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Capitalism and the City

Richard Sennett

-> My theme is the relationship of capitalism and the city. The conditions of capitalism are very different today than they were a century ago, when the formal discipline of urban studies began. In my view, we have yet to catch up as scholars with these changes in reality.++

I. Urban Virtues

Let me begin, with a certain amount of trepidation, by stating flatly what is the human worth of living in a city, what is its cultural value. I think there are in fact two urban virtues which made it worthwhile to live even in badly-run, or crime infested, dirty or decaying urban places.

The first has to do with sociability. A city is a place where people can learn to live with strangers. The practice of modern democracy demands that citizens learn how to enter into the experience and interests of unfamiliar lives. Society gains equally gains when people's experience is not limited just to those who resemble them in class, race, or ways of life. Sameness stultifies the mind, diversity stimulates and expands it.

Cities are places where learning to live with strangers can happen directly, bodily, physically, on the ground. The size, density, and diversity of urban populations makes this sensate contact possible - but not inevitable. One of the key issues in urban life, and in urban studies, is how to make the complexities a city contains actually interact. If contact occurs, and people can make a life with those who are not like themselves, then city dwellers become cosmopolitans.

The second urban virtue has to do with subjectivity, and it derives directly from the first.
The experience of urban life can teach people how to live with multiply within themselves. The experience of complexity is not just an external event; it reflects back on individual's sense of themselves. People can develop multiple images of their own identities, knowing that who they are shifts, depending upon they are with. More, complex social systems tend to be open-ended rather than tightly closed; they are incomplete ways of living which can reflect back into the subjective realm, as lessons about the unresolvable and necessarily incomplete character of experience - lessons in human limits.

In principle, of course, a farmer could have as complicated an inner life as a city dweller. All cities do, and it is a lot, is furnish the concrete materials for developing that consciousness. Walking in a dense crowd is, if you like, a kind of evidence for what might lie in one's own head. Again, this is a possibility rather than an inevitability; the specific conditions of a particular city might prompt people to shut out that evidence, treat the crowded street as a space of fear rather than a space of self-knowledge.

For me, the writings of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, though no urbanist, have formed a bridge between these two urban virtues: Levinas asserts that, when a person's experience is so complex as to become multiply-defined or open-ended, he or she has need of others, others whom he or she does not know. He calls this ?he neighborliness of strangers? and the phrase aptly captures the aspiration we ought have in designing cities.

This confession de foi sets the stage for my own theme, which is not quite so spiritual. The virtues of urban sociability and subjectivity were played out a century ago, when urban studies began, in terms of a dialectic between rigidity and strangeness. Today they are played out in terms of a dialectic between flexibility and indifference. My argument is that a great change in capitalism has transformed the context of urban cultural values, a contrast between then and now I will try to make more objective and precise.

II. Rigidity and Strangeness

To understand this duality, we need to recall that, though cities are as ancient as human civilization, the discipline of urban studies is only a century old. It took root first in sociology and geography, then spread to economics, political science, and more recently anthropology. In sociology, we owe to German writers such as Weber and Simmel the first modern analyses of cities; this ?erlin schoolŠat the turn of the century inspired in some of its American students a desire to work more collaboratively, and they did so at the University of Chicago from the 1910's to the 1940's.

Both the Berlin and Chicago Schools took form in an age of bureaucratic stabilization. 19th Century capitalism was frequently anarchic and disorganized, but unwillingly so. In Germany, the Bismarckian era saw an effort to remedy these crises through consolidating the relations between the state and private enterprise; government was to supply the rule the free market lacked. In the U.S. the massive formation of monopolies by Rockefeller, Gould, and Carnegie similarly sought to escape the competitive eruptions of the market. The ?earch for order? as the historian Robert Wiebe put it, bred enterprises on an ever larger scale, and which ever more internally complex bureaucratic structures. In turn, this arduous history affected cities, and what urbanists could say about them.

For the moment, I want to delay discussing how that happened, and focus on its opposite, the other side of the urban dialectic, the importance accorded to strangers and strangeness. This was Georg Simmel's subject par excellence. In a letter he wrote to a friend about Potzdammerplatz in Berlin he evoked the cacophony of languages he heard, the strange costumes of the people in the great square. As he would later write, ?he urbanite is a stranger? By this he meant to describe - in modern jargon - a condition of alterity rather than of difference: not a fixed classificatory scheme of identity but rather the unknown other, marked by strangeness. Alterity is a provoker, a force of anxiety, since you don't know what the other will do, how he or she might behave. And each of us bears this power to provoke unease in a crowd.

