Unformatted text preview: Copyrighted Material T HE CASTLE LECTURES IN ETHICS, POLITICS, AND ECONOMICS Copyrighted Material Copyrighted Material The Culture
New Capitalism RICHARD SENNETT Yale University Press New Haven & London Copyrighted Material Copyright © by Yale University.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sennett, Richard, 1943–
The culture of the new capitalism / Richard Sennett.
p. cm. — (The Castle lectures in ethics, politics, and economics)
“This book was given as the Castle Lectures in Ethics, Politics, and
Economics, delivered by Richard Sennett at Yale University in 2004”—
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-0-300-10782-1 (alk. paper)
1. Industrial sociology. 2. Capitalism—Social aspects. 3. Industrial
organization. 4. Bureaucracy. 5. Economic history. I. Title. II. Series.
306.3 6 —dc22
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence
and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines
for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources. Copyrighted Material This book was given as the
Castle Lectures in Ethics, Politics, and Economics,
delivered by Richard Sennett at
Yale University in .
The Castle Lectures were endowed by John K. Castle. They honor his
ancestor the Reverend James Pierpont, one of Yale’s original founders.
Given by established public figures, Castle Lectures are intended to promote reflection on the moral foundations of society and government
and to enhance understanding of ethical issues facing individuals in our
complex modern society. Copyrighted Material Copyrighted Material Contents Preface ix Introduction ONE Bureaucracy TWO Talent and the Specter of Uselessness THREE
FOUR Consuming Politics
Social Capitalism in Our Time Notes Index Copyrighted Material Copyrighted Material Preface A few years ago Yale University asked me to pull together the research and writing about labor which I’d
done over the years. They made it sound simple: just
provide an overview, in three of Yale’s Castle Lectures.
I should have known better; the task proved anything
but simple and about much more than work.
I’d like to thank John Kulka of Yale University
Press and especially Monika Krause, my research assistant, for helping me respond. Copyrighted Material Copyrighted Material Introduction alf a century ago, in the s—that fabled
era of free sex and free access to drugs—
serious young radicals took aim at institutions, in particular big corporations and big government, whose size, complexity, and rigidity seemed to
hold individuals in an iron grip. The Port Huron Statement, a founding document of the New Left in ,
was equally hard on state socialism and multinational
corporations; both regimes seemed bureaucratic prisons.
History has partly granted the framers of the Port
Huron Statement their wish. The socialist rule of fiveyear plans, of centralized economic control, is gone. So
is the capitalist corporation that provided employees H Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION jobs for life, that supplied the same products and services year after year. So also welfare institutions like
health care and education have become less fixed in
form and smaller in scale. The goal for rulers today, as
for radicals fifty years ago, is to take apart rigid bureaucracy.
Yet history has granted the New Left its wish in a
perverse form. The insurgents of my youth believed
that by dismantling institutions they could produce
communities: face-to-face relations of trust and solidarity, relations constantly negotiated and renewed, a
communal realm in which people became sensitive to
one another’s needs. This certainly has not happened.
The fragmenting of big institutions has left many
people’s lives in a fragmented state: the places they
work more resembling train stations than villages, as
family life is disoriented by the demands of work. Migration is the icon of the global age, moving on rather
than settling in. Taking institutions apart has not produced more community.
If you are nostalgically minded—and what sensitive soul isn’t?—you would find this state of affairs just
one more reason for regret. Yet the past half century
has been a time of unprecedented wealth creation, in
.2. Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION Asia and Latin America as well as in the global North,
a generation of new wealth deeply tied to the dismantling of fixed government and corporate bureaucracies.
So too has the technological revolution in the last generation flourished most in those institutions which are
the least centrally controlled. Certainly such growth
comes at a high price: ever greater economic inequality
as well as social instability. Still, it would be irrational
to believe that this economic explosion should never
Here is where culture enters the picture. I mean
“culture” in its anthropological rather than artistic
sense. What values and practices can hold people together as the institutions in which they live fragment?
My generation suffered from a want of imagination in
answering this question, in advancing the virtues of
small-scale community. Community is not the only
way to glue together a culture; most obviously, strangers in a city inhabit a common culture, even though
they do not know one another. But the problem of a
supportive culture is more than a matter of size.
Only a certain kind of human being can prosper
in unstable, fragmentary social conditions. This ideal
man or woman has to address three challenges.
