Richard Sennett draws on ethnography, history, and social theory to develop his ideas about how we make sense of our environment—the cities we live in and the work that engages us. As Jenny Turner wrote in the Guardian, “for many years, [Sennett has been] the Anglo-American world’s most original and eloquent thinker on work and the workplace, streets and street life, the places where huge, impersonal social forces intersect with an individual person’s fragile sense of self.” Although Sennett teaches sociology, or social and cultural theory, at both the London School of Economics and New York University, he doesn’t really write academic prose. As Turner describes it, Sennett’s writing “is an elegant mix of interview, anecdote and wide, deep book-research. His key terms have to do with common personal predicaments, understood as socio-historic formations: love and power, dignity and humiliation, impersonality and self-absorption, self-worth and self-blame.” Often described as brilliant, he’s one of that rare breed: a public intellectual.
Sennett’s books include The Fall of Public Man, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, and Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. Five years ago, he embarked on his Homo Faber, or “man the maker,” trilogy of books “about the skills people need to sustain everyday life.” He began with The Craftsman, offering an original perspective on craftsmanship—the desire to do a job well for its own sake—and its close connection to work and ethical values. The second volume, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation, looks at the practical skills of communication and co-operation. How can people who don’t know, don’t like, or don’t understand each other work together? The last in the trilogy—still to come—is about the physical environment: how to make cities.
Richard Sennett was born in Chicago in 1943. He had an unusual childhood as the son of Communist parents and as a musical prodigy, giving concerts on the cello when he was scarcely a teenager. For more than twenty-five years, he’s been married to Saskia Sassen, a specialist on the social, economic, and political dimensions of globalization.
I spoke to Richard Sennett when he was in Toronto last June for the Luminato Festival.
Wachtel: When did you first become aware of cooperation as a behaviour in your own life?
Sennett: I think probably at the age of six and a half. That’s when I started playing in a string quartet with other kids.
Wachtel: Really? How did it start? I know you started on a school piano, but how did you get from that to—?
Sennett: Well, it was very unlikely because my mother wasn’t at all musical, but I was going to a Catholic school near the housing estate where we lived, and the school had a piano, and I started banging around on it, and evidently I banged well. Then my mother had some Pablo Casals 78s . . . we’re talking long ago—
Wachtel: Well, we’re talking in the late 1940s.
Sennett: Late 1940s, early 1950s. And after I heard Casals, I thought that’s what I wanted to do. So I asked to play the cello when I was about five, and I played a little eighth-size cello, could barely get my hands around it. And in those days when you first started to play a musical instrument, you sat alone in a room and practised your scales and arpeggios and so on. We don’t do that with children today, we get them started right away playing with other kids, but I had to wait about a year and a half to do that, and it was a shock.
Wachtel: To play in a quartet.
Sennett: Yes, because it wasn’t about how well physically I could get all the notes out but about listening to other people, not trying to shine all the time, which little kids want to do: “Listen to me!”
Wachtel: And where did you find this . . . pick-up string quartet in the projects?
Sennett: This was an amazing thing. I grew up in what became one of the most notorious slums in the United States, the Cabrini–Green housing project in Chicago. But that was in the 1960s and early 1970s, when drugs arrived there. Before that it was just lots of poor people, mostly black, but we were a mixed group, and it was looked after by the Catholic Church. They had a school there; they were very tough nuns as I remember, but if you showed any sign of wanting to do something like make music, they encouraged it. And you can imagine, for African-American children who’d grown up in the South, or whose parents had grown up in the South, where everything was denial, there’s nothing left over for you, it was a kind of wonderland where these nuns and priests wanted people to learn. But when I tell people about this housing estate, they always think, “Oh my God, you must have had a terrible childhood” because they’re thinking of that later period.
Wachtel: Deprivation, violence . . .
Sennett: Deprivation, violence, all of those racialized stereotypes. In fact, we were very poor, but I had a happy growing up. I never saw an animal other than a pet dog until I went to a zoo at age eighteen; there were no trees, it was completely urban; but you know, it felt good. We weren’t aware of being deprived, even though objectively we were.
Wachtel: And in terms of that sense of cooperation, did it feel natural to be with other kids playing?
Sennett: No, not at all.
Wachtel: It’s learned?
