A Review of The Corrosion of Character, The Personal Consequences Of Work In the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett
Lately there has been a lot of talk about the flexibility of the labor market: flexible working hours, flexible jobs, flexible working positions and even flexibility in changing professions. Even late capitalism itself is defined as flexible. One might think that because of this apparent mobility, this type of capitalism is less detrimental than the original capitalism Marx analyzed. However, Sennett argues, it may be even worse because it oppresses the workers in a more devious and invisible manner. How does this new capitalism “depress” its workers? It blocks the evolution of their careers. The word career comes from the expression “track for wheeled vehicles”, therefore the possibility of following a given direction with dedication and continuity. Today, this course is no longer possible. In a world that requires of its workers to be constantly adaptable to change in every moment and on every level, building a profession is impossible: You can’t accumulate or improve your skills, neither can you build interpersonal relationships as communications on the workplace are brief and many times long-distance. We live in a time, Sennett argues, in which memory supports us, but only when it’s short term: the day before yesterday is already distant, blurry, forgotten.
The flexibility that the market asks of us today leads to paradoxical results: As workers, we become more mobile as well as rigid, impoverished, emotionally dehydrated. This is also because this network job system allows us to handle knots on unknown or parallel networks. The complete lack of routine or daily habits prevents workers form building strong and significant relationships, and this has important repercussions on an affective and a domestic level.
Today, in families there is a complete lack of regulations: The father is supposed to establish the regulations and is supposed to insert himself in the mother-child dyad, so as to create a connection between the child and reality outside of its relationship with the mother. However, today the father is a blurry figure, incapable of fixing staples in the child’s growth. This creates disoriented individuals that end up taking part in society.
A very interesting topic Sennett tackles is narration: In this fragmented, divided reality that has no solid beliefs, the individual has no way of telling their own story either to themselves or to other people in a linear and continuous manner. We no longer have a linear story of our professional life. In the past, catastrophic events like plagues and wars interrupted personal narrations, but those kind interruptions did not disintegrate the individual’s concept of themselves, they were mere pauses, breaks, fractures that eventually called for the individual to rebuild themselves. That is except for those who were so damaged by these events and that were injured on a deeper level, as were the cases of war neurosis that Sigmund Freud studied so carefully. Today we constantly experience confusion and fragmentation that do not have an identifiable cause.
Sennett’s essay is rough, disturbing, and sadly truthful.
Translation by Marina Traylor