Why we should start again from common goods and relational goods. From economist Luigino Bruni’s talk he gave on the second day of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 23/08/2018

Famiglia Avvenire ridEconomy is a word of ancient Greek origins that refers directly to the house (oikosnomos, rules for managing the house), therefore to the family. Yet modern economy – and its contemporary version even more so – has been thought of as an area governed by different principles, distinct and in many ways opposed to the principles and values that have always held up and continue to hold up the family. A founding principle of the family, perhaps the first and the one underlying the others, is that of gratuitousness, which is the furthest away from capitalist economy that only knows surrogates of gratuitousness (discounts, philanthropy, sales) that play the role of immunizing the markets from real gratuitousness.

The family, in fact, is the most important place where we learn, throughout our lives and in a very special way as children, what Pavel Florensky called 'the art of gratuitousness'. It is there that – above all as children – we also learn to work, because no job can be well done without gratuitousness. Our culture, however, associates gratuitousness with free things, gadgets, discounts, half an hour more of unpaid work, or the price zero (although St. Francis taught us that gratuitousness is an infinite price: you can neither buy nor sell it because it is priceless). In reality, gratuitousness is something very serious, as it was explained very clearly to us by Caritas in Veritate, which reclaims the status of economic principle to gratuitousness. Gratuitousness is charis, grace, but it is also agape, as it was well known by the first Christians. They translated the Greek word agape with the Latin expression charitas (with the h), precisely to indicate that that Latin word translated to agape but also charis at the same time, and for this reason that different love was neither only eros nor only philia (friendship). Gratuitousness, this gratuitousness, then, is a way of acting and a way of life that consists in approaching others, oneself, nature, God and things in a way not to use them in a utilitarian manner for one's own advantage, but to recognize them in their otherness and in their mystery, to respect and serve them. To say gratuitousness therefore means recognizing that a certain behaviour must be practised because it is good, and not because of a reward or sanction for it. Gratuitousness thus saves us from the predatory tendency that exists in every person, it prevents us from devouring others and ourselves. It is what distinguishes prayer from magic, faith from idolatry, what saves us from narcissism, which is the great mass disease of our time, because of a lack of gratuitousness.

If the family wants to - and it should - cultivate the art of gratuitousness, it must take great care not to import the logic of the incentive that exists everywhere today into their home. Woe to those who, for example, use the logic of incentive within the family dynamics. Money should be used very little in the family, especially around children and young people (actually everyone), and if used it should be used as a reward or recognition of an action well done for intrinsic reasons, and never as a price. One of the typical tasks of the family is precisely to form the ethics of work well done in people, an ethics that arises precisely from the principle of gratuitousness. If, on the other hand, the logic and culture of the incentive is also practised in the family, and therefore money becomes the reason 'why’ one does or does not do homework and household chores, those children will hardly be good workers as adults, because the job well done in future always rests on this gratuitousness that one learns above all in the first years of life, and above all at home.

The absence of the principle of gratuitousness in the economy also depends on the absence of a female gaze – very much. The house, the oikos, has always been the place inhabited and governed by women. But, paradoxically, the economy has been, and continues to be, a matter entirely played out in the male register. Males, too, have always had to deal with the house, and a lot. However, their gaze focused on providing the means for sustenance, on outside work, goods and on money. And when the economy left the domain of domestic life and became political, social and civil, the female gaze and genius remained inside the house, and the male one remained the only perspective in practice and above all in the economic and managerial theory. Women look at the home and the economy seeing first of all the connections of human relations taking place in them. The first goods they see are relational goods and common goods, and inside these they also see the economic goods. It is certainly not a coincidence that the Economy of Communion was born from the gaze of a woman (Chiara Lubich), or that the first theorist of common goods was Katherine Coman (in 1911), and that Elinor Ostrom was awarded (as the only woman so far) the Nobel prize in economics for her work on common goods. And there are two women (Martha Nussbaum and Carol Uhlaner) at the origin of the theory of relational goods. When there is no feminine view of the economy, the only relations seen are the instrumental ones, where it is not the relationship that is considered as a good, but where human relations and those with nature are the means used to obtain goods.

If the female gaze and genius of the oikos-house had been present in the theoretical foundation of modern economy, we would have had an economy that’s more attentive to relationships, to the redistribution of income, to the environment and perhaps to communion. Communion is, in fact, a great word that can pass from the family to the economy of today. And here a specific discourse opens for Christians. The church today is called to be more and more prophecy if it wants to save itself and save people. Prophecy is also a word of the family. Most of the biblical prophets were married, and many of the prophetic words and gestures of the Bible are the words of women. Isaiah called his son Shear-jashub, which means 'a remnant shall return': it is one of the great messages of his prophecy. He couldn't find a better way to launch his prophetic message than by making it his son's name. Every child is a prophetic message, because they say with their own being that the earth will still have a future, and that it can be better than the present. To be credible, the prophecy of the family today must take the form of children and the form of the economy, and therefore of sharing, acceptance and communion. Because both children and the economy are nothing more than the ordinary life of each and every one, which is the only place where prophecy feeds and grows.


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