Sennett: It’s learned, and that’s what my book on cooperation is really about. A lot of studies want to affirm that people have cooperative capacity; they say it’s innate, it’s in our genes; all you have to do is have good will and all the skills flourish. I think that’s wrong. To me, the difficult kind of cooperation, which is cooperating with people you don’t know, or people you don’t like even, people who are different, that complex kind of cooperation has to be learned. And that’s what I was going to say about music—it’s a beginning point in learning that somebody who plays a different instrument has different needs.
Wachtel: And you have to pay attention.
Sennett: And you have to pay attention to that—that a violin is not a cello, unfortunately. At its most simple level, it is another sound to me. My book is about that problem just blown up and expanded. We are so convinced today that you can only cooperate with people who are like you, that we’ve lost this other dimension—which is the skill of getting along with people who are different, working with them.
Wachtel: I want to get into that shortly, but just going back to growing up in this housing project called Cabrini–Green, it wasn’t as bad as it became, but you’ve also said that there was a kind of racial warfare going on there. How did you experience that?
Sennett: Gosh, I’ll tell you. There wasn’t racial warfare in the school because the nuns were toughies. But what you have to imagine is that ever since the beginning of this Jim Crow legislation, black families were constantly holding in an enormous amount of rage. So during the Second World War, these families that had really been ground into the dirt came up north, and the parents were of course reeling from the fact that people were still lynched. The Ku Klux Klan was a potent force in the 1930s, so they were very worried that their kids were going to run out of control, but in the north . . . by this kind of osmosis, kids picked up the fact that they could let some of this rage out. There was something called the glass wars, in which I was a minor consigliere, in which black and white kids would get across the street from each other in abandoned buildings and sling panes of glass across the street, a pretty dangerous thing to do, and parents were horrified as you can imagine.
Wachtel: And this is along racial lines.
Sennett: Completely. I don’t know how it happens with seven- or eight-year-old kids, but they had understood that up north they could let more of it out. So one of the aspects of cooperation in that community was, here are these poor blacks and poor whites, very different. They have these children who, out of school, are running in packs with one another, and they have to figure out a way to control their kids and keep order in the community. And my mom was pretty deeply involved in that. She was very poor because my father had abandoned her, so she was a single mother and had no money and so on, but she was a university-educated person, and I remember her saying this: “I really learned about how to work with other people not by going to social work school, but by figuring out how to keep people from killing each other in the streets.” And some of that’s in the book. I mean, how you listen to somebody else in a way that’s not overempathic. For instance, if a white person said to a black person, “Oh, poor you, I know exactly what it feels like,” any reasonable black person would say, “You do? How dare you presume . . .” So that sort of white middle-class guilt—“Oh, poor you, you’re such a victim, I know what it feels like”—is very counterproductive.
Wachtel: What’s the alternative to being overempathic? Or what’s a more constructive alternative?
Sennett: The alternative is something that’s a much cooler kind of empathy. Properly speaking, you’re curious about somebody else rather than identifying with them. You communicate to them that you’re interested in what’s up with them rather than that you and they are on the same page. The idea that if we’re very sympathetic and I feel just what you feel and so on, what we’re doing is privileging solidarity, we’re all in this together—that has a big reach in social thought. But the more complex form of cooperation is, well, we can’t all be in this together in the same way, so what is it that we do together despite the fact that, as in the case of these blacks and whites, people don’t really understand each other.
Wachtel: How did your mother do it?
Sennett: You really want to know all this personal stuff! I’ll tell you how she did it. She had a pretty thick Russian accent, and she was very clever, and she made use of that by saying to people, “I’m not quite getting this, you’ll have to excuse me, I’m a foreigner.” Which was credible because of the thick accent. It was a little manipulative, but it made people explain things to her because she was an outsider. And she did that all the way around; she did this with whites who were there. With blacks she genuinely meant it because she’d never been in the South. So everybody was constantly telling her what the score was. Now they had different versions of that, but it was a very good community-organizing tool. And we had a family friend, Saul Alinsky, who became the greatest theorist of community organizing.
Wachtel: There was a National Film Board series called Challenge for Change, it was based on Saul Alinsky’s work.
Wachtel: Back in the 1950s and 1960s.
Sennett: What a character he was. But I think he stole this from my mom. I’m not sure that he could even put on an accent. But you know, in Chicago in the 1950s, this was a grave issue. You had a lot of black women, especially, who’d left the South to go work in these war factories. Then the war factories shut down, and jobs were scarce. The 1950s may in the suburbs have been Ozzie and Harriet and all of that, but the Depression really didn’t end for poor people until the late 1960s. It took a long time.
