The NS Essay - How work destroys social inclusion

Richard Sennettargues that we need to rediscover the virtues of dependency

A portent of adult life came to me as an adolescent, walking through a Chicago slum neighbourhood with my uncle, a judge of the strictest probity. We passed a voting station where rather forbidding men in poorly pressed suits handed envelopes to the citizens as they entered. I asked my uncle what they were doing. "Bribing voters," he replied, and I expected a homily to follow.

"It's illegal," I said. "Don't the people taking the envelopes feel demeaned?"

"The money is only a few bucks," replied my uncle, "and it makes them part of the community." This was my introduction to the issue of social inclusion.

Social inclusion is not a subject reformers think through well. We tend to focus on exclusion, assuming that if we diminish racial discrimination, class inequality or sexual prejudice, a more cohesive society will inevitably result. But inclusion has its own logic.

Inclusion, be it in a small-scale project or in a nation, requires mutual recognition; people must signal that they are aware of each other as legitimately involved together in a common enterprise. The sociologist Norbert Elias called such mutual recognition a matter of "social honour". This rather grand phrase denotes simply that members of a group feel that they are noticed and heard, that they have what the law calls "standing". I think that contemporary capitalism diminishes social inclusion by denying to individuals, in their work lives, the experience of mattering to others.

Inclusion requires, first, mutual exchange, and those envelopes changing hands at the Chicago voting stations were an example. The ward bosses of 1950s Chicago ruled without challenge, yet still they offered symbolic dollars to each voter. The bribe redeemed raw subjection and the poor citizens, offspring of immigrant families from European villages, expected their rulers to make gestures of recognition and obligation.

Second, social inclusion must involve ritual, which is society's strongest cement, its very chemistry of inclusion. The 19th-century diplomat Charles Talleyrand described how his aunt, a countess, in an elaborate ceremony in her drawing-room, would dole out medicines from her herb gardens to the servants and peasants on her estate. Few were cured by these potions, but that wasn't the point. The formal room, the words of encouragement, the directions the countess wrote with her own hand on each bottle - such seemingly trivial details of the ritual established a mutual bond.

Third, inclusion requires witnesses to one's behaviour. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur puts it: "Because someone is counting on me, I am accountable for my action before another." In other words, because someone else depends on you, he or she has a right to judge you. We usually think that judges are superior to those whom they judge; Ricoeur wants to reverse these roles.

In the modern work world, all these requirements for social inclusion are disappearing. We see, less and less, those kinds of mutual, symbolic exchanges which signal that employees are noticed and heard by the corporations for which they work; the fraternal rituals that bind worker to worker are diminishing; employers dismiss the idea that they are accountable to those who depend upon them. Yet our society professes to believe in inclusion in ways that would have been unrecognisable to Talleyrand's aunt, living under the ancien regime. We believe in universal human rights that proclaim all human beings to have an equal and inherent dignity; we intend that every citizen recognise the worth of those with contrary opinions or differing needs and interests.

Social inclusion at work has become weak because we are living through a great revolution. The giant multinational firms that ruled the mid-century became comparable, as Max Weber had predicted, to armies. Their operations were based on pyramids of power; people occupied stable and defined positions in the corporate hierarchy; orders were passed down intact from top to bottom.

Today, businesses thick with such bureaucratic layers are thought too sluggish to respond to changing market conditions. Modern managers want networks instead of pyramids. Production and profit targets are set at the top; the workers in semi-autonomous teams and cells are left to decide how to meet these commands. Such organisations can be constantly "re-engineered" in management-speak, as market conditions change, with large numbers of workers shed or added short-term. Before 1993, for example, IBM operated according to the Weberian model. Now, after a cataclysmic corporate makeover, its engineers and programmers come and go as the computer giant's operations rotate as in a kaleidoscope. Once, finance capital preferred the stable firms; now, even if the stable firms are more profitable, it tends to gravitate to those corporations willing to re-engineer or reinvent themselves (Internet companies, say) because they promise something new. And the model of work is the single entrepreneurial transaction, rather than sustained business relationships.

In the past decade, however, it has become all too evident that chameleon businesses have enormous problems in arousing commitment and loyalty among their employees. How could you reasonably feel loyal to an organisation that makes no binding commitments to you? A recent study of one flexible business, for instance, found that only 6 per cent of its employees thought their bosses would fight to protect their jobs. This loss of social cohesion at work is widely proclaimed as a virtue: labour is seen as purely contractual, freed of any paternalistic taint. Friedrich Hayek long ago argued that we should look elsewhere for social cohesion, in families or local communities. Since work occupies such a large proportion of our time, these views amount to the claim that the social contract, particularly those exchanges that create mutual obligation between the strong and the weak, will and should occupy only a small corner of human consciousness.

So my requirements for social inclusion are declining. Take ritual. In one large credit-card company, I watched a group of file clerks "cover" for a fellow worker who was in the throes of divorce; the clerks lied to different supervisors to explain why she was not at her desk. They developed an almost balletic rhythm about who would answer the young woman's phone while she cried in the lavatory, and what each would say. This deception could only be successful in a company where the clerks had known each supervisor long enough to understand what he would find a credible absence; they also needed to know each other long enough to care to make the effort, one dangerous for their own jobs.

It is just this "ingrown" character of labour that flexible companies oriented to the short term wish to erode. When I first began studying industrial labour 30 years ago, I found rituals of resistance like the one I've described rife in manufacturing plants; they bound workers together, not only against employers but also against those union bosses who frequently failed to protect ordinary employees. Today these rituals seem much less in evidence.

