The true value is in the gift

The true value is in the gift

May 1st, People and Robots

Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 01/05/2024

Perhaps the strongest image with which we approached May 1st was the meeting between Pope Francis and the inmates of the Giudecca prison in Venice on 28th April. Amidst the poignant and humane exchanges, Pope Francis emphasized the significance of work, grounding the abstract concept of 'dignity' in tangible acts and expressions. The women reciprocated the gift of Francis' visit by offering him the fruits of their labour: creams, soaps, garden produce and even a skullcap. In tears, one of them said that work is ‘important to us’, because it ‘gives meaning to our lives’. This exchange highlighted the ethical dimension of 'Made in Italy', showcasing the role of social cooperatives like Il Circhio di Venezia in providing prisoners with opportunities for meaningful work, thus through work beginning their redemption. Prison can be a unique vantage point to understand what work really is, because it is a kind of living laboratory where we can see something which in our everyday life can appear mixed up with many other realities that confuse and cloud its nature. In prisons we see work better, like, and differently, in that little casual but real work that still remains in war places. Those soaps were the ‘sacrament’ of something even more important, as if the work carried out in extreme conditions changed the substance of the work while leaving the casualness of it unchanged. Those women gave the Pope the fruit of their labour, therefore objects, but in reality the first and truest gift they gave Francis was their work, their ability to work, the new ‘meaning of life’ rediscovered clinging to something true and good. Perhaps there is no greater celebration of the dignity of work than within the confines of a prison where you work and I mean you really work - not fake jobs that produce useless objects, because only real work saves us, inside and outside prisons.

We are increasingly struggling to protect work, workers, contracts, their rights and duties, because our society, drugged by consumption and income, no longer sees work: it sees its signs, its traces, but has lost its nature. Because work is not only the largest and most extraordinary network of intelligent and intentional reciprocity on earth, the first language with which we humans speak and tell ourselves and others who we are, nor only the activity with which we enrich the cultural biodiversity of the world every day. All this is already a lot but it is not enough. Because to understand work we must decline it together with the concept of “gift”, a word not only alien and distant from work but considered by many to be an enemy and mystifying. Whereas work opens up, it reveals itself if placed next to the gift, there it ripens well like a kiwi nestled among apples.

There is a lot of gift in work, but we cannot see it hidden under the hard shell of the contract and incentives. Perhaps there is no other collective place with more presence of gift, of gifts. And not only in schools, hospitals and in caring where we may still be able to see it clearly, but also in workshops, streets, offices, trucks and building sites. The gift in work is not only, nor above all, in the extra hour we do ‘for free’, nor in the favour of changing shifts with a colleague. The most important gift is within the workday normality, in the ordinary hours of the contract, in everyday tasks, because the gift is how we carry out daily actions, it is the gratuitousness of the duty, those actions that we do all do, everywhere simply because we are bigger and more worthy of our contracts and our tasks.

Yet, the reduction of gift to mere 'free' offerings represents the greatest triumph of capitalism in the realm of work, when one day it finally convinced us that the realm of labour and capital had to be defined as immune from the gift. And as with any immunization process, the antidote was to insert a little piece of “disease” into the body from which to protect itself. Thus came the invention of gadgets, discounts, corporate volunteering, philanthropy, all superficial realities, harmless homeopathic gifts to immunize from the true and complete gift. Homeopathic magic is one of the most archaic arts which has never disappeared. The reality you want to hit is reproduced in a small way (e.g. doll) and the artefact is manipulated to strike the great enemy from a distance.

At the end of the twentieth century, capitalism sensed that the most effective way it had at its disposal to extract extraordinary profits was to create new artificial environments purified by the most subversive human force: that of free gratuity. Thus first of all, it theorized and then implemented the idea that the kingdom of the market is not that of the gift, that talking about a gift to work was only manipulation and ideology to hide exploitation and the absence of rights and that therefore work had nothing to do with the gratuity of the gift. And it declared war on it, aware of its destabilizing force of contracts, hierarchies, job titles - because the true gift is surplus, unmanageable and therefore subversive.

However, there is some good news! The great ‘zero gift’ campaign in the business has not had the hoped-for success. The practice of ‘gift’ has survived clandestinely, the resistance has been much more tenacious than the empire thought, although today the grand consulting industry and meritocratic ideology are launching new global pincer attacks against the gift.

And if it is true - and it is true - that there is still a lot of free gift in work, then entrepreneurs, especially the most attentive ones, know that they depend deeply on the gift of their employees; they are aware that their greatest fragility is not so much in the markets but in not being able to control the most important dimensions of the freedom of their workers. They therefore know, and learn every day, that they depend radically on something fundamental that they cannot buy, and that with a contract they buy important things but not enough to allow their companies to live well.

Here, too, lies the immense dignity of work and of every worker: the moral certainty that the secret core of their work activity, their most precious diamond, is not for sale, and therefore can only be donated. And then we decide to donate it, every day, and we will continue to do so, when we will continue to work as free women and men. Because we know that the day we stop doing this, to stick only to the letter of the contracts, we will be less worthy and free people, and therefore bad workers.

On Workers' Day we must then meditate, while we are not working, on what happens during the course of work, observe ourselves and others in the ordinary gesture of work, especially in this phase of epochal technological and anthropological transition.

If there is a lot of gift in work, therefore a lot of dignity and beauty, then even in the professions that are about to be replaced en masse by Artificial Intelligence, there is an infinite legacy of freedom, honour and dignity. Before we liquidate them like scrap metal, we should stop and carry out two collective operations, and do these in every enterprise and in every institution: recognize their immense value and then thank them properly and sincerely. Because among the many uncertainties of this great transition, there is one certainty: robots and algorithms can do many things better than us but they are not able to give gifts. Happy Holiday!

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