US cellist has some tips for British social harmony

January 3, 2003

Brown gets it right, Blair and Hodge don't. In giving help to the less fortunate, unsentimental respect is preferable to patronising pity, argues LSE sociologist Richard Sennett. He talks to Laurie Taylor about his latest book.

It is easy to feel at home with Richard Sennett. His loft flat in Clerkenwell may have enough empty space to accommodate a tolerable game of five-a-side, but he knows how to do hospitality. Within a minute of arriving I find that I'm sitting down next to him at the table, sipping very good coffee and lighting my first cigarette of the morning. ("All right if I smoke?" "What!" he says with mock incredulity, pointing to two slumbering briar pipes on the ashtray in the middle of the table.) Before we get down to talking about his new book, Respect in a World of Inequality , I have to acknowledge an important intellectual debt. Back in the late 1970s, sociology students in the department at York University were heavily infected with the "true-self virus". My traditionally trouble-free seminars on the rules that governed human interaction were frequently interrupted by earnest undergraduates who wanted to argue that human happiness could finally be achieved only when all formal and institutional restrictions on interaction were abandoned and people naturally and spontaneously revealed their true selves to each other.

It was then that I came across a little essay of Sennett's called "Destructive Gemeinschaft ". The piece fully lived up to its provocative title. What particularly delighted me was its attack upon the narcissistic cult of self-development. This hippie-happy belief, Sennett had argued, effectively erased the reality of others. Other people were useful only insofar as they could be used as resources for one's own inner development. This meant that intimate social interaction quickly became nothing more than a market of self-revelations.

The essay was soon marked as "essential" on all my reading lists. At last I had a powerful academic ally in my attempts to persuade students that being spontaneous and self-revelatory was as constructed and rule-bound as any other form of social interaction. It was also, as I rather sadistically liked to insist to my sceptical audience, fundamentally debilitating.

All of which, I told Sennett, who was by now busying himself with a large Italian cake, brought me to my first point. His 25-year-old essay might have had a pretty specific contemporary target, but didn't it also nicely articulate a recurrent theme in his work? Much of his academic writing - The Fall of Public Man , The Uses of Disorder , and The Corrosion of Character - could surely be read as a continuing argument for the importance of formality in public life, for the value of ritual and convention.

He was happy to agree. Yes, he had, like me, always distrusted the counter-cultural stress on therapeutic navel-gazing and the allied notion that if you abolish institutions and rituals then people will go on to form mutually respectful communities. In his new book, he characterises this as "social jazz", the absurd belief that all that is needed to improve human relations at school, work or on the streets is a combination of improvisation and goodwill.

It is not at all surprising that Sennett reaches for musical analogies when he wishes to capture general facets of social life or to talk about his latest concerns with questions of respect and inequality. As we learn from his new book, his own route out of the impoverished Chicago public-housing project where he lived as a young boy was through music. By the age of eight he was already an accomplished classical cello player. "I had something that didn't belong to that milieu. And I was pretty good at it."

Classical music provides him with the perfect analogous antidote to social jazz. "Think about what happens when musicians come together to play a concerto. There is an inequality here. The presence of the soloist creates an asymmetry. Now, musicians are not known for their modesty, but they realise that you can't use music as a star vehicle. Music doesn't get made unless there is cooperation. But this cooperation isn't achieved, the inequalities aren't dealt with, by transactions and processes. The musicians solve the problems of playing in unison, or of holding back or dominating, by reference to the musical text. The gestures in sound they create as a result of this become rituals that orient them to one another. Now, rituals in social life are also complicated ways of knitting people together. But the difference here is that the social text is not a written musical score. It emerges through trial and error and then becomes engraved in memory as a tradition."

This takes us right to the heart of Sennett's latest work. His contention throughout the book is that we lack appropriate social texts with which to handle respect and inequality. Let's begin with the problem of respect. Nowadays, he argues, we have a deficit of respect. Only members of a small elite are marked out as the appropriate recipients of esteem. Modest skills and crafts are persistently undervalued. "When we hold up as a role model the impossibly successful entrepreneur, or the professional cellist, all we do is increase the enormous difference between people. The most destructive thing that (Tony) Blair has ever done vis à vis the poor is to promote the image of the ones who have gone all the way to the top, rather the image of someone who has acquired an enabling craft."

He is not suggesting that a mere change in rhetoric will do anything to resolve the problem of inequality. In a meritocracy there will always be inequalities of skill and talent, and these inequalities will inevitably produce inequalities of recognition. But if we want to lower the amount of resentment that flows from this, we must recognise a far wider range of talents than are presently accredited.

