Skip to main content

Teaching Time and Labor: From the Factory Act to the Gig Economy

A reflection on teaching time and labor in the classroom, building Marx's insights on class struggles over the working day.

Published onMay 28, 2022
Teaching Time and Labor: From the Factory Act to the Gig Economy

In this article…

– Introduction: Teaching Capitalist Time

– Sensing Social Time

– The Deep History of the Capitalist Workplace

– The Politics of Production

Introduction: Teaching Capitalist Time

Most of us spend at least a third of our day at work. And time on the job can transform our sense of time itself. In my recent article for The Anthropology of Work Review (Sheldon, 2021), I showed how the time-tracking technologies that employers and granting-agencies use to monitor productivity shaped interactions between case workers and clients at a refugee assistance organization. By listening to what people had to say about the everyday challenges and dilemmas they faced at work, I learned that these dilemmas reflected their broader discontent with general features of what I would call capitalist social time: a recurring insistence on impractical timelines, a bureaucratic fixation on measuring outputs, and the disciplining function of employers and managers to promote some projects while foreclosing others.

But what exactly is capitalist social time?

Anthropologists of temporality like to distinguish between two different sorts of “time.” First, there’s the sensuous, processual, and embodied level of time as it is subjectively experienced. Second, there’s the abstracted, structural, and representational level of time as it is objectively represented. Our experiences and our representations of time are both socio-cultural products. Neither one is more innate or natural than the other. But what really matters here is how these forms of time, experienced and represented, can come into conflict. That’s because, in the workplaces of a capitalist society, the power to represent time tends to fall under the authority of managers and bosses, who use these temporal maps and schemes to enforce broad standards of workplace productivity. Meanwhile, workers, whether they take home a monthly salary or live one gig to the next, must adapt the rhythms of their lives to temporal scheme of their workplace. Under these conditions, time will become the length of rope, we might say, in a hard-fought game of tug-of-war. And through ethnography of workplace conflicts over time, anthropologists can render this complex clockwork visible, laying bare those specific representational forms and managerial techniques that labor and life under capitalism (Bear, 2016).

In what follows, I’ll discuss some of the approaches I use to bring this notion into my classroom. My goal is to help students adopt a processual, dynamic, and intuitive approach to time and labor. Read all this as a recipe book, not an instruction manual. You can take all these ideas together and insert them as a unit into a course. Or you can pick and choose the exercises and expositions that you think will complement your own materials best. Either way, the goal is to help students grasp a processual, dynamic, and intuitive approach to time and labor.

The first part focuses on cultivating situated knowledge about capitalist temporality through reflexive exercises and selected ethnographic readings. The second part is a deep dive into Karl Marx’s chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital, Volume 1, and is meant to help instructors who want to make this difficult but vital text accessible to their undergraduate students. The third part is more expository and tries to show how subsequent thinking about Marx’s concept of “surplus value” can empower ethnographers to connect our situated observations of workplace conflicts to global struggles for equity.

Sensing Social Time

Reflecting on our Times

Many of us spend our days and nights traversing a forcefield of deadlines, schedules, goals, and obligations. The first step in teaching capitalist social time is helping students grasp this idea intuitively and through their own senses. To do so, I’m offering some reflection prompts that can generate conversations about time and labor in the classroom.

Labor and class can be taboo topics in university spaces, so it’s important to take time and be patient in validating students’ insights. By getting their experiences of work into the open, students can begin to see how their standpoints matter for a larger conversation on a topic that can often seem distant and abstract. Some of these prompts are more probing than others, and it’ll be up to the instructor to judge which are best for their classroom environment.

  1. What “time-tricking” techniques do you use throughout the day? For example, some people do their homework on the train or bus, some prepare all their meals on Sunday and eat them for the rest of the week, some work-out while listening to books on tape. And I once worked with someone who would buy slow-burning cigarettes, so his smoke breaks took longer.

  2. How do you perceive the university as a workplace? Do you work on the campus yourself? How do you interact with staff, both academic and non-academic, outside of class? Is your college job nothing but a way to make money or has it provided you with any important insights and skills?

  3. How does the cost of college influence your sense of time? Do you foresee a long struggle with student debt? Are you trying to graduate early to save money? Do you have to make extra time to apply for scholarships and funding, and how could that process be made more efficient?

  4. How did your parents manage their time when you were growing up? What services could they access to defer the time-cost of raising a child? Did they pay for these services, or did extended family contribute? If you want to start a family, or if you’re a parent already, how do you manage your time?

