“There’s a Solid Bedrock of Violent Racism in the US”—Richard Sennett, Sociologist

May 11, 2021
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Sennett in 2016. Photo Ot, SS-BY-S.A. 4.0.

Richard Sennett was in his late twenties when he found out his father had served in the International Brigades defending the Spanish Republic. So, it turned out, had his uncle.

Richard Sennett can’t remember when he first heard about the Spanish Civil War. It was simply there. “When I was growing up, it was mythological. It was the Good Fight,” he told me when we spoke in early March. “I always knew about the war in Spain—even though I had no idea my family had been a part of it.”

Sennett, a red-diaper baby, was born in Chicago in 1943 and raised in the Cabrini Green public housing project by his mother, a life-long Communist. It wasn’t until his late twenties that he found out his father, Maurice, who had abandoned the family when Richard was seven months old, had served in the International Brigades defending the Spanish Republic. So, it turned out, had his uncle, William. Bill Sennett had arrived in Spain in early March 1937; his brother Maury crossed the Pyrenees on April 2. While Bill served as commissar, Maury was a truck driver.

“I never actually met my father,” Sennet told me. “After he’d left us, we never heard from him. He just disappeared. In my late twenties, when I’d written something in the New York Review of Books, I got a postcard from him: I am probably your father. I threw it out. I figured I’d done fine without him.”

Around that same time, however, Richard also heard from his uncle, who was then in his late fifties. After Spain, Bill Sennett had become a paid CP functionary, but he’d left the Party in the wake of Khrushchev’s 1956 report to the Twentieth Congress. “I got to know Bill a bit and asked him about his time in Spain,” Sennett recalls, “I wouldn’t say he was very forthcoming. But he had an amazing moment in 1986 when he traveled to Barcelona for a tribute to the International Brigades, where he recovered many of those memories.”

Richard Sennett, who turned 78 in January, lives in London with Saskia Sassen, who, like him, is a world-renowned sociologist. Still, Sennett’s relationship to his own field is complicated. His shies away from quantitative research, despises scholarly jargon, and likes to think of himself as an anthropologist of sorts or, even better, a nineteenth-century novelist. (He’s published three works of fiction.) Ethnography is his method of choice, and anyone who spends five minutes with him can’t fail to notice how much he loves conversation. (When interviewed, he’s often tempted to turn the tables and start asking the journalist questions.) It’s no surprise he’s gotten along well with French intellectuals. “Once,” he told me, “Michel Foucault invited me to a dinner party with the medievalist Philippe Ariès, who was very, very right-wing. I was nervous and asked Foucault: ‘What are we going to talk about?’ And he said, ‘Well, anything—you just need to talk to him in a way where you feel that you really want to know what he thinks.’ That was such an interesting remark. I was still very young, but I remember thinking: ‘This is fantastic. This is what life should be like.’”

Sennett’s entry into sociology was entirely accidental. A talented cellist, he left home at 15 to earn his living as a performing musician. Four or five years later, he was training at Juilliard when a tendon problem, followed by a botched operation, cut his musical career short. A musician friend’s father, David Riesman, taught sociology at Harvard and invited him to give it a try. Something clicked. In the six decades that followed, Sennett wrote some twenty books.

In his most influential work, Sennett studies how capitalism and the city shape our sense of self and our ways of interacting with each other. His early books deal with identity, respect, cooperation, and public space; among his most recent work is a trilogy on our interaction with the material world, focusing on craft, cooperation, and the urban environment. If there’s a constant in Sennett’s work, it’s the concern that capitalism and the modes of being it imposes on us may harm our ability to live with ourselves and work with each other. While the increasing focus on competition undermines cooperation, he warns, the gig economy robs people of the ability to take pride in their work and create a meaningful narration of their own lives. Speaking of narrating lives, Sennet is now working on an autobiography that explores the connection between music and sociology.

Was it strange that it took you so long to find out about your family’s role in the Brigades?

Less strange than you’d think. You see, most of my family was in the Communist Party. My mom was very dedicated—the whole reason I grew up in a Chicago housing project was that she was trying to organize black women. But if you were a Communist in the 1950s and ‘60s, you never talked about politics, especially to little kids, for fear of the FBI. Don’t forget that McCarthyism was a form of light fascism. My mother was terrified that she would be indicted for sedition. The less we kids knew, the less we could tell. Of course, if my dad had been around, I’d probably picked up more.

When did your mother leave the party?

She never did. It left her. She was not happy when the Soviet Union collapsed.

A story like that of Eric Hobsbawm, the British historian.

Indeed. Eric was a wonderful friend and a wonderful writer, but his autobiography disappointed me. I sensed bad faith in the way he wrote about his own relationship to Communism. He had the most crystalline memories of what it meant to be a Communist but didn’t interrogate those memories at all. I’d expected him to a better historian of his own life.

