Superficially Pally

Jenny Turner

  • Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-Operation by Richard Sennett
    Allen Lane, 323 pp, £25.00, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 7139 9874 0

Sometimes, reading the weekly Work section in the Guardian can be sad. ‘The office as a playground is back in fashion,’ one recent front-page story says. ‘The midwives were caring, fulfilled and passionate,’ a young journalist writes about her decision to retrain. People look to their jobs for so much that’s not written into any contract: self-respect, stability, social standing. Work is ‘a road’, as Richard Sennett once wrote, ‘to the unification of the self’. Except that it doesn’t usually end up like that, which is the reason the next page of the Guardian has Jeremy Bullmore, a sage and doleful-looking ‘agony uncle’, fielding people’s problems with disappointment, stress, lifelong frustration. Lucky midwives, that they seemed so ‘caring, fulfilled and passionate’. Does the listing of such idealised criteria make it more or less likely that one will find them for oneself?

‘A defining photograph of the Great Depression in the 1930s shows men clustered outside the gates of a shuttered factory, waiting for work, despite the evidence before their eyes,’ Sennett wrote in The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006). ‘The image still disturbs because the spectre of uselessness has not ended’: finance, technology, the media, the driving industries of the new economy, all of them generate a tiny and ever shrinking elite. So what happens to all the workers in the shredder – those too old, too ordinary, too uppity, too 2010-graduate-cohort and already out of date? ‘These are the spectres of uselessness today – images not of people confronting a broken economic machine, but of their own irrelevance in a system that works efficiently, and profitably,’ Sennett wrote. He’s right, and everybody knows it: the Neets, the wonks, the politicians, the Tiger Mothers who fight for their children’s futures with piano lessons and Kumon maths. But hardly anyone comes out and admits that, as Sennett puts it, ‘usefulness is the political project of our times.’

So what does he propose to do? A shift from private to public-sector employment, the use of redundant finance and media workers in ‘care and mentoring’ jobs: all of this sounds great, and necessary and sensible, except that no one’s going to make it policy any time soon. What, then, of the ‘new creative or green economies’ we keep hearing so much about? ‘A fantasy,’ Sennett says, in his new book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-Operation. We are in the middle of a ‘massive drift of jobs away from the West’, a world-historical economic upheaval. Manufacturing has largely gone, and now it’s the turn of the clerical-technical-administrative sector. From the point of view of the individual worker, scrambling up the ladder even as it’s being pulled away, this means that the traditional 20th-century strategies for economic advancement – education, working hard, fighting for promotion – no longer make sense. ‘The trend within white-collar work is for more lower-level service work, as in retail sales and in care-work for the aged.’ Are they, are we, going to fester there, or shall we try to do something about it? ‘The power to resist adversity is a sweeping personal and collective issue’, Sennett writes. ‘Repair occurs in part by resisting economically induced withdrawal … The task is to stay engaged with others even if one feels rotten inside.’

For forty years now, in Boston, New York, London and his native Chicago, Richard Sennett has centred his sociology on such painful moments, those that see a person – an everyday, ordinary, tight-wound bundle of fear and longing – suddenly illuminated, trapped and squirming, in the economic spotlight. Frank Rissarro, for example, interviewed in the early 1970s, an Italian-American former meat-cutter who had worked his way up to a house in a Boston suburb and a steady job in a bank: ‘I know I did a good job in my life,’ he said, but continued to feel ‘inadequate’, ‘defenceless’ and ‘an impostor’, and admitted to feelings of ‘revulsion’ for white-collar work of the sort he tried so hard to get. ‘What does he make of this contradiction?’ Sennett asked. That ‘something must be wrong with him … This tangle of feelings appeared again and again.’ The portrait of Rissarro, from Sennett’s early The Hidden Injuries of Class (co-written with Jonathan Cobb, 1972) is as classically, tragically American as Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, only to my mind far richer. Sennett has portrayed other figures who are just as touching and historically illuminating: Rico, the successful, hollowed-out consultant in The Corrosion of Character (1998); Rose in Together, who hated her job in advertising because you never knew where you stood.

Over the same period, however, he has been better known for his work in urban theory – The Uses of Disorder (1970), The Fall of Public Man (1977), The Craftsman (2008) – which has developed an argument about the value and necessity of shared public space. The Uses of Disorder tackled the postwar flight of the better-off from the bracing difficulties of ‘dense, disorganised’ city life into the fantasised ‘purity’ of suburbia. One problem of ‘abundance’, as Sennett calls it, is that when neighbours are no longer forced by poverty to share things like cooking pots, they become socially ‘deskilled’. The Fall of Public Man offered an idiosyncratic history of this process, culminating in the great 18th-century shift of public manners, from the Ancien Régime with its royal court and châteaux to the boulevards and coffee-houses of the bourgeoisie. Sennett argued for the importance of manners:

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