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The Market is Unjust

by Richard Sennett Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005 at 9:57 AM

"New networks arise that support people without locking them in a cage.. We need positive freedom, the freedom to something..For that we must create new institutions. We may not return to the old.."


Interview with Richard Sennett

That the market is just is a very conservative idea. Low-wage jobs, unemployment and personal companies: In modern capitalism, most people hardly know where they belong. Therefore sociologist Richard Sennett dreams of a revolt against the neoliberal regime.

[This interview published in the Swiss Weltwoche 31, 2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, . Richard Sennett is a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and author of many recent books on social criticism.]

Professor Sennett, what do you advise a youth growing up in social housing with a single mother when he asks you what he can accomplish in life?

I have no idea. No one has ever asked me that.

You grew up in those conditions and developed into a highly gifted musician and world-renowned author. Were you simply lucky?

Oh, my life is full of coincidences and accidents. However, I had this musical talent and worked hard to make the best of this. I did everything for my academic work.

Can someone with less talent than you accomplish anything with hard work?

Is engagement rewarded? Engagement is only rewarded in rare cases. The economy rewards people less and less who do their work in a simple loyal and engaged way, above all those who really deserve a reward. Short-lived enterprises do not appreciate long-term business faithfulness any more. When I ask myself whether the economic world that I describe keeps its promises, I must say: No.

That is a depressing answer to a youth who asks you for advice.

After my work of the last ten years, I can only warn him: It is very dangerous to predict the development of the market in this new capitalism because it constantly changes. For this reason, I can only recommend a genuine commitment for one’s own sake – even if a reward is uncertain.

Politicians among us say: “Youth leave school and no one wants them.” What do you counsel youths who find no jobs?

In Great Britain, youths often strive for jobs with glamour, for example in the media. Media studies are very popular. Tens of thousands graduate but there may be only a hundred new jobs for them every year. On the other hand, physicians and engineers are lacking. We cannot find people for callings for which there is a permanent need. Look at the influence of this new capitalism. “Winner takes all” is in effect for this new capitalism. Everyone dreams of being the only one to win everything. Youths chase after the glamorous success that only a few attain instead of learning a calling promising them long-term work. This may be the difference compared to your conditions in Switzerland: Great Britain is far more dynamic in the global economy. The sex appeal of working in investment banking or in the media worldwide strongly marks the mentality of British youth.

In Switzerland, the problem already crops up among 15-year olds after high school. Many of them ostensibly do not find a job.

Your questions irritate me. With my cohorts, we were sixteen in the cello-class and there was not work for any of us. If we had calculated in a middle class way, none of us would have gone to the music academy. However, unlike today, we studied music because we could not do anything else, not because we wanted to earn much money. Preparing for a calling that promised work was not central to us.

Most of us cannot get around this.

Yes, a certain insight is needed not to be seduced by the glamour of the top jobs. I see this as a great problem in Great Britain. Students at our school all strive to be investment bankers in the city of London. They do not become company economists although we need them there. We have to import nurses and engineers – in a country that produced marvelous engineers forty years ago.

Many politicians in Switzerland blame the economy for youth unemployment: the economy must create more jobs for youth.

This is not so simple. Swiss businesses create jobs – in China or India but not in Switzerland. The question is: Would you force Swiss businesses to offer jobs to the Swiss first?

What is your answer?

Yes – if they can get people who work for Indian or Chinese wages. That is our dilemma in Europe. We do not want to cancel globalization. We do not face the fact that millions of very talented persons in the world will work for much lower wages.

Employers complain they do not need many youths. They have no discipline and no manners.


They chew gum during employment interviews and take calls on their cell phones.

I never witnessed that. He youth that I know are in a desperate situation. They really want to work but there is not enough work for them. Therefore, they fight for jobs. Firms simply want to excuse themselves when they insult youth.

That the Swiss prepare students poorly for the world of work is not a mere allegation. The Pisa studies show that up to a fifth cannot read a German text or solve a proportion problem after nine years of elementary school. How can these students survive in the global competition?

Because of globalization, what Great Britain experienced in the seventies is repeated on the labor market. Well-trained youth from the working class were more motivated to work at that time than youth from the middle class. They snapped up their jobs. Today very capable Asians take work away from Europeans. Can this problem be solved? Young people must look around for jobs that someone with better training will not do for a lower wage.