.3. Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION The first concerns time: how to manage shortterm relationships, and oneself, while migrating from
task to task, job to job, place to place. If institutions no
longer provide a long-term frame, the individual may
have to improvise his or her life-narrative, or even do
without any sustained sense of self.
The second challenge concerns talent: how to develop new skills, how to mine potential abilities, as reality’s demands shift. Practically, in the modern economy, the shelf life of many skills is short; in technology
and the sciences, as in advanced forms of manufacturing, workers now need to retrain on average every eight
to twelve years. Talent is also a matter of culture. The
emerging social order militates against the ideal of
craftsmanship, that is, learning to do just one thing
really well; such commitment can often prove economically destructive. In place of craftsmanship, modern
culture advances an idea of meritocracy which celebrates potential ability rather than past achievement.
The third challenge follows from this. It concerns
surrender; that is, how to let go of the past. The head of
a dynamic company recently asserted that no one owns
their place in her organization, that past service in particular earns no employee a guaranteed place. How
.4. Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION could one respond to that assertion positively? A peculiar trait of personality is needed to do so, one which
discounts the experiences a human being has already
had. This trait of personality resembles more the consumer ever avid for new things, discarding old if perfectly serviceable goods, rather than the owner who
jealousy guards what he or she already possesses.
What I want to show is how society goes about
searching for this ideal man or woman. And I’ll step
beyond the scholar’s remit in judging that search. A
self oriented to the short term, focused on potential
ability, willing to abandon past experience is—to put a
kindly face on the matter—an unusual sort of human
being. Most people are not like this; they need a sustaining life narrative, they take pride in being good
at something specific, and they value the experiences
they’ve lived through. The cultural ideal required in
new institutions thus damages many of the people who
• • • I need to tell the reader something about the kind of
research experience I’ve had which leads me to this
.5. Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION judgment. The New Left critique of big bureaucracy
was my own, until in the late s I began interviewing white, working-class families in Boston, people who
were mostly second- or third-generation immigrants to
the city. (The book Jonathan Cobb and I wrote about
them is The Hidden Injuries of Class.) Far from being
oppressed by bureaucracy, these were people anchored
in solid institutional realities. Stable unions, big corporations, relatively fixed markets oriented them; within
this frame, working-class men and women tried to
make sense of their low status in a country supposedly
making few class distinctions.
After this study, I left the subject of work for a
while. It seemed that big American capitalism had
achieved a triumphant plateau and that on this plane
working-class life would continue in its fixed grooves.
I could hardly have been more mistaken. The breakdown of the Bretton Woods currency agreements, after
the oil crisis of , meant national constraints on
investing weakened; in turn that corporations reconfigured themselves to meet a new international clientele of investors—investors more intent on short-term
profits in share prices than on long-term profits in dividends. Jobs began similarly and quickly to cross bor.6. Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION ders. So did consumption and communications. By the
s, thanks to microprocessing advances in electronics, the old dream/nightmare of automation began to
become a reality in both manual and bureaucratic labor:
at last it would be cheaper to invest in machines than to
pay people to work.
So I returned to interviewing workers, though not
now manual laborers but more middle-class workers
who were at the epicenter of the global boom in hightech industries, in financial services, and in the media.
(This is the subject of my book The Corrosion of Character.) Here I had the chance to see the cultural ideal of
the new capitalism at its most robust, the boom suggesting that this new man/woman would get rich by
thinking short term, developing his or her potential,
and regretting nothing. What I found instead were a
large group of middle-class individuals who felt that
their lives were cast adrift.
At the end of the s the boom began to go
bust, as is normally the case in any business cycle. As
the economy sobered up, however, it became evident
that the global growth spurt had left an enduring trace
on non-business institutions, particularly institutions
of the welfare state. This stamp is as much cultural as
.7. Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION structural. The values of the new economy have become a reference point for how government thinks
about dependence and self-management in health care
and pensions, or again about the kind of skills the education system provides. Since I’d grown up “on welfare,” as the American phrase has it, the new cultural
model formed for me a vivid contrast to the culture of
the housing project in Chicago where I spent my childhood. (This stamp is the subject of my book Respect in
an Age of Inequality.)
I’ve sought to avoid in this book simply summarizing what I’ve written before. In my earlier writings,
I neglected the role of consumption in the new economy; here I try, briefly, to address how new forms of
consumption diminish possessiveness, and the political
consequences which follow. I’ve had to think harder
than in the past about the relation of power and authority in work. Looking backward has prompted me
to look forward, to begin exploring the spirit of craftsmanship in mental as well as manual labor.
