ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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New Regimes of Work

New Regimes of Work The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett; W W Norton and Company, London and New York, 1998.

As an unabashed admirer of Richard Sennett’s work on the city, I began eagerly reading this long essay (or short book) to relieve the tedium of revising my own prose.1 I was not disappointed: the book is simply unputdownable, elegantly written and acutely insightful. It may seem ironical to say of a book which takes the more pernicious consequences of the new international (capitalist) world order as its object that it was an energising read, but there, I have said it. Sennett uncovers the systematic ways in which ‘flexible capitalism’ so thoroughly reorganises the workplace, hierarchies, commitment and trust so that work, work ethic and indeed character are thoroughly recast. He does this through his extended discussion of three sets of workers, their encounters with opportunity and failure, and through his skilful deployment of historical reflections on the meaning of work, trust and discipline.

It would be a mistake to read this book as being ‘haunted by the memory of better days’, of stable jobs and fixed working hours and conditions, of slow incremental improvements in wages, of craft pride and work discipline, a picture that labour historians, myself included, would find incomplete without the complementary picture of workers enduring and fighting against these stifling regimes of power. Sennett’s burden, rather, is to take the uncertainties of new regimes of work as a starting point, uncertainties that are not so dramatic as, say, the closure of a plant, but are pervasive and everyday, where instability is normalised (p 31): a careful comparison is then drawn between two forms of capitalism, and the ways in which the moral-ethical horizon of the worker is redrawn. “The conditions of time in the new capitalism”, he says, “have created a conflict between character and experience, the experience of disjointed time threatening the ability of people to form their character into sustained narratives” (p 31).

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