It’s early Tuesday September 29th, 2009 and I have a busy day ahead. This strong coffee and raucous Warren Zevon I am enjoying before the day has completely brightened is illusory. Too soon I must be on my way and, guaranteed, I will spend much of the day glancing at a clock.
Modern time is a construct of the wages system where labor power is measured by labor time. The clock tower being an Enlightened replacement of the church bell and usher of more temporal concerns. Since then every second of the day has to be accounted for and us proles made busy in filling them with work. Our time is literally stolen from us as we labor to produce another’s wealth.
Time used to be measured by the world around us: where the sun pierced the horizon, its angle in the sky, what phase the moon was in, etc. These were useful to you because they told you where you were and what the earth around you was doing and would do. Think for a moment if your day, this day, were determined by the rhythms of the natural world….there, wasn’t that nice? Instead a year is the space between vacations, the month begins when the mortgage or rent is due and the day ends when the whistle blows.
If I had my way we would still be using the French Revolutionary Calendar. I’ve checked but WordPress doesn’t have a widget to convert the Gregorian one given to us, when he wasn’t busy directing the massacre of Huguenots, by Pope Gregory XIII all the way back in 1582. A couple of other movements over the years have proclaimed their Year One, but none with the panache of our French friends.
In the aftermath of the Bastille and the entrance onto the stage of history of new forces the Revolutionaries declared that year to be Year I of Liberty. But it wasn’t until the sans-cullote raised their standard and overthrew the Monarchy and then the Gironde that the new Republic was birthed. During the heady days of the Fall of 1793 when the visage of a New World hovered over the whole of Europe and the impulse to “turn yourself inside out and see the whole world with fresh eyes” made everything once taken for granted subject to reconstruction including the very way we place ourselves in time and space; the calendar.
Coinciding with the dramatic de-Christianization then sweeping the revolutionary bastions the creation of a new calendar was a conscious rejection of the week and the year being determined by the Feasts of Saints and the ideological needs of the Church. The new Republic would be based on reason and right, not obfuscation and tithes. Time itself was seen to be within the purview of a liberated humanity. All that was before was darkness; all that was ahead light. The new era was said to begin with the overthrow of the Monarchy and the transfer of sovereignty to the people by the Republic on 22 September 1792: 1 Vendemiaire I.
It being France a poet, Fabre d’Eglantine, was chosen to give names to the months. D’Eglantine grouped the months by season and gave names reflecting nature at each point of the year. The first month of Spring, starting in mid-March our time, was named Germinal for “germination”. This month Vendemiaire after “vendage” the grape harvest, in mid November began the month of Frimaire or “frost”, etc. D’Eglantine would not see a year of seasons marked by the calendar of his creation; he was beheaded by the Committee of Public Safety with the Dantonists in April, 1794 only months after his apogee.
The revolution had already sought to standardize weights and measures opting for a decimal system and the Enlightened use of the Arab “ten”. The mathematician and Terrorist Gilbert Romme was tasked with developing the new calendar. Weeks had ten days, days were ten hours long, the hour 100 minutes and a minute one hundred seconds. Romme, sadly, had only a year to count his days on his fingers. He, with other Jacobins, committed suicide in prison rather than face the guillotine after supporting the last resistance of the sans-cullote to Thermidorian reaction in the insurrection of May, 1795.
Though decimal time was abandoned after a few years the calendar itself wasn’t laid to rest until 1806 when the Empire’s shadow had blocked the light of the Revolution and darkened the land once again with absolutism. Picked up by the Paris Commune of 1871 that brief experiment of workers’ rule can be said to have lasted from 16 Floréal to 3 Prairial, year LXXIX.
We can hope, as with the French Revolution, that the future will see more interventions in time based on the needs of our time. That we will again remake the world and order our days, months and years to the tune of the natural world and not the drudgery of wage labor. I wear no watch; today is Octidi Vendémiaire, the year is CCXVIII.