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13 May 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:09pm

How the coronavirus crisis has revived the politics of time

The pandemic has deprived us of something we took for granted: the ability to dispose freely of our private time.  

By Jan Zielonka

One consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is the feeling that time has been suspended. Locked down at home, not knowing when our national quarantines will end, we are left to ponder the wisdom of the decisions governments have taken in the expectation that the world would continue to move like a chronometer – forwards. 

Ideologically, no political project is viable without both a compelling vision of the future and a credible story about the past. Promoting particular interpretations of history and projecting different visions of the future is the life force of political parties and their strategists. Since the 18th century, the liberal tradition has understood time as a linear process of improvement. Against such progressive optimism, conservatives look back to pasts that appear morally superior to the present. 

However, it was not conservative nostalgia that shattered liberal assumptions about time and progress, but the human-made catastrophes of the 20th century. Two world wars and the deadly technologies that accompanied them rendered the end of time a foreseeable prospect. 

As the language of war is routinely used to talk about Covid-19, it may be useful to remember that the political, economic and social reconstruction that took place after the Second World War rested largely on governments’ ability to present a vision of the future as a time of recovery and growing prosperity.

Postwar politicians did not limit themselves to talking of improvements to come, but sought new ways of managing time, both privately and collectively. Against the totalitarian aspirations of fascist regimes to gain full control over individuals’ time, postwar liberal politicians promised to respect private time, while creating the conditions that would allow every citizen to enjoy it.

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The management of time remains at the core of contemporary democracies. “Quality time”, “flexi-time”, and “leisure time” have become common themes of political and public debate. What these labels actually mean, however, depends largely on the political context in which they are used. When governments regulate weekly working hours, shops’ opening times, or the length of the school day, they define the boundaries that separate our collective and individual lives. 

Consider how many more free days workers enjoy in France than in Japan or the US. Or how many hours parents need to dedicate to childcare in Italy compared to Finland, where there is an extensive system of nurseries and schools. The allocation and enjoyment of time, that is, the question of how we spend our lives, is not a personal matter, but determined by political priorities. 

Similarly, governments privilege some stages of the life-cycle above others in the allocation of resources; sometimes benefiting older people, sometimes younger ones. States regulate the transfer of power and property between different generations, most notably through inheritance taxes. In all their different forms, political decisions shape the extent to which we decide to invest our time in the future. 

This extends to the most intimate aspects of our life, such as the decision whether or not to have children. The politics of time shapes social, family and individual life in very deep and concrete ways.

The pandemic has brought an enormous shock to the politics of time. The risk of contagion and the efforts to contain it have halted the usual flow of life and deprived us of something we took for granted: the ability to dispose freely of our private time. The scale of the epidemic justifies the stringency of the measures taken globally, but it does not reduce their significance. 

Paradoxically, by forcing us into our homes, the state has trespassed the very border that used to distinguish liberal democratic polities from pervasive authoritarian regimes. The domestic sphere, which was constructed by 19th-century liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Benjamin Constant as the preserve of individual freedom, is now the place of citizens’ supervised containment.

Our collective determination to survive the virus is making us comply. But what will happen once the virus is defeated? Will states quickly recede from our private time, or will they ask for ever greater powers to manage it, in order to mobilise much-needed human resources? 

As the economic crisis erodes incomes and savings, will politicians be tempted to use emergency measures to keep control of increasingly restless societies? Putting forward a vision for the future is essential to any political discourse. But will our politicians be able to present us with one?

The politics of time will be at the core of the confrontation that will take place between democrats and autocrats in the post-Covid future. 

For democrats to prevail, they will have to create a just and commonly shared vision of the future. A democratic approach to time will require not only the freedom to enjoy family or leisure time, but also a fair regulation of our working hours and the creation of a political environment that is conducive to civic participation.

The arbitrariness of selectively easing the current lockdowns does not bode well for the future. If demands are to be made on our time then we should be given something tangible in return in terms of access to public goods.

The postwar years offer lessons on how this could be achieved. But much of that vision was wiped out, not by a virus but by the political victory of neoliberalism from the late 1970s. Bringing back a decent and more caring idea of society, with no striking inequalities of “lived time”, will help us look forward to a more uplifting future. 

The alternative will be a society of resentful and nostalgic citizens trying to liberate themselves from imposed time constraints. Such a society would resemble the “goofus birds” imagined by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges in The Book of Imaginary Beings (1969): birds that built nests upside down and flew backwards, because they were not interested in where they were going, but in where they came from.

Jan Zielonka is a professor at the universities of Oxford and Venice and Stefania Bernini is an assistant professor at the University of Venice

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This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion