Richard Sennett
Richard Sennett; drawing by David Levine

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.

“My mother,” writes Sennett,

remembered many middle-class white people driven by the housing shortage into the project, but statistically, middle-class residents were few in number and the first to escape. Other whites, destined to stay longer in Cabrini Green, included wounded war veterans who could not work full-time, and the authorities had also lodged among us some mental patients not ill enough to remain in hospital but too fragile to live on their own. This mixed community of blacks, the white poor, the wounded, and the deranged framed the subjects of the experiment in social inclusion.

Sennett and his mother belonged in no easily described group; his father walked out on his mother shortly after Sennett was born, but his mother came from a fairly well-off family, and had chosen to be poor by becoming a radical and wanting to write. Once she had qualified as a social worker and had thus migrated back into the middle class, they left Cabrini.

The point of Cabrini Green in Sennett’s narrative is simple. Benign authorities conceived the place as somewhere where black and white Chicagoans could be induced to live together peacefully; social workers could assist the not quite mad and the not wholly feckless; it would be a managed community with simple but decent houses and adequate schools. And it had a pedigree. In nineteenth-century Britain, the Peabody Trust—created by the American banker and philanthropist George Peabody and still going strong—had set out in the 1860s “to design a life, not just a house.”

That the British only tried to cure the injuries of class while Chicago heroically set out to cure those of race as well is duly noted by Sennett; but his deeper point is that the inhabitants of Cabrini Green were treated at all times and in all ways as passive spectators of what was done to them and for them. They had no say about where they lived; nor did they in the design of the buildings or in their external surroundings. Meetings of residents’ groups were not attended by the officials who made the decisions about the place. When there was trouble involving fights between schoolchil-dren the first to be told were the police, then the social workers, then the teachers, then the parents—which left white parents infuriated that they had been ignored and black par-ents infuriated that the attentions of the authorities had been attracted at all.

Armed with his negative example—respect is denied when we treat people as objects, not subjects—Sennett looks for a positive example in his own life, with excursions into his mother’s experiences as a social worker. His mother’s face-to-face experiences with her clients remind him that even if social work jargon—“deprivation syndromes” and “low-esteem anxieties,” for instance—may sound like psychobabble or even contemptuous of the social workers’ clients, it may also represent a more attractive form of reticence on the part of people who know how much power they possess over the lives of their clients. Not assuming too easy a familiarity with them, not seeming to enter too easily into their lives, trying to offer help without intrusion, were ways of allowing the clients to keep their self-respect in situations that seriously threatened it.

Later in the book, Sennett devotes an entire chapter to the uncomfort-able topic of the “compassion which wounds”; in doing so he casts some doubt on both his mother’s practice and his own allegiances by contrasting the ways in which Mother Frances Cabrini and Jane Addams dealt with the Chicago poor at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially the immigrant Polish and Italian poor. Jane Addams thought that the first task of the social worker was to examine her conscience to make sure that she was not interested in playing Lady Bountiful and did not wish to gain moral credit for what she does. The autonomy of the client, she felt, is sacrosanct, and the feelings of the social worker are not. The English Charity Organization Society, with whom she had worked and from whom she learned some of this, was in the same way very fierce about the importance of their “visitors” entering their clients’ houses only when asked in, calling their clients “Mrs.” or “Miss” whatever it might be, and not using first names as if they were talking to their housemaids.

Mother Cabrini was an Italian nun who had been sent to the US by Pope Leo XIII in 1889 to minister to the needs of Italian immigrants. In Sennett’s account, she did a great deal for her clients while taking absolutely no notice of such injunctions to self-restraint. With the hierarchical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church behind her, she had no compunction about telling her Italian clients to straighten up and turn into good Americans, and to do it in ways that would prevent their being objects of suspicion to their neighbors. They loved her for it. The moral, however, is obscure. It does not seem that Mother Cabrini was lacking in respect for the objects of her efforts; and it is clear that she thought that there were crucial ways in which she and they were equals—in the eyes of God, for an important start. It is not the sort of respect that Immanuel Kant thought that human beings should accord one another as members of the Kingdom of Ends who prescribe the moral law to themselves; nor is it the sort of respect that some liberals think we should accord to each other as autonomous creatures each giving their own meaning to their individual lives. Nonetheless, it would be very odd to think that Mother Cabrini did not treat her charges with respect.

