The Culture of the New Capitalism (Castle Lecture Series in Ethics, Politics & Economics) (Castle Lectures Series) Paperback – 23 Feb 2007
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"A fairly successful economy does not produce much in the way of contentment. Are there seismic rumbles that might cause cracks on the surface? Richard Sennett thinks so. Read on."-Robert M. Solow, Institute Professor Emeritus, M.I.T.
About the Author
Richard Sennett teaches sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the London School of Economics. His recent publications include The Corrosion of Character and Respect in a World of Inequality.
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The book basically addresses three broad topics: "how institutions are changing; how fears about being made redundant or left behind are related to talent in the `skills society'; how consumption behaviour relates to political attitudes." Sennett argues against a school of thought that sees these three issues work, talent and consumption of the new capitalism amounting to "more freedom in modern society." It is important to understand that Sennet's opposition is not about whether these aspects of the new capitalism are real. Rather his argument against what he calls the "apostles of new capitalism" is that the change of an emphasis on work, talent and consumption has not "set people free". At this point I must nail my colours to the mast and say that I agree with Sennett.
However, my agreement with Sennett is based more on my own experience about people having more freedom from the demands of work under the new capitalism than with Sennett's arguments. That should not surprise anyone reading this book. As a book based on a series of lectures, I suppose it was inevitable that it would be slight in content and shallow in analysis.Read more ›
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As the old saw goes: Be careful what you ask for. In "The Culture of New Capitalism," Sennett seems somewhat nostalgic for the security and rewarding work that bureaucracies once provided. The dismantling of large-scale institutions did not result in the communities of trust and solidarity for which the radicals had hoped. Instead, they left modern day workers in very fragmented and ambiguous working conditions.
According to Sennett, these conditions came about in the 1970's and have accelerated since. After the breakdown of the Bretton Woods agreement, capital markets became globalized. Corporate managers became more concerned about increasing short term value - higher share price - and less concerned about the long-term welfare of their employees. Over the years wages have stagnated and benefits have been reduced. In short, "the new capitalism" or "new economy" of which he speaks has been reconfigured to give an increasing amount of wealth to shareholders rather than employees.
What effect this has had on the workplace is the focus of this study. The target industries of this study were high technology, finance, and media, but what has taken place there foreshadows what is happening in other industries and also the public sector.
First, Sennett finds that employees must learn how to manage short-term relationships; corporations no longer provide a long-term framework. Second, the modern workplace values a meritocracy of potential abilities rather than craftsmanship developed over a long period of time. And finally, one must learn how to let go of the past and accept the fact that one's place in the corporation is no longer guaranteed. To sum up, the ideal worker in the new economy is someone who must think in the short term, constantly develop their potential and not look over their shoulder.
That's great if you are young, unattached, wealthy, and well educated. However, if you are middle-class, middle-aged, and have multiple responsiblities, it's a cruel world.
For nearly a generation, globalization has brought downward pressure on unskilled wages, but now - thanks to technological innovations - it is bringing downward pressure on skilled wages as well. Never before has capitalism had unlimited access to labor. There has been a race to the bottom in search of lower wages.
Americans seem to have resigned themselves to the vicissitudes of the global labor markets; the Europeans and the Japanese have been less sanguine, or a least more protective of their lifestyles. It may be that Americans believe free markets are an intrinsic good. I believe that at some point there will be a backlash against outsourcing and offshoring, and that this book may be prescient. As Sennett rightly notes, free markets do not necessarily translate into more freedom for individuals.
Sennett states that three new pages were turned in the late twentieth century workplace. "First has been the shift from managerial to shareholder power in large companies." (pg. 37) This shift in power, according to Sennett turned a second new page: "The empowered investors wanted short-term rather than long-term results." The third new page representing a challenge to the past "lay in the development of new technologies of communication and manufacturing." He notes that "one consequence of the information revolution has...been to replace modulation and interpretation of commands by a new kind of centralization." (pg. 43) At the same time, automation, growing out of technological innovation "...has affected the [social capitalist] bureaucratic pyramid in one profound way: the base of the pyramid no longer needs to be big." (pg. 43). Circuits replace people.
According to Sennett, the old model, built on the pyramid model with a mass of workers at the bottom responding to a chain of command situated at the top is on the way out. In contrast, the new model he likens to an MP3 player: "The MP3 machine can be programmed to play only a few bands from its repertoire; similarly, the flexible organization can select and perform only a few of its many possible functions at any given time. In the old-style corporation, by contrast, production occurs via a fixed set of acts; the links in the chain are set. Again in an MP3 player, what you hear can be programmed in any sequence. In a flexible organization, the sequence of production can be varied at will." (pgs.47-48). (Notably, and perhaps inevitably, the new model got its start in the cutting edge businesses of finance, technology, pharma and media and their support industries: marketing research, advertising, and business consulting).
