The real social glue is politics, not civility

Sociologist Richard Sennett’s obsession with inequality and therapeutic outlook prevent him from understanding social problems today.

Dave Clements

Topics Books

Together is the second in a trilogy of books by Richard Sennett, university professor of humanities at New York University and professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. It is part of what he describes as his ‘homo faber project’ – that is, man as his own maker. It was in writing his first volume in the trilogy, The Craftsman, that Sennett says he found himself thinking about ‘cooperation as a craft’. He wanted to look at how it ‘oils the machinery of getting things done’ and how ‘sharing with others can make up for what we individually lack’.

Sennett uses the example of the workshop through the ages. This is partly literal – to describe the cooperative ends to which craft has been put. But it is also used metaphorically, to illustrate the making and remaking of relationships and how we need sometimes to repair these relationships. The rituals and gestures that people have evolved over the centuries need to be worked at, and consciously shaped, if we are to reacquire the skills that enabled previous generations to get on with each other. So says Sennett.

Where other commentators reduce everything to demeaning comparative psychology and cost-benefit models, Sennett sets the scene with a rich historical account of how the creation of secular rituals has succeeded in ‘turning people outward in shared, symbolic acts’.

Sennett describes the Reformation’s challenge to the undermining of the cooperative rituals of the mass and the ‘spectacular theatre’ performed by the priest. (Sadly, he goes on to make a rather unhelpful analogy with ‘groomed and spin-doctored’ politicians playing to the supposedly duped and passive masses today.) There is the advent of printing that would ‘unsettle the authority’ of the medieval church and workshop alike. There is also the shift from chivalry to civility and the codes of courtesy that would impose an ethic of restraint on courtly behaviour and beyond. And there is the emergence of the ‘professional civility’ of business and of diplomacy in the imperial age. The fleeting ‘encounters with strangers in cafes and coffee houses’ of late eighteenth-century London and Paris is contrasted with a nineteenth century when ‘strangers would not speak to one another freely… unless expressly invited to do so’. Finally, there is the modern world where, for all the anxieties about how we relate to each other, we have an ‘insistent demand for intimacy’.

The key moment, though, as far as Sennett’s argument is concerned, is where he begins – in a late nineteenth-century Europe and America of rapidly industrialising cities. It is at this point, he observes, that two distinct traditions emerge: the social left and the political left, in response to the upheavals of the time. Advocates of the former – community organisers – called for ‘sociality’ and ‘mutual awareness’, particularly among emerging emigrant communities. The latter, trades unionists and the political representatives of labour, concerned themselves with workers’ solidarity. Like their modern-day counterparts in the community-building industry, the former pursued ‘cooperation with others as an end in itself’ and would ‘focus on immediate experience’. They realised, explains Sennett all too sympathetically, that the ‘big picture is likely to root even more deeply someone’s sense that it is hopeless to get involved’. It is good to ‘rouse people from passivity’, but not too much; to enable and assist, but never to ‘direct’ them. He thus finds history’s backing for his own leftish version of the UK government’s policies, an amalgam of the Big Society and ‘nudge’. In reading history backwards, he makes a case not only against the ‘political’ left but against politics itself.

Instead of drawing on his considerable insights into the way people have developed the secular rituals of cooperative behaviour in the past, to shed some light on what we lack today, Sennett opts for a familiar leftish prejudice. It is, we are told, inequality that is driving a wedge between us. Despite the historical gains and our apparently biologically given urge to cooperate, the ‘capitalist beast has crushed these promises’ and turned us against each other. The ways of the existing social order actively ‘repress and distort our capacity to live together’. But why now, you might ask? Surely even in our own austere times we’re much better off than earlier generations, never mind as compared with the era when this social system was created more than two hundred years ago? Sennett, though, is not concerned with the material impact of ‘capitalism in the raw’ so much as the ever-widening ‘spread between richer and poorer sections within a society’. This relative inequality encourages ‘invidious comparisons’, he says, that begin in childhood and that are felt particularly acutely in the UK and the US where the social bonds of cooperation are at their weakest.