This shows up a central difficulty that Sennett explores with great imagination. It is the fact that what we respect people for and what we respect them as depends on a great deal of—usually implicit—social, political, moral, and metaphysical background. Without a consensus on that background, it is hard to imagine a consensus on who is to get respect for what. One dead end that Sennett is particularly good on is respect for talent. In a world in which many of us are judged by our performance at work or on the playing field, one basis for respect—and self-respect—is the possession of a particular talent.

Sennett’s own emancipation from the Cabrini development came indeed in part through a talent for playing the cello. He disarmingly claims that he was not an infant prodigy, but he was good enough to be performing in public by the time he was fifteen. What could have been a successful career was stopped in its tracks by injury. He discovered that he could not close his left hand quickly and firmly enough to achieve the vibrato essential to good playing. He had an operation, and it made matters disastrously worse.

Injury apparently did not diminish his self-respect even though it diminished his talent; but Sennett is more concerned to show that the gulf in talent between one person and another makes talent a bad basis for equal respect. Any suggestion that we are equal in “latent talent” is both implausible in itself and likely to foster the nasty thought that the unsuccessful are just too idle to develop this latent talent. He illustrates this point with a very depressing story about a young man from Cabrini who had become a surgeon and went back to his school to encourage the students to aim at a similar success. They had listened to clerks and typists in respectful silence but they heckled and jeered the surgeon. Sennett suggests that they heard the implied question, “If I can do it, why can’t you?”

Sennett went to the University of Chicago and emerged in the 1960s to find the Vietnam War draft looming. That suggested graduate school, and he spent the next few years working with David Riesman at Harvard, and turned into the thinker and writer whom readers have known for the past thirty years. Admirers of Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd will immediately see the implications of his work for Sennett’s. The Lonely Crowd is an essay on character that starts from Tocqueville’s observation that Americans very much want to “fit in,” and goes on to analyze what Riesman calls the “other-directed” character that he thought was peculiarly American. The contrasting character, “inner-directed,” as he called it, was what puritans had previously aspired to, imagining life as a heroic struggle to follow the dictates of conscience no matter what the world might say.

Many readers thought that Riesman favored inner- rather than other-direction. He did not. He looked for a third way, that of autonomy. We should neither be afraid of public opinion nor become slaves to our consciences. We should be free agents. This is the tack that Sennett takes. Even though he concedes Mother Cabrini’s success, he repudiates her ethics of compassion in favor of an ethics of “autonomy.” We should not feel pity for the unfortunate, but we should help them without infringing their autonomy. The duty of the better-off is not to share the pain of unfortunates but to lend them a nondemeaning hand. Almost at the end of Respect, he says,

The kind of equality I have affirmed in this book is founded on the psychology of autonomy. Rather than an equality of understanding, autonomy means accepting in others what one does not understand about them. In so doing, the fact of their autonomy is treated as equal to your own. The grant of autonomy dignifies the weak or the outsider; to make this grant to others in turn strengthens one’s own character.

That passage makes explicit something that remains latent in Respect, but is nevertheless crucial. The givers of help are in the nature of the case more autonomous than the receivers. It is true that middle-class Americans have no choice whether to contribute their taxes to the welfare state, and only a very indirect political influence on how the money is spent. But they do not have to show up at employment offices to prove they are looking for work, and they do not have to accept “workfare” in a fast-food kitchen, if indeed even that is available. They do not have to demonstrate that they have no wage earner helping to pay their rent; and they have a great deal of flexibility about how enthusiastically to show the rest of the world that they are conscientious citizens and fit and proper members of society. Their freedom is circumscribed by the needs of families and the demands of employers, but it is real, and it is much greater than that of people who are dependent on welfare.

