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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