Polymath academic Richard Sennett tells Huw Richards about his latest book, a eulogy to craftsmanship in an age of 'impatient capital'
An academic colleague once said that Richard Sennett has "a genius for re inventing himself". It was said admiringly, but the compliment leaves its recipient somewhat nonplussed: "I think my life sort of holds together," Sennett says.
There is a logic, however, to the misconception. Sennett, who is 64, holds chairs at both the London School of Economics and New York University. He does a lot of things well and has broad interests that allow him to range well beyond the theoretical confines of his academic classification as a sociologist, making it easy to mistake a progression based on the evolution of his thinking and enthusiasms for a conscious process of self-renewal.
He would not even be an academic were it not for the hand injury and botched surgery that derailed a youthful career as a cellist, trained at the renowned Juilliard School of dance, drama and music in New York. You might argue that was ultimately to his benefit. As he explains in the autobiographical chapter that begins his book Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality (2003), he had already encountered the pianist and conductor Murray Perahia, in whose playing he "heard something beyond my own grasp of music".
As an academic he has been famous since the publication of The Fall of Public Man in 1976, and he is one of the highest profile public intellectuals of our time, admired by his peers and cited by prime ministers. If he shows an interest in a subject, invitations to address its leading practitioners will follow, exemplified by his Ernest Jones lecture to the British Psychoanalytical Society this month.
"I'm interested in the good and bad aspects of obsession. It can be either highly productive or terribly self-destructive, and I'm interested in exploring the psychological aspects of obsessing well," Sennett explains.
He also contrives to make it look easy. He is a stylish writer and a genial conversationalist, doing both with a relaxed, unhurried air. His talent for making friends led his former LSE boss Anthony Giddens, no hermit himself, to describe him as "very lively, well-connected, good at talking to people. He has always had a wider coverage than the rest of us."
Appearances, though, are misleading. For all the praise loaded on his elegant prose, he says: "I'm not a natural writer and I've never found it easy. It is always an effort." A three-book excursion into novels came when he worried that his academic prose was losing its way: "I felt it had lost its expressiveness and I had to do something different," he says.
There is also a part of him that hankers after a return to music. He still plays the cello in a chamber quartet whose other members include Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. Some years ago he told an interviewer that he expected to do only one more book after Respect. The Craftsman , due out next year, will not only be his second book since then, but it is the first of a planned trilogy.
He says: "I've always had this feeling 'one more book and then it is back to music'. I suppose it is a bit like the smoker who is always having 'one last cigarette before I quit'. A shrink might make quite a lot of this!"
What seems to get in the way of a more permanent return to music is the good academic's variation on nicotine addiction - the insatiable curiosity that means there is always one more subject, probably suggested by something you found in your last project, to be explored fully before you can quit.
People's working lives have been a central preoccupation since his days as a graduate student at Harvard University. More recently, in works such as Respect, The Corrosion of Character (1998) and The Culture of the New Capitalism (2006), he has become identified with a critique of modern capitalism. He has always been intrigued by "the relationship between the physical and the act of thinking".
He sees craftsmanship as being disregarded and undermined by modern capitalism, and he takes the threat personally. His definition of a craftsman extends rather beyond the popular picture of a workman bent over lathe or workbench. It is, he writes, "a more inclusive category than the artisan; he or she represents in each of us the desire to do something well, concretely, for its own sake."
That desire has propelled his own progress from a childhood in the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, which he has memorably recalled as populated by "blacks, the white poor, the wounded and the deranged". Not that his family were entirely typical residents - his mother was a distinguished social worker while his father's family had the distinctive mix of leftish politics and material success, combined in a single person in his uncle, that seems the particular preserve of American Jews.
Craftsmanship was ingrained by spending hours practising his cello: "I write every day in the same way that a musician practises every day. It becomes such an ingrained habit that they stop thinking of it as practice."
Those habits further benefited from the cultivation Sennett received as a graduate student at Harvard from his mentor David Riesman: "He was wonderful in a way that is completely unfashionable nowadays. He always encouraged you to take more risks with your research, to tell him what you didn't know and how you intended to go about finding it."
Riesman also encouraged Sennett to cross academic boundaries. While a sociologist by designation, he calls on evidence from a vast range of disciplines - particularly music and anthropology - and when asked about this, says: "Well, why wouldn't you? If you are trying to understand or explain something, it makes sense to look for as many ways as you can of looking at it."
