Reviewed by Gary Roth
Marxism isn’t known for its sophisticated understandings of working class psychology, a trait shared with radical thinking in general. From the start, Marx’s elegant yet complex theory of capitalist development tended to supplant close scrutiny of class-based patterns of behavior and modes of thought. Everyday preferences in terms of politics, lifestyles, and allegiances were crowded out by straight-forward descriptions of working class living and working conditions, for which the socialist movement was particularly well-suited. In terms of working class psychology, however, hopefulness replaced reality when thinking about how workers reacted when stressed by economic conditions and abusive ruling classes.
Marx, particularly in his theoretical writings, often assumed too straight-forward a relationship between economic conditions and social consciousness, such that the former elicited and even seemed to dictate changes in the latter. A highly complicated relationship between economic evolution and social consciousness has existed instead. A considerable lag often separates changes in economic conditions from their reflection in people’s consciousness and activities, with the latter generally unpredictable in terms of social unrest and outpourings of protest. In other words, the economy evolves more quickly than does anyone’s perception of that economy. Such a state of affairs ought to have been obvious to everyone, that a market system controlled by no one also meant a society in which no one fully understood what was happening at any point in time, let alone knew what came next (Polanyi, 1957). But thinking about society and social transformation was only beginning when Marx was alive. He sketched the basic parameters, but not much more.
A long tradition within Marxism has attempted to fill this lacunae, and it is within this framework that we can place Richard Sennett’s most recent work, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. Even though Marxism and the history of Marxist thought are not his interest, Sennett nonetheless thinks about the same set of issues regarding the ability of the working class to create social spaces of its own making. Whereas Marx speaks of labor as a defining principle of life, for Sennett ‘doing something well for its own sake … is a capacity most human beings possess’ (ix). In particular, Sennett is interested in ‘how physical labour can instil dialogical social behaviour’ (199). If Marx was interested in social psychology as manifested in political expression, Sennett refers to a host of socially-based skills, including ‘listening well, behaving tactfully, finding points of agreement and managing disagreement, or avoiding frustration in a difficult discussion,’ that pertain to interpersonal communication (6).
Sennett can thus be understood as one of the many contributors to the ongoing discussion of working class behavior that has animated the socialist movement ever since it began. What members of the various socialist movements first knew about the working class was based primarily on their own experiences within the proletariat. Either you were conscious of your own class standing and thus belonged to one of the organizations within the labor movement, such as a trade union or left political party, or by default, one was under the sway of bourgeois ideology. This was so straightforward a supposition that it barely merited discussion. In the absence of public opinion polls, survey research, and broad-based suffrage – each of which represents a tool by which to judge popular sentiment, actual working class behavior remained the best guide to working class thought. One gauged consciousness by watching what people did.
This matter-of-fact approach to issues of working class consciousness was articulated in various ways by socialist theorists. One of the most influential, at least in the pre-World War I era when socialists counted in the millions, was Karl Kautsky, who doubted whether workers would ever make a revolution without guidance from the middle classes. Certain sectors of the latter had both the ability (due to their education) and the inclination (due to downward mobility) to study society scientifically and surmise the nature of the future. Members of the working class, on the other hand, lacked ‘the leisure and the means to advance science beyond the point reached by bourgeois thinkers.’(cited in Mayer 1994, 677) Lenin posited similar ideas, although he expressed his pessimism about the working class in terms slightly more jarring. For Lenin, ‘the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness.’ In other words, workers by themselves were limited in comprehension to bread-and-butter issues (referred to as ‘economism’) (Lenin 1969, 31).
With this way of thinking, there was no real need to investigate working class thought patterns or the relationship between thought and action. It is also where matters have more-or-less stood for the past century. The most notable exception, perhaps, were the council communists of the 1930s, who tied working class consciousness to the vicissitudes of the business cycle. In doing so, they avoided the tendency in the mainstream socialist movements (social democratic and bolshevik) to think of the working class in somewhat static and ahistorical terms in order to justify their own existence as political parties that function as permanent fixtures within the various political systems. For the council communists, on the other hand, economic evolution, consciousness, and behavior were welded together into a single dynamic that explained the disappointments of the past as well as the potential for the future (Mattick 1934; Pannekoek 1975). In this regard, they reprised the combination of hardnosed analysis and optimistic projection that had characterized Marx’s writings as well. They also came close to the anarchist understanding of working class consciousness that emphasized its revolutionary potentialities rather than its realistic limitations.
Otherwise, there have been a few broad tendencies which have had great appeal even though they haven’t necessarily gained widespread acceptance within the radical movement. On the one side is the investigation into working class consciousness by means of theory, in which the capitalist division of labor is assumed to be the ultimate source of thought and behavior. Such an approach can be found in Marx too, although properly speaking, it harkens back to a pre-Marxian era in which Adam Smith’s insights about the economy become a means for understanding the potential power of a unified working class – the nothing to lose but their chains since all productive work is already performed by them. If workers fully grasped their own collective power, it is posited, who knows what might be possible. A corollary to this thesis often focuses on alienation to explain the gap between everyday existence and the hoped-for revolutionary outcomes. Since this approach presupposes a working class consciousness that lacks a proper focus, it thereby absolves itself of the need to investigate what that consciousness actually is. The alienated self becomes the starting point of the discussion, rather than the object to be determined. Yet the discussion of alienation also brought to the fore much of what was wrong with Marxist discourse, that is, it presupposed that there was a judge (or political vanguard) to make such evaluations without acknowledging that such a position could only be self-appointed.
