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Step 33: The Specter of Uselessness (Culture of the New Capitalism pt. 2)

The specter of uselessness: That’s right… ghosts… ghosts are useless cause they can’t carry stuff. They just wave their arms around. Similarly, during the depression, people wanted to work, but there was no work to be found. So, to protect ourselves we said “let’s get people educated, so they will be valuable.” Well, now we are all educated and there still aren’t enough jobs to go around.

music courtesy of Feslyian Studios [link]

Richard Sennett
The Culture of the New Capitalism


Sennett asks, how does SKILL translate into TALENT? And how does TALENT translate to economic value? Sennett says the answer might be too darn complicated, involving ethnography, sociology, psychology and economics, but he does map out how we got here.

It really starts in the industrial revolution, where there were 6 men for every unskilled factory job. These jobs needed a pair of hands, not a brain. Adam Smith and others called the factory work “brain deadening.” So, now we educate people. 

Problematically, David Ricardo points out that due to technology and advances by all these smart people, society may need a smaller, and smaller elite to profitably and efficiently run society. 

So, due to capitalism, it is talked about as a “race to the bottom.” Sennett says this is only half-right.

For instance, Indian call centers require 2 years of university, while most factory workers in MExico are quite skilled mechanics who opted for “brain deadening” work. So, capitalism not only finds cheap labor, but also retrains talent, and in doing so these people now participate in the economy because they have a line of credit. They are regarded socially by their peers as prestigious. 

Sennett shows that xenophobia and racism easily extends from a very real fear that the immigrant or foreigners, with all their talent and skills, with their discipline and dedication, with their cultural and social worth derived from alternative values, may be better equipped for survival in our modern world.


You know what else creates the USELESSNESS? The inevitability of AUTOMATION. 

Even when the corporation stays in America, such as Sprint, by using voice-recognition software over 3 years, they cut 11,500 jobs while increasing productivity 15% and growing revenue. Steel production, from 1982 to 2002, in America rose by 35% while cutting jobs by 75%.

Originally, the thought was machines would only be able to replace human hands, but in the post-industrial era we are looking to replace the whole human. Tech in general is a paradox where our cleverness (grown from our  education) replaces humans. This is both a psychological and social issue (not just an economic issue), and maybe, just maybe, the virtual world does provide the answer, but we need to be careful not to bring our exploitative practices into the virtual.

Part 3: AGING

So, another “specter of uselessness” is through AGEISM, or prejudice against age. 

At an advertising agency Sennett brings up that anyone over 40 is seen as “out of it”: set in their ways and losing energy, yet this is not accurate in cognitive labor. 

Sennett discusses “skills extinction”. This refers to the need to re-learn your trade at least 3 times during your life. It is the same for computer repairmen or doctors. Retraining is expensive, and it is easier to hire a bright, desperate new 25 yr old than retrain the stable, self-possessed and judgemental 50 year old.

The experienced worker actually complicates everything with their judgements, while the younger generation just walk out. This is the difference between “exit” and “voice”. Where the young exit, the older (more judgemental) give voice to their discontent.

“The employer’s choice is clear: the younger person is both cheaper and less trouble.”


The ideal person, even as they get older, must remain full of “potential talent” and must be able to easily surrender their past experiences, “give up possession of an established reality” or “identity.” 


Tying these corporate notions to the public sphere Sennett leans into meritocracy, which we covered fairly extensively in Sandel’s book “Tyranny of Merit” ( Step 20 and 21 ), but I want to do a brief recap to show how “uselessness” from lack of work dovetails with social and personal values.

The welfare state is for those in need, for social stability, and we went from the Bismarck’s pyramidal bureaucracy that gave everyone in society a place to be… Sennett brings up how the government decidedly turned a blind eye on the problems automation brought onto the citizens. 

Under the CULTURE of the NEW CAPITALISM, those in need are diminished: corporations just want the talented young who can make us money with no friction or hardship. As a matter of fact, the young resent having to pay for the elderly: it’s not like anyone asked them to vote on it. 

And this signals a decrease in public responsibility as each person is concerned with their own survival. This life is driven by, as Sennett says, “a fear of falling.”

Once one is “let go” from your job, people work vigorously to pursue leads, but they start to become invisible to their community: the public sphere eschews them as it is socially taboo to be useless. To remain visible is to have “use potential”. 


So, this is part of the meritocratic trap: when we despised the unjustness of wealth conferring position, we weaponized the notion of ‘talent’. This meant: to be creative or intelligent is to be a person of worth… that worth becomes moral value, or moral prestige. In the end, creative or intelligent people have become superior to others. 

The social way this played has lots of examples, but basically, to test for talent, we ended up “objectifying failure”. Failing the test became an internal, personal failing. The negative association was, as Sandel, Sennett, and Michael Young say, more shaping and harmful than the positive outcomes of “quantifying talent.”

Maslow and others in their quest to test for “potential” had a bleed over into biological studies, where geneticists said we had capabilities that we had not tapped or used: we all had potential that could be mined. This also equated “potential” with “justice,” in that it theoretically was race or sex or age blind.

But anyone who has read anything about IQ tests or the SAT’s knows this is not true, many problems come down to cultural knowledge and vocabulary. The mistaken notion here is that “aptitude could be isolated from achievement.” 

process divorced from content … this purely operational thinking requires mental superficiality.”


And in this way, we train people for PROCESS work, task to task, problem to problem, moving from team to team… operational thinking…

it “divides analyzing from believing, ignores the glue of emotional attachment, and penalizes digging deep.” 

Part 6: Knowledge & Power

Sennett brings up Michel Foucault. People say “knowledge is power” but really power is not power until it is applied, or used… before that it is “potential power.” Similar to “potential ability” or “talent,” they are types of knowledge. Sennett says Foucault never focused on “superficial knowledge” as a tool of power, but he did mention that Meritocracy DISEMPOWERS the large majority of those under its sway. 

Foucault brought up how the elite would “get under the skin” of the masses by

making them feel that they did not understand themselves, that they were inadequate interpreters of their own experience of life.”


Organizations used the new flexible metric of “talent” or “potential” to judge people. Managers say they can spot potential or talent based on a “gut feeling.”

Your “potential ability” is really a test for a kind of “knowledge” that has power and use today… that knowledge is “superficial processing”…  which is really the art of “superficial ability.”  These people claim “I can work with anyone on anything.”

Sennett says, ability itself has been “hollowed out”… just like “trust” in a corporation or “accumulated experience.” With this “superficial processing,” Sennett says we skim, we don’t go deep, and even reaching “good enough” is probably wasted time… so, we have also “institutionalized impatience.”

Sennett closes this chapter on the question:

how do we find value in someone else’s eyes?”

Traditionally you became good at something, you became a craftsman, developing a talent. That path no longer assures stability or usefulness in a constantly shifting, increasingly automated society, that finds cheaper labor and talent elsewhere.

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Richard Sennett The Culture of the New Capitalism [link]

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Meritocracy [link] (2020)

Robert Jackall :Moral Mazes [link]


Bobba the Fet, MC Kris

Jay Z, On to the next one


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