Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

A world where time replaces money as currency

Isn’t it amazing how a huge money-spinner of a film, made on a budget of millions, obviously in anticipation of making a sizeable profit in moviehouse-attendance and on DVDs, can tap into something that goes diametrically against the grain of its own production rationale? What it taps into, is the latent desire on the part of millions of working-class people worldwide, to acquire a more equitable share of disposable capital.

The movie I’m talking about is Andrew Niccol’s 2011 film, In Time, a dystopian science fiction allegory, set in 2169, projecting current conditions under capitalism into the future, but with a revealing science-fictional twist. Instead of capital, unevenly distributed among the populace, as it is today, we have time, just as unevenly distributed among people, in this way creating a schism between the social classes of the wealthy and the poor, based exclusively on the time they possess, and that possesses them.

If this sounds cryptic in the extreme, let me explain. The world (or a country) is divided into economic time zones, with the wealthy – those with the most time on their digital arm clocks, genetically engineered “into” them – living in New Greenwich, the time-domain of the wealthy (who are virtually immortal because of all the time they have accumulated), and the poor, or least well-endowed class, living in Dayton. As the name, Dayton, suggests, most of them have only a day to their name at any given time, and if they don’t slave away at something every day, literally to keep body and soul together, their digital clock would soon be down to zero, and they would die.

One is born with a digital time clock that gives you a year, and when you turn 25, you stop aging, at which time your clock begins winding down. You have to work to have time added to your body-clock, because when it reaches zero, you “time out”, unless it is replenished by time that others (parents, friends) can give you by physically interlocking their wrists with yours.

In a nutshell: The film projects a world that dyed-in-the-wool capitalists of the exploitative kind (and I would like to believe that not all capitalists are like that) would absolutely love – a world in which labour can be as cheap as you want it to be, because the universal currency, TIME, is a matter of life and death. If you don’t want to die, you do any work, or you become a time-thief, which is possible through violence or threats, by draining individuals’ time from their bodies.

And everything constantly rises in price – where a bus trip costs one hour off your clock today. Tomorrow you are told that the price has gone up to two hours, with the result that you have to run home (as in the case of the central character’s mother), because you only have one and-a-half hours left, hoping that someone will give you time on the way.

Lest I spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, a bare skeleton of the plot must suffice. Will Sallis (Justin Timberlake) is given 116 years by a suicidal, wealthy man, Hamilton, from New Greenwich when Will saves him from a robbery by a gang. Before giving the sleeping Will the time-fortune, Hamilton shares the truth about the time-currency with Will, to wit, that there is sufficient time (the equivalent of money) available for all people to have a long life, but the inhabitants of New Greenwich, who control the country through their time-wealth, acquire as much time (for storage) as they can from time-poorer people by seeing to it that the cost of living in the poorer time-zones is constantly increased.

To cut a long story short, after the death of his mother, newly time-wealthy Will crosses the time-zone barriers, determined to make the wealthy pay for all the injustices inflicted on the poor, and eventually, after teaming up with the daughter of a wealthy time-lending businessman, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), they find a way to destabilise the currency system, while constantly having to outwit the the Chief of the Timekeepers (the police), Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy).

The destabilisation of the system is brought about by Will and Sylvia dishing out large amounts of time-currency to the poor, who consequently can pay to cross time-borders between zones, and even infiltrate exclusive New Greenwich. The film ends on an optimistic note, with the message, that if a way can be found to redistribute time (currency, representing capital) more evenly, the world would be a better place.

Many might argue that this is utterly naïve, but perhaps they should take note of what Hardt and Negri have to say in Multitude (2005). First (p279), they remark on the systematically induced debt on the part of poor countries: “Some protests against the systemic reproduction of poverty, such as the Jubilee Movement International, focus on the fact that foreign debt obligations serve as a mechanism that keeps the poor countries poor and their populations hungry … it is always the same story: debt serves as a legal mechanism of enslavement.” Although they are talking about extant society, their observation fits In Time like a glove – essentially, with time running low, every worker/labourer in Dayton is indebted; unless they can remain “in time” with exploitative wages earned through hard work, their credit, and their lives, run out.

