The New Statesman Essay - Cities without care or connection

New capitalism is destroying the richness of urban life, argues Richard Sennett

Cities can be badly run, crime-infested, dirty and decaying. Yet many people think it worth living even in the worst of them. Why? Because, I would suggest, they have the potential to make us more complex human beings.

A city is a place where people can learn to live with strangers, to enter into the experiences and interests of unfamiliar lives. Sameness stultifies the mind; diversity stimulates and expands it. The city can thus allow people to develop a richer, more complex sense of themselves. They are not just bankers or road-sweepers, Asians or Anglo-Saxons, speakers of English or of Spanish, bourgeois or proletarian: they can be some or all of these things, and more. They are not subject to a fixed, classificatory scheme of identity. People can develop multiple images of their identities, knowing that who they are shifts depending upon whom they are with.

This is the power of strangeness - the freedom from arbitrary definition and identification. When the writer Willa Cather finally arrived in New York's Greenwich Village in 1906, she, who had been haunted in small-town America by the fear that her lesbianism would be discovered, wrote to a friend: "At last, in this indecipherable place, I can breathe." In public, the urbanite may don an impassive mask, act cool and indifferent to others on the street; in private, however, he or she is aroused by these strange contacts, his or her certainties shaken by the presence of others.

These virtues are not inevitable in the city. One of the big issues in urban life is how to make the complexities that a city contains actually interact - so that people become cosmopolitans rather than simply city-dwellers - and how to turn the crowded streets into places of self-knowledge rather than places of fear. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has referred to "the neighbourliness of strangers", and the phrase aptly captures the aspiration we ought to have in designing cities.

My argument is that a great change in capitalism has transformed the context of urban cultural values, that city designers and planners are faced with quite new challenges.

Capitalism has been changed not only by globalisation, but also by a transformation in production which allows people today to work more flexibly, less rigidly.

The 19th-century German sociologist Max Weber compared modern business organisations to military organisations. Both worked on the principle of a pyramid, with the general or boss at the apex and the soldiers or workers at the base. The division of labour minimised duplication and gave each group of workers at the base a distinct function. Thus, the corporation executive at the apex could determine how the assembly line or back office functioned, just as the general could strategically command platoons far from his command post. And, as the division of labour progressed, the need for different kinds of workers expanded far more rapidly than the need for more bosses.

In industrial production, Weber's pyramid became embodied in Fordism, a kind of military micro-management of a worker's time and effort which a few experts could dictate from the top. It was graphically illustrated by the General Motors' Willow Run auto plant in America, a mile-long, quarter-mile-wide edifice in which raw iron and glass entered at one end and a finished car exited at the other. Only a strict, controlling work regime could co-ordinate production on this giant scale. In the white-collar world, the strict controls of corporations such as IBM in the 1960s mirrored this industrial process.

A generation ago, businesses began to revolt against the Weberian triangle. They sought to "delayer" organisations, to remove levels of bureaucracy (using new information technologies in place of bureaucrats) and to destroy the practice of fixed-function work, substituting instead teams that work short-term on specific tasks. In this new business strategy, teams compete against one another, trying to respond as effectively and as quickly as possible to goals set by the top. Instead of each person doing his or her own particular bit in a defined chain of command, you have duplication of function: many different teams compete to do the same task fastest, best. The corporation can thus respond more quickly to changing market demands.

The apologists for the new world of work claim it is also more democratic than the old military-style organisation. But that is not so. The Weberian triangle has been replaced by a circle with a dot in the centre. At the centre, a small number of managers makes decisions, sets tasks, judges results; the information revolution has given it more instantaneous control over the corporation's workings than in the old system, where orders often modulated and evolved as they passed down the chain of command. The teams working on the periphery of the circle are left free to respond to output targets set by the centre, free to devise means of executing tasks in competition with one another, but no more free than they ever were to decide what those tasks are.

In the Weberian pyramid of bureaucracy, rewards came for doing one's job as best one could. In the dotted circle, rewards come to teams winning over other teams. The economist Robert Frank calls it the winner-take-all organisation; sheer effort no longer produces reward. This bureaucratic reformulation, Frank argues, contributes to the great inequalities of pay and perks in flexible organisations.

