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Call Me Mister

Most accounts of the failings of the welfare state make gloomy reading—but Richard Sennett’s Respect is nothing of the sort. For any reader interested in Sennett’s subject and prepared to argue with the author, Respect offers the author’s optimistic side of a conversation about the extreme difficulty, if not the impossibility, of making complete sense of human existence. The liveliness of the book reflects the vivacity of its author. In an age of academic specialization, Professor Sennett defies classification: he grew up expecting to be a professional cellist; when a hand injury prevented that, he became a sociologist, a cultural theorist, an urbanist, an architectural historian, and a novelist. Respect draws on all these resources. It is part autobiography, part urban sociology, part moral philosophy, and wholly engrossing.

Its subject is not easy to pin down. Broadly, it is about “welfare,” in the American sense of the term; but it is very much not a blueprint for a reformed welfare state. Its central question is suggested by the title: whether in a world where some adults are dependent on the assistance of others—on “public assistance” as it used to be called in Britain—we can provide such help without demeaning or humiliating the recipients. This is not a new question; but it is one to which we do not have good answers, and one where one generation’s solutions are more than usually the problems of the next. Indeed, a particularly powerful argument for pursuing full employment at almost any cost is precisely that we do not know how to run a welfare state that completely avoids resentment on the part of taxpayers and recipients alike.

The taxpayers may feel their self-respect threatened by the sensation that they are being ripped off, and the recipients may feel theirs threatened by their status as the recipients of charity, even an ungrudging charity. As many studies have noted, the two parts of the American welfare state that receive the greatest support are retirement pensions, where taxpayers feel they have paid already for what they get, and medicare, where the feeling that we have already paid for what we get is reinforced by the fact that illness strikes the provident as badly, if not as often, as it strikes the improvident.

Sennett does not explore the prospects of an old-fashioned Keynesianism that would preserve full employment at all costs. He sets out instead to explore ways of preserving an equality of respect in the face of inequalities of luck, talent, income, and wealth. In the course of this search, he moves from the problems his mother faced in her career as a social worker to Marcel Mauss’s anthropological analysis of the gift relationship, and back to his uncle William Sennett—who was a Communist in his youth, a successful capitalist in his middle years, but convinced throughout his various careers that the one thing capitalism could not do was to equalize respect while offering dramatically unequal monetary rewards. If Sennett’s narrative is episodic, the inner logic of the book is clear: what he is after is an account of this elusive entity—respect—and the ways in which individuals in need can preserve their self-respect and those who help them can avoid damaging it.

Respect thus runs on very naturally from Sennett’s recent book on the sociology of work, The Corrosion of Character.* Sennett is not exactly nostalgic for the vanished world in which a person’s character was formed by a lifetime of employment in one occupation with one employer, but he is a deft analyst of the losses that globalized capitalism brings with it. Some stem from simple insecurity: enormous corporations can vanish in a matter of days, and cities, states, and even national governments have little ability to protect their citizens from the effects of success and failure on a global scale. Sennett’s main interest, however, lies in what the globalized economy demands of our personalities. The title of the German translation of The Corrosion of Character was Der flexible Mensch, and “flexibility” is a two-edged quality in the human character. If everything about us is negotiable, and therefore dispensable, can we be said to have a character at all?

The old ideal that we should be one and the same in all we say and do may encourage an unattractive rigidity of character, but someone who becomes too adept at tailoring his or her personality to the demands of the marketplace is worse. Someone who is loyal only to the highest bidder is not loyal; someone who is generous when working for a nonprofit organization and mean when working for an investment bank may not be mean, but can hardly be admired for being generous. Sennett takes it for granted that our respect for someone is overwhelmingly a matter of thinking well of their character—poor but honest, constantly ill but always courageous, never placing higher than fourth but always ready for the next race, hugely successful but utterly unspoiled, and so on—so a world in which character is being eroded is a world in which respect has become elusive. If The Corrosion of Character was about the impact on our characters of the world of work, Respect is about the impact of the world of unemployment and the other ills that the welfare state tries to remedy.

