Richard Sennett: In the world of labor and work, the phrase dis­pos­able life” refers to a new wrin­kle in neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism. And that wrin­kle is that it’s cheap­er to dis­pose of work­ers in Europe and America than it’s ever been in the past. It’s pos­si­ble to find much cheap­er work­ers in the devel­op­ing coun­tries who can do work at the same lev­el as work­ers in Britain, Germany, or France, or the United States. And the advent of new tech­nolo­gies of man­u­fac­tur­ing as well as of data orga­ni­za­tion and stor­age in the white col­lar sec­tor means that there’s not the need for the num­bers of work­ers who could expect to be employed before. 

So this is a struc­tur­al prob­lem. It means that there are more peo­ple than there are jobs. Unemployment is a very poor mea­sure of this prob­lem, since what hap­pens is that even in a full employ­ment econ­o­my, work­ers are con­tin­u­al­ly being dri­ven from the mid­dle towards the bot­tom, middle-level jobs done by peo­ple abroad, or by machines. Lower lev­el jobs are face-to-face ser­vice jobs, and that kind of work is some­thing that has no real future in it. It’s short-term. It’s dull. It’s not like­ly to build up a per­son­’s sense of hav­ing a life course in work, or an iden­ti­ty in work. 

So this phrase for us, for peo­ple who study labor, is a very very preg­nant one. And it’s a prob­lem with­out an obvi­ous solu­tion. It’s possible…you, know the cliché doing more with less” means doing more eco­nom­i­cal­ly, with less human­ly. And the solu­tion to that prob­lem is not clear. 

The Dutch have tried to give every­body some­thing to do, to res­cue peo­ple from the specter of use­less­ness, by divid­ing up a full-time job into two or three part-time jobs. So that at least peo­ple have some part of the week in which they can feel they’re gain­ful­ly employed, they have the self-respect of hav­ing an iden­ti­ty at work. And the rest of the time, they’re on income support. 

There have been minor attempts to do that in Britain and the United States. But it’s seen as—horror of hor­rors—social­ism. And so the result is that peo­ple fall back on real­ly impos­si­ble dreams. That every human being would become some­thing like an entre­pre­neur. That every middle-class per­sons per­son would become a con­sul­tant. Which sim­ply means that there are lots of peo­ple with­out work who are chas­ing an ever-more-scarce commodity. 

I know that you’re inter­est­ed in the sub­ject of vio­lence as it relates to dis­pos­able life. That does­n’t relate to this kind of use­less­ness or dis­pos­abil­i­ty. There have been the occa­sion­al protests against this, like the Occupy move­ment. But their essence is not vio­lent. And the idea that vio­lence could do any­thing to solve this prob­lem is absurd. Most peo­ple know that. There has to be anoth­er domain of polit­i­cal and social engage­ment in which peo­ple become useful. 

One sad thing to me about this is that what we’ve seen in the past five years with the finan­cial cri­sis is, obvi­ous­ly, a high lev­el of unhap­pi­ness as well as of mate­r­i­al unem­ploy­ment, which isn’t how­ev­er trans­lat­ing into social action. It has­n’t spurred the growth of unions, for instance, among the unem­ployed. Or oth­er forms of coop­er­a­tive activ­i­ty among unem­ployed peo­ple. People are sort of pas­sive­ly suf­fer­ing. And that’s a prob­lem in civ­il soci­ety for which you know, we don’t have any easy answers. The notion of going on strike or protest­ing is way down the line in terms of what peo­ple might do. The prob­lem is to rouse them in the first place to think that the answer to being a dis­pos­able per­son is, in the first place, think­ing in the plur­al, think­ing col­lec­tive­ly. And through unions, oth­er civ­il soci­ety insti­tu­tions, church­es. Community orga­ni­za­tions. But that’s the first step that peo­ple need to take. That the answer to dis­pos­abil­i­ty is not auton­o­my, it’s some­thing social and collective. 

One exam­ple of dis­pos­abil­i­ty which would­n’t come to most peo­ple’s minds imme­di­ate­ly but which I’ve been fol­low­ing with my stu­dents for the last five years are unem­ployed workers—back office workers—in Wall Street. These are peo­ple who lost their jobs as a result of the finan­cial crunch in 2008. They were peo­ple who were doing well before. Account audi­tors, peo­ple who were rec­on­cil­ing files, lower-level com­put­er infor­ma­tion offi­cers and so on. 

And what hap­pened to them in 2008 were actu­al­ly two things. One is the finan­cial indus­try in New York shrunk overall—the esti­mates are between 7 and 11%—its work­force force shrunk, and shrunk in the mid­dle. Some of these jobs were off-shored to places like Bangalore or Singapore to get this back office work done more cheap­ly by English-speaking, high­ly com­pe­tent workers. 

