Capitalism is weakening our ability to cooperate—and undermining our own DNA in the process—according to sociologist Richard Sennett (A.B. ’64), who related the Occupy movement, economics, and genetics during a talk Wednesday afternoon at the Franke Institute for the Humanities.
Sennett, whose work focuses on the effects of city life on the modern individual, described cooperation and competition as innate skills which are encoded in the human genome. Although the specific genes responsible for each behavior have not been unidentified, he explained that their encoding hints at their similarity.
“Cooperation and competition have often been used as opposing forces, but they are less separate than we might think. Even seemingly competitive children’s games have established rules—a sign of cooperation,” Sennett said.
Humans have a latent knack for cooperation that empowers them to work together in a variety of amazing ways, but Sennett warned that modern capitalism is eroding humanity’s natural instinct to cooperate. He calls it, “de-skilling.”
“The threat to cooperation is that the modern work environment has shortened our interactions with others and made them more superficial and competitive—merely means to an end for businesses,” he said.
Sennett cited the Occupy Wall Street movement, which he studied this past fall, as evidence of people’s ability to cooperate in the long term.
“These were ground-up interactions that exhibit genuine cooperation. Partially because the movement had no strategic end and no ultimate planning, people treated each other like other human beings,” Sennett said.
Sennett criticized the media, however, for focusing on “hippie-looking” figures, claiming that most people involved were regular, middle-aged, unemployed people.
“These individuals had a superordinate goal to fraternize around, rather than relying on immediate self-interest, and that led to respect and a mutual empathy that wasn’t degrading or belittling to the other party,” he said.
“That is cooperation.”
His talk was based on his recently published book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, published by Yale University Press on January 10.