But there is an even more apposite passage in Multitude, which throws light on the film’s implicit claim, that there is ample currency to share among all people, but that the elites will always find ways to channel the bulk to themselves, to the detriment of those whose cost of living never ceases to rise. After discussing the high level of abstraction in finance capital and the very concrete effects it can have on economies, Hardt and Negri continue (2005: 281):

“ … finance capital also has another face, a common face that points toward the future. Finance is not really, as some claim, any less productive than other forms of capital. Like all forms, it is simply accumulated labor that can be represented in money. What distinguishes finance is, first, its high level of abstraction that allows it, through money, to represent vast realms of labor and, second, its orientation toward the future. Finance capital, in other words, tends to function as a general representation of our common future productive capacities … since finance capital is oriented toward the future and represents such vast realms of labor, we can perhaps begin to see in it, paradoxically, the emerging future of the multitude, albeit in inverted, distorted form. In finance the contradiction becomes extreme between the expansive becoming common of our future productivity and the increasingly narrow elite that controls it.”

It is as if Niccol conceived of his dystopian film in the terms articulated by Hardt and Negri with such pertinence for In Time. Perhaps it also provides the logic, if not the means, for conceiving of the process that would redistribute wealth – here, in the guise of time itself – more equitably. Because at the heart of capital there is the drive towards what Castells calls “timeless time”, which is manifested in the film as “making time stand still” for those who control the means of production, but not for the labourers, who struggle to remain “in time”.

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    • Yaj

      Some argue that time is money and can be used as a unit of account like the Time Banks in the UK where time is used as an alternative currency to employ and remunerate people who are formally unemployed.
      Our current debt-based money system has scarcity built-in to the system through compound interest and fractional reserve banking. There is never enough money in circulation for everybody to pay back both principal + interest which fosters competition for scarce money and perpetual growth to keep the musical chairs going.
      Silvio Gisell a renowned German/Argentinian economist and businessman advocated a time-related charge/tax on money or demurrage which would act as a circulation incentive and anti-hoarding mechanism which would increase the velocity of money. Very successful monetary experiments in Austria in the 1930s based on his ideas created much needed employment at the time.

    • Udo

      To confirm the accuracy of the time and money equivalence, just think of the familiar capitalist adage: “Time is money”. And again, to confirm, this morning I heard on SAFM that miners who wanted to attend the Marikana massacre commemoration event, were given permission to do so by the mining company, but on a “no work, no pay” basis. In other words, to use the movie’s terms, they lost valuable time, which brought them closer to “timing out”, if they dared attend the commemoration.

    • Garg Unzola

      It’s a splendid film!

      It is of course naive to think that distributing currency/commodities will make the world a better place. This is exactly the aim of runaway debt: Give spending means to everyone! The examples against are legion, take Germany where practically free education has devalued their highly skilled workforce’s skills.

      The reality is that limited resources are a real concern. Whether one distributes them equitably or seemingly unfairly with only a few running the show, the rate at which they are used up is the real clincher.

      Currency is a medium of exchange, a store of value, a measure of demand and a standard of payment. Dishing out currency to all and sundry on an equitable basis will merely devalue the currency (this is in effect hyperinflation).

      What I cant recall from the film is how the labour of the labourers is connected to the lifestyle of the fat cats. What also doesn’t come across is how much strain their world would take if everyone maintained the lifestyle of the fat cats for a similar period of time. It’s also not clear how much everyone would gain if the distribution were equal: Perhaps it’s not much of an upgrade for the most.

    • Bob

      Garg, you say: “…take Germany where practically free education has devalued their highly skilled workforce’s skills.”

      That doesn’t sound like reality to me–maybe you would like to elaborate. Wages for skilled work in Germany are relatively high. There are many unfilled jobs for skilled workers in Germany and very few openings for the unskilled. Nor is Germany the only country offering ‘free’ (tax-financed) education.

      Paying for education is an unnecessary barrier to social mobility. It’s sad to see that this barrier is widely accepted in South Africa.

    • Momma Cyndi

      If all of the money in all of the world was equally distributed to all of the people in the world, what would money be worth? It has also been seen in lottery winners that a fool and their money are soon parted. I would be an interesting experiment but I don’t think the conclusion would be as rosy as most think it would

    • http://http// Paul Whelan

      The trouble with Utopia is that, like the dog running barking after a car, if we ever got there we wouldn’t know what to do with it.

      What on earth would be the point of living if life was perfect? What ever would you do with your time if you were immortal?

      Kant couldn’t understand the idea of an eternal universe because it would mean there would be an infinite time between events. More like hell than heaven?

      The idea that we are here to be content is a most curious one.

