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The Culture of the New Capitalism

February 1, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about work recently. Not in a way that would give my employer any particular pleasure but in that sort of critical, self-reflexive manner that line managers and bosses view with suspicion.

This all started with a t-shirt given to me some time ago by an Anarchist friend, that depicts two buff-looking blokes wrestling each other. The first says, ‘Revolt must be organised by the Left in order to succeed.’ The second replies, ‘Ha! The Left always works against revolt because it never revolts against work.’ I’ve been intrigued by it for a while now. At first it didn’t make any sense to me, being, as I am, steeped in a tradition of socialism that espouses dignity in labour. But as the tasks I am charged with in work become stupider and more inane; as my knowledge and expertise becomes redundant, replaced by flexibility and transferable skills; and as I find that I increasingly hold my superiors in contempt, I am happy to entertain the notion that work is shit.

In his book The Culture of the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett grapples with what he describes as the ‘triumph of superficiality’ in work. Sennett’s argument is that the fragmenting of the old bureaucracies and rigid working structures, desired by the New Left, has not set people free but given rise to anxiety and despair.

Sennett describes the new capitalism as being built on a short-termism that insists on flexibility and the migration of workers from task to task, job to job. Therefore there is no need for people to be good at anything in particular, no need then for the sort of dedicated and sustained attention to a job that allows an employee to accrue knowledge, expertise and skills in a particular area. Employers are more interested in a worker’s potential, since any skills or talents they currently possess are assumed to have a short shelf-life in the fast moving, modern economy. So, workers have to let go of their past experience and adopt the personality of the consumer, ever eager for the latest thing, discarding older perfectly serviceable goods. Since, as Sennett points out, most people need a sustaining life narrative; take pride in being good at something specific; and value the experiences they accrue, the new capitalism is a source of misery for many people.

There seems to be more than a smidgen of Marx’s alienated worker in Sennett’s conception of the contemporary employee. Marx thought of alienation as the estrangement of people from the creative activity of their labour. And although he would later refine his thinking on this (finding it hard to conceive of a human essence or nature from which people feel estranged), alienation, I suspect, continues to encapsulate a feeling that many experience in work today. In some ways I don’t know that there is much new in what Sennett is saying, except that the alienation that was once consider the preserve of the old proletariat is now being experienced by workers in the ‘knowledge economy‘ and public sector.

But things have changed. The culture of the new capitalism, according to Sennett, is the consequence of a number of shifts. The first is a move from managerial to shareholder power in large companies, where empowered investors demand short term results rather than looking to the long term. Sennett acknowledges that while there is nothing new about the desirability of making a quick buck, the combined effect of unleashed capital and the pressure for short term returns has transformed institutions. The new regime views stability and routine as a sign of weakness in an economic environment that now prefers the language of innovation, new opportunities and enterprise.

The final challenge to the old ways of working are the development of new information technologies, which Sennett sees as having changed the style and substance of management. With email, for instance, directives can now be communicated from the top of organisations to all staff without the need for mediating and interpretative layers of bureaucracy. Having delivered the orders, bosses expected them to be acted on immediately and see the results almost as quickly. This doesn’t yield better results, just a hastier decision-making process which can bring the opposite.

On the whole Sennett argues, there are three deficits that follow on from the structural changes in work – low institutional loyalty, the loss of informal channels of trust among employees and the weakening of institutional knowledge. Arguably there are other consequences to the culture of the new capitalism. For instance can we say that it has been economically successful? The current state of the world economy would suggest not. Sennett made clear his reservations about the hyperbolic economic claims being made for the new capitalism, in one instance comparing the relatively stable and successful societies of Norway and Sweden to Anglo-Saxon capitalism, asserting: ‘Despite a tendency to gloomy introspection, the northern European rim managed to combine relative stability with growth and has preserved  a more equitable distribution of wealth  and a generally higher standard of quality of life than America and Britain.’

If the economic benefits are questionable, there may be attractions that are more political. Certainly the casualisation of labour makes the political organisation of workers in the work place difficult. And if you can establish a labour process that doesn’t rely on the accrued expertise and knowledge of the work force, then there is less chance that the withdrawal of that labour during a strike will have catastrophic consequences for production.

Coincidently, today (1 February) is the most popular day for ‘throwing a sickie‘ from work, according to research.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 3, 2010 5:30 pm

    Nice summary of a book I’ve still to read.

