E. P. Thompson, 'Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism', Past & Present, 38 (1967), pp 56-97.
E. P. Thompson is always worth reading. I’ve just read through the above article, and have three observations. First, in some ways we historians have progressed very little since the open Marxism of the 1960s. Cited in Thompson’s essay are, among others, Henri Lefebvre and Lucien Febvre, but also Pierre Bourdieu and Andre Gunder Frank. These authors are all still important methodological references.
Second, might we take this essay as a starting point for an anthropology, or anthropologizing, of Marx’s labor time theory of value? Is this how Thompson intended it? Were there discussions of this sort of thing any longer in the 1960s? My ignorance here is staggering. It seems to me that it would be possible to argue that although Marx’s theory of value is clearly an abstraction, it does, must, have some basis in actual practice. In tracing the history of time as a measure of work, Thompson traced the foundation of the genuinely capitalist world, since this time discipline was generated both by mechanical necessity (literally, by work with machines), but also for the effective market unification toward which capital tends. Certainly, Thompson in this article shows a complex interplay of economic and cultural forces that in part generated the economic world from which Marx’s deduced theory of value. The trick would be getting closer to an understanding of the field of historical applicability for Marx’s edifice.
Which comes to the third point. Thompson himself, in the ‘political’ epilog to the article, sounds quite dated, and reveals, perhaps, a Marxist worldview to betray his empirical sensitivity. Describing his own world, that is the 1960s, he says, “if the purposive notation of time-use becomes less compulsive, then men might have to re-learn some of the arts of living lost in the industrial revolution: how to fill the interstices of their days with enriched, more leisurely, personal and social relations; how to break down once more the barriers between work and life” (pg 95). When people talk about ‘post-industrial society,’ in particularly regarding the internet, I imagine what they want to indicate is exactly why this sentiment no longer makes any sense at all.