Fallout from a quick-fix world

The Corrosion of Character
April 30, 1999

Twenty-five years ago, Richard Sennett - in common with most observers - believed that late capitalism had achieved "something like a final consummation". Now, in this erudite and thoughtful book, he examines the human and social implications of the "new capitalism" that has emerged since the mid-1970s, particularly with regard to its corrosive effect upon trust, loyalty, mutual commitment and individual character. Flexible capitalism is based on the quick return, instant financial gratification, impermanence and a winner-take-all market. These, he argues, have had a devastating impact on social relationships in all post-industrial societies. Being continually exposed to risk eats away at one's sense of character; the destruction of personal narratives by which people make sense of their past engenders confusion and alienation.

Sennett's sociological analysis is interwoven with telling vignettes based on characters he has recently encountered. In an earlier book (published in 1972), he recorded the fortunes of Enrico, a janitor who personified the older "organised capitalism" based on stability, a job for life and faith in the American dream. Now he meets Enrico's son, Rico - a management consultant in the fast lane of the new global capitalism. Beset by economic and personal insecurities, Rico's values are different from those of his father: he is much more contemptuous of those he perceives to be social failures, such as welfare mothers.

A second encounter is with Rose, a middle-aged barmaid who unwisely makes a brief foray into the world of advertising. There, she finds herself disturbingly unable to cope with the new corporate culture: it is a world where the "soft skills" of interpersonal relations, facilitation, communication and teamwork count for everything - a world where presentation matters more than substance. (As Rose discovers to her cost: dejected, she returns to her bar after only a year, finding that her earthy bluntness went down badly in the land of corporate make-believe.) Sennett also explores the new labour processes in a technologically transformed Boston bakery. Once upon a time its bread was baked by hand; now baking is done by computer, and the workers are starkly alienated from their end-product.

Finally, Sennett mingles with a group of downsized IBM executives who ponder their fate over cups of coffee in the River Winds Cafe. Their brave, euphemistic talk of becoming "consultants" cannot conceal the fact that each finds it achingly difficult to construct meaningful personal narratives that satisfactorily explain what has happened to them.

Without ever making it over-explicit, Sennett's critique is a riposte to those recent apologists for the new forms of "flexible accumulation" (such as George Gilder) who have sought to rehabilitate the morality of rampant free-market capitalism and to argue that the reinvigoration of postindustrial economies requires citizens to live by the tenets of "long-term rationality" and forgo such morsels of instant gratification as a welfare cheque.

Sennett's contention is that the new capitalism is fundamentally amoral in that it "radiates indifference" towards the social failures it inevitably creates and positively encourages economic short-termism, in contrast to the Protestant ethic that so long dominated the American psyche: factories relocate to the Third World at a moment's notice, with scarcely a thought for the human consequences; the leaders of global capitalism confer at Davos and spout cliches about the virtues of risk without ever considering what this might mean for the psychic well-being of their employees.

As with any broad-brush survey, this book is impressively eclectic and wide-ranging in its analysis (backed up by a broad range of source material). It is an approach that many will envy. The downside of this, though, is that inevitably some complex topics have to be taken at a gallop. For example, Sennett describes the growing prejudice against older workers (reflected in falling labour force participation rates for men aged over 50 since the early 1970s): the new capitalism prefers younger workers, who are more malleable, flexible and risk-inclined. Yet 21st-century labour markets may well see older workers re-enlisted in greater numbers as a potent source of cheap labour in the peripheral, secondary sectors of western economies.

Much of what Sennett observes applies to the rapidly shifting, high-skills core of labour markets. But by 2005, only a projected 21.9 per cent of United States jobs will require a college degree, despite the creation of 25 million new jobs. This raises the question (unanswered in this book) of exactly how widespread these new working practices are, and precisely how many jobs are being affected by globalisation. At one point, Sennett acknowledges that only 2 per cent of US national income comes from imports from low-wage economies elsewhere in the world; again, the rate of full-time self-employment in the US has remained constant at about 8.5 per cent over the past 40 years. Many jobs - school teachers, health-care professionals, public-service workers - cannot be exported. Workers in these sectors may be being subjected to new forms of workplace discipline, but they are relatively unaffected by globalisation.

Another difficulty resides in the question of whether the new capitalism is "better" or "worse" than the old. Sennett admits that the older, "organised" capitalism based in large-scale units of manufacturing and Fordist factory discipline was claustrophobic, over-bureaucratic and inimical to workplace freedom. Much depends on whether the new economic activity can be controlled, and who should control it (for example, should the controlling agencies be larger than the nation state, or smaller?). Sennett's contention is that the modern corporate culture is counter-productive, in that it lowers workforce morale, thus ultimately reducing productivity and profits. In this respect, Richard Sennett stands in the long tradition of American radicals who have sought to reform capitalism rather than to abolish it.

John Macnicol is reader in social policy, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism

Author - Richard Sennett
ISBN - 0 393 04678 8
Publisher - Norton
Price - £14.95
Pages - 176

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