Richard Sennett's new book about cooperation shares its title with a much-loved film: Lukas Moodysson's Together, which was made in 2000 but set in a Swedish free-love collective of the 1970s. The film is a warm, nostalgic and slightly fuzzy hymn to the pleasures and pains of cooperative living, complete with Abba soundtrack. Its message is that learning how to live together is not easy — it takes time.
Sennett's book says much the same, though with lashings of sociology. But it has an edge that the film lacked, because of how the world has changed in the past ten years. Online social networks have given us different ways to make connections with our fellow creatures. This is potentially very bad news for cooperation.
The web might look like a giant cooperative endeavour, but it is not. It is an endless array of communities. Community life is relatively easy. All it takes is finding people who think like you do. Cooperation is hard because it is about learning to live with people who think differently or don't know what they think at all. Sennett wants to remind us that this is a skill, and like any skill it takes patience and practice.
The view popularised by Malcolm Gladwell is that to get really good at something requiring skill takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, whether it is football or rocket science. Sennett thinks co-operation is no different, which means that only a few people are ever going to be really good at it.
The easy thing to do when you are trying to help people is to identify with them. Sennett praises those who take the much harder route of maintaining their distance while keeping up their commitment.
He celebrates the woman who works at a centre for the unemployed and has discovered that the best way to help her clients is to treat them with a lightness of touch rather than to feel their pain. This takes years to learn. And Sennett admits with refreshing honesty that he may not have the skills himself.
The fact is that very few of us are going to have the time or the energy to become adept at cooperation; we need short-cuts. This is where the rituals of Sennett's subtitle come in. Over time, patterns of behaviour develop that give us all pointers in the right direction. For instance, if you want to know how to cooperate, good manners would be a start. The problem is what happens at times of dramatic social change, when these rituals fall apart.
Sennett has a fascinating discussion of what he calls "the great unsettling" of the Reformation, when the cooperative patterns of the Catholic church were undermined by a new individualism. The old ways of living together started to look hollow and manipulative, but the new patterns of behaviour were crude and disruptive. It took a long time for people to work out how to co-operate with each other again.
The information technology revolution is another great unsettling. Workplaces are being hollowed out, jobs are often short-term and connections can be made and lost in the blink of an eye. Employers still like to talk about "working as a team" but, as Sennett points out, it is hard to know what this means anymore. At the same time, the web has yet to generate its own "civilities" to replace the ones we are losing.
Sennett is not pessimistic: He thinks we will work out how to use this new technology eventually. But because he knows that cooperation is hard work he is pretty unsentimental about it. He certainly doesn't see it as any sort of palliative. For instance, he is scathing about the idea that cooperative activity can be a form of therapy for the depressed or suicidal. Cooperating with other people doesn't make us well; we need to be well to do it at all. He is also sceptical about some of the fashionable forms of political cooperation. As he points out, most people are deeply turned off by coalition politics, which is meant to celebrate cooperation but too often looks like a sham of compromise and broken promises. It fuels rather than soothes antagonisms among the voting public. Better squabbling politicians and cooperative citizens than cooperative politicians and squabbling citizens. I am sure he is right about this.
In many ways this is an old-fashioned book. Unlike almost everything that is being published on social activity, it has very little brain science in it. It is not about the neural wiring that makes us tick and the psychological biases that send us off the rails. It is about the environments we create for ourselves. Its heroes are social reformers and artists, not economists and psychologists. That said, Together is not an easy read. It is curiously organised and sometimes repetitive. Sennett says this is deliberate: He wanted to produce a "dialogic" book that would turn reading into a cooperative enterprise. I am not so sure. Though it is nice to give the reader room to answer back, the fact that the book can't take these responses on board makes it frustrating.
For all its failings and incivilities, the web is the place to experiment with new kinds of reading, in the pursuit of genuine cooperation between author and reader. It just takes patience and practice.
-Guardian News & Media Ltd
David Runciman's Political Hypocrisy is published by Princeton.
Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation By Richard Sennett,Yale University Press,336 pages, $28