The political economy that rules us tries to put another value in place of social inclusion: autonomy. We should not reject this replacement out of hand. Autonomy is a fundamental modern value; someone in control of himself or herself commands respect.

But consider again the scene I witnessed in Chicago. Urban reformers have attacked it and its countless kin by invoking the virtue of autonomy. In America, the Progressive movement early in this century aimed to purge American cities of such feudal habits; the Progressives hoped for citizens who would practise independent judgement rather than blind fealty. Today, in taking aim at the supposed corruptions of the welfare state, an unabashed moderniser such as Tony Blair aims for more self-reliant citizens. Neither American Progressives nor European adherents of the Third Way are apostles of selfishness; the politics of autonomy arise instead from a horror of dependency. Dependency seems demeaning, a source of social dishonour.

Yet dependency does not disappear in flexible companies; in some ways it becomes more naked and absolute. The current revolution is centralising power in an elite technical-managerial class. Information technology allows this elite to transmit orders quickly and comprehensively, with less mediation and mid-rank interpretation than occurred in old-style pyramidal bureaucracies. Reckoning of results is also instant, thanks to computerisation.

So the inner core sets production or profit targets, gives orders for the reorganisation of particular activities, then leaves the isolated cells or teams to meet these directives as best they can. Those outside the elite corps are told what to achieve but not how to achieve it. For example, low-level programmers at Microsoft were suddenly told in 1995 to "think Internet" without much indication of what thinking Internet might practically entail. If they had asked for answers from above, it would have been taken as a shameful sign of dependency. But the point is that those who issue commands are protected from bearing responsibility for the consequences; in the sports metaphor that dominates current management ideology, the boss becomes a team-leader who simply coaches others to perform. As players, they are on their own.

Quite reasonably many of the mid-level employees I interviewed tended to view their superiors as frauds, since the bosses issued orders without any idea of how to make them operational. This can occur, of course, in armies, old-fashioned firms or in politics. What's distinctive about flexibility is that the person in power does not witness what he commands; he refuses the accountability that Ricoeur describes. And if challenged, he does not refuse outright, by replying "just do what I say!" or "don't ask questions!"; he simply says: "Now you are on your own." This is a more sophisticated form of evasion that deflects employees from focusing on the legitimacy of the commands; instead, they are forced to dwell upon their own need to act autonomously.

What has most struck me as an observer of modern work organisations is that the failures, betrayals and inadequacies people experience in their dealings with one another serve as reasons for mutual withdrawal rather than for coming together. There is a kind of negative magnetic charge. You see it in lapses of fraternity, as when dismissed employees are shunned by their former colleagues as though the downsized are diseased, or likely to make unanswerable appeals for pity. You see it in the disposition to view the management elite as consciously bent upon harm, rather than caught by the demands of investors who want a short-term rise in stock prices at the expense of a well-run company generating long-term profits.

Consider again the scene with which I began. My uncle was puritanical to a fault in his own affairs. But he accepted limits and impurity in the conduct of others as inherent in the symbolic exchanges that had created a sense of community in the Chicago slum. Modern workplaces have no interest in community of this sort. As Japanese and West German productivity figures make clear, strong work communities can return good economic results, but by profit criteria that are divorced from the standards of current entrepreneurial investment. All communal activity is an impure mixture of different strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices; because flexible workplaces are not viable communities, they are not forgiving.

The flexible business differs from Weber's military model: when officers who issue commands then remain on the field of battle to carry them out, they earn the intense respect of their fighting troops. The trend in modern management is to command and then to depart; it sacrifices authority and leadership to protect itself. But that does not matter to flexible businesses that place little value on collective survival for the long term.

Both authority and fraternity wither when the onus of survival shifts to individuals. Thus work increasingly distorts the realities of mutual need that bind people together. A lover who declares "Don't worry, I can take care of myself, I will never be a burden on you" will soon be shown the door. Why should you care about someone who feels no need of you? A child who fears depending on his or her parents is a damaged human being. Drawing a line around friendship so as to exclude those who are sick or old impoverishes the value of friendship itself. Yet in the current political economy, dependence is considered degrading, even to the extent that welfare state bureaucracies - health services, schools, unemployment agencies, old-age homes - are being challenged to operate more like flexible businesses, focusing on the short term, making no guarantees, weaning people from dependency.

The horror of dependence has negative consequences in work. It puts the burden of making practical sense of flexible organisations on those who are at the receiving end of power. If we deny people the right to depend on others, we diminish their capacity to hold others accountable. In a flexible institution, the horror of dependence helps legitimate the divorce of power from authority.

In conclusion, I return to Norbert Elias's observation that social cohesion depends on what he calls "social honour". Social cohesion is diminishing in the workplace largely because the social honour that attaches to being an employee is diminishing. Honourable work is now symbolised by the entrepreneur rather than the employee. Yet far fewer people work as entrepreneurs than as employees, and most entrepreneurial efforts fail - in the United States, home of the self-made man, over 90 per cent of new small businesses go bankrupt within three years. Most of us are destined to be employees, which means we will need to depend on organisations and, within them, upon people with more power. This reality is fundamentally out of joint with the culture of social honour that pervades modern capitalism. And it is for this reason that I believe the fundamental task of social reform today lies in re-establishing the dignity of men and women as workers.

Richard Sennett is professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. This article is based on a lecture at the University of East London, given in honour of the late Raphael Samuel