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The social implications of modern capitalism

Three books that have a lot to say about modern society and work

By Gareth Jones . 01 December 2001


Books: Corrosion of Character by Richard Sennett Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam Jack by Jack Welch

All three of these books have a lot to say about the state of modern society as well as about the organisation of work. They differ in some obvious ways: Sennett and Putnam – both academics – are profoundly critical of modern life while Welch offers an unapologetic, autobiographical celebration of the way we live now. There are, however, some rather surprising similarities. Sennett and Welch rely heavily on personal observation and anecdote, while Putnam bombards the reader with a staggering range of data. All have illuminating things to say about work, business and social relationships.

Four concerns about modern capitalism

The many critics of modern society have been especially concerned with four features of modern life that, in their opinion, restrict or prevent the full expression of humanity. Each of these derives in some way from classic social theory and finds modern expression in the books reviewed here.

The first concerns the negative consequences of the triumph of individualism. Apart from residual stalwarts of the ancient regime, few deny that modern life has increased the scope for human choice. But many, in the spirit of Durkheim’s Division of Labour, have cautioned against the rise of excessive individualism. Several dysfunctional symptoms follow from this. Modern life is seen as characterised by a lack of moral regulation in which work loses its meaning as an ever more extensive division of labour fragments and separates. Durkheim calls this the “anomic division of labour”. Further, modern life is described from this perspective as not just allowing for expression of self but as being simply selfish, with little or no concern for others or for society. In the psychological context this symptom has led to modern culture being described as “narcissistic”. As we shall see, both Sennett and Putnam draw on this tradition in their books.

The second negative feature of modern life concerns the demeaned nature of work in modern society. Work becomes a means to the satisfaction of other ends – paying the mortgage, buying designer-label goods – rather than having intrinsic meaning. This critique, deriving from Marx’s analysis of a specifically capitalist form of the division of labour, describes individuals in modern societies as being profoundly alienated from their true human selves. They find themselves struggling to act as humans in their leisure time, while at work they act only in their selfish animal natures. In management writing, this state is celebrated in F.W Taylor’s 1911 establishment of scientific management and condemned by H. Braverman’s Labour and Monopoly Capital and those that followed him. For the former, the worker is paid not to think; for the latter, the separation of the labour of conception and execution represents the most extreme expression of alienation. Both Sennett and Welch – no Marxist! – write with these concerns in mind.

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