Call Me Mister

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…

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