A New Politics of Time
There’s a widespread belief that actually existing democracies are in the grip of a fast-paced world dominated by breaking news and all things instant. The following contribution sets out to question this belief. It takes readers on a time journey. It sets out to probe the meaning of time, and explains why time has a malleable quality. It asks why time is a political matter and why, when they function well, democracies do intriguing things to people’s shared sense of time. The text is a revised version of a presentation to the international conference, The Toronto School: Then, Now, Next held at the University of Toronto, October 15, 2016.
Thinking about the subject of time and politics is a challenge. It’s not just that time, a word we use every day, is incorrigibly abstract, in that time cannot be touched, tasted, heard, seen or smelled. More challenging is the fact that the “reality” of time is never straightforwardly “real”. Time has surreal qualities. What counts as “time”, how it is defined or measured, or why it’s important in our lives, always comes wrapped in media-structured perceptions of the world.
Think of the way languages quantify and spatialise time differently: native speakers of Greek imagine duration of time in quantitative terms (poli ora, “much time”) whereas English speakers typically consider duration of time in terms of linear distance (“a long time”), along the way confusingly mixing their metaphors by saying that they do such things as “waste time”, “spend time” or “save time”. Mandarin speakers referring to time (shíjiān) visually represent the future as if it is below us; speakers of Aymara (peoples of the Andes) think of the future as behind us, while native speakers of English imagine the future to be ahead of us. People who read text from right to left (Arabic, Hebrew) tend to think of time as unfolding in that direction; those who read text from left to right do just the opposite.
These simple examples suggest that time is hostage to the more or less taken-for-granted presumptions harboured by what Wittgenstein called the language “scaffolding” (Gerüst) within which we think, interpret, judge and live our everyday lives. This structuring of peoples’ sense of time by the mediated language through which they live their lives is a dynamic and often contradictory process. Time is at the mercy of the mediated language games people play.
What I mean is that certainties about “time” aren’t set in stone. James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (2016) reminds us they’re contingent. What counts as time is vulnerable to doubt, challenge and transformation. Time is fickle. The “time” people live can change. The transformation may be gradual, the accumulation of increments. The change may also be dramatic, as for example during the heady “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” moments of a revolutionary upheaval, when the “meagre, stale, forbidding ways” (William Wordsworth) of habitually lived time are torn apart. Filled with tidings, time feels out of joint. When that happens, time is redefined so abruptly that what counts as time one day morphs next day into a sense of lived time that feels unrecognisably different.
If people’s lived sense of time is variable, then an obvious question is: what does the way of life known as democracy, popular self-government, do to peoples’ sense of time?
The commonplace view is that democracy is myopic. Buoyed by the sense that the past is over and the future is not yet, democracy encourages a fixation on the here and now. “Democracy is partial toward the present,” writes Dennis Thompson. “Most citizens tend to discount the future, and to the extent that the democratic process responds to their demands, the laws it produces tend to neglect future generations.”
Democratic procedures are said to amplify a “natural human tendency” to think in the present tense. Myopia is the effect of periodic elections and representative government. For the sake of their own skins, elected representatives are compelled to pay attention to the concerns and demands of their constituents; and they have to do so within the framework of repeated election cycles.
Democracy is a form of government pro tempore, says Thompson. It panders to self-interested majorities. The resulting “presentism”, the bias towards the now and the neglect of both the past and the future, may have advantages. “Compared to other forms of government”, writes Thompson, “democracy is not disposed to sacrifice citizens or a whole generation for some distant future goal. It is less vulnerable to the claims of utopian idealists, religious zealots, or radical revolutionaries who call for great sacrifices from the present generation to bring about even greater good for the future of mankind [sic].” He adds: “It is a virtue of democracy that it pays attention to actual citizens and seeks to hold actual rulers accountable for the actions they take on behalf of citizens.”
Other commentators point to the seriously disadvantaging effects of democratic myopia. Democratic institutions are said to discriminate against younger generations. By allocating health care resources for the elderly and financing social insurance schemes out of current taxes, for instance, democracies in effect rob the young and the unborn of their votes.
