The Government is showing signs of ADHD, flitting from one policy to the next, says Richard Sennett. Mandy Garner asks him why society has become hooked on short-term gain
Just after Richard Sennett arrived in the UK in 1999 as professor of social and cultural theory at the London School of Economics, he got his first introduction to British bureaucracy in the form of a teaching quality officer. The officer sat in on a lecture on Max Weber and Sennett noticed that he seemed to be busy writing throughout. Sennett later found out that the officer was ticking boxes for the number of times he made eye contact in the lecture. When Sennett later asked the officer what he felt he had learnt about Weber from the lecture, the officer said that he was not interested in Weber. "The content was not important, just the process," Sennett says.
Sennett links this "superficial" approach to teaching to a kind of "institutional distrust" of the public sector by the ruling classes, which he thinks is uniquely British. One example is the research assessment exercise, which, he says, US academics would not stand for. "It's a kind of bureaucracy that claims to be decentralised, but is in fact a new kind of centralisation where the people on the periphery execute policy but do not make it. It betrays a deep contempt for workers. Respect for teachers is very low in the UK." The result is widespread demoralisation. Where the UK does show similarities with the US, though, is in its enthusiasm for a new capitalism, based on short-term contracts and constant change, which Sennett believes is "deforming" our working lives.
Sennett, described by some as Tony Blair's intellectual mentor for his research into building respect, is deeply critical of new Labour's constant reforms of the public sector. In his book The Culture of the New Capitalism , he pulls apart the new world of work, which he says is based on a very unrepresentative business model, that of internet start-ups and dotcom entrepreneurs. For Sennett, Labour has been seduced by the superficial "glamour" of the hot-desking, short-term, no-ties mentality of these companies and is trying to impose it wholesale on the public sector.
"There is something bizarre about taking the conditions of an IT start-up firm and thinking you can run a hospital or a university that way. Whenever new Labour talks about reforming the public sector - and they are endlessly bringing in one new policy after another without allowing anything to bed in - they are not talking about making it do what it does better. It takes time to learn how to make things work through trial and error, but if you change it constantly you never find out what works and what doesn't. It's a kind of consultant's mentality. I used to think it was to do with upper-middle-class twits running things, but now I think it is a deeper problem - the notion that you have to do something rather than experience it and work it out. It's like a form of ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]," he says.
He adds: "I do not think this Government has been very self-critical. It has so idealised the cultural suppositions of this kind of capitalism that whenever it uses the word 'reform' it slips back unthinkingly into this as its model."
Sennett's research shows that even the dotcommers became disillusioned with this way of working once the bubble burst in the early 1990s and they found themselves in need of more long-lasting business relationships. He talks of Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt's reform proposals - including an increase in the number of walk-in clinics - as being symptomatic of Labour's approach of focusing on "short-term fixes for problems rather than on long-term relationships with people". "It's as if health were a series of episodes rather than about a human relationship between doctor and patient," he says. And he speculates on the kind of person who prospers in such a set-up and how appropriate this is for the public sector. "It favours a special kind of person. Someone who does not want long-term relationships, who is good at letting go of people, who treats life in the community in the way he treats the world of work, who sees life as a set of opportunities rather than a sustained narrative."
It is a world that favours the young - people with no commitments and no sense of commitment - and a culture that does little to bind a community together. Sennett is overseeing some research work in the US that compares people in their mid-20s with a fairly similar group of middle-class university graduates some 30 years ago. "[The researcher] found that graduates nowadays are much less able to strategise about what they want," Sennett says. "It is not a failure on their part. They are living in institutions that are very short term, that change focus constantly and emphasise employee flexibility. It is hard for them to think forwards over the course of a working career." Another of his students is focusing on the impact on women of having children if they are trying to forge a career in a world of short-term contracts and how they can relate this to their long-term commitments. It is a question many female academics in the UK are likely to ask themselves. "We have really been thrown into the short-term culture in the academy," says Sennett, who is in his early 60s. "My generation had a job for life, but for someone 25 years younger, this is an increasingly rare experience. In the US, the majority of teaching is done by adjuncts who are paid per course. I am afraid that is the future in British universities."
Sennett adds that it is claimed that this way of working helps managers to spot employees' potential rather than relying on their past achievement, but, he believes, "the reality is rather different". "It is a system geared up to institutions shedding their responsibilities to their employees and not making long-term commitments (such as pensions). If it worked perfectly, good employees would have no need to feel anxious," he says.
His research shows that anxiety is common among employees who work in this way and that they find it difficult to establish any "sustained sense of self". It is also a system that forgoes what Sennett terms "craftsmanship" and that favours potential rather than actual production of goods. As such, it goes against the traditions of deep academic research. It is the kind of world where individual subject-specific research can be reduced to "transferable skills". "Even the words 'transferable skills' are a violation of language," Sennett says. "It robs people of getting into something deeply and privileges being good at tests and solving problems.
Like SATs, it is about how quick you can be rather than how seriously you take a problem."
How has he dealt with this new world of work? He says that the LSE, being an elite institution, has been less affected than most universities, but adds that he resists the new culture by forcing his students to write. "I want them to go deep into the problem of writing things clearly and well. I make them do rewrites. I want them to be craftsmen of language and to slow down."
Sennett says that there has been little political discussion about the new system of working in the UK, as opposed to in places such as Finland and Sweden, which are tackling the long-term implications for their communities. "People in Britain are suffering, but they are still talking in an old-fashioned language about privatisation, which misses the point.
It is a particular kind of private firm that this new capitalism is based on. Most people need to make their lives in institutions rather than treat their lives like an entrepreneurial venture. People need relationships with other people, but we are doing just about everything to defeat that need."
For this reason, Sennett believes that the new capitalism is ultimately doomed. "It's an unworkable system," he says. "More and more people will come to understand that it is not about reforming the system, but deforming it. This will be the drama of the coming decades."
As for Sennett, he hopes, after 30 years' teaching, to devote more time to his passion, music (he plays the cello), and to craftsmanship - the subject of his next book.
The Culture of the New Capitalism is published by Yale University Press, price £14.99.