Cooperation and Cunning

Cooperation and Cunning

Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation
by Richard Sennett
Yale University Press, 2012, 336 pp.

Richard Sennett’s new book was already in press when the Occupy movement took to the streets last fall. But its title alone suggests that Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation will be a timely read for those who hope that the recent uprisings heralded a reinvigoration of the democratic Left. Its author’s background stokes that expectation. Sennett is a man of the Left and an eminent sociologist whose work has examined the debilitation of personal integrity and community in the modern West.

In Together, as in its immediate predecessor, The Craftsman, Sennett turns to damage repair. Guided by the “ancient idea of Man as his or her own maker…through concrete practices,” he pins his hopes on salvaging “the skills people need to sustain everyday life.” Two such faculties, now imperiled, he says, are craftsmanship and cooperation. Their recovery is essential to determining “just how much we can become our own masters.” That enigmatic formulation reflects Sennett’s underlying interest: “the fraught, ambiguous zone of experience where skill and competence encounter resistance and intractable difference.” When he says that “modern society is de-skilling people in the conduct of everyday life,” he means that it’s left us incapable of negotiating such encounters. Socially, this incapacity appears as the failure of cooperation. Instead of working with others, people withdraw into alienated isolation or act out an aggressive tribalism. Together offers useful advice, delving into emotional, kinesthetic, and procedural aspects of sociability, subjects too often slighted on the left. Unfortunately, the book’s insights are overshadowed by disturbing inaccuracies; lax argumentation; and, its subtitle notwithstanding, an aversion to politics.

In Together’s introduction, Sennett outlines his approach to “getting along with those who differ.” “Good” cooperation, he avers, “tries to join people who have separate or conflicting interests, who do not feel good about each other, who are unequal, or who simply do not understand one another. The challenge is to respond to others on their own terms.” Sennett thinks that challenge can be met by mutual empathy, embodied in dialogic, “a discussion which does not resolve itself by finding common ground.” What dialogic does find is greater comprehension, achieved through attending closely to what others say and do—and, just as important, what they don’t say and do—and responding in kind. “Though no shared agreements may be reached,…people may become aware of their own views and expand their understanding of one another.” Thus edified, differing parties are more likely to avoid conflict and to remain connected.

Together offers a repertoire...