Richard Sennett on the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation

As if recovering from the binge of market triumphalism that crested in 2008, the Zeitgeist is now unleashing a steady stream of new works on cooperation.  The rediscovery of this aspect of our humanity is long overdue and incredibly important, given the deformities of thinking that economics has inflicted on public consciousness.  So I was excited to learn that the distinguished sociologist Richard Sennetthad written a new book about cooperation, Together:  The Rituals Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press). 

The pleasures of a book by Sennett is its extreme erudition, lightly worn and combined with a thoughtful personal voice and political conscience.  Sennett, now 69, teaches at the London School of Economics and New York University, after a lifetime of studying urban culture, class consciousness, labor and politics.  Together eschews the social science jargon that imprisons so many of Sennett’s colleagues, offering an engaging, far-ranging and subtle meditation on how human beings learn to cooperate.  He draws upon evolutionary science, sociological research, a life of field research, and his personal experiences as a celebrated political cosmopolitan.

The great value of Together is its creation of a fresh vocabulary for thinking more systematically about how cooperation occurs, and does not occur, in contemporary life.  This is quite a radical act considering the general orientation of economics and public policy, which tend to presume that we are all individuals living in isolation, as disconnected libertarian monads.  It's utterly false, of course, but we do not have a very developed or precise public narrative for asserting the opposite.  Sennett supplies one. 

Our ignorance about cooperation, at least as a cultural tradition, means that our institutions and technologies are often poorly designed.  They regularly presume that ordinary human beings are incapable of undertaking cooperation or negotiating complexity.  This is a theme that Sennett’s returns to again and again.  To make the point more vivid, he alludes to the failures of a piece of software produced by Google programmers called GoogleWave.  This program, released in 2010, was meant to facilitate online collaboration among groups.  Unfortunately, writes Sennett, Google didn’t understand the social dynamics of cooperation, and made the software overly complex and overly prescriptive.  He writes:

Information-sharing is an exercise in definition and precision, whereas communication is as much about what is left unsaid as said; communication mines the realm of suggestion and connotation…..in online exchanges like GoogleWave, where the visual dominates, it’s hard to convey irony or doubt; simple information-sharing subtracts expression…..Studies of corporations, hospitals and schools that run on email or email-like technologies show that shedding context often means shedding sense; understanding between people shrinks.

In other words, the potential for cooperation is often sabotaged by institutional failures to honor the rich complexity of human expressiveness and social life.  There is a bottom-up upswelling of social life that cannot be regimented or known in advance, and that should be honored and leveraged.  Why can’t institutions, politics, economics and law understand this? 

To help us understand what is necessary for cooperation to flourish, Sennett notes that conversations may actually follow two very different paths – the dialogic or the dialectic.  Dialectics is about “the verbal play of opposites that gradually builds up to a synthesis.”  But dialogics is about mutual exchange for its own sake.  As Sennett puts it, “The subjunctive mood is most at home in the dialogical domain, that world of talk that makes an open social space, where discussion can take an unforeseen direction.  The dialogic conversation… prospers through empathy, the sentiment of curiosity about who other people are in themselves.”

The commons, one might say, is all about opening up new dialogic spaces.  This is quite different from the mechanical, prescriptive way of thinking of policy wonks and bureaucrats.  It is more like the process fostered by the Occupy encampments and online communities.

Sennett’s sophistication about history and politics helps move our consideration of cooperation to rich new levels.  He notes, for example, that cooperation through political coalitions have a built-in paradox because solidarity is fragile:  “The more the Left cooperated in reform, the more it risked losing its own distinct identity, because negotiations behind the scenes involved bureaucratic complexities never explained to the public.  Increasingly, the political Left was sucked into the opaque machinery of the state; reform became increasingly difficult to distinguish from co-optation.” 

Sennett’s conclusion:  “cooperation at the apex of power produces a structural problem for all coalitions:  the loss of connection of the apex to its base.” 

This has obvious implications for the commons movement today.  But fortunately, today’s commoners are less involved in coalitions, as traditionally structured, than in networked cooperation.  Commoners are less prone to lose themselves in the politics of hierarchical structures (corporations, government agencies, political parties), and can remain rooted in their social base while advancing a political agenda. 

As a result, network-based politics is arguably more resistant to co-optation than traditional liberal (or conservative) activism.  Yet the informality of network-based politics has its own limitations.  Sennett, the son of Russian emigrants who grew up in the Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago in the 1950s, is quite familiar with Saul Alinsky, the famous Chicago community organizer.  And so he understands how political organizing is about “nurturing the tissues of community.”  But “informality always risks disorganization,” he quickly notes.  “The results of bonding in the community have to lead somewhere; action needs a structure, it has to become sustainable.”  So it is with networked communities:  they need sufficient structure to make their political advocacy sustainable.

Cooperation, then, has different aspects when it is applied in top-down politics rather than bottom-up politics:  “Top-down politics faces special problems in practicing cooperation, revealed in the forming and maintenance of coalitions; these often prove socially fragile.  Solidarity built from the ground up strives for cohesion among people who differ…..[By contrast], the social bonds forged rom the ground up can be strong, but their political force is often weak or fragmented.”

I have only scratched the surface here of Sennett’s rich explorations of cooperation.  He is masterful in explaining the “spectrum of exchange” that humans engage in, which he groups into five categories:  “altruistic exchange, which entails self-sacrifice; win-win exchange, in which both parties benefit; differentiating exchange, in which the partners become aware of their differences; zero-sum exchange, in which one party prevails at the expense of the other; and winner-takes-all exchange, in which one party wipes out the other.”   

Sennett’s key priority is to re-imagine the structural terms of cooperation for our time:  “Our social arrangements for cooperation need a Reformation.  Modern capitalism has unbalanced competition and cooperation, and so made cooperation itself less open, less dialogic….Zero-sum competition is veering toward the winners-takes-all extreme; the capitalist is becoming an apex predator.”  He notes that Freud’s “recipe for a good-quality life” was famously “love and work.”  But Sennett argues that this advice has a conspicuous omission:  “community is missing, the social limb is amputated.”  He argues that we need to imagine “community as a process of coming into the world, a process in which people work out both the value of face-to-face relations and the limits on those relations.” 

Why should we deepen our capacity for cooperating?  Sennett invokes Michel de Montaigne, who once wrote:  “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”  The point is, How can we fathom the inner life of other beings?  The only way is to engage with them.  Fortunately, this is also the path we must take to move beyond modern capitalism and its myriad forms of alienation.  Somehow we must rediscover “the skills people need to sustain everyday life.” 

Sennett appears to know little of various commons movements.  Together does not wade into the worlds of free software and digital commons, the various anti-enclosure movements, or the Elinor Ostrom school of commons scholarship.  Yet I like to think that he would find all of these encouraging developments.  People’s actual commitments to cooperation are more consequential and robust than he may imagine.  His book provides a timely and useful framework for advancing a shared challenge.