Belt-Tightening Joanna Erbel

The logic of belt-tightening is the logic of managing one’s temporal practices in times of crisis or while waiting for a better future. It significantly influences individuals’ attitudes toward their free time and their visions of the expected future. The logic of belt-tightening is popular among individuals in many postsocialist societies.

The logic of belt-tightening is interconnected with the logic of delayed gratification present in Central and Eastern European countries since the fall of communism.1 Individuals feel that due to the communist period their society lost many years in the race toward modernization and as a result they must take every opportunity to catch-up with more developed countries. It makes them treat their free time as a privileged area of investment and embodies a negative attitude toward all the moments that do not serve to reduce the distance between them and those who are at the forefront of process of modernization. Individuals who do not work after all those years lost to communism are accused of being not only irresponsible and lazy, but social spongers as well.

The less developed the country, the greater the pressure to use free time as effectively as possible. The embodied logic of belt-tightening is what distinguishes citizens of former socialist countries from those of the countries of the old European Union (especially the welfare states). In Belgium or the Netherlands, it is generally taken for granted that students or other young people should spend their free time meeting friends, playing football, having picnics or otherwise relaxing. In contrast, for Bulgarians and Poles, for example, free time is time to be occupied with another job, a course, and—only if there is any time left over—to be spent with friends. Their attitude conflicts with Veblen’s idea of the capitalist leisure class, whose aim was to take the best of capitalism and fulfill themselves through either leisure or consumption.

This discrepancy indicates that in former socialist countries the logic of catching up with the West is strongly influencing the process of individualization. They not only have to fulfill themselves; in addition, the constant process of self-mastery is interconnected with an identity project that is heavily skewed toward a desired future others already have. It is the outcome of the conviction, present both in media discourse and in the practices of working individuals (especially white-collar workers), that since their economies—the economies of former socialist countries—are lagging behind, they should restrain their needs and increase their efficiency at work so as to be able to catch up with the development levels of Westerns capitalist economies as quickly as possible. “Catching up” with West was a popular slogan used both by the media and by workers. Heavy workloads and stiff competition are justified with reference to the backward, inefficient economies of the communist period. This logic also justifies the inefficacy of public institutions and substantiates the growing tensions between temporal regimes connected with work and free time.

What we see here is a peculiar way of adopting the rules of individualization present in developed Western European countries. Moreover, there is a contradiction between, on the one hand, the modern discourse which underscores the role of work in self-development and attaining happiness while engaged with one’s passion, thus enabling the achievement of aims other than those directly connected with work, and, on the other hand, work seen as a constant or temporal suspension of personal satisfaction so as to “catch up” with a Western lifestyle and achieve Western professionalism. Any failures resulting from working overtime are ascribed to poor, inefficient planning and a lack of self-control, and the new work regimes are seen as something natural and rational, to which individuals should adapt their actions and expectations. Extremely high levels of productivity, working overtime, and the logic of delayed gratification are phenomena which greatly influence the experience of time, especially of the free time which individuals can use both as capital and to catch up for lost years.

What is considered the legitimate vision of the social depends on the reigning chronology. We can change social relationships and view them as a natural result of past activities only if they are supported by techniques such as those of time management, the discourse of modernization or “belt-tightening.” However, if we alter our attitudes toward time, we can experience different social projects in which leisure and consumption and not work and delayed gratification define the logic of how we spend our free time. Time is one of the most important dimensions of social life. Individual social practices are always temporal practices—they last a certain time, and have a certain regularity or lack thereof. Some of them, like national or religious holidays, have a wide reach; others, connected with private plans, concern first and foremost individuals and their immediate surroundings. Social practices have a certain rhythm which organizes the everyday lives of individuals, each of whom has his or her own past, present, and future.

In societies of late modernity we cannot talk about universal social time as different social groups live according to distinct time regimes. The rhythm of stockbrokers differs from the rhythms of farmers or parents on parental leave. Attitudes toward time are connected with the place of individuals in their social structure; they are connected with age, gender, race, class, place of habitation, and many other factors. We might even say that the way an individual organizes his or her time makes him or her a representative of the middle class, a Catholic, a childless woman, an orthodox Jew, and a winner or loser in the socio-economic transformation process. There are many patterns of time management but we can always talk about patterns which are socially desirable and presented as the ones that responsible individuals should adopt. Such time regimes are always related to dominant ideological projects. Living according to the socially accepted rhythm means accepting the rules of social life and opposing them means questioning them.

After the transformations in Central and Eastern European countries, the desired attitudes toward time have been connected with the logic of promoting delayed gratification and the imperative of making up for the lost years of communism. They are based on the model of the independent individual smoothly managing his or her time. Well-organized, effectively-used time and belt-tightening are seen as guarantees of success, social advancement, and, at the same time, a necessary lifestyle. This mode of life is treated as the norm and every departure from this norm is stigmatized as a symptom of laziness and sign of wasted potential. Indeed, the social imagination entertains a longing for unlimited free time, an everlasting holiday on a beach; this, however, is only a fantasy which individuals are eager to fulfill in instant form—not life in the tropics, but two intense weeks in a warm place with speed-sunbathing that starts in a tanning booth two weeks before departure, quick sightseeing, and, afterward, a rapid return to work. Holidays that last too long in the world of belt-tightening are not a luxury but a waste of time. Moreover, overly lengthy breaks from work spent relaxing enjoyably inevitably engender feelings of social exclusion and become curses.

In the societies of the new capitalism we are experiencing a radical acceleration in every domain of life. It is not only productivity that is speeding up; more and more technological solutions are enabling individuals to work at any moment of the day. Furthermore, educational programs that do not suit the demands of the market are making young people desiring employment need more than one degree or work (often unpaid) as interns in different companies. Multitasking (studying for two degrees or studying and working at the same time) forces individuals to become experts in time management. In order to stay on top of everything in their lives, they have to become private planning offices, becoming planners, managers, and strict supervisors—all in one person.

When the framework that restricts the temporal dimension of action is blurred, it is the individual who must be responsible for keeping the right pace. It is no longer schools, factories, or communities that define what should be done; the individual herself has to make strategic decisions every day which will help bring her closer to her desired future. She selects different types of activity according to the logic of belt-tightening and therefore legitimizes a certain vision of social order in which those who are lagging behind have to do everything to catch up with those who are “developed.”


1 / See Mikołaj Lewicki, “Time in Transition,” in this volume.