In The Political Value of Time: Citizenship, Duration and Democratic JusticeElizabeth F. Cohen explores how scientifically measured durational time is valued and used by liberal democratic states in political processes. Iris Lim recommends this for the care and precision that Cohen exhibits in her comprehensive effort at showing durational time to be at the core of how sovereign states function. 

The Political Value of Time: Citizenship, Duration and Democratic Justice. Elizabeth F. Cohen. Cambridge University Press. 2018.

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While time is ubiquitous in all aspects of our lives as workers, citizens and community members, political theorists have not yet formulated a cohesive theorisation of time and its relationship to politics. In The Political Value of Time: Citizenship, Duration and Democratic Justice, Elizabeth F. Cohen develops this often overlooked relationship by exploring how scientifically measured durational time is valued and used by liberal democratic states in political processes.

This short but incisive book is made up of four main discussions that build upon each other: (1) how time is integral to the establishment and functioning of sovereign states; (2) how time is assigned value in politics; (3) how this valuation of time becomes important in the procedures of politics as a unit of commensuration; (4) lastly, how a political economy analysis can reveal what kinds of political arrangements, good and bad, result from using time as a unit of commensuration. Cohen makes it clear early on that the notion of time she is referring to is specifically ‘scientifically measured durational time’, as opposed to other forms of time that exist, such as historical context, sequencing, the subjectivities of experienced time or tempo.

Building on French mathematician Condorcet’s ideas regarding the importance of time in bringing stability and legitimacy to democratic procedures, the earlier half of the book digs into the connection between the neutrality conferred to measured durational time and democratic processes by looking at the ways in which durational time is assigned value by being used as a representation of consent in political processes. This is done through a discussion of consent and jus soli in early US citizenship cases, where the state gave value to specific periods of time as a demonstration of consent to citizenship. Cohen’s most interesting contribution comes from her unpacking of this type of exchange between an immeasurable element (such as consent for citizenship or penance for a crime) and a specific measurement of time (such as a set number of years for naturalisation or a prison sentence), which foregrounds her political economy analysis of time and politics.

More or less similar arguments to the book’s earlier chapters can be found in the literature on the political economy of time in political procedures, such as scholarship on the temporal dimensions of migration or the temporal injustices of the criminal justice system. However, rather than launching straight into a political economy analysis of durational time to look at how temporal injustices occur in liberal democracies, Cohen goes to the effort of examining what specific quality of durational time elicits a political economy analysis. In doing so, she establishes why durational time is such a ubiquitous part of liberal democratic states before addressing when and how it can fail us: something that is often overlooked in the existing literature.

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Cohen does this by examining how the value placed on durational time in liberal democracies is used as a way to standardise the various qualitative aspects of civic processes by rendering them quantifiable. She observes that durational time is a ‘medium of exchange in politics because durational time is uniquely situated with respect to procedures of commensuration’ (120). Commensuration, defined as ‘the transformation of different qualities into a common metric’ (110), allows compromise in liberal democracies where a multitude of divergent groups must agree on how to govern together. Cohen’s work shows that for us to see how citizens’ time is unjustly appropriated, we must first understand how the value placed on measured time becomes used in the bargaining over the incommensurable elements of governance. This distinctive discussion of commensuration with regard to the role of durational time in past, present and future political processes has far-reaching implications.

Of particular interest are questions that can be asked of the widespread shift towards digital government that is being rolled out in all liberal democracies. For the sake of efficiency, cost-cutting and speed, many government services which were previously accessed through paper forms or face-to-face interactions have been brought online. This rollout is happening at all levels of government: national, regional and local. Through a perusal of the GOV.UK and other local council websites, such as towerhamlets.gov.uk, one can see that everything from universal credit, divorces, appeals on the HMCTS webpage to school enrolments and visa applications are now processed online and are ‘instantly’ accessible.

Cohen’s work is all the more interesting in light of these current shifts toward digitising government services and the subsequent problematising of time as something to be reduced or made even more invisible in how citizens access services provided by their government. Thinking through these ‘instant access’ services, it is useful to consider some questions raised by Cohen’s framework. What does digital government mean for the future value of time in liberal democracies? How are aspects of civic life that are hard to quantify made commensurable in face of these shifting valuations of time in digitally governed processes?

The study of time in politics and the social sciences is not new, a fact that Cohen addresses and engages with throughout her book. However, many of these considerations have been either niche or peripheral to main discussions. What is unique to Cohen’s contribution is the care and precision she exhibits in her comprehensive effort to consider durational time as being at the core of democratic politics, and it encourages further questioning of our political systems with the dimension of time front-and-centre in our minds. As such, it is both precise in its analysis and broad in its applicability. This book will appeal to a wide range of scholars and disciplines as the framework proposed has far-reaching implications for how we understand rights and citizenship in civic life.


Note: This was first published on LSE Review of Books blog.

Iris Lim is a PhD candidate and editor of the SOAS Journal of Postgraduate Research at SOAS, University of London. Her research looks at migrant experiences of digital governance in London and Seoul.


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