This is not a new or especially convincing argument, but Sennett at least develops it in an interesting direction. During a study conducted in 1970s Boston, he was surprised to find that assembly-line workers would cover for underperforming, burdensome alcoholic colleagues. The trust between them, he recalls, established itself on the ‘shoals of weakness and self-damage’, a therapeutic theme he returns to a number of times. More likely, it was a collective strength derived from an appreciation of their shared interests that enabled workers to care for their weaker colleagues. Still, by contrast, Sennett’s interviews with back-office workers in today’s post-crash Wall Street revealed what he describes as an ‘absence of a countervailing culture of civility’. In place of the camaraderie of old he found a ‘thin, superficial’ connection between workers, however ‘embittered’ they may have felt about the threat to their jobs.

This shift in the experience of working relationships is a consequence of how ‘people’s experience of one another and knowledge of their institutions has shortened’, says Sennett. But by blaming ‘finance capitalism’ for this tendency towards incivility, he both ignores more important long-running and contemporary trends, and tends himself to drift from his broad historical account toward a narrow, psychosocial analysis.

For all his talk of the evils of capitalism and the psychic damage it inflicts, he doesn’t seem to want to do much about capitalism itself. While Sennett is appalled by the levels and persistence of unemployment in the UK, he sees the dole queue as an ever-lengthening fact of life to be accommodated to rather than challenged. The most important job of all, he declares, is that of the job counsellor. Skilled in ‘indirect cooperation’, he is best placed to manage the emotional impact of worklessness. Sennett even offers his own advice to job seekers, advising them not to ‘hammer home’ their desperate need for a job – reverting once more to the workshop analogy – but instead learn the rituals of the job interview.

He thinks this sort of thing necessary because increasingly people are unable to ‘manage demanding, complex forms of social engagement’. ‘Faced with a weak, lightweight and unreliable social order’, he argues, ‘people retreat into themselves’. They become narcissistic and self-absorbed. But rather than try to explain the emergence of this withdrawn character type by completing his historical account – or with reference to his rightly acclaimed book, The Fall of Public Man’ – he succumbs to it himself. He returns a number of times to his own childhood growing up in a public-housing project in a poor neighbourhood of the same city. Sennett describes the ‘littered streets and broken-windowed tenements’ of his own time as ‘disorders’ and those who got out as ‘survivors’ of a trauma. But this projection of a therapeutic imagination onto the messy business of urban change tells us more about Sennett today than Chicago then.

He conforms to the predominant view that we have too much individualism – but Sennett’s individualism is the fantasy, grasping kind – not the real, anxious kind. The officious over-regulation of everyday life, and the rise of vetting regimes to protect the ‘vulnerable’, is an ongoing feature of contemporary society and testament to this more troubling reality. This political culture of fear and restraint – and the anti-individualism of the new communitarians of both left and right – remains the most formidable obstacle to people cooperating with each other. Even the modest ambitions of getting involved in your neighbourhood – never mind the world beyond your doorstep – can seem like a pipe dream today. The ‘economic wound’ described by Sennett means that he ‘doubts that such communities can sustain themselves economically’.

Having said that, only a fool would pretend that all is well. Last summers English riots, not to mention wider concern about anti-social behaviour, suggest that there is a serious problem that we need to get to grips with. But Sennett’s interpersonal lessons in ‘everyday diplomacy’ are not going to help. That ‘ordinary people are driven back on themselves’ is made explicable not by the evils of contemporary capitalism, but by the defeat of the political left and the emergence of an ideas-lite and enfeebling political culture. The problem is not that people have become more selfish or unequal, but that the kinds of ideas and values that are conducive to civility – and to the very notion of ‘man as his own maker’ – are being actively undermined by a profound social pessimism found in the arguments employed by Sennett himself.

While there is much of value in his retelling of the history of civility – and we might all benefit from a more thorough grounding in civility’s historical making – he does not begin to tackle what is really getting in the way of building a better and more civil public life today.

Dave Clements works in social care, writes on social policy issues, and is co-editor of The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exagerrated. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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