Blame the British
At one point in Western history, time suddenly became a lot more valuable — and it’s Britain’s fault.
It’s the reason Westerners feel such intense pressure around productivity today. It’s why we bring our phones to yoga class, we eat at our desks, we stack our weeks with gig after gig, and have little regard for a “weekend.”
Before Britain invented the mercantile system in the 15th century, the management and appraisal of time was on a much more personal scale. The agrarian economy meant small towns exchanged goods and services in sync with the seasons and were subject to the limitations of hyperlocal resources. Time and productivity ebbed and flowed according to a natural rhythm.
But with mercantilism, one of the first major economic theories, how a person spent his or her time directly corresponded with the wealth of the entire country. According to economists of the time, any form of waking idleness lost a country money — and was declared a grave sin. The time between seasons and harvests, the time between anything at all, if not spent at work, was simply and suddenly a waste.
It was the birth of “time is money,” but only a select few enjoyed the benefits.
Mercantilism was a form of economic imperialism, a means of maximizing a nation’s wealth and thus increasing its power in relation to other nations. German scholar Philipp Wilhelm von Hornick summarized the tenets in Austria Over All, If Only She Will, published in 1684. According to him, every piece of a country’s land should be utilized for agriculture, mining, or manufacturing of goods. The resulting commodities would be processed rather than left or traded as raw materials. Imports were mostly forbidden, and if necessary, would be traded, not exchanged for gold or silver, which was to be hoarded in state. Finally, a large population would be continuously employed in the manufacture and production of goods.
In Britain’s case, the large population was deliberately comprised of poor laborers. And unlike the later promises of capitalism, upward mobility was not an option. In 1732, Dutch philosopher, satirist, and later London resident archly wrote:
“In a free Nation where Slaves are not allow’d of, the surest Wealth consists in a Multitude of laborious Poor…As they ought to be kept from starving, so they should receive nothing worth saving…It is the Interest of all rich Nations, that the greatest part of the poor should almost never be idle, and yet continually spend what they get…To make the Society happy and People easy under the meanest Circumstances, it is requisite that great Numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor.”
The theory of mercantilism was that if the poor population was allowed to grow in numbers but its wages kept low, it would have no time for consumption of either material resources or time, both of which were reserved for the wealthy. Meanwhile, the country itself would grow richer.
The mercantile system justified its approach as a way to help the poor “live better.” Not only did Britain insist that “suffering was therapeutic” for the poor, who would otherwise naturally devolve into laziness and sloth, but also that higher wages would lead to vice, drunkenness, and impropriety (in other words, unsanctioned free time). In 1771 economics writer Arthur Young asserted, “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.”
Mercantilism was “the utility of poverty,” declared Edgar Furniss in The Position of the Laborer in a System of Nationalism (1920).
More time spent working meant more money, but the poor never saw the dividends.
For Britain and surrounding countries during this period, mercantilism was perceived as a zero-sum game, in which the gain of one state meant loss in another. If a country produced more goods and had a larger population that was constantly working, that state was “winning.” Therefore, time spent industriously directly correlated with money earned.
By creating this intense anxiety around time, Western mercantilist nations insisted time could be shamefully misspent and necessarily harm one’s homeland.
Then the church got involved, too.
According to author Eluned Summers-Bremner, religious figures initially opposed Western governments’ declarations of authority over time management: “Lending and borrowing money changed the value of time, to which only God, having created it, should grant meaning.” Now, not only were laborers contending with the demands of a relentless work week, they also experienced spiritual guilt and fear — would misusing time threaten their “fate in the afterlife”?
What the church and the mercantilist economy could agree on was the destiny of the poor human’s soul — or more specifically, how to profit off a collective fear of damnation.
During one French parliamentary meeting in 1576, the nobility, merchants, and clergy banded together to urge the matter of forced labor. The latter contended that “no idle person…be allowed or tolerated.” Nobles demanded that “sturdy beggars and idlers” be whipped if they refused to work.
Never mind their own idleness, which, due to blind luck and the aristocracy, everyone at that table could easily afford.
Mercantilism eventually faded in the late 18th Century, to be replaced by a free market economy championed by Adam Smith. In hindsight, the mercantile practice of amassing wealth for some future “point of sale” meant countries actually decreased the value of bullion. Not to mention, by closing border to imports and limiting reliance on foreign supplies, any nation that practiced mercantilism was left with only its own raw goods (and the British climate was never conducive to winemaking). Mercantilism is now widely considered a primitive economic approach.
But the effects of enforced industriousness still linger. Philosopher and Enlightenment thinker John Locke argued in his Second Treatise of 1689 that the wealth of the world was created by human labor, and that people are entitled to land if they exert labor on its natural resources. It would prove an attractive idea to New World colonists, Puritans, homesteaders, and capitalists in general, who claimed wealth could be achieved by enough hard work, and where simply the act of toiling separated one from the poorest class.
“Leisure in a poor man is thought quite a different thing from what it is to a rich man, and goes by a different name,” said British economist Charles Hall in 1805, apparently without irony. “In the poor it is called idleness, the cause of all mischief.”
The same ideas permeate America today. One need look no further than the gig economy, a system invented by Silicon Valley elites presumably for anyone to take control of her job, on her time. In reality, gigs disproportionately lure the cash-strapped populations of this country — as independent contractors without health benefits, retirement plans, the right to unionize, etc. On top of that, gigs play on our country’s existing anxieties around leisure, our need to fill time with productive side hustles, whether we “need” the cash or not. Simply looking busy is currency in itself, a way to sidestep the stigma that comes with idleness, especially for the poor and working class.
In the meantime, the gap between the poor and middle class is as wide as ever. In his new book, The Vanishing Middle Class, MIT economist Peter Temin argues the U.S. is actually approaching a two-class system: a smaller, predominantly white upper class that controls wealth and power, and a large lower class comprised heavily of people of color.
It’s not technically mercantilism anymore, but the distribution of power is virtually identical. And we may not call it forced labor, but for the poor does it feel anything but? For one group, the absence of work is “wasted time” or “unemployment.” For the other, it’s “vacation” or #vanlife.