4016 Fall07 Questions and Discussion 14
This week's class question:
What are the three most important questions related to globalization?
This week's respondent:Leila May-Landy
Sennett’ s analysis of the impact the ’new’ capitalism has had on our concept of work and on an individual’s personal narrative is an excellent backdrop against which we can examine how the forces of the global economy have transformed our lives as individuals and as members of a community. The narratives of Enrico, a hardworking janitor from an immigrant community, and his son, Rico, a ‘successful’ consultant, offer Sennett the opportunity to juxtapose the post-WWII generation with that of the late 20th century. It is through these biographical sketches that we understand predicament of the 21st century ‘Everyman.’
Enrico’s life unfolded within a ‘linear’ concept of time which allowed him to have an identity built upon the experiences he accumulated in his life. This ‘narrative’ assigned him a place within his local community and conferred the “reciprocal effect” of recognition in the corroboration of his private and public self. As Sennett points out, the traditional bureaucratic hierarchy he worked in allowed Enrico to ‘serve his time’ in a low-paying union job and in a ‘predictable’ progression to improve his lifestyle and gain the financial means to send his sons to college. The ‘long-term, narrative time’ of his world allowed to him to build deep relationships of “trust, loyalty, and mutual commitment.” Enrico’s character is, thus, built upon these long-term values which require temporal and spatial stability.
In complete contrast, the world in which Rico operates is guided by the vagaries of the ‘new capitalism’ which weaken both the bonds among people and one’s ‘sense of sustainable self.’ The pressure to generate ‘rapid returns’ created ‘flatter and more flexible’ workplaces which replaced rigid hierarchies with networks that are constantly being redefined. In these networks, the individual advances by filling and exploiting the “’holes’ in an organization” instead of advancing up the “slots for promotion in a traditional bureaucratic pyramid.” Thus, the individual is engaged in a continual process of remaking himself depending on the needs of the organization in his working in. In a series of short-term engagements as consultants, Rico and others in his predicament work in project-based groups which do not require the formation of ‘long-term’ relationships. As ‘contingent workers,’ they develop ‘weaker ties’ and ‘fleeting forms of association’ that are based on a semblance of congeniality, cooperation and commitment. In this light, an individual’s ‘narrative’ is series of vignettes in which “one has no sense of his character unfolding or his ideals evolving.” Disconnected from his past in the workplace and in his community, Rico is living with the anomie of the twenty-first century derived from “the global marketplace and the uses of new technologies,” which have further dehumanized the workplace and given rise to the short-term behavior ‘the meeting mindset’ which promotes false personas and undermines the values based on long-term narratives.
With the dissolution of the linear concept of time, Rico’s life lacks the stability necessary for him to construct his personal narrative. As Sennett points out, Rico refused to criticize the corporation that downsized him because blaming the corporation would have been akin to admitting his loss of control over his life. He is in a state of perpetual insecurity in a work environment that demands constant change and with its promotion of weak ties, disfavors the long-term values of commitment and loyalty. Hence, ‘no long term’ employment undermines the individual’s effort to create a sense of self from the narrative of his life experience.
"The conditions of time in the new capitalism have created a conflict between character and experience, the experience of disjointed time threatening the ability of people to form their characters into sustained narratives."
With the exigencies of an ‘impatient capitalist economy,’ these conditions along with the fear and uncertainty they engender have become the norm. The ironic twist to Rico’s story is that he has adopted some of his father’s characteristics that he rejected as a young person. He has become a “cultural conservative,” who scorns minorities and those on welfare, and, in his effort to raise his children not to become ‘mall rats,’ he favors an authoritarian approach to parenting. But this approach has failed, and Rico has no way to transmit either his narrative or his values to his children.
In chapter five, it becomes clear that the loss of the linear narrative and the deregulation of time and space create “’cognitive dissonance’ – conflicting frames of meaning.” As Sennett describes this state, “the person in these toils becomes prisoner of the present, fixated its dilemmas” and is in a state of perpetual reinvention.
The picture that Sennett paints of Rico’s world is one of superficial relationships in which with the breakdown of commitments easily leads to self-interest and the suspension of commitment to others, the loosening of social bonds. The corrosion of character derives from the ‘no long term’ since as Sennett points out in the introduction to the book:
"Perhaps the most confusing aspect of flexibility is its impact on personal character. The old English speakers, and indeed writers going back to antiquity, were in no doubt about the meaning of “character”: it is the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations to others. Horace writes that the character of a man depends on his connections to the world. In this sense, “character” is a more encompassing term than its more modern offspring “personality,” which concerns desires and sentiments which may fester within, witnessed by no one else.
Character particularly focuses upon the long-term aspect of our emotional experience. Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end. Character concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others.
How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment? How can long-term goals be pursued in an economy devoted to the short-term? How can mutual loyalties and commitments be sustained in institutions which are constantly breaking apart or continually being redesigned? These are the questions about our character posed by the new, flexible capitalism." (page 10 The Corrosion of Character)
Although I have numerous questions about globalization, I have tried to formulate three questions based on the Sennett reading.
1. Will current and future generations be able to construct long-term personal narratives within which they can develop strong personal values? (Do you predict a future of steadily increasing instability?)
2. Has our sense of commitment eroded to the point where we only have the semblance of caring for others? (In other words, have we adopted the ‘meeting mindset’ in which we feign cooperation and concern with a short attention span? Are we only able to respond to short-term disasters/issues/problems rather than deal with long-term commitments and solutions?)
3. Will the new capitalism with all of the inequities that it creates continue to prevail in the global economy? (Will we recognize the connection that the inequities among and within countries are intensified by this new capitalism? Will the new global economy change its course?)
Here are more general questions on globalization.
1. (the individual) Have we been disempowered by globalization? To what extent has human agency been lost? What impact does the cognitive dissonance we face in a globalized world have on us as individuals? Is this dissonance destabilizing?
2. (society) Have globalization and the advances in communication technology truly brought the world closer together? Is there merely a semblance of proximity and shared space and experience? Are we able to better understand each other? Is the sense of a global community fictional (virtual) or real? Will this sense of community yield any tangible results? Is it possible that globalization has actually divided the world along different lines and created groups with different identities and commitments than those imposed by the nation-state? Is it, in fact, merely an instrument to advance the agendas of special interest groups (MNCs, supranational organizations (NGOs, terrorist groups, religious/missionary groups,..)?
3. (politics) As printing press brought about the creation of the nation-state, what will be the impact of globalization on international political structures? What will they look like?
4. (the economy) See number 3 of the Sennett questions.