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Richard Sennett’s diary: At the end of life, the personal is no longer political

In my ninth decade, I can see the appeal of serenity. But then what would fire our politics?
February 28, 2024

Worried about the state of the world and reviews of my new book, I have retreated to the kitchen to think about something else. I am trying again to make brioche. This is an egg- and butter-rich dough that produces something between cake and bread. Jewish grandmothers seem to know by instinct how to produce it as challah; spread with butter and honey it accounts for the heart attacks of many Jewish grandfathers. For the rest of us, preparing the dough by hand is an exhausting challenge: knead too little, and the ingredients don’t meld; knead too much, and the dough becomes a rock. Machine kneading never seems to produce the right consistency. Once again, I kneaded too much. No doubt my kitchen failure is a sign of inability to leave things well enough alone.

There was no respite in the kitchen from politics either. Keir Starmer and his crew face a problem like making brioche—whether to do too little or too much. Unlike brioche dough, which has to rest overnight in the fridge in order to rise, Keir hasn’t much time; people want him to produce results right away. One change will happen immediately. The quality of his ministers will be infinitely superior to those of the Tory regime these past years (who, just to push the kitchen metaphor, are like eggs that are far past their sell-by date). Tory rot will be hard to clean out in institutions such as the BBC, but I think many civil servants are going to welcome the opportunity at last to do good work.


A companion reflection in the kitchen was about ageing. I have just turned 81, which is a fact, but not a fact I feel. I still am the same person I was at 40—anxious, overdoing. But while resignation is foreign to me, my body is resigning, through various aches, in bouts of vertigo, above all in deep fatigue—all facts I am not facing. I envy the serenity of friends my age such as Ferdie Mount. It’s given him a capacity to judge what’s worthwhile and sound around him. Serenity is a virtue: anxiety in old age, which is self-focused, is closer to a vice.

I share this reflection only because, at the end of life, the personal seems to me no longer to equate to the political. In politics, we should be like nervy, fortyish New Yorkers, wanting new things to happen but not certain what comes next. Anxious rather than complacent. This is what I admire about Bernie Sanders, the radical American senator; over the 40 years I’ve known him he has remained restless and unsatisfied. He is in fact unsatisfiable. Which is a public virtue.


These days I go for my daily double espresso to Fidelio, a café-performance space in Clerkenwell. (The doctor says that double espressos are bad for blood pressure—but so what? What are we saving ourselves for?) During the morning Fidelio is filled with out-of-work musicians, whiling away the time in chat, looking to see if any messages have come in on their phones. Of course the musicians hate the Tories, but more important to them is that, since Brexit, there are fewer and fewer jobs in Europe. They don’t know how to make their careers go forward; they need a recipe. 


I am shortly to go on a book tour in the US. There, anxiety about what happens next is coupled with foreboding. It’s more than likely that Donald Trump will return as president. His histories as an alleged rapist and fraudulent businessman, as well as his apparent mental impairment, do not count against him in their minds. Full of certainties, he appeals to people who also long for a recipe. His is a mix of revenge, exclusion and repression.

It’s a frightening experience to attend Trump rallies, as I’ve been obliged to do in researching my new book. Trump is a great performer: his timing is perfect, he is a master of eye contact; he always seems to be focused on someone particular even when speaking to large crowds; there are lots of call-and-response exchanges between Trump on stage and the audience. Trump: “Climate science is”… audience: “fake news!” Crowds get caught up in the immediate moment and lose their sense of what’s real (even me, I confess; the rallies are electric).


If Trump does become president, we will need a strong recipe for the consequences of this political theatre; we—“weasel Britain”, “sick Europe”—are targets of his bile. Not-too-little and not-too-much policies will not protect us against the onslaught.

By instinct, I am a Momentum leftie. I believe in democratic socialism. But I certainly don’t believe in Jeremy Corbyn; he has long since passed his political prime. In politics, not-too-little and not-too-much is usually a recipe for survival. In our present circumstances, vis-à-vis America, that won’t work. Nor is prudence a recipe for growth. We need bolder ideas.