A Gentler Capitalism

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

On the field of ideology, 2005 was a lousy year for the American right. Twice -- in the president's proposal to privatize Social Security and in the government's failure to save New Orleans -- it confronted the public with the prospect of a radically reduced government. Twice, the public recoiled at the sight. In retrospect the year's biggest mystery is how George W. Bush thought he could privatize Social Security. Essentially Bush assumed the role of the national CEO who tells his workers he's dumping their defined-benefit pensions for some ill-defined 401(k) investment schemes. And essentially the American people responded with the same anger and anxiety that airline and auto employees have shown when their bosses reneged on their commitments of a secure retirement. The difference, of course, is that the American people have a lot more power as voters than they do as workers.

Bush's plan to scuttle Social Security was in tatters when Hurricane Katrina blew ashore. For Bush this was a double whammy, since FEMA's failure to respond to the storm underscored the image of a government that would not be there when needed. In today's America, where business has largely abandoned the guarantees of security it used to provide its employees, a similar abdication by government was clearly not what the public sought.

For the pervasive insecurity that is inextricably part of today's capitalism has become the dominant fact of modern life. "The fragmenting of big institutions has left many people's lives in a fragmented state: the places they work more resembling train stations than villages," writes sociologist Richard Sennett in "The Culture of the New Capitalism," a newly published collection of lectures he gave at Yale University in 2004. Throughout most of the 20th century, the insecurity endemic to capitalism was mitigated by business institutions organized, as Sennett's great predecessor Max Weber first noted, along military lines. The corporation gave the employee a place and a ladder, and in such a lifelong institution, Sennett notes, "it became possible to define what the stages of a career ought to be like, to correlate longtime service in a firm to specific steps of increased wealth."

Sennett is no apologist for the old corporate order, but it did impart a structure to people's work lives and a place to hone their crafts. The new workplace, by contrast, is a brave new world of short-term employment and relationships, where experience is not necessarily a virtue and institutional memory is sketchy at best. It may be a fine place for young workers, but "as middle age looms and children, mortgages and school fees appear, the need for structure and predictability in work grows greater." The frequent migration of executives from one firm to another, Sennett adds, imposes further costs on employees: "This managerial revolving door has meant that the steady, self-disciplined worker has lost his audience."

In the absence of a more structured work life, what Sennett sees is a more muddled sense of self. He finds that confusion among displaced middle-aged workers, but also among young college graduates who, compared with their counterparts of the 1970s, are less able to articulate their career goals. In an economy that disdains continuity, how exactly do you define "career"?

From his interviews with a wide range of workers, Sennett turns up a widespread resignation to these immense changes in economic life. That doesn't mean, though, that the American people aren't reacting to this profound shift in their lives, and their sense of their lives. The increased prominence of religion in American life over the past several decades, I'd surmise, is in part a reaction to this embattled sense of self. And if most Americans take globalization as a given, many are increasingly enraged at our relatively open borders and the immigrants who cross them. These are two responses to the new insecurity that the right has exploited, though neither does anything to reestablish a more benign economy.

For the left, what 2005 has demonstrated is that while Americans have no great love for government, they do expect it to provide a baseline of security -- the more so since the employer-provided benefits of the past 60 years are going the way of the dodo. That means that government-supported universal health insurance will soon be back on the nation's agenda. But that's the easy part. Rebuilding the kind of security that defined private-sector economic life for most of the past century, and that helped individuals define themselves, is a conundrum that's daunting even to contemplate.

And yet: The new capitalism disdains stability; human beings, on the whole, don't. And immodest as it may be to alter the terms of capitalism, it's a damned sight easier than changing human beings.

meyersonh@washpost.com


© 2006 The Washington Post Company