The mantra of the flexible workplace is "no long term". Career paths have been replaced by jobs that consist of specific and limited tasks; when the task ends, often the job is over. In the hi-tech sector in Silicon Valley, the average length of employment is now about eight months. People constantly change their working associates - modern management theory argues that the "shelf life" of a team ought to be a year at most.

This pattern does not dominate the workplace at present. Rather, it represents a leading edge of change, an aspiration of what businesses ought to become: no one is going to start a new organisation based on the principle of permanent jobs.

The flexible organisation does not promote loyalty or fraternity any more than it promotes democracy. It is hard to feel committed to a corporation that has no defined character, hard to act loyally to an institution that shows no loyalties to you. Business leaders are now finding that lack of commitment translates into poor productivity and an unwillingness to keep a corporation's secrets.

The lack of fraternity bred by "no long term" is rather more subtle. Task-work puts people under enormous stress; on losing teams, recrimination tends to mark the final stages of working together. Again, trust of an informal sort takes time to develop; you have to get to know people. And the experience of being only temporarily in an organisation prompts people to keep loose, not to get involved, since you are going to exit soon. Practically, this lack of mutual engagement is one of the reasons why it is so hard for labour unions to organise workers in flexible businesses or industries such as Silicon Valley; the sense of fraternity as a shared fate, a durable set of common interests, has been weakened. Socially, the short-term regime produces a paradox: people work intensely, under great pressure, but their relations to others remain curiously superficial. This is not a world in which getting deeply involved with other people makes much sense in the long run.

My argument is that flexible capitalism has precisely the same effects on the city as it does on the workplace itself. Just as flexible production produces more superficial, short-term relations at work, this capitalism creates a regime of superficial and disengaged relations in the city.

It appears in three forms. The most self-evident is physical attachment to the city. Rates of geographic mobility are very high for flexible workers. Temps are the single fastest-growing sector of the labour market. Temporary nurses, for example, are eight times more likely to move house in a two-year period than are single-employer nurses.

In the higher reaches of the economy, executives in the past frequently moved as much as in the present, but the movements were different in kind; they remained within the groove of a company, and the company defined their "place", the turf of their lives, no matter where they were on the map. It is just that thread which the new workplace breaks. Some specialists in urban studies have argued that, for this elite, style of life in the city matters more than their jobs, with certain zones - gentrified, filled with sleek restaurants and specialised services - replacing the corporation as an anchor.

The second expression of the new capitalism is the standardisation of the environment. A few years ago, I took the head of a large, new-economy corporation on a tour of New York's Chanin Building, an art-deco palace with elaborate offices and splendid public spaces. "It would never suit us," the executive remarked. "People might become too attached to their offices, they might think they belong here."

The flexible office is not meant to be a place where you nestle in. The office architecture of flexible firms requires a physical environment that can be quickly reconfigured - at the extreme, the "office" becomes just a computer terminal. The neutrality of new buildings also results from their global currency as investment units; for someone in Manila easily to buy or sell a hundred thousand square feet of office space in London, the space itself needs the uniformity, the transparency, of money. This is why the style elements of new-economy buildings become what the critic Ada Louise Huxtable calls "skin architecture", the surface of the building dolled-up with design, its innards ever-more neutral, standard and capable of instant refiguration.

Alongside "skin architecture", we have the standardisation of public consumption - a global network of shops selling the same commodities in the same kinds of spaces whether they are located in Manila, Mexico City or London. It is hard to become attached to a particular Gap or Banana Republic; standardisation begets indifference. Put another way: the problem of institutional loyalties in the workplace, now beginning to sober up managers once blindly enthusiastic about endless corporate re-engineering, finds its parallel in the urban public realm of consumption; attachment and engagement with specific places is dispelled under the aegis of this new regime. Cities cease to offer the strange, the unexpected or the arousing. Equally, the accumulation of shared history, and so of collective memory, diminishes in these neutral public spaces. Standardised consumption attacks local meanings in the same way that the new workplace attacks ingrown, shared histories among workers.