Wachtel: So the alternative to sympathy and “I know what you’re going through” or—
Sennett: “I feel your pain.”
Wachtel: “I feel your pain.” Famous Clintonesque remark. And pseudo-solidarity, the alternative to that, a better constructive alternative is to listen, is to not presume.
Sennett: Yes, that’s right. I mean, there’s a technical side to what the alternative is. We academics make our living by names, so we call this dialogics, and it’s about ways of speaking to other people who are unlike yourself in a way that you can carry on a conversation or perform a task. If I say to you, “I think X, I’m absolutely convinced of X,” and you say to me, “Really? Well I’m absolutely convinced of Y,” we disagree, we begin to debate. We may be very clear with each other what our own positions are, but we’re not getting much from each other. The reason for that is a linguistic thing, which is the declarative voice: “I believe X.” If you change that to something like, “I would’ve thought . . . ,” or, “Perhaps . . . ,” by introducing a zone of ambiguity in people’s relationships with each other, you create something social. “Could it be the case that . . . ?”
Wachtel: So it could even be not just a sociologically tentacled term, it could just be the linguistic subjunctive term. “If I were to think this, would I be along the right lines in relation to . . . ?”
Sennett: Right, exactly. And one of the things about cooperation is that we imagine that people cooperate well the clearer they are with each other. Not true. That’s why really good scientists insist that the water cooler and the coffee maker are the most important tools in the lab because you’re informally talking, you’re not being assertive, your job isn’t on the line, it’s not a question of your competence, what you believe, what you can prove. You’re just shooting the breeze. It’s very informal, and informality is a big part of dialogics. A thing in which there are no rewards or penalties, using the subjunctive voice, you find out things from other people.
Wachtel: Using the Russian accent.
Sennett: My mother was a genius at this. She had quite a distinguished career, she wrote what’s called Medicaid B in American health law, which was for elderly poor people and gave them some backup. And I noticed whenever she was describing this in public, her accent got much thicker.
Wachtel: How old was she when she came over from Russia?
Wachtel: Oh really? Because usually you lose the accent. I mean, if you come early, it’s more like twelve . . .
Sennett: Well, it depends how cunning you are.
Wachtel: Yes, I understand. And you mentioned that your father left your mother and you when you were an infant?
Sennett: Seven months old.
Wachtel: Seven months old. So you have no siblings?
Sennett: I have some illegitimate siblings, I think. And so do my illegitimate siblings, I think. My father evidently had a very active marital life and extramarital life, but I grew up alone.
Wachtel: And he fought in the Spanish Civil War?
Sennett: Both my mother and my father did. They were Communists and they met there. And they came back, and they separated, and they got back together, and they had me to save the marriage—you know that trope—and adorable as I am it didn’t do the trick.
Wachtel: And he went back to Spain?
Sennett: No, he lived in a trailer in Arizona, did odd jobs, and produced these books of translations of Catalan poetry. I really don’t know much about him.
Wachtel: Did you see him when you were growing up?
Sennett: I never met him. He completely abandoned us. I know all of this because his brother, my uncle, who looked at my father as this ne’er-do-well in the family, made contact with me when I was in university. So I got filtered all this information.
Wachtel: What place did your father have in your imagination?
Sennett: Remarkably little. I had lots of male role models around. My mother had a lot of male friends. She was by that time a public figure. She was in a man’s world.
Wachtel: Public figure as an organizer, as a social worker?
Sennett: Both. So there were lots of men around the house, and it was just naturalized to me. I suppose some Freudian would say, “Nonsense! You were missing him from the day you were one day old.” But I had a good childhood in some ways, an unusual one because I had this musical gift. I was playing concerts when I was thirteen or fourteen.
Actually my first experience of Canada was when I was playing in something called the Bach Aria Group. We toured in a Volkswagen bus, playing Bach cantatas in churches, and we went to Winnipeg when I was sixteen. Our audience was these exhausted men who’d been working these horrible jobs all winter. It was freezing cold, they were sleeping, and we were playing this great music. I didn’t mind it at all, it was like we were helping them to rest, to sleep. Was Winnipeg a mining town?
Wachtel: It was more like a labour . . . a union town.
