How Work Destroys Social Inclusion

By Sennett, Richard | New Statesman (1996), May 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

How Work Destroys Social Inclusion

Sennett, Richard, New Statesman (1996)

Richard Sennett argues that we need to rediscover the virtues of dependency

A portent of adult life came to me as an adolescent, walking through a Chicago slum neighbourhood with my uncle, a judge of the strictest probity. We passed a voting station where rather forbidding men in poorly pressed suits handed envelopes to the citizens as they entered. I asked my uncle what they were doing. "Bribing voters," he replied, and I expected a homily to follow.

"It's illegal," I said. "Don't the people taking the envelopes feel demeaned?"

"The money is only a few bucks," replied my uncle, "and it makes them part of the community." This was my introduction to the issue of social inclusion.

Social inclusion is not a subject reformers think through well. We tend to focus on exclusion, assuming that if we diminish racial discrimination, class inequality or sexual prejudice, a more cohesive society will inevitably result. But inclusion has its own logic.

Inclusion, be it in a small-scale project or in a nation, requires mutual recognition; people must signal that they are aware of each other as legitimately involved together in a common enterprise. The sociologist Norbert Elias called such mutual recognition a matter of "social honour.". This rather grand phrase denotes simply that members of a group feel that they are noticed and heard, that they have what the law calls "standing". I think that contemporary capitalism diminishes social inclusion by denying to individuals, in their work lives, the experience of mattering to others.

Inclusion requires, first, mutual exchange, and those envelopes changing hands at the Chicago voting stations were an example. The ward bosses of 1950s Chicago ruled without challenge, yet still they offered symbolic dollars to each voter. The bribe redeemed raw subjection and the poor citizens, offspring of immigrant families from European villages, expected their rulers to make gestures of recognition and obligation.

Second, social inclusion must involve ritual, which is society's strongest cement, its very chemistry of inclusion. The 19th-century diplomat Charles Talleyrand described how his aunt, a countess, in an elaborate ceremony in her drawing-room, would dole out medicines from her herb gardens to the servants and peasants on her estate. Few were cured by these potions, but that wasn't the point. The formal room, the words of encouragement, the directions the countess wrote with her own hand on each bottle - such seemingly trivial details of the ritual established a mutual bond.

Third, inclusion requires witnesses to one's behaviour. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur puts it: "Because someone is counting on me, I am accountable for my action before another." In other words, because someone else depends on you, he or she has a right to judge you. We usually think that judges are superior to those whom they judge; Ricoeur wants to reverse these roles.

In the modern work world, all these requirements for social inclusion are disappearing. We see, less and less, those kinds of mutual, symbolic exchanges which signal that employees are noticed and heard by the corporations for which they work; the fraternal rituals that bind worker to worker are diminishing; employers dismiss the idea that they are accountable to those who depend upon them. Yet our society professes to believe in inclusion in ways that would have been unrecognisable to Talleyrand's aunt, living under the ancien regime. We believe in universal human rights that proclaim all human beings to have an equal and inherent dignity; we intend that every citizen recognise the worth of those with contrary opinions or differing needs and interests.

Social inclusion at work has become weak because we are living through a great revolution. The giant multinational firms that ruled the mid-century became comparable, as Max Weber had predicted, to armies. Their operations were based on pyramids of power; people occupied stable and defined positions in the corporate hierarchy; orders were passed down intact from top to bottom. …

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