Democracies are also accused of turning a blind eye to long-term environmental degradation and (say) to the risks associated with bio-genetic engineering and burgeoning population growth. And especially when democracies grow self-satisfied with their present-day performance, egged on by claims that they stand at “the end of history” (Fukuyama), they become poor anticipators of crises, the critics allege. Democracies are said to take forever to read writings on the wall. They’re easily distracted by frivolous media events and fake crises. They are sedated by their track record of success (David Runciman speaks of a “confidence trap”).
Burdened by elections and fickle public opinion and constitutional proprieties, democracies typically lack a sense of urgency, or proportion. They muddle their way into crises triggered by such anti-democratic forces as war and market failure. Then they twiddle their thumbs, usually for so long that they’re forced, finally, to spring into action.
A Plea for Time
The scathing assessment of democracy by the influential Canadian scholar Harold Innis (1894-1952) runs in a similar direction. Renowned for his avant-garde research and writing on space, time and communications, Innis crafted a remarkable essay on the subject of time during the darkest moments of the 1940s. Later delivered within a series of sesquicentennial lectures at the University of New Brunswick (March 30, 1950), “A Plea for Time” railed against the “present-mindedness” of the modern era. According to Innis, respect for the past, and the future, is dying. A variety of modern forces has seriously disturbed the balance between time and space, with disastrous consequences for Western civilisation, parliamentary democracy included.
How did this unbalancing of time and space happen? Among the key driving forces of “present-mindedness” was the rise of capitalism, Innis argued. Capitalism fostered the measurement of time. That in turn facilitated the use of credit and the rise of exchange-based calculations of futures that are deemed predictable, and insurable.
John Maynard Keynes captured its spirit in his Tract on Monetary Reform (1923): mainstream economists, he said, with a touch of sarcasm, have a bad habit of supposing that since in the long run we are all dead, and since capitalism is an equilibrium system, government intervention isn’t needed to support a better future. Capitalism breeds myopia. It requires market actors to believe that “when the storm is past the ocean is flat again”. Capital and labour are forced to concentrate on the present, interested only in living now, and for the immediate future.
Equally important as a driving force of “present-mindedness” was the rise of the “nationalist state”, Innis argued. The modern territorial state helped destroy feast days and other traditional time-keeping practices of the church. Innis doesn’t mention the imaginings of Newtonian physics, which quantified time, graphed it against space and measured it against the motion of clocks. He preferred instead to underscore the invention of the printing press, and how the growing use of paper hastened the decline of Latin and the rise of vernacular languages. “The printing press supported the Reformation and destroyed the monopoly of the church over time,” he wrote.
Increased newspaper circulation, aided by telegraphy and railways, fed the growth of new forms of marketing, such as the department store. It also promoted a culture of news that fed on advertising to cater to momentary sensationalism. The resulting myopic culture of “orgies and excitement” was reinforced by the invention of photography and the electronic media of cinema and radio.
“Effectiveness of an appeal to the ear was enhanced by development of the radio and by the linking of sound to the cinema and to television,” Innis wrote. “Printed material gave way in effectiveness to the broadcast and to the loud speaker. Political leaders were able to appeal directly to constituents and to build up a pressure of public opinion on legislatures.” He added: “The rise of Hitler to power was facilitated by the use of the loud speaker and the radio.”
Fascism was in this sense no accident on the highway to Western modernity. “The political realization of democracy invariably encourages the hypnotist”, wrote Innis. Electronic broadcast media “accentuated the importance of the ephemeral and of the superficial”. The new means of communication helped spread “illusions in catchwords such as democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of speech”.
Organised entertainment and deception of a myopic populace became possible. “As modern developments in communication have made for greater realism they have made for greater possibilities of delusion. We are under the spell of Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” Innis concluded. “The shell and pea game of the country fair has been magnified and elevated to a universal level.”
Under these conditions of instant manipulation, the “dummy sham democracy” of our age finally destroys the spirit and substance of the oral tradition that enabled Greek citizens living in city states to figure out for themselves a proper balance between the past, present and future.
A strange feature of Innis’s dark summary of the fate of democracy in dark times was its silence about the robust discussions of the future of democracy that erupted globally during the decade of the 1940s. I’ve explained in these field notes that the new ideal of monitory democracy was born of this period, at a moment of profound crisis of majority-rule parliamentary democracy, as it had come to be known during the course of the previous two centuries.
