out there' in order to network; if we are not applying for more jobs, for more funding, grants and contracts, then we are not doing enough.

This knowledge – that our time is not even money but the faint hope of money in the future – demands that we subordinate more and more of our days and nights to self-improvement. We internalise this future-orientated time; it envelops our waking life and spills into our anxious dreams about what tomorrow might bring.


Leila Dawney (LD): The condition of always having to be switched on not only collapses distinctions between 'work' and 'leisure', it also imposes a frenetic and fragmented rhythm to our daily lives. So, while we share this condition with our fellow nomads we rarely, if ever, share any length of time with them. We do not clock on and clock off at the same time. At best we meet each other in fleeting encounters; brief moments in which to tell each other we don't have the time to talk. The need to work on ourselves, preparing for whatever opportunity may arise, is perhaps the most insidious way in which we become individualised. We find ourselves wanting to engage in mutual or common projects, of being involved in a meaningful way, but the constantly shifting landscape of the future undermines these attempts, breaking our present commitments by opening up new opportunities which we 'must' take. 

These pressures on our time mean is that there is very little left to do anything ‘more’, including getting involved in our communities, in decision making, in trying to make a change.  In much writing about participation, barriers to participation are identified that might include a lack of engagement, apathy, disenfranchisement or  individualism, barriers that can be ‘lifted’ through working with specific community groups to encourage them to engage more, through for example a community arts project or a citizens’ participation project such as a citizens’ jury. This idea that projects such as these can get people more involved in public life, however, simply compounds the idea that a lack of engagement with public life is our fault. It places of the problem of a perceived crisis in participation at the hands of individuals and groups, instead of considering the structural nature of barriers to participation.

If we want people to get more involved with the world outside their own immediate, pressing and material concerns, we need to turn this thinking on its head and consider the temporal and spatial structuring of social life that leads to a lack of time and space for participation. So, instead of asking why people do not participate as much as they might, we need to consider what determining forces structure their social, economic, affective and experiential lives such that participation is neither possible nor desirable. We also need to move away from the assumption that participation in political decision making is a possible and desirable move for everybody if those barriers are removed.

As we have seen, there is little time for other activities when one works a 40 hour week, and maintains a home and family at the same time. When this amount of time spent working is necessary both for having a job to begin with (the ‘normal working week’) and for paying housing and living costs. When one’s commitments to caring for family members, or for self-improvement preclude the time and the will for active participation: when one is expected to maintain one’s appearance, to cook and eat healthy and fresh meals, and to conform to the many expectations that saturate our time.

These pressures on time are by and large the effects of the market, and need to be considered as such, rather than as a lack of engagement by individuals. The colonising and saturating instinct of market forces produces anxieties, desires, needs, all the while incorporating more and more of our activity and labours into its charge. Housing and energy costs, and the structure of the normal working week, mean that it is unrealistic to expect most economically active people to participate in public life in a formal manner, or to move their activities outwards and act for change.

Decisions are made about people’s lives by professional politicians, and people feel too fatigued and detached from political processes to do anything about them. This separation of politics and productive life, then, is a function of the relationship between state, market and society. Identifying these problems as being problems of the market, problems in the way in which resources are distributed and allocated, rather than an individual problem, leads to a number of ways in which these problems can be addressed or overcome.

We need to consider how to rethink these distributions and allocations in order to enable space and time for participation. The temporalities and spatialities of life in late capitalist society do not at present enable this to happen. This could be changed by a radical restructuring of the way in which the economy is organised through labour time, for example through a shorter working week, through workplace based participation, through a redistribution of employment, or through capping of housing costs. These are structural solutions that respond to a structural problem: They move the point of focus from the individual to the way in which time and resource allocation produce ways of life that are at present incompatible with participating in a shared world. By moving and redistributing labour time and resources, we would all have more time to participate.