    • Maria

      The allegorical point of the film is that it drives home the link between capital and time in a radical way, by linking its currency status to the very difference between life and death. It is true that the current system can only “work” because scarcity is built into it, and this presumably gives money its value. But the point is that, if this principle were to be altered, by de-linking it from the “growth at all costs” principle, which will have to happen soon, anyway, given looming ecological barriers, capital could indeed be equally redistributed among everyone. It is only as long as one incentivizes people to work, or invent new commodities, with the promise of more personal capital, that the present system works. When the point is reached where it becomes more and more obvious that unbridled growth is no longer possible, and capital has to be redistributed to rein in growth for the sake of ecological survival, people will put their creativity in the service of the well-being of humanity, and all life on earth, instead of self-enrichment.

    • Bob

      @Maria, could you please consider making some falsifiable claims? You can claim forever that some big revolution is going to happen ‘soon’. That doesn’t make for a scientific theory.

      Consider that our present system could naturally and gradually adapt to environmental limitations. There are already big moves towards renewable energy, for example. Are you absolutely sure that we need communism or whatever you are suggesting (maybe you should make clear what you are referring to btw.) to survive?

    • Maria

      Bobby boy, like all capitalists, you see the danger of a revolution everywhere, probably because you don’t want to share your “time” with others. Read James Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia if you want falsifiable evidence of what I’ve said about ecological barriers. The renewable energy that is just another source of income for capitalists is merely cosmetic in the face of the ecological threats hanging over us. We are already on a slippery slope, Lovelock says, and with good reason, for nowhere in the world does any so-called leader take the initiative by informing citizens of the true state of affairs. Have you seen Thin Ice, the documentary on climate change made by scientists? Talk about falsifiable and verifiable – it is there in abundance, that human economies have well and truly effed up the world, and capitalism much more than any other system.

    • Bob

      @Maria, I don’t think you understood my question, so I reformulate: Given that we are destroying our environment, why do you believe that this will necessarily result in communism (or some such similar dream-based system)?

      As an aside, current efforts towards renewable energy are more of a threat to corporations than ‘just another source of income for capitalists’. Consider the solar panels on the roofs of private households as an example. Energy companies don’t like that. And they are spreading fast.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      This discussion of time reminds me very much of what Bifo Berardi refers to as info-labour – a kind of ‘time theory’ of value:

      “When we move onto the sphere of info-labour there is no longer a need to have bought over a person for eight hours a day indefinitely. Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers.

      De-personalised time has become the real agent of the process of valorisation, and de-personalised time has no rights, nor any demands either. It can only be either available or unavailable, but the alternative is purely theoretical because the physical body despite not being a legally recognised person still has to buy his food and pay his rent.” – Bifo Berardi

    • Garg Unzola

      The ‘growth at all costs’ paradigm is not evident or relevant to the film as I can recall. I may need to watch it again, but I can’t remember why the poor were kept poor – it’s not explicit as it is in say Metropolis. It’s not like the rich needed their labour for anything and growth was in fact kept artificially low by limiting the time each person could labour.

      Besides, ‘growth at all costs’ is not necessary for capitalism. It’s necessary for central planning to satisfy the fetish of full employment and to redistribute resources to all and sundry. These are general social goals that do not pertain to any particular ideology.

      Wages in Germany are actually lower compared with the rest of the Eurozone. They’ve also had a slower inflation rate, which is why many called it a ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policy. More on that here:

    • Jomarie van Eyssen

      Personally, the overall idea that I had seen throughout the plot of the film “In Time” is the concept of power. This power which was demonstrated in the two different time zones can be noted as either positive or negative. For the rich it had been a power that was of positivity but to the poorer individual it had a negative effect because he or she had known that “For a few to be immortal, many would have to die.”As it is gathered in the different scenes, power could be received, stolen or given but it came with an expense.

      There had been an ongoing power struggle and victory which was shown between the two extreme classes which each viewer could relate to personally. I say this because just as the poor are pressurised daily to try make a plan to be able to survive just like the film demonstrates, many of the rich still continue to live in luxury without remorse.

      Like in any exchange of power there is an aspect of motivation that develops as we can see in the character of Justin Timberlake when he had received the century of time but had lost his mother soon after. This incident had motivated him to decide on what his purpose was for the future, just as many incidents where power is gained or lost in our lives serve as motivation for our future.

    • Natasha Kydd

      I have not watched “In Time” yet but I certainly will be doing so soon. I can however, state that I do not agree with capitalism at all. Socialism seems more logical being “a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.”