Sennett: Yeah, it was a union town, that’s why we did this. So my first impression of Canada was of these exhausted guys sort of snoozing through—I can’t remember which cantatas we played. Windswept. I don’t know if that kind of Canada still exists.
Wachtel: Well, the windswept part still exists. How did you and your mother get out of Cabrini–Green?
Sennett: Well, she met Hubert Humphrey, and he got her a job in Minnesota. It was amazing, because by the mid-1950s the McCarthy thing had died down a bit, it wasn’t like it was just after the war, but an ex-Communist could have a rough time. I think the fact that she was a woman oddly meant that somehow it didn’t count.
Wachtel: She was less threatening.
Sennett: Yeah, she wasn’t really a Communist.
Wachtel: And was she really a Communist?
Sennett: She was really a Communist.
Wachtel: And how did she become an ex?
Sennett: 1939, the Hitler-Stalin Pact. For people, not just Jews, but I mean for many people, this was shattering, just shattering, and the fact that Hitler then invaded Russia in 1941 didn’t make up for it. But it’s a whole world unto itself, you know. This extreme left that I grew up in was a minuscule community. It was just a little group of people, most of whom were very conflicted about their Communism and the fact that they had joined this thing. They still felt loyalty to their friends, even though they didn’t feel any loyalty to the party. And they had this double-trauma, the trauma of “the God that failed,” as communism has been called, and then they had McCarthy. It was a very strange group. For instance, I never read Winnie-the-Pooh. I had something called the Little Lenin Library, with stories of Spartacus and slave revolts and so on. We were called red-diaper babies.
Wachtel: And did you continue as a kind of red-inclined person?
Sennett: I guess I took in a lot of this by osmosis, I never thought about being left- wing or not. I had a period when I was middle-aged when I sort of moved to the right—I don’t like identity politics very much—but with the growth of neo-liberal capitalism I’ve moved back to the left, so I don’t know what I am now. I’m certainly against neo-liberalism, and I’m to the left of somebody like Obama. I can’t stand all that kind of progressive, you know, don’t frighten the horses, just be nice, nudge . . .
Wachtel: Well, nudge so ineffectively that nothing much happens.
Sennett: Nothing happens. But as a kid, I took it for granted, this was what I knew. And Minnesota had this Farmer-Labor Party. I don’t know what the equivalent would have been here in Canada.
Wachtel: Probably the CCF.
Sennett: CCF, that would’ve been the same thing. So they had a lot of lefties, real lefties, in it, and Hubert was at ease with them. He was very anti-communist, but like Walter Reuther, who was the head of the CIO, a big auto union, not this knee-jerk anti-communism.
Wachtel: So Hubert Humphrey got your mother a job in Minnesota and you went along, you moved?
Sennett: Well, we went there for five years, and then I went back to Chicago to study with an incredible cellist named Frank Miller, who’s the lead cellist in the Chicago Symphony. I studied with him for a year. I enrolled in the University of Chicago—a terrible mistake, no artist should be in a monastic university like that. Then I went to New York, and I was playing concerts. I began studying conducting because I was preparing for a school that Pierre Monteaux, a conductor who was very elderly at that time but still vigorous, ran in Maine. And then the Vietnam War struck, I was drafted, and what I saw in front of me was a career playing in the 7th Army Symphony. But the draft board rejected me, they thought I was too red. And the reason I became a writer was that I developed something that’s like carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s a strain along your knuckle ridge, basically. Foolishly, I had it operated on, and the operation was a disaster, and that was the end of it. I can play all right, give the odd concert, but—
Wachtel: I have to ask you, how do you feel when everything from the age of six was on some level leading toward this . . .
Sennett: It took a long time, maybe fifty-five years, to recover from it.
Wachtel: Did you consider conducting?
Sennett: Well, I wasn’t as wise at twenty as I should have been. I had a huge overreaction when I couldn’t play anymore. I should have just continued with Maestro Monteaux and gone on to work as a conductor, but I thought, To hell with the whole thing, my life is over, and I’m going to have to start over again.
Wachtel: I ask about conducting because in some way it seems to embody your whole philosophy of cooperation.
Sennett: It does.
Wachtel: That collective activity for a common goal with incremental improvement and paying close attention and different levels of skill.