But even if we can find ways of granting respect to more of our fellow citizens for the work they do, for the wide variety of crafts and skills that they have learnt, we are still left with the problem of handling those who, for whatever reason, cannot stand on their own feet.

"Dependency generates great anxiety for us as modern people. Passive dependency is seen as humiliating. It can often be an invitation to bureaucratic control, a high degree of intrusion into personal lives." The classic neo-liberal response to this is to argue for a lesser role for the state - people can only regain self-respect when they are required to stand up for themselves. Sennett strongly disagrees. "The impulse to help others is a fundamental one. It is only degraded when it takes the form of pity, which seems to the dependent nothing more than an expression of contempt."

Sennett cites his mother, a fine social worker. He believes that her success was intimately related to her capacity to develop a certain coolness of approach that avoided any hint of compassion. This reserve, this avoidance of sentimentality, allowed her to express a kind of respect for those forced to live less fortunate lives.

But this erring into the biographical - which Sennett does more than ever in his new book - does not mean he is about to substitute personal reminiscence for comparative analysis. "In cultures other than our own, it is perfectly possible to show dependence without presenting yourself as a potential object of pity. Rituals exist that allow for mutual exchanges between the strong and the weak. In Japan, a show of dependence oils the social machine that has helped to produce half a century of development. Why can't we do it? Why is it so foreign to us when it is so easy to other people? Ways of managing relations between the strong and weak are fundamentally a cultural issue. It's not pie in the sky. Far too much giving gets caught up in humiliation and shaming. It misfires and creates aversive relations. It's why so many poor kids simply refuse the gifts they're offered. It's because they're tainted by the way they're given."

There seems to be something deeply nostalgic about his persistent call for a revival of rituals and social texts - as if he regrets the passing of an institutional and ordered way of life, a society in which everyone knew where they stood and precisely how to address and handle those who stood elsewhere. He acknowledges the tendency in his writing. "Yes, that's a defect in my thinking. You're absolutely right. My centre of gravity is in the middle of the 19th century. I've tried to compensate for that in this book by reading a lot of anthropology to find the ways in which non-western societies handle matters of respect and inequality. You could call it looking sideways rather than backwards."

Other Sennett critics like to refer to his over-eclectic approach to social science, his readiness to turn to literature and philosophy and music rather than hard research when he wishes to make a point. This may ensure that his books are highly readable intellectual excursions, but it also means that he can remain somewhat cavalier when pressed to list their policy implications.

But on this occasion, he can at least claim that he is putting his time (and probably, his money) where his mouth is. "I'm part of the new movement for basic income where the basic idea is that the state's only intervention is to give people the material resources to take charge of themselves. Gordon Brown has already dipped his toe into this with his new spending accounts for children. Brown is a good guy. He gets it. He seems to have understood the notion that giving resources in this impersonal way respects the autonomy of the recipients. Blair, on the other hand, is an unwitting engineer of the humiliation of the poor."

Blair is not the only politician within Sennett's sights. He also has reservations about the minister for higher education, Margaret Hodge. Although he believes her heart is in the right place, he says of the Department for Education and Skills: "Its like that kind of donor who feels they know how an organisation should work because they're giving it the money. The attitude of DFES reminds me of a rich woman giving money to an arts organisation and complaining about how the drinks are laid out at the intermission. It's all of a piece with the contempt of the bureaucrats for higher education. You have a terrific education system here. I find the London School of Economics a wonderful institution. But that's in spite of, not because of, the government. It's all done in the face of this control system, with student evaluation sheets and the research assessment exercise. It's an audit society. Which is insane. It has nothing to do with teaching and everything to do with producing a number."

Sennett is an expert conversationalist: as good at listening as he is at talking. Everyone I have ever met who knows him enjoys his company. Most think of him as a personal friend. One academic colleague says: "In some ways, you'd expect to dislike him. He's a rich American know-all who claims to be an old-fashioned socialist. Perhaps the secret lies in all the stuff he writes about getting on with strangers. He's turned an academic argument into a way of life."

It certainly looks as though we'll be able to go on enjoying his company. Is he happy here in Britain? "Very. The Brits think of themselves as exclusionary. But London is a great city in which to be a foreigner. You're much more open than you find yourselves."

So you're not going anywhere? "I'm not going anywhere."

This is home? "This is home."

Respect in a World of Inequality will be published by Penguin on January 30.

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