  5. How do your day-to-day tasks relate to your long-term ambitions? First, make a schedule of your typical week. Then, list three or four long-term goals you have for your professional life. What percentage of each week do you think is bringing you closer to those goals? What are you doing now that you must keep doing, but would prefer not to?

Comparing Standpoints

It’s easy to think that capitalist social time only matters on a factory floor, but that simply isn’t true. A few ethnographic cases, outlined below, can help students recognize how gig work, housework, indebtedness, and parenting come to be governed by abstract demands for the value of one’s time. These works are attuned to the ways that schedules, timelines, and plans that originate with employers and managers become woven into the texture of our most intimate activities. Studying the techniques that people from different walks of life use to navigate these temporal dilemmas and contradictions can give us a fuller picture of capitalism as a complex and variable, but ultimately shared reality. In fact, you could combine these readings with the prompts in the previous one by comparing and contrasting the standpoints elaborated in these readings with those offered by the students.

  1. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2008. ‘Through the Crack of the Time Bind: From Market Management to Family Management.’ In The Anthropology of Work Review 28(1):1-8

  2. Han, Clara. 2011. ‘Symptoms of Another Life: Time, Possibility, and Domestic Relations in Chile’s Credit Economy.’ In Cultural Anthropology 26(1): 7–32.

  3. Giard, Luce. 1998. ‘Part II: Doing-Cooking’ in The Practice of Everyday Life Volume 2: Living and Cooking (149-222). Certeau, Michel de, Luce Giard and Pierre Mayol, eds. U of Minnesota Press.

  4. Bowles, Ben. 2016. ‘“Time is like a Soup”: Boat Time and the Temporal Experience of London’s Liveaboard Boaters.” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34(1): 100-112.

  5. MacQuarie, Julius-Cezar. 2021. ‘While Others Sleep: The Essential Labor of Migrant Nightshift Workers.’ In Exertions []

The Deep History of the Capitalist Workplace

Marx’s writings on English factory legislation illustrate the deeper history of these struggles over time. They also connect powerfully with contemporary conflicts around the regulation of the gig economy.

You Can(’t) Teach an Old Class New Tricks

For decades, prominent intellectuals have promoted the hegemonic narrative that contemporary capitalism is entirely and irreducibly different from everything we thought we knew from the history of this mode of production. Of course, there have always been scholars willing to question academic assumptions about our ‘post-industrial’, ‘post-Fordist’, or ‘post-Marxist’ present (Yanagisako, 2012; Baca, 2004; Geras, 1987). But how do you go about convincing students that 19th century conflicts matter for 21st century situations? One technique I like to use is to posit the formal similarities between cases that differ in place, time, and technology.

So, imagine the government passed great new piece of legislation to protect workers’ rights. While workers celebrate their win, bosses gather to plot. ‘What if,’ one asks, ‘we came up with a new way of organizing shifts? Instead of having one person work on one task all day, we alternate the periods of work and rest, so each person gets bounced around from one thing to the next?’ There’s a murmur in the boardroom—wouldn’t this be inefficient? ‘But those days are over. Now, we’ve got these inspectors to worry about. And this new shift system is going to be so complicated that they’ll never be able to regulate it! Even if they try, we can send the case to court.’ The fat cats perk up, as if someone has just opened a can of tuna in an alleyway. ‘This is all to buy ourselves time,’ the bold innovator continues, ‘while we start drafting a “workers’ rights” referendum to overturn the regulations. Give it a few years, and we’ll be back to business as usual.’

When and where do you place this story? If you work in the gig economy, you might be thinking about present-day California, where Silicon Valley has stayed one step ahead of the state through technological innovations in time management. If you can force your employees to download an app that tracks their every move, you can also show regulators that those drivers spend about a third of their time without passengers in the car. And why should companies have to pay benefits and wages to workers for time that isn’t turning a profit? Even if the state legislature passes legislation like AB5, which reclassified these workers as employees as opposed to independent contractors, you have the money and power to file lawsuits that try to block the enforcement of the act for specific groups of workers.

Then, you convince enough people that their freedoms are under threat to overturn that pesky legislation entirely, as it went with Proposition 22. And even after a judge ruled that Prop 22 was unconstitutional, the law will continue to stay in effect while companies try to appeal the decision, all while dreaming up ways to expand their scheme to new sectors of the economy.

