The expansion of free time during the crisis could lead to a reassessment of leisure and a revalorised public sphere.
The Covid-19 crisis has engendered an unparalleled self-evaluation of time. As more and more found themselves confined to their homes, an unprecedented effort to fill suddenly abundant free time began. A once very clear work/leisure distinction was not there anymore for many locked down for weeks.
Leisure is understood today as free time. This is however a diminished version of leisure in the Aristotelian-Marxist tradition. For Ancient Greeks leisure did not mean wasting time. Rather, it was the ideal form of temporal autonomy to display the superior virtues: goodness, truth and knowledge.
Standing on the shoulders of Athens, Marx argued for the pre-eminently political nature of time, rejecting the long hours and unfair working conditions of the early industrial era. Without time for ‘meaningful leisure’, the working classes were rendered incapable of envisioning change, as explained by Nichole Marie Shippen in her book Decolonizing Time: Work, Leisure, and Freedom.
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Even though the long and arduous fight for time resulted in a shorter working day in the early 20th century—and thereby the birth of free time in its modern sense—capitalism nevertheless unleashed its creative power in the colonisation of free time, in two novel ways.
First, the working day nowadays literally does not begin or end with the actual work. From countless commuting hours to extra education and self-aggrandisement activities to remain ‘marketable’—along with mental preparation for the next working day—any sense of free time is destroyed. In other words, most out-of-work time is spent on restorative or preparatory endeavours to return to work.
Secondly, through the compulsive creation of genres of ‘necessities’, capitalism has carved out new profit-generating areas. Who could forget the MasterCard’s Priceless campaign? For hordes of people squeezed inside a tyrannical working day that never ends, the company successfully priced the unpriceable moments of their lives, offering itself thereby as their key to a ‘good life’.
One of the dominant processes of capitalism is commodification, or the transformation of objects and activities into commodities. The excess production fuelled by technological progress and increased efficiency have to be absorbed by new flocks of consumers through commodification of free time at home and outside.
For many, free time has thus become dominated by mindless shopping sprees and restaurant meals, while crumbling at home into assorted offline and online activities. Countless hours of precious free time remain devoted to cooking and cleaning and tending to children’s needs—most of this unjustly distributed between the genders—yet the irresistible pressure to own multitudes of ‘social media’ accounts, with their must-see, must-do, must-read lists, along with paid access to online TV entertainment and virtual computer games, invades all residual free time through online means.
In short, leisure has lost its connotations of emancipation, serenity or intellectual profundity and become suffused with commodities, fictional lives, shopping, package entertainment, media shows and the advertising of celebrity lives and random thoughts through ‘social media’. Modern human beings have lived through an overwhelming transformation of creative leisure into ‘one-dimensional’ passive consumption, as Herbert Marcuse presciently anticipated in the 1960s.
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For three months now, however, the world has been in the grip of a tiny virus, SARS-CoV-2. It has not only brought entire economies to their knees but has also begun a recolonisation of time for myriad individuals confined to their homes. Suddenly and unexpectedly, free time has become much more abundant than in recent memory for large numbers of people.
This has challenged the processes of colonisation set out above. First, the working day has become something else altogether. Blue-collar workers have been confronted with unemployment and struggle to fill now-empty days with other activities, while white-collar workers have experienced ‘work-life integration’ practices thanks to advanced information and communication technologies. Both have faced unique psychological challenges: the former, anxiety coupled with boredom; the latter, novel challenges of balancing work and domestic life.
Secondly, many out-of-home free-time activities have been impossible during lockdown, while at home they have expanded, ‘vertically’ and ‘horizontally’. Bloodshot eyes after endless hours of computer games, enslavement by Netflix marathons or swimming in the sea of ‘social media’ are examples of the vertical recolonisation of time. Meanwhile, cooking and cleaning—particularly the latter, due to fearful disinfecting routines—and tending to children absent from school have become intense undertakings. The vertical expansion is thus more—much more—of the same.
Nonetheless, there has also been a horizontal expansion: engaging in meaningful conversations with family members, friends and colleagues and spending more time in contemplative activities, along with reading, writing, drawing and many such endeavours. This latter type of time recolonisation stands a chance of reclaiming ‘meaningful leisure’ from capitalism.
Indeed, a world of art, history and music is now universally accessible online. Free museums and galleries, where one can take one’s own online tour, along with free concerts and festival movies which can be streamed to the living room, represent a new genre of non-commodified, mass opportunities. There is free access to libraries and, within limits, publishing houses, and so to data, journals and books around the globe. Scientists have started sharing cutting-edge research results in open-access platforms and seminar series otherwise inaccessible to the public.
This horizontal recolonisation of time enabled by Covid-19 brings added benefits. Having free access to what was inaccessible is a positive step towards equal opportunity: individuals who cannot afford or are physically unable to visit Amsterdam, for example, can enjoy the paintings in its Van Gogh museum on their sofas. Moreover, the intellectual energy poured into coping with the high human as well as economic costs of the crisis reinforces a sense of global solidarity, now at such a premium. Finally, these cultural and intellectual activities might change the cemented meaning of a ‘good life’, conventionally conceived as about wealth accumulation, hard work and consumption.
So while the private sector is reeling, the quality of the public sphere has in some respects improved. A high-quality public sphere allows for free flow of information, as well as equal involvement in deliberation for effective and good governance. This sphere—the agora in ancient Greece—has become dominated by the mass media and the internet. Amid the crisis, however, it shows signs of metamorphosing into a better version of itself, with public opinion formed in a more fluid way with ample free time to articulate common concerns using a wider array of non-commodified vehicles.
Throughout history, crisis and human advancement have occurred in conjunction. The Covid-19 crisis, via its horizontal expansion of free-time activities, nurtures the quality of the public sphere and offers a way to develop a shared time consciousness, which can morph into collective action to create new public policies or to extend existing ones about time use. Thus redefined, ‘meaningful leisure’ can pave the way for personal autonomy and improved conditions of equality and democracy for all.