The future of the left since 1884

Jonathan Rutherford reviews Richard Sennett’s ‘Together’

Richard Sennett’s new book is a study of the practice of co-operation. It is the second of three in what he calls his ‘homo faber’ project – the idea of human beings as the makers of their own destiny through...


Richard Sennett’s new book is a study of the practice of co-operation. It is the second of three in what he calls his ‘homo faber’ project – the idea of human beings as the makers of their own destiny through work. The first book was The Craftsman in 2008. The third will be on making cities. Sennett is a sociologist whose prose has illuminated core experiences of life in modern capitalist societies. Like his other books, Together has the quality of popular scholarship, a difficult balance of theoretical exposition and storytelling. But unlike his other books he has made its structure more fragmentary, in an attempt to encourage a co-operative practice of dialogue between reader and author. In this respect the book attempts to communicate more than an analysis and description: it wants to practise a politics.

It is published at a time when as a society, we are no longer sure what it means to be together. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, ”this wishing to live together is silent, generally unnoticed, buried; one does not remark its existence until it falls apart.” After three decades of globalisation and uncontrolled capitalism, the anxiety of falling apart has erupted into the body politic in a variety of symptoms of economic insecurity and resentments toward immigration and welfare recipients. Neither tangible nor measurable, this falling apart is a structure of feeling that has been named variously as a ‘social recession’, and, with a more moralistic intent, ‘broken Britain’. A variety of antidotes have been prescribed, such as more co-operatives and mutuals, social indicators to measure happiness, and the still vague notions of responsible capitalism and the Big Society. But up to now the emergent politics of social life remains fizzing around the margins in movements like UK Uncut and Occupy.

Sennett has written on the practice of co-operation for the “intelligent general reader who quite properly asks: why does it matter?” In spite of the times we’re living in, the question threw me into a quandary, because the book didn’t convince me that it did matter. It’s not that I don’t believe in co-operation, only that the book didn’t feel that relevant to the predicament we’re in. Its intent to be dialogic and to practise a politics of co-operation had the effect of revealing a weakness that is symptomatic of left intellectual culture more generally.

If society is about connection and belonging, Together is disconnected. It doesn’t really belong anywhere. Sennett draws on an eclectic range of illustrations: Booker T Washington’s Tuskegee Institute for former slaves, Robert Owen’s Rochdale Principles, the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors in the National Gallery, Michael de Montaigne’s pet cat. Thinkers, historical figures, cultural references and ideas from across Europe and the United States are marshalled to describe and explain the practice of co-operation in all its various forms, from industrial to religious to psycho-analytical.

Together takes in everything but it ends up saying nothing in particular. Its scope is wide but it is never located in one place in one moment of time for long enough to give us a meaningful understanding of the experience of being together. After one hundred pages I found myself, metaphorically speaking, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, an unbound and featureless nowhere between places. Together is symptomatic of a problem with left intellectual culture that our present crisis and Labour’s disoriented foundering has brought to the fore: it jettisoned its moorings in national culture sometime back in the 1970s. From structuralism to Marxist theory, what mattered was undoing meaning, not securing it for a common purpose. It created a deracinated culture that forgot that people mostly live their lives in the parochial, and in the vernacular. It either ignored or was condescending toward the ordinary and the everyday. It favoured difference over sameness and abstract ends over democratic muddling through. The legacy of this disconnection is now evident in the intellectually impoverished struggle of social democracy across Europe to understand why millions of former voters feel abandoned by it and why so many have shifted toward the xenophobic right or nationalistic left.

The intellectual left has always prided itself on its openness to the world and its willingness to learn from other identities, cultures and nations. But its fascination with the radicalism of alterity downplayed the value of creating, rather than simply deconstructing, places and identities held in common. It still regards with suspicion people who express a passionate identification with the places they call home. And it is slow to recognise their fear, humiliation and vulnerability when the ties that bind them to these places are coming loose.

In the UK, Labour remains entangled in the legacy of the New Labour government, whose disconnected politics embraced globalisation and complied with the demands of financial capitalism. It tore up its roots and tried to deny its own history. There is no being together in an eternal present. To be together requires history to give meaning and context to our differences and relationships; it requires a location in which to encounter each other; and it requires the practice of reciprocity which is the ethical glue of our interdependency. These are the preconditions for being together and creating some form of common democratic polity.

We are living through the worst recession since the 1870s, a stalling of living standards unknown in the last century, and unprecedented levels of private debt. Are we all in this together? Directing the question at the bankers and their like, the answer is no. Applying the question to Sennett’s book and the broader intellectual politics it represents, the answer is ambiguous. The intellectual left has still to understand what exactly people are in before we can recognise that we are often not in there with them.

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