Artwork by Amy Browne

Being Present in Our Problems

Sociologist Richard Sennett considers how collective actions and concerns can help us to counter politics of individualism and isolation.

Richard Sennett is the author of Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. He can be heard on the latest episode of Serpentine Podcast, REWORLDING: Relating, which asks how relationships to others can transform our worlds and includes Rory Pilgrim, Sumayya Vally, Amal Khalaf, and more.

Here, we share a longer excerpt of Sennett’s interview for REWORLDING, as conducted by Nada Smiljanic, an audio producer at Reduced Listening. Here, Sennett approaches the importance of finding ways to connect and cooperate meaningfully, to find collective agency, and to overcome the fragmented and individualistic nature of contemporary relations and communications we experience under neoliberalism.

Artwork by Amy Browne

What drew you to work on cooperation and connection, and why are these important for society?

Thirty years ago, I was the president of the American Council of Work, an organisation that dealt mostly with strikes; I handled nurses strikes and strikes by graduate students, postgraduate students, university staff. I had always been interested in labour, and this was a wakeup call on the role of cooperation, and the importance of always keeping lines of communication open between contending parties, no matter how tense the situation.

This approach doesn’t feel very present today, when the ability and attitude of government officials in negotiation seems very poor. In recent years I’ve consistently been struck by how socially inept the current Conservative UK government has been, even when negotiating among themselves; they can’t see anything beyond their own blatant infighting, and we all pay the price for that.

Recently, I’ve written more and more about lack of cooperation and breakdowns of cooperation in society. Every modern business privileges teamwork in theory – while in practice, they don’t do it at all. A zero-hours contract, for example, is no way to cooperate with somebody else. The ‘official’ ideology, in situations like these, is often completely at odds with our ways of organising the economy.

Today, it’s often thought by neoliberals that we don’t really need to connect to others, and that people are pretty much free autonomous agents. That’s a fantasy that does us a lot of harm. Nobody can survive without cooperation of other people. No child could ever grow up without depending on other people, and without those kinds of interconnections that help you to mature as a human being. Similarly, no country can thrive without cooperating with other nations.

When I hear Brexit enthusiasts say, “Britain has to take back its own autonomy make its own decisions,” I understand that these are people who have had very privileged lives in which they’re unconscious of all the support, and all the dependence that’s necessary for a country to thrive, in just the same way it is for an individual. So, to me, even the question of ‘why do we need connections with other people’, the fact we have to articulate that, is a reflection of where we’re at in Britain, where the reality of how fundamentally important it is to be connected to others has been distorted.

Artwork by Amy Browne

In the labour market, and in life, what stops people from connecting with and relating to each other?

The short-term and contextless character of our communications gets in the way of people connecting. The fragmentation of how we message and the way in which social media is organised has, at a fundamental level, removed narrative – and without sustaining narratives, it’s very hard for people to communicate in any deep or complete way. All they can do is talk in a denotative way, rather than a connotative way: one which can allow for all the ambience, subtle implications, context, and emotional intelligence of wider communication. Denotative meanings are overt, and they are about the literal meaning of language. It’s the sort of things artificial intelligence can pick up on. But this is actually very restricted.

Connotation is what we recognise around what people say, as well as silence and what they leave unsaid. Because we might know the other person or the setting they’re in, we understand what they communicate in a different way. In denotative language, everything has to be overt. You have to say everything you want to be understood if you’re using short, text-based communications, and that means that you actually communicate much less. We know that if you go from sending a text to using a voicenote, then from that to using a video call or FaceTime, each time you enormously expand the communication that’s happening. Then, if you go from that to spending real time with people, the penumbra of communication gets bigger and bigger.

It means something for people to be silent, or to use body language – and reading this takes time. So, in my writing about cooperation, and as an analyst, I am particularly focused on how to get people more time with each other.

Of course, this has an economic side to it. If you’re an Uber driver, or a delivery person, you don’t have any kind of sustained work relations with anybody else, you just have encounters. This is the social side of the zero-hours era – service interactions should be as short as possible, and at any moment, a relationship can be broken. There’s also a question of how we recover the time in which people can develop narratives about each other: understandings which can be implicit and contextual, and can be tested over a long-term period. This is the space in which we can recognise the connotation around what people say – as well as what they leave unsaid – and in which our knowledge of the other person, the setting, the context allows further understanding of what is expressed.

Artwork by Amy Browne

What can people do, individually or collectively, that would foster a new value system that is different to this neoliberal individualist model?

The clue lies in 19th century Britain, when there was no welfare state for workers, and people had to voluntarily make up the institutions that would allow them to bury their dead, pay for healthcare, or cobble together money for a mortgage. That was how working class people made a presence of their social connections. When nobody was helping them out, they did it for themselves.

It’s hard for us to imagine that civil society could make up for an absence of government, because we’ve gotten so used to the notion that if there’s a problem, the government should solve it – but we’re learning that we can’t trust governments to do that. We need to get out of the trap of thinking that when you’re hurt, you wait for the powerful to address it. I very strongly believe that instead, we need to reanimate civil society to do the things that power will not do for us.