Most of all, I’ve had to rethink the Americanness
of the research I’ve done. In the s, America dominated the world’s economy, and in the s, even if
people around the globe were involved in the process,
.8. Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION the United States led the institutional changes which
produced a new kind of economy. American researchers
thus easily imagine that they can substitute interchangeably the words American and modern. This
fantasy is no longer possible. The Chinese road to
growth is quite different from that of the United
States, and more powerful. The economy of the European Union is larger than that of America and also in
some respects more efficient, even in its new member
states, again without mimicking America.
Foreign readers of my recent books have tended to
view them as providing reasons to reject an American
way of working which other places would follow at
their peril. This is not quite what I intend. Certainly the
structural changes I describe lack national boundaries;
the decline of lifetime employment, for instance, is not
an American phenomenon. What is “culture-bound” is
the particular ways in which Americans understand the
changes which have come over material life.
A stereotype holds that Americans are aggressive
competitors in business. Beneath this stereotype lies a
different, more passive mentality. Americans of the
middling sort I’ve interviewed in the past decade have
tended to accept structural change with resignation, as
.9. Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION though the loss of security at work and in schools run
like businesses are inevitable: you can do little about
such basic shifts, even if they hurt you. The dismantling
of large institutions which I describe is, however, not a
divine commandment. Nor, indeed, is it yet the norm in
American work; the new economy is still only a small
part of the whole economy. It does exert a profound
moral and normative force as a cutting-edge standard
for how the larger economy should evolve. My hope is
that Americans will in time treat this economy as outsiders tend to see it: a proposition for change which, like
any proposition, should be subject to rigorous critique.
• • • In this regard, the reader should be aware of the critical mind-set of ethnographers. We spend hours listening to people, alone or in groups, explain themselves,
their values, their fears, and their hopes. As the hours
unfold, all these matters are reformatted and revised in
the act of telling. The alert ethnographer pays attention to what causes people to contradict themselves or,
equally, why people arrive at a dead end in understanding. The interviewer is not hearing a faulty report, but
. 10 . Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION rather listening to a subjective investigation of social
complexity. Such ambiguities, deformations, and difficulties which appear in personally accounting Faith,
the Nation, or Class constitute an individual’s understanding of culture.
This sociological craft is both eminently suited and
unsuited to uncovering the sense of innovation today.
Suited, because society’s emphasis on flow and flux intersects with the process of working through an interpretation in one’s mind. Unsuited, because most subjects participate in in-depth interviews in order to reach
conclusions, to arrive at an explanation of how they are
placed in the world. Fluidity frustrates this desire; ideological proposals for how to prosper in “the new”
prove elusive, once people ponder them long enough.
In responding to Yale’s invitation to describe the
culture of the new capitalism, I’ve thus had to think
about the limitations of my particular craft and about
the frustrations of subjective investigation. I’ve taken,
therefore, the great and unpardonable liberty of speaking for the people I’ve interviewed over the years; I’ve
tried to summarize what’s in their minds. In taking this
liberty, I am aware of sweeping under the carpet perhaps the most basic cultural problem: much of modern
. 11 . Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION social reality is illegible to the people trying to make
sense of it.
The chapters that follow treat three subjects: how
institutions are changing; how fears about being made
redundant or left behind are related to talent in the
“skills society”; how consumption behavior relates to
political attitudes. The institutional changes I describe
in the workplace in fact refer to only the cutting edge
of the economy: high technology, global finance, and
new service firms with three thousand or more employees. Most people in North America and Western
Europe do not work for such firms. Yet this small slice
of the economy has a cultural influence far beyond its
numbers. These new institutions suggest the new formulation of personal skills and abilities; the combined
formula of institution and ability shapes the culture of
consumption; consumption behavior in turn influences
politics, particularly progressive politics. I am unabashedly inferring the culture of the whole from a small
part of society, just because the avatars of a particular
kind of capitalism have persuaded so many people that
their way is the way of the future.
The apostles of the new capitalism argue that their
version of these three subjects—work, talent, consump. 12 . Copyrighted Material INTRODUCTION tion—adds up to more freedom in modern society, a
fluid freedom, a “liquid modernity” in the apt phrase
of the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman.1 My quarrel with
them is not whether their version of the new is real; institutions, skills, and consumption patterns have indeed
changed. My argument is that these changes have not
set people free. . 13 . ...
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