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.