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Saunders, Bill, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Nothing expresses the social revolution which has shaken our society over the past 20 years better than the metamorphosis of the bureaucrat into the manager. The first is soulless, his or her personality stripped away so that the remaining shell may be absorbed into the organisation. The second is dynamic, innovative, and, of course, creative. But what of those of us who find no place within the charmed circle of people, who, by their own account at least, combine the talents of Cosimo Medici and Leonardo Da Vinci? What will become of us?
There is nothing new about inequality or the problem of how aid may be distributed without humiliating the recipient or corrupting the donor, which is the theme of this book. But Richard Sennett argues that in an age which celebrates the individual at the expense of the institution, which attributes success or failure entirely to individual responsibility, and which makes inequality visible - for if the manager is the hero of our age, the rough-sleeper is its clown - these problems need to be re- addressed. Above all they need to be re-addressed in a society which does not realise it has changed, and bases its models of how self-respect works on conditions which no longer exist. Sennett is a lucid, original and influential sociologist but a diffident writer. If he can find someone else to say what he wants to say, he will. So we hear from Auden, Levi-Strauss, Merleau-Ponty, even Wordsworth on one occasion. At the core of the book are his own experiences and here he turns out to be a bashful autobiographer.
He has had a life that would be easy to romanticise. His absent father fought in the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer in Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He grew up living with his bohemian mother in the Cabrini projects in Chicago, public housing which made the trajectory from beacon to eyesore in about 30 years. He made his escape, as he sees it, through mastering the cello (Mrs Sennett made her own escape meanwhile by becoming a professional social worker). Then, when he was 21, a botched tendon operation ended his musical career.
Two women form the pillars of the story of Cabrini: Frances Xavier Cabrini, an Italian nun after whom it was named, and Jane Addams, the inspirational light of Chicago's social services which built it. Neither woman had much time for the other. For Sennett each represents the poles of social work: Cabrini personally, even emotionally engaged with the poor; Addams detached and reserved in order to leave room for the poor to become engaged with their problems themselves. Cabrini's approach naturally made her the more popular, although Addams managed to muster enough of a reputation to win the Nobel Peace Prize. What is puzzling from the liberal perspective is that Cabrini's policies, rooted in principles which were often obviously to the disadvantage of the poor (she opposed trade unions for example), often produced institutions, such as schools, which Addams acknowledged were far more effective than her own democratically enabled projects.
Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of the gift rather than the giver. …