BOOKS: by Bob BrowningNews Weekly
The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, by Richard Sennett
, March 11, 2000
Rec. price: $45.00
Reviewed by Bob BrowningThere has to be something exceptional about a little book that can grab the attention of the financial press and also win praise from many of the world's noted public intellectuals. Its punch begins with its title, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism.
Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm described it as a "beautiful and moving book by one of our finest sociologists". For him, it tells what happens to people in an economy that "systematically destroys what has given meaning to human life". He sees this latest work by Richard Sennett as a "description, explanation and warning to Europe against following the road already taken by the US and, perhaps not quite so irreversibly, by Britain".
Business Week, The Economist and The Financial Times found the book respectively a "profoundly affecting argument as to what we are doing to ourselves as we reshape our work"; a "provocative essay on the human consequences of flexibility, downsizing and the new management culture"; and "a brilliant portrait of the flexible American workplace in the age of corporate reengineering".
With American-style corporate management spreading globally through the multinationals and the multiplicity of satellite supplier companies subject to them, Sennett's insights are applicable everywhere, including Australia.
Multinationals now comprise one of the most powerful forces driving social and political change in the world today. Of the top 100 economies in the world now, 51 are multinational corporations, only 49 are countries. The decision-making power on the big strategic issues about investment, marketing and management style are kept centralised, while much of the actual production is done in "export-processing zones". There are already 1000 such zones around the world in 70 countries. They involve about 27 million workers. In the jargon of the new managerialism these set-ups are referred to as "free trade zones". What they are mostly free of is (company) taxes and wage, health and labour regulation.
Publishers Weekly said Sennett's book challenges the reader to decide whether the so-called flexibility of modern capitalism might be "merely a fresh form of oppression". Harvard University's Professor Daniel Bell said it shows how the new flexible, re-invented corporation has "redefined work" in a context of ceaseless change - change which is leading inexorably to the "loss of anchorage and self-understanding of the employee". The Independent included it in its Books of the Year, calling it "a wise, human account of life in our new high-risk, low-loyalty workplaces". The New Statesman called it an "elegiac case for the kind of character bred in the society we are losing - one in which the dignity of ordinary, long-term, secure labour encouraged habits of dependability and long-term care for family and children".
What is encouraging about the reception of Sennett's book is that it would seem to indicate increasing recognition that there is a serious downside to the economistic ideology and new managerialism spanning the globe. It has been an up-hill battle to break through the barrier of corporate-financed propaganda. Critics have had to brave being ridiculed as Luddites, rent-seekers, special interest protectionists, gloom and doomists, and economic ignoramuses.
So far most of those worried about the new economic order have been trying to elicit recognition and concern for its victims - the unemployed, the working poor, and other left-behinds. Sennett is acutely aware of the economic losers and the growing gap between the rich and poor, but his emphasis in this book is on mainstream employees, including the highly-skilled. He is concerned with the struggle that all sorts of people now have tried to give meaning to lives tossed about in the latest wave of capitalist "creative destruction".
Sennett believes that in recent years, capitalism has been increasingly structured for short-term gain. This can be corrosive of both individual and social senses of purpose. He has sought to identify the effects on people's emotional and psychological well-being.
Even in menial jobs, personal self-image depends on an idea of progressive achievement, of continuous development through a "career". People now talk about trying to "get a life". Formerly people's lives were based on loyalties, attachments, and acquired skills and understandings that made them feel important to others. Now personal and family lives are increasingly marked by instability of income and location, the rupture of attachments and learned work routines, the fragmentation of experience into dislocated episodes, the preoccupation with consumption, and the difficulty of understanding and coping with feelings of alienation.
One can do Sennett's book an injustice by trying to summarise his themes in abstract terms. He writes more like a perceptive novelist than a social scientist.
His explanations are embedded in the lives of real people and their families - how they have experienced and tried to cope with dislocation and uncertainty. The people he talks about range from top IBM executives to bakers working in computerised bakeries.
