MARCH 16, 2018
“But time is such a wearisome notion in our modern world, is it not?” said Jenny, savouring the yellow portion of her egg. “The idea of spending a day and a half, or two or three in the company of friends… I think it would be so much nicer if we did away with time altogether and just did as we pleased for as long as we liked. Don’t you?”
— Marx Returns
IN JASON BARKER’S Marx Returns, an imaginative, uplifting, and sometimes disturbing alternative history, Jenny remarks over breakfast that time would be better abolished than maintained. The time of the “modern world” is the time of rent payments, of appointments with doctors and fellow revolutionaries, of train timetables and overdue deadlines for manuscripts. It is the time of the untimely — of deaths too young and altogether too tragic — but also of a revolutionary fervor, intrigue, spying, conspiracy, and dirt of all kinds. It is also a time of games — epic geopolitical battles, but also chess, children’s games, dreams, drunken silliness, and mathematical formulae that don’t quite work. Jenny, on holiday, enjoying herself, wonders idly what a world without time might look like. She has forgotten how long she has spent with her new friend, a lieutenant in the British army, when he reminds her that it has only been a mere day-and-a-half. “Time,” Jenny continues, is “a social problem that stems from the unnatural separation between our public and private lives.” Time is not the playground of our freedoms and capacities, but rather the unnatural arrangement through which one is forced to entertain both a private and a public persona.
Of course this is also a question of class and of respectability — for “Baroness” Jenny von Westphalen, at least — and sliding into poverty with Marx does for her reputation, as he scrapes and begs for more time, a little more money, a little sympathy so he can finish his masterpiece, Capital. But do we anymore entertain this private and public relation to time?
Jenny’s “utopian” desire for an end to time is also the desire for free time, and the exploration of our capacities. This is Marx’s part-satirical point in The German Ideology, where we imagine ourselves hunting, fishing, breeding, criticizing as we wish, and for as long as we like (in Marx Returns, Jenny is the advocate of such German ideology, or “idealism,” while her husband attends to more seemingly “scientific” questions). The equation public = clock-time, wage labor, drudgery, whereas private = family, free time, delight is, though, in itself utopian, archaic. Of course, for the Marx family, they are not at all exempt from constant interruptions to their private life, whether it be as landlords and creditors try to force them to pay up or move out, or Marx and his contemporaries become threatened by arrest.
Our post-industrial relations to time are still very much tied up to class and debt, and we might still fantasize about the abolition of time altogether, whether it be the time, or the interruption of time, announced by the alarm clock, mobile phone, emails at all times of the day and night. Do we relax in our “free time” in the company of friends? Our anxiety seems multiplied by the fact that time is everywhere, and that we seem to have less and less of it, in work or out of it. We perhaps do not even spend time noticing that “all that is solid melts into air,” given that venturing outside is ever more likely to carry with it certain risks! The pollution of Marx’s era depicted in Marx Returns (the “volcanic debris” pumped out of the “toxic delivery rooms of the Upper Lambeth Marsh”) has become less visible in some ways, but no less toxic, as the seas fill up with microbeads and plastic bottles and the air becomes more and more devastating to all-too-human lungs; no amount of German ideology can diminish such material effects. The image of time imagined by Jenny and the future society Marx half-jokes about, half-hints at, is a life lived largely outdoors, though we will need somewhere to play chess, listen to music, and write our criticism, not to mention going to sleep and waking up whenever we want to. Eventually, the husband realizes that,
In the future society Marx was working to achieve one could have it all: the wife and the book. The children, the dog, the pony and the piano … the whole damned affair! The fact that Marx didn’t personally have the book yet was, admittedly, a poor demonstration of his theory. But that didn’t mean his theory had been disproven.
After all, what is freedom? What do we want? What ties us down and keeps us miserable when we are also capable of imagining a different future for everyone? In Marx Returns, Marx’s father suggests that Marx must choose between marrying Jenny (and making money for the family) and writing. In other words, he must spend his time wisely. Marx, in the end arguing with an untimely revenant, states: “You dared me to choose between them and I refused. Compromise was never my strong suit, nor yours.” Marx’s choice not to choose endangers his family’s well-being to a tragic degree, but in this respect he is no different from the many families who continue to lose children to poverty, and who did not have the possibility of choosing their circumstances. He admits as much in his botched apology to Helene following a scandalous bout of sexual intercourse (rape?). But the admission is also a self-conscious and knowing attempt to excuse his own behavior. “I never had a crystal ball,” Marx explains, at least partly in order to absolve himself of responsibility for this wanton act. “I always made decisions in circumstances that were not of my own choosing.”
How much stuff is there in the world? In the world of circulation in the book — of pawn shops and factories and commodities and pints of beer — we are constantly in the world of lack and swapping. But someone always gets rich. Where today is all the wealth that, were it redistributed, however forcibly, would see everyone with as much as they wanted, which in turn would also be what they needed? Such is the question that confronts the eponymous hero of Marx Returns in his ill-fated attempts to balance the books, the equations of use and exchange values, and the “vanishing quantities” of capital. The whole relation between want and need would thus be reconfigured in its turn, as freedom and time would allow us to realize and decide what it was that we valued, because our entire conception of value would also be revalued. Would we still love for a long time? Do we still now? We seem much quicker to cut ties, end friendships, avoid relationships, move on, explicitly or implicitly revealing the reasons why. What ties do we have left? The big Other haunts us in the constant fear of humiliation and shame, but we do not seem loyal to those we might formerly have felt duty toward, even or especially in times of crisis.
If we had more time would we be freer, happier? Would we maintain our friendships and relationships as retirees might retain their gardens, if we get to retire, if we have a garden, if there are either gardens or retirement left for anyone anymore? If we decided against lack, if we acted as though we had all the time in the world, and that we could take stock of all the private property in the world with a view to apportioning it, reorganizing it; if we could make free what has been enclosed, such that we could all have access to the commons and become commoners once again, would we also be able to start to see time as less of a prison cell, an anxious warder, but more of a vast expanse in which social relations were infinite and infinitely possible, infinitely interesting? If we “did as we pleased for as long as we liked,” might we finally be able to do some good?
Nina Power lives in London and teaches Philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the author of One Dimensional Woman (2009) and has written many articles on European philosophy and politics. She is the co-founder of Defend the Right to Protest, a campaign group that opposes police brutality and the use of violence against protestors.