      Capitalism has been through many transformations. The capitalism that Marx thought would break down under its own contradictions is not the capitalism of today. In the material world organisms evolve and respond to crises and therefore change. It could be said that the same thing happens with our social practices. They evolve and adapt to new circumstances. Capitalism has faced many crises, and each time it has evolved/changed. Every time a new form of capitalism has emerged to solve the problems its predecessor faced. This is how human beings progress, solving our problems by adapting our practices. Things shouldn’t have to be this way if government could be socialists.

      Also, commenting on how technology and humans would merge: The evolution of biological life and the evolution of technology have both followed the same pattern: they take a long time to get going, but advances build on one another, and progress erupts increasingly fast paced.

    • Natasha Kydd

      The evolution of technology has been a continuation of the evolutionary process that gave rise to humans. It took tens of thousands of years for our ancestors to figure out that sharpening both sides of a stone can create a useful tool. Now, technology is evolving so fast that there are robots replacing pets as well as the question asked, “When will technology and humans merge?”

      I don’t believe this will happen anytime soon, but then again microchip implants to control banks and medical aid are already being spoken of. I don’t want to think of a world where humans and technology have merged, because this way humanity, at its purest form, will be lost. Humans will rely on technology, just as we are beginning to already, instead of technology relying on humans.

    • Garg Unzola

      The problem with a central system like the one any socialist government requires is that one crisis is the crisis of all. The 2008 Chinese milk scandal is one example of what happens when a crisis occurs in a tightly regulated, centralised system.

      How does a system adapt when the alternatives have been destroyed? More on how socialism works here, from a biological perspective:

    • Chris Stevens

      Allow me to propose that “In Time” is a post-modern Marxist critique of capitalism.

      (Insert collective groan from stockbrokers and economists here)

      Much like the contemporary monetary system, econiomics based on time is a theoretical system. The contemporary economic system, which is characterised by the “dollar standard” is an institution based on probability, a theoretical assumption. In the movie “In Time” we are presented with an “economic” system, based prodominently on the theoretical assumption based on the probable assumption of the future or “time credits”. The characteristics of the Marxist superstructure, namely modes/means of production, class conflict and the concept of a resource of superabundance ( time ).

      Whether you believe that time is finitely or ( like me) infinitely probabable, it is so extensively contemplatable that we can at least propose that it asemtotes towards infinity, symbolically represented by the “time bank”, which (SPOILER ALERT) the protagonist robs at the end of the movie. Clues of the Marxist agenda can be find throughout the movie, but it is the robbing of the “time-bank” that brings on a utopian revolution.

      Just some thoughts, let me know what you think….. :)

    • Leoni Erasmus

      I find the article very intriguing, and would love to watch this movie as soon as I have some “spare time” – mind the pun ;).

      What I can conclude from what I have read as well as my own experience, is that no matter what the currency, society will always have some element that will have a clear differentiation between those who are wealthy and those who are poor.
      In this case it seems the movie simply portrays life to be a rat race for survival by accumulating more time. When compared to reality we are in a rat race to make money in order to survive so that we can afford the basic necessities. But the sad reality is that there is too much greed when knowingly the world can be a better place when (in the movies case) time gets distributed evenly.

      Nothing in life is free, whether it be time or money, people have always had to work for what they wanted. I personally think that this is a social situation that could never be solved as it will always create politics. In my opinion, it comes down to ethics and people’s way of living. Some people would prefer status and wealth “being immortal” than sharing and being “level” or equal to all other individuals.

      Luckily, we have no direct limit to “our time” so i’d advice all to make the most of their time rather than worrying about accumulating more time. Do what you want and what you can with the current time you have. THE TIME IS NOW :)

    • Yasikan Naidu

      Interesting article, I was reading in fear of massive “spoiler alerts” because I haven’t seen the film. The movie is a true metaphorical reflection of how currency and time actually control our lives. Without the correct time management we won’t be able to work effectively which will result in zero capital build. Unfortunately for us the corporations of the world do hold all the capital and we are required to work for them in order to live a certain lifestyle created by them. It’s almost like the poor work till their death and still won’t be able to be on the same level has the corporations. The film references that well, the rich are almost immortal and the poor work to keep themselves alive. In my personal opinion I think I would actually enjoy using time as a currency. Makes life easier but the problem will come in when we pay for holidays. Lounging around might just be the death of us.