In a remarkable section on the shift in how employees are assessed - based on achievement in the old structure and "potential" in the new -- he shows how SAT testing supports the new regime. Sennett notes that "in the search to consummate the project of finding a [Jeffersonian] natural aristocracy, the mental life of human beings has assumed a surface and narrowed form. Social reference, sensate reasoning, and emotional understanding have been excluded from that search, just as have belief and truth. ...These [flexible] institutions ... privilege the kind of mental life embodied by consultants, moving from scene to scene, problem to problem, team to team. He says that "...this talent search cuts reference to experience and the chains of circumstance, eschews sensate impressions, divides analyzing from believing, ignores the glue of emotional attachment, penalizes digging deep--the state of living in pure process which the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls 'liquid modernity.'" (pgs. 120-122)
He notes that while citizen-workers might have been trapped in Max Weber's "iron cage" under the old system, nevertheless the structure gave its denizens a sense of meaning and was roughly consonant with general social values. In essence, Sennett says: "Time lay at the center of this military, social capitalism: long-term and incremental and above all predictable time." (pg. 23).
This new architecture, crafted by the business consultant class to whom agency is given by the new corporation, enables the exercise of enormous centralized power through new communications technology, and at the same time evades the responsibility of its recommendations, as do those who hire them. Bloodless terms like "flexible" workplaces," "off-shoring" and "right-shoring," "downsizing" and "right-sizing" are, for instance, deployed to mystify mass firings and those responsible for them.
The ideal worker in this paradigm is conceived to be flexible, cooperative, efficient and not get too involved in the nuts and bolts when doing problem-solving. Want ads looking for "entrepreneurs," and "self-starters" are emblematic of this shift. The ideal worker is most of all attuned to short-term shareholder values, values which insist on change. Whether the change is good or bad is almost irrelevant: change is in and of itself a signal to investors of impending short-term gains.
Sennett offers "five ways in which the consumer-spectator-citizen is turned away from progressive politics," each element of which arises from the culture of the new capitalism. He says that the consumer-spectator-citizen is "(1) offered political platforms which resemble product platforms and (2) gold-plated difference; (3) asked to discount 'the twisted timber of humanity (as Immanuel Kant called us), and (4) credit more user-friendly politics; (5) accept continually new political products on offer."(pg. 163). Summarizing these points, he says: "The culture of the new capitalism is attuned to singular events, one-off transactions, interventions; to progress, a polity needs to draw on sustained relationships and accumulate experience. In short, the unprogressive drift of the new culture lies in its shaping of time." (pg. 178).
In his last paragraph, Sennett attempts to end on a hopeful note: "What I have sought to explore in these pages is thus a paradox: a new order of power gained through and ever more superficial culture. Since people can anchor themselves in life only by trying to do something well for its own sake, the triumph of superficiality at work, in schools, and in politics seems to me fragile. Perhaps indeed, revolt against this enfeebled culture will constitute our next fresh page."
I don't know about you, but I'm not holding my breath.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in having a clearer image of the dynamic nature of late capitalism and its impact on the quality of our lives.
Elsewhere, his diagnosis of the inherently agitating, dynamic and shifting new economic order based on the ownership of shareholders seeking short-term gains and implicitly heralding the virtues of constant change, organizational reengineering and creative destruction over stability and long-term value building might bear challenging in some respects. While there is truth in his statement at the time of the book's publication, the ensuing global economic downturn has hearkened a return to the perceived desirability of stability and stolidity in corporations as investors seek shelter from the economic mayhem.
I also questioned his portrayal of the superficially engaged and ever change-responsive ideal employee bearing 'potential' over experience, the suggestion of which is that the new economy no longer affords the accumulation and deepening of experience or development of a spirit of craftsmanship. While this might be true to some degree for some and especially junior employees, experience can be built upon even through non-consecutive or short-term projects and job assignments; experience and craftsmanship is not necessarily as narrow or constricted as he'd suggest, as in a formal capacity calling for a multifaceted awareness and approach such as general or human resource management. That said, I agree with his broad thesis that that is how society is tending to shape our valuation of experience.
He makes interesting correlations between the effects of the new economy and broader social and psychological implications of our attitudes to politics and consumer consumption in the form of a kind of surrendering of the person to a surfeit of information and promise of potential. The thrall we fall under to marketing and packaging of the slick young politician over the seasoned war-weary statesman finds parallels in our consumer society's obsession with possession of the new, the gold-plated surficial differences between brands.
Despite my mild reservations above, Sennett here (as in his other works on class and the accordance of social respect) offers richly leavened material for consideration. His invitation to reflection on the kind of society we were emerging into remains relevant even almost 10 years on.