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  • Writer's pictureSofia Greaves

Eiffel Tower Economy

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Eiffel tower illustration
Greenwich meantime was established in 1884 at the Prime Meridian Conference in Washington.

Standard ‘clock time’, was introduced in the late nineteenth century. The system was consolidated at the International Conference for Time, Paris, 1913, after which ‘the day’ was quite literally dictated by the Eiffel Tower.[1] Previously, French cities had local time taken from the sun, but railroads used only Paris time (which was roughly 9 minutes after Greenwich Mean Time, at that time). Railway stations set clocks on the platform five minutes ahead to ensure that passengers would board. Switching to GMT also took time. Germany had five different time zones in 1891, six years late, and Italy only introduced GMT in 1893.

Nobody owns time. But historically, changing and redefining time has been the specialism of rulers who have subjected territories to their surveillance and power. The way ‘time’ is defined, and by whom, determines the broader organisation and behaviour of those who abide by it. As one engineer wrote in 1886, Greenwich Meantime ‘Subjects the whole surface of the globe to the observation of civilised communities’. [1] Now you had to be ‘on time’ or ‘in time’, as defined by somebody else.

Fast forwards to Eurovision 2009, when Jade Ewen sang a song written in just two hours by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Diane Eve Warren. This song came fifth and is ‘the UK's most successful Eurovision entry since 2002', after we placed last for two years – it remains the highest scoring entry since 1997.

I've been down Down so long But those days are gone now I've got the will I've earned the right To show you it's my time tonight

It's my time It's my time My moment I'm not gonna let go of it My time It's my time And I'll stand proud

Re-organising time has always led to such cultural output and change. For example, in literary works like Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Dorian makes a deal with the devil, in order to stay young forever. He refuses to abide by the new 'clock time’. Dorian chose to define his own ‘personal time’. By making this choice he hid his biological time - his ‘natural processes’ - ageing and decay - within a painting in his attic. Dorian reclaimed time for himself. [1, 2]

Some researchers believe that our generation and its conception of time is changing. This is a result of a mental shift, because ‘the three basic properties of time come not from the physical world but from our mental states’, as Huw Price, professor of philosophy at Cambridge states. Society can construct a whole mental conception and culture of time. For example, we privilege ‘a present moment’, we give time a flow (the passage of time) and we give it a direction. We have a language for time which gives it characteristics and entrenches our attitudes to it; hence time can be ‘money’; it can be ‘managed’, 'invested' ‘spent’, it is ‘precious’. [3]

What if time was ‘green?’ Did you have a green time today oh yes very green. Time was so green, it almost jumped out.

It is hard to imagine forms of organisation other than our own. The problem, as Mussolini knew, is that our understanding of abstract concepts like ‘time’ sets limits upon how we think and our ability to imagine alternative futures. This means that it makes no sense for us to see time differently, and it is very hard to do so. [4].

Nonetheless, some believe that we thinking differently. If nineteenth-century thinking used GMT to measure time relative to man and his activities, (for example, the working day and 'over-time'), today, time is increasingly thought of in terms of the planet and its ‘activities’. These clearly do not abide by clock standards. A gradual transformation of thinking about time means that society is forced to confront that which was previously hidden in the attic.

Committing to abide by the time of planetary boundaries is obviously unpleasant. It is also difficult in practice - because generally 'business time' dominates the day-to-day. In 'business time' time is associated to money. This gives time a value which is determined by markets, ‘going rates’ and individuals, who are in competition with each-other. The fact that Capitalism values money, and requires it, dictates that we generally seek to maximise time spent doing activities which = money, and we actually have to spend an amount of time doing certain activities to make money.

Many economists have tried to redefine this system, proposing alternatives which are both exciting and dangerous, because it is understood that new systems have the potential to change the social structure of society. Yesterday at PROSPERA (see blog) we had a seminar from the economist and politician Lorenzo Fioramonti, whose influential book Beyond GDP is now a 'must read'. Fioramonti rejected GDP as a marker of success, and conceptualised the 'wellbeing economy' [5]. In our seminar, he spoke about the 'Wellbeing Alliance' but wasn't 100% clear on how 'wellbeing' was defined. Fioramonti claimed "we must be led by 'the science' and 'empirical data.'" How might wellbeing be defined, when it seems so subjective?

Economist and politician Andrew Yang, recently candidate for mayor in New York, has his own ideas about the metrics we might use. He proposes a new form of 'Human Capitalism' in which ‘humanity is more important than money’.

"Think of the activities on the list below:

Parenting or caring for loved ones Teaching or nurturing children Creating art, music, dance [film] Working in struggling regions near our hometowns Preserving the environment Reading or writing for pleasure or personal growth Preventative health care Character-building for your kids, your team, yourself Building community connections Having a hobby Becoming involved in local government

“Most of us do some or many of these things — and usually, we don’t do them for money. What these activities add up to is what we might call a normal life, a well-rounded life of care and character, rich with community and creativity and balance. When you do these things, you don’t think of yourself as participating in capitalism.”

In Yang's 'Human Capitalism', time spent doing the activities above are a measure of wellbeing. Therefore, Human Capitalism requires a new concept of time, which is dubbed ‘Time Banking’. In ‘Time Banking, people trade time and build credits within their communities by performing various helpful tasks — transporting an item, walking a dog, cleaning up a yard, cooking a meal, providing a ride to the doctor, etc’. This creates a form of economy which values time differently. Time can still be thought of as an exchange between people, but time is not 'money'. As a result, our reliance on wages decreases, because money is less useful. We are free to rely less on money from our waged job, and 'selling our time'. Therefore, in theory time spent working for money, and in hope of more money, will decrease. Money is simply valued less. There is more time for 'me time' and 'community time': the activities Yang lists above, which make up personal growth and ‘wellbeing’ - ‘a well-rounded life of care and character, rich with community and creativity and balance’. Time Banking is in place in 200 US communities. [7]

Some 'realists' say that changing the economic model is impossible, or will take a lot of time. This is a matter of perspective. Historically, in moments of major cultural shifts, society has gained perspective by looking back to the past and finding previous examples. Time has been used by revolutionaries and dictators alike to establish both 'authoritarian' and 'Liberal' values. Paradoxically, for us, the Eiffel tower generation represents some kind of model. In the 1900s, after public health advances and technological changes, cities were totally rebuilt, time was re-defined, and a new economic system ‘was born’. [8] If we think that transforming our economy, behaviour, values and time will be complicated, 19th century Capitalism teaches us that realistically, this is true. Problematically, we cannot change our value system wholesale until we commit to a structural change: a restructuring of time. Equally, the existing structure makes it difficult to conceptualise exploring different times. However, there are modes of resistance. Perhaps adopting 5 personal time zones, like Germany of 1891, might be a good thing.


[1] Kern, S. The Culture of Time and Space, 1880 – 1918. Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, London, 1983.

[2] This example comes from Kern. Foucault denied that power and surveillance are inherently negative or exclude the possibility of resistance (Foucault, 1997). Only in true domination is there no possibility of resistance: ‘where there is power, there is resistance’ (Foucault, 1978, 95). See Heller, K. J. 'Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault', SubStance 25 (1996): 78–110.

[3] Kuhn, R. L. 'The Illusion of Time: What's Real?' July 6, 2015.

[4] Foucault terms this framework our ‘episteme’. Foucault, M. The Archaeology of Knowledge (1970) xii.

[6] 'Humanity is more important than money — it’s time for capitalism to get an upgrade'.

[8] See Harvey, D. Paris, Capital of Modernity (London, 2003).

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