This decade of the 1940s remains poorly researched. That’s a pity because it turned out in retrospect to be a decade of ‘dark energy’: it was one of those rare moments when the universe of meaning of democracy underwent a dramatic expansion, in defiance of the cosmic gravity of contemporary events.
The Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann (1875-1955) gave voice to the shift when noting the need for “democracy’s deep and forceful recollection of itself, the renewal of its spiritual and moral self-consciousness”. The Irish man of letters, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) sharpened the point. “A great deal of democratic enthusiasm,” he wrote, “descends from the ideas of people … who believed in a democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true.”
Lewis added that he was opposed to all forms of slavery and unaccountable power because no human beings were “fit to be masters”. The “real reason for democracy”, he wrote, is that human beings are corruptible creatures, so that “no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows”.
Deep suspicion of unchecked power undoubtedly fuelled the conviction of Innis that the grave crisis of the 1940s required a return to Greek-style assembly democracy. “The fanaticism of party, religion, race, professions, nationalism, and militarism,” he wrote, “must somehow be met in the government of the city first and foremost and after that little is left of world problems.”
Alas, his conviction that the city was the only possible safe haven for democracy wasn’t widely shared. Most of his contemporaries, for very good reasons, saw his call to recapture the spirit and substance of Greek assembly democracy as a failure of political imagination. They also considered it practically incapable of meeting the challenges of the dark and dangerous times. Far bolder and forward-looking measures were badly needed, most commentators insisted.
Against the prevailing restricted understanding of democracy as free and fair elections conducted within the confines of territorial states, the new democrats thought differently: they proposed that hereon democracy should be understood as the permanent public struggle by citizens and their chosen representatives to restrain and humble arbitrary power, wherever it is exercised, in any setting, drawing on a wide variety of means that shunned violence.
This moment of dark energy revealed something deeper, more fundamental and more intriguing about democracy itself: its tendency to stimulate people’s sense of the contingency of the power relations through which they live their lives in institutional settings. The decade of the 1940s witnessed what might be called a Schrödinger moment: like the indeterminate fate of Schrödinger’s cat, democracy found itself in a moment of ‘superposition’. By this quantum word I mean that democracy found itself entrapped in multiple parallel states: what had already happened (tragic auto-destruction and near-total annihilation of representative democracy) was bound up with what potentially could happen (the birth of a new historical form of democracy unknown either to the Greeks, or to the early modern champions of representative democracy).
The re-imagining of democracy that took place during the 1940s had an even deeper significance. It highlighted the capacity of democrats and democratic institutions to understand their superposition, to grasp that since the world is always in flux, and that since time tries all things, the world can and must be changed, through intervention by citizens and their chosen representatives. The experience of the 1940s, we could say, showed that compared with all other modes of handling power, the political form known as democracy is uniquely time-sensitive. Attuned to the role played by time in worldly affairs, democracy denatures time. It shows that time is not simply time. It demonstrates in practice that what counts as time can be changed.
The point may seem obstruse. It isn’t. To grasp its meaning and significance, ponder just for a moment the famous surviving Fragment 8 of the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides. When all things are considered, he famously claimed, our world is in essence imperishable, indivisible, continuous. It is an unchangeable, eternal whole. It wants for nothing because it never was, nor will be, but only is.
Now think of democracy, a way of life that encourages citizens and their representatives to cultivate a shared public sense of the malleability of power relations within worldly human affairs. The experience of democracy requires and reinforces people’s shared sense of the mutability of the world. It beckons us to see that the world is infused with time experienced as living in between past, present and future. It calls on us to doubt talk of “nature” and “human nature”. It rejects claims that the business of who gets what, when and how in life is determined by ‘natural’, or God-given or deity-determined processes, or by mere chance.
When seen from this time-sensitive angle, democracy is much more than citizens gathering together and deliberating in public assemblies. It goes well beyond joining or supporting political parties. It means more than voting in periodic elections. It goes well beyond blowing whistles, exposing corruption or keeping tabs on decisions taken by elected and unelected representatives. All these democratic practices are in fact surface symptoms of a dynamic that runs much deeper.
