Book share: The Culture of the New Capitalism, by Richard Sennett

Sennett’s writing alternately confirmed and conflicted with my reality. He describes experiences I have had or paths I am living, such as the idealized self of the “new-page order,” adding to my understanding of my narrative. On the other hand, he describes worlds that I only know through Mad Men or The Social Network, the latter of which epitomizes the modern world as somewhere anyone can make their own success through innovative ideas and the internet.

My identity as a hopeful person is a reaction to the daily, haunting fear that the world is on the verge of biological and social collapse and no doubt influenced by a perceived impotency to make a difference. In this way, I connected with Sennett’s description of buying possibilities: computers that are much more powerful than we’ll use, SUVs, etc. It made me think instantly of all the sports equipment my husband and I only realize we have when we move. I guess we keep it in hopes that we’ll once again be regular campers and rock climbers or play backyard bocci games. That said, I maintain hopefulness by believing that good old American tenet that we are generally making progress and that I contribute to that by working for better education for kids. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, “The arc of the Moral Universe Is long, but It bends toward Justice.”

I have a hard time with nostalgia. Sennett’s admission of it on page 2 got my dander up for the rest of the book. Nostalgia has its place in honoring the past and connecting our personal narrative, but memories are capricious and myopic. While the Weberian pyramid of social capatalism may have provided stability, only a small slice of the population had access to it and the other benefits of the day. There have been other times in history that different people have been forced to migrate or develop new skills, and forget their pasts. He himself describes the picture of it with the men from the Great Depression. I understand that he says that they at least had the hope of education for their kids. I don’t know whether the fresh-page way has truly opened doors, but I have to hope that we are on a general trajectory of equity and access for the disenfranchised. I do worry that the focus on potential and personal worth will, as he talks about, make it in fact harder for people without all the resources and privileges to succeed, but I would rather deal with the opportunities and challenges of the present. I feel that Sennett focuses on what was good about the past and what is challenging about the future, with only small notes about the opportunities of the fresh page.

Sennett’s focus on the spector of uselessness generated some interesting questions both in my beliefs and experiences. I grew up in a family that unequivocally adhered to the Puritanical virtue of work, and I realized in reading this how much I subconsciously accuse others, mostly older generations that a struggling in the workplace with an unwillingness or incapacity to learn new skills. This was particularly true of teachers who were resistant to using technology in their classrooms. Was it the specter of uselessness that haunted them? If they tried something new and failed, would it confirm for them that their life’s work, and thus they, were useless? I tend to have the mantra that things are the way they’ve always been, but this fresh-page characterisation of new capitalism makes me wonder. Maybe if I listen to Sennett and choose to value experience, I’ll believe him that this is troubled times, but if I choose potential, then I’ll do what younger generations have always done and stick with my own assessment.

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