The corrosion of character (R. Sennett 1998)

Time is the only resource available to those at the bottom of society. ... It is the time dimension of the new capitalism, rather than high-tech data transmission, global stock markets, or free trade, which most directly affects people's emotional lives outside the workplace. Transpose to the family realm, "No long term" means keep moving, don't commit yourself, and don't sacrifice. ... The conditions of time in the new capitalism have created a conflict between character and experience, the experience of disjointed time threatening the ability of people to form their characters into sustained narratives. ... What's peculiar about uncertainty today is that it exists without any looming historical disaster; instead it is woven into the everyday practice of a vigorous capitalism. Instability is meant to be normal... Perhaps the corroding of character is an inevitable consequence. "No long term" disorients action over the long term, loosens bonds of trust and commitment, and divorces will from behavior. ... Society today is searching for ways to destroy the evils of routine through creating more flexible institutions. The practices of flexibility, however, focus mostly on the forces bending people. ... The willingness to risk, however, is no longer meant to be the province only of venture capitalists or extraordinarily adventurous individuals. Risk is to become a daily necessity shouldered by the masses. The sociologist Ulrich Beck declares that in "advance modernity the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks." ... If all risk taking is a journey towards the unknown, the voyager usually has in mind some destination. ... It's not that inequality and social distinction have disappeared -anything but. Rather, it's as though by setting oneself in motion one suddenly suspends one's reality; one is not so much calculating, rationally choosing, but simply hoping that by making a break something will turn up. Much of the literature on risk discusses strategy and game plans, costs and benefits, in a kind of academic dreaming. Risk in real life is driven more elementally by the fear of failing to act. In a dynamic society, passive people wither. ... When a person lacks belief that anything can be done to solve the problem, long term thinking can be suspended as useless. However, focal attention may remain active. In this state, people will turn over and over again the immediate circumstances in which they are caught, aware that somethings needs to be done even though they do nothing. Suspended focal attention is a traumatic reaction found in all higher animals... For human being, the aftermath of an act of risk can lead to suspended focal attention of the same sort... in all these emotional states, time seems to grind to a halt; the person in these toils becomes prisoner of the present, fixated on his dilemmas. ... The time frame of risk offers little personal comfort, despite these long-term historical trends. Indeed, personal anxiety about time is deeply intertwined with the new capitalism. ... An apprehension is an anxiety about what might happen; apprehension is created in a climate emphasizing constant risk, and apprehension increases when past experience seems no guide to the present. ... Power is present in the superficial scenes of teamwork, but authority is absent. ... Modern management techniques seek to escape from the 'authoritarian' aspect of such declarations, but in the process they manage to escape as well from being held responsible for their acts. If change is the responsible agent, if everybody is a victim, then authority vanishes, for no one can be held accountable ... neutrality is a form of betrayal. The absence of human beings declaring "I'll tell you what to do" or at the extreme "I'll make you suffer" is more than a defensive act within the corporation; this absence of authority frees those in control to shift, adapt, reorganize without having to justify themselves or their acts. In other words, it permits freedom of the moment, a focus just on the present. Change is the responsible agent; change is not a person. ... This game of power without authority indeed begets a new character type. In place of the driven man, there appears the ironic man. ... An ironic view of oneself is the logical consequence of living in flexible time, without standards of authority and accountability. ... The culture of the new order profoundly disturbs self-organization. ... The dilemma of how to organize a life narrative is partly clarified by probing how, in today's capitalism, people cope with the future. ... Failure is the great modern taboo. ... The very opposition of success and failure is one way of avoiding coming to terms with failure itself. ... Imposing external standards of behavior often begets internal reforms; precisely because the network world is so amorphous, so inconstant, external standards of responsible behavior may hold up to the corporation a picture of "what you should be like, here, where you are, right now." ... Place is geography, a location for politics; community evokes the social and personal dimensions of place. ... the uncertainties of flexibility; the absence of deeply rooted trust and commitment, the superficiality of teamwork; most of all, the specter of failing to make something of oneself in the world, to 'get a life' through one's work. All these conditions impel people to look for some other scene of attachment and depth.
Today, in the new regime of time, that usage "we" has become an act of self-protection is defensive, often expressed as rejection of immigrants or other outsiders...
"We" is often a false locution used as a point of reference against the outside world. ... The destruction of welfare nets and entitlements is in turn justified as freeing the political economy to behave more flexibly, as if the parasites were dragging down the more dynamic members of society. ... "TRUST", "MUTUAL RESPONSIBILITY","COMMITMENT" are all words which have come to be owned by the movement called "communitarianism". ... Routine is a repetitive action and so has no history, no evolution; sympathy is a sudden bursting out of understanding of another...
Lack of responsiveness is a logical reaction to the feeling one is not needed. This is as true of flexible work communities as it is of labor markets downsizing middle-aged workers. Networks and teams weaken character...
The Other is missing, and so you are disconnected. Real connections made to others by acknowledging mutual incomprehension are further diminished by communitarianism and moral protectionism ...
The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer declares that "the self we are does not posses itself; one could say that [the self] 'happens'" subject to the accidents of time and the fragments of history. Thus "the self-awareness of the individual," Gadamer declares, "is only a flickering in the closed circuit of historical life." This is the problem of the character in modern capitalism. There is history, but no shared narrative of difficulty, and so no shared fate. Under these circumstances, character corrodes; the question Who needs me?" has no immediate answer. ... a regime which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy.

Richard Sennett, 1998.