Professionalism is one of those values that seems to emerge within the increasingly capitalized and industrialized world of the Early Modern period. It is embedded in the increasingly compartmentalized, clock-driven time that accompanies it. The effort to maximize production entailed greater attention to the work done within a span of time, which fostered an increasingly meticulous relationship to time more generally.
Time became tied more closely to money, so that how one treated the time of another was, in part, a commentary on how you treated them. This dual pressure fostered a mode of presentation centered on politeness and efficiency. The professional not only does good work, but does so quickly and without demanding too many time-consuming social niceties.
[For the record, I am explicitly avoiding the terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’ here because I think they have far too much baggage to be of use. The communism of Marx is not remotely identical to what I am describing as ‘community.’ Marx’s communism is thoroughly determined by capital and capital affairs in a manner that is quite toxic to community. Capitalism, never as clearly formulated as communism, is more diverse but too freighted with political baggage to be useful to me here.]
There are benefits to this in the world of capital affairs. However, as we also have seen, capital tends to overflow its narrow confines and shape the world around it more broadly. This manifests most keenly in the value put upon being productive in one’s entire life, not just ‘on the clock.’ As that happens, the values of clock-driven life begin to shape culture more broadly.
Engagements become scheduled more tightly to accommodate busy schedules, allowing people to slot in their communities around their business lives. At its worst, we find concern for a community enervated to the anomie of ‘having a social life.’
[The sphere of capital also needs to be distinguished from both the private and public sphere of civil life (which itself is not identical with the sphere of communal life). While presently the values of capital are increasingly associated with civic values, the preservation of a strong state system demands capital’s infringements in this domain be minimized. A longer discussion of this difference, though, probably merits a post of its own.]
This reorganization of priorities can be seen in the small details of life in the 20th century, too. The way in which TV programs are carefully scheduled to fill specified slots of time with the industrial workday clearly in mind. Even as midday programming becomes more robust, it does so under the conception that it is not speaking to workers but housewives and children. (Yes, I am keenly aware that housework *is* work, but the capitalization of time undervalues that less meticulously timed work; this can be seen in the way TV schedules are made.)
This takes on new dimensions with the growing on-demand systems of the 21st century, but talking about that will surely take me far afield from my core topic.
The core point is straightforward: capital’s time starts to determine a time for society more generally. Similarly, the ways of acting that are exceptionally suited to it become increasingly understood to be good ways of acting more generally. It takes on the tone of a moral imperative and is understood to be something that makes one better for incorporating it deeply into your way of living. People who are operating in all kinds of public and private spaces are increasingly expected to uphold professional standards.
Like any developed form of life, professionalism isn’t strictly optimized and carries with it traits that survive alongside the ones directly related to the temporal environment to which it adapts. For example, professionalism in the West is often gendered masculine and carries within itself certain patriarchal habits. We could probably distinguish some alternative forms of professionalism around which ‘secondary’ traits are preserved in this way.
These associated traits are re-evaluated along with professionalism to become part of what it means to be a good person and citizen. Those whose lives do not fall into this capital rhythm are, often unconsciously and sometimes consciously and vocally, identified with inferior ways of living sometimes even by those people living those lives.
Again, in part because capital has so thoroughly conditioned the world of many people, the virtues and values of those other modes of life are less clearly articulated, developed, and supported. When people in these other modes of living look for tools of self-improvement, the ones they see most read-to-hand are those of capital and its attendant professionalism. When they take these up, they begin to force their lives into its rhythms. Since these are not always suited to the lives they are living, it can twist and deform that world. At the extreme, such an encounter can bring that world fully into capital’s time.