It is time we challenged the global economy

Richard Sennett · 26 February 2013

Jakub Krzeski: In „Respect in a world of inequality”, recently published in Poland, you discuss the lack of institutional respect towards individuals. The background of your arguments is the American social security system, not the European context. Could you, however, analyze the question of respect from the perspective of  Euro-zone crisis?

Richard Sennett: Please notice how the economic crisis in Greece has been explained so far. It is said the Greeks do not pay taxes, they are dependent on black economy and abuse social benefits. It’s the case of cultural arguments being used in order to explain the financial crash and oppression of the poorest. The fact that somebody is Greek becomes a sufficient cause for banks to treat them badly. We can use Angela Merkel’s statements as an example. When she claims that Greeks need to work harder in order to survive the crisis, she de facto denies banks’  responsibility for the crisis. She takes the blame from the financial institutions and puts it on people. This is exactly what I mean when I speak about the lack of institutional respect.

One can say though, that Germans are a hardworking society conscientiously performing their tax duties towards the state who in return, are robbed of their own money to pay someone else’s debts. From this point of view Merkel’s impatience with Greeks becomes understandable.  

It is really hard for me to understand such arguments. I think that Germans have taken a self-serving position. Luckily, not all of them share the opinion you mentioned. I sense a kind cultural superiority in this attitude, to say the least. But neither Greeks nor Germans are responsible for the crisis. If anybody should be held responsible it is Goldman Sachs bankers, who profited enormously from the Greek debt. If I were Greek I would default, too. I see no reason why people who had been cheated by the bankers and their own elite should be forced to pay the debts of the rich capitalistic class.

If paying back the debts is not an option, what can be done to lead the European economy out of the recession?

The institutional solution would be to bet on small enterprises rather than international corporations.  We could divorce global economy from the financial world. It is hardly possible, but if we reduced the extent of speculations a relative stability could be achieved.  The problem is that today we are also experiencing a crisis of governing the capitalist system itself. Institutions such as the World Bank cannot be convinced it is necessary to weaken the financial capitalism and strengthen its social facet.

If you yourself do not believe implementing institutional reforms is possible, how can we expect that in the future we will not experience more financial crashes on the global scale? 

I think we can expect more crashes soon. There are at least five years of crisis ahead of us before we see the emergence of a real form of social resistance to the sort of events which took place in Greece, for instance. What concerns me most in this crisis is that it proved how difficult it is to mobilise people to protest. Occupy movements are really beautiful, but until now they’ve had a very limited impact while we should really throw out the worst we have. We should put bankers in jail! Those people have done enormous harm and people keep on excusing them by saying it was meant to be this way.


This is a radical standpoint. I understand we are speaking about those people whose guilt can be proven in court… I would like to look at this matter from a slightly broader perspective. Could you please sketch a map of social inequalities in contemporary Europe?

Surely my map has little in common with the prevailing opinion, which underlines  the division between the rich North – including Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain as well as France – and the poor South. This map is inadequate. It is not enough to compare a country’s wealth and GDP.  Far more sensitive measures than money and income need to be taken into account. In many ways contemporary Britain is a far more unequal society than Spain.

It is hard to believe that recession-stricken Spain, where unemployment has reached almost 25 %, is now a more equal society than Great Britain. How is it possible?

As far as social inequalities are concerned, the biggest threat I see is the problem of the human capital, that is the equality of opportunities. Believe it or not, a young person in Britain, who has just graduated from a university and enters the job market, has fewer chances to find an employment suited for his qualifications than a young person in Spain. Despite the horrendous youth unemployment, the relationship between education and possibilities of finding an adequate job in this country still exists. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom and the United States the gap between human capital and job opportunities is constantly widening.

Why is that?

British and American educational systems prepare people for jobs in professions which are needed to run this whole neoliberal machine. There was a belief that the outsourcing of work to developing countries would concern only low-prestige occupations while the prestigious ones were expected to remain in Europe. It was a catastrophic mistake and the results are to be seen in the IT sector, for instance. We have an enormous number of university courses preparing young people to become IT workers. But instead of employing them, there is much more economic sense in offerring these jobs to Indian or Israeli information technologists. It does not affect the quality of work and is simply much cheaper. Over the last fifteen years countries such as Brazil, India, Turkey and China have created a highly skilled class of specialists who serve Europe, but do not work here. Additionally, the surveillance system in Europe is constantly developed with the aim of controlling work quality. Employers are afraid that if the people are left to themselves, they will simply be sluggish. They control them on a weekly basis and more and more often on a daily one.

From what you are saying a very sad picture emerges. It is hard to disagree that in people in Europe are being more and more left alone to  take care of themselves. Is there anything we can do about it?

I place my hopes on the civil society. I have already lost faith that politicians can take care of common people’s lives and do anything to make them easier.

What about the European Union, is it not its role to build this kind of society?

I have been arguing with people from the EU institutions over this point for the last four years. They worship this idea but they do not contribute to its realisation in any way. In principle, the EU not only can but also should take responsibility for that. However, passivity of its structures is yet another proof that  politicsis getting more and more disengaged from the society.

Where can we find inspiration, then?

People should learn from the experience Central-Eastern Europe gained during the communist times. Back then people were able to take care of their lives in spite of terrible external conditions, and, what is more, without politics. Now, under a new kind of master, this capitalistic beast, the same necessity arises. We need to take care of ourselves because governments have withdrawn from this role. In the same way we resisted the state in the 1980’s in order to build a civil society. After thirty years the time comes to face the global economy.

The present situation differs radically from the experience of communism, for instance, in Poland…

I can give you a concrete example of what I am talking about. Once I was very active in labour movements in the United States. Those institutions not only fought to raise their members’ wages but also cared for them socially. They provided healthcare and other services.If those types of institutions grasp the necessity of exceeding their traditional economic role and concentrating equally on their members’ everyday needs, we will have a chance to strengthen and renew the civil society.