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to all the workers in the shredder – those too old, too ordinary, too uppity, too 2010-graduate-cohort and already out of date?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:

Because every self is in some measure a cabinet of horrors, civilised relations between selves can only proceed to the extent that nasty little secrets of desire, greed or envy are kept locked up … Behaving with strangers in an emotionally satisfying way and yet remaining aloof from them was seen by the mid-18th century as the means by which the human animal was transformed into a social being.

In his foreword, Sennett describes Together as the second book in a ‘trio’ he’s calling ‘the homo faber project’, a study of ‘man as … a maker of life through concrete practices’. The Craftsman was the first book in this series, and dealt with ‘how the head and hand are connected, and more, the techniques which enable people to improve’. The third, he says, will be about ‘how cities might become better made’. This book, therefore, is a transition, a difficult middle, between the problems and possibilities of the workshop and those of big-scale political life. The interest throughout – the book’s ‘ethical centre’ – is with ‘that fraught, ambiguous zone of experience where skill and competence encounter resistance and intractable difference’.

Themes encountered in the first book and treated in connection with the work people do on physical objects – commitment, reflectiveness, the emphasis on repair instead of replacement, the use of minimum force – turn out in the second to have a social application as well. Social life is approached as techne, a body of skills and knowhow, and traced from medieval courtly behaviour through to the deceptively loose and casual-looking networks of late 20th-century community activism in the housing projects of Chicago. The watershed period – Sennett calls it ‘the great unsettling’ – is seen as the 16th century, which is when, he says, the profession of international diplomacy was born. A brief history is dashingly enacted, with details from Holbein’s The Ambassadors – the broken lute, that open Luther – and top tips from Ernest Satow’s Diplomatic Practice (1917): at a party, try dropping ‘something meaty’ into an otherwise idle conversation; ‘the casual comment will later be fished out.’ Want to get the other side to propose something you can’t be seen to mention first yourself? ‘Satow counsels passing a bout de papier silently … This unsigned piece of paper contains versions of the formula, “If you felt able to propose …”’

It’s a story – up to a point – of democratisation, ‘a sea-change’ from ‘chivalric values … woven tight into the fabric of aristocratic life’ to ‘civilised codes … that non-professionals could learn and practise’. But it’s also about collapsing certainties, from the embodied ritual of the medieval church through the modern drift of faith into status consumables. If you know Sennett’s other books, you’ll know something of the way he goes about trying to capture a phenomenon so complex and ineffable. There are readings from Aristotle and Freud and Diderot and Tocqueville. There are stories from Sennett’s youth, when he was growing up with his Communist mother in the housing projects of Cabrini Green in Chicago. There are stories from his maturity, as a ‘solid bourgeois’ who plays the cello in an amateur chamber music ensemble. The method is diffuse and conversational, and aims at a complex patterning of arguments without too obvious a resolution: ‘He practised dialogics in his writing; his essays bounce from subject to subject, seeming to wander at times, yet the reader finishes each with the sense that the author has opened up a topic in unexpected ways,’ as he says of his hero, Montaigne.

If you know Sennett’s other books, you’ll also know that they are preoccupied with the sociology of Max Weber, in particular with what the new book calls ‘the titanic struggle against oneself, the metaphysical anxiety’ evident in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Sennett’s version at least, the relation between economic life and religious yearning is not so much one of historical causality as a psychological correspondence. Both feed on and develop a capacity for free-floating anxiety, self-doubt and shame, leading to a tendency Weber called ‘worldly asceticism’. No matter how hard you work or how good you try to be, you can never be sure that God will judge you good enough, or that your pension fund will prove adequate to your retirement. What can you do to feel more secure? Only work harder, and try harder, and save up even more. And so what begins as a quest for spiritual purification hardens into what Weber called the ‘iron cage’ of wealth accumulated for its own sake: ‘mechanised petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance’. Weber went on to study this phenomenon in its 20th-century form of bureaucracy – with the cage being hierarchical office organisation. A century later, Sennett sees Western workers as having more or less swallowed the thing whole, with metal bars sticking out at crazy angles from their backs and bellies. It simply doesn’t make sense any more, this infusion of working life with near religious emotion, but people still do it: in the place of the soul, a mangled car wreck. And so, perhaps, this book’s interest in what Sennett calls ‘the theme of repair’.

In a central chapter, Sennett visits a job centre in Lower Manhattan in the winter of 2009. He finds ‘well-dressed people filling out forms, occasionally glancing around in bewilderment’. They are back-office workers from Wall Street, made redundant in the crash of 2008, ‘not capitalism’s big beasts’ but accountancy and IT people, highly trained, skilled and committed. ‘Suddenly a Chinese did my job cheaper and they let me go, and the first thing I thought was, what a fool I was those days that I stayed at the office extra time just to get the job done.’ Although many will get new jobs sooner or later, some are in danger: ‘Prolonged unemployment among middle-aged workers correlates with increasing alcoholism, marital violence and divorce; these correlations begin in the fourth and fifth months of unemployment and thereafter become steadily tighter. The social damage … appears visibly in job centres among those people who sit silent and withdrawn, bottled up in anger or shame.’ Bosses don’t return calls from former minions, don’t even bother to look at your CV. Mates turn out not to be mates really, but vipers and backstabbers, now that everybody is in competition for the same few jobs.