Sennett: I like that. But in order to be able to do that if you’re a conductor, some other things are really necessary. One of them is a phenomenal memory. If a conductor is reading the score along with his players or her players, it’s all over. I memorized all of Carmenfor a performance, it was a nightmare. The physical act of conducting is not so difficult, but the dance aspect of it and the performing aspect of it require sets of techniques that are actually not about cooperation. So it’s a special form of cooperation, is what I’m saying. But the actual work of rehearsing . . . I mean, basically I think about cooperation as a rehearsal, not a performance.
Wachtel: That’s a very nice metaphor. So in lieu of becoming a conductor, you ended up studying sociology at Harvard.
Sennett: I did, and by accident.
Wachtel: Why there?
Sennett: I’d done a Bach cantata concert with Jennie Riesman, a wonderful singer; her father was David Riesman, and when I had this disaster with my paw, he said, “Well, why don’t you come to Harvard?” I remember him saying, “You’ve had this ridiculously left-wing background, why don’t you come to Harvard and study with me?”
Wachtel: Now Riesman was very big at the time, The Lonely Crowd—
Sennett: That’s right, the first sociological best-seller in the United States. But you couldn’t do what I did today. I had very little preparation, except for the Little Lenin Library. I didn’t know too much about sociology. But then I got interested in it. I mean, cities are interesting, how people work is interesting, how they cooperate is interesting. Academic sociology is a snooze. For me, it was not something I wanted to bother about. So I was working with Riesman, and then I became—I can’t say I was ever her student in a formal way—but I really fell under the influence of Hannah Arendt.
Wachtel: You met her through music . . .
Sennett: She came to one of my concerts, and I actually followed a course of hers, which I think I flunked. I wasn’t close to her in any way in the beginning, but every time I was in New York I would see her. And after the whole Eichmann in Jerusalem thing, we became closer.
Wachtel: When you say you came under her influence, in what way would you say?
Sennett: I had dinner with her, we went to a Chinese restaurant on Eighty-fourth and Broadway, and I’d eat all the food she couldn’t eat. I can remember this restaurant so clearly. For some reason she couldn’t eat eggs. I had a lot of egg fu yung discussing Kant with her. But that’s really where I got interested in issues of public space and public life because she had a view that was very distinctive. It’s put forward in The Human Condition, which is her greatest book, although I don’t think it’s read today, except by specialists. It’s a view that basically public life and public ground has to be between people who don’t know each other or are strangers to each other, and who don’t argue on behalf of their own interests but think more disinterestedly. So in her mind this was, how do you get beyond somebody saying, “Well, as a steelworker, what I believe is X,” or as a steelworker’s boss . . . How do they get beyond that? It’s very counter to the other view about public life of the time, which was Jürgen Habermas’s, which is that essentially people fight their corner, they have their interests, but the more they talk, the more they get outside of themselves. And she thought that was all wrong. And she rehearsed all the arguments about why he was completely wrong. He was young. I mean, he was a graduate student, and she was already on his case. So that’s how I got into this urban thing; I just wondered what this philosophical problem meant on the ground.
Wachtel: You say that our impulse to cooperate is being deformed. What are the signs of that? Why do you think that is?
Sennett: Well, I think it’s happening in several ways. In one way, it’s simply that there are fewer and fewer rewards for effective cooperation. Everybody stresses teamwork, it’s a big buzzword, but I think, particularly in corporations, in high-tech or financial services, you need to watch your back because those people are in competitive situations. We’re not seeing the kind of teamwork where you really feel that you need the other person to do your own job, as soldiers would. It’s much more individualistic, even if there’s a lip service to cooperation. I think another reason for this has to do with cities, that people who are different are living farther and farther apart: the gated community, the campus. People stay in the place they’re familiar with. Because of economic reasons, urban areas are becoming more homogeneous in terms of their class population. In the United States, racial segregation or racial differentiation by neighbourhoods is growing greater rather than lesser than it was in the 1960s, an astounding development. If people are more segregated from each other, the chances of physically interacting and being in the same place at the same time are less. I think there are many reasons for this, and they’re not just North American or European. I’m spending a lot of time in China these days, and Shanghai is a segregated city. I mean, by class. It’s not supposed to happen in a Communist country, is it? But it’s got really, really sharp class divisions.
Wachtel: In terms of where people live?
Sennett: Where they live, how they get to work, what work they do, all that sort of thing. It’s a long story, but anyhow, the argument in my book is that what we’re getting is a social situation in cities and the workplace in which real cooperation is valued less and less. And I think that’s very dangerous.
