Book review: Together - Richard Sennett

Aug 25

In this stimulating book Richard Sennett investigates how people who have conflicting interests, are unequal or don’t understand each other might engage in `difficult’, constructive cooperation. Sennett’s view is that cooperation rests on a set of skills - he refers to them as `dialogic skills’ - that can be learned and have to be sustained. Our contemporary society has been weakening those skills in distinctive ways. Increasing economic inequalities translate in everyday experiences of elites becoming ever more remote from the masses. This engenders an `us-against-them’ thinking that stands in the way of cooperative behavior. The contemporary workplace - with its siloed structures, short-term commitments and lack of accountability - has progressively dissolved the `social triangle’ (earned authority, mutual respect, cooperation during crisis) that infuse the work experience with an essential civility.

The notion of civility is pivotal in Sennett’s argument. He traces its origins back to a sea-change in sociable behaviour in 16th century Europe, away from the chivalric values that were tightly woven into the fabric of aristocratic life to a set of civilized codes that were rooted in skilled, professional conduct. Early Reformation diplomacy and the replacement of guild hierarchy by a flatter, more flexible workshop structure are key developments that laid the foundation for this new ethics of sociability.

In investigating how we might reinvigorate our capacity for cooperation today, Sennett revisits the artisan’s workshop. The embodied knowledge that craftsmen bring to bear on their tools, materials and co-workers whilst making and repairing things provides a rich analogy for an everyday diplomacy that helps people in dealing with others they can’t relate to, or don’t understand: they use minimal forces in dealing with resistance, create social space through coded gestures, and make sophisticated repairs which acknowledge trauma. Also professional diplomats’ skills in navigating the borderline between formality and informality are to an extent transferable to our daily environment as an aid to managing conflict and foster cooperation.

Sennett’s book is particularly timely at a point in time when the global economy’s `creative destruction’ is fragilizing huge swaths of the middle class in postindustrial societies. Ideally, these people will be able to move beyond resentment and withdrawal to embrace a redefined sense of inner purpose based on communal cooperation. However, Sennett cautions us along different lines against believing well-being prophets and transition gurus that this is a comfortable challenge. He discusses at length how in the twentieth century the very desire for solidarity has led to institutionalization, inviting command and manipulation from the top. Sennett thinks this collective bargaining strategy has ultimately sapped the strength of the Left. At an individual level there is no simple promise of happiness in cooperation and associationism for those who are struggling for survival in economically vulnerable communities.

Here we have sketched out only some of the main themes that Sennett develops in this book. Whilst Sennett obviously pushes himself to write in an accessible style, his erudition and scholarly temperament inevitably shine through. As a result the narrative strikes me a rather labyrinthine and it pays to take patient notes in keeping track of the evolving argument.

It is, perhaps, a pity that Sennett does not dwell at all on the considerable experience that has been built up in recent decades with all kinds of techniques to sustain multi-stakeholder dialogue and work towards accommodation between people holding different worldviews (I am thinking of approaches as diverse as `world cafés’ and `soft systems methodology’). In that sense his book puts the `why’ of cooperation more in relief than the `how to’. `Together’ is not a practical guide for aspiring community organizers and facilitators but a richly layered reflection on the past and future of a vital cultural legacy: the dialogic skills needed for `hard’ cooperation.

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