Who can help them? Step forward the ideal type Sennett calls Jane Schwartz: ‘grey-haired, with a rasping, steel-cutting Bronx accent … slumped in her chair, chewing gum, her gaze wandering’. She is ‘not motherly’. Mrs Schwartz is a job counsellor, a pioneer in the skills of handling disappointment and lowered expectation that Sennett sees as necessary to the future, and as a culminating expression of the civility this book is about. ‘Clients long out of work are usually economically desperate, a truth which can overpower them emotionally,’ Sennett says: they look and smell like wounded dinosaurs, dragging their need, their fear, their unpaid mortgages, everywhere they go. ‘Employers are shitty,’ as one of Schwartz’s colleagues says. ‘If they pick up any sign you are really uptight, they are going to turn off.’ So Jane Schwartz’s job is to show her clients how to ‘lighten up’, to act relaxed and competent and jolly even when they aren’t, to learn to ‘deal with a weak hand.’ This skill, together with its tactful inculcation, Sennett considers a direct descendant of sprezzatura, the lightness and gracefulness of manner discussed in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. ‘By stepping back, one can imagine oneself a more self-confident person,’ he says, ‘even as in reality the bills pile up.’

This book, then, doesn’t seem to be about togetherness in any of its usually imagined forms. Sennett has no interest in those fantasy images – often set to music in the middle of duff films – of people apparently managing, against the odds, to work in harmony. (He does reproduce Frances Johnston’s famous photograph of craftsmen collaborating on a wooden staircase at Booker T. Washington’s Hampton Institute, but it is to make a more subtle observation about ‘shared purpose in time’.) Nor does he have any interest in the ‘intentional communities’ of the hippies and the idealists: nothing, as he sees it, is more antisocial than abandoning the rough and tumble of the mainstream for a pious sect of people much the same as you. He is especially mistrustful of what he calls ‘cultural homogenisation’, the phoney egalitarianism of ‘everybody is basically the same.’ The sorts of co-operation that interest him are ‘demanding and difficult’ and try to ‘join people who have separate or conflicting interests, who do not feel good about each other, who are unequal, or who simply do not understand one another’. The togetherness project, then, has to ‘manage the everyday experience of inequality’ wherever it finds itself – a neighbourhood, a workplace, a website, a park, a school.

This togetherness is cool, formal, bounded, not fuzzy or cosy or let-it-all-hang-out. ‘What kind of personality develops through experiences of intimacy?’ Sennett asked in The Fall of Public Man. ‘How can it be strong enough to move in a world founded on injustice?’ In the present book, one key contrast is between sympathy – ‘I feel your pain’ – and empathy, ‘maintaining eye contact even while keeping silent, conveying “I am attending intently to you” rather than “I know just what you feel” … Both … convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but the one is an embrace, the other an encounter.’ A particularly interesting section explores ‘the subjunctive mood’ of discussions ‘couched in terms of “possibly” and “perhaps” and “I would have thought”’, seeing them as providing ‘a space for experiment … an indeterminate mutual space, the space in which strangers dwell with one another, whether these strangers be immigrants and natives thrown together in a city or gays and straights living in the same street’. As before, one is not required especially to like or share values with these people, so long as one keeps whatever is not sociable about one’s feelings to oneself: ‘The social engine is oiled when people do not behave too emphatically.’ And so, the pleasant impersonality of modern city life works a bit like a Venetian mask: ‘By practising indirection, speaking to one another in the subjunctive mood, we can experience a certain kind of sociable pleasure: being with other people, focusing on and learning about them, without forcing ourselves into the mould of being like them.’

According to Sennett, the Western workplace was until recently an example of, if not exactly ‘sociable pleasure’, at least a well-oiled ‘social engine’. Looking back to the early 1970s Boston of Frank Rissarro, he claims to see ‘a civility between labourers and bosses which seems lodged in a different universe from the courtesies inside a diplomatic embassy but nonetheless shares some of the same structural features’. Work was hard, repetitive, boring, sometimes dangerous; bosses were bullies; class (and gender) roles were rigid; and workers blew off their many frustrations outside the workplace in gusts of racism, alcoholism and violent ressentiment. And yet the workplace can be seen – at least in retrospect – to have been held together by ‘a social triangle’. Bosses and workers grudgingly respected one another. Workers stuck together against the bosses, formally in trade unions and informally as friends. And in a crisis everyone worked together, to hit a deadline, prevent a disaster, clean up a mess. ‘Such a social triangle does not transform work into Eden,’ Sennett writes, ‘but does make work experience something more than soulless; it … creates civility.’