Wachtel: In terms of cities, certainly on the face of it, cities like New York, Toronto, London, seem very heterogeneous—racially, ethnically, multiculturally, a lot of immigrants . . .
Sennett: I don’t think so. I mean, there’s lots of immigration, there are lots of differences in the city, but it’s like a chemical mixture. In the places where people are, they don’t mix together, they don’t interact very much. And actually, certainly in most European cities, the ethnic ghetto, and now the religious ghetto, is not weakening. So the fact that there are 360 languages spoken in London doesn’t really argue that it’s becoming a more cosmopolitan place. One of the reasons I think people from these different communities shy away from each other is that they need the networks of people they know very locally in order to survive. If you’re a very poor Vietnamese, you’re not going to put yourself in the middle of an Afro-Caribbean community. You’re not going to know anybody there that’s going to be able to help you out. I think there are very strong pressures driving this, and all these statistics about how many different languages and immigrant groups come to cities are very misleading.
Wachtel: Your book Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization considers how culture sees the human body and architecture, and I know that’s a book that goes back almost twenty years, but how does that come into play in terms of . . . ?
Sennett: If you ask me in two years, I’ll tell you, because I’m trying to figure out how to relate that work to a book I’m writing now, which is a book about urban design. When I wrote Flesh and Stone, the idea of it was that the inorganic part of the city, the stone if you like, only acquires its human value by the bodies that are in it: how they move, if they feel sheltered or exposed, whether they’re stimulated, and so on. And what I tried to do in that book is show how different those kinds of sensory reactions to the city were from the time of the ancient Greeks up to the present. You know—the past is a foreign country and all that. And this was very interesting to me as a kind of research exercise to see what kinds of different bodily stimulation people had at different times in the history of Western cities. But the work I’m doing now is more proactive. I suppose this happens to you when you get older. I don’t want to analyze so much what’s wrong, or gather data to say what’s right according to me. So the book I’m writing now is about my views of how a city can be well designed, and certainly bodily stimulation is a big, big part of that.
Wachtel: And are there models, are there cities that you like better than others?
Sennett: Well, I think that the problem is that there are models, but those designs are often made by very resource-poor people because they have to make up their environment, they have to deal with lots of pressures, they have to share with each other what they lack physically, and so on. A lot of bourgeois design for cities is more disengaging, it’s a kind of show: “This is the kind of place, the kind of life you might lead here. But I’m just an architect, what do I know?” It’s designed for somebody else. And that’s something Jane Jacobs and I talked about a lot, which is, Why is it that the communities of poor people are more resilient and more capable of growth than middle-class places in cities?
Wachtel: Are you thinking of anything in particular?
Sennett: Well, I’m thinking, for instance, of what happened to Jane’s part of the West Village, which gentrified, became a tourist site. In the process, community died. You know, the history after she left—maybe it’s because she left—is very much the story of New York becoming more middle class. The other part of the story is of many community problems being shoved away from the people who were actually living in the city, in the neighbourhood, to centralized government. So, the problem is how to get people with more resources less withdrawn, more engaged in making the environments they live in. I’ve got a particular way of thinking about this that I’m trying to work out.
But it was really important for me to write Flesh and Stone. I learned a lot of things, for instance, about the Jewish ghetto in Renaissance Venice. It’s a fascinating story. The Venetian Jews went out in the day and sold pots, or were doctors if they were higher level, but then they were all locked in the ghetto at night. One of the reasons that Venetian Jews didn’t drink very much is that night was the time that was given over for theological and communal things. So Judaism became a religion of the dark, and of night, and of coffee. Venetian Jews were the biggest coffee drinkers in Venice for this reason. And they became great importers of it. Things like that really interest me, how you get a culture built out of physical materials like that.
Wachtel: Since so much of what’s behind the negative picture that you paint of our cities seems to relate to an economic impulse, we have to go back to what’s been referred to as the new capitalism, which has dominated the economy for the last few generations. What has that done to the practice of cooperation and the effects of living in the city?
