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Richard Sennett's warning about 'flexible capitalism'


Speaking at the London School of Economics, Richard Sennett issued a compelling and chilling warning against 'flexible capitalism' and its effects on the world's major cities, summed up as 'diminishing social attachment to the city'. In the light of contemporary anxiety about 'social malaise', it seems clear that governments committed to the globalised economy should heed his words carefully.

Sennett identified three key phenomena which, he argues, stem directly from the institutionalisation of flexible capitalism, or the 'economy of impermanence.' These are a break-down in attachment to place, due to a high level of geographical mobility forced by short-term employment; an increasing standardisation of the environment, due not to 'industrial rigidity' but to strategies deliberately aimed at eroding a sense of belonging to, or having rights in, the physical fabric of the city; and an undermining of family stability through a direct transference to family life of the breakdown of values of loyalty and commitment at work. The difficulty of creating order, stability, and rigidity in family life within a wider social framework that explicitly undermines those values, has created further problems in social life by forcing many families to withdraw from civic engagement into a highly protected, but disengaged private realm.

Sennett views these developments as absolutely antithetical to everything that the city has stood for historically and should continue to stand for today. Referring to the early work of Weber and Simmel in urban studies, and to the discussion of the flaneur and modernity, he identified the original crux and fascination of city life as 'the dialectic between rigidity and strangeness': the complex and exciting experience of living not only with strangers, but also with 'the multiplicity of one's own identity which cities create', and the great potential for freedom and discovery, alongside extreme anxieties, which that experience involves.

However, Sennett argues that the 'new stage' in capitalism, generated by the globalisation of labour and capital flows, and the transformation of institutions of production, has created a new dialectic of 'flexibility and indifference'. The changes in work conditions have established the potential for everyone to become an 'internal immigrant', displaying standardised consumption patterns, short-term memory, an embrace of indifference as a basis for mutual accommodation, and, with it, the death of curiosity. These conditions are being rapidly exacerbated - particularly in London and New York - by the increasingly destructive intervention in cities of global organisations allowed to operate without assuming any level of urban, social responsibility.

'We need to repair the collectivity of space', Sennett concludes, for 'the desire to engage the Other is finally what makes cities worth living in.' And it is a mistake to think this can be achieved simply through new street furniture or public art.

Richard Sennett's lecture, 'The Art of Making Cities', was the last in the Modernity series at the London School of Economics

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