The power of strangeness make sense in the conditions of Simmel's time. Berlin was in the midst of rural-to-urban migration, and these migrants came not just from Prussia but from Poland, Hungary and the Balkans, speaking languages other than German, the rural cultures they brought with them not at all of a piece. As important, at this stage of capitalism, there was as yet no culture of mass consumption which unified people as social subjects in the city: the consolidation of production preceded the standardization of consumption, so that desire, taste, and life styles were discontinuous and puzzling. We could as easily cite parallel material phenomena in New York in 1900, the complex world of immigrants on the lower East Side squeezing hard south against Wall Street, north against the bourgeois, WASP residential neighborhood around Washington Square. Alterity was the material condition of urban culture.

Strangeness as alterity is a force which Simmel celebrated in cities. Like Joyce or Proust, Simmel believed the stranger is the bearer of a new freedom. I will give you an American example of what he meant. When Willa Cather finally arrived in New York's Greenwhich Village in 1906, she, who had been haunted in small-town America that her lesbianism would be discovered, wrote to a friend, ?t last, in this indecipherable place, I can breathe? Simmel's own labors aimed a specifying just how, on crowded streets and squares, the freedom of strangeness, the freedom of alterity, played itself out. In public, the urbanite dons an impassive mask, acts cool and indifferent to others on the street; in private, however, he or she is aroused by these strange contacts, disturbed and reactive, certainties are shaken in the presence of others: subjective life seethes behind the protective mask.

In itself, this is a highly Romantic view of the city, but it acquires weight precisely because the subjective stimulation of strangeness in depicted in exactly the same places ruled by the emerging forces of bureaucratic rigidity. Bureaucratic rigidity was of course the great theme of Max Weber, Simmel's colleague and protector. In the Berlin of their time, you would only have to look at the insurance companies, banks, and railroad corporations housed in structures meant to resemble Egyptian temples or Renaissance palaces to see the realization of the desire for economic stability in stone.

We owe to Simmel's student Robert Park, and to Park's student Louis Wirth, an analysis of how the organizational consolidation of capitalization could be related to the territory of a city, rather than just to its architecture. Though Park remained loyal to Simmel's insights into urban subjectivity, which the young American rephrased as the "moral order" of the city, when Park returned to Chicago he had to take up the other side of the coin. Both Park and Wirth sought to depict an ecological division of land based on the division of labor in modern capitalism. The most interesting maps the Chicago School produced of the city were maps of where different functions occurred in the city; you can find them, for instance, in a book with a resoundingly dull title, One Hundred Years of Chicago Land Values, written by Homer Hoyt. This data on the functional articulation of urban space Louis Wirth tied directly to the phenomenon of bureaucratization.

How then to relate the ecology of city to the figure of the stranger and the freedom of alterity? How, as Park put it, are the city as a ?lace on the mapŠand a ?oral orderŠthe same place? The Chicago urbanists responded by imagining the urbanite as a permanent, internal migrant traveling through the city's ecology. Wirth, for instance, depicted the city as a mosaic of different roles in different places - what he called ?egmented rolesŠ- but he argued that the subject transcends each of his or her roles in space. The idea of a subject superior to his or her surroundings is familiar to us in the writings of Wirth's contemporary Walter Benjamin - specifically in Benjamin's figure the flaneur. Less arty, Wirth was interested in the examples of second generation immigrants in Chicago and the city nascent black bourgeoisie. Both groups seemed to him at once located in an ever-more defined urban ecology and mobile across fixed territories. In their lack of a single definition, in their multiple identities, lay their freedom.

The dialectic between strangeness and rigidity defined the mental compass, if you like, of modern urban studies when it first began. Like any serious version of culture, it both embodied and addressed contradictions. In the visual realm, for instance, the urban design of this time sought both to flee the anxiety of strangeness of the city yet preserve the freedom of the urbanite. This is the great drama in Daniel Burnham's plan of 1909 for Chicago, at once an attempt to impose a rigidly functional order on the city yet in each of the city's zones to mix the different classes and immigrant groups in the city. German and Viennese city planners were at once attracted by the healthy qualities of Garden City movement of Ebenezer Howard in Britain and repelled by its infantile simplicities.

