A Break in Time: Politics and Temporality Part 3

Inner Structure, Kazuo Nakamura (1952)

Editor's Note: In the previous section of A Break in Time, Edmund Berger expanded upon his thesis that politics and temporality are intrinsically interrelated by looking at the political modality of time and examining how speed and time combined to act as drivers of political shifts. In this final section, Berger examines the economic modality of time and and leaves us with a call to action.

If you haven't yet read parts 1 and 2 of this series, we suggest you start at the beginning


The Three Modalities of Time and Speed


III. The Economic

As with Proudhon, so too did Marx find in time a force that profoundly problematized the political. It was to be competing compositions with fundamentally difference vantage points, however. For Proudhon, the movement of progress was the motor of history, thus positioning it in a position of exteriority—a maneuver that had brought to the theory properly modern, Kantian valences. Marx's critique of Proudhon, however, charged that there was no way to philosophically account for how progress itself was generated. His concerns moved the locus of movement from the outside to the inside, yet this was no return to the conditions of the absolute in which the divine ruler or the despotic state server as the arbiter and binder of time. This account of progress was the unfolding of human history through the ongoing development of productive forces, and it is in this industrious march that the experience of time was organized. “Every economy,” Marx wrote in The Grundrisse, “is in the end an economy of time.”1

The temporality given by Proudhon lacks the sense of acceleration that had so captured his predecessors and many of his comrades, perhaps due to his skepticism of the direction of industrial society and the proliferation of the capitalist division of labor.2 For Marx, who had observed that capitalism was mercilessly carrying out the annihilation of space by time, the sensation of speeding-up was ubiquitous with industrial modernity. In a discussion deep in the third volume of Capital, he suggests that the tendency of rate of profit to fall—a controversial thesis that emerged from the sketching of the long-range effects of the continually-intensifying mechanization of production—was indistinguishable from an accelerated accumulation of capital.3 If the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is the dynamic central to the dynamism of capitalism, then it follows that this accelerated rate of accumulation too takes a front and center position. Elsewhere in the same volume, another form of quickening is examined, this time in the expansion of access to credit on the part of industrial capitalists: The “credit system accelerates the material development of the productive forces and the establishment of the world-market.”4 Even in the Communist Manifesto is the sense of acceleration registered: in the epoch of capitalism “[a]ll fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and removable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”5

If, as Marx wrote, “no social order can disappear before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed,” and if this development of productive forces is locked into an accelerating pace, then the supersession of capitalism by socialism would be a future historical event that is coming closer and closer.6 And indeed, Marx held that capitalism's reign would be much shorter than the stages of history that had preceded it. The post-capitalist mode of production rises up in the shadow of temporal implosion, a singularity point positioned in the tight coil of intense speed and rampant mechanization. In this, do we not see the simultaneous continuity and rupture with the earlier modes of time and speed? For Luther, temporal quickening heralded the Second Coming; for Robespierre, an emergent golden age.

So too it is for Marx—though a major point of distinction between his vision and that of Robespierre is that human agency is left profoundly problematized. His vision of revolution might indeed ultimately be closer to that of Maréchal, in that it becomes naturalized in the flow of increasingly asymmetrical time. The difference for Marx is that his theory allows us to look backwards and assess each modality of time in relation to the development of productive forces. Calendars and clocks, the development of the modern city against the ruralism of the pre-modern and early modern epochs, the consolidation of the world-market, the penetration of the interior depths of the earth by hand and then by machine, the technologies and sciences that both fuel all these things and also serve as their inevitable result: each contributes to the experience of time, not only its primary operations, cyclical versus linear versus something in between, but in the registering of its pace.

Deeper and deeper into this development, however, and even the sense of futural promise fades into the blurred line of time. The cult of reason turned into the church of madness in the events of World War I—a conflict described by Deleuze and Guattari as the first capitalist war—and the full blossoming of industrial modernity that resulted was to be forever characterized by the thrill and horror of the specter of what Ernst Junger called total mobilization.7 As Matthias Eberling describes, “'total mobilization’ grips everything and everyone, the ‘World War’ and the ‘world revolution’ encompass the entire planet. Under the pressure of permanent military and ideological confrontation science, the economy, and other subsystems work faster and with less friction. The acceleration of all movement dissolves the remaining resistance. The complete exertion of all forces tolerates no doubts.”8

For Paul Virilio, this situation brings with it not the utopic promise of communism, but the compression of space and time into a nuclear core, a moment of pure unintelligibility where absolute speed overrides any and capacity to respond to it. What began with the efforts to fully integrate the private industrial economy with the war machine through a vast logistical apparatus in World War I would, by the 1980s, become an automatic war where the human agent can only ever fail to keep up with its flux. Taking the conflict in the Falkland Islands as his example, he wrote:


Take the captain of the "Sheffield" and the pilot of the "Super fetendard." The pilot answers to the slogan of the Exocet missiles: "Fire and forget." Push the button and get out of there. You go home, you've seen nothing. You fired forty, sixty kilometers from your target, you don’t care, the missile does it all. On the other side there’s the “Sheffield” captain who says: “In this war, everything happens in a few seconds, we have no time to react.” You see two military men in uniform; one an Argentine pilot, the other a veteran of the Home Fleet, who say: “The missiles go by themselves. We are finished” […] the war-machine is not only explosives, it’s also communications, vectorization. It’s essentially the speed of delivery.9