    I think this business of whether the new style of management – delayered, target orientated, ‘all about results’ and all the rest of the euphemisms – actually works is absolutely key.

    Because I really, really want to believe that it doesn’t. If so, a whole world of political possibilities open up, where one might argue for a rebalancing of work and life and still claim that everyone’s a winner. A new sort of social democracy hovers on the horizon, just out of reach and just out of focus, as I contemplate this possibility.

    But I have a nightmare as well: that it does ‘work’, or at least ‘works’ often enough and well enough to be extremely hard to resist. I mean, you do get stuff like this Nuffield Trust http://tinyurl.com/ybvlufh appearing every now and then. The reports looks at the way Health Services is run in the four home nations, of whom only England has adopted a ‘target culture’, against the actual outputs:

    “The analysis confirmed that, historically, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had higher levels of funding per capita for NHS care than England. The research suggests the NHS in England spends less on healthcare and has fewer doctors, nurses and managers per head of population than the health services in the devolved countries, but that it is making better use of the resources it has in terms of delivering higher levels of activity, crude productivity of its staff, and lower waiting times. ”

    Now, up to a point, I’m as happy to mutter about Kuhnian paradigms and how ‘difficult evidence’ gets ignored in any field as the next bug eyed lefty. & very comforting that is as well. But all in all, I do like to stay on terms of nodding acquaintance with empirical evidence as well*. So this sort of thing disturbs me. “What works?” is not a stupid question. It just has to be taken alongside the question you imply: “works for who exactly? ”

    *Or in other words, someone told me this joke in the week and made me laugh and feel guilty at at the same time:

    Q. How many critical theorists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A. I find it symptomatic of a lacunae in your thinking that your choose to privilege the crude quantitative analysis over the logically prior ontological enquiry…

    • Rabelais permalink*
      February 3, 2010 8:00 pm

      Hi Charlie,
      The ‘does it work question’ is, as you say uncomfortable and key. A couple of things strike me. First of all, part of the job of many people working in the public sector these days is producing the statistics, evidence and reports that verify that the regime indeed works. For instance, have you ever filled in some sort of auditing report and had it returned to you by an administrator with comments to the effect that you might want to revisit your ‘negative’ comments in section 2b and 6c before resubmitting the said report. Also, how many of us work in positions were we have a vested interest in recording how things just keep getting better or that there has been no drop in standards etc? Many of us wouldn’t dare report bad news our to superiors ?

      One of the things that I find fascinating at the moment is how institutionalised bullying and harassment of employees, has become; in effect the use of fear to control in work. Although the ‘official’ institutional discourse may be all about ‘collegiality’ and ‘team work’ as the best way to get results, I get the feeling that some organisations have come to the conclusion that you can achieve the same results by putting the fear of god into your workers. After all, Machiavelli, the master of real-politik, tells us that it is good to be loved but better to be feared.

      Frightened people will do what you tell them and probably be a lot less trouble and than a work force that feels it should have some sort of role in the executive decision making process.

  2. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 3, 2010 7:51 pm

    P.S. & I was off work sick on national throw a sickie day.

    Trouble is I’m bloody out sourced and self employed these days…

  3. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 4, 2010 8:12 pm

    Yup, there is institutionalised data collection and institutionalised bullying. More subtly, there is the whole ‘accountability’ agenda used in the professions. Now, of course, ‘accountability’ as an idea has a entirely respectable left-liberal pedigree. Yet in today’s world it is consistently used to undermine the autonomy of professional employees that formerly accrued to them through a long apprenticeship (a doctorate in the case of academics) which was presumed to give them a mastery of their subject. This is, of course, yet another example of how the Left’s language of a generation ago has been turned against it. But….

    I struggle to believe that all data on performance is twisted. I struggle to believe that all workplaces are run by simple ‘bullying’. It wasn’t that way even in Breznehev’s Soviet Union, and, my god, they had enough dodgy stats and performance indicators to deal with….

    Naw, my uncomfortable question remains uncomfortable.

  4. drake permalink
    December 11, 2010 1:58 pm

    i was looking for a copy of that cartoon about “the left always revolts against work” and found your blog. can you take a picture of your shirt and send it to me?

  5. Rabelais permalink*
    December 11, 2010 3:41 pm

    Hi Drake,
    Alas, I don’t have the t-shirt any longer. I wanted to include a picture of the cartoon in this post but couldn’t find anything online. If you ever come across it let me know.

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