Today, many of the material conditions which formed the first era of urban studies a century ago still continue: the flood of immigrants into cities, for example. And we continue - as indeed we should - to think of alterity as a social condition which holds out the promise of subjective freedom, freedom from arbitrary definition and identification. But the larger conditions of capitalism have taken a new turn, and this change in political economy has altered both the nature of the city itself and the intellectual tools we need to understand our own times.

III. Flexibility and Indifference

When we talk about a new stage in capitalism, we are really pointing at two phenomena. One is the globalization of labor and capital flows. The other consists of a transformation in production, that is, a change in institutions and bureaucracies so that people can work more flexibly and less rigidly.
The word ?ewŠinstantly arouses suspicion, because it belongs to the realm of advertising. Labor migration multinational finance are long-established in the capitalist economy, but in the last generation they have been reformulated. Banks no longer trade within national constraints; labor migrants have found new international routes. Changes in work places have similarly not been conjured out of thin air. Anarco-syndicalists have long argued for less rigid work-places, an argument which by a rich irony modern capitalists have taken to heart.

Because the bureaucratic revolution which had made capitalism flexible is less in the news than globalization, let me start with this part of the story.
Max Weber's description of rational bureaucracy was founded on an analogy between military and business organization. His image for both was the bureaucratic triangle; the more the rational division of labor progressed, the more slots opened up unequally; the need for different kinds of soldiers or workers expanded far more rapidly than the need for more generals or bosses. The chain of command within this triangle operated on the principle that each niche had a distinctive function; efficiency dictated that there be as little duplication as possible. The general can thus stragetically control platoons far from his command post, the corporation executive determine how the assembly line or back office functions.

In industrial production, Weber's triangle became embodied in the phenomenon of Fordism, a kind of military micro-management of a worker's time and effort which a few experts could dictate from the top. It was graphically illustrated by the General Motors' Willow Run auto plant in America, a mile-long, quarter-mile wide edifice in which raw iron and glass entered, as it were, at one end and a finished car, exited at the other. Only a strict, controlling work regime could coordinate production on this giant scale. In the white collar world, the strict controls of corporations like IBM in the 1960's mirrored this industrial process.

A generation ago businesses began to revolt against the Weberian triangle. They sought to ?elayerŠorganizations, to remove levels of bureaucracy, making use of new information technologies in place of bureaucrats. They sought to destroy the practice of fixed-function work, substituting instead teams which work short-term on specific tasks - teams which are shuffled when the organization embarks on new projects. Just as these techniques enabled businesses to respond externally to new market opportunities, the organizations sought to create internal markets. In this new business strategy, teams compete against one another, trying to respond and effectively as quickly as possible to goals set by the top. Internal markets mean that the old Weberian logic of efficiency is overthrown; instead of each person doing his or her own particular bit in a defined chain of command, you have duplication of function, many different teams compete to do the same task fastest, best.
All these practices are meant to make corporations flexible, able to change quickly within in response to rapidly changing conditions without.
The apologists for this new world of work claim it is more democratic than the military-style organization of the past. But in reality that is not the case. In place of the Weberian triangle, an image of the new realm of power might be a circle with a dot in the center. At the center, a small number of managers rules, makes decisions, sets tasks, judges results; the information revolution has given it more instantaneous control over the corporations workings than in the old system, where orders often modulated and evolved as they passed down the chain of command. The teams working on the periphery of the circle are left free to respond to output targets set by the center, free to devise means of executing tasks in competition with one another, but not free to decide what those tasks are.

In the Weberian triangle of bureaucracy, rewards came for doing one's job as best one can; in the dotted circle, they come to teams winning over other teams - which the economist Robert Frank calls winner-take-all organization; sheer effort no longer produces reward. This bureaucratic reformulation, Frank argues, contributes to the great inequalities of pay and perks in flexible organizations, a material reality of inequality entirely at odds with work-place democracy.
To understand the effect of this new form of organization on the urban places in which people live, we have to specify one further characteristic of flexibility: its time dimension.

