Self help or mutual aid?

The world is full of self-help books and rather empty of books on how to help others.

Richard Sennett, one of the most reflective of modern sociologists, has tried to fill in some of this gap, by looking at what he calls the craft of co-operation – listening, being responsive, being able to act together. His new book “Together; the rituals, pleasures and politics of co-operation” is a tour de force.

Sennett, like a Dutch master, paints not just the overall picture, that you have to stand back to see, but the angle of the light on every object and the detail in the corner that calls you forward.

The big picture, as I read it, is the pattern of instincts that explain why and the ingenuity that shapes how we co-operate. Co-operation, he sets out at the start, is an exchange in which the participants benefit from the encounter. To be co-operative is a natural enough default, but as he concludes in his last sentence of all “as social animals, we are capable of co-operating more deeply than the existing social order envisions.”

The detail in the picture flows effortlessly, with points of analysis on the nature and craft of co-operation, across time and culture.

He looks at the nineteenth century and how in the labour movement, the call for collective bargaining, seeking strength in numbers, was “intended to establish a common thread between people who did very different kinds of industrial and craft labour.” When Jane Addams, the pioneer of urban community centres, opened a settlement in on the Near West Side of Chicago, she designed it to create space for informal activity and exchange – a space to be convivial.

Social rituals help to make a habit of co-operation and help to frame how we then behave. He reminds us that “when we shake hands, I’d wager, none of us recall that this greeting was invented by the Greeks to show that the hands hold no weapons.”

Like Karl Polanyi, and others since, he argues that, while economic life in more modern times still draws deeply from the wells of social co-operation, it puts less back. Social relations, at work and elsewhere, became embittered.

An example is inequality, designed, we are told to incentivise economic success but something that also corrodes it. He cites – nicely for me – my work with Agnes Nairn as part of a section looking at how inequality undermines co-operation among children and young people.

In a work setting, having touched on the ideals of co-operative enterprise, he analyses the mismatch between the language of teamwork in modern businesses and the reality. He cites Gideon Kunda, who argues that the approach by managers to encouraging teamwork creates a form of ‘deep acting’. “Underneath the surface of working co-operatively, team-members are showing off personally, usually to a manager or superior, who is judging team performance.” This is the ‘feigned solidarity’ of the modern workplace.

The way to renew true co-operation is through shared action: repairing ways in which we can engage with others; restoring space in which we can be more responsive to those around; encouraging forms of commitment and; finding new ways to tap into the deep desire we all have for belonging and some form of community around us.

Sennett is a master, in awe of the world around him and aware of how we can be so much more, if we can be ourselves.

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One thought on “Self help or mutual aid?

  1. It’s not only inequality which undermines co-operation among children, I think, But the climate they live with in schools. It’s almost as if they are set against each other from the outset.
    Looked you up because I’m just reading your brilliant book ‘Consumer Kids’. It’s a shocking testament to this very lack of care of one another in the race for consumerism and big business at whatever cost – even our kids. A great book though, well done. Much of what you talk about contributed to our decision to home educate ours! We wanted to get that sense of care back into their learning life.

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