Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation

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  • Book: Richard Sennett. Together: The Rituals Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. Yale University Press, 2012.


Living with people who differ—racially, ethnically, religiously, or economically—is the most urgent challenge facing civil society today. We tend socially to avoid engaging with people unlike ourselves, and modern politics encourages the politics of the tribe rather than of the city. In this thought-provoking book, Richard Sennett discusses why this has happened and what might be done about it.

Sennett contends that cooperation is a craft, and the foundations for skillful cooperation lie in learning to listen well and discuss rather than debate. In Together he explores how people can cooperate online, on street corners, in schools, at work, and in local politics. He traces the evolution of cooperative rituals from medieval times to today, and in situations as diverse as slave communities, socialist groups in Paris, and workers on Wall Street. Divided into three parts, the book addresses the nature of cooperation, why it has become weak, and how it could be strengthened. The author warns that we must learn the craft of cooperation if we are to make our complex society prosper, yet he reassures us that we can do this, for the capacity for cooperation is embedded in human nature.


David Bollier:

"The pleasures of a book by Sennett is its extreme erudition, lightly worn and combined with a thoughtful personal voice and political conscience. Sennett, now 69, teaches at the London School of Economics and New York University, after a lifetime of studying urban culture, class consciousness, labor and politics. Together eschews the social science jargon that imprisons so many of Sennett’s colleagues, offering an engaging, far-ranging and subtle meditation on how human beings learn to cooperate. He draws upon evolutionary science, sociological research, a life of field research, and his personal experiences as a celebrated political cosmopolitan.

The great value of Together is its creation of a fresh vocabulary for thinking more systematically about how cooperation occurs, and does not occur, in contemporary life. This is quite a radical act considering the general orientation of economics and public policy, which tend to presume that we are all individuals living in isolation, as disconnected libertarian monads. It's utterly false, of course, but we do not have a very developed or precise public narrative for asserting the opposite. Sennett supplies one.

Our ignorance about cooperation, at least as a cultural tradition, means that our institutions and technologies are often poorly designed. They regularly presume that ordinary human beings are incapable of undertaking cooperation or negotiating complexity. This is a theme that Sennett’s returns to again and again. To make the point more vivid, he alludes to the failures of a piece of software produced by Google programmers called GoogleWave. This program, released in 2010, was meant to facilitate online collaboration among groups. Unfortunately, writes Sennett, Google didn’t understand the social dynamics of cooperation, and made the software overly complex and overly prescriptive. He writes:

Information-sharing is an exercise in definition and precision, whereas communication is as much about what is left unsaid as said; communication mines the realm of suggestion and connotation…..in online exchanges like GoogleWave, where the visual dominates, it’s hard to convey irony or doubt; simple information-sharing subtracts expression…..Studies of corporations, hospitals and schools that run on email or email-like technologies show that shedding context often means shedding sense; understanding between people shrinks.

In other words, the potential for cooperation is often sabotaged by institutional failures to honor the rich complexity of human expressiveness and social life. There is a bottom-up upswelling of social life that cannot be regimented or known in advance, and that should be honored and leveraged. Why can’t institutions, politics, economics and law understand this?

To help us understand what is necessary for cooperation to flourish, Sennett notes that conversations may actually follow two very different paths – the dialogic or the dialectic. Dialectics is about “the verbal play of opposites that gradually builds up to a synthesis.” But dialogics is about mutual exchange for its own sake. As Sennett puts it, “The subjunctive mood is most at home in the dialogical domain, that world of talk that makes an open social space, where discussion can take an unforeseen direction. The dialogic conversation… prospers through empathy, the sentiment of curiosity about who other people are in themselves.”

The commons, one might say, is all about opening up new dialogic spaces. This is quite different from the mechanical, prescriptive way of thinking of policy wonks and bureaucrats. It is more like the process fostered by the Occupy encampments and online communities.

Sennett’s sophistication about history and politics helps move our consideration of cooperation to rich new levels. He notes, for example, that cooperation through political coalitions have a built-in paradox because solidarity is fragile: “The more the Left cooperated in reform, the more it risked losing its own distinct identity, because negotiations behind the scenes involved bureaucratic complexities never explained to the public. Increasingly, the political Left was sucked into the opaque machinery of the state; reform became increasingly difficult to distinguish from co-optation.”