The mantra of the flexible work-place is ?o long term? The short-term dimensions of time are evident in the replace of clear career paths within fixed organizations by jobs - jobs which consist of specific and limited tasks; when the task ends, often the job is over. In the high-tech sector in Silicon Valley, the average length of employment is now about 8 months; the re-engineering of corporations often leads to abrupt, involuntary job change; in the shifting world of flexible work - as in advertising, the media, and financial services - voluntary job change follows an erratic path, people tending to make lateral, ambiguous moves. Finally, within a given corporation, the emphasis on tying teams to tasks means that people are constantly changing their working associates - modern management theory argues the ?helf lifeŠof a team ought to be at most a year.

These changes in institutional time, I want to make clear, do not dominate the work-place at present, no more than global finance is the dominant mode of finance. Rather, they represent a leading edge of change, an aspiration of what businesses ought to become: no one is going to start a new organization based on the principle of permanent jobs.

Just as the space of power in the flexible organization is not democratic, so the time dimension of these institutions promotes neither loyalty nor fraternity. Business leaders who were once enthusiasts for constant corporation re-invention are beginning, as it were, to sober up. It is hard to feel committed to a corporation which has no defined character, hard to act loyally to an unstable institution which shows no loyalties to you. Lack of commitment translates into poor productivity, and to an unwillingness to keep a corporation's secrets.

The lack of fraternity bred by ?o-long termŠis rather more subtle. Task-work puts people under enormous stress; on losing teams recrimination tends to mark the final stages of working together. Again, trust of an informal sort takes time to develop; you have to get to know people, which team break-ups short circuit. And the experience of being only temporarily in an organization prompts people to keep loose, not to get involved, since you are going to exit soon. Practically, this lack of mutual engagement is one of the reasons it is so hard for labor unions to organize workers in flexible industries or businesses like Silicon Valley; the sense of fraternity as a shared fate, a durable set of common interests, has been weakened. Socially, the short-term regime produces a paradox: people work intensely, under great pressure, but their relations to others remain curiously superficial. This is not a world in which getting deeply involved with other people makes much sense, in the long run.

My argument is precisely that flexible capitalism has the same effects on the city as in the workplace itself. Just as flexible production produces more superficial, short-term relations at work, this capitalism creates a regime of superficial and disengaged relations in the city. This dialectic of flexibility and indifference is a challenge both to those who live in cities and those who study them.

The dialectic of flexibility and indifference appears in three forms. The first is expressed in physical attachment to the city; the second expressed in the standardization of the urban environment; the third in relations between family and urban work.
The issue of physical attachment to place is perhaps the most self-evident of the three. Rates of geographic mobility are very high for flexible workers. Service temp-workers are a good example - and temp-work is the single fastest-growing sector of the labor market. Temp-work nurses are for instance 8 times more likely to move house in a two-year period as single-employer nurses; main-frame servicemen are 11 times more likely than their single-employer mates. Lack of fixed work means less attachment to place.

In the higher reaches of the economy, executives in the past frequently moved as much as in the present, but the movement were different in kind; they remained within the groove of a company, and the company defined their ?laceŠthe turf of their lives, no matter where they were on the map. It is just that institutional thread which the new work-place breaks. Some urbanists, like Sharon Zukin, have argued, intriguingly, that for this elite certain zones in the modern city - gentrified, filled with sleek restaurants and specialized services - have replaced the corporation as an anchor; this new elite has become more attached to their style of life in the city than their jobs. That argument looks a little different, however, if we consider the other effects of the flexible realm on cities.

Standardization of the environment results from the economy of impermanence, and standardization begets indifference. I can make this dictum clear, perhaps, by describing a personal experience. A few years ago I took the head of a large, new-economy corporation on a tour of New York's Chanin Building, an art-deco palace with elaborate offices and splendid public spaces. ?t would never suit us? the executive remarked, ?eople might become too attached to their offices, they might think they belong here?

The flexible office is meant not to be a place where you nestle in. The office architecture of flexible firms requires a physical environment which can be quickly reconfigured - at the extreme, the ?fficeŠbecomes just a computer terminal. The neutrality of new buildings also results from their global currency as investment units; for someone in Manila easily to buy or sell a hundred thousand square feet of office space in London, the space itself needs the uniformity, the transparency, of money. This is why the style elements of new economy buildings become what Ada Louise Huxtable calls ?kin architecture? the surface of the building dolled-up with design, its innards ever-more neutral, standard, and capable of instant refiguration.