    • kgomotso ruzvidzo

      As i was watching the film, i couldn’t help but think of the protagonist as a pre-modern day Robin Hood in his endeavour to disrupt the system. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and I found its content to be a relevant critique of capitalism,as well as a lesson in valuing our time. The poor are sadly slaves to time as their lives depend on it, while the rich are practically immortal and they go about their lives slowly and carefree because they literally have all the time in the world. The inequality is staggering and these wealthy people of New greenwich even hire timekeepers who make sure the poor never own that much time so as to maintain this inequality. The digital clocks genetically engineered into every human, makes me think of us as cyborgs and how this is an example of technology controlling us. The digital clocks have power over the humans in the sense that they store the time as currency and as a life store, when the clock runs out you die , without them would this Dystopia exist? this is but one of the questions i found myself faced with while watching the movie.

    • Sasha Blignaut

      Although i have not seen ‘In Time’ yet, i can see from all the responses that it is definitely a must see! From what i can gather and from all the reviews i have read it clearly is not a movie of equality and Capitalism that is highlighted in this film. I am not a fan of Capitalism as i believe everyone should be treated equally and given a fair chance to live the life they choose to. There will always be that sense of “class” where everyone is thrown into a particular ‘department’ if i can even classify it as that. Where the cast is acquiring more time is quite contradictory to real life because no matter how much we wished, everything and everyone has an expiry date.

      Lust is one of the main things that us as humans need to cut down on. If only time is able to be manipulated, where would that leave us?Time is very costly in everyday life, working contracts to be specifi. I totally agree with what Jomarie says in terms of power. Let me repeat i have not yet watched the movie but i must stress that this movie seems to be a clear demonstration of how humanity is manipulated and cruelty is portrayed to those less fortunate but in the same breath it also shows that the wealthy do have some sort of remorse when Sylvia chooses to help the poor. I am very two-sided about this and i think after seeing the movie i can give a wider and detailed opinion about it.

    • Chumisa Ndlazi

      The Film “In Time” does not just demonstrate the concept of “time is money” but it also speaks to the issue of “money is power” and “knowledge is power.” The theme that transcends throughout the film is one of wealth translates to control/power. For instance, it is evident in what the wealthy man – who later commits suicide says to Justin Timberlake, he explains that : “in order for a few to live, millions must die.” This ‘concept’ of the system surviving at the expense of the millions is further confirmed by Mr Weis- the owner of the time zone system in the film. He maintains that if a great amount of time is left in the hands of the majority the system will crash hence, to him, it is justified that the time remains in the hands of the minority.

      From the above mentioned, one can gather that for the wealthy, the power to control this time zone system means enjoying the pleasures of life forever. However, from my observation of the film, the wealthy like the poor, have become slaves to the system. The poor dedicate their lives to hard work in order to survive. As a result, many of them are miserable and unhappy because the system has deprived them of the enjoying the pleasures of life. Similarly, this is the case for the wealthy as well. Although they seem to be in control of the time zone system, what they don’t realize is that, the system controls them too. They have also becomes slaves to the system just like the poor.

    • Chumisa Ndlazi

      The wealthy may have access to a luxurious life and they may have all the time in the world but, they can’t truly enjoy the adventures and pleasures of life. In order for them to live forever, the system does not only require them to have a lot of time on their hands but, it also requires them to live a restricted, dull life. So essentially, the system robs them of the chance to live life to the full. As a result, this film challenges the notion of “money makes you happy.”

      Secondly, another theme that comes out strongly in the film is “knowledge is power.” Justin Timberlake and Mr Weis’s daughter, are able to overthrow the system because Justin Timberlake understands the effects of the system on the poor and furthermore, he understands the intentions behind the creation of it. Mr Weis’s daughter on the other hand, understands the operational part of the system because she has always been exposed to it. Therefore, when these two unite with their great amount of knowledge, they draw power from this knowledge to overthrow the overarching system. Therefore this theme, “knowledge is power” for me, speaks to the importance of us educating one another and organizing ourselves in order to achieve a meaningful social change.

    • Devin

      I have read the movie ‘In Time’ and personally I feel that this article has made me think past the Hollywood bells and whistles.

      This to me is an example of what happens in todays society all over the world. The use of money replaces the time used in the film to let the rich become in todays terms immortal. They have the means to overcome almost every outcome, for example sickness, poverty, starvation, joblessness and price hikes.

      Having a seemingly endless wealth of money that through their investments will never deplete. This would classify them as the higher class citizens of New Greenwich. This makes the citizens who fall under them living in the lower class areas the workers who work to keep themselves alive and to make the rich, richer.

      This idea of a capitalist society in my opinion is already in effect. In the film overthrowing the system by distributing the wealth among all classes is slighty easier than what it would take to even out the system of money as a currency we use today.

      The society portrayed in the film is more fictional than that of our own, but at the same time they couldn’t be more similar