Considered as an ideal set of institutions, and as a whole way of life, democracy stimulates people’s awareness that, as equals, they don’t need to be bossed about by powerful others. It teaches them that they have the ability to shape and structure their lives, as equals who are capable of living together without violence, and of deciding in common their priorities during their time on Earth. Democracy thus supposes and enables humans’ release from pure determination by forces natural and supernatural, however they are conceived.
Democracy doesn’t necessarily demand the practical rejection of belief in transcendent or sacred standards (see my summary in these pages of the way the history of democracy brims with examples of actors and customs and institutions which thrive on belief in the sacred). But for a society to qualify as “democratic”, it must minimally contain mechanisms that foster a measure of public scepticism about arbitrary power. In its commitment to greater equality among citizens, we could say, democracy shows that Anankē, the ancient Greek goddess of necessity, compulsion and inevitability, has lost her grip on the world. Democracy is the friend of contingency. It is the active champion of public awareness that is and ought are not inescapably identical; it shows that things do not have to be what they currently are, or seem to be.
A new chronopolitics?
Proof positive of democracy’s strengthening of a public sense among citizens of the “unreality” of temporal “reality” is to be found in perhaps the most remarkable development of all. It was unforeseen by Innis: the birth of what the American sociologist George W. Wallis first called “chronopolitics” and, with it, challenges to clock time and the multiplication of different modes of lived time.
That’s another way of saying that monitory democracy unleashes public struggles to disenchant and redefine time. It exposes the contingency of its reigning definitions, in effect by nurturing a plurality of modes of time that both complicates the patterned rhythms of people’s daily lives and offers them the possibility of living well, as equals, in parallel universes of time.
It’s understandable that Innis chose to foreground the dangers of ‘present-mindedness’, the ways in which amnesia and myopia are deeply structured into such practices as stock exchange transactions and mainstream ‘breaking news’ journalism. He was certainly aware of the stranglehold exercised by mechanical clock time over the daily lives of many millions of people. His insights have a perennial value. We indeed still live in metronomic societies marked by mechanical definitions of time imposed by institutions such as factories, offices, airports and government bureaucracies. Free rein is given to clocks, timetables and other linear compulsions that privilege the present; years are carved into equal days, days, minutes, seconds and fractions of seconds. Clock time rules, often harshly; and it produces casualties. The resulting culture of speed produces forms of “speed sickness” (let’s call it) and “time famines” and other crippling effects on a range of activities that cannot be so measured, or temporally rationed.
Harold Innis was right about the tyranny of myopia measured by clocks. The metronome remains a basic determinant of the lives of citizens. But what he didn’t foresee is the way that monitory democracy challenges and undermines the tyranny of clock-driven compulsions. By granting freedoms to individuals, groups, organisations and networks, monitory democracy unleashes a rising sense of the manifold ways the lives of individuals, groups and institutions are infused with ebbs and flows of past, present and future.
At the moment of birth of monitory democracy, under the influence of Christianity, T.S. Eliot captured this point with ecumenical insight, and elegance. “Time present and time past,” he wrote, “Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.” He added: “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning/The end is where we start from.”
We could say that the public belief that past, present and future flow in liquid ways through the contingent lives of citizens and their institutions is a gift of monitory democracy. New democratic practices, and scientific breakthroughs, nurture the trend.
Fashionable and excessively general talk by geographers of “time compression” fails to capture the novelties of our age. Let’s take some examples of what could be called the democratisation of time. Think of the way independent research in the biological sciences has yielded insights into the way all living creatures are structured by biological rhythms, intricately connected cycles that range from a day (circadian cycles) to a year or multiple years (circannual rhythms) that are more or less synchronised with the motions of the sun and moon.
Then consider the rising awareness of deep time. Itself a visionary ‘secular’ product of the late 18th century, articulated for instance in the work of the Scots geologist James Hutton (1726-1797), deep time was first imagined as the way life on our planet evolved from within the unending cycles of rocks formed by sedimentation under the ocean, then uplifted and twisted and tilted, only to be eroded gradually to form new land features and sedimentary rock strata under the oceans of our planet.