What if I told you this story played out in mid-nineteenth century England? In his chapter on ‘The Working Day’, Karl Marx recounts struggles over time that transformed the factory system and remade the pace of work. Then, workers had won legislative protections limiting the length of their working day. Bosses adapted by implementing a “relay system” that was so complex and opaque it became impossible for government inspectors to enforce regulations. Soon, workers found themselves with ‘scattered shreds of time’ as they moved from one task to the next (p. 403). And owners convinced many workers, who were deeply indebted following a financial crisis, to oppose the new regulations. Since the dawn of the class struggle, employers have used their command of workers’ time to wage counterattacks against checks on their power. What’s more, this counterattack is just one scuffle in a lengthier tug-of-war over what Marx called ‘the struggle for a normal working day’. In other words, workplace struggles over time are open-ended conflicts, not unidirectional narratives of historical progress. And the back-and-forth dynamic of this struggle means that Marx’s nineteenth century text still has much to teach us about our twenty-first-century situation.

Deciphering “The Working Day”

When it comes to getting Capital on an upper-level undergraduate or graduate syllabus, students would benefit from reading Chapter 10 in Capital Vol. I on ‘The Working Day’. ‘Nothing characterizes the spirit of capital better than the history of English factory legislation from 1833 to 1864,’ writes Marx (p. 390). Getting a sense for this spirit not only gives us a foundation for the more abstract arguments; it also lets students know that their own institutions and experiences can contribute to our critical knowledge of capitalist social time.

Obviously, the chapter comes with its own challenges for today’s readers. Throughout Capital, mathematical proofs and dialectical arguments mix with tawdry jokes about everything from Shakespeare to circumcisions. In the Working Day chapter, Marx supplies numerous references that he assumed readers would understand. Speaking for myself, there’s a lot of head-scratching each time I read this chapter. Nevertheless, it’s an opportunity to practice active reading and to think about how authors use multiple voices in a single text.

To further that learning goal, I’ve supplied a handful of particularly puzzling quotations from the chapter. I tend to break classroom into small teams of three or four students and distribute one quotation to each group, giving them the task to explain that quotation by doing a close-read but also by doing additional research on the characters, events, or topics involved. (This works in-class and as a take-home.) Bringing these quotations back together — putting them into conversation with one another as elements of an overarching argument — is not just an exercise in collaborative learning. It’s a practice of producing connections, making comparisons, and sparking conversations about the continued resonance of this text in the contemporary world.

  1. “You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the R.S.P.C.A. [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] …but the thing you represent when you come face to face with me has no heart in its breast.” (p. 343)

  2. “The years 1846 to 1847 are epoch-making in the economic history of England. The Corn Laws were repealed; the duties on cotton and other raw materials were removed; free trade was proclaimed as the guiding star of legislation; in short, the millennium had arrived….” (p. 395)

  3. “It was a pro-slavery rebellion [i.e. American Civil War] in miniature, carried on for over two years…” (p. 398)

  4. “Even the ideas of day and night, which in the old statutes were of peasant simplicity, became so confused that an English judge, as late as 1860, needed the penetration of an interpreter of the Talmud to explain ‘judicially’ what was day and what was night.”? (p. 398)

  5. “But even if we even if we entirely leave aside actual over-work, this so-called relay system was an offspring of capital’s imagination never surpassed even by Fourier in his humorous sketches of the ‘courtes séances’, except that the ‘attraction of labour’ is here transformed into the attraction of capital. (p. 403)

The Politics of Production

“The Working Day” is also just an excerpt from a much bigger book. How does it fit within the larger whole of Capital? In order to properly understand fully understand the power and inequality embedded in the capitalist working day, I argue, we need to go beyond sites where commodities are exchanged (markets). We need to look into the sites where value is created (workplaces). And we need to understand the concept of “Relative Surplus Value.” Only then can our inquiries into the workday also speak to the dynamics of workplace conflicts around the world.

Out of the Market and Into the Workplace

The first six chapters of Capital are about why previous attempts to understand capitalist production don’t add up. This ‘critique of political economy’ doesn’t reject the assumptions that Marx’s contemporaries made about human nature, markets, or value. Instead, his immanent critique shows why these assumptions, even if they were true, fail to explain the phenomenal inequalities that capitalist production creates.

Let’s take it as a given, says Marx, that we are all isolated, free individuals transacting our goods in a common marketplace. But what if we follow the worker and the boss out of the market, and track the longer-term patterns of their lives? The following diagram tries to encapsulate Marx’s argument about the interlocking circuits of production, reproduction, and exchange that only partially overlap when owners and workers meet to transact.

The diagram on the left shows a cycle where Commodity (Labor) - is sold for -> money (wages) - is used to buy -> Commodity (necessities) - which reproduces the first Commodity (Labor). The diagram shows a hamster wheel at its centre, to show how this operates as a ceaseless motion. 

