Two books into a trilogy that he calls “the homo faber project”, the sociologist and philosopher Richard Sennett is revealing just what an ambitious task he has set himself. It is no less than to investigate the skills we need “to sustain everyday life”. Along the way, he is developing an uncanny knack of tuning into the zeitgeist through what seems like a crackly old wireless. In The Craftsman, Sennett demonstrated that true craftsmanship stems from a desire to do a job well for its own sake. With consumer culture in the grip of craft fetishism and global brands desperately trying to market their goods as “handmade”, it was an incredibly timely book that used the medieval guilds and the workshop of Antonio Stradivari to expound its thesis. Now comes Together, a book about the art of cooperation that appears tailor made for this febrile moment of social networking, the Arab Spring and the 99% movement. And yet none of those phenomena feature in it.
Sennett’s central idea is that as individuals and as a society we need to learn how to engage with those who are different from ourselves. Bridging social inequality and ethnic or religious differences requires cooperation. And cooperation, he argues, building on the previous book, is essentially a craft. Charting its historical development, Sennett takes us from chivalric conduct to the rules of civility set down for renaissance princes by Balthasar Castiglione to the rituals of modern diplomacy. But rather than simply a history of human social skills, this is an analysis of how effective or not different methods of engagement are. Sennett argues for a dialogic approach – one conducive to an open-ended dialogue – rather than a dialectical one, which takes opposition for granted. Thus Castiglione’s sprezzatura, the prince’s lightness of manner, or the indirectness of British speech, with all our “mights” and “possiblies”, are tools that leave room for empathy and agreement.
Though interesting in themselves, such insights start to carry real weight when Sennett uses them to prove that particular social and political systems are structured in ways that inhibit mutual understanding. For instance, consumer society is inherently divisive because, as every marketer knows, it promotes “invidious comparison” – that feeling of inadequacy that ensues from your friend’s TV being better than yours. Similarly, finance capitalism Sennett finds to be intrinsically uncivil – not just because it contributes nothing to society, but because of a lack of cooperation between management and their staff. Authority is also a skill, and it involves listening to some back-room underling when he tries to tell you that the numbers don’t add up.
But if finance capitalism is not dialogical, then neither is its opposite: Marxism. Sennett argues that one of the historical failures of the Left is its focus on solidarity. Such dialectical, us-against-them togetherness is simply designed to fail because it precludes cooperation. It’s an astute piece of reasoning. And, despite it, Sennett remains optimistic. As he demonstrates, the tools of cooperation have been honed over the centuries, we just need to practice our craft.
In every sense, this is a book for our times. As Sennett states, “modern society is in urgent need of repair”, with widening inequality, growing tension over immigration, dwindling employment and diminishing trust. Meanwhile, with all our social media, our social skills wilt and we email our colleague at the neighbouring desk. So why isn’t the challenge viewed through contemporary issues? Sennett barely touches on social networking, except to point out that kids are becoming machine-dependent for friendship. Nor does he mention the recent wave of popular uprisings and the rise of a political discourse, in the Occupy movement, that emphasises the collective good. One reason is that most of this book will have been written before those events occurred. Yet he makes room for a coda, and then dedicates it to Michel de Montaigne. It’s a frustrating decision. But there is a lifetime of learning in this volume, and Sennett is as absorbing a thinker as ever. He leaves me full of anticipation for the final book in the trilogy, on the craft of city-making.