He fears that such academic craftsmanship is being lost in Britain as well as in America. "I see PhD proposals nowadays and they look more like business plans than academic projects - ticking boxes rather than exploring new ideas, asking different questions and finding connections. It is a bureaucratic exercise rather than the craft training it is supposed to be. You can't develop technique without taking risks and learning about the relationship between different disciplines."
In this, Sennett suggests, academic life is reflecting the business culture of which he is such a vigorous critic. It would be unfair to see The Craftsman as purely a continuation of his last few books - it will also contain a wealth of historical and anthropological analysis of the development of crafts that treat the subject as valuable for its own sake as well as in relation to his established critique. It does, however, undoubtedly deepen that analysis, arguing that "people who aspire to be good craftsmen are depressed, ignored or misunderstood by social institutions. These ills are complicated because few institutions set out to produce unhappy workers."
This, he argues, is because of the domination of the values of "impatient capital" with its insatiable demands for short-term returns, distrust of any relationship deeper or more lasting than a financial transaction and assumption that any established expertise or emotional attachment to work will obstruct that pursuit of immediate profit. It is a world designed by and for consultants, with their absence of attachments, rather than for skills that may take thousands of hours to develop and define.
He is particularly concerned that these values have infiltrated the public services. While name-checked for Respect by Tony Blair - and acknowledging that merely addressing such a theme was an unusual step for a leading politician - he joined the long list of Left-leaning international academics disappointed after their initial hopes of Britain's former Premier long before Iraq was invaded. He is wholly unsurprised by the wave of unrest among medical staff in the National Health Service, writing in The Craftsman of "reform fatigue" and in The Culture of the New Capitalism of reformers who were "impatient of the messy business of being ill; they instead treated the sick like entrepreneurs".
He says of recent protests over the NHS: "What did they expect? For the Government to say that doctors and nurses have no complaint because their pay has gone up shows how little they understand. The problem is not how much people are paid, but how far their knowledge and expertise are valued. If people are made to feel their work has little value, you corrode their sense of themselves."
He argues that the modern capitalist model, designed initially only for a few leading-edge companies, is ultimately unsustainable. Although it generates huge wealth for a few, he suggests that it fails even according to its own lights. Long fascinated by architecture, he cites the example of a new building whose failed public spaces were rooted in the exclusive use of computer-aided design. Sennett is anything but a Luddite - he speaks with enthusiasm of time spent with engineers and technologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and argues that high technology has immense potential for craftsmanship - but notes that "simulation is a poor substitute for tactile experience".
He argues that the "re-engineering" of companies, that classic technique of modern financial management, ultimately does far more harm than good - quoting research that shows that if anything they are less profitable after re engineering and citing examples such as British Rail and Sunbeam: "You take a company apart in the hope of squeezing more flexibility and short-term gain from it by re-engineering, fail and try to put it back together, only to find that the squeeze has eliminated human and social capital."
In the process people are discarded or, if retained, left fearful and insecure. "People feel they have lost control of their lives. It leaves many feeling that they are failures and looking for ways to hold their heads up."
There is, he happily acknowledges, an affinity with the work of his LSE colleague Richard Layard on Happiness : "We've argued about his use of the word, when I feel 'satisfaction' is probably as much as you can ask for in this vale of tears, but I'm otherwise very much in accord with him."
There is also a profound irony. As a young Leftist in the 1960s he was among those who dreamed of the elimination of the hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions and businesses of the time. That aspiration has to a great extent been achieved, only for the discovery to be made that modern "flat" institutions leave the worker still more powerless and at the mercy of an unfriendly market.
Sennett is not calling for a return to old ways and structures: "Even if you wanted to, it simply cannot be done." He does, however, believe that a way has to be found to give people some stability and a sense of worth.
He believes that ways can be found, but solutions will not come through conventional politics. "I take it as read that the political class will fail us, and one of my frustrations with people I talk to in think-tanks on both sides of the Atlantic is that they are fixated on getting either politicians or the press to listen to them. They won't. While this is an important subject, it isn't sexy."
He has higher hopes of enlightened employers such as the computer company Apple and of reinvented trade unions. "I think they can be 'countervailing institutions' that can give people a sense of community and networks not found elsewhere in society."
For himself, Sennett will work on those two further books and has not ruled out writing a fourth novel, although what he'd really like is to see the first three back in print. "Like every other novelist, I'm in search of a publisher," he says.
The sixtysomething will continue to echo the musician and radical of the 1960s, still playing the cello and writing. "My political activity is my writing. I'm a terrible activist in the sense of being the world's worst organiser, but if you can write something about people's experience so that others feel it, there is a clear political implication."
You might even say that it sort of hangs together.