How capitalism killed the notion of career

boekomslag corrosion of characterThis is not a new idea coming from Richard Sennett. He already wrote about that very topic in The Corrosion of Character. Like many other analysts, Sennett notes that Obama made a significant mistake when he did not make job creation and reducing precarization a priority of his administration (the interview was conducted before the 2010 election) because he has no sense of the realities of everyday life of so many Americans.

For Sennett, the United States is a country that is socially very vulnerable not only because of precarization but also because of greater individualization. Strikes and social movements such as those seen in France over the past few weeks are unimaginable in the US. Americans tend to consider survival in individual terms (or, I would add, just limited to their family). I think this triumph of ideological individualism is the major victory of the right because it frames every issue. After all, as Denis Colombi – marshalling Polanyi – reminds us, the market exercises a hold not just on material relations but also on minds.

If I were Durkheimian, I would add that this low level of social solidarity explains the fact that the US is a society that more interpersonally and structurally violent than other rich countries.

As Sennett puts it, the upper class have become extremely powerful and secure in their dominance over the system while for the masses, persistent systemic threats have become the norm. Fear is the normal condition which leads to intellectual closure. In the context of low solidarity, low social safety net and increased competition for jobs, no hopey changey rhetoric can have a significant impact.

Moreover, in the US, the traditional blue-collar workers, those who were the first to be massively excluded from the “new economy”, while the professional classes were the immediate beneficiaries, and, for Sennett (I think he is wrong), Obama was able to, for a while, join these two categories (again, I think he’s wrong, Obama also excluded the traditional industrial working class from his base).

But Sennett’s main point is that the new capitalism has divided wage earners based on a myth: the myth of the free worker, who can hop from one job to the next, grabbing new opportunities in an individual trajectory of upward mobility. Well, that is truly a myth, for Sennett, flexibility is imposed upon people, not a choice. Flexibility is usually accompanied by downward mobility except for only a tiny minority: professionals working in ICTs. They are the cadres of the Democratic Party, the party of professional elites. And this is at the expenses of the “old labour” type of voters who were traditionally focused on issues of inequality and social justice. This shift makes the Democratic Party a neoliberal party, a shift that Obama finalized.

In the absence of forward-looking solutions, then, high unemployment is reframed in terms of nostalgia for the higher employment past, which, of course, benefits the right-wing (even though it is right-wing thinking that dismantled the pillars of that era). At the same time, the value of work itself has been degraded. McJobs have triumphed over stable, relatively well-compensated, sometimes unionized jobs.

But for Sennett, unemployment is only one problem. Another, just as serious, is that under-employment as the working norm in the secondary labor market: lower pay, short-term perspectives, precarization, part-time, flexible and without benefits. Think adjuncts in academia. The tenured professor is an endangered species (and yet, blamed for everything supposedly wrong with education). More generally, financial capitalism has extinguished the very notion of career. As Sennett notes, it is a statistical fact that the higher the quality of jobs (security, benefits), the stronger the social structure. The more precarized the labor market becomes, the more insecurity develops.

This lack of social solidarity is also made worse by a reality that is now hard to deny: the US is no longer a hegemon. And in a country where exceptionalism is a strong part of the culture, that is a hard pill to swallow. The relative lack of social capital (no pub culture in the US, as opposed to the UK, no cafe culture or strong union culture as in France) is also detrimental to keeping the social structure together.

After all, the Bush formula of the “ownership society” was another form of structural individualization, and we all know how that ended. Also an American wage-earner spends one third less time interacting with family member (dinner interaction, for instance) than his Western European counterparts. And underemployment is a factor in this (I would add along with lack of paid vacations and other time benefits).

On the short-term, an era in social relations that started in the 1970s in the US is now coming to a close, and its last throes are quite painful. And from a perspective of longue durée, as Wallerstein consistently put it, it is the end of the modern capitalist world-system. Or, again, as Denis Colombi states, it is the end of the era of disembedding of economic relations from social relations. Time to reembed the dang thing based on social justice.

Redactie: als toetje nog een praatje van Sennett over post-industrial dystopias:

Post-Industrial Dystopias: Richard Sennett from Granta magazine on Vimeo.

By SocProf (@socprof)

  1. 2

    If the Us is going to impoverize solidarity will return by itself.. capitalism may only prevent that..

    obama is just not the one to unite the nation at this point, despite the fact that he is black..

  2. 5

    or strong union culture as in France

    Jep, flipping over and torching Peugots is a sure sign of culture, according to this social “scientist”. However she is not bothered by any facts: French labor unions are amongst the weakest in Europe. See:

    Membership in France’s labor unions accounts for approximately 5% of the private sector work force

    Some “strong union culture” huh?

  3. 7

    Ook de samenleving heeft last van roestvorming. De mededelingen die namens en door Sennett gedaan worden zijn boeiend: langer zitten op een werkplek, meer investeren door werkgevers in mensen, die bepaalde taken doen.
    Het kapitalisme zorgt dat de samenleving verroest; overigens zie je niet dat verval helpt, maar dingen erger maakt. De overheid moet uit de weg, blaat de zegevierende republikein, en de ziektekostenverzekering zullen we weer opheffen. Het is dit nihilisme, waar onze grote bondgenoot onder lijdt.

  4. 9

    @8 Roemer (of Halsema) I zou leuk zijn, maar hij (zij) krijgt de stemmen niet. Obama etc is het beste wat we kunnen krijgen. Dat is niet goed genoeg.

    Rutte heeft me trouwens zwaar teleurgeteld. Dat is duidelijk geen Liberaal.

  5. 10

    @JSK, if I had wanted to talk of union membership, I would have written so.

    Also, in France, one does not need to be member of a union to be covered by one, either through direct union presence in one’s place of employment or through union-bargained “convention collective” that define categorical statutes irrespective of union membership or presence.

    But the scare quotes and bolded terms, that was a nice touch. Too bad they fall flat.

  6. 11

    Yeah we have the same thing here. Yet no one would dare talk about “union culture” to describe dutch politics. And British “pub culture”.. I would say “binge drinking”, but whatever.

    You seen to be bent on demonstrating European superiority over the United States, it’s an old story but the arguments are exceptionally lame now. The U.S. has no cohension because torching cars as ‘political’ protest and drinking until one passes out is frowned upon? B*tch please.

  7. 12

    @JSK, what’s with the obsession with torching cars like it’s what everyone does all the time. Strawmen and stereotype-based arguments are worthless, borderline trolling. Or maybe I should just put some profanity, you might get what I write better.

    “You seen to be bent on demonstrating European superiority over the United States” Your mistaken interpretation, not mine.

  8. 13

    No obsession, it’s just the other side of that wonderful glue of French society called “union culture”. A culture in which a whopping 5% of the population participates. I’ve seen some bad sociology in my college days, but this is ridicolous.

    Again: the fact that some French are willing disrupt public life to protest policy which is against their interests, *is not* any indication of social cohesion or culture. (BTW: Are you crazy?) It simply shows two things 1). French people are no less selfish than the average person and 2). French unions have somewhat more power than their American counterparts. A real social scientist would attempt to analyze the causes and consequences of #2, not use it as anti-American propaganda.

  9. 14

    #2 is quite simple. Union busting has been more or less legalized since the Reagan years. In contrast, the European Union have granted and upheld union rights in legislation.