The Culture of the New Capitalism
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.