P.B. But there is something depressing about accepting that our lives are already entirely colonised by contemporary capitalism. We give up something when we agree with the statement: 'we don't have the time'. We give up something and we grant power to capitalism. We accept that we have none of our own time because capitalist time saturates every aspect of our lives. We accept that it is not just our working lives which are subject to the logic of capitalist command and discipline but the way we value our activities in the present and orientate ourselves to the future. We find ourselves trapped in a cage with our only strategy for change being an analysis of its structures and a faint hope that we can reform them. But where is the political subject capable of effecting even the smallest change to this situation? And why should we accept that capitalism already owns our time?

There are fault-lines which run across our everyday lives. These fault-lines refuse the idea, made by capitalists and their critics, that we are all already incorporated into the heart of capitalist life. We are not entirely determined by limited job prospects in the future, or the measures and criteria which decide if we are being productive or not. We break with these insidious forms of instrumentalism every time we do something for no reason, when we slow down in order to attend to those around us, or allow ourselves to be interrupted by a different concern, one perhaps that shouldn't be ours. These moments can be as ordinary as spending an afternoon with a friend when you should be working, or forgetting the pressures of an assignment or the thought of the alarm clock through the rich time being spent with people in the present. These are moments when we love or care for something outside of its role or function within an assumed economy of meaning and value. Of course these moments are transient and ephemeral and cannot in themselves replace capitalism. But they are moments of excess which shift our attention away from the structures of capitalist domination towards the many, everyday ways in which people already escape into different rhythms and social relations.

Through his re-telling of the story of Robinson Crusoe in Friday, or the Other Island, Alain Tournier shows us how the sudden fracturing of time can open up previously unimaginable events and relations. At first the story begins very much like Daniel Defoe's original. Finding himself alone Robinson is terrified that he will fall into an animal-like state if he doesn't attempt to construct and maintain all the structures of the civilization he has left behind. He throws himself into work, colonizing and taming more and more areas of the island. While he satisfies some needs he does not escape the constant fear that his work is not enough. He has fear that he will run out of food, that the rodents will eat his grain, that he will wake one day and not know himself anymore.

In an effort to control this fear of the future he creates a way of measuring time with some bamboo and a supply of water. He counts the hours, and marks the passing days on a wooden calendar, allowing him to monitor his progress and plan ahead. It is not just Robinson that is taken in by this ordering of time but all the life he has brought within his command: now there is a time for sowing, planting, watering; a time for waking and sleeping; a time for rest on the Sabbath. His interactions with the island become dominated by these routines, as well as the constant worry that he has not utilised his time sufficiently, that something more could be done.

One day Robinson forgets to fill the water clock. On waking he notices immediately that the sound of the water has stopped. His first reaction is horror, and then relief. He stretches in his bunk and realises that he doesn't need to perform his chores that morning. He thinks to himself that without time passing the life of the island must be on hold. So he wanders around the island, exploring hollows and caves he had not previously brought himself to visit. He notices colourful birds high up in the branches and the sounds of the jungle became discernible as more than a throbbing backdrop. He moves in directions which he does not decide, carried by nothing more than a new and radiant openness to the island. For the first time Robinson glimpses another island behind the one he had been trying to control. This island flowers and flourishes for its own sake, a fact which had been hidden behind his own daily preoccupations. Here we see how the apparent reality of organised, instrumental time can break down, liberating new relations and possibilities.


L.D. To think the world differently, to make a break with the idea that our lives are colonised by capitalism is all very well, but there are nevertheless real, material, objective forces that act upon us and constrain our power to act differently. There are people who rely on us to feed and clothe and house us; there are expectations of decent social being that we feel obliged to make. To simply decide not to buy into these temporalities is not an option for most of us. Structures do act on us, and constrain us in very real, material ways.

So any movement to contest this saturation of our time, to live in these fault lines, has to take place within the context of our material needs. Not just our basic needs, but our needs to live in a society that invariably does make demands of us, that we cannot just refuse to buy into without radical changes to our lives. Given the perceived impossibility of these structural changes impacting on our lives any time soon, there are real, material things we can do, in terms of the local distribution and allocation of time and resources, which can help us to participate more. This involves thinking about making space for participation through collectivisation. We may consider how to enable those whose current economic position already leaves them open to more active participation: those who are currently outside of work regimes and lack the opportunities to participate.

