As a long-time admirer of Sennett's work, I expected that this book would develop Sennett's earlier analysis of advanced capitalism that he proposed in The Corrosion of Character and elsewhere. Undoubtedly, this book has some merits, notably Sennett's use of social capital theory and his trademark vignettes of highly revealing personal stories and anecdotes. The book, however is a disappointment. If anyone wanted to see that three lectures do not amount to a book, this is a good example. The lectures delivered at Yale must have been provocative and maybe even inspirational. They do not add up to a book, however. The fragmentation that Sennett observes in capitalist organizations characterizes much of his writing that is discontinuous and at times sloppy and lazy (and more spelling mistakes than one would expect of this publisher). At times, his vignettes lose their life-like qualities and appear formulaic or produced on demand (not unlike those of management gurus). Sennett's scholarship is also highly eclectic (not to say lazy) and far from up-to-date (really, is Goffman and Debord the best that can be done in the way of analysing the effects of today's consumer culture?) Sennett appears to ignore vast areas of contemporary social theory on bureaucracy, consumer studies and cultural studies that might have helped him provide a deeper, more coherent and better informed analysis. As an example, he seeks to argue that the implosion of bureaucracy has decimated 'institutional knowledge' on which organizations relied to function properly. He might have looked in the extensive work on knowledge management and narrative knowledge as used by communities of practice (including managers, consultants, professionals and people in general) to appreciate that institutional knowledge has merely assumed different forms. Sadly this book does not live up to the promise or the achievement of Sennett's earlier works. If you want to see appreciate true sociological imagination, visit his earlier Hidden Injuries of Class and The Corrosion of Character.
Sennett has done much to offer a critique of today's flexible capitalism. In this work he develops the themes that he identified earlier and observes once again fragmented lives, people who have lost the plot of their own existence and a devouring sense of purposelessness among those who pursue precarious porfolio careers. The book is sadly not up to his earlier work. The stories are cursory and have an almost artificial quality about them (compared to the vivid portraits that he offered in his earlier work). His engagement with contemporary scholarship is very casual and idiosyncratic (especially in his discussions of consumption where major contributions by Ritzer and others are ignored). Finally, the quality of production leaves much to be desired, with spelling mistakes - an obvious sign of the publisher's hurry to publish what were originally three lectures, with little attempt to turn them into a monograph.
This is a great little book that spills the beans on the latest forms of capitalism, including the corporate use of teams of consultants to do the dirty on employees and the current widespread corporate disrespect for both past experience and future stability. Wielding words like a surgeon's knife and writing with a clarity and ease of style that one does not normally associate with sociology, Sennett strips bare the pretensions of corporate asset-strippers and discloses how their ideology has infected public bodies as well as private companies. His definition of social capital is much more satisfying than those of some other theorists, suggesting as it does an intrinsic relationship between good will and employment, rather than simply exploiting philanthropic instincts to make up the deficit created by inadequate state services. This book is a wake-up call for those who care about the future, and a warning that our economies may be based at least as much on illusions intended to lure investment as on productive practices that will yield long-term profits and jobs. Short but sweet, and highly recommended. The game is up boys!
Richard Sennett's short book, The Culture of the New Capitalism is based on the Castle lectures in Ethics, Politics and Economics, delivered by him at Yale University in 2004. In putting the book together, Sennett was primarily responding to an invitation from Yale University to pull together his work over the past years in order to describe the culture of the new capitalism. In doing so Sennett admirably acknowledges the limitations of his, "particular craft and the frustrations of subjective investigations." In other words, the book takes on a subjective approach by speaking for people Sennett says he has interviewed over the years.
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. To some extent this made for an unappealing reading.
On a positive note, Sennett's style is clear as he avoids too many sociological jargon. This is helpful to anyone approaching these issues for the first time. So in the first and most substantial chapter, Bureaucracy, Sennett begins by looking at distinctive features of the old and new capitalism. He coins a term fresh-page thesis to identify those who take the view that capitalism has merely turned a page in its history rather than having gone through some major upheaval. The chapter effectively outlines the development of bureaucracy in organizations and its impact on people.
Despite the fact that I did not find the book very engaging, there are nonetheless some concepts that are arresting in their revelations. For example, the passages that deal directly with the impact of the new capitalism on individuals are powerful as the idea of how knowledge and power can render some individuals useless or confer ability on others under the guise of merit is unpacked. Another example is the notion of The Consuming Passion here a consuming passion: "can connote a passion that burns itself out by its own intensity; put in a less lurid form, in using things we use them up. Our desire for a dress may be ardent, but a few days after we actually buy and wear it, the garment arouses us less."
Although I did not find the book very engaging it still rang true with some telling home truths about the nature of the new capitalism. On that basis it is a book worth reading.