But nowadays, under the flexible working practices of the new economy, this social triangle has fallen apart – ‘and dramatically so’. People who went into once solid white-collar professions expecting a long-term career, with training, promotion, a sense of narrative shapeliness and mutual commitment, instead found themselves flitting through flattened hierarchies, project to project, contract to contract, team to team. It’s a case, Sennett quotes George Soros as saying, of ‘momentary “transactions” versus sustained “relationships”’ and has to do, Sennett thinks, with what he follows the economist Bennett Harrison in calling ‘impatient capital’: globalised speculative investors seeking ever bigger and faster returns. This ethos favours shallow, distrustful, superficially pally relationships with colleagues, and gives us charming, socially remote executives who know MBA-speak but can’t really do the numbers, opening a gulf between them and the technicians, who can do them in their sleep. ‘The back office, even during the boom … regarded many of their superiors as incompetent,’ Sennett discovered, and discussed their products in terms that ‘would warm the heart of any Marxist: “fairy gold”, “crap certificates”, “junk bonds” and I emphasise the “junk” … the rude vocabulary of financial craftsmen’. Sennett also observed ‘a small but telling refinement’ in these conversations. ‘Informants do single out individual leaders in investment banks and hedge-fund management firms who seem competent and prudent; these executives are spoken about using their first names, while incompetent executives are referred to generically, as “he”, “she” or “they”.’

Is Sennett really proposing that tact and humour, bouts de papier and subjunctive chitchat might open a new way of living, a new way of thinking about the world? A sage and treasure Jane Schwartz may well be, but really, outplacement counselling is pretty much just another consoling fiction. Personality makeovers and sense of humour transplants can’t do much about a shrinking jobs market, which may be one reason things appear to have gone so wrong at David Cameron’s favourite welfare-to-work consultancy, A4e. So if we’re not talking about a total overhaul of employment practices in the advanced economies – which would, I accept, be no more realistic than that office-as-playground flim-flam – what exactly is Sennett talking about? ‘Could community itself become a vocation?’ he asks, fudgily, towards the end of the book. ‘We want to imagine … community as a process of coming into the world, a process in which people work out both the value of face-to-face relations and the limits on those relations.’ Not external, structural change then, but the building of community as a matter of tiny, personal, voluntary changes of focus – is that what he’s getting at here? Luckily, there is always Montaigne to fall back on: ‘In whatever position they are placed, men pile up and arrange themselves by moving and shuffling about, just as a group of objects thrown into a bag find their own way to join and fit together, often better than they could have been arranged deliberately.’

I like Richard Sennett in the way some people like Bob Dylan: I know that he writes a lot and that his stuff is uneven, but when he’s good he’s just so brilliant, and even when he’s less brilliant he has such style and heart. Quite a lot of this book reads to me like blog-type offcuts: the bit about Lily Allen, for example, and David Chipperfield in Berlin, and the Ecole Lecoq and the Korean grocers, and the lefty teachers ‘of the organic-food sort’ at his grandson’s primary school in East London, ‘appalled that my son and I smoke and that we take the little tyke with us to pubs.’ Also, he might do well to watch a tendency that some may consider to be boasting. ‘A common vice consists of believing that our own experience has great symbolic value, and for a few pages I’m going to indulge in this vice,’ he says. ‘When I once rehearsed the Schubert Octet with the clarinettist Alan Rusbridger, he remarked to me at one point: “Professor” – he is a journalist by trade so this form of address is not entirely a compliment …’ Two pages on the 1900 Paris Expo skip on to three on Georg Simmel, then somehow Saint-Just and Marx and Lenin morph, via Lasalle and Bismarck, into a discussion of the present Con-Dem coalition. ‘It reminds me,’ a fellow reader said, ‘of that Intro-Outro number by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.’

Name-dropping apart, the problem with this chatty, eclectic method is that some people see it as too unrigorous to qualify as social science. ‘Richard can be an eloquent cultural critic but he seems to be under several odd illusions,’ David Goodhart, now the head of the think-tank Demos, wrote in 2006. ‘Give me a policy wonk, someone who can tell me the movement of the Gini coefficient … over the factless prophets.’ But what about the ‘caring, fulfilled and passionate’ aspect, what do the policy wonks have to say about that? Besides, Sennett can do the wonk thing when he wants to. ‘As measured by a widely used statistical tool, the Gini coefficient’, he slyly rejoinders on page 7.

About ten years ago, I emailed Sennett cold to ask for a reference to a particularly amazing quotation, from his book The Hidden Injuries of Class, which doesn’t have endnotes: ‘“Join power and love,” Nietzsche once wrote, “then you can never be hurt”’ – the point being, as I took it, that it is by keeping hold of both wires, somehow, that the battered worker has the best chance of survival, even growth. Sennett replied immediately and very nicely, saying he couldn’t remember where he had got it, but would write again when he did. On the one hand, I’m still waiting. On the other, doesn’t that make it all the better, because for ten years now I’ve been thinking about it, and wondering whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing if anyone ever did.