ARQ, n. 66 Espacios de trabajo / Work spaces, Santiago, august, 2007, p. 19-23.


A flexible city of strangers(1)

Richard Sennett*

* Professor, The London School of Economic, London, England
   Professor, New York University, New York, U.S.A.


Cities, even though they tend to lose their charm as they become transformed into standardized and impersonal spaces, maintain their ability to attract individuals. Individuals are passing through and companies are not anchored to the city nor do they assume responsibility for it. Cohabitation becomes a sort of truce based on mutual indifference.

Key words: Urban sociology, new capitalism, labor flexibility, standardized spaces, industrial production.

NEW CAPITALISM, NEW ISOLATION / Once people used to come to the city in search of anonymity, diversity and the freedom to meet others. Cities were also places of collective struggle and solidarity. Now, just as the workplace is affected by a new system of flexible working, so the city, too, risks losing its charm as businesses and architecture become standardised and impersonal.

Cities can be badly–run, crime–infested, dirty, decaying. Yet many people think it worth living in even the worst of them. Why? Because cities have the potential to make us more complex human beings. A city is a place where people can learn to live with strangers, to enter into the experiences and interests of unfamiliar lives. Sameness stultifies the mind; diversity stimulates and expands it.
The city can allow people to develop a richer, more complex sense of themselves. They are not just bankers or roadsweepers, Afro–Caribbeans or Anglo–Saxons, speakers of English or of Spanish, bourgeois or proletarian: they can be some or all of these things, and more. They are not subject to a fixed scheme of identity. People can develop multiple images of their identities, knowing that who they are shifts, depending upon whom they are with. That is the power of strangeness: freedom from arbitrary definition and identification.
Writer Willa Cather was haunted in small-town America by the fear that her lesbianism would be discovered. When she finally arrived in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1906, she wrote to a friend: “At–last, in this indecipherable place, I can breathe”. In public, city dwellers may don an impassive mask, act cool and indifferent to others on the street; but in private, they can be aroused by these strange contacts, their certainties shaken by the presence of others.
These virtues are not inevitable. One of the big issues in urban life is how to make the complexities that a city contains interact –so that people become truly cosmopolitan– and how to turn crowded streets into places of self–knowledge, not fear. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has referred to the neighbourliness of strangers, a phrase that captures the aspiration we should have in designing our cities.
Architects and planners are faced with new challenges. Globalisation has transformed production which now allows people to work more flexibly, less rigidly and makes them experience the city differently.
In the 19th century the German sociologist Max Weber compared modern business organisations to military organisations. Both worked on the principle of a pyramid, with the general or boss at the apex and the soldiers or workers at the base. The division of labour minimised duplication and gave each group of workers at the base a distinct function. In this way the corporation executive at the apex could determine how the assembly line or back office functioned, just as the general could strategically command platoons far from his command post. And as the division of labour progressed, the need for different kinds of workers expanded far more rapidly than the need for more bosses.
In industrial production, Weber’s pyramid became embodied in 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 General Motors’ Willow Run automobile plant in the United States, a mile–long, quarter–mile wide edifice in which raw iron and glass entered at one end and a finished car emerged at the other. Only a strict, controlling work regime could coordinate production on this giant scale. In the white collar world, the strict control by corporations like IBM in the 1960s mirrored this industrial process.
A generation ago businesses began to revolt against the Weberian pyramid. They sought to de–layer organisations, to remove levels of bureaucracy (using new information technologies in place of bureaucrats) and destroy the practice of fixed-function work, substituting instead teams which work short-term on specific tasks. In this new business strategy, teams compete against one another, trying to respond as effectively and quickly as possible to goals set by the top. Instead of each person doing his or her own particular bit in a defined chain of command, function is duplicated: many different teams compete to do the same task fastest and best. The corporation can thus respond more quickly to changing market demands.
The apologists for the new world of work claim it is also more democratic than the old military–style organisation. But that is not so. The Weberian pyramid has been replaced by a circle with a dot in the centre. At the centre, a small number of managers make decisions, set tasks, judge results; the information revolution has given them more instantaneous control over the corporation’s 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 centre, free to devise means of executing tasks in competition with one another. But no freer than they ever were to decide what those tasks are.
In the Weberian pyramid of bureaucracy, rewards came for doing your job as best you could. In the dotted circle, rewards come to teams winning over other teams. The economist Robert Frank calls it the winner–take–all organisation; sheer effort no longer produces reward. This bureaucratic reformulation, Frank argues, contributes to the great inequalities of pay and perks in flexible organisations.

