A Society of Broken Eggs: Richard Sennett on a Growing Gulf between the Metropolitan Elite and the Rest. (the NS Essay 1)

Article excerpt

A few years ago, I was doing fieldwork in Silicon Valley, California, when the company I was studying suddenly announced a merger with a competitor. As the company's public address system triumphantly blared out the financial details, the engineers in my office got angry; no one had consulted them, the merger made no sense on the ground, they feared for their jobs. When I asked them what they were going to do about it, the mood suddenly shifted; the angriest person in the room looked down and muttered: "Nothing, I suppose."

That reply -- "nothing, I suppose" -- sums up not just a response to the immense recent changes in corporate life, but also an attitude among ordinary citizens towards political institutions and politicians, the media and civil society.

Resignation is two-sided. In part, it expresses anger and antipathy to the powers who control institutions. In the course of research into the phenomenon, I and my colleagues have found that, in the health service, doctors' most frequent response to the policy plans of their bosses is "they just don't get it". The other side of institutional resignation is apathy; you can't do anything about it, and so you just don't care. This is the kind of dis-involvement that car produce low voter turnout.

The boom of the past decade made tangible a kind of institution a change much longer in the making, one that will persist even as the boom ends. This change is an effort to replace mastodons with cats: to transform hierarchical bureaucratic pyramids into more flexible organisations, able to move easily and to adapt quickly.

The change began in the private economy as share-buyers, awash with capital and seeking short-term profits, looked to invest in businesses that were agile enough to respond to global changes in the demand for goods and services. Businesses had to respond in two ways. First, they had to become flatter, which meant reducing the links in the bureaucratic chain of command. For instance, IBM, a company that nearly went under in the new economy, had 26 links (that is, 26 bureaucratic layers) in their chain of command during the 1980s; after 1993, when IBM began to save itself, it reduced the links to just nine.

Second, companies had to become shorter, in their time frames. They had to focus on short-term projects and products in order to swim in the shifting global current. They also had to transform the stability of the organisation itself: long-long employment went to the wall, seniority ceased to be a source of privilege, companies outsourced as much as possible to reduce their permanent staff.

During the boom, the companies that most visibly operated flat and short were financial service and hi-tech firms, but the changes cut much deeper. Our research suggests that the bigger a firm, or the more involved it was in the global economy -- whatever its product -- the more the company came under pressure to organise itself in these ways.

Flat and short came to serve as guides for remaking the public sector as well. It is often said that Margaret Thatcher forced public services to behave like businesses, but these are changes that really became apparent as the first Blair government tried to reform health, education and transport. In the United States, too, Bill Clinton did to public services what Ronald Reagan never dared do.

Flat and short have a paradoxical effect: they energise people at the top, and depress people lower down. "Short" wreaks havoc on institutional loyalty. As in a marriage, you say: if you are not going to commit to me through thick and thin, why should I commit to you? The attack on seniority rooted out time-servers, but at the price of diminishing the loyalty of others; sheer service to the institution lost its value. So disengagement began to appear in the ranks of people who, in the old mastodon organisations, found a stable identity through committing to the places they worked in. …