Lessons Written in the Snow

This winter’s early and persistent ice and snowfall have played havoc across Britain. Seasonal travellers have undoubtedly felt the brunt of it: grounded as they were at airports; hopelessly stationary on the railways. In my home in west Dorset a number of schools were also shut, with even the most perserverant forced to close a day early for the Christmas holidays -a generation of children made to miss out on the interminable ‘fun’ quizzes and movies that the last day of term tends to herald.

But enough has definitely been said about the economic cost of the snow. Debates about the economy or false economy surrounding more liberal grit provision have raged, fiercer than one might have expected, amongst the talking heads of current affairs. This is not to say that the snow will have no real, detrimental effect on many people’s lives. Independent businesses usually reliant on the Christmas season may be particularly hard hit, and this of course is no small concern. But amidst all the doom and gloom lies a different narrative, should we care to look for it.

One might expect at this point for me to delve into the same cliché-ridden territory as so many Six o’clock News field reports: having dealt with the heavy stuff surely it is now time for images of gleeful children pulled along on a sled by their puffing and panting mule of a father? In a sense I don’t aim to disappoint, though I intend to go deeper with my analysis.

Time is money

Most days of the year our lives are orientated around the clock on the wall, the watch-face, or the small date and time numbers on our mobile screens. Our obsession with this ‘clock time’, as John Holloway describes it in his 2009 book, Crack Capitalism, is deeply entrenched in our psyche.

Associated concepts, venerated and seemingly vital in our cultural and economic practices, such as the ‘protestant work ethic’, ‘efficiency’, and the raft of underpinning metaphors in our language that demand ‘time is money’, mean we find it almost impossible to express the concept or passing of time without some integral reference to economics. Think about it. You spendwaste, and buy time. Our abstract understanding of time is utterly commodified, and has been so since the ascendancy of capitalism a few hundred years ago.

This has more than merely linguistic consequences. For most days of the year our economy demands faster and greater rates of production and consumption. This requires faster work and longer working hours, particularly in an inhospitable financial climate where demand for jobs makes a competitive, individualistic ethos even more acute than usual. The idea of infinite economic growth has at its core the need for people’s adherence to the taskmaster of ‘socially useful’ time. It would be a strange imitation of Capitalism indeed that had workers turning up hours late because they simply wanted to enjoy a lengthy brunch before they clocked in. In our world, though, time is inflexible and usually it is not our own.

Heavy snowfall in Dorset, winter 2010

Living free from work

Snow, however, changes things. In the run up to Christmas much of the UK was cut off from the rat race, and ‘clock time’ was buried, albeit temporarily, under an avalanche of the white stuff. In west Dorset, the morning after the first blizzard, the roads were covered in snow. Quite a few drivers attempted to traverse the conditions in order to get to work, but the more cars that went over it, the more compacted and icy the snow became. Faced with a dangerous and near-impossible journey, by half way through the week most car users had given up. With the absence of that connection to the workplace, its ‘clock time’ and the relentless logic of efficiency, people began to slow down.

Most immediately indicative of a new appreciation of a slower paced time was the snowmen that began to pop up all over the fields and parks. Sleds were dusted off to children’s delight and parents’ exhaustion. Teenagers and adults regressed, and the passage of time in useless pursuits became something enjoyed rather than wasted.

Despite, or perhaps because of the difficulties and frustration involved in carrying out day-to-day tasks, a palpable, friendlier atmosphere seemed to descend on the town. Strangers who would normally never so much as look at a person they did not know, helped push traction-less vehicles up hills, escorted elderly people home with their shopping, and stopped to chat amicably with passers-by about that most favoured British subject: the weather.

Mutual aid

Detractors of radical political ideas have always held to the selfishness of human nature as an argument for the necessity of the present system and its legal institutions. Unusual circumstances such as the heavy December snowfall, having symbolically and literally buried the usual dynamics of time and of our everyday interactions, appear to show a different side to human nature: it is that which Peter Kropotkin, renowned social theorist of a hundred years ago, calls ‘mutual aid’. This cooperative tendency certainly endures in the usual capitalist environment, in one embattled form or another, but it is moments like the past week that allow it to truly flourish.

This is hardly to say that optimists and advocates of an alternative politics should keep their fingers crossed for more freak snowfall. That would be an unqualified disaster in so many respects. Rather, we must start to critique our own fast-paced society and the type of individuals it demands we become in order to succeed. Now that the snow has thawed, this is what we must take with us.

Originally published on Suite101.

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