I recently began to grasp the reality that time, as we know it, is largely a social construct. With so much of our autonomy taken away by the pandemic—particularly our freedom of movement and, for many of us, ability to earn an income— we’ve had to do what humans always do and make do with what we have, get creative, and focus our time and energy on the reciprocal networks of care that are so essential for our survival. This blog unravels how the pandemic has revealed contradictions between our lived experiences of time and our taken-for-granted, common-sense assumptions and “habits of mind” regarding how time functions, our place in the world, and our capacities for transformative action.
Breaking down habits of mind around time and care
A foundational feminist principle is that the personal is political, implying we must ground our understandings and actions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. As Barbara Adam suggests, “time is about god and the universe, life and death, knowledge practices and the human condition. The relationship to time is at the very root of what makes us human.” Time is how we relate to change and rhythms in our surroundings. We have no sensory organ for time, yet our perception of it engages all our senses. The effects of crises—like COVID-19, or climate change—are ultimately played out in our bodies and households.
Unified, universal time, in the linear, de-contextualised and quantified sense dictated by the clock and the calendar, basically only “exists” because we agree that it does. Accepting that an hour is completely equivalent at any time of day, in any place on earth, is for matters of convenience, social organisation and control (plus profit-making) more than reality. The illusion that time=money, perpetuated by industry and markets, relies on the fiction that labour power=free, which totally ignores the energetic cycles of the people and the earth that support us. These cycles are rather bound up in embodied time, embedded in the rhythms of ecosystems and seasons, our bodies, and in networks of (human and non-human) social relations and patterns—time in this sense is largely invisible, ignored and overlooked.
Ulrich Mückenberger suggests that time pressure and acceleration is increasing in our schools, workplaces, hospitals, and other care institutions, while time scarcity is on the rise due to austerity measures such as cuts in unemployment benefits and sickness insurance schemes. These temporal issues have increased due to structural, technological, and social changes such as globalisation, flexibilisation, and women’s rising participation in paid work. These time conflicts, typically referred to as “work-life balance”, have major implications for our wellbeing, quality of life as well as social equity.
Queer-feminist and disabled activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha emphasises that recognising the centrality of care work for social reproduction also means acknowledging that our continued survival relies on one another, on non-monetary social relations of shared, reciprocal energy and time, rather than on money or institutions. While care work is performed by people of all genders, not all of us are positioned equally within battles over paid and unpaid labour time.
Regardless of whether women are dependent on a breadwinner for monetary income, or also employed in waged work—worldwide data consistently indicates a gendered division of domestic labour in the so-called ‘private sphere’, whereby women perform a disproportionate share of the cooking, cleaning, organising, bathing, educating, listening, advising. Apparently, it’s out of love. This feminisation of care work, or caring time, also impacts men who are expected to be strong, able-bodied, and financially supportive.
Women’s extra responsibility for the wellbeing of their families and dependents means that they act as shock absorbers of crises. They spend disproportionate amounts of time worrying, planning, providing emotional labour and support, capacities that are pushed to the limit in times of economic, environmental, and social instability. Women are often on the frontline to secure the means of social reproduction, including conflicts over access to basic resources such as clean water, housing, food, and healthcare. Women’s relationships with time and space are also shaped by their position within these battles because our time is not our own, it rather belongs to all those who rely on us.
One thing that strikes me in the feminist literature on social reproduction and time is their radical, and in some respects utopian, implications. What would it mean, to really value reproductive, private, internal time; to prioritise abundant time to care for one another and the planet? To dispense with the impulse to capture all potential profit-making opportunities, the relentless pursuit of growth, and instead slow down, degrow, embrace sufficiency and subsistence rather than abundance?
Abundant time for collective thriving
Many dangers to our collective wellbeing—such as environmental damage, health crises and the care crisis—are latent, lurking, and invisible. They are long-term and chronic, accumulating below the surface of our conscious awareness and physical reality. By the time they materialise and become ‘real’, it is often too late, and we are left in damage-control mode. Recognising this latency means coming to terms with the fact that we did not create time, we cannot monetise all of it, we do not control its passage and we certainly cannot colonise all of it for profit. Reactive, mitigating strategies are insufficient; we need to reckon with possibilities for transformation.
Social reproduction, at a basic level, implies sufficient energy and time for maintaining our bodies and minds. Resting, sleeping, eating, exercising, socialising, caring, relating, dreaming. The crisis of social reproduction identified by Nancy Fraser and others is existential. Our ability to live is being actively undermined by the socio-economic system in which we live, the system which relies on our existence to perpetuate itself. If we accept the crisis is underway, we must necessarily envision degrowing away from the pursuit of material abundance and wealth that is driving it. This would allow the earth (and ourselves) sufficient energy and time to regenerate. We are part of nature, and our continued survival rests on moving with earthly time rather than clock time.
While I advocate for sufficiency in terms of our resource and energetic throughput, demands on public time and the earth, I want to move beyond this limited view when it comes to our interpersonal understandings of “care” and its limitation to the realm of private time. I would suggest a more emancipatory vision of collective nourishing and thriving. We don’t just need to meet our most basic needs of continued functioning; we can rather make community care a social priority, via mutual aid that’s based on horizontal organising rather than charity involving a vertical relationship between givers and recipients.
Jacklyn Cock’s vision of an alternative world resonates, as she describes a society
“based on relations of trust, cooperation and reciprocity, rooted in a confidence in human beings – in the capacity [of people] to reason, to share, to learn from mistakes, to cooperate, to care for each other – and, most importantly, in our capacity to work together to create a more just and equal world. This confidence implies social relationships that are marked by solidarity, meaning a commitment to collective empowerment rather than individual advancement.”
Ultimately, reframing and revaluing social (and ecological) reproduction, and reducing ecologically destructive production and consumption in the process, could lead to an abundance of time and leisure rather than austerity and overwork.