This is what Nick Land has described as the accelerationist trolley problem: events are happening, they are happening quicker, and we’re losing the ability to respond to them. This is fundamentally the same sort of temporal crisis that Metternich had faced in the events of 1815 and after, yet one that intensified. And just as with that time, today these problems are not the sole purview of philosophical question. Take, for example, the recent report issued by the RAND Corporation titled Speed and Security: Promises, Perils, and Paradoxes of Accelerating Everything.10 The central concern here is the dissolution of decision-making capability inside a temporal crash-space, along worried ruminations that the increasing stress and anxiety that results from living in such a reality will engender all sorts of anti-technological, anti-speed reactions. “The number of places where individuals have agency and can take control in the era of speed is dwindling,” the report's authors intone, before adding—with shades of both Chateaubriand and Marx in the Communist Manifesto—that “[h]itting the brakes is not an option, and time feels too scarce to feel astonished by speed before something else accelerates past it.”11

Any potential answer to that timeless question “what is to be done” is shattered by this reality, as it too relies on decisions and executable commands internal to a navigable time-horizon. Insofar as either revolution or reform is focused on the structures of governance or the economy that are swamped by this crisis, they will remain inexorably moored in quicksand of the temporal crash-space. This does, however, point to one set of solutions: the retooling of structures and systems with greater flexibility, autonomy, and decentralization in mind, so as to better carry-out more localizable decision-making processes that are capable of addressing the question of speed and response-time with greater ease. This is the solution honed in on by RAND, and it is, in fact, one that has long been deployed. Consider, for example, the structures of corporate firms prior to and after the so-called post-industrial revolution. What the current moment calls for would be the doubling-down on these sorts of radical transformations.

At the same time, there is another path—one that, ultimately, is not mutually exclusive with the above and may very well be necessary for it—and that is to try to recapture the sense of an open future, a future characterized by some emergent epoch just barely out of view. Such a path, one fraught with the danger of misstep and failure, would entail the embrace the quickening temporality as the fabric of a mythic time, a time that allows one to act. To even begin to broach this, however, one must act in order to act, learn in order to learn—and this too is a question of time.


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  • 1. Marx, Grundrisse, quoted in Stavros Tombazos, Time in Marx: The Categories of Time in Marx's Capital (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), p. 13. The translation in the edition of the Grundrisse used elsewhere in this present essay (see note 6) is as follows: “Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself.” See Marx, Grundrisse, p. 173. It is also worth pointing out that Deleuze and Guattari operationalize the economic organization of time in their discussion of the smooth and the striated. Labor-time, which they ultimately attribute to the State's ability to capture and overcode nomadic intensities, is a striated time, while free-time, that is, time outside the codification of labor, is smooth time. Such language recalls Jehu's notorious interpretation of Marxian theory: “communism is free time and nothing else.” Deleuze and Guattari, meanwhile, anticipate a cybernetic mode of capitalism that extracts surplus value from smooth time itself, yet they too seem to find in it the potentialities for revolutionary subversion. On the smooth and the striated, see Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p. 474-500. For a succinct overview of Jehu on free time, see Jehu Eaves, “Jehu, What is Your Philosophy?”, The Real Movement, July 2nd, 2017, https://therealmovement.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/jehu-what-is-your-philo....
  • 2. For Marx, the chaos engendered by the capitalist mode of production emerges from the uncoordinated activity in the market, while for Proudhon, this mechanism is in fact the source of great order. If there is chaos, he suggests, it comes instead from the imposition of the division of the labor and the annihilation of the craftsman under the assault of industrialization. Thus, for Proudhon the answer to the “social problem” is to either to restore the artisan economy, or, in the case that this impossible due to the irreversibility of industrialization, to re-organize the factory system as a series of “agro-industrial federations.” Needless to say this is precisely the zone of Proudhon and Marx's great divergence. For more on Proudhon's idiosyncratic perspectives on commerce, organization and revolution, see his The General Idea of Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, (New York: Dover Publications, 2003).
  • 3. Karl Marx, Capital,Volume III, (New York: International Publishers, no date give), p. 166.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 304.
  • 5. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party; in The Essential Left: Marx, Engels, Lenin: Their Essential Teachings, (New York: Barnes and Nobles Inc., 1961), p. 18.
  • 6. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Moscow, Progress Publishers, no date given), p. 4.
  • 7. See Ernst Jünger's 1930 essay “Total Mobilization”, in Richard Wolin (ed.) The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader (Boston: MIT Press, 1992). Here Jünger writes “the process by which the growing conversion of life into energy, the increasingly fleeting content of all binding ties in deference to mobility, gives an ever-more radical character to the act of mobilization... In this unlimited marshaling of potential energies, which transforms the warring industrial countries into volcanic forges, we find perhaps the most striking sign of the dawn of the age of labor.” Emphasis mine. Similarly, in his essay “Across the Line,” Jünger writes that a “withering has seized the world, which is indeed not merely a withering, but is at the same time an acceleration, simplification, intensification, and rush towards unknown goals.” Here acceleration is tied to nihilism—and thus the possibility of its overcoming remains open. See Jünger, “Across the Line” in Martin Heidegger and Ernst Jünger, Correspondence 1949-1975 (London: Rowan & Littlefiend, 2016), p. 86.
  • 8. Quoted in Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p.198.
  • 9. Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War: Twenty Five Years Later, (New York: Semiotext(e), 2008), 25.
  • 10. Kathryn E. Bouskill, Seifu Chonde, and William Wesler IV, Speed and Security: Promises, Perils, and Paradoxes of Accelerating Everything (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2018).
  • 11. Ibid., 15.

Edmund Berger is an independent writer and researcher based in Horse Cave, Kentucky. His writings and assorted scribblings can be found at DI-Subunit 22 and Vast Abrupt, among other places. He can be followed on Twitter @EBBerger.