It would be churlish to complain that Professor Sennett does not provide a completely satisfactory moral theory of respect, not least because the virtues of Respect are sociological rather than philosophical. Nonetheless, even the reader who very much enjoys Sennett’s speculations about the formation of character may feel that Respect leaves many questions unanswered. The connection between character and respect is, on his own admission, not as close as the book supposes; other moralities than his would analyze respect differently, and would deny that compassion undermined it. More drastically, we might wonder whether the effect of the welfare system on the characters of the participants—givers and receivers alike—is the most fruitful issue to focus on, even in an inquiry into respect.

The most obvious feature of the American welfare state is that it is by global standards mean and limited. It is ungenerous in what it provides; the proportion of a worker’s income that is restored by unemployment pay is around half that of most European countries. The American unemployed receive unemployment pay for a shorter period than in Europe, so the long-term unemployed are worse off in the United States than anywhere in Europe.

In the field of health care, moreover, the American welfare system manages to be mean, inefficient, and limited all at the same time. Medicare alleviates the plight of hard-up elderly people, but notoriously fails to deal with the cost of drugs or the unwillingness of doctors to treat patients at current reimbursement rates, while Medicaid saves the middle class the embar- rassment of seeing the poor dying on the streets, but does little to provide the poor with incentives to look after their health or help in doing so. The American government spends the same percentage of national income on health care as the British government, while also contriving to leave 40 million Americans with no health insurance whatever—a figure that has been steadily growing. My own observation after living in the US for years was that most people, apart from the very rich, would be better off with the British health service, let alone the much-superior German and French schemes.

Sennett is not concerned only with respect. At least in passing, he also laments what he sees as the loss of solidarity in modern society, as many commentators have recently done. A degree of solidarity seems indispensable for any society that hopes to maintain an effective welfare state. The feeling that “we’re all in this together” helps us to contribute to the common provision of welfare without asking too closely whether we are getting our money’s worth, and helps us to value what we receive. It is very likely that such feeling has been undermined by the increased inequality of income and wealth of the past two decades, by geographical mobility, and by the familiar racial and ethnic divisions that have always made the US a less-than-fertile soil for European collectivist ideals. It is hard for the well-off in America to feel that they share a common fate with the working poor, and hard for the white working class to feel that they share a common fate with the indigent black population—for they manifestly do not.

Sennett seems not to see that autonomy and solidarity make uneasy partners; autonomy is all about choice, while solidarity is a virtue for situations where we have no choice but to stick together. Trade unions defending their members against employers use the rhetoric of solidarity for obvious reasons. Solidarity is a collective value, sustained by loyalty and mutual trust, as well as by the more obviously instrumental thought that if we do not hang together we shall hang separately. Indeed, a concern with respect in the character-based sense may be inimical to an effective welfare state. Those who need help have already failed one test of respectability: they haven’t, or so it is assumed, looked after themselves; and haven’t been effective players in the marketplace.

Five minutes’ reflection should show that most people who need help have looked after themselves as well as the rest of us and have simply suffered misfortune. But spectacular examples of those who haven’t taken ordinary care exist, and they are enough to show how an emphasis on respect can undermine support for the welfare state. Single mothers who have three or four children on welfare may never have had much chance to look after either themselves or the children, but they certainly have not done so. Sennett wants us to engage in “caring without compassion,” but it is hard to see much merit in that suggestion; throw out compassion, and what will save the much-abused single mother and her children from the modern equivalent of the Victorian workhouse? Concern for her autonomy may lead some of us to think that bare justice entitles her to a sufficient share of society’s resources; but in the present climate in the US it seems more likely to lead to the view that those who get themselves into a mess ought to get themselves out of it.

Should we dismiss Sennett’s concern with respect then? Certainly not. Sennett is right to remind us that even if the American welfare system were efficient and generous, universal in what it provided and unaffected by the US’s unhappy racial history, we should still need to remember that its beneficiaries are subjects, not objects, individuals with lives of their own to live, in need of help but not—generally—in need of supervision, and better off without our pity. But he is surely remiss not to emphasize more strongly that the greatest lack of respect at pres- ent is the equanimity with which the affluent majority in the richest and most wasteful country on earth accepts the misery of the poor minority, as though it was a fact of nature that had nothing to do with them and about which they need feel neither shame nor indignation.

This Issue

February 27, 2003