If it is possible to say it of an essay that is so continuously interesting, Respect is an intellectual failure. Sennett does not uncover one unequivocal concept of respect, does not provide a novel moral philosophy of mutual respect, and does not come up with a blueprint for a welfare state about which we could all feel morally comfortable. As with his analysis of work within globalized capitalism, he is surer of our anxieties than he is of the merits of any suggested cure for them. And there is something almost perverse about giving so much attention to what welfare does to our characters, and so little to the simple meanness of the American welfare system. But he is surely right to think that respect is a concept worth exploring.

For we live in a world in which the concept of respect is worked hard, if not quite to death. Globally, we are told that what inspires terrorists to launch suicidal attacks on their enemies is less the poverty and hardship in which their fellows live than their sense that they are treated with contempt by the developed world. Ghetto culture recognizes being “dissed” as reason enough for murder—much as it was in the world depicted in Romeo and Juliet. The philosophy of modern liberalism set out by John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin makes much of the obligation of the liberal state to treat all citizens with equal concern and respect. Welfare reformers on both sides of the Atlantic and from both the right and the left of the political spectrum defend “welfare to work” programs as a way of giving self-respect to welfare claimants.

The first questions that must occur to anyone are clear. What is respect? Is the respect that the state is supposed to treat us with the same as the respect that we want other individuals to accord us? Are we entitled to respect no matter what we do, or must we earn it, and if so, how? What institutions and arrangements in societies like our own foster respect or threaten it? These are Sennett’s questions. What motivates them is the thought that in the contemporary United States, the idea that we must earn the respect of others by being hard-working, economically self-supporting contributors to the economy and society still has great resonance. As he suggests, the thought can be embodied in a slogan: “Make something of yourself, take care of yourself, help others.” Being on welfare is thus a moral disaster; or, rather, being willing to be on welfare is a moral disaster because it implies a readiness to take without giving, or a passivity that is at odds with the idea of making something of ourselves. It implies a character that nobody would want.

This, though, is only half the story. All the empirical evidence suggests that almost nobody wants to be on welfare; recipients feel that their self-respect is undermined by it, and their social relationships threatened. So, another question is how we—prosperous, employed, tax-paying—can provide help to the needy in ways that do not damage their self-respect. Here is where the liberalism of recent years is too thin to be helpful. When Ronald Dworkin insists that the state must treat us with equal concern and respect, it seems taken for granted that we cannot in our private and personal dealings expect to be equally concerned about everyone and we cannot respect one another equally. This serves Dworkin very well in elucidating issues of law and in defining a fair society. But when we get down to the interaction between the recipients of welfare on the one side and the case-workers who deal with them on the other side, the line between what we can demand of the state and what we want from private persons begins to blur; it is respect from individuals that we want, even if those individuals are employed by institutions.

What we need is not the philosophical elaboration of ideas about respect, but an imaginative sociological exploration of respect-threatening and respect-enhancing situations. This is what Richard Sennett does well, and Respect is at its best when it blends personal narrative and moral rumination. The book begins with a substantial piece of autobiography, and it begins in a surprising place: Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing development immediately after World War II. This was where Sennett spent some formative childhood years. The high-rise, crime-ridden ghetto that Cabrini Green evokes in the popular imagination was a later development. The early years of Cabrini were far from hideous. It was a low-rise development of small apartments, and racially mixed. Nonetheless, most of the inhabitants were, in the eyes of the officials who had planned, built, and run Cabrini, damaged persons.

The African-Americans who made up some 75 percent of the residents were mostly migrants, and their new cinder-block apartments were a considerable improvement on the tar-paper shacks of the rural South; but they were not welcome to the white population of Chicago, and they were under continuous supervision by the housing authorities, social workers, and police. To put the thought the other way around, they were treated not as fully functioning, self-respecting, autonomous beings, but as creatures in need of protection from white hostility and in need of help to enable them to function in their new environment. Many of the white residents were people who had fallen on hard times before and during the war—widows or single mothers abandoned by their spouses, families whose breadwinners were unable to work for a variety of mental and physical reasons. “Social housing” had an inescapable element of warehousing the incapable.

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    *Norton, 1998.

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