Through them he uncovers the existential impact of the pervasive new ideology and its social engineering of workplaces around the world. Sennett says:
"The conflict between family and work poses some questions about adult experience itself. How can long term purposes be pursued in a short-term society? How can durable social relations be sustained? How can a human being develop a narrative of identity and life history in a society composed of episodes and fragments? The conditions of the new economy feed instead on experience which drifts in time, from place to place, from job to job ... short term capitalism threatens to corrode his [the employee's] character, particularly those qualities of character which bind human beings to one another and furnishes each with a sense of sustainable self."
In the brave new world of the "flexible" corporation and the new managerialism, workers at all levels are regarded as commodities, as expendable, disposable at the whim of CEOs who vastly over-pay themselves.
How could anyone with even a modicum of human concern not expect people to reply in kind? Employees no longer think in terms of loyalty or any long-term relationship with the organisations they work for.
Despite the vaunted efficiency of the current system, it seems to be doing little to improve productivity, let alone social cohesion. Why do populists keep popping up around the developed world, from Austria to Australia? Why the explosion of drug-taking, suicide and mental health problems among the young?
A society organised to facilitate the entrepreneur wants people at ease about not reckoning the consequences of change, happy with not knowing what comes next. But as Sennett points out, many people's experience of change now amounts to little more than drift:
"Most people ... are not at ease with change in this nonchalant, negligent way ... the conditions of time in the new capitalism have created a conflict between character and experience, the experience of disjointed time threatening the ability of people to form their characters into sustained narratives."
There has always been uncertainty, but now, in Sennett's view, it is being deliberately woven into the everyday practices of a triumphant capitalism though changes in the workplace and marketing brands preaching lifestyles - "Just do it", "Think different" - don't seek meaning. The new managerialism wants instability to be normal.
Sennett thinks those who flourish in the new capitalism are those who have the confidence to dwell in disorder, who revel in the midst of dislocation. The high-flying go-getters do not suffer from fragmentation and social dislocation. They are stimulated by it. The capacity to let go of one's past, to have no strong lasting attachments, and to accept fragmentation with confidence are the traits of character that Sennett believes characterise those (few) who are truly at home in the new capitalism.
But the gung-ho Davos man is not representative of the multitude of people being subjected to the new system. The new order is about re-engineering people through control of the workplace and manipulation of the consumer marketplace. What turns certain types on, however, can be self-destructive for the majority lower down the new regime.
Sennett thinks three elements of the present system corrode the characters of employees: "discontinuous reinvention of institutions, flexible specialisation of production, and concentration of, without centralisation of power".
Corporate-sponsored rhetoric is all about "flattening out" the old hierarchical authoritarian structures of workplaces and getting rid of the "interference" by the State and employee associations.
The declared intention of decentralising responsibility and freeing individual initiative obscures what is really happening. Power is not being distributed. It is being concentrated in fewer people. It is not power but risk and cost which are being "decentralised" - that is, passed down the line to casualised employees and contrators and consumers.
The catch-cry promise of greater "freedom of choice" is often illusory. Innovations like "flexitime" and bureaucratic "de-layering" promise more freedom to define one's career, but in fact create jobs in which less freedom is to be had.
The processes of power transference includes putting the the means of production further out of reach of the supposedly sovereign national state, the democratic processes of government, and the ameliorating influences of collective bargaining by unions.
Power is being concentrated in the hands of a new managerial élite where "commercial in confidence" rules, where the gaols are short term, and where success is measured in economic growth statistics and the prices of shares. "Enterprise bargaining" pits the isolated, unsupported individual employee against the burgeoning might of multinational corporation management .
Peter Drucker, one of the world's leading management theorists, agrees that the power of managers in the re-invented corporation is derived from no one but the managers themselves. Their power lacks legitimacy, he says. It is "unfounded, unjustified, uncontrolled and irresponsible power". This, he regrets, is what has been happening to big American corporations which are spreading their new managerialism globally.
Happily, neither Drucker nor Sennett believe this situation can last. Sometime in the future it may be as hard to find anyone who admits to having been a stalwart economic rationalist as it is now hard to find someone who boasts of having barracked for Uncle Joe and the Soviet Union.