That means new versions of voluntary organisations online, crowdfunding, and platforms that are basically the opposite of Twitter and allow people to communicate accountably. Another model is something like Co-Op, which is owned by the people who shop there; you can cooperatively own banks that way, too. I’ve also been working on how we can use the conditions of city life, where everybody is very diverse, to make civic organisations that reflect that kind of diversity. This is a way of getting out of the trap of thinking that when you’re hurt, the powerful are the ones who should address that hurt.

In a way, this isn’t very original – this was a notion held by Alexis de Tocqueville, who was a 19th century politician and writer on society. He said that, basically, politicians are just hopeless, if you are looking for them for help. It doesn’t matter what their ideology is. Once you believe that, then things like unions become really important. When I worked at the Council of Work, we were working against the tide, trying to strengthen union provisions of welfare for their members, which is very unpopular thing to do in America, and especially in Reagan-era America, where the idea was that unions were holding you back, individually. It’s the same thing with these Conservatives who are in power in the UK now.

These civil society movements don’t solve all of humanity’s problems, but they give people hope and the sense that they have agency by sharing their resources. This extends to climate change as well. If you look to the level of governments, the situation looks hopeless, but there are things locally that can be done in communities to at least moderate negative impacts locally.

In my work with the UN, we focus increasingly on the local initiatives people can take to deal with climate change in cities. There are many, but for instance, just painting the streets, the houses or the roofs white can significantly lower heat load in a neighbourhood or city. This is relatively cheap and easy to do, so communities can organise themselves to achieve this. It won’t reverse the global trend, but it at least makes people’s lives better and creates a feeling of agency which is missing from a lot of discussions about climate change as a global phenomenon. It is a way of being present in the problem. But I’m optimistic that nonetheless, people can deal with injustices that large power structures are not going to deal with. My first book was a book on anarchism called The Uses of Disorder – and somehow, I’ve returned to being the kind of community anarchist I was when I was 25 years old! I think we’ve just got to be realistic – nobody in power will necessarily help us, or in particular, will necessarily help poor people.

You talked about the importance of people understanding they have agency. What do you mean by agency and why is it important?

Agency is not necessarily the same thing as being effective or successful. It’s something deeper, which means that you are present, that you are not passive, and that you don’t simply withdraw when somebody does an injury to you. In social life – just as in the body – when we’re wounded, we develop scar tissue. But it strikes me that with the social wounds that people experience – for example, being arbitrarily fired at work, being discriminated against, or not being recognised – is that that people develop the scar tissue that blocks you off from others, and means you feel disconnected or want to remove yourself.

But, when you absent yourself, those who have injured you will continue doing the same thing. There’s a long philosophical background to this. In Marx’s early writing, his notion was essentially that when people are hurt, they tried to flee out of self-protection, but they’re not actually protecting themselves. In the long term, they’re just opening themselves up for further exploitation. So that’s why, in labour relations, it’s really important that when people in both public service and private sectors go on strike when they’re abused. Whether they succeed or not, it’s a declaration that you’re not just complaining privately – you’re there, demonstrating collectively, and everyone can see that.

A very elemental and basic part of agency is that you are present to the people who hurt you. Environmental movements using direct non-violent action are also using presence as their tool. These actions are not the solutions themselves – they are about a more elemental act of confronting the powerful with your presence.

Artwork by Amy Browne

Can you tell us more about the significance of that agency on a collective level – why is it important that people that people experience this presence together, rather than just experiencing it alone, as something personalised?

I read autobiographies all the time, but I’m very resistant to the format of ‘confession’, in which people particularise how they were hurt. You find stacks and stacks of books, especially in bookstores in the USA, that focus on, for example, how someone’s parents hurt them, and it was a lifelong wound. However, I think that without a bigger point of connection for others, this type of storytelling that focuses on an individual without a wider message, does no good socially.

It connects with a neoliberal version of personalism: my story is unique to me. There’s also the story of being self-made – someone from a working-class background who surmounts all that, and now is a banker – which again is very individualised. Another very American trope is how people, for example on a plane, get thrown together, they tell each other their life stories, and then they disappear. Neoliberalism encourages this focus on your story and individual narrativization.

There is connection between the political economy and this mentality of personal revelation and personal focus. Again, Marx knew this. So, it’s important that we see social bonds as more important than personal revelations. Our stories are meaningful to us, yes, but they don’t always teach us what we can do together. I think we have to learn how to be collective.

Neoliberalism has also taught people a consumerist language which we’ve internalised. You buy something, and you should feel fulfilled, you’re gratified – it’s the cycle that drives consumerism, but the same fundamental logic is being applied to people’s understandings of themselves and who they are in the world, which is driven by a desire to be fulfilled individually.

We have to change the language we use and replace this idea of individual fulfilment with a social language, about support and facing adversity together, so we can know we’re up against forces larger than we can control together. It’s a whole shift in our thought patterns about what it means to be together. You can have a purpose and agency, be present with other people, and know that your life matters to someone else.


You can listen to Richard Sennett’s edited interview, and other contributions on relating as a way to remake our reality, in this episode of Serpentine Podcast.


Richard Sennett OBE FBA currently serves as Senior Advisor to the United Nations on the Council on Urban Initiatives. He is Senior Fellow at the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University and Visiting Professor of Urban Studies at MIT. Previously, he founded the New York Institute for the Humanities, taught at New York University and at the London School of Economics, and served as President of the American Council on Work. Over the course of the last five decades, he has written several books on social life in cities, changes in labour, and social theory.


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