The school of the street and the poor

The school of the street and the poor

The distance between the rulers and the poor is a major problem of democracy. Without a new competence of politics and politicians, the distance between life and the palace is bound to grow.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Il Messaggero di Sant'Antonio on 06/01/2023

In one of the most beautiful pages of the book Cuore (Heart) by Edmondo De Amicis, Alberto Bottini, the father of Enrico (the boy protagonist of the book) says to his son: ‘the man who associates with but one social class is like the student who reads but one book’ (English translation by Isabel F. Hapgood). In that post-unification phase of the country, it was very important to try to “make Italians” by overcoming the feudal world and its castes. And this overcoming in the direction of civil fraternity was entrusted above all to the public school, which was becoming compulsory for the first years of primary school.

The message for Enrico, son of the bourgeoisie, was clear: make friends with youngsters of all social classes, from the bricklayer to the blacksmith's son, because this boyhood friendship will be decisive for a new social friendship when you become adult citizens. This sentence contains great wisdom. Today, in fact, we know that the first reason for the decline of all elites - cultural, economic, political or religious - lies in the loss of relational biodiversity. When a group of people feels and represents itself as an elite, and therefore stops frequenting the places that are for everybody, no longer having friends and acquaintances from different cultures and socio-economic conditions; when the life of the members of this elite takes place only in luxury hotels, golf courses, starred restaurants, no longer having contact with people in the metro, in the markets, in the queues at the post office - then the inexorable decline of that elite has already begun.

And we are already seeing it with the current generation of managers of large corporations, in deep anthropological and semantic crisis (even if they are very rich), because it’s been too long now that they shut themselves away in self-referential worlds, losing contact even with their own workers and labourers. Yesterday's entrepreneur, in the vast majority of cases, lived in the town of everyone, sent his children to the schools of everyone, frequented bars and barbershops of everyone, and above all frequented the factories and workshops of his workers, and knew the work because he knew the workers and often worked with them, sharing smells and wounds. When this self-segregation happens also to the political elites called to govern, the damage is even greater. For they find themselves losing essential competence in the matters on which they are supposed to legislate.

Let us consider, for an important example, the issue of poverty. In the imagination of our rulers, among the million or so citizens who receive an average of around EUR 500 per month in citizenship income (the state-guaranteed minimum income in Italy - the tr.), there would be a significant proportion of culprits, that is, people who could work but instead, as they are lazy and slackers, prefer the sofa to work. Then one looks at the data and wonders where this belief, as strong as religious dogma, comes from. Those who know at least some of the families receiving citizenship income know very well that if these people do not work it is almost always because of some serious problem, and that leading a degraded life that leads you to prefer the sofa to work is also a form of poverty.

But the distance between the rulers and the truly poor is a major problem of democracy. Too many politicians talk about the poor in the abstract, without ever having seen them, having spoken to them. They thus make laws for the imagined poor and end up losing touch with the real poor who, for this reason too, become the rejects of society. Without a new competence of politics and politicians, who are willing to return to the school of the street and of the poor, the distance between life and the palace is bound to grow inexorably.

Photo credits: © Giuliano Dinon / MSA Archive

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