Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 23 May 1999; on the web by permission, August 2003

That problems seethe and tensions run high in Canadian workplaces has become tragically obvious this spring. The strikes by nurses in Saskatchewan and transit workers in Toronto portend a new season of labour unrest.

Still more frightening was the murder of four employees at Ottawa Transpo on April 6, by a workmate who then took his own life. The gunman had been teased and taunted for years on account of his stutter. He was derided for being homosexual, though he apparently was not. Two years ago he slapped one of his harassers and was fired for that reason, but then he was reinstated after apologizing and agreeing to take a course on anger management. The course clearly did not work.

The answer to workplace problems is not more courses on anger management. According to press reports, the high-school boys who committed mass murder in Colorado on April 20 had enjoyed the courses of this kind they had been required to take after an earlier offense. Too often, a requirement of anger-management counselling is an administrative smokescreen to avoid having to deal with real problems that might make anybody angry.

Nor does the answer lie in still more attention to the officially designated grounds of illegitimate workplace discrimination: physical disability, gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on. A recent book by Paul Barrett (The Good Black: a True Story of Race in America) tells the story of a black lawyer run out of his job at a prestigious firm. He sued the firm, alleging racial discrimination, but ultimately lost his case. The employer showed convincing evidence that it treated all its associates shabbily, not just black ones.

The search for more adequate, effective ways to make work less stressful, more humanizing, and more fun might well begin with Richard Sennett's new book, an update on his decades of research on advanced capitalism. A professor at New York University, Sennett is best known for the classic The Hidden Injuries of Class, co-authored with Jonathan Cobb in 1972.

One of the book's most attractive features is its method: personal, philosophic reflection on hard empirical data. Ten statistical tables in an appendix summarize how capitalism has changed in recent decades. Sennett has a firm grip on the "objective" facts of history and the economy. Yet he has organized the book in great part out of conversations with workers of his own acquaintance. His book lives up to the principle he states at the start, that "an idea has to bear the weight of concrete experience or else it becomes a mere abstraction." Corrosion of Character is sociology at its best.

Character, as Sennett sees it, "is the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations to others." It is the enduring personal traits we see in ourselves and want others to see in us. Character is social and long-term, reflected in the objects of our loyalty and commitment. It defines who we are in the perspectives of time and space.

Capitalism has been unsupportive of character from the start. Even three centuries ago, Sennett points out, Adam Smith understood that specialized, routine work makes people stupid. To develop character, one must on occasion express emotion, break out of routine, and shape one's own biography through personal acts of will.

Sennett begins this book talking of an Italian-American janitor he interviewed at length for the book with Cobb in 1972. The man had a secure, union-protected job. He and his wife were saving for the college educations of their progeny. They thought long-term, with confidence in their future both on earth and in a Catholic heaven.

Now Sennett interviews the son, materially far better off than his father was, but "adrift in an environment where work is without long-term commitments or larger meaning." Pursuing the same theme, Sennett interviews downsized employees of IBM. They had worked for years in that great bastion of old-style paternalistic corporate capitalism until, in the mid-1980s, the company lost ground to Microsoft and foreign competitors. In 1993, a third of IBM's employees in New York's Hudson Valley got laid off. Sennett describes how these workers dealt with the harsh reality.

A community open to conflict and respectful of difference is Sennett's admittedly quixotic solution to current problems. A community, he points out toward the end of the book, has to be somewhere, but today's corporations are everywhere and nowhere at once. Character and community require, he explains, a shared narrative, a shared fate.