Are you a better sociologist of yours?

(Laughs.) As a music student, I was just a garden-variety red-diaper baby. But when I left music I had to interrogate that—because obviously, there’s a lot of naivete in the music world about authority, cooperation, and so on. This is precisely what I am dealing with in the autobiography I’m writing now. But to answer your question: yes, I’m trying to be a better historian of myself than Eric was.

Your mother’s Communism represented a radical break with the politics of her parents, White Russian immigrants who’d fled the Revolution. Although your work doesn’t quite break with your family’s politics in the same way, it does establish a distance. You’ve argued, for example, that public spaces and the public sphere serve for more than just political action. They are the place, you write, where we get to interact with, or even to know and understand, those who think differently than we do. That’s a long way from the sectarian battles that marked much of the Communist tradition.

Absolutely. But here’s a question for you. Do you think most Communists were really sectarian in terms of belief? Or was it’s just that those beliefs were so tied up with their own sense of self that giving them up would have been too big a psychological loss? In his book Autocritique, Edgar Morin suggests that it’s hard for people to give up their political convictions because it means they’d have to disinvest in themselves. Very few people, he says, are committed in a real ideological sense. I think there is a truth in that. If you really believe that something is true, you don’t need to fight sectarian battles over it, because if someone else doesn’t share your belief, that doesn’t make it less true. But you are right that my own work is a reaction to those dynamics. That’s also why I got so interested in conflict theory, in the notion of the public realm as a space of dissent rather than as a space of coming together. In my work, the public space is still political, but it’s a different kind of politics. The question becomes: How do you live with somebody who’s profoundly different?

I am wondering if recent developments in the United States have changed your thinking. A couple of days before the November elections, you wrote: “In the 1970s I thought the hidden injuries of class might heal in part through local, face-to-face interaction with people who are different. That hope doesn’t make sense today. I’ve lost my empathy for the complex motivations that animate fear and reaction. The mantra of ‘bringing the country together’ loses any meaning as the base hardens and shifts to the extreme right; instead, it has to be held to account for the criminal tendencies encouraged by its leader. The US isn’t going to heal any time soon”. That was shocking to read. I thought: “If even Richard Sennett has lost hope, we must be really screwed!”

It’s true that I have changed my thinking. The Black Lives Matter movement really put its finger on the fact that there’s a solid bedrock of violent racism in the US. This has always been there. Sometimes it’s been silent; now it’s very vocal. This phenomenon is hard for Europeans to understand, although there is racism in Europe, too. The US is just much more right-wing. The Right that I know best, which is the British Right, is basically the US Democratic Party.

I’ve always thought that, in the US, people’s politics are less tied up with their whole identity than in other countries, like Spain for example, where it sometimes seems like people support their political parties through thick and thin as if they were football clubs.

I don’t agree with you on that point. This American racism is very much tied up with people’s whole identity. Much more than, say, for those of us who’ve voted socialist for fifty years. Let me give you an example. Here in Britain, right-wing Tories do not only have right-wing Tory friends. In the US, it’s hard to imagine a Trump person saying: ‘Oh, yes, I have a friend who is a socialist.’ In fact, it’s almost inconceivable.

If you have stopped believing in healing through local, face-to-face interaction with people who are different, what do you do in a country where a large percent of the population is racist?

I have to confess that, when it comes to racists, I have lost my belief in the possibility of empathic understanding. Trump did that to me. In the current issue of the New York Review, Fintan O’Toole writes that Biden’s whole notion of bringing people together is over. I agree. I know I’m contradicting myself, but I think this racism will never go away. It has to be repressed.

Repressed psychologically or through the rule of law?

Through rule of law. People should be held legally responsible for hate speech. I know this is not how I should be thinking. But I feel that, of Trump’s 70 million followers, 50 or 60 million are deaf. What I mean is that they’re never going to feel any guilt. That means, to me, that they are not part of the public realm. They’re in an alternative realm. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. We have these huge discussions in Britain about so-called cancel culture. Well, I think there is a point to cancel culture. At this point, I wouldn’t give somebody equal time to discuss whether the Holocaust happened or not. There have to be limits of some kind when you’re no longer in any kind of dialectical relationship with people or when there is no longer any real interaction.

I see what you’re saying. But doesn’t judicial persecution grant the far-right a martyr’s role on a silver platter? We’re already seeing parties like Vox, in Spain, or the Forum for Democracy, in the Netherlands, cloaking themselves in the mantle of freedom of speech. Even if there is no dialectic, isn’t there an advantage of having the far-right state its ideas openly, if only so that the public can see how crazy they are?

I don’t know. I feel we’re reaching the end of an era, the golden era of a kind of liberal cosmopolitanism. It’s not unlike the 1930s. And of course, the Communist Party of that time would have understood this discussion immediately.