Those who employ workers are called employers. You seem to think work must be given to most people since they cannot offer their work themselves on the market.

At the end of my new book, I try to show alternatives. In the US and Great Britain, there are more and more collectives that organize temporary forms of work, that is a kind of union for the 21st century. They do not depend on one employer but hire and distribute jobs in workshops.

People work with short-term contracts while belonging to a long-term enterprise that keeps them together. These new unions distribute work like a theater agent and no longer need to defend the interests of workers against management. We need these innovative forms of organization in this flexible capitalism.

People must cooperate with other people.

Obviously. Only artists work completely autonomously – and starve to death.

You have a poor opinion of the German concept of the personal company (I Inc.),

Yes, this is not viable.

You think the work identity of most people emphasizes where they belong, not who they are.

Yes, people need networks; they seek help and acknowledgment. Advisors may feel independent but they are not really independent. They only receive contracts when they constantly renew their contacts. Their own work has little substance. Therefore, I regard the personal company as only a romantic idea.

You look back almost nostalgically to the model of Bismarck: hierarchical bureaucracies of state and business according to the model of the army.

Bismarck’s model functioned and insured social integration.

You also write: “Bismarck’s practical reason for the obesity of institutions was the pacification of society. Giving a place to everyone was a way of avoiding conflicts. Thus the political and social goal of the fattened bureaucracy is more social integration than efficiency.”

Yes, the model represented a remarkable antithesis to the capitalism of today that does not include but excludes people. I do not say we must return to the military model. However, we should learn from this model how a huge number of people can be accepted. Bismarck wanted to prevent a revolution according to the French style. Thanks to his genius, Weber recognized the unintended consequence. The model served the common people by giving them a biography. They knew where they belonged. This broke down at the end of the 20th century.

Do you regret that?

I regret the loss of life history, not the collapse of the model. That people can no longer organize their time for long periods is really a cultural loss.

You insist the bureaucracy has been both a house and a prison.

You cannot have one without the other. To free ourselves from the prison, we must create other forms of interdependence. New networks arise that support people without locking them in a cage. The new economic order demands more social imagination than we summoned in the past. Otherwise, we can only complain as prisoners of this economic system.

In the sixties, you fought the bureaucracy as a young radical.

I still do.

However, you now recognize that we do not gain more freedom only because the institutions collapse. Are you a conservative?

Why is that a conservative viewpoint?

In the sixties, you only saw institutions as prisons.

That is an irony of history. At that time, we witnessed the apotheosis of the Weberian world that really became a prison. Our mistake in reasoning was believing we could liberate people by tearing down the institutions. That was only a negative freedom.

Was it “freedom from something”?

Yes, we need positive freedom, the “freedom to something.” How can people develop what is planted in them? For that we must create new institutions. We may not return to the old.

Are you a progressive conservative?

I am not a conservative. Do you really consider me a conservative?

You are not the only one. The future researcher Matthias Horx writes, you paint a picture of a transfigured past: “Sennett is a romantic who interprets society as community and the market as homeland.”

That does not shock me. I was a radical my whole life. Should I now be a conservative?

Horx also writes people profited elsewhere from the globalization processes while we only see them as loss of security and comfort. Isn’t our problem that we are spoilt and saturated after fifty golden years? Do we fear freedom because it demands personal responsibility?

Oh, many people argue like you. The people in Germany who opposed Hartz IV heard that they were spoilt. I do not agree with this moralizing. People simply had fear for good economic reasons. We cannot solve their problems with psychologizing as you do. The people are not spoilt. They simply do not know how they should live in dignity in this economic system. That is an objective problem. The politicians have no remedies.

In Switzerland, around a million people live from the unemployment fund, invalid insurance and income support. Are they threatened by the “specter of uselessness” as you write?


You think the economic machine manages with an ever-smaller elite for its profitable and efficient functioning. Is there no room for these people any more?

In my opinion, we could create more jobs. However, they will not look like jobs in the past, that is full time and long-term jobs.

What will people do in these jobs?