Sennett: Well, one of the things it’s done is very obvious; it’s evicted more and more not only poor people but now middle-class people from the centre of the city. The whole growth in income inequality, wealth inequality, is reflected urbanistically in who’s buying and where the choice places to live are. But basically, do you know what super-prime real estate is? Super-prime real estate is real estate that is really a kind of trophy and an investment. In New York it starts at about $18 million. In London, it’s about £12 million. And the effect of super-prime has been to raise prices of things that are not super-prime. We’re seeing that, for instance, in London and New York there are very few young people who live in the centre of those cities. They can’t afford it. So you’re getting age segregation. It’s not a good thing. It’s a disaster in terms of where you live when you have your first child, when you need another bedroom, because you’re going to have to move far from someplace nice to able to afford it.
In a more subtle way, I’d say that what globalization has done to global cities is, at the elite level, created a class of people that are in cities but not attached to them. In New York, it used to be that at a certain point in your mobility within the corporation, you were meant to join boards of local hospitals, you were supposed to become a civic burgher, take responsibility for the city, and so on. And my group and I have been able to quantify how that worked exactly, how many boards people were on related to their socio-economic standing, and a little farther down the scale, people’s charitable giving depending on their income. That system has broken down. If you’re working for Deutsche Bank and you’re in Toronto for four years, you don’t become a burgher, you don’t take civic responsibility. And farther down the scale, people’s willingness to donate to local causes diminishes as well because they’re not going to be there for a long time.
Wachtel: Is this what you refer to as the breakdown of work as a narrative?
Sennett: No, that’s something else, that’s about work itself. But I’m just saying, the effect on the city is that you’ve got lots of people who are taking advantage of the city but not giving much back. That’s a big problem. To make a city work, you can’t just elect a mayor—particularly not your mayor—and say, “You run it.” You know, civil society is a real thing, and what we’re seeing is that this new capitalism is eroding civil society, to put it in its most grandiose form.
Wachtel: And new capitalism is, means . . . ?
Sennett: Technically what it means is the kinds of work that are attracting a dominant share of investment are high-tech, global financial services, construction—all these things that are related not to producing a toaster but to creating a different kind of economy. And in the work sphere it means the kinds of jobs that are very short-term, which don’t have a long-term narrative, where people don’t get rewarded for service. If you can get in this new economy, the idea is that you should be changing jobs every four or five years. If you stay with the same employer there’s something wrong with you, you’re not ambitious enough. A long time ago, the organization man had a horribly fixed narrative where he knew that if he played ball and he was a good boy and people liked him, that he’d climb the ladder in very articulate steps. Now what you have is no ladder, which is an opposite and equal evil, because you can’t think strategically, you’re constantly making sideways moves. There’s a real issue about how do you build up your skills. In this craftsman book that I wrote, my guys and I calculated this thing called the “ten-thousand-hour rule.”
Wachtel: Malcolm Gladwell popularized that idea.
Sennett: He stole it. Ha ha. But you need to spend ten thousand hours, put that in, and with most jobs today that’s a luxury. All up and down the job ladder. And because people do so much lateral movement, they can’t grow in this new environment. It’s a big problem in industrial work too, where people do one kind of labour, become craftsmen and get good at it, and then jobs migrate to some other kind of field, from say toasters to solar panels. They’re not transferable skills. As I say, the old way was horrible, and the new way has got its serious problems of a totally different kind, which is how to get a narrative out of work. And for kids, it’s a problem once they find work, if they can find it—how do you think strategically about getting from A to B to C to D. The other thing about this new economy is that in an increasing number of countries, it needs fewer and fewer workers to be very profitable. So, in my view, higher levels of structural unemployment, 15 percent or 18 percent of people out of work, are going to become the norm because you can run a very profitable economy with not very many people at work. So there are a different set of issues that we have to face in the new economy.
Wachtel: But economic disparity has led to a growing class divide, and you would think that might bring people who are more oppressed or disadvantaged together, but . . .
Sennett: It doesn’t. And part of the reason for that is—here’s where culture enters the picture—people think that the old ways of collective organizing are somehow undignified, that people are responsible individually for taking care of themselves. It’s a very Protestant notion, you know. But if you don’t believe in unions, for instance, you’ve tied an arm behind your back, there’s nobody there to help you. I did some interviews a couple of years ago with some low-level people on Wall Street just when the crisis was hitting and they were shedding jobs. These people were telling me this familiar thing about emailing résumés to a thousand companies while knowing nobody was reading them. And the idea that they could do something together about this—for instance, hire a room they could all work in and appear as though they were a company themselves—never occurred to them. This was an individual problem. They were all in the same boat, but the idea that they might do even something that gave the appearance of collective action just wasn’t there. And this is a real problem in the tax sector, which is kind of Ayn Rand gone wild: people are libertarians, want to be left alone, think that individualism is the key to innovation, and so on. It’s a whole cluster of cultural attitudes that have repressed the idea that people need and can rely on, or should rely on, other people.
