Allen Lane, £25, 324pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, By Richard Sennett

 

Richard Sennett is worried about Lily Allen. Or rather, the eminent social thinker felt a little uneasy when a friend of his small grandson hi-jacked the PA system in their inner-London school and sent her mantra of "Fuck you (fuck you)... cause we hate what you do and we hate your whole crew" blasting out across the playground. He does, in a footnote, accept that the gobby diva originally had the BNP in her sights. Yet, for him, this schoolyard mutiny captured in a striking image (of the kind that he so smartly hunts down and clarifies) the tribal, adversarial edge that both sharpens and weakens metropolitan life today. Caught between the "us-against-them" ethos of our gang, group or community, and the "you-are-on-your-own" individualism of the unforgiving marketplace, we are, he believes "losing the skills of cooperation needed to make a complex society work". This latest landmark in an illustrious career aims to identify those skills, to explain how they emerged and why they withered, and to propose practical, sociable methods to "repair" our cooperative knack.

I envy any reader coming fresh to Sennett's work. Over four decades, his books have grown, volume by expert, companionable, readable volume, into a comprehensive diagnosis of the ailments of urban life and work, together with a series of hard-headed, historically-rooted prescriptions for rescue and reform. From The Fall of Public Man and The Hidden Injuries of Class through to The Corrosion of Character, Respect in an Age of Inequality and (in 2008) The Craftsman, these books both hold up a mirror to our state – and open the doors that lead beyond it.

Since 1999, Sennett has held a professorship of sociology at the London School of Economics, with a parallel post at New York University. Yet to call this captivating writer an academic sociologist makes us much, or as little, sense as labelling Mozart a court musician. And music, with its give-and-take togetherness of rehearsal and performance, always provides this gifted cellist with touchstones and templates for creative social action.

The son of a radical single mother, born in 1943, Sennett was brought up amid the hard-pressed housing projects of Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green. That vulnerable childhood often figures in his work. Here, he recounts a reunion with the kids – now secretaries, firemen, store-keepers - who benefitted from the same "settlement house" neighbourhood welfare schemes. They learned how to cooperate, and to make something solid of their lives. As he notes, Chicago's post-war grassroots culture of bottom-up community organising, led by the legendary Saul Alinsky (a family friend), offered an intellectual and political nursery to many other activists. One of them is called Barack Obama; another, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Something of a musical prodigy, Sennett studied cello and conducting at the Juilliard School in New York – but a hand injury wrecked his professional career. He kept on performing, and still does. Here, as in previous books, the "rich conversation" of musicians in rehearsal, when they have at once to grasp other people's viewpoints but also stand their ground, serves as a symbol for the "good listening" which underlies any joint enterprise that deserves success.

The most intimate, least domineering, of theorists, Sennett enlivens his ideas with anecdotes, illustrations and fables – often drawn from his own life. One section here invites us into the London musical-instrument workshop where he takes his cello for repair. It had a clean-lined architectural makeover but now – a crucial Sennett point - the staff have customised it into an efficient mess that suits the way they really work. And they've turned off the new air-conditioning units. Why? It turned out that they hummed in B flat – not so great in a setting where precise artisans tune their pieces to a perfect A natural. You have to tweak the blueprint in order to work together well. As in the workshop, so in the office or the city.

The value of craft is central to Sennett's way of thinking. We have to work at making, and re-making, bonds with friends, family, colleagues and fellow-citizens, just as those London luthiers might build or restore an instrument. And any successful interaction enlists body as well as mind: "social relations are experiences in the gut". As much a close observer as a speculative thinker, Sennett pays attention to the whole person and their local habitation. When he reports from the Manhattan job centre where Wall Street casualties of the meltdown in finance seek work, or recalls his research on Boston factory-floors in the heyday of secure jobs, tough foremen and strong unions, you see, hear and imagine the place and the people. Sennett, the artist-philosopher, tells his tales as well as he elaborates his concepts.