Take the example of the call-center. Many of these jobs have moved to India and Brazil. In these countries, there are well-trained people who do this work at low wages. The Indian government attracted these jobs by creating advantageous conditions. The European governments only stood by and watched the outsourcing. In a countermove, they granted tax relief to the firms that paid higher wages to employees here. The state acts completely passively and leaves responsibility for jobs to private persons. Let me give you another example. In the last years, crafts-persons from Eastern Europe streamed to Great Britain like heating engineers, sanitary plumbers and electricians. Now everyone complains since people work for lower wages. The truth is: there are no British experts any more because the state has not invested in schools for ten years. The government simply dismisses the problem in a neoliberal way: What can we do; the market decides all this. The state can do much! Blaming the market is very convenient for politicians. Then they do not fear any responsibility themselves. The people ask themselves: How could all these jobs disappear? Something is not right with our workers!

In Switzerland, we must import dishwashers and nurses. We need foreigners to harvest fruits, clean rooms in hotels and nurse in senior citizen centers. Should we force the unemployed to accept any job?

I know this problem very well from the US. I argued with Clinton for five years.


He thought like you. The people simply do not want to work. The problem is much more complex. You ignore what these jobs mean for foreigners who come to Switzerland. They only reside temporarily in your country often under enormous sacrifice concerning their quality of life and send their money home. Thus, the chambermaid in a Geneva hotel only saves the capital for her family and returns after three or four years. Whenever the natives accept these jobs, they are stuck there all their lives and cannot go anywhere else.

You evaluated the welfare-to-work program with which Clinton wanted to bring receivers of income support into working life.

Yes, a quarter of the affected made something out of these forced jobs. Three-quarters did not. What happened? Single mothers took jobs and neglected their children; they often sent them to relatives in other cities. On top of that, they had hardly any job security in their very poorly paid jobs. Thus, they lost their claims to assistance and their jobs. This is the real world. You should not ask: Why didn’t the people take any work? These jobs were simply not intended for fifty years of work.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Tony Blair at the beginning of his term in office praised you because he knew he could not leave people to themselves.

What did I know at that time! Like many Brits, I did not expect this.

It is the same with Gerhard Schroeder.

I know. Who would have thought that when he took up his office? This could be another theme: Why did all these social democrats change into conservatives when they gained power? They were not elected for that.

Can you explain this?

No, I do not understand. The politicians who I know generally do not understand how common people actually live. The governing believe their own economic rhetoric that everyone can succeed! They really think the people receive what they deserve. I do not know why they think that way. That the market is just is a very conservative idea.

You shocked Bill Clinton when you told him you voted for the splinter party Socialist Worker.

He is still shocked.

Whom would you vote for in Germany, Gysi and Lafontaine?

I do not know. I know for whom I voted here in Great Britain: the liberal democrats. They really seek local solutions for the problems of the global labor market. They look around for niche-markets and fight against the migration of jobs. As a truly remarkable party, they did very well in the last election.

On the other hand, you write today’s parties have the same platform and are only distinguished by their brands.

Yes, but that is not the end of the book.

Are there genuine alternatives?

Of course. We could learn for example from the Chinese and the Indians. They do not have neoliberal societies. The people of India achieve a very remarkable growth without intensifying inequality. The Chinese are also striving for more social justice. Amazingly in a communist order, they have the same discussions as we have in the West.

Former communists like the Poles and Slovaks now appear as the most enthusiastic capitalists.

I would not say that. They simply use the capitalist system without really pursuing the market economy. The Poles have managed to shift responsibility for their whole agriculture to the EU. Both countries profit enormously that their people send money home from abroad. That is not a classic liberal concept.

Our culture in the West is becoming increasingly superficial, you argue at the end of your book. The last sentence proclaims: “Perhaps the revolt against this debilitated culture will be the next page of history that we must turn.” Where will this revolt come from?

The revolt will come from the people who fall out of the labor market. They cannot continue as before. You cannot sustainably pursue an economic system only for the top five percent of the population.

What is your role in this revolt?

I will probably already be dead. That is also the last book that I will publish on this theme. I am now doing something completely different. I am working on a book about craftsmanship. To capitalism, I have said: I was always a social critic against my will. I can only describe the world, not offer prescriptions on how the world should change. The only thing I can do is help people understand the world.

One of your great questions is: “What values and practices could assure the cohesion of people when the institutions in which they live break down? What is your answer for your own life?

This book about craftsmanship that I am writing is something that interests me very much, something about devotion simply for its own sake.

Is this like playing the cello, for example?

I was a born musician. Writing was much harder for me – it was a lifelong lesson. Come back in three years and we will talk about my new book.

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