But some of these jobs were replaced by new tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems that were able to use big data—that is amass huge amounts of data—and makes not sim­ply com­pi­la­tions of it but judg­ments on it. For instance, judg­ments on whether the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of accounts at the end of the day was rea­son­able or not. It’s a big issue in a finance firm. These pro­grams were writ­ten, anoth­er ver­sion of them, to mea­sure the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of lawyers, some­thing that seemed to be entire­ly a qual­i­ta­tive call before the crisis. 

We’ve been fol­low­ing what hap­pened to these work­ers. Because these are peo­ple that you would­n’t have shed croc­o­dile tears for before 2008. Some of them had amassed enough sav­ings to strike off on their own. Often they were leav­ing the finan­cial indus­try entire­ly because they were tired of work­ing twelve or fourteen-hour days. They left New York go to small­er towns or to go into oth­er forms of busi­ness. Many of them became teach­ers, odd­ly enough. And as I say, they had the where­with­al to do that. 

I would say anoth­er third, who were not as well-endowed, were peo­ple who were strug­gling try­ing to make it as con­sul­tants, where­as before they had been employ­ees. And these were downwardly-mobile peo­ple. But you know, they had less work, they were one or two men, or a three-person offices, com­pet­ing against huge con­sult­ing firms like McKinsey. They had very short net­works, very weak net­works of asso­ci­a­tion. But still they were man­ag­ing. They were doing much less well, but they were able to par­lay the skills work­ing in an orga­ni­za­tion into just hang­ing on by their fin­gers in Wall Street. 

The third group, which we found to be the most trag­ic, are peo­ple for whom the shock of sud­den­ly not being need­ed, of being dis­pos­able, was some­thing they could­n’t han­dle psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly. These are peo­ple who after four or five months of unem­ploy­ment began drink­ing heav­i­ly. Marital prob­lems began on the increase. Many of them were spend­ing lots of time in the gym—the men—thinking that some­how build­ing up their bod­ies would some­how deal with the fact that they’d been discarded. 

And these peo­ple were unreach­able. They tend­ed not to be think­ing strate­gi­cal­ly, but real­ly almost suf­fered a kind of body blow. They had been… I can’t make… We only have eighty-four cas­es, so this is no vast soci­o­log­i­cal study. But in talk­ing to these peo­ple (and we do so inten­sive­ly over five, sev­en one-hour ses­sions), these are the peo­ple who were the true believ­ers before­hand. The sort of peo­ple who would have joined the Tea Party if the Tea Party had exist­ed dur­ing the boom years. And they’d had the stuff­ing knocked out of them. Oftentimes they worked very hard. But they found… It’s not just an ide­o­log­i­cal blow. They found that employ­ers they thought they could trust no longer want­ed to hear from them. They faxed a thou­sand resumes to peo­ple, putting on one of those lit­tle please acknowl­edge receipt,” to find that only say fifty out of a thou­sand would go so far as to just flip the acknowl­edge” thing. They would spend—they do spend—hours a day with phones not ring­ing, or lit­tle show­ing up at the com­put­er screen. These were peo­ple who before were harassed by communication. 

So, that’s a group that has gone under. Now, they’re a minor­i­ty. They’re a dra­mat­ic minor­i­ty. But they are the peo­ple for whom the expe­ri­ence of being dis­pos­able has I think been the most pro­found. Only because they had before so much belief in the sys­tem. And…I mean, this rais­es to me a very gen­er­al prob­lem. And the prob­lem is that the peo­ple who believe in this new cap­i­tal­ism are the peo­ple most like­ly deep­er hurt by it. That the begin­ning of tak­ing a step towards being resis­tant to the sys­tem is no longer to think that this is a sys­tem which will reward you, not peo­ple in gen­er­al, but you. And that’s hard for peo­ple to do. It’s very hard to put in four­teen hours a day and think, I’m being exploit­ed.” It’s very hard to do that if for your four­teen hours a day you’re being paid large sums of mon­ey. And then in an instant, you’re gone. 

So this is a com­plex prob­lem. Learning how to man­age through dis­trust, which is what I’m talk­ing about, through unbe­lief, is not some­thing that sim­ply is a style of rad­i­cal will. That’s an intel­lec­tu­al’s par­lor game. This is a pro­found expe­ri­ence that these peo­ple are hav­ing to work through. And as I say, the believ­ers tend to be the peo­ple who have the most trou­ble work­ing through it.