Hoe komt ‘sociaal’ terug in socialisme?

Nieuws | de redactie
3 april 2009 | Honouring the philosopher who passed away in 2006, March 18th saw the inauguration of the ‘Lolle Nauta Forum’ at his Groningen University. In Richard Sennett, the organizing committee, found a ‘public intellectual’ not shy of making a controversial statement or two. Sennett, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and Columbia University, New York, has written an impressive series of sociology and philosophy, blended in accessible prose; dealing mainly with the issue of work in capitalist society. Sennett: “I must start off with an apology: I don’t know what a public intellectual is."

“I know it’s meant to be a compliment, yet the problemof the work I do is not talking down to the public, it is one ofself-criticism: realizing that others, unlike ourselves offer usinsights we could not get from people like ourselves.” These wordsmark the deviation of his current project from his earlier work. Adeviation not of subject matter nor of argument, but one ofapproach. The fundament of this new project remains the problem hehas described in length in his impressive oeuvre, yet this approachis more practical in nature. Sennett: “I consider myself acritic of labour practices in modern capitalist, grounded inwritings of Marx and other 19th century materialists. Yet to takethe subject matter seriously, implies looking at it beyond namingwhat is wrong. This project is about how to get beyond failure. Ihad a notion that the capitalist system was unsustainable, but didnot expect this sudden a fall. How do we recover from it?”

The answer to this question, that much is clear from the outset,is not going to be a short one. Sennett: “Capitalism isunreformable, there is no prudent little step which willimprove our lives. It takes a rupture, an outside intervention, thealternative is radical socialism or simple submission. This is theslave saying to the master: “You know what? I’ve left you!” I wantto quit the field where we ask ourselves if we’ve remediedcapitalism. We should ask ourselves whether we’ve created somethingnew.”

A detriment to society

In the following, Sennett outlines the ‘failure’ of capitalism,and its effects on work practices and beyond. Focusing attention oncapitalism’s impact on ‘social time,’ Sennett argues: “When we talkabout the current mess of capitalism, it can be with regard to theswitch in the 70s to ‘impatient capital’, short-term materials,stocks, bonds and derivatives, rather than on ownership of firms.Their profitability became secondary to the tradability of itsstocks. Time in capitalism shortened: a focus on short rather thanlong time sustainability. This has had a profound effect on firmscaught up in this process.” Furthermore: “The time of workparallels this shortening time horizon.  An example of theeffect on loyalty and commitment in firms we can find in the burstof the ‘ICT bubble:’ when firms found themselves in trouble,employees simply walked out the door; they felt no stake in thefirm… and why should they? Time undid loyalty.”

Like loyalty, recognition of good work came to fall as the pace ofsocial time increased: “The mobility in the top of the work worldwas higher than in the lower rungs. And so emerged the ‘absentwitness problem,’ creating a structural tension in firms as peoplehave the feeling that reward and sanction have disappeared.Therefore, there is no recognition for good work. In earlier formsof work organization, there was some effort of skill building whichconstituted a form of reward for employees. It became standardmanagement practice in the 80s that workers ‘develop through work’.Yet this changed radically in the 90s. Rather than building up theskill of a particular employee, you could simply ‘buy’ that skillby outsourcing the job. The result of this was that experiencemattered less to workplace. Three social deficits were generated bythe system we have been living in, and is now crumbling; deficitsin association, in recognition and in bildung.”

A social(ist) project

So is the background to the project Sennett is intent toundertake. His aim: “to look at the positive project of socialism;renovating ideas and practices of socialism. Its resilience, itsrebirth has to involve making this project a civic ratherthan a political one. How, is the question, do we put backthe ‘social’ in socialism?” While his project is a young one, stillin its earliest phase of development, Sennett is able to offer somefood for thought: “As a new form of recognition, ‘place’ couldprovide what work has failed to do. The city itself could be aproject for people who are underemployed or without work.Collectives who police, who keep parks, in other words: to make themaintenance of the city a practice for people. Place will have todo for recognition and self worth what work did in the past. Wecannot anymore depend on the work world for this.” And: “We need toexplore firms of intermediary institutions which exist to provide asense of connection long-term in time that is missing in the workworld: anything from labour unions to any kind of voluntaryorganizations. A project of creating a sense of solidarity, ittakes the union out of its socialist political context, and turnsit into a compensatory community.”

In talking about socialism however Sennett is clear to distinguishpolitical socialism from its societal ideal, stressing that we needsocialist ideas which are “socially functional, but not in terms ofpower. Resilient socialism is not oriented to injury or injustice,yet the goal should be to create another social order which powercannot reach.” Sennett: “The project would die if it became apolitical movement, for the state as an ultimate address forsocialism implies codification, whereas these socialprocesses are resilient; they grow in social interaction notthrough presumption, and they offer unexpected results.Combating the evils of the capitalist workplace is to go around itin creating new forms of social interaction for people. The idea ofself and society through labour has to be set aside as we look foralternative means for connection, recognition and duration.”

And with these words Sennett’s concluded his argument, only toexchange it for the invitation with which he commenced his talk: tohear from people unlike ourselves in order to gain insight we couldnot get from people like ourselves.

Jonathan Mijs
www.socialscience.nl


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