July 13, 2003
Our age is hungry for accounts of inner experience – of what it feels like to have been abused, neglected, or spoiled rotten; addicted to drugs or shopping or love; a child prodigy, schizophrenic genius, gang member, or Satan worshipper. We don’t seem equally interested, though, in public or collective experiences, like work and welfare. In a well-known essay a decade ago, Tom Wolfe scolded his fellow novelists for leaving the external world, especially the work world, largely unexplored in contemporary American fiction. On the nonfiction side, Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent first-person report, Nickel and Dimed, a glimpse into the vast, dim regions of unskilled and temporary labor, is an honorable exception. The New York Times and many other major newspapers have a full-time fashion reporter (sometimes even a fashion desk) but not a labor correspondent.
Over the last few decades, some of the best writing on work and its discontents has been done by Richard Sennett. Formerly at New York University and now at the London School of Economics, Sennett is a protean figure: not merely a sociologist of work (and current president of the American Council on Work) but also an urban and architectural historian, an accomplished novelist, founder of the New York Institute of the Humanities, and close friend of Michel Foucault, Joseph Brodsky, Hannah Arendt, and Susan Sontag.
As the child of an Old Left family and a graduate student at Harvard in the late 1960s under the celebrated social theorists David Riesman and Eric Ericson, Sennett was well-equipped to plumb the social psychology of work in America and primed to uncover subtle mechanisms of capitalist exploitation. In a very influential book early in his career, The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972), Sennett and co-author Jonathan Cobb interviewed Boston-area blue-collar workers. It was the era of antiwar protests, Black Power, and expanding welfare programs, and of widespread working-class reaction against those things. As thoughtful leftists, Sennett and Cobb wanted to get past Marxist clichés about “false consciousness,” letting workers speak for themselves.
They spoke poignantly. The interviewees repeatedly told Sennett and Cobb that they resented the authority of those above them but did not dispute its legitimacy; that they were dissatisfied with their work but blamed themselves for not having done better in life; that they felt obliged to sacrifice themselves for their families and encourage their children to surpass them but feared thereby losing their authority and their children’s respect; that they believed the only basis of dignity and self-respect was to accept responsibility for what one has done or become, yet still felt obscurely unfree or ashamed.
It’s striking how little all this had to do with the traditional substance of class politics: poverty, insecurity, overwork, unsafe or degrading working conditions. Instead, the workers’ complaint (at any rate, as interpreted by the interviewers) was about the quality and social significance of their work. To Sennett and Cobb, this persistent ambivalence, alternating grievance and resignation, suggested a different, more complicated kind of false consciousness. “The terrible thing about class in our society,” they concluded, “is that it sets up a contest for dignity.” The prevailing American ethos (or mythos) of individualism and equal opportunity “makes people feel anxious, defeated, and self-reproachful for an imperfect ability to command the respect of others.” Society thus “diverts men from challenging the limits on their freedom by convincing them that they must first become legitimate, must achieve dignity on a class society’s terms, in order to have the right to challenge the terms themselves.” Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your self-reproach!
By his own account, Sennett lost interest in the politics of work for two decades, partly, he has said, in reaction to the arrogance and elitism of the New Left. In recent years he has returned to the subject with a pair of books that take up his earlier themes: the effects of work on character, and the bearing of social inequality on self- and mutual respect.
The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (1998) posed some troubling questions about the leaner, meaner corporate environment of 1980s and 90s. The traditional corporate bureaucracy – layered, hierarchical, pyramid-shaped, with clearly demarcated responsibilities and lines of authority – had given way to “flat,” “disaggregated,” “re-engineered” (it is impossible to speak of current business practices without using jargon) organizations. Mostly, of course, this just meant firing people: either eliminating jobs or exporting them somewhere cheaper, leaving formerly high-wage, unionized employees to scramble for the low-wage, non-union service sector jobs created in great numbers during the 80s and 90s and hailed by successive Presidents as evidence of America’s continuing economic vitality.
But “re-engineering” also meant a new relation to those who remained employed. Flexibility, innovation, and risk were the new management watchwords. In the age of mass production and giant industrial firms, efficiency corresponded to scale; in an age of microprocessors and information technology, efficiency is achieved by precisely targeting new market niches, quickly retooling in response to new marketing data, anticipating shifts in consumers’ mood and tastes. Decision-making structures changed, as authoritative directives from above were replaced by ad hoc, project-oriented teams, “facilitated” rather than led. The function of top management was no longer to formulate policy and guide operations but to set profit targets and audit performance – in effect, to manage quarterly share prices. In this atmosphere, the older corporate virtues became obsolete. Loyalty, reliability, and institutional memory were out; youth, mobility, a smooth manipulativeness, and a Teflon-like ability to avoid being held responsible for failure were in.