Wachtel: You were saying earlier that you were at a point in your life when you’re looking for solutions rather than descriptions. When you talk about such high levels of unemployment, particularly for young people, that is one of the most dangerous and demoralizing descriptions.
Sennett: I know. For them I don’t have any answer. I know something about cities, but I think we’re just at the beginning of the game with that. I don’t think something like the Occupy movement is going to be a model, but it’s early days. People who don’t get employment when they’re young, as we know it’s harder and harder to get employed later, and I think we’ll see massive unrest about this.
Wachtel: You think that’s what triggered the Occupy movement?
Sennett: Oh yeah, that was one of the things.
Wachtel: I don’t know how you measure or evaluate, but do you think it’s a success, that it accomplished something?
Sennett: I guess this is my old leftism coming back. If you remember, in 2008 and 2009, nobody was really protesting what was happening. I mean, people were saying, “Isn’t it terrible, these dumb, horrible bankers?” And here, suddenly, this small group of people—they were not mass movements—doing this very strange thing, occupying pieces of land and camping out, suddenly become a media sensation. They were doing something that is no solution to anything—camping out in Zuccotti Park or on the edge of St. Paul’s is not a recipe for putting eight million young people back into employment—but this small odd movement certainly galvanized people’s imaginations. And I think the reason it does is that, it’s a fire . . . I don’t know what the metaphor is . . . it’s a fire just waiting to burst into flames. When I wrote The Corrosion of Character, which was the first book I wrote about this new economy, the thing that struck me was that even the bankers at Davos had a hard time legitimating that it did much social good. They could talk about how rich you could become, but they couldn’t talk about whether it had any social good. This was during the boom. So I think that now we’re going to be in a very febrile period. It’s a non-sustainable situation. I think, personally, something will come out of this, something equivalent to the 1930s, a change in people’s relation to government and to each other.
Wachtel: So, the something may or may not be good.
Sennett: It might be terrible. The 1930s produced Nazism as a solution in Germany to its problems. The 1920s produced . . . well, Italian fascism is something else. But people can take seemingly very drastic cultural solutions to an economic problem, which don’t solve and can create even more problems than they have. But I think it’s wrong to think that we’re in a period of decline. We’re in a period of crisis, which is a very different thing. “We’re going to put our paws up and go to sleep while the Chinese walk all over us or we become their pets,” or something like that. That’s a very simplistic reading of the structural contradictions of capitalism, in my view.
Wachtel: I just want to pick up what you were saying about “we’re not in decline, we’re in crisis.”
Sennett: What it means for me is that we’re in the midst of a set of contradictions for which there’s no solution. For instance, immediately in the offing, we have an economy that can produce ever more profits with ever fewer workers. That’s a structural level of unemployment, that’s a crisis putting an incredible strain on the finance of the state. This is not a steady-state condition for the many. But it’s not like a game in which you say, “Well, you lost. End of game.” That’s unrealistic. So I think we’re in for a period of real unrest. I don’t know what form it will take. It’s not something that I hope for, you know, a revolution—the bastards are thrown out, Davos becomes a sanatorium again. But it’s fantasy to think that when people are suffering this way it’s the end of the story, and that’s usually how it’s presented.
Wachtel: Your latest book, Together, is the middle volume of an intended trilogy, Homo Faber. At the end of this book, there’s a sense of possibility. Where does your faith in our potential to live as a more cooperative society come from?
Sennett: Well, my faith is that we can make cities in which everyday forms of cooperation in civil society are strengthened, and I want to sketch out how I think that could happen, how to make a better city. It’s a very odd thing to be an optimist at the end of your life, but I really believe that’s possible. Whether this can deal with the economic crisis in modern capitalism, I don’t know, but I’ve done a lot, in the course of my post-musical life, of practical planning. I’ve worked on a lot of places. So I want to put that into this book as well. I’m always saying, “This is my last book,” but I think this probably will be.
Visit Richard Sennett’s website for more on his work or to listen to this interview.
Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this fall. She also co-founded and hosts Wachtel on the Arts. This spring, she published a new selection of interviews, The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).