Another phenomenon in the modern city re-enforces ?kin architecture? That is the standardization of public consumption - a global network of shops selling the same commodities in the same kinds of spaces whether they are located in Manila, Mexico City, or London. This standardization forms a stark contrast to the conditions of Simmel's Berlin. There, a century ago, though institutional coherence was the economy's aim, consumption remained erratic in form and mostly small-scales in the city's economy. Today, institutional coherence is coming apart, but the consumable results of production and services are becoming more uniform.

It is hard to become attached to a particular Gap or Banana Republic; standardization begets indifference. Put another way: the problem of institutional loyalties in the work-place, now beginning to sober up managers once blindly enthusiastic about endless corporate re-engineering, finds its parallel in the urban public realm of consumption; attachment and engagement with specific places is dispelled under the aegis of this new regime. Benjamin's image of the ?laneurŠgets a new meaning in a world of Starbucks and Niketowns: no longer is the urban flaneur someone who can discover - at least in new public realm - the strange, the unexpected, or the arousing. Alterity is missing. Equally, the accumulation of shared history, and so of collective memory diminishes in these neutral public spaces. The space of public consumption attacks local meanings in the same way the new work-place attacks ?ngrown? shared histories among workers.

This is, visually, one way to interpret the relation between flexibility and indifference. I don't mean to invoke cliches of urban ?lienation? or argue that the impulse to seek stimulus in the city has died. Rather, the visual economy of modern capitalism has put up new barriers to the experience of complexity on the city's streets.

  Socially, the coupling of flexibility and indifference produces a conflict less visible to the eye. High-pressure, flexible work profoundly disorients family life. The phenomena of ?atch-key childhood? of adult stress, or of geographic uprooting -- so often cited in the press - do not quite get at the heart of this disorientation. It is rather than the codes of conduct which rule the modern work world would shatter families if taken home from the office: don't commit, don't get involved, think short-term. The assertion of ?amily valuesŠby the public and by politicians has a more than right-wing resonance; it is a reaction, often inchoate but strongly felt, of the threats to family solidarity in the new economy; Christopher Lasch's image of the family as a ?aven in a heartless worldŠtakes on a particular urgency when work becomes at once more unpredictable and more demanding of adult time. One result of this conflict, by now well-documented on middle-aged employees, is that adults withdraw from civic participation in the struggle to solidify and organize family life; the civic becomes yet another demand on time and energies in short supply at home.

I introduce this third element because ?ndifferenceŠcan seem only moralistic and pejorative. Withdrawal from the civic realm, neglect of it, can be something to which people are driven by the contrary demands of family and work.

In sum, when a society's organizational, bureaucratic forms alter, both the experience of time and space alters. This conjoined alteration in the time of labor and the space of cities is what we are living through today, expressed in geographic impermanence, the effects of impermanence on standardization in the public realm, and conflicts between work and family, office and home.

I want to say less about the effects of globalization on cities, since they are the subject of many other critiques. I only wish to take up the issue posed by Sharon Zukin, about the peculiar home the new global elite has made for itself in cities like New York, London, and Chicago. Here we would do better to focus on politics than on lofts and trendy restaurants. This is an economic elite avoiding the urban political realm. It wants to operate in the city but not rule it; it composes a regime of power without responsibility.

Let me give an example. In Wirth's Chicago, in 1925, political and economic power were co-extensive: presidents of the the city's top 80 corporations sat on 142 hospital boards, composed 70% of trustees of colleges and universities. Political machines were deeply linked to business; tax revenues from 18 national corporations in Chicago formed 23% of the city's municipal budget. By contrast, in New York now - with London, the world's most globalized city - political and economic power not coextensive in this way. Big players in the global economy located in the city absent from civic enterprises - hospitals, libraries, universities and schools; few CEO's of global firms in New York, for instance, are trustees of its educational institutions, none sit on the boards of its hospitals [as of 1999.] The network of the bourgeois ?reat and the goodŠis no more international in London, despite the fact that the City of London is Europe's financial capital.

