Red Pepper archive

Colonising the night

Jay Griffiths examines the roots of the capitalist nirvana that is the 24-hour society and calls for a rebellion on the day that marks its conceptual opposite: the workers', anarchists' and pagans' celebration, May Day


Kissing is out of order. Yes, it's official. The 'Kissing' game in the Play zone at the Millennium Dome is not working. Lest visitors be playful - or kissful - they are met at the zone entrance with a set of hilariously poker-faced instructions. 'Do not run in the Playscape. Keep clear of players. Ensure your shoelaces are securely fastened. Sit on the hot seat and wait your turn.' Gradgrind woz ere. The Play zone is not playing.

The Work zone, by contrast, is working hard; working to push virtually a new religion of work. First come the cliches of work: a hundred fake hamsters on a hundred plastic wheels, the punchcard nine-to-five clocking-in machines. But that's all over, the world of work has utterly changed, say the attendant-zealots of the Millennium Experience Co, speaking gleamingly of a 'new' world of work involving 'choice'. Portfolio careers. Freedom. Flexibility. All made possible by the 24-hour society.

Promulgators of the 24-hour society begin by identifying (correctly) two themes of modern life; first a consumerist hunger designed to be unappeasable, and second a time-sickness at the heart of an over-hurried society; too much to do, too little time.

Advocates - such as Leon Kreitzman, author of The 24 Hour Society and L Michael Hager, writing in The Futurist magazine - say the 24-hour society will smooth people's daily lives by removing the 5pm cut-off for goods and services, will benefit the increasingly freelance nature of work, and promote the portfolio careers of the permanently-temporary.

The CBI thinks the 24-hour society can be a good thing. Big businesses have pushed the idea of a 24-hour society; spatial territories exhausted, they look to expand in territories of time, 'colonising' the night. (Supermarket chain Tesco stole a march on its competition literally overnight by opening certain stores 24 hours.) Breaking the limits of the working week, the newspaper Sunday Business promoted itself: 'Sunday, first day of the working week.' And portfolio-worker Gradgrind, when not working for the Millennium Experience Co, moonlights for the Department for Education, advising them that four-year-olds must do homework and that schools should stay open later and later into the evening. (It's never too early to have an unhappy childhood.)

The 'busiest person on earth', according to Kreitzman, is the British working mother. If two parents work equal hours outside the home, the mother will work an average of nine hours more a week than the father in the home. If overwork is the problem, the 24-hour society is the answer.

Not so fast. Far from being a solution, it is the exacerbation of people's situations. Take that working mother. Is it really better that after a full day's professional work she can (and therefore probably will) do an entire second shift of domestic work? Or is it healthier to change both male and female patterns of overwork and to influence men's uncanny aversion to housework. (There are few sights more lovely than a man washing up un-asked.) Portfolio-workers and freelancers at the top of their careers, who can afford to choose when and whether to work, will benefit. But those less established will experience even more the notorious, gnawing anxiety of the self-employed to be always on-call. The pressure on schools to open later could result in two-tier education, where rich children may go to school by day and poor children by night.

Time is always a locus of power, and the 24-hour society, represented as 'apolitical,' is anything but. It will aggravate inequalities of class, of race and of gender.

The 24-hour society 'is about removing constraints' says Kreitzman. Well, no. It is about removing constraints from one set of people by imposing them on others. Proponents of the 24-hour society are overwhelmingly affluent middle class white men; those who are least likely to work the 'graveyard shift' though most likely to benefit - directly or indirectly - from others doing so. Market-research shows that the 'time-poor' support moves towards a 24-hour society while the 'time-rich' oppose it. Why? Because the time-rich are money-poor and they will be the ones adversely affected.

There are strong environmental reasons to oppose the 24-hour society; it will deliberately increase consumerism and waste, it will be a major factor in the increasing light pollution that spills up from cities, robbing city dwellers of their star-right. The 24-hour society shatters the social cohesion of entire communities participating in common time-off, leisurely relished, at the same time.

There are also health concerns. Doctors from the USA and Finland are currently investigating the links between breast cancer and artificial light of the 24-hour society. The human body has intricate inner clocks for night-sleeping and day-waking. Judder these and you predispose the body to ill-health, including indigestion, ulcers and diabetes, and the mind to unhappiness. Relationship breakdown is more likely as a result of working night shifts and there are reports that night work leads to a lowering of the sex drive. One leading US currency trader, Michael Marcus, described his work patterns in the mid 1980s: he had to wake up every two hours throughout the night to check the markets in Australia, Hong Kong, Zurich and London as they opened. (Effect? 'It killed my marriage'. Kissing is out of order.)

It was the monks who started it. Night. Sin-black, sixth-century night was colonised by the Christian clock when, around 530 CE, the rule of Saint Benedict initiated a novel and hugely influential attitude to time, insisting on a new scheduling of time and ringing bells throughout the night as a means of controlling both time and human nature. The same alarm clocks that got the monks out of bed have been ringing ever since, waking Michael Marcus every two hours through the night. And with the same effects. What ruined a 20th century marriage ruined many a sixth-century night of fun; for night was when sex (subversive, dirty, dark) most marauded. The bells were a way of imposing anti-erotic monastic values on all within earshot. Kissing was declared 'out of order'.

