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Richard Sennett in THE CULTURE OF THE NEW CAPITALISM reflects upon the reactionary extirpation over the past three decades of the Western social capitalist state. Starting with a discussion of Bismarckian social capitalism which was founded on the model of the Prussian Army's highly successful bureaucracy and which provided structure and discipline to cultural relations, Sennett ends with a bleak meditation on the values encoded in the New Economy versus the Old. These include the elevation of process over craftsmanship, of "flexibility" over stability, of superficial over deep knowledge, and of centralized power over mediated authority. Along the way, Sennett shares pithy insights into the nature of this revolutionary shift and the cultural and economic dislocations it has caused.
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.