The whole notion of deep time threatened biblical perceptions of time. Prevailing theological accounts of the origins of our planet began to look flimsy, and to feel questionable. Deep time had another effect: it tended to bring humans back to Earth, to plant our feet and put us in our place. Hereon, as John McPhee famously reminded his readers, thanks to the notion of deep time our planet’s history became comparable to the old measure of the English yard, the distance from a king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand, with human history but a single stroke of a nail file on the monarch’s middle finger.
Similar humbling effects are produced by the rising public appreciation of indigenous understandings of deep time as sacred, repetitious and productive. For many indigenous people living in states such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Bolivia and Peru, the now is more than the now, or the beginning. Their experiments with new forms of self-government, for instance in the north-east Pacific archipelago Haida Gwaii (Islands of the Haida People), the Whanganui River Te Awa Tupua framework agreement in New Zealand and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in central Australia, preserve and enliven different understandings of time. They are carriers of what Ann McGrath and Mary Anne Jebb call “long history, deep time”.
These experiments in “bio-democracy” suppose that the long-time-ago beginning is equally productive of the future. They suppose that the future is past, and present. They see the past not as a primordial bygone beginning now shrouded and suffocated in long-forgotten mystery. Nurtured by ceremony, song and storytelling, the past is for indigenous peoples a creative force that both keeps the present alive and guarantees a future. The past is not past; ancestors live on, as creative beings incarnated as simultaneously animal and human, as landforms, fire, water, trees and animals.
A new politics of remembering and restorative justice is also among the important political effects of monitory democracy. Consider the 1982-1984 National Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances (Comisión Nacional de Investigación de Desaparecidos), the first government commission of inquiry into past political injustices in Bolivia. It set the pattern for later “truth and reconciliation” tribunals by hosting extended public hearings in which victims/survivors could share their stories of past suffering and sometimes confront their former abusers. These hearings break silence about a terrible past. They ring the bells of justice backwards. They extend the right of representation to the departed, and to suffering survivors.
In effect, these hearings drive home the principle that democracy among the living requires democracy among the deceased. They do so in the expectation that those who committed crimes will display penitence, that the deceased will be honoured and respected, and that victims who survived violence will show forgiveness for past wrongdoings by others. These public inquiries are bearers of pain, suffering and anger. But they are also carriers of hope. They suppose that bygones can become bygones, so that when confronted with details of past crimes, citizens living in the present can embrace some measure of common feeling that forgiveness and compromise for past crimes can be a source of future healing.
There’s a final example of the new chronopolitics spawned by monitory democracy. It’s of rising public importance: the spread of a robust sense of the importance of the future for the present. This new politics of the future has several faces.
In some quarters, public spaces are created for the revival and flourishing of a shared sense of the eternal. Citizens come to embrace the conviction that God or the gods are immutable, that humans themselves may in future be able to live outside of time. Sempiternity is their thing. They believe in an indeterminately long period of time to come, a future in which they will enjoy interminable life to the full, forever.
Other citizens prefer thoroughly secular understandings of the future. Think for a moment of the rise of a new politics of senescence. “Silver politics” asks tough basic questions about what ageing “silver citizens” want from their remaining lives, and what resources they need to enable them to live well, in dignity, enjoying public respect. José Saramago’s wonderfully imaginative Death at Intervals (2008) is something of an anthem for this emerging sensibility about the future. It invites readers to imagine a society populated by living dead or “over-aged” people who are haunted and challenged by basic questions about what they want out of life.
The forward-looking mentality cultivated by monitory democracy is equally apparent in the growth of a robust sense of trusteeship of future generations. Public awareness that time future is contained in time present lies at the heart of the workings of such power-monitoring inventions as time capsules, futures commissions, Saskatchewan-style emergency alert schemes, forestry protection bodies, climate change panels and networked city forums.
These democratic inventions are in effect a type of inverse archaeology. They call upon those living in the present to pay attention to the needs of unborn generations. They aim to raise raise public awareness of the contingency of present-day arrangements. They demand recognition of the humbling principle that future citizens are entitled to be represented in the here and now. They suppose that democracy among the living requires democracy among the unborn.
A democracy of many rhythms?