On the right, the diagram shows another cycle where Money (wages) - is used to buy -> Commodity (Labor) -> which creates -> More Money (Surplus). An arrow points out from surplus, showing a moustached Monopoly man (to represent a capitalist), clutching a bag of money, running away.

The interlocking circuits of production, reproduction, and exchange.

In the diagram, we see a worker on the left and a capitalist on the right. Both meet in the market to exchange a commodity [labor] for money [wages]. But what happens next? The worker takes her wages and buys her groceries, pays her bills and rent, and maybe goes out for dinner sometimes. By the end of the pay period, she is back to where she started, and if she stops going to work, she’ll have no more fun (or food). She must sell her labor on the market on a continuing basis to reproduce herself as a worker – that is, to stay in the business of selling her labor-power.

But what about Mr. Moneybags over there? Maybe he makes vegan sausages, maybe he operates a charter school network—the particular business doesn’t really matter, and the nature of the work doesn’t really matter, as long as someone is willing to pay more for his product than it cost him to produce it. Every month, he meets Ms. Worker in the market, and buys her labor. But at the end of the month, he’s got more money than what he shelled out for that labor when started! This extra bit that accrues to the capitalist is what Marx called “surplus value.” But where does this surplus come from? Why does the worker end up always starting from square one, while the capitalist’s wealth grows and grows?

Marx’s answer was that labor is a very special kind of commodity. While other commodities are consumed when we use them, a capitalist uses labor to produce value. Capitalists can install as many spinning machines or self-checkout lines as they see fit, while trotting out stale fantasies of an automated future (Benanav, 2019). But without labor, the whole thing grinds to a halt. Why else would employers be so eager to get people back to work during a pandemic? Unless you’ve got people in the room (or working from home), there’s no profit. Labor valorizes capital – it lets you start with something and come away with something more. And that valorization process doesn’t happen in the marketplace. It happens at work.

So, what’s going on in the workplaces of Marx’s time—or our own? The great liberal revolutions of the eighteenth century promised the gradual expansion of political equality. But liberalism goes out the window when we get to work. Your boss might be a nice guy who supports worthy causes, but if he takes that attitude with his employees, he won’t be in business for very long. Marx figured there had to be a reason that so many high-minded social reformers adopted an authoritarian attitude with their employees; why Boss and Worker seem like actors on a stage, playing out roles in a drama that had been written in advance. The conclusion is simple enough: Mr. Moneybags has a downright obligation to make sure Ms. Worker gives him the full value of the labor he’s bought. If he doesn’t pay enough to keep her working and reproducing, then he won’t have any labor left to valorize his capital. But if he pays her according to the full value she creates, there’ll be no surplus left for him to enjoy (Thier, 2020). And so, Boss and Worker are locked in a tug-of-war called ‘class struggle’, and Mr. Moneybags is going to use every trick at his disposal to win.

Marx asks us to imagine this situation as a conflict over time. On the one side, you need a certain quantity of labor-time to produce all the things it takes to reproduce a worker. Maybe that worker needs grains to eat, a bed to sleep in, and living grandparents to watch the kids while she’s at the factory. Maybe she needs organic produce, a down payment on the house, and a college savings fund. Whatever the cultural and historical conventions regarding what is ‘enough’ might be, there is a certain quantity of ‘socially necessary labor-time’ - an absolutely indispensable quantity of human attention and effort - that is required to reproduce a worker and her form of life in a given time and place. And, barring a major social transformation, that quantity of necessary labor-time sets a floor on how much surplus a capitalist can get from a worker.

To understand these formal limits to accumulation, consider the following diagram:

The diagram shows the length of the time taken to generate the wages that would reproduce labor-power (i.e. necessary labor), which would say run from 9am to 1pm. For the rest of the day, i.e., between 1pm and 5pm, the diagram shows that this is 'surplus labor', which accrues to the capitalist as profit. 

To the right of the diagram, the text reads: Given the goal of maximizing the ratio of SURPLUS to NECESSARY labor-time, what moves can the capitalist make?

In this diagram, we take an imaginary working day, in which a certain quantity of time on the job goes towards reproducing the worker’s labor power, and the rest goes to the capitalist as surplus. If the capitalist can’t reduce the quantity of time that is considered “necessary”, he has only one option: extend the quantity of time on the surplus side.

For manual laborers, this might mean working 15-hour days in exchange for starvation wages. For educators, it might mean spending the weekends planning lessons (also at poverty wages) even though our adjunct instructor contract classifies us as part-time employees. In either case, the capitalist manages to get more value out of the worker through the absolute expansion of surplus.

