Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation

Johann Eckermann, friend and amanuensis to Goethe, once confessed to the poet that he carried into society "a certain need of loving and being beloved". "This natural tendency of yours is indeed not of a social kind," replied Goethe majestically. "It is a great folly to hope that other men will harmonise with us; I have never hoped this. I have always regarded each man as an independent individual, whom I endeavoured to study and to understand in all his peculiarities, but from whom I desired no further sympathy."

Richard Sennett's Together is an extended meditation on the two types of human fellowship represented by Eckermann and Goethe. On the one side is "solidarity", the quest for total harmony of minds and wills. On the other is "civility", the art of getting along with people different from or hostile to ourselves. Sennett, like Goethe, is mistrustful of solidarity, seeing it as sentimental and coercive. His preference is for civility, the skilled management of difference. Yet civility has atrophied over the past 30 years, forcing people back into the tribalism of solidarity. What has gone wrong?

The villain of Sennett's story is the turbo-capitalism of recent decades that has both fuelled inequality and destroyed workplace trust. His chief evidence comes from a survey of back-office Wall Street workers - accountants, auditors and programmers - made redundant in the crash of 2008. These were men and women contemptuous of the reckless gambling of their bosses yet unable or unwilling to restrain it, so demoralised were they
by the system of temporary contracts and discretionary bonuses.

Sennett draws an unfavourable comparison with the gentlemanly Wall Street of old - a strange disclosure from one "unshakably on the left". He even reveals a certain nostalgia for the assembly line, which for all its monotony at least helped foster trust between workers. Together bears out the late Tony Judt's observation that the left is now in essence a conservative movement, intent on preserving the gains of the past rather than building a better future.

Sennett offers two remedies for the crisis of sociability, neither of them wholly persuasive. The first appeals to the old diplomatic art of mediating conflict through indirection, tact and what the Italian humanist Baldassare Castig­lione called sprezzatura - nonchalance or lightness of touch. Sennett sees such skills on display today in, for instance, the negotiations between Korean grocers in New York and their Latino employees. What conclusion are we supposed to draw from this, however, apart from the platitude that getting along together is hard work? Surely Sennett is not proposing courses in Renaissance diplomacy as a way to improve industrial relations in the US. But then, what is he proposing, exactly?

Hardly more plausible is Sennett's second remedy for the crisis of sociability, which draws inspiration from the old atelier or workshop. Sennett notes that many craft skills have analogues in the social sphere: just as a skilled luthier will cut round rather than through a knot in a block of wood, so a skilled negotiator will circumvent rather than crush resistance. Again, it's unclear what we are supposed to take away from this comparison, other than a pretty metaphor. Is Sennett seriously saying that dexterity in a craft makes one more skilled socially? The figures of the nerd and the absent-minded scientist suggest otherwise. In any case, the craft workshop is a peculiarly archaic place to seek solutions to the dilemmas of the modern west.

The failure of both Sennett's suggestions is basically one of scope. Confronted with a political problem, he offers only a personal solution - what George Orwell, in an essay on Dickens, scoffingly called a "change of heart". Some of Sennett's recommendations come perilously close to the clichés of self-help. For instance, his response to the problem of persisting mass unemployment is to advise redundant workers to display more sprezzatura in job interviews. Return to full employment is dismissed as fantasy. This pessimism is unwarranted. The total amount of socially necessary labour may be in long-term decline but there is no reason why such work as remains shouldn't be parcelled out more equitably, through job-sharing or some other arrangement. A political problem requires a political solution, not exhortations to "lighten up".

Together is a rich work, interweaving history, social science and personal reminiscence. Yet the overall effect is one of genial discursiveness, not dialectic clarity. Too many voices compete for our attention; the line of argument runs thin. At times, one feels as if one is listening in on one of those long, rambling committee meetings that Sennett fondly recalls from his radical youth in Chicago. One longs for the chairman to call a halt but he never does.

Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation
Richard Sennett
Allen Lane, 336pp, £25

Edward Skidelsky's next book, "How Much is Enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life", written with Robert Skidelsky, will be published by Allen Lane in June

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?