Friday, March 10, 2006

The psychopathy of the new capitalism

I've recently been reading The Culture of the New Capitalism, the latest slim tome from sociologist Richard Sennett. It's based on lectures he gave at Yale in 2004, looking, as the blurb has it, at the major differences between earlier forms of industrial capitalism and the more global, more febrile, ever more mutable version of capitalism that is taking its place.

Sennett picks out several themes from his studies of a particular kind of cutting-edge, new-economy corporate culture, as found in high technology, global finance and new service firms of at least 3000 employees. The key idea is the different cultural environment in these new capitalist entities. Gone is the heirarchical nature of the old corporation which, for all its operational shortcomings, provided everyone involved with a definite sense of purpose and belonging. In its place comes an amorphous structure characterised by casualisation, delayering and nonlinear sequencing - what Sennett rather modishly calls the MP3 player model:
The MP3 machine can be programmed to play only a few bands from its repertoire; similarly, the flexible organisation can select and perform only a few of its many possible functions at any given time [...] Linear development is replaced by a mind-set willing to jump around.

The unintended effect of this, Sennett argues, is an increasing inequality between a small nucleus of core managers and executives (the CPU of the MP3, if you will) and the surrounding nebula of dissociated flexible workers suffering from increasing stress and anxiety. The corporation meanwhile loses the long-term views and institutional knowledge engendered by the old rigid structure.

Only a certain kind of person can prosper in these fragmented institutions, Sennett says:
the culture of the new capitalism demands an ideal self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability rather than accomplishment, willing to discount or abandon past experience.

It seems only slightly mischevious to suggest that the ideal character traits for this new economy are not entirely dissimilar to what would usually be regarded as a psychopathic personality: a complete disregard for any sense of social obligation [...] lacking insight and any sense of responsibility or consequence [...] incapable of forming lasting relationships...

The idea will be rather familiar to anyone who's also read much JG Ballard - particularly his 2000 novel, Super-Cannes, in which the corporate elite of a vast ultra-modern business park indulge in carefully managed recreational violence and perversion as a natural part of their working lives.

That's not the only parallel. Sennett considers the 'specter of uselessness' haunting the professional middle class, who can no longer rely on securing a comfortable niche in the corporate entity. Compare with Ballard's Millennium People, where residents of a bourgeois London enclave stage a meaningless revolt against the erosion of their privileged position.

Sennett also ponders the political implications of this socio-economic insecurity in a consumerist culture: Do people shop for politicians in the way they shop at Wal-Mart? [...] The culture of the new capitalism is attunded to singular events, one-off transactions, interventions....
Ballard's latest novel - Kingdom Come, published this autumn - promises to ask whether consumerism can turn into fascism. Or, as his sociopathic psychiatrist in Super-Cannes had it: "The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won't walk out of the desert. They'll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks."

To be fair, I've very selectively quoted from Sennett here to support my own Ballard obsession - it's certainly not as mad as I might have made it sound, but it's still a provocative book that's well worth reading for anyone interested in how corporate culture affects the wider world.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Tim Chapman said...

Will Hutton in today's Observer has a good column on the Sennett book, concentrating on the 'Spectre of uselessness':

We are moving from a world which valued accomplishment, knowledge and craft into a new one which rates the capacity to change, to turn one's back on one's own history and to think only how to capitalise upon the next new thing. It is highly exclusive; only a few have the capacity to thrive in this environment and they do so by cutting off their own sense of anchoredness, so being party to their own destruction.
The rest, in varying degrees, are left beached by what is happening, tempted to give meaning to their lives by turning to cultures that make more sense, such as religion and nationalism. Thus, in the US, the rise of the Christian right; thus, in Europe, and even in Britain, the rise of nationalism.

1:11 pm, March 12, 2006  
Anonymous Kevin Gopal said...

Another Observer contributor, Oliver James, makes some similar points, although he suggests the psychopaths don't mind whether their capitalism is new or old:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1462339,00.html

4:15 pm, March 16, 2006  
Blogger Tim Chapman said...

The difference now (to take my extrapolation of Sennett's argument) is that it's not just the bosses any more - everyone working in or with these deconstructed corporations has to cultivate these personality traits to survive.

As the man said: "The advanced societies of the future will not be governed by reason. They will be driven by irrationality, by competing systems of psychopathology."

4:50 pm, March 16, 2006  

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