The diagram shows the the necessary labor-time as between 9am to 1pm, as before, but here, the surplus labor-time has increased from 1pm to 9pm. The text to the right reads: A) Extend working hours (or intensity), keep compensation constant ("absolute expansion of surplus"/"playing to extinction")

Now, this tactic has what Marx called its ‘natural limits’, and you can read about them in the chapter on the working day. Put simply, human beings can’t work all the time – we all have physical and intellectual needs to satisfy. And when we can no longer satisfy those needs, we don’t make very useful workers. Yet capitalists need to keep growing their capital if they want to remain capitalists. There is only one solution to the dilemma: we need to lower the quantity of ‘socially necessary labor time’ it takes to reproduce the worker! The extra time thereby comes out of the worker’s necessary end, achieving a relative expansion of surplus.

The diagram shows that necessary labor time has shrunk from 9am to 12pm, while the surplus labor-time is now from 12pm to 5pm. The text to the right reads: B) Decrease cost of reproducing labor, keep working hours constant (relative expansion of surplus).

Even if the workers see absolute gains in wages and benefits, they end up enjoying a smaller proportion of the value they create. In good times, technological innovation lowers the amount of labor time it takes to produce necessary goods, meaning that workers might see a rise in their standard of living. But when all workplaces adopt these same innovations, the gains for workers reverse, because capitalists need to find even more ways to cut costs to compete against the new productivity benchmark. Perhaps this treadmill effect helps account for why the dynamics of class struggle in the Digital Age never really depart from the tactics of the Industrial Revolution (Postone, 2004). Then, as now, we find direct assaults on the living standards of working people and clear efforts to change the social consensus on the amount of effort, care, and value that go into reproducing a worker.

For anthropologists of work, this insight gives us a way to connect the conflicts we observe in our field sites and universities to shared struggles on a global scale. Just think about our academic workplaces. It’s taken a generation or more to change the workplace norm from secure ladder positions to precarious dead-end contracts. Even if value we create has remained more or less constant, for the sake of argument, the savings come in the discount our employers get by changing the standard of living. Now imagine a population that is even less insulated from the shocks that force down living standards in the rest of the world. For many of my Iraqi interlocutors, punitive sanctions and a military assault on civilian infrastructure demolished their standard of living over a decade, reversing collective achievements on healthcare, education, and quality of life. And even here in the United States, we find capital and the state working together to drive down the cost of reproducing labor. Across rural America, companies pay starvation wages because they know the federal government will pick up the tab through assistance programs. In big cities, the police, banks, and real estate agencies confine specific groups of poor people in jobless ghettos, creating reserve supply of chronically unemployed workers (Cleaver, 1970).

What this range of examples serves to show, I hope, is that Marx’s focus on formal limits does not imply a reductive relationship between economics, culture, and politics. Neither does his argument dictate a single set of strategies and tactics, for those seeking to develop any kind of political stance. Rather, what Marx lays out is the field upon which these struggles will necessarily unfold.


Baca, George. 2004. ‘Legends of Fordism: Between Myth, History, and Foregone Conclusions.’ In Social Analysis 48(3):169–178.

Bear, Laura. 2016. ‘Afterword: For a New Materialist Analytics of Time.’ In The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 34(1): 125–129.

Benanav, Aaron. 2019. ‘Automation and the Future of Work—I.’ In New Left Review 119: 5–38.

Cleaver, Eldridge. 1970. ‘On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party: Part I’. Ministry of Information: Black Panther Party.

Geras, Norman. 1987. ‘Post-Marxism?’ In New Left Review 163: 40–82.

Kockelman, Paul. 2008. ‘A Semiotic Ontology of the Commodity.’ In Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 16(1): 76–102.

Marx, Karl. 1977 [1867]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books.

Postone, Moishe. 2004. ‘Critique and Historical Transformation.’ In Historical Materialism 12(3): 53–72.

Sheldon, Zachary. 2021. ‘Managing the Humanitarian Workplace: Capitalist Social Time and Iraqi Refugees in the United States.’ In The Anthropology of Work Review 42(1): 35–46.

Thier, Hadas. 2020. ‘Under Capitalism, There’s No Such Thing as a “Fair Day’s Wage for a Fair Day’s Work”.’ In Jacobin []

Yanagisako, Sylvia. 2012. ‘Immaterial and Industrial Labour: On False Binaries in Hardt and Negri’s Trilogy.’ In Focaal 2012(64):16–23.


No comments here

Why not start the discussion?