In keeping with his ethics, and aesthetics, Sennett gives the story of cooperation in fragments and snapshots, never belabouring us with a strict sequence of events or a bullet-point list of ideas. This apostle of creative conversation, of open-ended dialogue rather than point-scoring debate, wants "to practise cooperation on the page" - in the manner of his beloved Montaigne. Yet the overall outline of his narrative looks clear. From the time of the medieval guilds, European societies devised rituals, customs and habits that accustomed their members to the everyday practice of cooperation, by doing as much as by learning. With the Reformation and Renaissance came thrilling opportunities to discover new crafts and new sciences – the "great unsettling" invoked in a brilliant extended riff on Holbein's painting "The Ambassadors". He treats this as a panoramic picture of modern cooperative styles, from the sextants on the table fashioned in improved workshops to the "cunning rituals" of compromise embodied in the proud – but ever-flexible – figures of the young envoys themselves.

Industrial capitalism drew on all these breakthroughs but bred loneliness and alienation in its factories and metropolises. Interaction shrank into mechanical work routines or the defensive, minimal tolerance of urban life among strangers. Sennett begins with the fringe displays put on by activists at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, proposing remedies for this plight. The various kinds of cooperation showcased by radicals from Europe and the US highlight the enduring discrepancy between political "solidarity" – which often irons out differences in pursuit of class unity - and "sociality", which allows for diversity within a context of joint action.

For all Sennett's critique of party-line politics, though, he stays firmly on the non-dogmatic left. When it comes, the verdict on David Cameron's "Big Society" model of volunteer-led social repair is utterly implacable. For Sennett, in poor areas where global businesses have ruined all competition and now siphon off what cash remains, "the local community, like the colony, is stripped of wealth, then told to make up for that lack by its own efforts".

In the era of the Reformation, he argues, civility replaced chivalry as the benchmark of social exchange. Contemporary life, in office or street, has too often wrecked those civil conventions that allow people to live and work in harmony, even with dissimilar others "we fear, dislike or simply don't understand". Above all, the short-termism of today's economic doctrines tends to erode equilibrium at work. Capitalism now rewards "apex predators" who fight to scoop the entire pool, rather than subtler players who want to win but leave their competitors eager for another deal. In sport, you don't want the team you beat to disband.

With this mania for "winner-takes-all" contests comes a scorn for internal concord. Even well-paid workers, shifting from one role to another in unstable firms, have little reason to know or value ephemeral colleagues. "Project labour in chameleon institutions acts like an acid solvent, eating away at authority, trust and cooperation." Sennett brings a lifetime's workplace witness up to date via interviews with the walking wounded of the 2008 crash. These back-office technicians on Wall Street could often spot the catastrophe ahead, but had no incentive to warn or correct the remote, selfish bosses who drove them into the abyss.

So much for the disease. What about the cure? Eclectic, ecumenical, Sennett leads us with charm and candour down his chosen routes to renovation. And much of this mosaic of good ideas concerns the means to repair or restore our frayed social bonds. Sennett can be crisply practical: on the good conduct of meetings, for example, and the need to steer between "the Scylla of the fixed agenda and the Charybdis of aimless rambling". He can tell us why empathy (cooler, but deeper) matters more than sympathy in achieving coperation. He shows how wily 19th-century envoys have something to teach us about "everyday diplomacy".

Good cooperation does not erase distances, but amicably puts them in play. He sums up the tenor of the 17th-century Maxims of La Rochefoucauld: "we are different from each other, as we are divided in ourselves: let's talk". Although critical of the isolating pressures put on children in his adoptive homeland, he has affectionate words for the English style of irony and indirection. This "subjunctive mood" in conversation and negotiation allows parties to make moves, change positions and suggest options without falling prey to the "fetish of assertion".

Critics may carp that Sennett's handbook to the crafts of cooperation sidesteps the hardest question of root-and-branch reform – whether of inner-city wealth distribution, or the global banking system. But repair, as he insists, has to start in your own backyard – and over your own fence. For anyone who takes up Together's challenge to make a "vocation" of community, he may well help them to avoid both the squabbles in the playground – and the riots in the streets.

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