EP Thompson and others have linked protestant evaluations of time - punctuality, time-management and productive time-use - with the money-making ambitions driving the Industrial Revolution. That was the period when, in an extraordinary conflation of ideas, work-time was changed forever.

What was lost? Curly, lovely, natural, stretchy, variegated and rural time of the common people was gone. Instead was the dreary Sametime of factories. In the 'Coketown' of Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times, 'every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow. Time went on in Coketown like its own machinery.' This is happening ever more clearly today as businesses, by opening all day every day, pollute the 'time distinctiveness' of day and night and extinguish the seasonal variations of summer and winter.

But there were protests. Marx foresaw exactly this exploitation of workers' time: 'To appropriate labour during 24 hours of the day is the inherent tendency of capitalist production.' Workers in the textile industry in Britain during the 1820s and 1830s smashed the clocks above the factory gates that had stolen the power over their time. Trade unions - very quickly made illegal - took on first the abuse of time, resulting in the 10-hour act of 1847. The revolution of 1848 revolved (so to speak) around time: eight hours' work, eight hours' sleep, eight hours' play. And anarchists were executed for their part in trying to bring about a shorter working day, with enormous strikes on Mayday 1886.

What has Tesco to do with the 'enlightenment'? Who are the sleep-stealers? And what has 24-hour society got to do with implicit racism?

Wednesday, 3am. Come with me to the nearest 24-hour Tesco to buy a symbolic jar of Nescafe, a packet of Persil and a Mazda light bulb. The lights stream out onto the dark street. Shining light in the darkness, from the Bible to Tesco, is what our society likes to do, for we live in a society that profoundly dislikes and fears the 'dark sides' of life. 'Benighted' is a curse. Satan is the prince of darkness and is challenged by the prince - and principle - of light.

Christianity has long associated what is dark with what is evil, hating the night and privileging the day. It is influenced in this by Zoroastrianism, with its god of light, Mazda. (You'd be amazed at a Mazda, simple light bulb of exquisite symbolism.) Modernity's nastiest politics involve a privileging of light over dark that underlies both sexism and racism. The enlightenment honoured the light, visible, rational and male 'science' and vilified the dark, intuitive and female way of women's 'mysteries.' (The penis stands Ecce Homo! in the light. The cunt laps itself in the lovely wet and secret dark.)

Western societies have used that radical hatred of the dark to promote its racism: see the viciously offensive term niggers (from niger: black) or darkies, plus a plethora of words such as 'denigrate' - to put down is to 'make black'. Also what is dark, or happens in darkness, like sex, is 'filthy' and 'dirty', while cleanliness is next to both godliness and sexlessness (and Persil washes whiter). Sleep is a political issue. Presenteeism - rather than absenteeism - is a disease of today's workforce; working all hours, rarely sleeping. Nescafe at 3am. According to Stanley Coren, author of The Sleep Thieves, we are sleep-deprived and may need nine-and-a-half to 10 hours' sleep rather than the average seven and a half that we get. Sleep is for 'softies' - for girls.

In the sexual politics of time, to be macho you go without sleep - like Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher, responsible for pushing for open-all-hours supermarket-time, they claimed to sleep for but a few hours each night. But sleep deprivation leads to a cascade of physical and mental health problems. (Thatcher isn't mad. Discuss.)

Working night shifts results in poor sleeping patterns. Advocates of the 24-hour Society say technology will fix it. Appropriately, a company called Enlightened Technologies claims to 'sell sleep' by means of light-based appliances that resynchronise biological rhythms. If you are at work at 3am though, remember this: it is a business making money out of your sleeplessness caused by another business making money out of you. Double whammy? Double espresso.

The 24-hour society expresses the deepest cultural politics of light, increasing the dominance of one set of concepts over another; the city over nature; light over dark, male over female, white over black, corporation over commoner, work over play, rich over poor, profit over nature, christianity over indigenous religions, cleanliness over earthiness.

What is the opposite of the 24-hour clock? The kiss. And what is the conceptual opposite of the 24-hour society? Mayday. If the 24-hour society represents interchangeable hours in a Gradgrindian world, Mayday represents the sweetly specific moment, the 'special' time. Global corporations sponsor the 24-hour society; global protesters support Mayday.

Mayday 2000 will be a 'global day of action against capitalism' according to the flier from Reclaim The Streets in London. Across the world, Mayday draws together the socialist, anarchist and environmentalist. Mayday is red for international workers' day, black for the anarchists executed in 1886, green for 'Beltane', the ancient Mayday festival of fertility. It is the day of the commoner; common people making common cause in a common place at a common time. A peasants revolt. The time: 11 am, Monday 1 May. The place: Parliament Square, London.

'Guerrilla gardening' is at the heart of it. Armed - like peasants - 'with trowels, seeds, and imagination, the idea is to garden everywhere and anywhere'. 'Resistance is fertile,' says the RTS flier. All seeds germinating. Yes. Beltane is the most nakedly fertile and sexual of all pagan festivals, and the Maypole's 'dirty dancing' is at the heart of this erotic day. Persil is banned. 'Prepare to get dirty,' says the flier. Yes. Really dirty. Sex in the city - for real. Make love not money. Reclaim the earth. Yes. Reclaim the earthiness. Kissing - far from being out of order - is the order of the day. Just say 'yes'.

Jay Griffiths is the author of Pip Pip: a sideways look at time, published by Flamingo.