Can we make good sense of these disparate and often contradictory trends? What is their significance for the way we think about time, and about politics? Might the new chronopolitics have long-term implications for the way people imagine and practise democracy as a way of life committed to equality with freedom for all?
Let’s return for a moment to Innis, whose “plea for time” nearly a generation ago still remains globally relevant. We could say it did us the service of tabling troubling questions about the puzzling relationship between democracy and time. His call for recovering the oral spirit and the unhurried rhythms of the clock-free assembly democracy of the ancient Greek world rightly warned of the social and political dangers of “present-mindedness”. The hollowing out of democracy, “dummy sham democracy” he called it, bothered him, as it now bothers us, admittedly under different but equally challenging historical circumstances.
Much can still be learned about the subject of time by reading Innis, certainly. But our times, and the politics of time, are different. It turns out that democrats in the age of monitory democracy have helped stir up public awareness of the limits and dangers of present-mindedness. The shifts that are taking place are palpable.
Most probably, we’re living through the early stages of some kind of transformation. But we can’t yet be sure how epochal it will turn out to be. Will the new public struggles centred (say) on species destruction, climate change and future generations prove to be as stormy, and as consequential, as the great conflicts over work discipline (E.P. Thompson), working hours and guaranteed pensions that marked the age of representative democracy? We don’t yet know.
What is clear is that compared with the period when Innis was writing, the pitfalls and perils of myopia have become much better understood. Blind faith in progress and “end of history” perspectives, Panglossian presumptions about the teleological unfolding of time in positive directions, are unfashionable, except in minority circles. A sense of urgency about the political import of the past, and the future, is becoming part of the common sense of the living. There are refusals to rush through daily life. Political talk of slow journalism, slow cooking and slow living can be heard. And public awareness that our lives are entangled in multiple rhythms is spreading. There are even signs, recently displayed in Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus (2016), of mounting fascination with dystopian thinking that predicts a post-human future in which democracy plays no role because humans have swapped meaningful self-government for technical prowess.
The new politics of time, and the multiplication of its forms, are complex and contested processes. They no doubt trigger many tricky intellectual and political questions. Of paramount importance is the matter of whether, and to what extent, democracies can cope with, or reconcile tensions among, a contested plurality of lived modes of time. Workers complain about being overworked, and their lack of ‘free time’. Others bemoan time limits, deadlines, fast food, speeding tickets and the burdens of instant communications. Elderly people know that their biological rhythms grate against the tick of the clock, past memories and future hopes. Religious believers in eternity feel discomfort in the company of believers in secular, mechanical time. Indigenous peoples are sure that the greedy myopia of markets destroys the deep-time eco-cultures in which they dwell; and so on.
These tensions among different modalities of lived time aren’t easily softened, or resolved. Why? Partly because different institutions (compare airports and stock exchanges, mosques and ashrams) feed upon different rhythms, which cannot easily be altered, for instance by “downshifting”, without damaging or abolishing the institution itself. There’s also the point that rhythms enter deeply into the lives of people, as habits they presume to be “normal”, and to which they stubbornly cling; and there’s the fact that time juggling can be stressful, and exhausting, as people know from everyday experience, for instance when they raise children while they are employed full-time in the labour market. Just as challenging is the fact that antagonisms among different rhythms bring into focus the difficult political issue of whether, and to what extent, citizens can and should enjoy equal access to different modalities of time that are at present distributed unequally.
There are many damaging forms of inequality in our world; inequalities of rhythm are among them. Unequal access of citizens to different modalities of time, their enforced confinement to just one type, such as full-time employment, often has crippling effects on people’s lives. That is why networks and groups and elected governments are beginning to search for new ways to redress these inequalities of lived time. Consider time banks, forward-looking schemes such as the Alaska Permanent Fund and public calls for a universal basic income enjoyed as of right by all citizens: don’t these and other initiatives tell us that the survival and flourishing of democracy as a way of life functionally requires not merely the cultivation of memories of an ancient past, as Innis proposed, but a new politics of temporal justice? A politics that draws upon the spirit of the old struggles against the tyranny of clock time in the factory? A democratic politics that pushes beyond our familiar time horizons, towards a democracy of many rhythms, open to all, chosen and enjoyed by citizens who regard each other as their equals?