As Sennett points out, these shifts are bound to have larger consequences. The values of the new economy – “short-term behavior, the meeting mind-set, and above all, the weakness of loyalty and commitment that mark the modern workplace” – are on a collision course with the traditional values of work and family: obligation, trustworthiness, fidelity, devotion to professional standards. Just as surely as television has shortened our attention span and advertising has undermined our impulse control, the new “flexible” capitalism will soften our backbone and corrode our character. (Whether it contributed, for example, to the feeding frenzy among executives for stock options is an intriguing question.)
If the social psychology of work is little-explored territory, the social psychology of welfare is practically undiscovered. Sennett’s new book, Respect in a World of Inequality, is intended as a companion volume to Corrosion. Unfortunately, while Corrosion is his best book, “Respect” is probably his weakest. Sennett has always enriched his arguments with personal anecdotes and literary or philosophical allusions, but in “Respect” the anecdotes and allusions swamp the arguments, leading him off the track for pages at a time. Still, it’s worth reading. Sennett’s prose is, as ever, elegant; and his questions, even though they’re formulated too abstractly and then remain floating aloft, are nonetheless searching.
Part of Sennett’s childhood was spent on welfare and in public housing (in the Cabrini Green project in Chicago, next to which the notoriously violent Robert Taylor Homes were later constructed). He and his mother were both exceptionally talented, so they soon escaped. But he has gone back often and thought a good deal about those he left behind. What he seems to want his readers to think about – it’s a little hard to be sure, since he flits so restlessly from topic to topic – is: How can those who do not escape dependence and/or whose talents are inferior nevertheless achieve self-respect? And how can the rest of us help?
In the United States, he points out, for an able-bodied, non-caretaking adult to be dependent on public support is considered shameful. Conversely, to be self-supporting is a source of pride and self-respect. Hence the (official) aim of the welfare bureaucracy: to help everyone capable of it become proudly self-supporting. In European social democracies, on the other hand, citizens without a basic income, whether able-bodied or not, simply get a check in the mail. Shame and pride do not come into the picture.
Sennett sees pitfalls in both approaches. Welfare agencies cannot avoid making and enforcing judgments about what their clients need. However compassionate the former’s intentions, this is, philosophically speaking, to transgress on the latter’s autonomy. But a basic incomes policy, which divorces assistance from compassion, does not guarantee autonomy, only anonymity. And besides – philosophically speaking again – “impersonal caregiving is a very pessimistic view of the human condition; it supposes people are likely to do others injury by caring for and about them personally, so that the human elements of judgment and response to need should be eliminated.”
There is, I’m afraid, too much philosophical thumbsucking of this sort in Respect; too much Augustine, Locke, and Rousseau and not enough – scarcely any, in fact – discussion of policy. In my unphilosophical opinion, Sennett exaggerates the importance of treating needy people sensitively and underestimates the usefulness of shoveling money at their problems. Surely – to put the matter crudely – cash without respect is better than respect without cash?
How, Sennett asks, can “people in our society express respect so as to reach across the boundary of inequality”? Is this really such a difficult question? Here are three wholly unoriginal suggestions. First, roughly equalize nationwide per-pupil expenditure (not counting costly special education programs, which artificially inflate the spending levels of many poorer districts) in grades K-12. (Private schools would be included in the calculation, so that they will serve the purpose of religious or cultural or pedagogic diversity but not of unfairly privileging the children of affluent parents.) Second, guarantee comprehensive health care to all children under 18. Third, exempt the first $20,000 of income from the payroll tax, to be paid for in full by restoring the estate tax. These three simple, obvious, and expensive measures (which Sennett would very likely endorse, if he descended to earth) would go a long way toward producing a nation composed entirely of first-class citizens in a generation or two. In such a society there would be fewer occasions to “reach across the boundary of inequality,” and therefore less need to worry about respect.
Such a society could not, of course, be farther from George W. Bush’s America. I don’t know when Sennett actually wrote Respect, but it’s hard to understand why the book doesn’t contain at least a few howls of outrage at the Republican assault during the last two years on the fiscal foundations of equality, solidarity, and communal provision. For the rest of this administration, at any rate, worrying about the character of America’s social welfare system will probably be a lot less important than resisting its erosion and, perhaps, slow starvation.