Sennett’s conclusion: “cooperation at the apex of power produces a structural problem for all coalitions: the loss of connection of the apex to its base.”

This has obvious implications for the commons movement today. But fortunately, today’s commoners are less involved in coalitions, as traditionally structured, than in networked cooperation. Commoners are less prone to lose themselves in the politics of hierarchical structures (corporations, government agencies, political parties), and can remain rooted in their social base while advancing a political agenda.

As a result, network-based politics is arguably more resistant to co-optation than traditional liberal (or conservative) activism. Yet the informality of network-based politics has its own limitations. Sennett, the son of Russian emigrants who grew up in the Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago in the 1950s, is quite familiar with Saul Alinsky, the famous Chicago community organizer. And so he understands how political organizing is about “nurturing the tissues of community.” But “informality always risks disorganization,” he quickly notes. “The results of bonding in the community have to lead somewhere; action needs a structure, it has to become sustainable.” So it is with networked communities: they need sufficient structure to make their political advocacy sustainable.

Cooperation, then, has different aspects when it is applied in top-down politics rather than bottom-up politics: “Top-down politics faces special problems in practicing cooperation, revealed in the forming and maintenance of coalitions; these often prove socially fragile. Solidarity built from the ground up strives for cohesion among people who differ…..[By contrast], the social bonds forged rom the ground up can be strong, but their political force is often weak or fragmented.”

I have only scratched the surface here of Sennett’s rich explorations of cooperation. He is masterful in explaining the “spectrum of exchange” that humans engage in, which he groups into five categories: “altruistic exchange, which entails self-sacrifice; win-win exchange, in which both parties benefit; differentiating exchange, in which the partners become aware of their differences; zero-sum exchange, in which one party prevails at the expense of the other; and winner-takes-all exchange, in which one party wipes out the other.”

Sennett’s key priority is to re-imagine the structural terms of cooperation for our time: “Our social arrangements for cooperation need a Reformation. Modern capitalism has unbalanced competition and cooperation, and so made cooperation itself less open, less dialogic….Zero-sum competition is veering toward the winners-takes-all extreme; the capitalist is becoming an apex predator.” He notes that Freud’s “recipe for a good-quality life” was famously “love and work.” But Sennett argues that this advice has a conspicuous omission: “community is missing, the social limb is amputated.” He argues that we need to imagine “community as a process of coming into the world, a process in which people work out both the value of face-to-face relations and the limits on those relations.”

Why should we deepen our capacity for cooperating? Sennett invokes Michel de Montaigne, who once wrote: “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?” The point is, How can we fathom the inner life of other beings? The only way is to engage with them. Fortunately, this is also the path we must take to move beyond modern capitalism and its myriad forms of alienation. Somehow we must rediscover “the skills people need to sustain everyday life.” (http://bollier-host1.gaiahost.net/richard-sennett-rituals-pleasures-and-politics-cooperation)

Frank Furedi:

"Richard Sennett, author of the magisterial sociological text The Fall of Public Man, has always been interested in the way that relationships are mediated through the changing contours of cultural exchanges. In Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, Sennett embarks on a fresh exploration of one of the oldest conundrums facing social theory, which is how cooperation between people is forged and maintained. A long time before Georg Simmel asked “how is society possible?”, philosophers and scholars tried to discover the secret of cooperation. In the 18th century, Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith took the view that pursuit of self-interest led to cooperation. A century later, Karl Marx enthused about how cooperation expressed the creation of a new force, “the collective power of masses”.

Since the late 19th century, social theorists have been more concerned with addressing the problem of the absence or decline of cooperation, rather than its presence. At a time when society is often diagnosed as selfish and greedy, it is increasingly difficult to be enthusiastic about the potential for cooperation. In line with contemporary experience, Sennett is sensitive to the difficulty that contemporary society has in giving meaning to cooperation. Through presenting the reader with a series of contrasting vignettes between the past and the present, Sennett leaves us in no doubt about the erosion of society’s capacity to cooperate. “We are losing the skills of cooperation needed to make a complex society work,” he warns.

Historical experience shows that cooperation thrives through the deepening of informal links between people. The flourishing of cooperation is paralleled by the growth of taken-for-granted habits and attitudes. Although validated through the force of custom, real cooperation always retains a voluntary and subjective dimension. It also requires trust. Simmel describes mutual trust as “both less and more than knowledge”. It is on the basis of learned expectations that people feel empowered to trust and are prepared to make the leap of faith required for cooperation.