The reason for this change is that the global economy is not rooted in the city in the sense of depending on control of the city as a whole. It is instead an island economy, literally so within the island of Manhattan in New York, architecturally so in places like Canary Wharf in London, which resemble the imperial compounds of an earlier era. As John Mollenkopf and Manuel Castells have shown, this global wealth does not trickle down, leech out, very far beyond the global enclave - which is why Mollenkopf and Castells speak of global cities as ?ual cities?

Indeed, the politics of the global enclave cultivates a kind of indifference vis-a-vis the city which Marcel Proust, in an entirely different context, calls the ?assive belovedŠphenomenon. Threatening to leave, go anywhere in the world, the global firm is given enormous tax breaks to stay, a profitable seduction made possible by the firm appearing indifferent to the places where it touches down.

In other words, globalization poses a problem of citizenship in cities as well as nations. I remarked that the conflicting demands of family and work are now diminishing civic participation. But here is another, less sympathetic form of civic indifference, particularly urgent at the top of global organizations. Cities can't tap into the wealth of these corporations, and the corporations take little responsibility for their own presence in the city. The threat of absence, of leaving, makes possible this avoidance of responsibility; we lack correspondingly the political mechanisms to make unstable, flexible institutions contribute fairly for the privileges they enjoy in the city.

For all these reasons, I want to argue that the dialectics of flexibility and indifference pose three new dilemmas for cities: a dilemma of citizenship; of arousal in the public realm, since the impermanence/standardization connect leaves people indifferent to public places; and finally the dilemma of sheer, durable attachment to the city.

The political economy of a century ago posed the problem of how to cut free from rigidity. The city embodied that rigidity in its ecology, but paradoxically, in the newness and rawness of the urban population, the very concentration of strangers seemed also to promise an escape from rigidity, from Weber's iron cage: a promise of freedom.

We now have cities of globally mobile corporations, flexible workers, a dynamic capitalism bent on erasing routine. Paradoxically, in the city, this restless economy produces political disengagements, a standardization of the physical realm, new pressures to withdraw into the private sphere.

IV. The Fate of the Urban Virtues

I'd like to conclude this lecture by asking what this new kind of city life implies about the two ethical values for which the city durably stands.

About the sociability of living with strangers: the mark of the civic realm now is mutual accommodation through dissociation. That means the truce of letting one another alone, the peace of mutual indifference. In the language of cultural studies, identity has taken the place of alterity in urban life. This is one reason why, on the positive side, the modern city is like an accordion easily able to expand to accommodate new waves of migrants; the pockets of difference are sealed. On the negative side, mutual accommodation through dissociation spells the end of citizenship practices which require understanding of divergent interests, as well as marking a loss of simple human curiosity about The Other.

About subjectivity: personal experience of the incomplete seems achieved by this new capitalist time. Flexible time is serial, rather than cumulative; the spaces of flexible time are unmarked, neutral. But there is no Levinasian bridge, no sense that because sometime seems missing in my own life, I should turn outward to others, toward the ?eighborliness of strangers?

This very problem of capitalist time, however, suggests something about the art of making better cities today. We want to overlay different activities in the same space, as for example created family activity in working space. The incompleteness of capitalist time returns us to the issue which marked the very emergence of the industrial city, a city which broke apart the domus - that spatial relation which had before the coming of industrial capitalism combined family, work, ceremonial public spaces, and more informal social spaces. Today, we need to repair the collectivity of space to combat the serial time of modern labor.

The art of making a city is not, I believe, like rocket science. Almost none of the good city-builders of the past possessed a comprehensive theory of the city; but equally, they did more than just represent the existing economic and political conditions of their times. They sought to interpret and so to transmute the material conditions of the political-economy through the expressive medium of walls and windows, volumes and perspectives - an art which concentrated on details, compounded specific discoveries about space into an urban whole. The art of urban design is a craft-work.

Today's capitalism imposes on us a specific task: creating complexity and mutual attachment in a city which tends to difference rather than alterity, a city in which people withdraw behind the walls of difference. We need to discover the craft-work which answers to this particular challenge. ][

Richard Sennett
[Vortrag im Rahmen des Sympoisums cITy: Daten zur Stadt unter den Bedingungen der Informationstechnologie. 11.11.2000, ZKM_Karlsruhe]

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