All Commentary
Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Expropriation of Time

Think of the times that you have been forced to repeat the same process two, three, and even four times as a consequence of bureaucratic inefficiency.

Socialization influences the way we think of time, or, as Allen Bluedorn would say, “What any group of people thinks about time ends up being a result of them interacting with each other and socialization processes.” For example, instead of a linear concept of time, for Native Americans it is a cyclical phenomenon like the seasons that repeats itself over and over (that is the reason why in some Native Americans dialects there is a complete absence of past-marking). It can also be stated that Latin Americans conceive of time differently than most Europeans or Americans: generally, punctuality is not our thing.

However, for Katherine Verdery, a political anthropologist who specializes in Eastern Europe and socialist and post-socialist transformations, time is not only a social or cultural construct, but a political construct that is forged through conflicts that involve, on one hand, social actors who seek to create and impose new temporal disciplines, and, on the other, the persons subjected to this transformative project. The author argues that, since in any given amount of time we can do X number of things, we must constantly face the decision of how to manage time. Thus, time is a means of activity manifested through what we decide to do with our bodies. Yet we are often prevented from making that decision.

Romania’s Experiment in Government-Mandated Time

Verdery uses the example of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania to illustrate this argument. By trying to “break free from foreign interference, the communist dictatorship decided in the early 1980s to pay the foreign debt in advance, subjecting its citizens to severe austerity measures that included massive exports of foodstuffs and significant reductions of imported goods and fuel to slow down the drain of hard currency, alongside a repressive apparatus to silence anyone who didn’t agree with those measures or its consequences.

Time is a means of activity manifested through what we decide to do with our bodies. Yet we are often prevented from making that decision.Shortages soon arrived and with it the following scenarios: workers found themselves in periods where they had nothing to do in their factories due to the scarcity of supplies – they would even be sent home – and in other periods they would be forced to work extra hours without extra payment to make up for the lack of productivity that the austerity measures caused in the first place.

Urban-dwellers could not decide when to cook or boil water as the gas supply was turned off precisely at times of normal use, in order to avoid “excessive consumption.” Women usually had to get up at early as 4 a.m. to cook. While urban citizens could decide when to go to the bathroom, they could not decide when to flush the toilet because the water supply was also turned off. If they were careful enough, they could fix the problem with buckets of water previously stored, but this was not a solution for bathing, due to the lack of gas. Nor could they decide when they would go to or be back from work because public transportation was wholly unreliable and private cars weren’t an option – both scenarios caused by the derisory gasoline rationing.

Farmers also had their time seized: they weren’t permitted to plant according to the timing optimal for nature because they relied on fuel allotment for their tractors. Village women couldn’t decide when they would iron or do the laundry because of fuel conservation measures that included turning off the electricity to rural areas, usually in an unannounced schedule. This also prevented villagers from watching the two hours of television to which Romanian air time had been reduced.

Romanians could not even decide when to make love. Because of the pro-natal policy of the government, all forms of contraception and abortion were banned (for the increase of future workers and laborers). Therefore, the Romanians had to adhere to abstinence and natural rhythms. The use of their bodies and the use of their time was centrally (un)planned.

A Modern Romania

Ceausescu’s Romania shares mass immobilization with today’s Venezuela due to several similarities, including the long lines to buy basic goods (the average Venezuelan spends 35 hours each month queueing for food), and the announced and unannounced government-imposed electricity blackouts. On the other hand, Venezuela also faces immobilization due to the rampant insecurity that forces most of its citizens, especially Caraquenians, to stay home after 8 p.m. or even earlier.

Romania’s story is relevant to demonstrate that, regardless of time and place, the consequences of socialism in this matter are pretty much the same: individuals cannot control their own time and therefore cannot plan, cannot act as independent agents, and cannot achieve self-realization. As Verdery states it: “As their bodies were forced to make histories not of their choosing, their selves became increasingly fractured.”

Nevertheless, it is not necessary to be in such extreme situations to be a victim of government time-seizure. Think of all the time you have wasted on red tape (the vast majority of times; completely absurd). Think of the times that you have been forced to repeat the same process two, three, and even four times as a consequence of bureaucratic inefficiency, or the time it takes you to fill the never-ending requirements of government-controlled agencies.

Now, think of an alternate use for that time: what you would have done if you had been able to fully decide on that time? You could  have worked and made money, shared with your loved ones, read a book, watched TV, slept, or even done nothing. Whatever your choice was, the fact is that you were prevented from doing so by government decision.

Government controls and regulations, in many cases, destroy our initiative and our ability to plan our own days. Quietly and mostly without us noticing, the expropriation of the scarcest and most important resource we have takes place: the expropriation of our time.