Modern flexible firms, he says, have no place for traditional craftsmanship:
Craftsmanship sits uneasily in the institutions of flexible capitalism…Cutting-edge firms and flexible organizations need people who can learn new skills rather than cling to old competencies.
The craftsman, he says, is the polar opposite of the consultant.The craftsman is commited to a particular skill, practiced over years. The consultant, he says, “swoops in but never nests”, and does “many different things in short order."
In the flexible firm, says Sennett, speed matters more than skill. Software is shipped out before it’s properly finished, with glitches that are only repaired through customer service. And accounts departments process bills quickly but with errors; “earnings restatements” increased sharply during the 1990s.
The decline of craftsmanship, says Sennett, means firms judge workers less upon their concrete achievements and more upon their potential. This means management judgments are more personal, more totalitarian:
Judgments about potential ability are much more personal in character than judgments of achievement...The statement ‘you lack potential’ is much more devastating than ‘you messed up. It makes a more fundamental claim about who you are. It conveys uselessness in a more profound sense.
So far, so excellent. But I’ve got three gripes.
1. He omits to point out that the shift from measured competence to potential and soft skills is a force depressing social mobility, because “potential” can be a euphemism for middle-class.
2. There’s no historical context. Sennett contrives to ignore completely Harry Braverman’s brilliant book. This matters. In describing how deskilling is a feature of the new flexible firm, Sennett gives the impression that it's a new feature of capitalism. But Braverman showed that it was also central to the polar opposite type of firm – the big bureaucracy. Maybe, then, deskilling is an inherent to capitalism – as, indeed, Adam Smith pointed out:
The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
3. Sennett is unclear on the precise cause of deskilling. Does it result from market forces or – as Braverman argued - from bosses’ efforts to increase exploitation?
There’s reason to think the former. Just look at the success of Dan Brown. And this paper (pdf) shows that jobs are insecure: “private sector job creation and destruction rates average nearly 8% of employment per quarter.” In this environment, there’s neither opportunity nor motive to acquire craft skills – far better to become good at bluffing through job interviews.
But we can’t rule out Braverman’s argument. It’s unlikely that customers actually want shoddy software.
Whatever the cause, though, deskilling seems a key feature of the market/capitalist economy. Smith and Marx were right – a point lost on the more bone-headed cheerleaders for market capitalism.