The third expression of the new capitalism is less visible to the eye. High-pressure, flexible work profoundly disorients family life. The familiar press images - neglected children, adult stress, geographic uprooting - do not quite get at the heart of this disorientation. It is rather that the codes of conduct which rule the modern work world would shatter families if taken home from the office: don't commit, don't get involved, think short-term. The assertion of "family values" by the public and by politicians has a more than right-wing resonance; it is a reaction, often inchoate but strongly felt, to the threats to family solidarity in the new economy. Christopher Lasch's image of the family as a "haven in a heartless world" takes on a particular urgency when work becomes at once more unpredictable and more demanding of adult time. One result of this conflict, by now well documented on middle-aged employees, is that adults withdraw from civic participation in the struggle to solidify and organise family life; the civic becomes yet another demand on time and energies in short supply at home.

And that brings me to one of the effects of globalisation on cities. The new global elite, operating in cities such as New York, London and Chicago, avoids the urban political realm. It wants to operate in the city, but not rule it; it composes a regime of power without responsibility.

In Chicago in 1925, for example, political and economic power were co-extensive. Presidents of the city's top 80 corporations sat on 142 hospital boards, and accounted for 70 per cent of the trustees of colleges and universities. Tax revenues from 18 national corporations in Chicago formed 23 per cent of the city's municipal budget. By contrast, in New York today, few chief executives of global firms are trustees of its educational institutions and none sits on the boards of its hospitals. Footloose multinational companies, such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, manage largely to avoid paying taxes, local or national.

The reason for this change is that the global economy is not rooted in the city in the sense of depending on control of the city as a whole. It is instead an island economy - literally so within the island of Manhattan in New York; architecturally so in places such as Canary Wharf in London, which resemble the imperial compounds of an earlier era. As John Mollenkopf and Manuel Castells have shown, this global wealth does not trickle down or leach out very far beyond the global enclave. Indeed, the politics of the global enclave cultivates a kind of indifference to the city, which Marcel Proust, in an entirely different context, calls the "passive beloved" phenomenon. Threatening to leave, go anywhere in the world, the global firm is given enormous tax breaks to stay, a profitable seduction made possible by the firm appearing indifferent to the places where it touches down.

In other words, globalisation poses a problem of citizenship in cities as well as nations. Cities can't tap into the wealth of these corporations, and the corporations take little responsibility for their own presence in the city. The threat of absence, of leaving, makes possible this avoidance of responsibility; we lack, correspondingly, the political mechanisms to make unstable, flexible institutions contribute fairly for the privileges they enjoy in the city.

For all these reasons, cities face three new dilemmas: a dilemma of citizenship; of arousal in the public realm, since impermanence and standardisation leave people indifferent to public places; and the dilemma of sheer, durable attachment to the city.

Production has been set free, reflected in cities of globally mobile corporations and flexible workers - a dynamic capitalism bent on erasing routine. Yet this restless economy produces political disengagements, a standardisation of the physical realm, new pressures to withdraw into the private sphere.

These dilemmas in turn mark the "civil society" of the city. Urban civil society is now in a condition of mutual accommodation, achieved through mutual dissociation. That means the truce of letting one another alone, the peace of mutual indifference. This is one reason why, on the positive side, the modern city is like an accordion, easily able to expand to accommodate new waves of migrants; the pockets of difference are sealed. On the negative side, mutual accommodation through dissociation spells the end of citizenship practices that require understanding of divergent interests, as well as marking a loss of simple human curiosity about other people.

At the same time, the flexibility of the modern workplace creates a sense of incompleteness. Flexible time is serial - you do one project, then another unrelated one - rather than cumulative. But there is no sense that, because something is missing in your life, you should turn outward to others, toward the "neighbourliness of strangers".

That suggests something about the art of making better cities today. We need to overlay different activities in the same space, as family activity once overlay working space. The incompleteness of capitalist time returns us to the issue that marked the very emergence of the industrial city, a city that broke apart the domus - that spatial relation which had, before the coming of industrial capitalism, combined family, work, ceremonial public spaces and more informal social spaces. Today, we need to repair the collectivity of space to combat the serial time of modern labour.

The writer is professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, and the author of The Corrosion of Character: the personal consequences of work in the new capitalism (Norton, £14.95). This article is based on his inaugural lecture, given earlier this year