For example those engaged in caring for young children could create collectivised childcare arrangements that enable those spaces to be not only spaces of care but spaces of active participation in social and political life. In this way, playgroups become learning and community action centres. Children at school are also outside of the wage economy and could be encouraged to become involved in making social worlds. Village meals (in France, the ‘repas de commune’, or ‘repas populaire’) take the burden of cooking away from each household for one day a week, and provide a space to think, to talk, dance, share food and exchange ideas. Schools could also be spaces of participation. Retired people, who may also be carers, are in a position to participate too, if collective spatial and temporal solutions are devised to take care of other needs and responsibilities, freeing their time for participation.

But this is not about ensuring that everyone is productive, or putting people to work. This is not a call for a punitive system that forces the economically inactive into capitalist temporalities of self-improvement and job-seeking. This is about enabling those who are in a position to engage in fulfilling, collective ways of being and living to take advantage of the luxury of their time – to be involved in something which is actively concerned with creating a better – and easier – world, and producing non capitalist spaces where there is time – time to talk, to think, to work together. It is about seeing where the fault lines are and taking them for our collective selves. These fault lines are not just about refusing to participate in neoliberal temporalities. They are about providing material alternatives to the structures and spaces of everyday life that take away our time, and free us to spend time not being productive within capitalism, but acting and making worlds outside of these temporalities that in doing so, changes those temporalities.


P.B. As Karl Marx pointed out many years ago, the ways in which we organise our material resources do other things too – they have an effect on our consciousness. By doing things differently; by acting as though we could make things easier by working together rather than separately, we can do more than just change what we do: we can change how we think, experience and understand the world. 

Of course it is not enough to think ourselves beyond capitalism, as though its hold was mere illusion or ideology a dream. It is precisely the need to attend to concrete experience and the way in which it materialises through and between people and things that provides us with a point from which to create different worlds.

The structuring of contemporary capitalism imposes new constraints on our lives. The scarcity of employment opportunities and the frenetic speed of global capital demands that we work harder than ever for even less reward. This is real, and many people experience its violence every day. But our experiences are not reducible to this violence and exploitation. We are not just bodies in reserve, human capital, expendable. The fault lines are the many instances, hardly perceptible, where people combine to produce different forms of common life at a distance from capitalist valorisation and discipline.

The question is how to attend to and expand these combinations. It is certainly not enough to romanticise them, downplaying the power of capital to close them down or co-opt the value they create. It is also true that we live in depoliticised times when thoughts of a world beyond capitalism and representative, parliamentary democracy are still considered extreme and inappropriate. In such a context any hope of developing a collective process of participation must engage with what does exist: the nascent, uncertain and ambiguous frustrations and joys which motivate people to act and come together. These are the fault-lines which are becoming more visible since the economic collapse. But they are not just cries of desperation. Into the vacuum of politics they are whispers of the return of history, of something else maybe being possible, dim as it may seem.

Recognizing the importance of thinking and feeling differently does not mean ignoring the significance of material resources (production and distribution) for individual and collective activity. Creating different temporalities in which different subjectivities can experiment and develop requires material supports and resources. The coming together of people and their capacities (to cook, build, make, share, socialise) and materials (buildings, technologies, food, spaces) produces a kind of commons which allows people, even temporarily, to escape the self-exploitation and fragmentation that characterises so many other aspects of our lives. Coming together and finding ways of supporting ourselves collectively makes it possible, in small ways, to breathe a sigh of relief, to do things in a time and space which are free from the logic of productivity.

As a first step, this coming together is not based on any common identity or political strategy but a more pragmatic and immediate desire to escape the competition and pressure we experience as precarious workers. Put simply, coming together like this can make it possible to live more and work less because doing things collectively is the only way we can be free from the obligation to work so hard as self-exploiting individuals. This is not primarily a question of politics or protest. It is more a question of fostering ways of escaping immediately and materially the pressures we experience today within contemporary capitalism. In these times and spaces our atomised hurtling onwards is stilled and the people and things we are engaging with appear as something else, as things which cannot be skipped over.


This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.

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