Sleeplessness and Wakefulness under 24/7 Capitalism

I don’t think I’ve ever not been somewhat of a night owl in terms of my sleep schedule.

For a long time I’ve been taught to internalize these habits as something inherently wrong with me (lazy, irresponsible, disorganized), or I attribute it to some condition (I was majorly depressed throughout my teenage years, making it heavy task to even wake up in the morning).
But after all these years, having achieved enough to feel proud of my capacity to work for success, and to have overcome the worst and most debilitating tendencies of my penchant to self-loath and self-doubt, I still have basically the same sleep patterns. Now I have come to think the problem is not with me, but with the temporal rhythm of modern society in general, and of contemporary society in particular.

In modern society, with the generalization of the wage-labor relation and the subordination of economic production to market exchange, we have also generalized and internalized a specific cyclical rhythm based on a working day that starts in the early morning and ends midday (we are ignoring variations on this cycle for the moment). There is nothing inherently problematic with this cycle seen on its own, but when we see how it fits into the larger cycles of society, we see a problem. Since the working day is conditioned by the structural logic and speculative imperative of capitalization, all cycles run at its pace, all rhythms tuned to its frequency. It is this universalizing logic that subordinates our natural rhythms to its own, often against the service of our own interests. Within this ruling order, people whose sleep patterns happen to coincide with that of the work day perform better and hence are rewarded, while those who are forced to adjust perform less optimally, and become punished for doing so.

In contemporary society, with the rise of the internet and global telecommunications, capital transcends the limits previously imposed upon it by the working day, running more freely and smoothly in the atemporal timelessness of virtual space. In the preceding historical moment, there was not much time to be truly awake during waking hours, but now in this moment there is not much time to truly sleep during sleeping hours. The colonization of virtual space by the forces of capitalization ensures that we are never not participating in the perpetual, now highly digitally mediated, production of value for others at the expense of our free time and cognitive surplus.

A key thing to note is that it is a privilege to be limited only to the 9-5 work cycle, because this tends to mean that you are payed well enough in that time frame to meet your basic needs. Many others who work without legal protections or in informal sectors, or who work multiple stable jobs throughout the day and night, or who have precarious temporary jobs working odd hours, do not have the same material and psychological privileges afforded to them. But since contemporary society is increasingly becoming “timeless” in its operations, it will be unsurprising to see a reversal where precarity becomes the norm and stability an exception to that rule.

I believe that a more ideal society would also be, in a certain way, atemporal or timeless in character, but not in the same way contemporary capitalist society is timeless and on 24/7. This ideal society’s timelessness would not be a perpetual wakefulness where the darkness of the night is nullified by an electroluminescent simulacrum of the day, but a space where a variety of temporalities are allowed to unfold, with a variety of rhythms being played at the tune of multiple frequencies. In this space, we would be able to sleep comfortably with the schedule that feels most natural to us, while also giving us the room to freely adjust and synchronize with the cycles and rhythms of those who we choose to work with, those who we choose to live our lives with.

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