Richard Sennett on Complacent Solidarity

Richard Sennett links complacent solidarity to the 2008 financial crisis. The video (below) is about 90 minutes long. If you don’t want to get through the whole thing, here is the gist:

Complacent solidarity is that of ritualized (bureaucratic) social interactions that are just enough to make deals, with the underlying beliefs that we will always be rich and we’ll have jobs for life (see: Venice, 17th century). Complacent solidarity characterized the elites who ruled the financial world in the past 15 years. It was also what neoliberalism was supposed to cure us of. For the elites, there should be less solidarity. Instead of security, anxiety should be the dominant emotion. This is what has been taught in business schools (and promulgated, I might add, by Alan Greenspan: more insecurity for workers).

And yet, the elites themselves were suffering from complacent solidarity themselves: the market will always go up! Rescue will always happen! The bonds of solidarity are intense because it is a small group (2,000, says Sennett). We will always be rich! We will always control the system! Wealth and power have led to complacent solidarity.

Those affected by the system, but not part of the club, cease to register for those from the select network. These elites cannot consider that there could be anything destructive to the system, a failure of understanding that consequences have effects on others. They do not think about the consequences of what they have done. Even the crisis has not awaken them from that complacency. They think “the system needs to be fixed” rather than “I have destroyed the life of a lot of people”… no one has said that.

We have lived in a highly complacent era, dominated by people who have the power to do harm to a lot of other people. These people from the elite, says Sennett, are incapable of ethical solitude in the sense of stepping back from the network and looking at what they have done outside of the reference group.

So, for Sennett, this class needs to be taken apart, and not just regulated. Their behavior will not be changed by a cap on salaries and bonuses or a few more forms to file with government. This is deeper than that. Anything that does not get them to think “I’ve really hurt a lot of people” will not do. It will be too superficial. Anything that does not get them out of their complacency will be insufficient. The point is taking apart the whole financial architecture (and, it seems to me, the whole transnational capitalist class).

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