NO LONG TERM / The mantra of the flexible work-place is no long term. Career paths have been replaced by jobs which consist of specific and limited tasks; when the task ends, the job is often over. In the high-tech sector in Silicon Valley, California, the average length of employment is now about eight months. People constantly change their working associates: modern management theory has it that the shelf life of a team ought to be at most a year.
This pattern does not dominate the work–place at present. Rather, it represents a leading edge of change, what businesses ought to become: no–one is going to start a new organisation based on the principle of permanent jobs. The flexible organisation does not promote loyalty or fraternity any more than it promotes democracy. 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. Business leaders are now finding that lack of commitment translates into poor productivity and to an unwillingness to keep corporate secrets.
The lack of fraternity that comes from no long term is rather more subtle. Task–work puts people under enormous stress; and recriminations among losing teams mark the final stages of working together. Again, trust of an informal sort takes time to develop; you have to get to know people. And the experience of being only temporarily in an organisation prompts people to keep loose, not to get involved, since you are going to exit soon.
Besides, this lack of mutual engagement is one of the reasons it is so hard for trade unions to organise workers in flexible industries or businesses as in 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.
Flexible capitalism has precisely the same effects on the city as it does on the workplace itself: superficial, short–term relations at work, superficial and disengaged relations in the city. It appears in three forms. The most self–evident is physical attachment to the city. Rates of geographic mobility are very high for flexible workers. Temps are the single fastest–growing sector of the labour market. Temporary nurses, for example, are eight times more likely to move house in a two-year period than are single–employer nurses. In the higher reaches of the economy, executives frequently moved as much in the past as they do in the present. But the movements were different in kind; they remained within the groove of a company, and the company defined their place, the turf of their lives, no matter where they were on the map. It is just that thread which the new work–place breaks. Some specialists in urban studies have argued that, for this elite, style of life in the city matters more than their jobs, with certain zones gentrified, filled with sleek restaurants and specialised services replacing the corporation as an anchor.

SKIN ARCHITECTURE / The second expression of the new capitalism is the standardisation of the environment. A few years ago, on a tour of New York’s Chanin Building, an art déco palace with elaborate offices and splendid public spaces, the head of a large, new–economy corporation remarked: "It would never suit us. People might become too attached to their offices. They might think they belong here".
The flexible office is not meant 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 office can become 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 100,000 square feet of office space in London, the space itself needs the uniformity and transparency of money. This is why the style elements of new–economy buildings become what US architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable calls skin architecture: the surface of the building dolled–up with design, its innards ever more neutral, standard, and capable of instant refiguration.
Alongside skin architecture, we have the standardisation 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. It is hard to become attached to a particular Gap or Banana Republic; standardisation breeds indifference. Put it 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. Cities cease to offer the strange, the unexpected or the arousing. Equally, the accumulation of shared history, and so of collective memory, diminishes in these neutral public spaces. Standardised consumption attacks local meanings in the same way the new work–place attacks ingrown, shared histories among workers.
The third expression of the new capitalism is less visible to the eye. High–pressure, flexible work profoundly disorients family life. The familiar press images –neglected children, adult stress, geographic uprooting– do not quite get to the heart of this disorientation. It is rather that 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 family values by the public and 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. The prominent American social critic Christopher Lasch drew the image of the family as a haven in a heartless world. That image takes 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 in regard to middle–aged employees, is that adults withdraw from civic participation in the struggle to solidify and organise family life; the civic becomes yet another demand on time and energies in short supply at home.

THE PASSIVE BELOVED / That leads to one of the effects of globalisation on cities. The new global elite, operating in cities like New York, London and Chicago, avoids the urban political realm. It wants to operate in the city but not rule it; it composes a regime of power without responsibility.
In Chicago in 1925, for example, political and economic power went hand in hand. Presidents of the city’s top 80 corporations sat on 142 hospital boards, accounted for 70% of the trustees of colleges and universities. Tax revenues from 18 national corporations in Chicago formed 23% of the city’s municipal budget. By contrast, in New York now, few chief executives of global firms are trustees of its educational institutions and none sit on the boards of its hospitals. And it has been well documented how footloose multinational companies like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp manage largely to avoid paying taxes, local or national.
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 sociologists John Mollenkopf and Manuel Castells have shown, this global wealth does not trickle down or spread out very far beyond the global enclave.
Indeed, the politics of the global enclave cultivates a kind of indifference to the city which Marcel Proust, in an entirely different context, called the passive beloved phenomenon. 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 globalisation poses a problem of citizenship in cities as well as nations. 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; and we lack the political mechanisms to make unstable, flexible institutions contribute fairly for the privileges they enjoy in the city.
All this has an impact on urban civil society which rests on a compromise based on mutual dissociation. That means the truce of leaving one another alone, the peace of mutual indifference. 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 mean understanding divergent interests as well as a loss of simple human curiosity about other people.

At the same time, the flexibility of the modern workplace creates a sense of incompleteness. Flexible time is serial, you do one project, then another unrelated one rather than cumulative. But there is no sense that, because something is missing in your own life, you should turn outward to others, toward that neighbourliness of strangers.

That suggests something about the art of making better cities today. We need to overlay different activities in the same space, as family activity once overlay 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 labour.

1. This article was first published in Le Monde Diplomatique.