There is no negotiating with fascism.

Right. My impression is that very few people who participated in the trashing of the Capitol felt any remorse. They trashed public property. They’ve committed a crime. So they should go to jail. Making them feel guilty for what they’ve done doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

That’s the United States. How about Europe?

Europe, I think, is going to rebalance itself. The far-right is going to wither. In Britain, Germany, and France, which are the countries I know on the ground, people just want to get on with it. But I fear that in the States it’s just going to get stronger and stronger.

What’s your explanation for that as a sociologist? Your colleague Arlie Hochschild has argued that it’s driven by underprivileged whites who feel they’re being bypassed by other underprivileged groups.

The problem with that analysis is that, statistically, underprivileged whites aren’t the people who are Trump’s main followers. Some of them are, of course, but the majority of the white working class, for instance, voted for Biden in the last election. Don’t get me wrong, I like Arlie Hochschild’s work a lot. She’s a wonderful interviewer, full of empathy. But I think it’s factually wrong to argue that that’s where the fuel comes from. There was a famous book written about this in Scandinavia at the turn of the twentieth century. Most of the followers of the far-right, it turns out, are upper-middle class. There’s a whole kind of psychology about feeling victimized even if you own two cars and a stockbroker account.

Since your current book project has you looking back on your career, I am wondering about your own political shifts over time. At some point, you shifted to the right, but in the last couple of decades, you have moved leftward again. Have those shifts been a function of changes in temperament that come with age or were they responses to changes in the world around you?

I don’t like thinking in terms of a left-right spectrum. It’s too simple a tool that only serves to hide much more complex ways of thinking about politics. Take Green Parties: as we have seen in Germany and Scandinavia, a green-black alliance turns out to be perfectly workable. For me, what changed about 20 years ago is that I had a wake-up call about capitalism. It was something I hadn’t written about. When I came back to doing sociology after a decade of trying to write novels, I found myself quite shocked by neoliberal versions of capitalism. This is what drove me to write The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. I wanted to understand why this new capitalism is worse for ordinary people than the kind of corporate capitalism that had preceded it. I don’t know if that means I turned to the left or right. But I certainly did become more energized politically. If anything, over the last 20 years I’ve become more radical in the sense that I returned to being a critic of capitalist labor.

A central concern in your work, from The Hidden Injuries of Class to your Homo Faber trilogy, has been the Marxist notion of alienation. You’ve seemed to want to protect, or to return to, a world in which people relate meaningfully to their work and the things they make with their hands. Not because making things with your hands is natural but because, like learning to play music, it takes a lot of practice and discipline but also produces a lot of satisfaction and self-respect. Is there an organicist or even traditionalist strain there? Your sociology, it seems, is driven by the idea of the good life—not in a hedonistic sense but in the sense of a fulfilled, non-alienated existence.

I think that last point is right. That’s why, to me, the Marx that’s living is not the one that the Communist Party took up, but the early Marx. I don’t know if it’s organicist—but it’s certainly a more integrated version of life, one that makes civic sense.

Bill Sennett. Photo Richard Bermack.

This is also why you are so concerned about the gig economy, or a world in which automation will do away with 15 or 20 percent of all jobs. Would something like Universal Basic Income be a solution?

In my view, people need a kind of narrative that puts their lives together. Paid work did that even for working-class people. But it is psychologically much harder if you move serially through many different jobs. Of course, you can be supported by some kind of basic income. But I doubt that can replace the role paid work has played. If nobody needs you, and you’re not really necessary to anybody else outside the family sphere, that’s a kind of social death.

Aren’t you underestimating the creative force of the human mind? Would we weave a narrative regardless, even from a series of disjointed, serial job experiences, because that’s what we do?

That may be true for a small elite. I’m not sure being a plumber and an electrician who has no union, no effective, communal ties, and who is just doing one plumbing job after another, is going to add up to something. One argument that’s been made about this is that the community would replace labor as a site of working. That is quite an interesting idea. In very poor communities, like the ones I’m working with now through the United Nations, building a communal latrine, a middle school, or a health center is something that gives that kind of spine to people’s experience. Speaking of the United Nations, this reminds me of my uncle Bill Sennett. Even though he had left the Party in the 1950s, he never became an anti-Communist and remained committed to democratic socialism. After his retirement, he became the publisher of the magazine In These Times, for example. Well, I started working with the United Nations long ago. That immediately raised his old-Commie hackles. For him, the UN was the wrong kind of international! A real international is built out of struggle and solidarity—not some massive bureaucracy.

Sebastiaan Faber teaches at Oberlin College. A shorter version of this interview appeared in the June, 2021 issue of The Volunteer. A version in Spanish appeared in the magazine CTXT: Revista Contexto.

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