Although Sennett deals with a range of symptoms of the current fragility of cooperation, his most significant contribution is his attempt to draw attention to the difficulty that people have in forging and sustaining informal relationships in contemporary society. In his study of working-class families in Boston in the 1970s - published in 1972 in The Hidden Injuries of Class, co-authored with Jonathan Cobb - Sennett found that one of the most important cultural resources that manual workers had at their disposal was the informal ties they had created. These allowed the workers that Sennett interviewed to deal with their alienation, the demands of their work and their employers. These informal networks also helped consolidate “mutual respect and cooperation during a crisis”. The positive contribution that informality can make to the life of a community is particularly evident in an emergency. In an unexpected crisis, the formal rules and ways of doing things often prove to be inadequate for the new circumstances. Research carried out on how communities respond to a disaster indicates that informal networks are far more flexible than formal institutions in handling the situation. Sennett writes that “moments of crisis” reveal the “fragility of formal organization and correspondingly the strength of informal collaboration”.

When Sennett interviewed former white-collar workers on Wall Street, 40 years after his Boston study, he found that a very different dynamic prevailed. The bonds of informality were conspicuously feeble. Together does not quite provide a convincing account that explains the demise of informality, but it gives a compelling account of its consequences. The book argues that informality can flourish only when it is underpinned by long-established and durable institutions. Pointing to the reorganisation of capitalism since the early 1980s, the author contends that with the shake-out of industry, the rise of part-time work and the loss of shared time, “people’s experience of one another and knowledge of their institutions has shortened”.

Explanations that rely on structural innovation to account for the decline of cooperation no doubt had an influence on undermining informality. But organisational instability need not undermine cooperation. Industrial instability, punctured by periods of unemployment, coexisted with a robust culture of informal cooperation in many working-class communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. What corrodes informality may well be cultural influences that are hostile to its existence. Sennett develops a more promising line of enquiry when he reflects on the distinction made by the financier George Soros between a momentary “transaction” and sustained “relationships”, and how the latter has been displaced by the former.

When relationships are displaced by an ethos of transaction, it fosters a culture that explicitly devalues the role of informality. The clearest manifestation of the displacement of relationships by transactions has been the rise of process. The juridification of different areas of social experience means that people are left with little discretion to make their way. They are expected to follow procedure rather than cooperate. The expansion of process through codes of conduct leads not only to the micromanagement of behaviour, but also to the stigmatisation of informal networks. Terms such as “peer culture”, “canteen culture” or “old boy network” are morally devalued and invariably treated as something to be banned or regulated. Yet back in 1970s Boston, such networks constituted some of the most significant informal networks through which cooperation gained definition.

Today, informality and spontaneous behaviour are often regarded as a potential breach of contract by human resources departments. This formalisation of relationships is not a by-product of overzealous managerialism, but a symptom of society’s estrangement from the uncertainties associated with informality. Sennett rightly observes that “formality favours authority and seeks to prevent surprise”. Informal relations are by definition fluid and unpredictable. Precisely because such relations involve an element of give and take, their pursuit could lead to unpredictable outcomes. The reason why Sennett’s Boston workers cultivated relations of cooperation is because, through that interactive dynamic, they gained a measure of self-respect and a glimmer of agency.

One insidious manifestation of formalisation is that it seeks to bind informal relations to its own logic. Through colonising people’s life world, the managerial imperative empties informality of content and then recycles it as a tool of management. In numerous organisations, a managerial variant of cooperation is encouraged through orchestrating “teamwork”. In some cases, teamwork is imposed on otherwise isolated individuals. Is it any surprise that business schools and consultants offer coaching in “how to display cooperativeness as a team player”? It appears that the more that real cooperation declines, the more people are exhorted to perform their role as “team players”. “Short-term teamwork, with its feigned solidarity, its superficial knowledge of others”, notes Sennett, represents the very opposite of cooperation.

So can something be done to restore informal trust relations and foster a climate in which cooperation can thrive? Sennett does not accept that the situation cannot be reversed. He is aware that there are no simple solutions to this problem. He sees the “de-skilling” of people in the practice of cooperation as constituting the central obstacle to overcome. The problem that confronts us is that a skill required for the conduct of human relations - such as cooperation - needs to be learned but cannot be taught. We have a long journey ahead of us, and Sennett reminds us that we had better start practising it."