At the other end of the continuum have been painstakingly empirical approaches to working class consciousness. Interviews conducted by Studs Terkel and some of the earlier work by Sennett himself are characteristic of this approach (Terkel 2004; Sennett and Cobb 1993). These works generally probe the odd combination of accommodation, resistance, and resentment that characterizes the contemporary working class. In a similar vein are the attempts by the various left political parties and sectarian groups to rouse the working class through a discussion of ‘bread-and-butter’ issues that focus not just on workplace demands but also on the general level of privilege and corruption that plague the capitalist world. These types of tactics are often quite mechanistic in conception, as if there is a direct relationship between material deprivation and social dysfunction on the one side and the impulse to discover alternative modes of being on the other. They also rely on a representational politics that asks people to make choices rather than invent their own solutions. Within the realm of ‘organizing’ and appealing to the working class, one might mention Wilhelm Reich, whose focus on women and sexuality promised to open whole new dimensions of working class life to political scrutiny. It was a method never subsequently pursued after its suppression by the Nazis, except insofar as one could find traces of it within the second wave feminism that emerged in the 1970s. But Reich too tended to think in terms of choices rather than creations (Reich 1972).
Much of Sennett’s Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation is devoted to examples of cooperative behavior, short vignettes which highlight various attempts to forge a harmonious existence among human beings. The importance of the ‘workshop’ as a model of cooperation is a keen consideration in which physical labor fits prominently into the creation of the cooperative community. Booker T. Washington, to take one of Sennett’s many examples, used a workshop method of education to offer high-level training to newly-freed slaves and their children such that minority communities would be uplifted by their presence. Such ideas had roots in the utopian socialisms of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, both of whom had idiosyncratic notions of a productive system organized on a small scale and without the dehumanizing and deskilling incumbent in factory production. For Sennett, their respective attempts to anticipate and influence the future were noteworthy. Owen, for instance, believed in profit sharing and monetary bonuses as incentives to create loyalty and solidarity. Fourier believed in work-living combinations; in other words, factory complexes that including housing facilities and schools. Yet Sennett does not question his own reliance on visionary leaders as a decidedly un-dialogic adaptation. The followers of Owen and Fourier were not imagined as decision-makers, only as decision-implementers.
Sennett’s special focus is the ‘fraught, ambiguous zone of experience where skill and competence encounter resistance and intractable difference’ (xi). In particular, ‘solidarity built from the ground up strives for cohesion among people who differ,’ precisely the issues that community organizers and settlement house founders attempted to confront (128). Cooperation ‘requires of people the skill of understanding and responding to one another in order to act together’; otherwise, cooperation becomes ‘a thorny process, full of difficulty and ambiguity and often leading to destructive consequences’ (x). He spends less time explicating the themes that have motivated his previous books, that is, the ‘two forces weakening cooperation: structural inequality and new forms of labour’ (179) (Sennett 1998; Sennett 2006). The global economy alienates individuals from one another: ‘modern society is de-skilling people in the conduct of everyday life’ (x). And since ‘isolation is the obvious enemy of cooperation,’ Sennett is pessimistic about the future (166). His discussion of diplomatic skills, rituals, and face-saving techniques is symptomatic of this perspective.
Sennett never makes it quite clear how his long digressions near the beginning of the book about the infant behavior theories of Jerome Bruner and Erik Erikson are related to issues of adult cooperation, as if Freud’s much more complicated understanding of the relationship between childhood experiences and adult behavior had simply been whisked aside. There are many such tangents in Sennett’s book. Ultimately, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation becomes a long litany of matters only tangentially connected. Togetherness is everywhere, even though it does not dominate social life. There is an obvious analogy here to Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, a book that documents the ubiquitousness of cooperation in the animal and human worlds even though cooperation has been overridden as the organizational principle of modern society (Kropotkin 2013). This seems to be a common liability for anyone who delves into the possible contours of an egalitarian future. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, for instance, documents the cooperation that emerges from within the destruction and chaos of natural disasters (Solnit 2009). Yet, she eventually extends this reading to include political and economic crises as well, such that it becomes a general principle of human life.
This, then, brings us full circle to the hopeful aspects of social criticism, except that where Marx aimed to specify and narrow the circumstances for optimism, Kropotkin, Solnit, and Sennett expand them. Sennett, like Kropotkin, sees the devolution of the human personality under capitalism, its ‘deskilling,’ but unlike Solnit, he lacks a firm sense of optimism (8). That he never explores the uses to which the new technologies of interpersonal communication are put, underscores some of his retreat from reality. For Sennett, togetherness can only be embodied in immediate, face-to-face relationships. Ultimately, Sennett is best when he critiques the evolution of modern society. But he, like most others, remains stumped by how humanity might extricate itself from the mess to which it seems condemned.
4 June 2015
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